Pick of the Week:
Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Criterion)
On August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb named “Little Boy” on Hiroshima and a planet already gripped by one nightmare found itself plunged into another. The bomb helped hasten the end of World War II, but it also announced to the world that humanity had found a way to destroy itself, that it could do so with relative ease, and that, hey, it might even happen by accident or as the result of a few heated words.
With that revelation, a kind of madness crept into the world, a sense that we might all be living on borrowed time no matter what we did. It crept into the movies, too, inspiring the outsized monsters of Godzilla, the mysterious glowing suitcase at the heart of Kiss Me Deadly, and informing the tone of the times. The English title of Akira Kurosawa’s 1955 nuclear paranoia drama sums up the spirit of the era: I Live in Fear.
Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s satiric distillation of atomic age madness, began as a more straightforward thriller based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George. Kubrick had other plans, and the addition of key personnel, like co-writer Terry Southern and the chameleonic Peter Sellers, assured the resulting film would be anything but straightforward. But for all the lunacy on display in Dr. Strangelove, it’s Kubrick’s trademark distance and the awful believability of the plot, in which armageddon becomes inevitable thanks to one man’s madness and a system without enough checks to stop it, that makes it so effective.
There was a time when Dr. Strangelove seemed like it would become an historical artifact. That time is not now. The end of the Cold War saw the end of the particular tensions that informed the film, but it’s not like the potential for self-annihilation has disappeared. Or, for that matter, that mad men have gotten further away from being able to push the button. Look at North Korea. Look at the election ahead of us, that threatens to put a subscriber to conspiracy theories no less insane than Jack D. Ripper’s fluoridation worries in the White House. In 2016 the film looks as sharp as ever, and even more relevant than it was just a year ago.
This new Criterion edition also offers a restored print and a neat collection of extras, mixing new short docs about the film with vintage interviews, including an audio interview with Kubrick from 1966.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Paramount)
At times, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot seems to aspire to the black comedy of, if not Dr. Strangelove, then Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. But that’s just one of many tones of a film that can never quite decide if it’s the story of one woman’s self-discovery or a black comedy about the war in Afghanistan. Still, the movie has enough to recommend it to make it worth a look, including a fine performance from Tina Fey as a reporter who quickly realizes she’s in over her head.
Rams (Cohen Media)
The story of two sheep-farming brothers with a decades-old rivalry doesn’t sound all that gripping, but this Icelandic film works both as a dry comedy and a moving observation of how family ties fray but never really break.
Kung Fu Panda 3 (Dreamworks)
Or, for a different sort of animal tale, Dreamworks’ latest, well-received entry in the Kung Fu Panda series is also out this week.
Clouds of Sils Maria (Criterion)
There was some head-scratching earlier this year when Kristen Stewart won acclaim for her role in Olivier Assayas’ forthcoming film Personal Shopper. Here’s the thing: Anyone who saw Stewart’s performance in the earlier Assayas film would know a) she’s skilled in ways her work in the Twilight movies never suggested and b) she works well with the director. This 2014 film casts her as the beleaguered assistant to a famous actress played by Juliette Binoche. As Binoche prepares to revisit an early triumph, the two play out an intense psychodrama in the middle of a witty, unsettling film that finds both leads in top form.