October 26, 2015

Crimson Peak

Crimson Peak is a perfectly serviceable ghost picture, and yet it feels like a disappointment coming from director Guillermo del Toro. It's overly conventional when it needed to be bonkers. In 2006, Del Toro galvanized us with Pan’s Labyrinth, a film that so elegantly encompassed both the magical and the macabre. He has the eye of a painter, like most if not all of the great horror maestros, and he imbues Crimson Peak with the same visually striking aesthetic we’ve come to expect from him. The film is beautiful, especially the first half, where we are more free to notice every little detail: the patterned wallpaper in the heroine’s bedroom, the fringe on a brown-orange floor rug, the way the mourners in a funeral scene look like crows in their black suits and dresses, the moment when Edith (played by Mia Wasikowska) is writing in pen and accidentally rubs ink all over her forehead. Something about the first half feels utterly alive, even as this part of the film is a bit stagey.

In terms of structure, the first half is all set-up, and as such it feels confined. You would expect del Toro to let his freak flag fly in the second half, when we finally get to the haunted mansion, but then he gets caught up in the details of the story and we never get to that fever pitch, the kind of histrionic perversity you might see in a film by Dario Argento. Gradually, the film trades its hypnotic effect for something more dreary and gruesome. But del Toro grinds us through the familiars of the haunted-house routine—a routine rife with creepy noises and dark passageways and translucent specters—better than just about anyone else, so the movie is still pleasurable. But in Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro created a narrative as surprising and strange as its milieu. After that, it’s hard to be satisfied with the more conventional story of Crimson Peak, which requires nothing of the viewer. And, while it’s admittedly fun to see old tropes given new and ever more grotesque facades, it feels like a wasted opportunity from such an elegant craftsman.

Crimson Peak does have some things going for it. Namely: Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. Hiddleston seems like a natural successor to all the British leading men who led their unsuspecting young wives to creaking old mansions full of secrets. And this is where del Toro smartly introduces some complexity into the story. We know early on that Thomas Sharp (Hiddleston’s character) is up to no good, that he has enticed the bland nymph Edith to his isolated, moorish estate for ignoble purposes. But Thomas begins truly to fall in love with Edith, ruffling the demoniac feathers of his clinging, hateful sister Lucille, played to such chilly perfection by Jessica Chastain. (There’s a great moment when Thomas and Edith return to the estate after a night of carnal pleasure to find Lucille distraught with closeted rage: She spills hot food all over the kitchen counter, and then runs her fingers through the burning mess with a reserve and numbness only a psychotic can muster.)

Jessica Chastain has always seemed burdened with the weight of great acting skills. That weight has been a deficit in the past, but in Crimson Peak she gets to play an icy bitch to perfection. She doesn’t have to hold back in case it becomes important that we like her. It is Lucille’s delicious wickedness that makes Crimson Peak interesting. Lucille is the spawn of Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca from Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca (or more likely the Alfred Hitchcock film version). She’s calculating and obsessive but also desirable. It’s ironic that both of these actresses, while very talented, are resolutely bland performers. They flower when given the right material, and this material suits Chastain’s id just right.

It doesn’t serve Mia Wasikowska as well. She somehow doesn’t work for the movie. I liked her better as the spoiled-party-monster vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive (which also featured Tom Hiddleston, incidentally). Here, Wasikowska resorts to the same ethereal-angelicism she employed as Jane Eyre. It makes her seem weak and inconsequential, which isn’t entirely her fault: The movie spends about 45 minutes establishing her character as a semi-liberated New Woman—choosing to stay at home working on her writing rather than go to the ball, taking charge of her own life—and then deactivates her power. She does finally regain some agency in the end, but Wasikowska doesn’t carry the film well. The movie truly belongs to Hiddleston—so good at playing the tortured aristocrat—and Chastain.

There is an admittedly twisted and amusing joke running through Crimson Peak: that the brother-and-sister duo have been targeting wealthy young women in order to maintain their fledgling estate. It’s a canny idea full of promise, especially since there’s been such a resurgence of interest in pop culture about English aristocrats who usually squander their fortunes, but del Toro doesn’t pursue it with enough vigor. He’s too interested in paying homage to every ghostie that ever graced the screen. His ghosties are legitimately creepy, but Crimson Peak never captures that spine-tingling feeling you want from a good mystery-in-the-haunted-house thriller. But you could do worse at Halloween.

With Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, and Jonathan Hyde. The gorgeous music is by Fernando Velásquez.

October 10, 2015

Ridley Scott’s pop space adventure “The Martian” has the heart that all of his previous films were missing.

As much as I love Alien, I’m not much of a Ridley Scott devotee. Blade Runner has put me to sleep at least twice, and many of Scott’s other films are cold and clinical, which Alien kind of is too (only somehow, with Alien, it works). That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised by The Martian, Scott’s follow-up to his enormously self-plagiarizing Prometheus (2012). With The Martian, Ridley Scott seems to have stepped into an invigorating ray of sunshine that’s loosened him up as a director. This movie is a crowd-pleasing space epic in the best sense, with an irresistible performance by Matt Damon, our current cinematic Everyman.

The Martian is essentially science porn: it’s a movie about a stranded astronaut named Mark Watney who must rely on his scientific training—he’s a botanist—to survive on Mars for four years while he awaits a rescue mission. We watch countless scenes of Mark using his mad science skills to preserve his life and communicate with the outside world. In one of these process scenes, Mark builds a garden—using the exceptionally dry-looking red dust of his current planet—inside his headquarters, and then does some other scienc-y things to create and sustain a crop of potatoes.

Normally, this kind of movie bores me to tears. But Ridley Scott and Drew Goddard deftly weave together two exciting, suspenseful narratives: one of the lone astronaut, the other of the NASA scientists and PR people back on Earth, who initially believe Mark is dead, but who soon discover photographer evidence to the contrary. Their rush to build a payload of supplies—to send to Mark so he can subsist while the rescue team comes—is yet another opportunity to show us the brilliance of science and the processes of scientists. This movie is essentially a plug for the scientific method and the apparently boundless possibilities of science.

There have been several pro-NASA movies of late, and several noteworthy space thrillers too. This year, the uneven comedy-drama Aloha (from director Cameron Crowe) lamented the death of NASA and used that historical moment to craft a darker narrative about space exploration falling into the hands of greedy private enterprisers. Last year, there was Christopher Nolan’s high-minded space opera Interstellar (also featuring Matt Damon), which was a humorless and fatty cinematic experience that tried to out-Stanley Kubrick Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Before that we had Alfonso Cuarón’s magnificent but stressful (and overly sentimental) Gravity. Between the three of them, The Martian achieves the most balance: it’s emotionally affecting without resorting to cheap dramatic tricks, and its obvious admiration for NASA and science as a methodology does not inhibit our enjoyment of the film. It also takes itself less seriously without sacrificing the sense of galactic and human awe it evokes.

Matt Damon, of course, is the heart and soul of The Martian. When he faces the reality of his situation and the likelihood of his death, he takes a sober breath and simply utters, “So, yeah…Yeah,” and with those simple words, and with Damon's look of utter acceptance-cum-vulnerability, we experience the weight of mortality. There are few actors working right now more capable of winning us over than Matt Damon, and Ridley Scott understands this. He lets Damon do the work of pulling us into the film’s emotional journey, and it’s this which anchors The Martian to firm ground, narratively speaking. Even when the film begins to grow a little wearisome (I would have liked it to be 20 minutes shorter), we’re still ultimately with this movie and willing to be taken for its ride.

Scott has also assembled a fine supporting cast, most of them playing astronauts or scientists: Jessica Chastain, giving a surprisingly warm performance (for her) as the captain of the Mars mission that inadvertently abandoned Mark; Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA, managing to be glib, tactical, and likable all at once; Kristen Wiig as NASA’s public relations analyst, proving once again that Kristen Wiig is a tremendously engaging performer capable of both comedy and drama: she has some lovely, funny little moments, and conveys exasperation quite effectively; Michael Peña as the pilot of the spaceship Hermes: he exudes the charm of a good-natured ex-military pilot; Chiwetel Ejiofor (best known for his performance in 12 Years a Slave) as Vincent Kapoor, one of the NASA heads trying to manage both an impossible rescue mission and a public relations nightmare.

The film looks gorgeous, I should add. Mars never looked so beautiful in all its orange-red dusty glory, although the movie doesn’t focus as much on the sheer grandeur of space as it might have. It’s far more interested with practical things, but in a way that keeps us hooked to the screen (mostly). And even though I can appreciate arty space movies like 2001 and Alien, there’s something befitting the more practical, humanistic touch with which Ridley Scott imbues The Martian. This is a populist space movie, an almost sap-headed love letter to the idea of can-do spirit and human achievement. But Scott is a competent director, so The Martian successfully walks the lines of sentimentality and histrionics. It’s immensely satisfying entertainment.

With Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Naomi Scott, Nick Mohammed, Eddy Ko, and Chen Shu. Music by Harry Gregson-Williams. Cinematography by Dariusz Wolski.


As well-trod a subject as the Holocaust is for filmmakers, director Christian Petzhold has tapped into a new well of sorts with Phoenix, a slow-moving but brilliantly constructed and haunting film set in post-war Berlin. Nina Hoss plays Nelly, a young woman who miraculously survived Auschwitz. (We’re informed that everyone else in her immediate family is dead.) The film opens as Nelly is being transported back to Berlin by her old friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). Nelly’s faced is masked with red-stained gauze, and when the women are stopped at a checkpoint by some gruff American soldiers, one of them demands that she remove the gauze so he can see her face. She does, and although we do not see the damage, the film makes it clear that Nelly’s face has been completely mangled by a gunshot wound.

Phoenix asks the question, “Is your face your identity?” When a plastic surgeon asks Nelly what movie star’s resemblance she would like when he reconstructs her face, she balks at the idea and bemusedly asks for him to restore her own likeness to her. But the plastic surgeon insists that this is more difficult, nay impossible, and that a new face is just the thing she’ll want. Why would she want to be recognized anyway, given the state of things in Europe right now? But this is merely the surface of this haunting film: Christian Petzhold (who co-wrote the screenplay with Harun Farocki) undertakes a fascinating exploration of the nature of identity, of the fact that surviving German Jews encountered a shattering identity crisis when they returned to the rubble of their former homes in Berlin.

Petzhold masterfully weaves important, seemingly small details into the film, all of them building to an astonishing crescendo. Before her imprisonment, Nelly was a singer, and her husband, Johnny, a goyim who had been trying to hide her from the Nazis, was a piano player. The plot of Phoenix involves Nelly tracking down her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld, who looks like a German Jeremy Renner), who doesn’t recognize her because of the plastic surgery. However, before Nelly can reveal her true identity, Johnny asks her to pose as his wife, since she reminds him of her, so that he can collect her inheritance, which he’s willing to split with her for her trouble.

“I no longer exist,” Nelly says early in the film. She wanders through bombed streets piled with broken bricks and dust, and catches her fractured reflection in shards of glass. Johnny’s proposition entices her strangely, perhaps because it’s like starting over again. What unfolds is a kind of tragic Pygmalion story, or a re-fetishized Vertigo, wherein the man recreates the woman for financial gain rather than sexual pleasure. For whatever reason, Nelly goes along with it, delays telling Johnny the truth, and makes cosmetic changes—donning her old clothes, dying her hair—to more closely resemble her former self. And all along, Johnny refuses to believe that the real Nelly is right there in front of him. Perhaps he’s denying his own deep suspicions, or maybe Nelly’s death is so necessary for his schemes that he cannot configure a reality in which Nelly has actually returned.

Nelly’s willingness to go along with Johnny’s plan disturbs her friend Lene, who insists that Johnny betrayed her, and later uncovers proof of this. Lene is indeed overcome with feelings of betrayal, both personally and ethnically, and she’s become attuned to it, to detecting the manipulative and self-serving designs of other people. She’s likewise attuned to the ways vulnerable people participate in their own abuse. Lene says, and I’m paraphrasing, “We fought for them (in World War I) and this is how they repay us; and now they welcome us back as though nothing happened.” Lene’s feeling of dejection, of displacement, gets at the deeper questions about identity that World War II unearthed, questions that make Phoenix such a rich viewing experience. It also may be the first movie to really depict just how desperate Jews were to establish their own home—Palestine—as a refuge from a Continent which had consumed them.

Phoenix is absolutely worth seeking out, and probably more than once, because it has one of the most mind-blowing finales I’ve seen in a long time. Even if you become a little impatient with the movie as it builds and builds slowly but meticulously (it’s easy to distrust a filmmaker when you’re not sure where he’s going), that last moment makes everything worthwhile as all the little details suddenly congeal into the piercing, unforgettable payoff. The film’s emotional impact is devastating and thrilling at the same time. I sat glued to the screen, suddenly and totally under director Christian Petzhold’s spell. The whole time, Nelly seems powerless, but at the last minute, she turns the tables on everyone, and that little detail—that Nelly used to be a singer—suddenly moves to the foreground of Petzhold’s narrative. It’s a knockout of a movie; but it requires a little patience.

When Blythe Danner sings, everyone listens.

When Blythe Danner sings “Cry Me a River,” she takes control of the screen. Her character has suddenly taken on new depth and emotional clarity: We see the woman she was united with the woman she is. The film, I’ll See You in My Dreams, is a plum role for an actress that’s never had her due. Danner gives a wonderful, understated performance, and director Brett Haley seems like he’s actually interested in developing the inner-lives and the relationships of his characters. Unlike Nancy Myers’ The Intern, I’ll See You in My Dreams treats the over-55 crowd as human beings of depth, flawed and hopeful and interesting. It’s surprising to realize that the younger director has crafted the more intelligent movie about relationships between different age groups.

What do you do with yourself when all the important events in your life have already happened to you? That’s the dilemma facing Carol Petersen, a woman in her 60s who feels lost, aimless as she faces the routine of being retired, of being in a cycle of life that feels somehow useless and detached from everyone else. Carol is a retired school teacher. Before that, she was the singer in a band. She’s been widowed for twenty years, her daughter is grown up and living across the country, and she lives alone with her dog.

I watched I’ll See You in My Dreams about a month ago, but never found time to write a review of it. I remember sitting at my computer balling as Carol is forced to put her beloved dog to sleep. Maybe I had just had a particularly bad day, but the film struck a chord with me. It runs the risk of being dismissed as “sweet” or “light,” but this faint praise undercuts the fact that I’ll See You in My Dreams has emotional weight to it, and it presents its main characters with emotional depth—a feat that the more recent The Intern failed to accomplish.

I’ll See You in My Dreams is at times refreshingly unpredictable. Carol meets two men at roughly the same period, and two distinct, dynamic relationships develop. One of them, Lloyd (Martin Starr), a banal 30-year-old man who cleans her pool, becomes her friend. Their affinity for each other is strangely lovely, perhaps because we tend to live such splintered lives, shutting out people who aren’t carbon copies of ourselves. The other relationship—a budding romance with Sam Elliott—also travels in unexpected directions, all of them adding new layers to Danner’s characterization. Elliott's charming, carefree attitude proves to be life-changing for Carol. 

The one element of I’ll See You in My Dreams that feels the most calculated is Carol’s group of rambunctious girlfriends, all of them fellow retirees, living at a posh seniors community. Those scenes reminded me a little bit of the 2005 film In Her Shoes, when Cameron Diaz visits her grandmother, played by Shirley MacLaine, at one of those retirement homes where all the old people are hooking up with each other. (The speed dating scene is admittedly funny in a horrific sort of way.) It's funny, but it feels a little bit like the movie's cheap hook. And yet, the portrayal is not unrealistic. The girlfriends—played by Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place, and June Squibb—are funny, too, but they’re used much in the same way Betty White has been in the last five years: as old women saying inappropriate things. When The Golden Girls did it, it worked because they were fully realized characters and they could deliver the one-liners with verve. But these characters aren’t as well drawn as the others.  

This is, incidentally, Blythe Danner’s first starring role. Readers may recognize her as the mother in the Meet the Parents franchise or as Will Truman’s mother on Will & Grace, or as Gwyneth Paltow’s mother in real life. Danner always lends a touch of class to a production, but rarely does she get to be the center of attention herself. Brett Haley lets her fill the room. And she’s not a particularly showy actress. Even when her character performs that lovely little number at a karaoke bar, she’s never ostentatious, never a camp queen. Danner cares deeply about the humanity of this woman, and this in turn makes us care deeply for her.

With Malin Akerman as Carol’s daughter. Written by Haley and Marc Basch.

October 04, 2015

The Intern

The Intern opens and closes with Robert De Niro doing Yoga, as if writer-director Nancy Myers dreamed up this image first, and then wrote a whole script around it. The Intern is destined to be a hit with the over-50 crowd, and while the film doesn’t pander to them quite as much as I thought it would, it is at times astonishingly dull. But it hits all the right beats of its ready-made formula, and after the movie’s two meandering hours have finally passed, viewers may feel that the quantity has given them their money’s worth, even if the quality is bland and overly expository.

Here’s the set-up: Robert De Niro plays Ben, a retired ad exec who applies for a senior internship (meaning an internship for senior citizens) at an up-and-coming online apparel outlet, founded and operated by a frantic, driven, smart young woman named Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). Jules is a modern woman: She started this company only a year-and-a-half ago, and it’s grown to 200 employees and booming business. Her husband (played by Anders Holm) is a stay-at-home dad. (With his patchy manscaping, Holm looks like a boy who’s donned a thick prop beard to play dress-up in.) Jules is so under-developed that we have no idea she’s married (or has a child) for the first half-hour of the film. (This could be a poorly conceived attempt to show us that Jules is working too hard and therefore her family is invisible to her.) Ben becomes Jules’s assistant, and we watch as he gradually wins her over with his wise gentlemanly ways. There are the expected jokes about the clash between young and old, but even though this movie doesn’t hit them too too hard, it smacks of staleness. There’s even a scene in which Hathaway helps De Niro set up his Facebook account. Will this even matter in ten years, assuming Facebook goes the way of Myspace by then?

Nancy Myers, a veteran writer-director, has not shaped The Intern into anything sharp or alive. The movie lumbers along, and we’re all waiting to get to the part where De Niro and Hathaway become friends. We want to see them interact. Nancy Myers wants this too, but she makes us wait nearly an hour as Jules goes through the motions of resisting Ben. We all know what’s going to happen, so this device does nothing for the film but pad the running time. 

De Niro rarely rises above his abysmal fate playing a friendly, wise, oddly progressive Grandpa-Santa Claus-type, doling out obvious life advice—like telling his youthful co-workers they should tuck their shirts in. De Niro is likable, but he smiles his way through the film, like some big dumb grinning cartoon character, with no sense of direction. The movie desperately wants him not to be the crotchety hard-ass he played in Meet the Parents, but it swings so far in the other direction that he becomes passive. Anne Hathaway gets to be funnier and more defined, but by the time we arrived at those moments in the second half of the film, my patience had worn thin.

For all its attempts at clever commentary on the cultural divide between young and old people, The Intern isn’t very funny. Nancy Myers gets so caught up in grinding us through the formula of her story that she forgets to make it amusing. She relies entirely on her actors’ individual charisma and charm, like when Adam Devine (one of the goofy young employees, who’s like Speedy Gonzalez with his delightful maniacal ridiculousness) is rapping in the getaway car while De Niro and two others break into Jules’s mother’s house to delete a nasty email Jules accidentally sent to her mom. De Niro has been coaching Devine’s character about how to interact with women, and gives him more obvious advice: A text message is not a suitable venue for an apology. Adam Devine could make me laugh in almost anything, though, so his presence here comes as a relief.

Perhaps the biggest crime The Intern commits is its wasting of Rene Russo, who plays the company’s in-house massage therapist. She and De Niro’s character strike up a romance pretty quickly, but the film barely pursues it. We get one brief scene of them talking about their former spouses and their lives, and that’s it. The rest of the time, Russo’s character is either coming or going, saying things like “I’m just on my way to work.” (A far cry from the delicious part she had in last year’s Nightcrawler.)
You’d think Myers would have been drawn into this relationship, that she’d have wanted to develop it more fully. Perhaps her characters are so dull, so pat, and so predictable, that the only direction it can go is banal perfection.

That’s the real problem with The Intern: It essentially argues that old people have figured everything out, and along the way, it robs them of any interesting qualities. The young people in The Intern have all the problems, and the old people are there to solve them—or else get in the way with their cartoonish ineptness, like one of the other senior interns does when she attempts to serve as Hathaway’s chauffeur. This movie is the cinematic equivalent to all those shame-inducing think pieces dumping on the “millennial” generation by espousing the inherent superiority of the baby boomers. Myers hasn’t developed her thinking very much in the last thirty years. In fact, she was more honest in 1987’s Baby Boom.

Anne Hathaway is the reason to see this picture, if at all. Her performance as Jules Ostin is terrific. It’s a pretty standard Hathaway part: driven, smart, plucky, tough, and just a tad prickly. Obviously, De Niro’s character exists only to smooth over her rough edges. But the film finds itself in a quandary when [spoiler alert] Jules discovers her husband [spoiler] is cheating on her. There’s a lot of talk that Jules is somehow guilty for her husband’s cheating ways, because she’s too focused on work. But De Niro discourages this self-doubt, and reminds her that it’s okay to be a woman with ambitions. Somehow, this felt like a characterological flaw. De Niro’s Ben isn’t so much a human being as a Frankenstein-concoction: the ideal man,  created by a politically progressive but cinematically conventional filmmaker. And as much as The Intern tries to be progressively feminist, it settles for a treacly happy ending, one that cheats its convictions.

October 03, 2015

The Fly

In The Fly (1986), Jeff Goldblum, playing a scientist named Seth Brundle, slowly transforms into a bug, and the make-up effects of Chris Walas are utterly horrifying. The first half of the movie is actually kind of sweet: it's about an eccentric but lovable scientist, working on a teleportation device--who falls in love with a journalist played by Geena Davis. Their chemistry together is believable, and both of them have presence on the screen, real presence that commands our attention. But as Seth transforms into this hideous bug, the film itself turns into nothing more than a spectacle, as though director David Cronenberg is saying: "Hey look at this crazy shit right here!" Perhaps I wouldn't complain if the spectacle were more interesting. As much as Cronenberg seems to want to be the lit theory horror filmmaker par excellence, conjuring up allusions to Kafka's Metamorphosis and turning The Fly into a blank canvas on which can be read quite a few metaphors, from the AIDS crisis to the cocaine crisis to our growing anxieties about science--The Fly lost me. The effects were more than I could take, and that's saying something. But more than just gag-inducing make-up effects, The Fly essentially has too little going on in it once the romance dissolves and it becomes Geena Davis watching helplessly as her tortured, brilliant lover turns into a hideous creature. With John Getz. Written by Cronenberg and Charles Edward Pogue, from the George Langelaan novel. (And of course, it's a remake of a 1958 sci-fi shocker starring Vincent Price.)

October 01, 2015

The Crucible

At times, the 1996 film version of The Crucible feels merely a notch above a History Channel re-enactment of a day in the life of the Puritans. But then, especially as the film develops, and the complexities of the characters from Arthur Miller's play swirl together in an increasingly murky dish of passion, wrath, desire, and vindictiveness, you find yourself pulled into the spectacle of it and taken hostage by the performances of Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor and Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams and Joan Allen as Elizabeth Proctor.

We so rarely get operatic drama anymore, that there's something deeply comforting about the way The Crucible shatters us emotionally. Daniel Day-Lewis masterfully shows us a man tormented by his own guilt but equally convinced that the authorities in his community are utterly insane fools, at best, and abusive dictators at worst. The tension builds and builds until the thing lies bleeding before us, and it's a deeply affecting experience. We've achieved what the Greeks all along told us was the purpose of tragedy: catharsis. 

And of course, Crucible is a really fun ensemble piece. Everyone gets to play dress-up, do their best cocktail of Anglo-Colonial accents, and shout beautiful, intense prose from the rooftops. It's delicious, it's powerful, it's touching, especially when Joan Allen weeps into her husband's shoulder, "Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me," as the music swells, or when Abigail leads the other girls in their hysterical accusations of witchcraft, and the camera actually moves and twists, as though Sam Raimi's demon-camera in Evil Dead has temporarily invaded this play. The more the film lets loose, the more wonderful it all is.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner. The screenplay was adapted by Arthur Miller, who doesn't shy away from the bleak ending, thus letting his criticism of the ignorant and stupid mob mentality of both the witch trials and the Red Scare remain as stinging and powerful as ever. With Rob Campbell, who does good work as the beleaguered witch-hunter Reverend Hale, Paul Scofield as the imperious Judge Danforth, Bruce Davison as the cowardly Reverend Parris, Jeffrey Jones as Thomas Putnam, and Charlayne Woodard as Tituba, the Barbados slave.

Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut may be Stanley Kubrick’s most underrated movie. There are plenty of people who either love or hate The Shining, Barry Lyndon, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange. But Eyes Wide Shut has been damned with half-hearted praise. Critics pegged it as a good, not great, film, perhaps not wanting to overstate their case in the wake of Kubrick's death, just after he'd previewed the final cut. (Which he likely would have tinkered with even more, had he lived.) Eyes Wide Shut has always been overshadowed by the real-life things happening around it: Kubrick's passing, the film's supposedly lurid subject matter, the on-screen pairing of then husband-and-wife superstars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, playing a husband and wife with sexual problems. Surely all of this mire tainted people’s minds before they even saw the film. And what's more, Eyes Wide Shut is the kind of movie people talk about but never bother to see, having written it off as a dirty movie. But despite the movie's problems, which may be deeper than we think, it is a mesmerizing experience, one that held my interest for the whole two-and-a-half running time (a rare feat). 

The movie is set in New York at Christmastime, and it opens with Bill Harford, a prosperous Manhattan doctor, and his wife Alice, getting dressed for a party: the kind of fancy black tie event that offers a lot of schmoozing opportunities, the kind of thing Bill apparently loves (one of the perks of his profession, he assures Alice) but Alice dreads. Soon after they arrive, Alice adroitly downs a glass of champagne when Bill isn’t looking, and while he’s distracted by rich clients and hot models, she flirts with a Hungarian silver fox who wants to take her upstairs and ravish her. Alice even considers the prospect momentarily, letting it linger in the warm embrace of the champagne. We sense in that moment the tension inside Alice: she wants to be faithful to her husband even as he's annoying her and, even worse, flirting with other women. But then again, she's a woman with desires of her own, and those embers are still warm.

Kubrick channels James Joyce's lovely, pensive "The Dead", the story about a professor named Gabriel Conroy who is shocked to discover that his wife had a romance before him, one that she's never revealed. When Bill and Alice are talking in their bedroom, Alice reveals the contents of her dreamin which she's having multiple sexual partnersand Bill, although he himself has done plenty of flirting with other women—is undone. What's more, Alice had a temptation several years ago, one that she almost acted on. Of course it's understandably shocking to discover your wife has had desires for other men, but it's also ridiculous to think women are somehow incapable of having such desires, and even more ridiculous that men can excuse their own wrong-doing, but be completely undone by their wives'. Bill leaves the apartment ostensibly to make a house call, and eventually descends into a night of debauchery.

The great joke of Eyes Wide Shut is that Bill never actually does anything, even though his evening includes a visit to a prostitute (played by Vinessa Shaw) and later to a mansion on the outskirts of the city where some secret society of rich people has gathered for an elaborate orgy. They’re all adorned in black cloaks and Venetian masks to hide their true identities as they enact weird Pagan-esque rituals and then get down to business. Kubrick presents this prolonged scene as horrific, with throbbing, drawn out music and those costumes amping up a sense of yuppie grotesquerie, the sleazy feeling that rich people, people who run things, are enabled to do anything they want with impunity. 

Tom Cruise is marvelously cast as the designated watcher, much like the passive narrator of The Great Gatsby. Cruise’s good looks make people want to defile him—and he gives them plenty of opportunities—but he’s never willing to go all the way. This proves to be his salvation in Kubrick's puritanical world, because the prostitute he almost sleeps with is later diagnosed with HIV, and one of the girls at the witchy orgy overdoses, shrouding the entire proceedings in grisly darkness, and turning the film into a murder mystery, briefly.

It's the complexity of Bill's character that makes him so fascinating. He has a conscience, and he has temptations, and we get to watch those two impulses wage war against each other. Cruise, who so many have rebuked as a bad actor and nothing more than a pop Hollywood star, works for this movie. He's enough of a blank slate for us to project our own emotions onto him, but he also tries very hard to give Bill Harford depth, and I think his trying, which so rarely profits him, pays off here.

If Eyes Wide Shut makes any false moves, it's in the gradual de-emphasizing of Alice as a major character. For a good long while, they are equals, then it becomes Bill's movie, then, at the very end, the two are on the same level again. Nicole Kidman breathes real passion and pathos into Alice. When Kidman’s on screen, there’s nothing else you’d rather look at. Kubrick perhaps takes this too literally at times, letting the camera gaze on her nude body for no apparent reason other than the prospect of looking at Nicole Kidman. It's the most hypocritical thing about this movie, which really feels quite Victorian in its sexual politics.

But despite its flaws, Eyes Wide Shut is a show-stopping final note from Stanley Kubrick, and one that deserves a re-appraisal. With Sydney Pollack, Todd Field, Marie Richardson, Vinessa Shaw, and Alan Cumming. Written by Kubrick and Frederick Raphael, loosely adapted from Arthur Schnitzler's short novel Traumnovelle.