Monday, February 21, 2011

Spartacus


Year: 1960
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 81
Writer: Dalton Trumbo (adaptation), Howard Fast (novel)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Star: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov

The problem with the “spectacle” films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when studios saw running time and Cinemascope as the answer to the problem of television, is that the actual spectacle lasts about twenty minutes or less in the films’ usually three-and-a-half-hour-plus running time. Over-actors fill the rest of the reels with overblown, stodgy dialogue while looking generally hilarious in bad costumes and worse hair styles. “Spartacus” separates itself by actually having something to say in those long passages between the crackerjack “spectacle” sequences.

Kirk Douglas is the title character, a slave who trains to be a gladiator before leading a revolution, first against his captors and later against all of Rome. He seeks freedom for himself and the ever-growing group of slaves that march through Italy toward a group of pirate ships on the coast. There’s more, of course, three hours of more.

The driving force is no more or less inventive than any other film of this type. It’s all about the execution. The “villains” of the film are genuinely engaging, three-dimensional characters who do not shy away from having ethical discussions.

First and foremost is Peter Ustinov as the owner of the Gladatorial school Spartacus trains at. Ustinov’s performance is the best in a film of great supporting performances, and he is so gleeful in his one-track-mind that he earns our love despite his unabashedly-underhanded behavior.

Next up is Charles Laughton, who could have easily walked through the role but injects his Roman Senator with a surprising amount of decency. In the film’s final moments, when he procures safe passage for Spartacus’ wife (Jean Simmons), he surprises both us and himself with the humanity he displays. Usually overlooked is John Gavin, who is just aces as a young, cocky Julius Caesar, whose loyalties are always in flux.

Laurence Olivier plays Crassus, who becomes the ultimate villain of the film even though he only has one scene with Spartacus, and even his motivations come off as more thought-provoking than evil, despite the fact that he crucifies 6,000 slaves and oversees the slaughter of thousands of others. Olivier is one of those rare actors who always seems to be thinking, even when he isn’t speaking in a scene, and the film’s writer, Dalton Trumbo, gives him some of the best dialogue in the movie.

Crassus’ villainy is oddly approached in the film. He’s the villain because the movie seems to insist that he has to be the villain, and some of his actions in the second and third act seem out of character with the intriguing, multi-dimensional person that had been set up before. It’s difficult, because the real thing Spartacus and his army fights for here isn’t a person…it’s an idea: Slavery. All the Romans in the film keep slaves, and in theory are all just as evil as the next character. Of course they were never going to “beat” slavery or end the idea, so it needed a face, and that was where Olivier came in.

Alas, in comparison to these fascinating, great villains, Spartacus comes off as horribly two-dimensional. He wants freedom…he wants freedom now! Oh, and he loves his woman. You don’t get much more than that, but Douglas does well with what he’s given, and manages to give quite a good performance despite little dialogue of any depth or interesting characteristics.

Of course, since this is a “spectacle” film the costumes are, unsurprisingly, atrocious and I highly doubt Roman women had the hairspray and conditioner to create such perfectly sculpted over-the-top hairstyles that they have here. Poor Simmons tries to act through horribly overdone make-up and over-touched hair, which almost always manages to be present even though she’s merely a slave. Then again, what else are we to expect?

Of course, there are things to treasure about movies of this type as well. Alex North’s brilliant score is both intimate and suitably epic when it needs to be, and its melodies linger long after the film ends. And there’s something so special about looking at those wide, beautifully shot scenes and sequences where you know you are actually looking at hundreds of soldiers slowly marching toward you. Needless to say, the bloody battle scenes do not disappoint, and the aftermath, where soldiers wander through what appears to be thousands of dead bodies, is rightly unsettling.

The writing is good, though shockingly unbalanced at times. It’s hard to believe the same writer crafted the carefully worded monologues about belief and the sloppy, horrible lines of exposition like “It’s Spartacus again? This time he dies!” And I have to wonder who allowed that atrocious voice-over at the beginning of the film that explains nothing that we need to know.

“Spartacus” doesn’t feel like a Kubrick film, though it has all the technical mastery one would expect from his work. The whole is much too emotional, and there’s too much heart here for it to be real Kubrick. I don’t mean this as a negative, I only mean to say that if I did not already know that he was involved going in, I would not have been able to tell you who was the director when walking out.

I have such mixed feelings about the false hope manufactured by the ending. Yes, the filmmakers should be given a lot of credit for ending the movie without your typical happy ending, and watching Spartacus slaughter his best friend (Tony Curtis) and then be crucified is a pretty ballsy move. And I did feel like having Laughton’s character freeing Simmons and the baby was a beautiful, touching beat…but then she found Spartacus up on that cross. Simmons holds up her baby and declares the child “free.” Well, yes, but so what? How is that supposed to make up feel better? The only reason she and the baby are free is because of Laughton. Every other person who was part of the rebellion is dead. Every. Other. Person. And slavery is still there, and would be there for another two-thousand years. Having the filmmakers try to make it feel like a positive when it really isn’t feels convoluted and doesn’t ring true.

“Spartacus” is a mixed bag, distinguished and great in some respects but tired and overblown in others. It’s the best “spectacle” film to come out of Hollywood in that time period, but is that really saying all that much? I’ll remember it more for the four brilliant performances at the center than anything else about it, but that alone is more than enough to make it worthwhile viewing.

My Score (out of 5): ***

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Network


Year: 1976
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 64
Writer: Paddy Chayefsky
Director: Sidney Lumet
Star: Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, William Holden

“Network” has managed to be one of the only films to pull of the seemingly impossible task of “de-aging” since its release in 1976. It certainly must have seemed like outlandish satire in its first year of release, but today the movie seems like a pointed, subversive send-up of currently broadcasting channels like Fox News, E! and many others. How many other films can claim that they are more topical today then when they were released? I’d argue for “In Cold Blood,” “All About Eve” and the original version of “The Manchurian Candidate,” but very few, if any, others.

Well-respected-but-aging UBS national news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) was recently fired and appears to have reacted to the news by having something like a nervous breakdown. How can we tell? The next day he announces on air that he will be committing suicide on his final episode. He’s pulled immediately, but the next day convinces network executive Max (William Holden) to let him say a goodbye on air. Instead, he launches into either another insane tirade or perhaps his only lucid moment in the film when he laments that he just got sick and tired of life’s “bullshit.” Ratings skyrocket and executives over Max’s head decide to keep Beale on the air, just to see what happens next and if the 18-49 year old audience sticks around.

We are introduced to more studio executives, all soulless and conniving to one degree or another. Robert Duvall plays the none-too-subtly named Frank Hackett, who is obsessed with making the fiscally irresponsible news segment profitable, whatever the means. Faye Dunaway is most memorable as Diana Christensen, who provides Hackett with those means, which involve giving Beale his own spin-off series and greenlighting a series about a terrorist sect called the Ecumenical Liberation Army. Diana gets Hackett to fire Max, and Max is so shaken up that he immediately falls into bed with her, despite the pesky fact that he is married.

At some point we realize that all of the characters in the film are also having their own nervous breakdowns, but no one questions them because they have big offices, expensive suits and control the bottom line.

The first hour of the film doesn’t seem to last more than a minute or two because it is so witty, fast-paced and subversively funny. Beale’s threat of suicide seems to be inspired by the mostly-forgotten-except-among-newspeople (of which I’m one) on-air suicide of news anchor Christine Chubbuck. The Ecumenical Liberation Army is a spoof of the group that kidnapped Patty Hearst and at one point “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour” is greenlit. Of course these news stories have faded from most of the public’s memory, but the inspiration remains the same. We laugh, but the subject matter really not that funny, is it? Writer Paddy Chayefsky wants to get us as angry as we are entertained.

The high point of the film comes when Beale wanders on his stage during a live broadcast wearing a raincoat and pajamas and declares that “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” The camera follows him as he continues to rage and encourages his audience to scream the same thing. All across the country we see windows flung open as people scream the same phrase into the streets. It’s the pure, undiluted anger of a country allowed only to create a wider profit margin for UBS.

After this, the film begins to stumble a bit, awkwardly trying to instill emotions and feeling into a story that loathes such a sentiment. Beale disappears from camera for long periods of time, and he is missed. Chayefsky seems to be surrendering to the necessity to have human feeling in his film but, even then, mocks it and make it seem languid. Take the scene where Max and Diana take a romantic holiday weekend together. Director Sidney Lumet shoots it in soft focus, giving us all the clich├ęs we expect from such scenes, but Chayefsky inserts dry, television-related dialogue from Diana throughout. The result is an odd, unbalanced second and third act that has several astonishingly powerful, funny moments but other uncomfortable missteps.

Perhaps some of this comes from the miscasting of Holden. Holden is a very good actor, but this was over twenty years since he was so startlingly dark in “Sunset Blvd.”, and his persona had softened considerably. We want to like him, and we don’t buy him so dismissively leaving his wife and jumping into Diana’s bed. The persona he creates here can’t sell fourth-wall-breaking lines like, “And it's a happy ending: Wayward husband comes to his senses, returns to his wife, with whom he has established a long and sustaining love. Heartless young woman left alone in her arctic desolation. Music up with a swell; final commercial. And here are a few scenes from next week's show,” no matter how great they read in the script. Perhaps someone like Kirk Douglas or Tony Curtis would have been a better choice.

Whatever the cause for the lack of balance in the film’s second half, it’s hard to argue that Chayefsky’s screenplay is anything but amazing. When Diana is introduced to one of the terrorist sect’s representatives, the following exchange takes place:

-“I’m Diana Christensen, a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.”
-“I’m Lauren Hobbs, a badass commie nigger.”
-“Sounds like the basis of a firm friendship.”

There are so many small moments like that where Chayefsky gets it precisely right, and others, like when Hobbs is very vocal about her contract negotiations, where he purposely goes so over the top you are bursting with laughter. He’s the kind of once-in-a-generation writers, like Aaron Sorkin (who paid homage to Chayefsky’s “Mad as hell” speech in the fantastic pilot of his “Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip” series), who can successfully make the intricacies of politics not only digestible to a mass audience, but make them hugely enjoyable as well. Instead of getting a screenplay credit, he instead gets an “author” credit in the main titles: “Network By Paddy Chayefsky,” and that sounds about right.

This isn’t to say that we should not give Lumet the credit he deserves for keeping the ship upright and getting it successfully through the changes in tone. He also gets Dunaway to give the performance of her career here, and his casting for the smaller roles is flawless.

Despite how funny the film is, the truths beneath the humor ring almost frighteningly true today. I’m fairly Glenn Beck shouldn’t be worried about being executed on air during one of his tirades if his ratings go down…but then again, Beck actually managed to get a “hit” television show to spew his ramblings…so who knows?

My Score (out of 5): ****