Stanley Kubrick

Filmworker

18/06/18

Behind every great film director stands a whole horde of underpaid, overworked minions, whose very raison d’etre is to enable said director to get his or her vision up onto the big screen, exactly as it has been envisioned. As great directors go, few are as legendary as the late, great Stanley Kubrick. But Filmworker is not so much his story as that of one of those underpaid, overworked minions, in this case a man by the name of  Leon Vitali.

Vitali’s story is unusual to say the very least. In 1967, he went to the pictures to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and casually remarked to his companion, ‘One day, I’m going to work for that director.’ Vitali went on to be a pretty successful actor, appearing in all manner of films and TV shows – weirdly, I vividly remember his appearances in the comedy series, Please, Sir, when I was just a kid. And then, in 1975, he did indeed get to work with Kubrick, playing a major role in his lavish (and under-appreciated ) historical drama, Barry Lyndon. But Vitali was much more interested in the nuts and bolts of film making than developing a career in acting and, against all advice, he gave it up to become Kubrick’s right hand man, a role he fulfilled until the director’s death in 1999, shortly after completing filming on Eyes Wide Shut. In all the tributes and ceremonies that followed Kubrick’s death, Vitali was pretty much ignored – he didn’t even receive an invitation to an exhibition based around the director’s film legacy – and yet his loyalty and love for his former employer is all too evident in this compelling documentary, which provides an intriguing look into the four features they worked on together and makes me appreciate the nuts and bolts that underlie every movie.

It must be said that the picture of Kubrick that emerges from this story is not a particularly salutary one, even if Vitali won’t hear a bad word said about him. Kubrick seems to have relished piling tons of work onto his ‘gopher,’ relentlessly making him go over and over every tiny detail – but of course, it was this very attention to detail that made Kubrick the unique director that he was and Vitali seems to have been happy to take the punishment. It’s sobering though, to see the evident toll that such a brutal schedule has taken on Vitali’s health, leaving him a shadow of his former self. More importantly, though, it does make you admire his tenacity and loyalty in doing everything he can to ensure that Kubrick’s cinematic heritage remains as pristine as he himself would have wanted. Hardly surprising then, that the story ends with the news that Vitali is currently working on a new digital transfer of 2001.

While this certainly won’t be for everyone – a working knowledge of Kubrick’s films is, I believe, a definite advantage – I find this an intriguing and curiously affecting story. It also means that whenever I rewatch a Kubrick film, I’ll be thinking of the unsung hero standing at his shoulder, helping the creative wheels to run smoothly.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

10/06/18

I first viewed this film at an RAF cinema shortly after its initial release in 1964. I was around fourteen years old at the time, and I can still remember how amazed I was by it, how disorientated. I had literally never seen anything quite like it, this weird blend of cartoonish hilarity and overwhelming terror. In those days of ‘Protect and Survive’ leaflets, we spent much of our time worrying about impending nuclear Armageddon. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to claim that now, more than fifty years’ later, such fears are firmly behind us?

On Burpelson Air Force Base, the extremely paranoid Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has become convinced of a communist plot to poison the American water supply and, with this in mind, promptly orders a nuclear missile strike on Russia (as you do). General ‘Buck’ Turgidson (George C. Scott) is the man charged with the tricky task of breaking the news to President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellars in one of three roles he plays in the film), whilst also pointing out that, because of the clandestine nature of the protocol that surrounds such events, it’s going to be nigh on impossible to call the whole thing off. Meanwhile, Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens) and his crew of airmen are determined to carry out their orders, no matter what stands in their way.

Co-written by director Stanley Kubrick, with Terry Southern and Peter George, Dr Strangelove is a ground-breaking satire with a bizarre, cartoonish storyline that really ought to be totally beyond belief, but sadly, given recent world events, feels all too prescient. There are some extraordinary performances here. George C. Scott is a particular delight, gurning masterfully through his scenes, while in the role of the American president, Sellars’ telephone conversation with the unseen Russian premier is a masterclass in comic understatement. ‘Well, Dimitri, how do you think I feel about it?’

Showing as part of the Cameo Cinema’s Kubrick retrospective, it’s great to have a chance to reappraise this little gem on the big screen. Shot in super crisp black and white, it now clearly displays the shortcomings of its low budget combined with ‘still in their infancy’ effects – the many shots of the Flying Fortress en route to deliver its fifty megaton payload do occasionally look rather shonky and it’s hard to believe that, only three years later, Kubrick would deliver the technical milestone of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film that pretty much set the bar for all special effect movies thereafter. Also, viewed through contemporary eyes, Sellars’ climactic grandstanding in the titular role of a crippled former Nazi scientist brushes a little too close to a whole host of -isms and -phobias for comfort, even if it does tickle the funny bone.

But, as I’ve said before, all films are a product of the times in which they were made and should be viewed accordingly – the parts that really work here are so luminous, so utterly compelling, they tend to outshine those bits that are starting to show their age. It’s an important film in Kubrick’s pantheon – the one that first showed that he was more than just a capable director, the one that hinted at the darkly disturbing wonders to come. Returning to it after so long away proved to be a singular delight.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Ready Player One

31/03/18

If ever there was a man to qualify as ‘World’s Greatest Living Film Director,’ Steven Spielberg would surely be a strong contender for the title. Few movie makers have his longevity – his first cinematic release, Duel, was released in 1971. Even fewer can boast his extensive range. Here is a man who is happy to film pure popcorn crowd pleasers like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jurassic Park, but who is equally at home helming powerful dramas of the ilk of Munich or Schindler’s List. Recently the recipient of Empire Magazine’s ‘Legend of Our Lifetime’ Award, it’s hardly surprising that few people have bothered to put up voices of dissent. He really is that accomplished. With his latest release, he takes on the world of virtual reality gaming and it would have been so easy to come a cropper here, an older man desperately trying to be ‘down with the kids.’ But, as ever, Spielberg passes his self-appointed test with flying colours.

Set in the year 2045, the story is set in a dystopian vision of America (has there ever been an optimistic cinematic view of its future, I wonder?). Most of the population is addicted to virtual gaming and, like our hero, Wade (Tye Sheridan), spend nearly all of their leisure hours in a pixellated environment called The Oasis. Wade competes there using his more handsome avatar, Parzival, and he’s not just playing to escape from the drudgery of his life, oh no. He’s in search of three special keys, hidden there by the Oasis’s late creator, Halliday (Mark Rylance). The finder of those keys will inherit his world and the billions of dollars it generates in revenue.

Whilst in the Oasis, Wade regularly interacts with the avatars of gamer friends who he has never actually met in real life. Then he meets a new one, Art3emis (Olivia Cooke), who, he soon realises, is somebody he really would like to know better. Their introduction – during a riotous vehicle chase – sets the tone for the story that follows and makes The Fast and the Furious look like a Sunday drive in the suburbs. In the midst of all the excitement, Wade is blissfully unaware that he has a major adversary in the real world. Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is a ruthless businessman, intent on securing the Oasis for himself and ready to go to any lengths to eliminate his competitors.

In terms of plot, that’s pretty much all you need to know. Suffice to say that Spielberg and his team have concocted a dazzling, fast-paced riot of sound and fury, with visual references to so many of Spielberg’s movie influences (plus several images from his own films) that you will be constantly trying to spot them all. Some are obvious, and actually contribute to the story, while others are onscreen for the briefest of glimpses. If ever a film demanded repeat viewings, this is the one – if only to allow the geeks in the audience to tick the various references off their list. If I may be allowed to single out one particular  sequence for praise, it’s the extended homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Okay, so this is definitely one to go on the ‘popcorn’ side of Spielberg’s resumé, but oh my goodness, what succulent popcorn it is! After the relatively lacklustre BFG, and the rather straight laced The Post, this puts him back where he belongs, as the foremost purveyor of cinematic wonder. Where will he go next? Well, that’s anybody’s guess, but I would venture to suggest that, close to fifty years since his low budget debut, Spielberg’s well seems a long way from running dry.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney