MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Spartacus; Backdraft; Spring Breakers

SPARTACUS  (DVD) (Four Stars)
U.S.; Stanley Kubrick & Anthony Mann (uncredited), 1960 (Universal)

Spartacus—star-producer Kirk Douglas’ mammoth adaptation of Howard Fast’s novel of the Roman slave rebellion, with Douglas at his fieriest and most heroic as gladiator turned rebel-leader Spartacus—was one of two great, controversial leftist movie epics scripted in 1960 by long-time blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. The other was Otto Preminger’s excellent film of Leon Uris’ birth-of-Israel saga, Exodus.

Spartacus is the one probably most remembered today though, for its sweep, its spectacle, its passionate Alex North score, its stunning Russell Metty cinematography, for Trumbo’s deliciously partisan portrayal of the battle between the heroic slaves and their degenerate aristocratic Roman masters (obviously partly an analogue for Hollywood‘s blacklisted leftists and the studio establishment) and for the all star cast backing up Douglas—including Laurence Olivier as Spartacus’ foe, the ruthless bisexual General Crassus, Charles Laughton as wily old Gracchus, Tony Curtis as Spartacus‘ devoted lieutenant Antonius, Jean Simmons as his slave-wife Varinia, John Gavin as young Julius Caesar, Woody Strode as Draba, the black gladiator whose death triggers the revolt, and Oscar-winner (for this part) Peter Ustinov as Lentulus Baiatus, the smarmy, wheedling, ass-kissing head of the gladiator school.

And then, of course, there’s the director, the young Stanley Kubrick, who had already worked with Douglas in the 1957 anti-war World War I classic, Paths of Glory, and who replaced the original director Anthony Mann when Mann and executive producer Douglas butted heads.  (Before he left, Western expert Mann shot much of Spartacus’ memorable gladiator school sequence.)

Dismissed by some critics as director Kubrick’s least personal project, Spartacus has  in fact become one of Kubrick‘s best loved movies: a progressive historical-war saga par excellence, and the grandest of all Hollywood homoerotic sword-and-sandals epics—made even more homoerotic by the addition in recent years of the initially deleted Olivier-Curtis hot bath sequence. It’s also a movie that fits in solidly with Kubrick‘s anti-establishment Hollywood filmography, and his frequent portrayals of perverse establishments and of doom-ridden protagonists battling destiny as they try to escape fate’s inescapable traps.

2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon may be more typically Kubrickian epics, but neither one has a moment that emotionally charges you up like the famous scene here where the vanquished slave army general Spartacus is asked by his Roman captors to reveal himself, and he’s beaten to the punch by his soldiers, who rise to their feet, one by one, then more and more,  and defiantly yell: “I am Spartacus.” “I am Spartacus!” “I am Spartacus!” It’s a moment of anti-informant revolutionary  passion that HUAC target and old leftie Trumbo had to cherish.

Spartacus was certainly the high point of Kirk Douglas’s movie career, if not Kubrick’s. But many (including Douglas himself) would argue that its was the actor’s  next collaboration with screenwriter Trumbo, that resulted in the best performance of  his entire filmography—as the untamable fugitive cowboy in director David Miller‘s memorable black-and white western Lonely are the Brave (1962). However you feel about either film, Spartacus, controversial in its day, has earned a place in Hollywood cinematic and political history—as a yell of defiance from the Hollywood left and a supreme collaboration between Stanley Kubrick the director (“I am Spartacus!”), Dalton Trumbo the writer (“I am Spartacus!”), and Kirk Douglas, the actor-producer-gladiator (“I am Spartacus!”)

The rest of the movie’s stellar cast includes Nina Foch, Herbert Lom, John Ireland, John Dall, Charles McGraw and Harold J. Stone. Mann was uncredited for his directorial contributions, and two uncredited writers on Spartacus were actor Ustinov and Paths of Glory’s Calder Willingham.

This new release of “Spartacus” is a budget edition, with the deleted Olivier-Curtis scenes restored. But  most aficionados will still prefer the two-disc Criterion edition, which has commentary by Douglas, Ustinov,original novelist Howard Fast and others; as well as a Dalton Trumbo scene-by-scene analysis; documentaries and interviews (Ustinov and Simmons)—or the 50th anniversary Universal package.

BACKDRAFT (DVD) (Three Stars)
U. S.; Ron Howard, 1991 ( Universal )


A well-made mix of action melodrama and family drama, set in Chicago and the combustible world of big-city professional firefighting, Backdraft is smoothly and empathetically directed  by Ron Howard. The movie also has truly spectacular fires, a fine cast and a nicely familiar plot involving feuding brother firefighters (Kurt Russell and William Baldwin). They  keep this Chicago fire blazing. With Robert De Niro, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Donald Sutherland. Rebecca De Mornay and the much-missed J. T. Walsh.

SPRING BREAKERS (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Harmony Korine, 2013 (Lionsgate)iPhone_12-03-15_IMG_1651.JPG




Who needs school?  Who needs work?

Harmony Korine’s movies—up to and including his latest, Spring Breakers—are mostly outlaw pictures and weirdo comedies about people who don’t want to grow up: kids, crooks, artists. Spring Breakers is about four college girls who take off for the collegiate bikini-flipping revels at Tampa, Florida, and descend into Hell. It may be the culmination of all the Korines: a picture that starts off like an arty “Girls Gone Wild” video, inflated to Hieronymus Boschian or Pieter Brughelian Beach Party proportions, and ends up doing a riff on the Al Pacino-Brian De Palma 1983 Scarface, mashed up into Charlie‘s Angels gone homicidal.

It’s a sometimes fascinatingly dumb movie, about fascinatingly dumb people doing fascinatingly dumb things. Some  of it is fun to watch, and some of it is irritating as Hell. The story makes no sense, and gets more senseless the more you think about it. But at the same time, the movie—part of which was shot cinema vérité-style during spring break in Florida—has some authentic peeks at youth semi-life and style. It’s shot (and in one case, acted) like an art film or a neo-noir, and it looks good, even if  its psychological substance is almost nil. But then, who needs reality?

Some of it is great—namely the shimmering, sunstruck, stunning cinematography by Belgian-French maestro Benoît Debie (who photographed Irreversible and Enter the Void for Gaspar Noé), and (especially) the amazingly entertaining gangsta-pranksta performance by James Franco as the brain-fried hip-hop-druggie Britney Spears fan Alien. Franco‘s portrayal of Alien, a guy who calls his bed an art piece and plays piano and assault rifles, is so good and such a triumph of  charismatic dopiness and rebel posturing—that it singlehandedly hauls the movie up a star or two. But who needs stars? Who needs critics?

The movies’ femme leads are an odd assortment of Disney Channel or family-oriented  teen queen junior superstars: Selena Gomez (as Faith), Vanessa Hudgens (as Candy) and Ashley Benson (as Brit)—plus, as Cotty, Rachel Korine (who is Mrs. Harmony). They all tend to look almost interchangeable, and three tend to act interchangeable too. Brit, Candy and Cotty are outlaws behaving as if they‘re “in a video game… or a movie.” Candy, Brit and Cotty pull a Bonnie and Clyde at a fast food chicken eatery, while Faith is a good Christian who hangs around with the others because they’ve known each other like, forever—or at lest since grade school. Maybe they should be cramming for exams instead of pulling stick-up jobs and snorting cocaine in Tampa. But who needs exams?

When the gals hit Tampa—just like Dolores Hart, Yvette Mimieux, Paula Prentiss and Connie Francis hit Ft. Lauderdale in 1960’s Where the Boys Are—they immediately fall into what seems to be a nonstop, bouncing day-and-night orgy, which gets them arrested and puts them in the eager hands of Alien, who pays their bail, and invites them over to his big expensive crib with all his big expensive toys. (“Look at all my shit!“)  Alien is also involved in a street war with an old dealing friend (Gucci Mane), and pretty soon, the movie goes bloody and haywire and murderously illogical. But who needs logic?

A lot of Spring Breakers is shot and shaped like old-style softcore porn show. It’s blended with a teen-slanted ‘83 Scarface pastiche. But, as long as Franco is on screen, it’s a good movie, and there’s also something crazily compelling about the scenes of the huge outdoor dance-a-thon. The ending is beyond ridiculous, and not funny enough to save things. And the four femme stars could have used better parts and better lines, but what the hell. The movie‘s credibility vanishes after the restaurant robbery scene anyway. But as the man says, who needs credibility? Who needs Bonnie and Clyde?  Who needs… Just pretend… Ah, what the hell…

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One Response to “Wilmington on DVDs: Spartacus; Backdraft; Spring Breakers”

  1. joshua says:

    Who needs to have a memorable role in a terrible film?


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon