DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Eyes Wide Shut, Ninth Gate, Book Wars, Eyes of Tammy Faye, A.I., Sexy Beast, With a Friend Like Harry, The Island, The Clonus Horror, Blade Runner, Seconds , Cocoon, Aeon Flux, Equilibrium, Wild Orchid, Skulls, Teenage Angst


Title:  Eyes Wide Shut

Release Date:  1999

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 159 min

MPAA Rating: R (had to be edited to avoid NC-17)

Distributor and Production Company:   Warner Brothers

Director; Writer: Stanley Kubrick

Producer: Arthur Schnitzler

Cast:    Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack

Technical: Widescreen

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Movie Review: EYES WIDE SHUT (1999); Starring: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack; Directed by: Stanley Kubrick; Warner Brothers (Warner Bros.); MPAA Rated: R in the US (NC-17 version shown in Europe) 10.0/10.0

"They did a bad, bad thing!"

            So here we have it, the most important project of Cruise's and Kidman's lives, the big kahuna. The Big Secret. The movie with a title that is an oxymoron.

            Indeed, "Eyes Wide Shut" stands for a concept, an experience. That is, coming back to full circle with commitment to family, after testing the knowledge of good and evil. What is strange is that a movie with a brush with the commercially dreaded NC-17 and whose script closes with a "harmful to minors" bad word, should be so reassuring of marital commitment and permannce.

            Of course, the story (based on Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle) does assume that the leading male character has gone through the blind socialization that immutable heterosexuality offers. Indeed, it depicts a physical passion and intensity that I don't personally experience, as if such abandonment were a prerequisite for the commitments of adult personhood. Is Bill Hanford, M.D. (Cruise) a family man first and then a physician dedicated to Hippocrates? Hard to tell, because he has it all. Which is the limitation of the movie: rich people, who can afford to take the chance. Ordinary people sometimes can't.

            Indeed, homosexuality is seen by Kubrick as just a peripheral, if important and catalytic, phenomenon that requires no particular explanation. Cruise goes on his odyssey after being taunted in the Village by "fag bashers" because he's "cute." Indeed, this is (to borrow from ads a few years ago by Washington's Tracks Disco) the ultimate "Tom-Cruise-is-not-gay" caper. He isn't particularly perturbed when conducting his post-incident investigation at the hotel where his mystery friend had stayed and gets cruised (literally) by a mincing and "obvious" hotel clerk. (But he does live up to David Skinner's [Weekly Standard, June 20, 1999] definition of the hairless-chested man, granted the graininess of Kubrick's Arriflex photography, even in those intimate scenes where Kidman seems diffident.)

            This is an art movie, and a film which sets itself up as an "erotic thriller" by casting a spell. The garish colors are constantly orange and pink, starting with the Christmas trees. Kubrick shot the street scenes in London and super-imposed New York with matte paintings, giving the setting a Metropolis look, reminiscent of Seven or perhaps of Clive Barker's Dominions. It is disorienting at first, producing (on me) a mild nausea until I get used to it. The music score is appropriately creepy at times, especially with the use of Gyorgy Ligeti's music (as in 2001 A Space Odyssey [1968]), a three-note leitmotif banged out on the piano, sometimes in octaves. The orgy “witches Sabbath” (a la Hector Berlioz or Arrigo Boito; no – Ligeti!!) scene is a bit of a let-down: nothing really bad happens to Cruise (no real heterosexual, phallus-threatening sadomasochism, Motel Hell style): the orgy participants wear masks probably because by day they're all the investment bankers and day traders (arriving at the Stoneham on Long Island ¾ North by Northwest, anyone? ¾ in limos) who don't want to get caught with insider trading.

            I've heard reports that some people, perhaps impatient with the film's slow pace or offended by its precepts, walked out. I was drawn into this one, though, the way I was drawn into Vertigo. This picture is a mixture of film noir, Hitchcock simplicty of action, and David Lynch weirdness. It is a bit like a dream.

            One other thing: the movie industry should get over its fear of NC-17. (Seems to me, the total female nudity of some scenes might have earned one anyway.) Let "X" mean pronography for the sake of pornography, and NC-17 mean, "pornographic" with redeeming social values. It's a voluntary system.


            THE NINTH GATE (1999, Artisan, dir. Roman Polanski)

Here, I’ll mention that there’s an imitation witches’ initiation scene in Roman Polanksi’s pseudo-gothic-thriller, The Ninth Gate (1999), with Johnny Depp (another tribute to Skinner’s Hairless Man) and Frank Langela as the perennial villain.  In fact, Artisan Entertainment has come a long way from Blair Witch, to Stir of Echoes, now to this big-budget film, quite widescreen-spectacular  technically with its scenery from the French toll way system (very expensive, as I have driven it), with the views of the Central Massif and the Pyrenees (home of the Basques, perhaps descendents of Atlantis??) Well, nobody gets sexually defrocked at the Sabbath (held in a voluptuous French chateau) here either, just murdered.  As for Depp, I know the feeling when he loses his only copy of The Book.  I had that feeling when I lost my rental car keys in Bayeux last May (probably in the William the Conqueror museum). But what struck me was that a Book with only three remaining copies (a 16th Century tome) could have the power to change the world, in this case when the woodcut engravings from three copies are fit together.  That people would kill for old books, in the age of the Internet. With Do Ask Do Tell out of its first commercial printing, can I claim the same power to change the world with my marked up copy?  Well, Polanski really doesn’t tell us what’s on the Other Side of the Gate except a near-death experience.  I want to know more specifics. (Just as in Blair Witch.)  But this movie makes me want to climb on the next KLM flight from the Twin Cities to Amsterdam and start all over with Europe.

            BOOK WARS (2000, Camerado, dir. Jason Rosette)

Old books come up again in the extremely low-budget, low-tech 16 mm overexposed art film Book Wars (Camerata) (2000), written by Jason Roseta, who accounts for his time—three years—after becoming a “college graduate” selling used books around Greenwich Village.  Don’t know why he couldn’t get a real job, well this was a real job. Raw capitalism, cash economy, off the books.  Other undergrounders imitated him, setting up a robust industry for the street people. They would live in grungy East Village tenements, perhaps, getting by in the winter by grooming other cityslickers’ cats. He would drive over into Jersey to pick up collections from people moving, or old bookstores (those getting run off by the large chains) and warehouses (maybe the Make-Up-Your-Mind bookstore in Madison, started by a Peoples’ Party candidate in 1973). What kind of books would sell outside?  Those with catchy covers, that looked interesting, even if they had to be partially rebound by hand.  Bookbinding was once a profession discussed in Ninth Street Center talk groups.  Today, it’s amazing that old books compete with the Internet.  

            Of course, Rudy Guliani’s crowd, making the City more livable, descends upon them and gradually drives them out of business. Not that real bookstores cared about the competition. “Livability,” that was a mantra even here in Minneapolis, where the equivalent of book wars has become shopping cart wars.   


            THE SKULLS (2000, Universal, dir. Rob Cohen)  

There’s another place to look for a tribunal-style (“Eyes Wide Shut” style) ritual, in the pseudo thriller The Skulls, from Universal (now complete with company logo of the world on fire from a meteor hit). The ultimate “government plot” movie where secret societies (Nixon’s “Plumbers”) recruit type-A male college seniors with promises to rule the world. Pretty corny, and one student (Luke McNamara, played by Joshua Jackson) discovers right from wrong. But for the initiations, there are several. For instance, the recruits, after being drugged, have to rouse themselves from coffins. Of they have to tell all to their soul mates. (Boy, a character—lover??--named Caleb [Paul Walker] has to be satanic in a movie-movie like this.) Here the male bonding doesn’t rise to homoeroticism because it’s just too crude. But the most harem-scarem, boo-boo ritual occurs when the boys get their watches: the hairy side of each wrist is branded and scarred, the hairs gone permanently, to provide a permanent home for a rather grabby watch.  Young men, after all, are supposed to sacrifice their plumage for function, to attract predators away from the females and the nest!  Even James Bond doesn’t go through that.  The movie gets a D+ from me.    Compare to “Cry_Wolf,” “Secret History of the Freemasons.”


THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE  (2000, Lions Gate/Cinemax, dir. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato)

If trouble married couples keep their “eyes wide shut,” the rest of us have the eyes of others upon us. Tammy Faye is no exception.  I enjoyed Lions Gate Film’s release of a video documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye, 79 minutes, PG-13.  I presume it was shot with home videocams, because the screen-size was cut down to the 4:3 aspect ratio of Citizen Kane.  As for the eyes, well maybe they’re like The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). The film opens with a shot of her glasses—no contacts, no radial keratotomy—her glasses were just about her only collectible possessions left. But she had made Living for the Lord, or Coming Alive through the Lord, so much fun. Christianity could be fun, with puppets and songs—PTL, the Praise the Lord Ministry and Heritage USA, which she started with her charismatic first husband Jim Bakker (who often looks like he’s wearing a wig and frankly seems a bit foppish).  And we see her life crash and burn around her, as she tries to keep her Tamminess on top.  Because of Jim’s one-night-stand with Jessica Hahn, well Jerry Falwell and his Old Time Gospel Hour offer to buy the out, and run them out of existence Falwell does.  (I’ve heard Falwell preach twice, once in 1983 in Irving, Texas when he ranted about herpes and AIDS, and then at the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., in 1989, when he begged for money.)  Anyway, religious right preachers—“Christians”—try to burn each other out like gay bar owners.  Jim winds up in jail (for fraud—but not until Falwell accuses him of “homosexuality” which Tammy denies, as she ought to know), as does Tammy’s second husband, at a horrible desert place called Boron, California (do not confuse with Bishop).  Heritage in Fort Mill, S.C. closes down (I visited it in November, 1992) and rusts away abandoned, like a forclosed house after an eviction.  In fact, the gay male talk show host she works with in 1995 is about the only companion who doesn’t do her in. (So she likes gay people, unlike most of the religious right.) And those two puppets say it together—“try and try again,” “the shit hits the fan,” “the Judas kiss”…  So it comes out pretty funny, but it’s not.

            Now, this style of documentary film-making does work for me.  Let’s see it used again, maybe with more ambition and bigger stakes.   

WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY  (Miramax/Zoe, 2000)  (or HARRY: HE IS HERE TO HELP).  French director Domink Moll knows how to pay homage to Alfred Hitchcock with a wicked thriller about a buddy (Sergei Lopez) from a buddy writer’s past, ready to help him dispatch of family members so that he can regain his “virility” and “creativity.”  Ooooo!   The French know how to create atmosphere, with gorgeous scenery of the Massif Centrale and impressionistic music in the sound track.  (From Stuart Little: we don’t eat family members.  But here we kill them.  Wicked.  Morbid.  Funny. Especially when the killer is an imaginary playmate who, when constructed and instantiated, looks real to other family members.  Try The Trouble with Harry.)  

With A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) (2001), from Warner Brothers and Dreamworks, Steven Spielberg completes one more project envisioned by Stanley Kubrick—another impressionistic vision of ochres and sumptuous music and a surreal environment. The literary source is the 1969 short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss (originally published by Harper’s Bazaar). Haley Joel Osment plays the masterpiece Mecha, “bought” by his parents to provide the love of a “real boy” as their real son recovers from medical problems.  The premise is flawed, that the parents would gratify their need for “family” with a being that can never become an adult without being traded in. (This is not to cast aspersions on parents who adopt children with special needs.) There are chilling early scenes, where Osment  laughs compulsively at a dinner table where he is not allowed to eat like “real boys.”  Enter the android gigolo played by Jude Law (animated, I believe, and unnaturally hairless, evermore than Richard Gere) who takes the boy on an odyssey that sounds like a right wing fantasy of idol burning, until the movie’s 2000-year-long denouement of floods and ice ages and robot alien Grays. And, for extras, you can get reincarnated once, for one day until you fall asleep for good—that’s supposed to be predicted by quantum mechanics.  Well, I doubt it.  William Hurt is the mad scientist, and Sam Robards and Frances O’Connor star as the beleaguered mom and dad. 

(Tidbit review was Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001, Dreamworks/Amblin, dir. Steven Spielberg) presents us with the moral dilemma beyond cloning: ”creating life” with a robot boy which yearns to be real and replace his brother. David (Haley Joel Osment) competes with a biological brother who has encountered a tragedy but who might return. The world, in the meantime, has lost its icecaps and coastal cities, and the ending become apocalyptic. Why, then, not use fill wide-screen format?)


The Island (2005, Dreamworks/Warner Bros., dir. Michael Bay, 127 min, PG-13) is a great-looking film and one can predict the story from the buzz. This full widescreen film is spectacular. The opening shows a rocky coast in spectacular detail and depth focus and subtle colors. Soon we are inside a high-rise Singapore-like complex, with the patients running around in whites. The two heroes are known as Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGreggor) and Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), and gradually they learn things about the place. Jordan has won the “lottery” to go to “The Island” – the ultimate resort where you live forever. But Ewan runs around and sees the various steps in manufacturing the clones—who are born from big hydrated plastic sacks as hairless adults, to be harvested for spare parties (even babies) for rich clients who want to live forever. Pretty soon they are on the lam, with the help of the haggard McCord (Steve Buscemi). They see that this whole world is an illusion, and they are stuck in a desert that turns out to be Arizona. They use McCord’s Visa cards to take a maglev train to LA. Here Bay throws in his sci-fi vision of the world twenty years from now, reminding one of Blade Runner.  Jordan learns that her “client” needs to harvest all of her organs because she had a horrible accident, while Lincoln tracks down his own twin, after some spectacular chases, including throwing rolling winches on the freeway and riding a sign that falls 700 feet. Of course, to round out the story, Lincoln tricks the LAPD into shooting his double, but instead of taking over his life Lincoln goes back to “The Island” to free all the other clones.


Bay certainly has a subtle moral vision. The movie is an obvious argument against cloning and fits into today’s debate on stem cell research, but the more subtle point is that the perpetrators believe they are doing the right thing, saving lives. You can’t always prolong one life without taxing another. That’s true of a lot of things: I may believe I live my private life, but the way I express my values could be taken as a way to put down others. It’s a slippery slope, as the clones were supposed to be created to live in a persistent vegetative state, but then the company found that their organs were no good. So they had to be educated –first with “Fun with Dick and Jane” and then into the mental world of teenagers (at least one clone appears to be in special education).


The original film is The Clonus Horror (aka “Parts: The Clonus Horror, R, 90 min) (1979, Group 1, dir. Robert Fiveson) where the clones are on a farm and we are treated early on to seeing one of them captures, stripped, and drained with iv’s in both arms. Here the politicians are saving themselves.


Blade Runner (1982, Embassy, dir Ridley Scott, based on the story by Philip K. Dick) was the quintessential clone movie. Here the replicants live on space colonies to do menial jobs and then must be terminated. Deckard (Harrison Ford) has to track down four replicants who hijacked a space ship. The visions of future LA are surreal, with aerial trams and taxis, but more diffuse than Bay’s. There are interesting scenes, where one of the replicants seems to be in drag and challenges Decker as to whether she is a replicant. There is some brutality (eye-gouging).

With the UK-Spanish production Sexy Beast (2000, dir. Jonathan Glazer, Fox Searchlight) we have a hard-edged test of “virility” among older men—with their pot bellies and balding legs, as Ben Kingsley travels to the Spanish Gold Coast (I would have preferred San Sebastian) to taunt a former gangster (Ray Winstone) into one more heist.  There is another brief orgy scene among older people this time, and the reader can imagine the looks (enough to border on NC-17). This film won the Best British Film award in the UK.  Also, there’s an interesting air rage scene.  Directed by Jonathan Glazer. 

Seconds (1966, Paramount, dir. John Frankenheimer) is a neat little black-and-white thriller where Antiochus Wilson (Rock Hudson) makes the pact with the devil, to get a new life, as someone else, which means that someone else must be eliminated, and he must be transformed. A concept that resembles “The Island”. A roommate at Kansas University came back into the room late at night and told me the story of this horror film.   

Cocoon (1985, 20th Century Fox, dir. Ron Howard, PG-13, 117 min) was one of the first big films to give this director fame. Some feisty seniors find alien cocoons in a swimming pool of a rented house (the aliens left the cocoons in the ocean on a space trip millennia before, and the seniors collect them and store them in the pool) and taste the gift youthful vigor and maybe of immortality. Wlfred Brimley , Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Jack Gilford, Steve Guttenberg give memorable performances, and Brimley has the line “and you never die.” The idea that one can “change” this way into something younger has always been fascinating, but will it last?


Aeon Flux (2005, Paramount/Lakeshore/MTV, dir. Karyn Kusama, 92 min, PG-13, USA/UK/Germany), played by Charlize Theron, is an assassin, working for the “Monicans”, 400 years in the future, set out to assassinate the leaders of the utopian walled city of Bregna. Most of the world was killed off by a virus (H5N1?  -- or is this like Stephen King’s The Stand) and remainder built a Maya-looking modern civilization somewhere in the Amazon rain forest, so it looks, where inside the city it looks like eternal spring. The technology is surprisingly organic and botanical, with little in the way of cyberspace. The Goodchild family rules things, supposedly with great science, that can reincarnate the same people infinitely with chemical impregnation (the horror that George Gilder warned us about in the 80s). Freedom has been lost, as has any connection of sex to emotion. The idea that the same soul or identity could come back by a determinate process is interesting—or could the virus have had something to do with that? The city is interesting, and you want to see more of it; there are circles of local communities; it seems to be a recreation of London. At the end, the characters have a flashback of their last good life in London just before the pandemic. (Or is the city Berlin, where the film was shot?) Marton Czokas is the handsome villain.  Frances McDormand is the oracle. The story (Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi) is based on an animated MTV series, and the adaptation provided the creative challenge; the lead character dies in every episode!


Equilibrium (2002, Dimension, dir. Kurt Wimmer, 107 min, R, UK) is a bit of a cult classic, although it seems heavy handed compared to other films of this genre. After World War III, fascism has returned to this artificial high-ruse world, along with drug regimes that eliminate emotion. People can be executed for becoming “sense offenders”. Christian Bale plays Robert Preston, kind of an SS chief who misses a dose and finds he can save the world himself. In one scene, he walks into a room with an old victrola and starts playing a 78-rpm recording of Beethoven’s Ninth. Robert befriends a dog, then a girl. There is a line that some people have to struggle with giving up emotions, to make everyone stronger. There is a bit of existentialism and nilhism, both, in the ideology, to the effect that some people should sacrifice their entire souls for the strength of others. Even so, much of the film seems like a rather obvious parable about trying to return to freedom. He finally gains the confidence of Dupont (Angus MacFayden). There are the 10 seconds to self-destruct, and then Robert is “feeling,” although here there is no pretense of presenting the psychological polarities of ying and yang. British and German cast. Christian Bale is usually covered up in black tunic, but in one scene is he is exposed, smooth chest and sterile. He would have to grow up for Batman.  (Remember him in American Psycho?)


Wild Orchid (1990, Triumph/MGM/Orion, dir. Zalman King, 112 min, R or NC-17). A young lawyer Claudia Dennis (Jacqueline Bisset) takes a job that requires her to travel to Rio de Janeiro on her first day, were she meets millionaire mogul James Wheeler (Mickey Rourke) who introducers her to the fast lane, and plenty of corporate conflict of interest. There are wild beach orgies and parties and masques, with Kubrick-like effects that foreshadow “Eyes Wide Shut.” There was a sequel in 1992. 


Teenage Angst (2009, Picture This! / Gifted, dir. Thomas Stuber, 64 min). Hazing of a possibly gay teen takes places in a German prep school, leading to tragedy. Blogger.  Compare to “The Skulls”.  


Related reviews:  Cry_Wolf, Secret History of the Freemasons


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