Review: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

**

If there is one subject that Stanley Kubrick’s work was never afraid to deal with, it’s sex. Whether it was Humphrey’s forbidden lust in Lolita or the violent rape in A Clockwork Orange, sexuality is a subject Kubrick confronted and in which he proved himself well versed. It’s such a pity then that what would turn out to be his final film, and one which dealt so specifically with sex, is so cold, cerebral and boring, exactly the opposite of what sex should be. Arguably, that was Kubrick’s point, but when you have the most famous and attractive celebrity couple of that time in your film, is a little sexual tension too much to ask?

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman separated not long after spending a year shooting with Kubrick and, watching the early scenes in Eyes Wide Shut, it’s not really surprising. In the roles of Dr. Bill and Alice Harford, a well-to-do pair of Manhattan socialites, Cruise and Kidman are put through the emotional wringer. They attend a classy Christmas party being hosted by their friend Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). Amongst the dancing and champagne, they are both flirted with by members of the opposite sex. Once they get home, whilst undressing for bed, they have a marijuana-fuelled and frank conversation about their own sexual desires. In this one voyeuristic scene we get to the core of the film’s point: marriage, for all its pleasures, can be a hindrance to our true desires. Fidelity can both crush and be a crutch. So, after some great scenes and our lesson learned, can we go home now? Tragically, there’s another two hours to go. In these two hours, Bill goes on a psychosexual odyssey encompassing prostitutes, gay slurs, an unnecessary murder-mystery plotline and a now-infamous orgy scene that veers between funereal boredom and unintentional hilarity. Eyes Wide Shut may be trying to make an argument about the coldness of modern sexual mores, but Kubrick’s eye is far too distant and clinical for material that requires more emotional investment. Adapating Arthur Schnitzler’s novel ‘Traumnovelle’, Kubrick and co-writer Frederic Raphael emphasize the cerebral in the sexual, foregetting/foregoing the emotional. There is a certain queasy unease throughout Eyes Wide Shut on a par with a bad bout of indigestion, reflecting the heaving gasbag of sexual knowledge the film purports to be. Any explanations of the the scenes involving the costume-seller (Rade Serbedziga), his daughter (Leelee Sobieski) and those Japanese businessmen are welcome.

Kidman is a wonderfully heady tease, though Cruise has the bigger job here. He does fine, though his performance here lacks the gumption of his (ironically) unrepressed sex guru in Magnolia. Since these two are the definite focus of the film, it means reducing fine actors like Todd Field and Sydney Pollack to explanatory cyphers (a final conversation between Cruise and Pollack’s characters is unforgivably protracted). Since he produced, co-wrote and directed it, most of the blame must rest with the late lamented Kubrick. It’s painful to say, but his last film was a bad one. He attempted to make a probing dissertation on the gap between eroticism and fidelity, and ended up with a damp squib. It should get the blood pumping, but Eyes Wide Shut is flaccid. Like many of the perky breasts on display in the film, it looks great, but seems artificial once you try to get a feel of it.

Review: Summer of Sam (1999)

Director: Spike Lee

**

The first scene of Summer of Sam shows the first two victims of David Berkowitz, the ‘Son of Sam’ (Michael Badalucco), sitting in a car preparing to go out to have fun in the balmy night in Pelham Bay. Before they or the audience know it, their blood is spattered all over the steering wheel and windscreen after several shots from Berkowitz’s .44 magnum. Spike Lee has made a serial killer movie, and it shows in every frame.

Truth be told, the serial killer aspect is only half the story. N.Y. 1977: Vinny (John Leguizamo) works as a coiffeur, is a demon on the dance floor and cheats on his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino). Not that his infidelity concerns him, though. Vinny is a repugnant little puke, and here we find the first problem with SOS. Our lead character is unlikeable, and our sympathies are such that we wouldn’t be too vexed if ‘Sam’ actually did kill him, as his drug-fuelled fears tell him could happen. Of more interest is Vinny’s friend Richie (Adrien Brody), a local boy just returned from London with spikes in his hair and punk in his blood. He and his girlfirend Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) are rockers, out of place amongst the Bronx youth who still grease their hair and dance to ABBA. Richie’s behaviour is enough to convince Vinny that Richie is the Son of Sam. Also convinced are local mafiosi, led by Ben Gazzara’s Luigi, who seek to return order to their panicked roost. Meanwhile, the summer is abnormally hot, power cuts are occurring and the rumors about Richie are spreading. Brody’s performance is at the centre of all this chaos, and he makes for a very sympathetic rocker. We know he’s not the killer; he just wants to enjoy his music. He’s made all the more likeable by the stupidity of the mob  and Vinny’s continued infidelity and general douchebaggery.

Lee is often noted for his lack of subtlety, and his style of filming makes him particularly unsuited to a film chronicling the events surrounding real murders (Fincher got it right with Zodiac seven years later). The ‘70s setting allows him to borrow (steal?) from Scorsese and PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights; the look is great, but it’s been done before (a tracking shot into a disco is none more Goodfellas). Meanwhile, the murders and other scenes involving Berkowitz are as gentle as a brick to the face. Few of the victims are referenced by name, and a scene where Berkowitz is addressed by a neighbour’s dog (voiced by John Tuturro) is so utterly bizarre that it flirts with parody. It may be based on Berkowitz’s own testimony, but it’s still goofy as hell. Lee’s reverence for certain events allows his stylistic eye plenty of opportunities, but robs the events of much pathos. Furthermore, Lee’s script (written with Victor Collichio and Michael Imperioli) delves too much into some characters’ lives (Vinny and Dionna’s attempts to get into Studio 54, and the sex-party aftermath) whilst other characters barely get a look in (Anthony LaPaglia’s detective hints at a backstory, but is never fleshed out).

There’s a certain amount of entertainment value to Summer of Sam; the colourful look and Brody’s performance couldn’t but engage. However, the human element is sacrificed for gloss and shock. There’s plenty of blood, but not much of a heart to pump it.