Film Review – 2001: A Space Odyssey 50th Anniversary IMAX

I recently had the good fortune to stumble upon a screening of the 50th anniversary Imax edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of my top ten favourite films, and I am very glad I caught before it left theaters. What was mostly luck of circumstance turned out to be one of the best cinema experiences I’ve ever had.

First of all, the restoration was amazing – the movie looked freshly made. That and the mastery of Kubrick’s eye makes the movie feel very modern and accessible. There are very few details that date the film, which is more than one can say of most science-fiction movies. Speaking of details, the massive Imax image was a revelation for someone who has only ever seen the movie on television screens. For example, I was stunned by the number of shots where I was able to see people moving around inside the windows of the spaceships – and this was produced in the 1960s! I really didn’t think that kind of special effect was even possible at that time.

The magisterial pace and the minimal dialogue of the film make for a story that relies heavily on imagery. I understand why many people find it inscrutable when they see it, as I was one of them, but with repeated exposure and learning other perspectives the movie came into full flower for me. Without characters explaining things for the benefit of the viewers, they are left to themselves to decode the pictures and I know there are many different interpretations of what it all means. For myself, I think it is the best story about encountering a superior alien intelligence ever put on film. I appreciate truly alien aliens, and in 2001 they seem to be a species that exists outside space and time as we understand it, appearing to us only in the form of an absolutist black monolith of perfect mathematical proportions. That is pretty far out, man.

Of course, the best parts of the movie are the space ballets set to Strauss’ The Blue Danube and the pure spectacle of the Stargate sequence, but on a screen this size with all-enveloping sound every part of the movie dazzles. The landscapes of the Dawn of Man sequence and the dizzying interiors of the spaceship Discovery are equally spell-binding and even lesser moments like conversations held my attention completely. The screening included a 20 minute intermission which I felt unnecessary (the movie is two and a half hours, not three, which is easily manageable in my opinion) and might have even disrupted my trance a little as I had a feeling the post-intermission part of the film felt a tad draggy. I still loved it, anyway.

Kubrick was the ultimate film maker, in my opinion. His movies are the ultimate in each genre he tackled: The Shining is the ultimate horror film, Full Metal Jacket is the ultimate war film, Dr. Strangelove is the ultimate political satire and 2001 is the ultimate science-fiction film. I already love this movie, so I’m obviously biased, and seeing it in crystal clarity on a giant screen while seated basically dead center in the auditorium was pretty electrifying and I know I sat there with big eyes and a smile for a lot of the movie.

Film Review – BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee’s latest film is based on the true story of a black police detective who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s. I thought it was exceptional, one of Lee’s best films, playing comedy against the ugly tragedy of racism to great effect. It suffers a bit from Lee’s characteristic overreach but on the whole it is very entertaining.

John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth, a real cop who worked in Colorado Springs to expose the KKK, infiltrating the group with the help of fellow detective Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver (one of my favourite actors). The supporting cast is very good, particularly Ryan Eggold and Jasper Paakkonen who are uncomfortably good at portraying the sociopathic Klansmen who were fooled by Stallworth into bringing him into the fold.

There is a subplot involving black student union protesters which seems to serve as a counter-point to the toxic racism on display in everything the Klan characters do or say which I felt worked, even if they sometimes were a bit broad in their depictions of each side. I thought the film did an excellent job of sending up the racists as essentially stupid silly man-children with their clubhouse meetings and ridiculous names and titles, but nevertheless dangerous, as any angry child with a gun would be. I thought the balance of making fun of their shit and yet acknowledging how deadly serious they are at the same time gave the film a terrific tension throughout which amplified the laughs as well as the danger. Adam Driver is just so damn likable, I was mortally afraid of him being exposed while undercover because I just hated the idea of seeing anything bad happen to him.

The movie does suffer from Spike Lee’s habit of overstating a point a number of times. I really liked how many points to the current state if the US were made, things like saying how Duke’s ultimate goal is to install a president sympathetic to the Klan, or his cry of “make America great!”, all of which land on the right side of being on-the-nose. How disappointing and unnecessary, then, to throw in footage from Charlottestown, including the shot of the car mowing down the counter-protesters, as an epilogue. I felt it ruined an otherwise excellent film that had thus far handled the allusions to modern America more or less subtly and it left a sour taste.

I definitely would recommend seeing this movie, in spite of my misgivings about the final coda. I loved the cast and felt the tension of lampooning the Klan gave rise to big laughs. I felt Lee’s usual preachiness was more moderate than usual, which let me enjoy the story and characters more. Funny, exciting, thought-provoking; I’d say it’s a good movie, in my opinion.

Retro-Review: Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

David Lean is a master of spectacle. This World War II-era film is a deserved classic of cinema with great characters in epic locales. It’s a treat to the eyes and ears and, even though it might be a little slow and old-fashioned, it’s still one of the all-time great films.

The story, based on a Pierre Boulle novel, is about the Japanese army using prisoners of war to build the Burma-Siam railway and the Allied efforts to sabotage it. It opens in the camp run by the stern disciplinarian Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) where a ragtag assortment of POWs (including William Holden as Shears) are laconically carrying out the orders to build a railway bridge across the River Kwai under hellish conditions. One day, a huge number of British army soldiers and officers led by quintessentially stiff-upper-lip Colonel Nicholson (the splendid Alec Guinness in Oscar-winning form) march into camp as the newest prisoners. After a clash of pride between Nicholson and Saito a strange, grudging respect forms and soon Nicholson, out of an excess of pride, has his officers and troops helping to build the bridge, but a better bridge built to British engineering standards. Meanwhile, Shears escapes and reaches safety but is soon recruited into a British mission to sabotage the bridge, based on his first-hand knowledge of the area.

The movie was a huge winner at the Oscars, winning seven of the eight categories in which it was nominated, including best picture, and it’s not hard to see why. The film is really spectacular with huge set pieces involving hundreds of extras in really exotic locations. Today these things could be done easily with CGI, but in 1957 everything you saw on screen had to photographed and that fact makes the images all the more astounding. Anchoring the story, however, are great performances by Hayakawa and Guinness as men of immense pride and pragmatism, who might have been friends in another time and place but are forced by circumstance to be adversaries. It’s a very interesting balance and Alec Guinness is truly magnetic as the perfect army officer whose optimistic belief in civilization, especially in its British form, is absolute. I loved him from start to finish.

The movie does have some drawbacks, in my opinion. For one, it is very long, clocking in at two hours and twenty minutes, and it is slow-paced, so you kind of feel every minute of the running time. As impressed as I was by the Guinness/Hayakawa plotline, I found the William Holden plotline somewhat less engaging. I like Holden, but he’s a bit of-his-time in his acting style, in my opinion. The film has a very old-fashioned feel in some of its performances and slightly stagey action, but it’s not an action movie so I can let it go. It also has the ring of unaware racism appropriate to its era in the way the British officers haughtily dismiss the engineering attempts of the Japanese, but it’s hard to be sure there isn’t some intentional ring of irony. I mean, Nicholson is almost over the top in his Britishness while still being charismatic and endearing. I think the filmmakers were sophisticated enough to be poking gentle fun at the attitude of people who were, after all, a generation before themselves while recognizing there is something to be said for uprightness and propriety.

I really liked Bridge on the River Kwai for a lot of reasons, Alec Guinness being far and away the first. I also thought it was absolutely beautiful to look at and the plot was interesting enough that I enjoyed the film’s leisurely pace. The suspense of setting up the charges to blow the bridge and the ensuing risk of discovery worked very well, in my opinion, and the explosion (spoiler alert!) is quite a feat of pyrotechnics for 1957 which stands as strong as most things done today. I thought the film had an interesting philosophy about pragmatism and pride which came out in the good writing and great performances. All-in-all, I think Bridge on the River Kwai is a great example of big-scale classic filmmaking and a lot of fun to watch.