Friday, 12 July 2019

Kubism, Part 8:
2OO1: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Dr. Strangelove had failed to successfully treat Stanley Kubrick's nuclear itch. The ointment of satire clearly wasn't strong enough to clear up Stan's rash of pessimism regarding the human race's inevitable freefall into self-destruction; stronger medication was required. Perhaps drawing on his abandoned idea of a framing device for Strangelove in which aliens passed pitiful judgement on mankind's stupidity, Kubrick filled a syringe with ideas about a cosmic intelligence leading humanity to existential perfection, plunged it into his veins and pumped himself full of sci-fi serum. The result was even more successful, if you can believe such a thing, than the metaphor that has infected this paragraph. The result was 2001: A Space Odyssey, the greatest film ever made.
People talk about the transformative power of 2001, and with good reason. It certainly transformed me when I first saw it at Telford UCI in 1994: where once squatted an uneducated apeman who thought James Bond films were the pinnacle of filmic achievement, there now hovered a glowing Star Child of profound movie wisdom, suddenly aware of the vastness of cinema's potential. I had transcended the boundaries of mediocrity and made the leap to the next stage of human evolution, which is something very few people can say about an evening in Telford.

Stanley Kubrick was transformed too, taking new approaches to many of his usual filmmaking techniques. Having worked from adaptations of novels for all but his first two features, he now sat down to bash out an original story with the help of British science fiction writer and general egghead Arthur C Clarke. He embraced colour film for the first time (he'd had no choice with Spartacus, having taken over directing it after shooting had begun), abandoned his usual, dialogue-heavy screenplay style and even - albeit at the last minute - ditched a lengthy voiceover. There's a small irony in the fact that the first Kubrick film not to feature an omniscient narrator is the one about all-seeing, all-knowing beings guiding us to a better understanding.

In place of the usual expository waffle is a twenty-minute prologue on the planet of the apes (spoiler: it was Earth all along), in which prehistoric man-monkeys live more or less peacefully with a bunch of tapirs, eating, sleeping and engaging in the odd territorial squabble over a casual drink. When they wake up one morning to discover that Alien Santa's been and left them a large, black cuboid, they gawp at it in confusion, hesitantly reach out to touch it, and their fate as the eventual dominant species on the planet is sealed. I for one would be interested to know how things would have gone if the tapirs had got to the monolith first, but Stanley Kubrick, it seems, was sadly not.
This sequence is introduced with the intertitle "The Dawn Of Man", leading you to believe that the hairy hominid phase was us at our most primitive, before we invented tools, weapons, digital watches and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. The next sequence is all spacey and futuristic with zero gravity toilets and velcro shoes, but look closely: there hasn't been another intertitle, and there won't be until after a bunch of ape descendants have gathered round another large, black cuboid on the moon, gawped at it in confusion and hesitantly reached out to touch it. The gist seems to be that despite all we’ve accomplished over the millennia (even Rumours), man is still dawning. Even in the Space Age we're just as backward and clueless as when we used to pick fleas off each other, except now when we discover something that challenges the very meaning of our existence, the first thing we do is take a selfie with it.

This bit of man's dawn sure is stunning though. Marvel at this Cinematic Universe, because space has never been represented on film with as much cosmic elegance as it is here: you could sit and watch planets float by and spacecraft drift past for hours. 2001's circular visual motif (planets, space stations, eyes, psychotic computer interfaces) is enhanced by its musical equivalent, the waltz, and Johann Strauss II could not have asked for a better video for his biggest hit. Kubrick signals his revolutionary use of music by removing all diegetic sound while Strauss, Ligeti, Khachaturian and the other Strauss do their thing, cutting his hypnotic images for as long as the pieces need to play out. The absence of dialogue allows Kubrick to bust out the visual storytelling he's been developing since he was a photojournalist, and 2001 arguably represents the zenith of that talent.
While casually tossing off accurate predictions about the future, like iPads, Skype calls and toddlers demanding phones for their birthdays (as well as less accurate ones, like BBC 12), Kubrick reinforces his theory that we’re not much further down the evolutionary road than we were four million years ago. Like our flea-picking predecessors we're still doing a lot of eating and sleeping, and a confrontation between American and Russian delegates on Space Station V is nothing more or less than a territorial squabble over a casual drink. But from beneath this anthropological pessism creeps something unexpected: 2001 is rarely - if ever - described as a horror, but its edgy sense of unease, teased earlier by the disturbing, unexplained appearance of the monolith, really starts to burrow under the skin at this point. It's not quite the merciless assault on your nerves that Kubrick would wreak with The Shining, but it's a not-too-distant ancestor of it.

US Astronautics Agent Dr Heywood Floyd's friendly but perfunctory chit-chat with his Russian counterpart (Reggei Perrinov) assumes a sinister air when he's questioned about mysterious goings-on at the Clavius moon base. Floyd's long, uncomfortable pauses and subtle shift in demeanour are the first clues to 2001's disquieting subplot about secret missions and paranoid self-preservation. It's a red herring in many ways, because a bureaucratic cover-up pales into insignificance next to the deconstruction and subsequent rebirth of humanity that comes later, but that anxious feeling never goes away. Later on Kubrick leans harder into psychological horror, not least when Floyd and his pals are investigating the moon monolith to the nightmarish, dissonant wailings of György Ligeti's Requiem. I can't imagine what Ligeti thought his music would be good for before Stanley Kubrick used it to put multiple willies up his audience; did he intend it to be played at the end of dinner parties when guests just wouldn't leave?

That scene is crowned by the uncomfortably shrill sound of the monolith's burglar alarm going off, and the very real possibility that Floyd and co are dying horribly from exposure to it, so it comes as some relief when we suddenly cut to 2001's second intertitle: "Jupiter Mission - 18 Months Later". The dawn of man is apparently over; time for him to haul his newly-woke ass out of the prehistoric bed and into the evolutionary shower. Don't forget to wash Uranus!
The USS Discovery One sails by like a single astronomical spermatozoa, which is an infinitely better and cleverer visual metaphor than anything from Dr. Strangelove, especially given its eventual role in the creation of new life. We meet astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, perhaps the least charismatic characters in a film full of soulless blanks. Frank can't even crack a smile when he gets a birthday video message from his parents, the miserable bugger: it's as if technology and modern living has left mankind emotionally stunted, hahaha imagine that. Fortunately they're accompanied on their mission by onboard computer HAL 9000, or 'Hal' to his mates / victims. Hal is deliberately the most emotionally rich personality in the entire film, and his calm, reassuring voice is a sign that everything is going to be just fine from now on. Just a moment... just a moment...

As it turns out, Hal is in fact dangerously paranoid, or completely mad, or straight up evil. Arthur C Clarke's novelisation confirms that he wigs out because he can't deal with lying to Dave and Frank about their mission, but Kubrick leaves it typically Stan-biguous, as if perhaps Hal might just be confused that there's a BBC 12. (I'm pretty sure Kubrick didn't invent the use of a news report as exposition, but he certainly pulls it off here given that it's now one of the laziest clichés in cinema.) Whatever Hal's beef is, his discovery that Frank and Dave plan to pull his plug is a blood-curdling scene. The cut from a close up of the mens' lips to Hal's unblinking eye is a chilling example of the Kuleshov effect: I swear I can see stone cold panic and boiling rage in that unblinking yellow pupil.

We're barely back in our seats, post-intermission, before Kubrick assails us with Hal's deeply unsettling attack on Frank. The pod silently turning in space, followed by those jump cuts into Hal's eye, are more pure horror, executed with eerie simplicity and heightened by the fear of what it might be like to asphyxiate in deep space. Anyone playing Kubrick Bingo can cross off "Man's plans violently undone by something he thought he was in total control of", and if you haven't already you may as well scribble out "Man discovers his own insignificance in the cosmic scale of things" too. The alien intelligence drags Dave through a psychotropic fallopian tube (still shots of his contorted face providing more spine-chilling dread) into the comfortable womb of a plush but incongruously decorated hotel room, where he undergoes unnervingly-soundtracked rapid physical development before being squeezed out into space, newly reborn as Human 2.0. The film is over but the questions have only just begun, the first of which is invariably "what the fuck?"
The answer, obviously, is irrelevant. 2001's magic lies in its indefinability, the wilful ambiguity that comes from its unconventional, insanely bold storytelling. It's a cosmological conundrum wrapped in an evolutionary enigma, tied up with a bonkers bow. Clarke explained a lot of it in his novel, but why would you want that? To quote Kubrick, casually and characteristically throwing shade at his writing partner's endeavours whether he meant to or not, "The feel of the experience is the important thing, not the ability to verbalise or analyse it." 2001 is all about the feel of the experience, drowning you in aural and visual wonder while confronting you with the deepest ideas about nothing less than the entire past, present and future of human existence. The decision to make it creepy as fuck adds another dimension to the experience, but also reflects our fear of progress: dragging ourselves out of the primordial soup must have been terrifying, and there's no reason why any further self-improvement should be any less distressing a process.

"Its origin and purpose [are] still a total mystery", Heywood Floyd tells Dave Bowman in the film's final words. He's referring to the monolith on the moon, but almost since 2001's release people have been using that line to describe the film itself, as if it appeared from nowhere and has no clear meaning. Maybe the latter is partly true, but there's plenty of information out there detailing the movie's genesis. However it's after watching that ending, in which each of Bowman's developmental leaps is preceded by him gazing at his advanced self until, finally, the Star Child he becomes turns and stares out of the screen at us, that I find the film's first words more appropriate and optimistic: "Here you are."

Next time on Kubism we chew on A Clockwork Orange, breaking our teeth on its cogs, springs and gears before taking it back to the greengrocer's for a full refund.

← Part 7: Dr. Strangelove          Part 9: A Clockwork Orange 

Monday, 1 July 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home:
Peter Parker's Eurothwip


True believers rejoice: we are currently living in a golden age of Spider-Man. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 may have achieved the status of best superhero film ever in a recent highly-respected and influential poll, but that film was something of a one-off. We now find ourselves in the privileged position of being gifted five great films featuring Spidey since 2016's Captain America: Civil War, and it brings me unparalleled joy to report that the sixth extends that purple patch: Spider-Man: Far From Home is a ruddy blast from start to finish - and, indeed, beyond the finish.
Far From Home finds our hormone-addled hero Peter Parker (Tom Holland, as winningly lovable as ever) on a school trip to Europe, struggling to lock lips with the sassy af MJ (Zendaya, who gets to push her character slightly further than 'amusingly sardonic' this time). This unfortunate cock-blocking is due to the interference of a) fellow student Brad, a rival for MJ's affections, and b) a colossal threat to the existence of the planet which can only be addressed by Spider-Man. (Suspiciously, the remaining Avengers are tied up with other plot-convenient activities which are becoming less convincing to explain away with each standalone MCU entry.) So far, so classic Spidey - that balance between saving the world and getting on with being a teenager is maintained and respected here as part of Spider-lore.

But in the wider context of the MCU, Peter faces other problems. His mentor and father figure Tony Stark has inconveniently done an Uncle Ben on him, and he now finds himself in the spotlight (somewhat improbably, tbh) as the most likely replacement for Iron Man as Avenger-in-Chief. Having spent most of Spider-Man: Homecoming pestering Stark to let him join the supergang, Peter now finds himself totally unprepared for that responsibility. Metaphors for adulthood, anyone?
A possible Iron Man substitute for both Peter and a hero-hungry public appears in the form of Jake Gyllenhaal's Quentin Beck, aka Mysterio, who rocks up in a daft costume with a fishbowl on his head when Peter needs him most - during a breathless set-piece in Venice which, while spectacular, invokes troubling memories of Spider-Man 3's Sandman in its creature design. But if there's one thing I've learned about the MCU, it's that if you think something looks amiss, it's usually for a reason.

What follows is a typically classy, top-tier Marvelgasm that's as charming, funny and thrilling as you'd hope. Post-Endgame, and as the apparent final film of the MCU's Phase Three, Far From Home has a lot of super-plates to spin: positive and negative aspects of Tony Stark's legacy are raised, Spider-Man's role within the Avengers is a constant source of anxiety (an impatient Nick Fury providing little help), and the small matter of half the universe's population suddenly emerging from thin air after five years in "the blip" (as it's described in a hilarious early exposition dump) is casually but successfully glossed over.

But writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers and director Jon Watts never forget that this is, first and foremost, a Spider-Man film, and everything that makes the character unique - his age, his naivety, his awkwardness, his science smarts and his arachno-powers - serve the plot. Peter's relationships with MJ and Beck drive the film, and it's in these moments that the character of Peter Parker is allowed to breathe as much as Steve Rogers and Tony Stark were.
Amongst the deliberately hackneyed European road trip tropes (Venice = canals and St Mark's Square; Holland = windmills and tulip farms; London = Tower Bridge, red buses and black cabs), Far From Home boasts a smattering of clever fake-outs and twists, an extended psychedelic sequence that seems constructed to rival the kaleidoscopic visuals of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, and a couple of welcome motifs. The idea that knuckling down and using your brain is less impressive to a slack-jawed public than brightly costumed superheroes is toyed with, and in the era of fake news we get a lot of manipulation of the truth by dark forces, a theme which looks set to be expanded upon in future Spider-instalments.

The only gripe I have here is a strong whiff of character motivation pinched almost wholesale from an earlier MCU film, posing the very real threat that Marvel might just be running out of ideas, but any concerns are blindsided by the amount of sheer, eye-popping craft and value for money on display. Whatever direction the MCU heads in next, it's apparent from Far From Home's air-punchingly wonderful mid-credits scene that Spidey's future looks set to remain as respectful but irreverent as we've seen over his last six crowd-pleasing movies. Long may the golden age of Spider-Man continue.

Friday, 28 June 2019

For no one (except Ed Sheeran fans)

I can't imagine how much time, effort and money went into securing the rights to The Beatles' music for its use in Danny Boyle's Yesterday. I'm picturing Paul McCartney sitting on a solid gold throne, perched on a balcony made of the purest crystal, jutting out from a mansion constructed entirely from £50 notes stuck together with glue made from the boiled remains of history's finest thoroughbred horses, glancing up from his latest bank statement and shouting down to a begging-on-their-knees Boyle and producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner to come back when they've added a few more zeroes to their offer. That almost certainly happened, so let's assume that a considerable amount of time, effort and money was expended before McCartney finally got bored and said he believed in Yesterday.

It's a shame, then, that the film that resulted from that deal is nowhere near good enough to justify that effort and cost, and nor is it worthy of being the one film that gets to use some of the most important music ever written and recorded. Yesterday is a wasted opportunity: an entire album's worth of filler, predictable beats and, most upsettingly, an inordinate amount of Ed Sheeran.
Ed Sheeran

The premise sounds like it came to writer Richard Curtis while he was on the bog, at which point he immediately plopped out a script with less thought for the potential of his idea than how he was going to get his male hero to overcome a series of improbable obstacles in order to have sex with an impossibly hot woman. The gist is that hapless musician Jack (the enormously likeable Himesh Patel, easily the film's MVP) is unaffected by a mysterious global event that wipes The Beatles' music off the face of the earth. As the only person left who remembers the Fab Four, he proceeds - with a little help from his friend Ed Sheeran - to make a career out of playing their songs to an awestruck public who've never heard anything like them.

So first things first, this mysterious global event is complete bollocks. The film's marketing claims that "Everyone in the world has forgotten The Beatles", but that's not what's happened - all their records have literally vanished, there's no mention of them on the internet, and bands who've been influenced by them don't seem to exist. It's more like a parallel universe where Lennon and McCartney never met, although it's a fucking cruel universe that wipes Oasis from existence but still permits Ed Sheeran to peddle his staggeringly bland, clearly Beatles-influenced wares to an undiscerning audience. Of course none of this should matter: nobody cares how Bill Murray got stuck in a time loop in Groundhog Day. But the difference is that the rest of Groundhog Day is brilliant, so it's irrelevant. Yesterday's plot is so uninspired and plodding that your mind inevitably wanders back to its point of origin to work out how all this tedium was allowed to happen in the first place.
Ed Sheeran

But let's put that aside for now (even though it is demonstrably impossible to do so), and concentrate on Yesterday's biggest flaw. It sets up a world without The Beatles' music, then introduces that music via a solo guitarist in 2019, which is clearly a very different cultural landscape to the early 1960s when rock 'n' roll was in its infancy. Predictably, everyone immediately thinks the music is the greatest thing since Ed Sheeran, and Jack achieves his dream of global superstardom. But could that happen? What's that music building on; what came before it, given that it wasn't there to inspire so much of the last half-century of music? Do the songs stand up so well by themselves that anyone could play them and make them hits? The film seems to think so, but what does that say for John, Paul, George and Ringo, whose excess of personality, tireless enthusiasm and hit movies pushed their product to even bigger audiences? And which is more important: the performer or the songs? Do people love the music because they love Jack, or do they love Jack because they love the music?

Yesterday's answer to all of this and more is: couldn't give a shit mate, but keep watching and Tamwar off of EastEnders might get his end away with Lily James, weeeyyyy!! It's a catastrophic missed chance to entertainingly investigate what made The Beatles The Beatles, and that seems unforgivable when the path Curtis and Boyle choose is a humdrum romcom. A hrumcdrom. The film we get doesn't even need to have been about The Beatles' music at all; the songs are just a series of catchy hooks on which to hang yet another of Richard Curtis' mediocre wish-fulfilment fantasies. And not only that but Jack's versions of them are, without exception, awful. They've been engineered to appeal to Ed Sheeran's fanbase, and as such made me contort my face into Picasso versions of myself whenever I heard one. It's telling that at the screening I attended, most of the audience sat through the credits, presumably because it was the first time in two hours we'd been allowed to hear a Beatles song played by The Beatles, and man it felt good.
Ed Sheeran

There's plenty more to complain about: much that occurs in the final act is unbelievable, even in the film's own fantasy framework, but on the off chance you ignore everything I've said up to this point and go and watch Yesterday, I won't spoil the terrible, patronising, offensive ending for you. I should also probably remark on its non-rubbish elements, the most obvious of which is Kate McKinnon's caustic, brutally honest record label exec. McKinnon is perfect in the role, but that's probably because it's basically the kind of one-note SNL character she can toss off in her sleep. Like all of us, she deserved better. But she does provide some laughs, and the film is occasionally quite funny, even if it does like to undercut all its serious scenes with a goofy payoff as if it's part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The success of a music-oriented film can usually be judged on whether, immediately after watching it, you want to head straight to a record shop (a physical building where you can touch, hold and buy objects that contain music) or, more likely, a streaming app of your choice, to investigate that music further. As flawed as Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman are, they still resulted in me increasing my vinyl collection despite having almost no room to do so. But Yesterday actively made me less interested in listening to The Beatles: maybe it's because I was never a massive fan in the first place (although the same could be said about Elton John), but I worry that the reaction of anyone whose first exposure to The Beatles is through this film will be to wonder what all the fuss is about, and stick Ed Sheeran on instead.

Monday, 24 June 2019

The Incredible Suit is 10 years old, so here are its 100 best films obviously!

Unbelievably (despite time being a constant), it's one-tenth of a century today since this ridiculous excuse for a website winked into existence. 1,168 blog posts later, somebody at The Incredible Suit HQ thought it would be a good idea to celebrate by collating the entire team's 100 favourite films and ranking them for you to ignore at your leisure. So we took all the votes, assigned points, divided the results by the total number of staff, fed the whole lot to a diarrhitic cow and what fell out of the other end can be found below.

Now this is very much a combination of what might loosely be described as "best" and "favourite" films, so yes it's quite Hitchcock-heavy, yes there are a few Bond films that probably won't be troubling the Sight & Sound top ten any time soon, and no Citizen Kane isn't in there even though it's obviously brilliant. It's just, what would you rather watch, Kane or Licence To Kill? Exactly.

So without further ado, and the obvious caveat that despite the wealth of knowledge and experience across the board, nobody at The Incredible Suit has seen all of the films ever made, here goes. See you in another ten years for the 100 worst films.


100. THE MACHINE THAT KILLS BAD PEOPLE (Roberto Rossellini, 1952)
Rossellini blends social commentary with commedia dell'arte in a politically turbulent post-war Italy; the result is as incisive and comprehensive a jab at human failings as you'll find in all of cinema. An underrated, underseen gem.

99. BARRY LYNDON (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
Long, slow and low on incident, yet hypnotically wonderful and - thanks mainly to Michael Hordern's droll voiceover - devilishly funny. Show me a better 18th century period tragicomedy and I'll pretend I can't hear you.

98. RAISING CAIN (Brian De Palma, 1992)
John Lithgow at his most deliciously hammy, a ridiculous surprise every five minutes and some inspired twists on De Palma's mandatory Hitchcock nods. The best film with a two-word title wherein the second word is, or is a slight variation of, "Cain".

97. DAISIES (Věra Chytilová, 1966)
The Thelma & Louise of the Czechoslavakian new wave tear society a new one in this gleefully provocative, adorably bonkers blast of kaleidoscopic anarchy. Features the kind of cinematic women I'd love to hang out with if I didn't think they'd eat me for breakfast.

96. PILLOW TALK (Michael Gordon, 1959)
Gloriously 1950s in its production design yet driven by surprisingly modern sexual attitudes, Pillow Talk boasts a crackling, innuendo-laden script in which Doris Day and Rock Hudson become embroiled in a hilarious battle of the sexes. Delightful.

95. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (Robert Wiene, 1920)
A multi-layered murder-mystery set in a splintered, spiky dreamscape, this bastard-mad nightmare is a skewed comment on its own unique historical context and an undeniable template for the next century of filmmaking: Alfred Hitchcock and Tim Burton would have been fucked without it.

94. DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE (John McTiernan, 1995)
Obviously not a patch on the original, but this final film in the Die Hard series is a fitting end to the trilogy. It's a pity they never made any more Die Hard films, but there you go. Nothing lasts forever.

93. ANIMAL KINGDOM (David Michôd, 2010)
Michôd treats his audience with absolute respect in this intelligent and shattering drama about loyalty, conscience and finding your place in the world. Also features terrifying bastard Ben Mendelsohn at his most terrifyingly bastardy.

92. BATMAN BEGINS (Christopher Nolan, 2005)
More gripping and emotionally complex than the Burton/Schumacher years, Begins gave me everything I wanted from a Batflick: ferocious fight scenes, a Gotham City risen from Hell itself and a Batman who, if you met him in a dark alley, would actually make you do a poo in your trousers.

91. THE DARK KNIGHT (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
Nolan takes the duality motif that drives the Batman mythology and cranks it up to 11 in his sequel, but never lets the immense scale of his film overwhelm it. Obvious MVP: Heath Ledger, for straight up pretending Jack Nicholson never existed.

90. DRIVE (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
Genre-defying retro-neo-noir in which Ryan Gosling does very little apart from pootle about in a car and beat a few people up, but does it in such inimitable style and backed by an achingly hip soundtrack that it's impossible to take your eyes off him.

89. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (Spike Jonze, 1999)
Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich, Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich. Malkovich Malkovich: Malkovich Malkovich, Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich.

88. E.T. THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL (Steven Spielberg, 1982)
Like the best kids' films, E.T. deals with the misery of growing up: the magical twilight of the first half, with its faceless grown-ups (except for Mom) and literal wide-eyed optimism, gives way to a harshly-lit second full of mean adults, death and loss. Fun for all the family!

87. MEAN STREETS (Martin Scorsese, 1973)
Scorsese's youth splashed across the screen in deathly blacks and hellish reds. Evocative and original, this is effectively Ground Zero for both the Scorsese brand and decades of pale imitations to come.

86. LOLITA (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)
Kubrick makes you pity a paedophile in this indefinable oddity. Controversial, sure, but more importantly funny as fuck, with fully-drawn characters that blow Kubrick's false rep as a cold, dispassionate director out of the water.

85. THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)
To me this is much richer than that other Jimmy Stewart Christmas film they keep banging on about: I love Lubitsch's effortless blend of frothy romcom with a darker edge that opens up the comedy like the bitters in a martini.

84. PADDINGTON 2 (Paul King, 2017)
As bursting with heart, charm and barely-tolerable delightfulness as its predecessor. Everything here is wonderful, from Peter Capaldi's all-too-brief turn as the Daily Mail in human form to Ben Whishaw's unfailingly affable delivery in his role as the ultimate care bear.

83. MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (Maya Deren, 1943)
Deren's wacky avant-garde adventure still has the power to baffle and unsettle in equal measure. Unbelievable that chrome ping-pong-ball glasses didn't take off after this was released.

82. JAWS (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
I still maintain the first half is the best: the island-based tension, the pig-headedness of Mayor Vaughn (the film's true villain), Spielberg's impeccable deep staging and the terror that comes from never seeing the shark are all more fun than the second half's Alien-on-a-boat stuff. But, you know, it's Jaws.

81. THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)
Hitchcock's first masterpiece: a mesmerising combination of German Expressionism, Hollywood stylings and distinctly British humour. Even Ivor Novello's decision to act like he has an awkwardly-shaped object stuck up his bum can't spoil the mood.

80. TRAINSPOTTING (Danny Boyle, 1996)
I don't actually remember most of the time I spent shooting up skag in mid-'90s Edinburgh, but Trainspotting is so exquisitely evocative of that time that I'm convinced I must have done.

79. THE CLOCK (Christian Marclay, 2010)
I'll be honest, I haven't seen it all (it's twenty-four hours long, do me a favour) but what I have seen was so unbelievably well done and dangerously addictive that there's no way it shouldn't be on this list.

78. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (Brian De Palma, 1996)
Still the best Mission, yeah whatever Chris McQuarrie. The Langley break-in is one of the greatest set-pieces in action cinema, and all that train stuff is fab too. Let's not talk about the "internet" bits.

Takes more risks than any Bond film before or since, and it's all the better for it. The first act plays out like a romantic melodrama and culminates in a full-on cheesegasm that sits oddly in the canon, but from then on it's vintage Bond action all the way to its shattering climax.

76. ROBOCOP (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)
Mild-mannered police officer Rob O'Cop is shot to shreds and reborn as a walking justice machine, with hilariously gory consequences! Verhoeven makes his villains so unbelievably horrible that every splattery death is air-punchingly satisfying.

75. THE FLY (David Cronenberg, 1986)
Stomach-churningly gross but razor sharp critique of the dangers of technological hubris, or useful primer on home preserving and pickling? Hard to say.

74. CLOVERFIELD (Matt Reeves, 2008)
Twenty minutes of zippy setup followed by fifty minutes of sheer balls-out action, nerve-shredding tension and sphincter-clenching terror. Found footage movies peaked with this, as did the Cloverfield franchise.

73. SKYFALL (Sam Mendes, 2012)
Probably the most thematically rich Bond film, with notions of honour, loyalty and mortality woven into almost every scene. Bond as a character and a franchise undergo some surprising existential evaluation before deciding that yes, it's all brilliant, keep up the good work. And then they made Spectre.

72. JURASSIC PARK (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
The grand convergence of all Spielberg's talents in one glorious, toothy package. Everything he ever did well, he does perfectly here, aided by across-the-board technical excellence in an opus of peerless entertainment.

71. SCHOOL OF ROCK (Richard Linklater, 2003)
Joan Cusack and a bunch of schoolkids hold their own against Jack Black at his Jackest Blackest. An absolute happy place of a film.

70. SPEED (Jan de Bont, 1994)
Absolutely shameless popcorn flick that has no right to be as good as it is, nor as emotionally affecting. Every time the bus ploughs through the pram I want to hold Sandra close and tell her it's fine, it's just full of cans. It's just full of cans.

69. THE LORD OF THE RINGS (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003)
Lumping the trilogy together because its constituent parts are beautifully consistent in tone and style, which is just one of the many things that makes it one of the greatest achievements in cinema. Maybe one day they'll make a film of The Hobbit?

68. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (Terence Young, 1963)
Shot through with paranoia, double-crosses and shadow-cloaked deaths at every turn, this is Bond's greatest Cold War adventure. The formula hasn't settled yet so it's not quite A James Bond Film, but it is a great film with James Bond in it.

67. BEFORE SUNSET (Richard Linklater, 2004)
Romantic idealism meets cold reality in a stream of Parisian waffle, and it's as lovely as (but, crucially, even shorter than) the first one.

66. THELMA & LOUISE (Ridley Scott, 1991)
Cinema's greatest female double act since Daisies leaves a trail of empowering, feminist destruction across the US and a scar across my heart. Makes me want to rush to the Grand Canyon with a massive net.

65. THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF (Basil Dearden, 1970)
Roger Moore's best film, this sees him in a dual role as a starched exec and his mysterious, antagonistic doppelgänger, a womanising bounder intent on taking over his dull counterpart’s life. As mad as it sounds, and then some.

64. NOTORIOUS (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)
With impressively tight storytelling across a bare minimum of scenes, Hitchcock handles the script's various discoveries and revelations impeccably, driving the film to its perfect climax in typically classy style. Bergman and Rains are untouchable.

63. TOY STORY (John Lasseter, 1995)
It's one thing to make an entire film inside a computer; it's another thing entirely to make it THIS GOOD. I mean that computer must have been amazing, like a Spectrum 128K +2 or something.

62. MONSTERS, INC. (Pete Docter, 2001)
The point at which it became clear Pixar were just going to be tossing these masterpieces off like clipped toenails every couple of years. Imagine knowing then that they'd eventually be doing it every six months or so.

61. CASINO ROYALE (Martin Campbell, 2006)
Daniel Craig grabs James Bond by the lapels and turns him into a box office juggernaut, a sharply-dressed bricklayer and an emotional wreck. The long-term effect on the franchise is still anyone's guess, but as a standalone film this is one of the 21st century's greatest action movies.

60. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)
Possibly the most effective method of contraception on the market. If you still want kids after seeing this then you should probably consider some kind of therapy. Tilda Swinton predictably knocks it out of the park, but the three youngsters who play Kevin give the film its spine-chilling spine.

59. INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (Steven Spielberg, 1984)
Breathlessly exciting and gleefully dark se/prequel. Every fight and stunt matters, every set-piece is seared into action cinema lore and the script is emblematic of the wit that characterises the Golden Age of Spielberg. Temple Of Doom is Raiders' evil twin, and anyone who prefers Last Crusade is an unbearable goody-goody.

58. GOLDFINGER (Guy Hamilton, 1964)
Established the formula the series would employ repeatedly, with varying degrees of success, over the next forty-odd years, so cannot be underestimated. Every frame oozes impeccable style, 1960s cool and a sense of fun that mark it out as the definitive Bond Film.

57. THE APARTMENT (Billy Wilder, 1960)
Despicable, Fred MacMurray-wise; adorable, Jack Lemmon-wise; delightful, Shirley Maclaine-wise and wonderful, otherwise-wise.

56. BEFORE MIDNIGHT (Richard Linklater, 2013)
The best of the trilogy, only because it's so brutally honest and real. Hard as fuck to watch, mind, like seeing your mum & dad rowing (as in having a row, not rowing a boat).

55. THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (John Glen, 1987)
Timothy Dalton reboots Bond as a vaguely realistic human being twenty years before audiences were ready for it. Audiences are fucken idiots.

54. LICENCE TO KILL (John Glen, 1989)
Dalton ensures that Ian Fleming's James Bond - largely absent from his own film series since From Russia With Love - makes a welcome reappearance in this, the best James Bond film shut up.

53. MOULIN ROUGE! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
Like shoving a lit firework up your bottom and having it explode behind your eyeballs for two hours. Audacious contemporary songs and retina-terrorising production design combine with a beautiful, passionate love story. Also Nicole Kidman is well fit.

52. THE INCREDIBLES (Brad Bird, 2004)
Still one of Pixar's finest, with their most thrilling set pieces, the coolest music and Samuel L Jackson’s greatest ever scene, in which he attempts to locate his costume against the wishes of his obstreperous missus.

51. THE LADY VANISHES (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)
A deliciously tongue-in-cheek love letter to Hitchcock's fellow countrymen, The Lady Vanishes simultaneously embraces and mercilessly lampoons the idiosyncracies of the English like a 1930s Paddington.

50. THE TERMINATOR (James Cameron, 1984)
The simplest of plots spiced up with a little cheeky time travel and some hilarious ultraviolence are all well and good, but Schwarzenegger knocks everything up a notch. Who can forget his brilliant catchphrase, "I'll come back later on, say 7ish"?

49. FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)
Absolutely belting wartime thriller that racks up more inventive set-pieces, humour and diabolical intrigue than most of its modern-day counterparts: the sixteen-minute Amsterdam sequence alone is slicker and more exciting than most of what Ethan Hunt or James Bond have managed recently.

48. X2 (Bryan Singer, 2003)
Roughly the point where superhero films stopped being silly and became epic, thoughtful metaphors for real-world issues. Also the point where it became clear that Hugh Jackman is a god amongst mortals.

47. SPIDER-MAN 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004)
Still the best Spidey film, mostly down to Doc Ock, who's written and played to perfection. Also my favourite superhero film; everything both amazing and shitty about being a super are in here. Looks exactly like a comic book, too.

46. REAR WINDOW (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
The way Jimmy Stewart pieces a murder mystery together from the available information is a delicious reflection of Hitchcock's own storytelling technique. A film about films, full of tiny cinema screens, told by a master manipulator.

45. INSIDE OUT (Pete Docter, 2015)
A party bag of visual delights backed up by Pixar's trademark emotional wallop, Inside Out packs enough of a punch to put you in intensive care at Feels General. A ridiculously triumphant comeback for the studio after a run of lesser films and a miserable hiatus.

44. BRIEF ENCOUNTER (David Lean, 1945)
The most buttock-clenchingly British film ever made, in which two painfully repressed toffs meet, fall in love when they shouldn't and fuck like Duracell bunnies whenever they're off camera. So classy.

43. PATHS OF GLORY (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)
Kubrick's first masterpiece is a devastating, furious assault on the injustices committed in wartime in the name of patriotism. Staggering in all the best and worst ways, with Kirk Douglas magnetic as one of Stan's few heroes.

42. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (James Cameron, 1991)
An object lesson in how to make a bigger, better sequel without shitting on the spirit of the original (all other Terminator films have failed to learn this lesson). Arnie is absolutely perfect; never has a star been so irreplaceable in a role.

41. SPIRITED AWAY (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
Everything Miyazaki cares about, and everything he was a master of, is woven into this film in exactly the right proportions, making it both the ideal introduction to his work and the definitive Miyazaki masterpiece.

40. TOY STORY 2 (John Lasseter, 1999)
Themes of friendship and belonging, wrapped in an existential crisis undergone by a cowboy doll made of pixels, masquerading as a hilarious action adventure. Still Pixar's greatest achievement, which is really saying something.

39. 12 ANGRY MEN (Sidney Lumet, 1957)
Gloriously sweaty courtroom drama about tolerance, selflessness and not being a prick that everyone who is an intolerant, selfish prick should watch. Henry Fonda is cinema's least exciting (but genuinely heroic) hero.

38. THE COLOR PURPLE (Steven Spielberg, 1985)
Whoopi Goldberg is terrific as the downtrodden housewife who just about keeps a slender grip on her pride in Spielberg’s first “grown up” film. The Colo(u)r Purple wrings joy from small kindnesses, lacing a potentially crushing experience with the sweet potential of hope. Cried my tits off.

37. THE BIRDS (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)
Hitchcock's fourth masterpiece in a row ends cinema's most phenomenal purple patch in technically breathtaking style. A story about men and women, mothers and children, and birds and bees. Mostly birds, to be fair. The clue's in the title.

36. THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (George Cukor, 1940)
Delightfully perfect and perfectly delightful example of Hollywood's Golden Age at its goldenest. Jimmy Stewart's drunk chat with Cary Grant is bigger than Jesus.

35. FUNNY GAMES (Michael Haneke, 1997)
Enough to put you off films for life. (This is a recommendation)

34. ARRIVAL (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)
The kind of smart, elegant sci-fi that Christopher Nolan routinely overcomplicates. Takes time to get where it's going, but when it does, WOAH.

33. THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (Jacques Demy, 1967)
The Frenchest thing I've ever seen, and also among the most delightful musicals. Michel Legrand's songs are ooh la la, Gene Kelly is magnifique and the serial killer subplot is incroyable.

32. TAXI DRIVER (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
A hallucinatory tale of shattering loneliness and misguided vengeance. Scorsese commands a din of inscrutable characters and mysterious stylings to accompany one man's descent from amusing social awkwardness to ferocious, guns-blazing psychopathy.

31. ALIENS (James Cameron, 1986)
Two ideologically-opposed mother figures snipe at each other like they're on a sci-fi Mumsnet, while James Cameron amps everything up for a change in this tremendous, balls-to-the-wall sequel.

30. PADDINGTON (Paul King, 2014)
A sweet, intelligent, tears-streaming-down-your-chops joy which celebrates and commemorates the idiosyncracies of the English with pinpoint accuracy.

29. TOP HAT (Mark Sandrich, 1935)
Almost unbearably delightful hoofer in which weapons-grade farce is deployed to bring Fred & Ginger together against all odds. Spellbinding dancing, gorgeous songs and high camp combine to spoil the audience rotten.

28. SCHINDLER'S LIST (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Few directors have been in a position to adequately convey such inexplicable evil to a mass audience; Spielberg recognises and respects his awesome responsibility, and the result is a devastating lesson in the consequences of intolerance that's no less relevant now than it was 25 years ago.

27. GROUNDHOG DAY (Harold Ramis, 1993)
I've watched this over and over and over and over and over again but no matter what I do, it always ends up being hilarious, touching and totally brilliant.

26. SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952)
An absolutely charming film, full of delightful songs and dances, that whimsically tells the tale of how three smug bastards conspire to publicly humiliate and destroy the career of an established actress, leading to her offscreen depression and eventual suicide.

25. KING KONG (Merian C Cooper & Ernest B Schoedsack, 1933)
Few monster movies have come close to the genius of the genre's grandaddy; most of them fail hopelessly at the first roar. Kong oozes personality thanks to the groundbreaking special effects, and that's why he's King.

24. 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Steve McQueen, 2013)
An astonishing true story of tenacity and endurance so harrowing and excruciating that it's near-unbearable, yet buoyed by hope and the kindness that exists in a world of horror.

23. GROSSE POINTE BLANK (George Armitage, 1997)
There's a reason why I connect with this film so hard but I'm not sure I want to know what it is. Cinema's most enjoyable existential crisis, featuring an adorable pair of leads with genuine chemistry, flawless support all round and shit hot action ("Thanks for the pen"), all set to a catalogue of '80s bangers. Popcorn!

22. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
Alfredson pitches every moment of horror and trope of vampire lore with the accuracy of a marksman, slowly but inexorably building towards that triumphant and deliriously satisfying swimming pool scene. Gorgeously terrifying.

21. NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (Jared Hess, 2004)
Everything about this weird little gem is adorable. It has a bigger heart than romcoms and love stories with ten times the budget, and it's ridiculously funny to (sweet moon)boot. I love it like Tina loves ham.

20. DIE HARD (John McTiernan, 1988)
Nobody puts a glass-shredded foot wrong in this masterpiece of tension, wit and perplexing F-bombs. Still no idea what “I’ll kiss your FUCKIN’ dalmatian!” is supposed to mean.

19. THE GODFATHER PART II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
A sequel that fucked with the rules of what sequels were supposed to be, GF2 expands the Corleone legacy in every direction, all of them amazing.

18. THE GODFATHER (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
This insanely ambitious and lavish epic is so rich in detail and character that you can't afford it. Michael Corleone's arc might be the greatest combination of writing and acting in all of cinema. All critics please note I am putting this and Part II separately because THEY ARE TWO TOTALLY DISTINCT FILMS.

17. GOODFELLAS (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
Breathlessly entertaining and unconventionally structured, GoodFellas feels like the picture Scorsese had been building to since film school. A handful of his movies since have come close, but this would be the Lufthansa heist of his career: spectacular, audacious and long-investigated.

16. ALIEN (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Unbearably atmospheric pant-shitter that launched the movies' greatest heroine / villain combo. Shame Ridley Scott shat all over his own legacy worse than George Lucas ever did.

15. RAGING BULL (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
Scorsese put himself into therapy with Raging Bull: a bruising comeback fight that spatters the director's own self-destructive tendencies across the canvas in stark, unforgiving monochrome.

14. THE GENERAL (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1926)
Buster Keaton’s greatest comedy is as dazzling now as it was 93 (NINETY-THREE) years ago. Still hard to believe it was all done for real, but it’s that blend of breathtaking stunts and timeless wit that makes it what it is, which is the 14th best film I’ve ever seen.

13. STAR WARS (George Lucas, 1977)
Still as magically exciting, beguiling and brilliant as ever. Obviously nostalgia is a massive variable in the Star Wars Amazingness Formula, but let's be honest, EVERYTHING works here.

12. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (Irvin Kershner, 1980)
The Empire Strikes Back deserves every ounce of pomp heaped on it over the last 40 years, and I'm not about to change that. Every character and their connections to each other are deepened, the significance of every action is dramatically weighty and everything is accomplished with cast iron confidence.

11. PSYCHO (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
So Hitchcock it hurts, but Psycho is very much a team effort: the slicing score, crisp, high-contrast cinematography, flawless editing and Anthony Perkins' bewitching performance all stamp their own mark on the film. Even Janet Leigh's mascara feels like it should get its own credit.

10. THE 39 STEPS (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)
Perhaps Hitchcock's most efficient thriller: an episodic odyssey in which an innocent chump-on-the-run is bounced from one adventure to another like an immaculately-moustachioed pinball, it swings from tragedy to comedy with breathless economy.

9. NORTH BY NORTHWEST (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
A Bond film from the girl's point of view, with Cary Grant as the girl and Eva Marie Saint as the secret agent using sex to further the mission. Hitchcock's slickest version of The 39 Steps surfs a rogue wave of ludicrous fun from start to finish.

8. ROPE (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948)
Lip-smacking chamber piece about the smug entitlement of the over-privileged, and therefore never not relevant. Jimmy Stewart is incredible as the smart-arse who inadvertently radicalises a sycophantic psychopath; his final speech, in which he tries to extricate himself from his own terrible responsibility, is spine-tingling.

7. SE7EN (David Fincher, 1995)
The last great serial killer movie, and one which is as grand and horrific a statement of intent from its director as John Doe’s gruesome, misguided retribution is.

6. THE SHINING (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Not many horrors on this list because I’m a massive pussy and they’re mostly rubbish, but The Shining gets everything just right in its quest to entertain and terrify. It crawls under my skin and slowly picks my nerves apart until I can barely take it.

5. CASABLANCA (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
I always get depressed after watching Casablanca because it feels like nothing else could possibly be as good so what’s the point? Turns out there are four films just as good, if not better, so this list hasn’t been a complete waste of time after all. (Narrator: "It has")

4. BACK TO THE FUTURE (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)
Proof that if your script is good enough (and this one is flawless), you can make a great family film about a teenager who hangs around with a weird old man and actively encourages his mum to try and fuck him.

3. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
Heroes don't get more heroic than Indiana Jones, and his first outing is the greatest action adventure of all time, combining thrills and LOLs with copious Nazi-punching and Harrison Ford's winning everyman performance.

2. VERTIGO (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
A tall tale about a tall tale, with manipulated actors and sadistic directors in both, Vertigo's storytelling audacity and refusal to limit the depths to which it plunges its characters make it Hitchcock's most awful, brilliant achievement.

1. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Kubrick's greatest triumph is a beautiful, terrifying mindfuck that asks all the biggest questions and answers precisely none (except how to do a poo in zero gravity). For a film with almost no plot and whose only interesting character is a computer, It's a miracle 2001 is even watchable, let alone THE GREATEST FILM EVER MADE ACCORDING TO THE INCREDIBLE SUIT WHICH IS TEN YEARS OLD TODAY.


What have I missed? What should be number one? What have I got against the MCU? Leave your valued comments in the goddamn toilet where they belong.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Kubism, Part 7:
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To
Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb

We're roughly half way through our nursery school-level investigation of the films of Stanley Kubrick, and it's been a bumpy ride so far. We've seen the good (The Killing, Paths Of Glory, Lolita), the bad (Fear And Desire, Spartacus, oh God The Seafarers) and the middling (Killer's Kiss), and so it seems appropriate that this time round we're faced with The Kube's most divisive film. Which is to say that there's a dividing line between most of the world, who love it, and me. It is a cause of some personal concern, but even after multiple viewings I have yet to learn to stop worrying and love Dr. Strangelove; for me it is not quite the bomb.
Troubled by an early '60s political landscape that boasted such anxiety-inducing events as the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, increasing tensions in Vietnam, the Berlin Wall, the Bay Of Pigs and everything else from that verse of We Didn't Start The Fire, Stanley Kubrick decided to make a nuclear war drama based on the thriller novel Red Alert. Finding everything about the situation inherently ridiculous, he transformed the book's serious tone into a comedy that would define cinematic satire for a generation and successfully piss off every stars-and-stripes-waving believer in the might of the US military who saw it. Using his beloved war genre as a stick to poke the hornets' nest of political hubris, Kubrick predicted every fatal decision made in the world's war rooms for the next half-century and beyond, and he did it on his own terms and in his own, inimitable style. But Kubrick's style is inimitable because it's so damn hard to pin down, and in my worthless and unsolicited opinion, even he struggled to nail the tone this time.

With the mandatory Kubrickian introductory voiceover (and my equally compulsory mention of it) out of the way, Dr. Strangelove launches its attack on conservative morality with its opening titles. Airborne sexy time between large phallic objects is graphically depicted, as long tubes penetrate openings and release essential fluids in order to ensure continued survival: strange love indeed. I mean it's just some planes refuelling mid-air, but read into it what you like you dirty old perv. This kind of innuendo runs the length of the film like a thick dorsal vein, and film scholars point to it as an example of Kubrick's sophisticated humour. Fair enough. If you ask me it's just a bunch of knob jokes that don't bear any relation to the plot; at least North By Northwest's hilariously crass train-fucking-a-tunnel visual gag came at the climax of a film that was vaguely sexy.
Things get going with the trademark efficiency of early Kubrick, as Sterling Hayden's paranoid loon Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper of Burpelson Air Force Base (you be the judge as to the comedy value of names in this film) authorises a wave of nuclear attacks on Russian targets because he thinks Commies are sabotaging his spunk. Trying to talk sense into Ripper is Peter Sellers' RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a genuinely excellent take on stereotypical British reserve whose stiff upper lip is adorned with the most splendid moustache in the Kubrick canon.

In the skies above Russia, one of Ripper's nuke-laden B-52 bombers - piloted by an apparent Texan hayseed whose patois is amusing in and of itself but otherwise of little narrative value - receives the order to unleash nuclear hell. Its crew (including a young Darth Vader who looks nothing like Hayden Christensen) go about the business of prepping armageddon and reading Playboy, but serve no other useful function until their final moments.

And then there's the third of Dr. Strangelove's trio of locations to which Kubrick experimentally limits his story. The War Room at the Pentagon is a glorious Ken Adam creation built to house the best and worst of the film's scenes, which scuffle with each other for supremacy despite the strict No Fighting In The War Room rule. An orgy of geometry, the War Room is impossible to view as anything other than a lair of lunatics once you've seen Adam's similar work on the crackpots' cribs of the Bond films. Of course that only retrospectively enhances the madness that takes place within the confines of Kubrick's film, as President Merkin Muffley (lol) argues with General Buck Turgidson (haha) and tries to placate Russian premier Dimitri Kissoff (good one) over the impending accidental annihilation of the human race.
It's here that the highlights of Dr. Strangelove - Muffley's excruciatingly polite phone calls to his Soviet counterpart - are beautifully executed. Sellers is on gold standard form as the Pres, awkwardly explaining the actions of his unhinged military leaders while literally and figuratively isolated in a pool of light from that ironic halo of illumination slung above the table. We never hear Kissoff's replies, leaving Sellers to carry the scene by himself with effortless comedy genius. Which makes it all the more disappointing when the third of his characters in the film emerges from a gloomy corner: the titular Dr. S, a grating creation who seems to have fallen out of a bad Monty Python sketch and landed badly enough to render himself comedically disabled.

Kubrick famously (and rightly) excised a prologue featuring bewildered aliens and an epilogue showcasing a titanic custard pie fight from his movie because they didn't belong, and it's a shame he didn't punt Strangelove in the same direction. Turning up nearly an hour into the film and occupying just two scenes and under nine minutes of screen time, the character isn't around long enough to enhance the story but is nevertheless overbearing enough to knock the whole project off-axis from subtle satire to eye-rolling slapstick. It's the most obvious symptom of the film's mixed comedic tone, which on the one hand brings us subtle visual gags like Turgidson's "World Targets In Megadeaths" manual, then on the other forces upon us a soldier called Colonel Bat Guano (my sides!) shooting a Coke machine and getting sprayed in the face in painfully punchline-reinforcing close-up.
But it's not just the comedy that doesn't hit its intended target for me; I just can't engage with Dr. Strangelove on any level beyond admiration of Ken Adam's sets and two-thirds of Peter Seller's work. The film seems to limp from scene to scene without much plot, until it just stops - quite mercifully, frankly - in the middle of one of the bad doctor's teeth-itching routines. None of the characters are developed any further than the point at which we meet them, and there's nothing of any complexity under any of their skins. I appreciate Strangelove's themes and I admire the satire, but I genuinely think I would get more enjoyment watching a documentary in which Donald Trump has to phone Vladimir Putin to apologise for not having nuked the whole of North America yet. That's the trouble with satire: once the absurdity of reality overtakes it, it's essentially toothless.

Of course it's still Stanley Kubrick and therefore still of some contextual value. The Kube's powerful but flawed, incompetent men are everywhere, and the destructive power of macho vanity reaches its spectacular apotheosis between the legs of a ten-gallon-hat-waving, yee-hawing cowboy as he finally achieves wargasm. While men are shown to be dangerous idiots though, women are still being sidelined altogether, despite Lolita successfully wrapping every man she encountered round her little finger. Like Paths Of GloryDr. Strangelove manages just one female character, and she's a secretary lounging around in a bikini waiting to be fucked because she's got nothing else to do.

Perhaps the most interesting concept within Dr. Strangelove is the advent of mechanisation and automation in Kubrick's cinema. The trust placed by mankind in the technology he's developed proves tragically misplaced when it experiences the most simplistic failure, and the implications of that would form the basis of his next and arguably greatest film. That human/mechanical dichotomy would also surface in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the long-gestating project he eventually handed over to Steven Spielberg, who took it down a considerably more emotional route than Kubrick might have done. Keen-eyed audiences will also note that neither 2001 nor A.I. feature Peter Sellers shouting in an OTT German accent, so I suppose we should thank Dr. Strangelove for helping Stanley Kubrick get that out of his system.
Join me again soon(ish) for 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film set so far in the future that none of us will ever be qualified to remark on its accuracy.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Kubism, Part 6:
Lolita (1962)

With the grand folly of Spartacus mercifully over, Stanley Kubrick turned his back on epic melodrama and sweaty blokes in their underpants. For his next project all the conflict would be internalised in the tortured soul of just one sweaty bloke, and this time it would be a fourteen-year-old girl in the skimpies. Undeterred by the possibility that a quinquagenarian lusting after a teenager might just be a little controversial, The Kube went ahead and knocked out a morally ambiguous, surprisingly touching and often downright hilarious film that walks a tightrope of taste while further muddying the waters of exactly what "A Stanley Kubrick film" is.
Lolita defies easy categorisation. By this point Stan had had a go at psychological thriller, film noir, heist flick, anti-war polemic and swords 'n' sandals epic, and would later dabble in satire, sci-fi, costume drama, horror and more war. But here's a comedy-drama about a charming, discombobulated paedophile and his amusingly desperate attempts to stick his dick in a child. And even if you count the as-yet-unmade Woody Allen biopic, that's a pretty narrow genre.

Opening in the faded glamour of a ruined mansion that serves as a psychological metaphor for both men inside it, Lolita blends tragedy and comedy from the off. James Mason's Humbert Humbert, already displaying all the signs of one of Kubrick's spectacularly flawed males, grumbles angry threats at Peter Sellers' shambling wise-ass Clare Quilty, who bats them back as comedy ping-pong balls. Within minutes Quilty will be dead, shot by Humbert over the apparent matter of a girl. What the hell kind of film is this? And how did we get here? It's a Stanley Kubrick film, so it must be time for an expository voiceover!

In fairness, if you're going to have a voiceover you may as well have James Mason deliver it: Mason's mellifluous tones slide out of your speakers like highbrow honey, all intellectual and smooth and ideal for adding to a glass of bourbon. We later find out Humbert is reading from his diary, a narrative device which tethers us to him and his disastrous voyage of poor life choices and eventual self-destruction. Stanley Kubrick there, turning his entire audience into surrogate child molestors.
Suddenly it's four years earlier and, looking for lodgings, Humbert visits the house of Charlotte Haze, played with heartbreakingly aggressive sexual desperation by Shelley Winters. Here he clocks Charlotte's young teenage daughter Lolita, reclining on the lawn in a hat and sunglasses and not a great deal more. Humbert experiences a sudden rush of blood to the penis, and his fate is sealed. What follows is unquestionably Kubrick's most inappropriately funny montage, which sees Humbert gawping at Lolita's gyrating, hula-hooping hips in his distressingly open dressing gown, deploys some flawless physical comedy in an awkward drive-in movie scene, and haemmorhages double entendres all over the shop. The chess game between Charlotte and Humbert, in which she complains "You're going to take my queen", and he replies "That is my intention, certainly", is an excruciating joy.

Yet somehow none of this feels unseemly so much as pathetic: we know that Humbert knows what he's feeling is wrong, and that conflict between desire and rationality is the driving force behind the drama. Here's an uptight divorced English scholar thrust into a world of horny American sex people living behind white picket fences (it's strongly implied that Charlotte's married friends are of the keys-in-the-bowl, pampas-grass-out-front inclination), bamboozled by his own primitive urges while fending off the unwanted advances of his tragically amorous landlady. It's ostensibly objectionable but just too funny to be offensive: Vladimir Nabokov's script, based on his own novel but almost entirely rewritten by Kubrick, uses innuendo and tragi-comic pathos to offset the potential grimness of its subject matter, and the first act sails by on James Mason's rarely-tapped comedy skills to evoke audience sympathy.
The second act is where it all starts to get a bit sinister. Lolita has been packed off to the jaw-droppingly named Camp Climax For Girls, while Humbert and Charlotte have hit rock bottom and got married to prove it. An incredible eighteen-minute, real-time scene starts light ("You just touch me and I go as limp as a noodle," teases Charlotte; "Yes, I know the feeling," Humbert replies with weary resignation) and ends with genuinely unanticipated calamity, signalling that all bets are off for whatever comes next. A conversation between four characters - one of whom is shitfaced in the bath, though barely anyone bats an eyelid - offers some trademark Kubrickian absurdity, the reappearances of the increasingly shady Clare Quilty ping the film off in a new direction, and an extended bit of slapstick with a recalcitrant fold-out bed is the unexpected prologue to a scene that culminates with one of cinema's most loaded fades to black (the significant shift in Humbert's costume design at this point speaks volumes).

Humbert's journey, which began at forbidden lust, inevitably makes a brief stop at possessive paranoia before reaching its final destination: agonisingly unrequited love. Lolita's last act is necessarily downbeat but enormously affecting, and contains the kind of revelations that make you want to watch it again, in a different light, immediately. At the very least we now know the fate of Clare Quilty's spectacles.
Stanley Kubrick would become synonymous with a dispassionate coldness, but that's a mystifying conclusion to come to after watching Lolita. Its three lead characters are complex, flawed humans, and James Mason, Shelley Winters and newcomer Sue Lyon as the titular temptress imbue them with recognisable fears and desires. And then there's Peter Sellers, doing his own thing, improvising comedy routines willy nilly in a film directed by a supposed control freak. The truth is that Kubrick encouraged improvisation, and his experience with Sellers arguably provided the necessary groundwork to allow Jack Nicholson to go full Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Stan's struggles with the Production Code and the Legion Of Decency while making Lolita are well documented and wholly unsurprising: even now, if you search "lolita kubrick", you can expect an overzealous, finger-wagging child pornography warning from Google that makes you feel guiltier than Humbert Humbert ever did. But those struggles work in the film's favour: the necessary cuts and tweaks lent Lolita an extra ambiguity, widening its appeal and leaving more to the audience's imagination, whether they like it or not. And it's that kind of ambiguity, along with Lolita's refusal to sit in any easily-definable genre box, that would characterise Kubrick's career and make him so endlessly fascinating.
Join me again soon for Dr Strangelove, Kubrick's surprise crossover into the Marvel Cinematic Universe!