Monday, April 25, 2005

Kubrick's Lolita and The Heroic Trio

As I mentioned on here before, my birthday is shaping up to be pretty ridiculous. I've had the release of Episode III at midnight for a while, then over break I found out the Doves were doing a show in New York on May 19, so between those two things, it seemed there was no room for things to get even better. But wait, I got an e-mail telling me that Aimee Mann was doing an in store performance and signing of her new album on May 19, at 6:30, so I can fit it in before the Doves concert, and I'll be in the city anyway, so it'll be free. So, not only am I getting a new Star Wars movie, I'm also seeing two of my favorite musicians back to back, all on my birthday. It's going to be such a crazy day, really the way to start my 20s.

Besides that, I saw a couple of interesting films recently. Over the weekend, I watched Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film, Lolita. Now, Kubrick is indisputably one of the masters of cinema, and 2001 is one of my top ten films of all time, and now that I've seen Lolita, I've seen all except three of his films. However, while Kubrick has made some absolutely genius films, I would draw a clear line between his pre 1964 output and his post 1964 output. The films he makes post 1964, starting with Dr. Strangelove are all visually dazzling, really challenging films. 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, all these are great films. However, his earlier films seem to be very much the products of the Hollywood studio era, whose strict regulations compromise his vision.

Lolita has the potential to be a great film, but the film that Kubrick makes, while entertaining, is ultimately a failure, largely because restrictions on content prevented him from telling the story. Obviously, even today, Lolita walks in territory that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and I can understand why people would be very wary about how to depict things in this film, but what ultimately happens is Kubrick is able to show so little that the film loses its emotional impact.

The film is about a middle aged guy who falls in love with the teenage daughter of his landlady, and the story goes on to explore the effect that relationship has on him. Considering the primary relationship in the film is between Humbert and Lolita, this is the whole reason the film exists, it's very unfortunate that the content restrictions means we don't ever really see what their relationship entails. The first chunk of the film is pretty solid, as we see Humbert caught in a love triangle with Lolita and her mother.

However, once he and Lolita go out on the road, things get really muddled. Picking up on some clues, you come to realize that he and Lolita have a sexual relationship, but you never get a moment in the film where he makes the choice to actually be with her in that way. How he could do this would seem to be the most interesting question coming out of this material, but the film just skips over that and we have to infer what's going on between them. I have no problem with not telling everything, but playing detective takes you out of the story, and I was too busy trying to figure out exactly what was going on to be emotionally affected by anything. You can't understand Humbert after a certain point in the story, and while the film never is boring, it's not emotionally engaging either.

Peter Sellers' performance is emblematic of this. He's great, and the scene where he is introduced dancing at the school is so 60s, great stuff. But then, as the film goes on, there are lengthy segments that seem to be improvised that are more about Sellers' performance than adding to the story. He is funny, but doesn't add anything to the main story.

Ultimately, this film is a victim of its time. Maybe in the 70s or 80s Kubrick could have made a great film of Lolita, one that really examined the relationship between Lolita and Humbert, but this one can't show anything, so we don't understand the characters, and as a result, it's not a successful film. And it's not just the content restrictions that feel outdated, this film feels very studio era, like it could have been made in the 40s or 50s. If you want to learn about how much movies changed with the end of the studio era compare this film to A Clockwork Orange, made a mere nine years later. There's a big difference.

Then today in action film class, I watched a very different film than Lolita called The Heroic Trio. It's a 90s Hong Kong action film that I wouldn't call a great film, but was incredibly entertaining. It's a really bizarre and over the top sort of superhero film about an evil guy who's kidnapping babies, and the trio of ladies who have to team up to destroy him.

The most notable thing about this film for me was Maggie Cheung. She's one of my favorite actresses, and arguably the best actress in the world today. Her work in 'In the Mood For Love' is astonishing in how little it takes for her to convey huge emotions, and in ten minutes of 'Ashes of Time,' she steals the movie. Other than Wong Kar-Wai, she was also great in 'Irma Vep,' playing a fictionalized version of herself. In that film, we see clips from the film that inspired the director to cast Maggie, and as I soon found out, those clips were from The Heroic Trio.

Her role as Chat the Thief Catcher in The Heroic Trio is very different from everything else I've seen Maggie Cheung in. Other than Irma Vep, I'd only seen her in more serious films, and my image of her is from the suffocating world of In the Mood for Love. So, I was surprised to see how funny she was in this film. She provides the comic relief, and is at such high energy throughout the film you almost feel bad that she has to hold back so much in her recent films. She just looks like she's enjoying making the movie so much, and that sense of fun is contagious.

The film is really bizarre. The main villain is really bizarre looking, and his underworld dungeon is a nasty environment. The changes in tone are quite drastic. One minute Maggie Cheung's motorcycle is spinning across a room, the next imprisoned children are eating the flesh off a dead man. But, throughout it, there's this sense of pop irreverence, that they're all having fun, making this wacky film. There's a lot of interesting angles and off kilter stuff throughout the film. My favorite shot is Chat riding her motorcycle in front of the two other trio members on horses.

It's not a film you watch expecting it to make sense, it's a film you watch for some bizarre, over the top fun.

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