Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962). Vladimir Nabokov’s novel was less than ten years old when Stanley Kubrick took a swing at it, so he was working with a best-selling sensation instead of a revered part of the canon. That–combined with the significant detail that he was Stanley Kubrick and he plainly did want he wanted–gives the director great latitude in his adaptation. Nabokov himself is the credited screenwriter, but much of that material was jettisoned by Kubrick on the way to making his own distinct, darkly comic work. James Mason is marvelous as Professor Humbert Humbert, the man who becomes smitten and then obsessed with the young daughter of the woman he rents from in a small New Hampshire town. He gets at the character’s fraying psyche with impeccable precision, but is perhaps even more skilled in the earlier scenes as he repeatedly meets American brashness with a British reserve and politeness that always makes him seem just a touch off-kilter. Peter Sellers is equally good as Clare Quilty, a self-satisfied writer with a knack for slipping into different characters that allows the actor to showcase the wild invention of his craft. Kubrick is masterful in his construction, sometimes telling entire stories simply in the way he frames his shots.
The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements and John Musker, 2009). This was intended to be the film that announced the revival of Disney’s traditional animation division, and at least some prominent critics agreed it was just that. The film got a lot of attention for featuring Disney’s first African-American princess, but she spends enough time transformed into a frog that it may be just as accurate to call the character the studio’s first amphibious princess. Set in the New Orleans of the Jazz Age, the film has its charms, but it’s also a little stodgy and surprisingly drab, as if the filmmakers are forced into safe mode by the burden of reclaiming legacy. It does have a grand villain in the spindly, dapper voodoo practitioner. He’s voiced by Keith David, whose rumbling thunder tones are a major reason the character is an effective menace.
3 Women (Robert Altman, 1977). Sissy Spacek plays an odd, shy young woman who goes to work at a convalescent home where she immediately becomes intrigued by a jabbering, confident coworker played by Shelley Duvall. They soon become roommates, and the the third woman is the wild-looking, haunted pregnant wife of their landlord, who’s also the proprietor of a nearby bar. The film is about dissatisfaction with self and the constant personal reinvention it inspires. People take on different personae, either subtly as with the way Duvall’s character talks about a closeness with her neighbors that doesn’t exist, or overtly as is the case when part of the recovery of Spacek’s character from an accident apparently involves adopting her roommate’s identity. The dream logic of the film is flavored by Altman’s trademark deadpan cynicism and embrace of the murmured messiness of life. It lacks the offhand profundity of his best work, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.
Freakonomics (Seth Gordon, Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2010). The surprising and controversial bestseller that employed economic theories to explain social phenomena is turned over to a disparate band of documentary filmmakers for a sort of omnibus effort that plays around with several different concepts introduced in the book. The result winds up illuminating the flaws of the respective directors. Spurlock’s entry is too glib and gimmicky, Gibney’s shows how deathly dull his approach can become when not undergirded by moral outrage, and Jarecki’s drowns in a torrent of overly busy visuals. Ewing and Grady fare best in part because they have an actual story to tell rather than just a theory to explicate in their segment about paying students to get better grades. They’re also blessed with a wonderful character, a motormouth young man whose poor performance in school masks a clear intelligence and personality to burn. In some ways, the film is arguably strongest in the bumpers directed by Seth Gordon that involve little more than original Freakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Steven Dubner talking about their work. The lack of flash lets the ideas take the forefront.
The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir, 1982). One of the spate of dramas in the eighties that examined some flashpoint of international turmoil through the eyes of harried journalists, Weir’s film puts an Australian reporter in Indonesia at the time of President Sukarno’s overthrow. The film is serious and stolid, effective in its dogged commitment to the story, but lacking some drive. Linda Hunt won an Academy Award for her portrayal of male character Billy Kwan. Oscar voters may have been enamored with the trick shot nature of the performance, but it’s greatly affecting work by any criteria as Hunt plays out the conflicting nature of a man as a reflection of an upended society.