AFI #15: 2001 A Space Odyssey

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“Morally pretentious, intellectually obscure and inordinately long … a film out of control.” — Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger

Well, it’s never a good sign when you have to go on the Internet after watching a film to find out what the hell it was about. For the second time in my life I sat staring at the screen dumbfounded at 2001: A Space Odyssey, uncertain as to why I put myself through the entire 160 minutes of torture. I’ll admit it — I don’t get it. Maybe I’m just not smart enough or maybe I’m just not into science fiction enough. All I know is that I hated 2001: A Space Odyssey when I first saw it and I hated it again yesterday!

I really think the reason this film is rated so highly by the AFI is because the academics who vote for these polls are too embarrassed to admit they hated it too (and probably didn’t understand it either). Look, I get the basics. Mankind is some kind of alien experiment and by the time we are advanced enough to get to Jupiter our alien overlords move us toward the next phase of evolution. Great. We passed Go. Move directly to the next level. Thank you alien overlords.

But why all the weird special effects Mr. Kubrick? Why did this film feel like it was filmed in slow motion? Why did you put us through lengthy segments where nothing happened set to classical music? Why the black monolith? Why did you leave so much unexplained to the point that I had to go on Wikipedia to try to decipher the damn thing. Why? Why? Why?

Feel free to disagree my minions.

Next: Psycho

AFI #39: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

I’m about to piss off some movie fans, so here goes: Dr. Strangelove is terribly overrated! It’s 95 minutes of unintelligible silliness with a handful of comic gems sprinkled in. It’s certainly not the greatest black comedy of all time and it definitely does not belong on the AFI list of best films ever. There. I said it!

I certainly like the theme of the film. If you’ve never seen it, basically it’s about what would happen if a rogue general launched a nuclear sneak attack on the Soviet Union (circa 1964) as the cold war is in full swing. And it’s “dark” because it is both comic and all does not end well for planet earth. It must have caused quite a stir in 1964. But for me it was ultimately disappointing. That being said, here are some things I liked:

  • Peter Sellers is very fun in three roles. As the president of the United States, his discussions with the Russian president over the phone from the war room are very funny. But as Dr. Strangelove himself it’s really just a one gag role in the way he tries to hide his Nazi past. Funny, for a minute or so.
  • George C. Scott’s red-hating general is very funny in a Fox News conservative kind of over-the-top way.
  • Slim Pickens riding the bomb into oblivion like a bucking bronco is the most memorable scene in the film.
  • One great line: “You can’t fight in here…this is the war room!”

Dr. Strangelove suffers from what many of the films on this list suffer from — memory tricks. We remember the film being so great because we remember the highlights but forget about the entire film. Ask anyone about Dr. Strangelove and they’ll surely recall the Slim Pickens bomb scene or Dr. Strangelove trying not to give the Nazi salute. But beyond those “gags” there is very little in the film which provides genuine laughter. I mean it. See it again if you don’t believe me.

A word about director Stanley Kubrick. He is easily the most overrated film director of all time. In my opinion he made four solid films: A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Spartacus and Full Metal Jacket. The rest are overrated or flat out suck.

Next: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

AFI #70: A Clockwork Orange

I think A Clockwork Orange is a film for young people. I remember really liking this film when I first saw it, which was probably when I was in high school. What could be more interesting to a high school student than a film about a bunch of young thugs getting high and performing a little ultra-violence? The thing is though, watching it now as a 45-year-old man it simply doesn’t hold up. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s so camp that it ‘s just not very good at all.

Stanley Kubrick directed some winners, including The Shining, Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket, but he also directed some duds (2001 A Space Odyssey is totally overrated). I won’t say A Clockwork Orange is a dud, but it’s not as good as I remember thinking it was. There are some highlights: certainly Malcolm McDowell’s performance is tremendous and the juxtaposition of violence with classical music is thought-provoking. Kubrick’s direction is unique — there are some very strangely shot scenes including a fast-motion menage a trois and that eery scene of Alex with his eyes propped open being forced to watch violent scenes in an effort to desensitize him to it. It definitely has a late 60s style that is common to the period (feels like Barbarella a bit). I don’t know…it sort of left me feeling…in the words of my 14-year-old…meh!

If you saw it when you were younger and haven’t seen it since you’re probably thinking I’m nuts and that it’s a classic. But I promise if you see it again you won’t think so…

Next Up: Tootsie

AFI #81: Spartacus

The term epic is defined as heroic, majestic, impressively great. An epic motion picture is one that spans generations like The Godfather or one that is grand in scope and story. Spartacus is without question an epic motion picture, and not just because it’s more than three hours long. Typically an epic also involves a hero who achieves greatness and for me the character Spartacus embodies the term. And while Spartacus the film is perhaps an hour or so too long, Spartacus the character is one of the greatest in film history.

The film was made in 1960 and directed by Stanley Kubrick who would go on to make such classic films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and The Shining. Until Spartacus I think the epics were a bit corny and it’s easy for me to compare Spartacus to Ben Hur (which readers of this blog will remember I did not like). While Ben Hur (#100 on the AFI list) was poorly acted and the plot was ridiculous, Spartacus kicks it up a notch with tremendous acting by Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov (who won an Oscar for his role). The plot tells the story of the Roman slave Spartacus, who leads a slave uprising and eventually takes on the Roman army in a deadly battle for freedom. And while the story doesn’t end well for the slaves, I like the realism there and of course the legend of Spartacus becomes more powerful than the life itself. I wasn’t around in 1960, but I bet Spartacus was considered trailblazing in its time. Just think…only a few years later Kubrick made Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange. These were not simple Hollywood stories, but rather the start of a new era of film making and it’s easy to see why Kubrick was so influential.

I am surprised Spartacus didn’t even get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, even though it won the Golden Globe for best picture. Awards (and lists like AFI for that matter) are so darn subjective. Interestingly, the film that did win the best picture Oscar that year (The Apartment) is next on the AFI list so I’ll get an immediate comparison.

Kind of lost in the story is the fact that it’s based on actual history. Spartacus lived from around 109-71 B.C. and did indeed lead a slave rebellion against the Romans. In fact, Spartacus himself is referenced throughout literature, film and pop culture and is often considered one of the greatest heroes in human history. It’s interesting that so many of our heroes are forced into action because of oppression. I suppose the reason I’m not a hero, for example, is because I have such an easy life in comparison to men and women like Ghandi, Joan of Arc and MLK. I wonder if being a hero is something we’re all born with but it only comes out in dire circumstances? Hope I never have to find out if I am Spartacus!

Next up: The Apartment