Kubrick Zirconia?

I recently came into the possession of an Amazon voucher and immediately checked out the Bluray box sets and since I don’t have a time machine to transport me to later in the year for the eagerly anticipated James Bond box set and back again, I plumped for the Kubrick boxed set. I think it worked out at £3.50 a film, which seemed reasonable. I already have Full Metal Jacket, 2001 and The Shining on DVD, but that’s not stopped me before (thinks ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Star Wars’…)

Some of the films benefit from being on Bluray more than others. Most noticeably improved were A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Anyway I watched the set in no particular order (I have re-ordered by the date the films were made) and here’s what I thunk:

Lolita (1962)

There were some minor differences between Nabokov’s novel and his screenplay; most notable to my mind was the visibility of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). Sellers’ sinister/comedic performance as Humbert Humbert’s (James Mason) competitor for the titular Lolita’s (Sue Lyon) affections was unsurprisingly show-stealing. I would actually suggest that his performance in this film is one of his finest and better than his various performances in Dr Strangelove (the one film strangely missing from the Bluray boxset).

I thought Dr Strangelove was over-sold and I am not a huge Peter Seller’s fan so it left me a little disappointed – I saw it a couple of years ago and the only thing that sticks in my mind as a goodpoint was the clever use of music – something Tarantino has picked up. Back to Lolita – Sellers’ mention of ‘Spartacus’ during his face-off with Mason was a nice touch and I wonder if it was an ad-lib. Kubrick Stanley was brought in as director after main man Kirk Douglas had a big fall out with the original director.

The screenplay also fleshed out the character of Lolita’s mumsy (Shelley Winters) rather more than I remember in the book. Dolores ‘Lolita’ Haze on the otherhand seemed rather two dimensional and I preferred Dominique Swains version alongside Jeremy Irons as Humbert in the 1997 remake.

The film suffered from some heavy handed editing to appease censors and the Catholic church and so is rather tame in comparison to the novel which given that it was written in 1955 still contains some uncomfortable moments for the modern reader. Mason plays Humbert well and all in all I liked the film although it seemed to gloss over the ‘road trip’ section of the novel.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Is a frustrating adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s novel which at times is sleep-inducing with only the often times discordant and irritating soundtrack to keep you awake. Individual scenes are too slow (much like HAL’s rendition of Daisy Daisy) and I had to fight not to hit fast-forward given that I have seen this film quite a few times now (so either I am a masochist or it has it’s good points).

On the flip-side the visuals are mostly stunning and best I think when all we hear is the silence of space and the sound of the oxygen feeds when the ill-fated astronauts perform their EVA’s. However, don’t get me wrong, some of the use of music is great – take for example the waltz during the shuttle docking scene. This film was ground-breaking in how intertwined the audio and visuals were as well as the quality of the visual effects and design work. Where I feel it is weak is in its ability to tell the story.

This viewing was probably my sixth or seventh and I am still bemused as to how the audience is expected to know WTF is going on without having read the book (I enjoyed it a lot more than the film btw). The core of the film is a haunted house tale with a super-computer taking the place of the ghost and the spacecraft taking the place of the house. Booking-ending this is a story of an alien race monitoring humankind’s development from ape to space-faring moon-dwellers.

I would recommend this film as a ‘must-see’ with a couple of caveats: (1) read the book too and (2) have some strong coffee/drugs to hand.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

This controversial adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s bizarre novel was subjected to a self-imposed UK ban by Kubrick himself after press hysteria and condemnation following a series of ‘copy-cat’ incidents following its theatrical release.

Kubrick continues his use of classical music concentrating mainly on Beethoven, but it is used less reverentially than is the case for 2001 (a copy of the soundtrack appears in a scene in a vinyl shop in this film), for instance during one bit of the film, basically a sexual threesome, the music is speeded up with the action to produce a Benny Hill style scene. The invented street slang of the book (which makes for an interesting read) is also used in the film giving it a unique feel.

The film has influenced many a rock/pop band and film makers over the years and is my favourite of all his films. It suffers little from the pacing issues of his other films and has a good character arc, an interesting ‘message’ and is darkly funny at times like the evil twin of a monty python film. The comedic militaristic prison warden (Michael Bates – who bizarrely went on to play Ranji Ram in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum rather than the sergeant major) is perhaps a precursor to the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. Perhaps Leonard Rossitor wasn’t available for casting?

Alex Burgess (Malcolm McDowell) ‘your friend and humble narrator’ leads a violent street gang in a series of assaults, robberies and rapes in an alternate future Britain. He is caught and ends up being a Guinea pig for a government sponsored experimental cure for his ultraviolent tendencies. The character of Alex is well developed and well acted. The alternate future is well detailed and interesting, being far less sanitised than the future in 2001. Most of the art work on show seems to be pornographic in nature and the boobs are out in force once more.

The message of the film I think is about moral choice and is also a commentary on the role of the police/penal system/government in providing punishment or treatment for violent offenders. Like all good science fiction (just because there’s no space ships or aliens doesn’t mean it isn’t) it tackles contemporary concerns in an fantastical tale.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

I had never heard of this film before buying the box set and so I was intrigued to see it. I was not disappointed.

Based on Thackerey’s novel and filmed on location at variety of UK stately homes including Castle Howard and excellently narrated by Michael Hordern this is the story of the rise and fall of Irish chancer Barry (Ryan O’Neal). Talking of ‘rise and fall’ Leonard Rossitor (also cast in 2001) plays an English soldier with whom Barry has a duel. It is the outcome of this duel that spurs Barry to run away with the English army and he is shipped off to Europe to fight in the Seven Years War. He ends up in the Prussian army and finally returns to England with a well-to-do fellow Irishman called the Chevalier. He sets his heart on and subsequently marries a rich heiress which marks the height of his climb up the social ladder. The latter half of the film is concerned with his fall back down.

Barry is ultimately a tragic character, and although he begins the story as a vaguely lovable slightly misguided rogue by the end of the film I felt that he had got his just desserts. His only saving grace is the love he has for his son. The message of the story could be that you should not try too hard to be something you are not or that you should ‘quit while you are ahead’.

It is a shame that Kubrick’s screenplay (and possibly Thackerey’s novel – I don’t know I haven’t read it) spends little time in developing the no less tragic character of Lady Lyndon played by the lovely Marisa Berenson. The character is at one point described by the narrator as ‘vapourish’ and ‘distracted’ and she gets very few lines in the film. Some would say that this is typical of ‘Kubrick’s women’.

Many of the scenes would make beautiful still photos much like the oil paintings of the 18th century such is the quality of the costumes, lighting and set up. Kubrick demonstrates quite clearly that he has an excellent eye for photography as well as cinematography and it is no surprise that he started out as a photo journalist. It is also no surprise that this film won lots of awards. As period dramas go it is up there with the best.

The Shining (1980)

Based on the book by Stephen King it is a reasonable faithful adaptation only diverging noticeably at the end of the film. I am a massive King fan and this is my favourite film (yes, better than Shawshank and The Green Mile) mostly because of Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of troubled writer Jack Torrance. Jack is supposed to be writing but instead succumbs to the dark forces at work in the hotel which he is taking care of over the winter.   The ‘shining’ refers to his son Danny’s mind reading talent which also gives him visions of the evil in the hotel. More is made of the talent in the book and the connection to the head chef (played by Scatman Crothers the voice of Jazz in the original animated Transformers movie).

By the end of the film Jack would very much like to kill his wife and his chase through the maze at the end of the film after his son implies the same intended fate for Danny, although earlier Jack reassures him that he would never harm him – such is the power of the hotel. The labyrinthine theme permeates the script and is something that King returns to in his book ‘Rose Madder’ which i won’t recommend as I think it was one of his worst.

The percussive and abstract soundtrack helps build the tension and the sharply edited action ‘blips’ work well. Danny’s journey by tricycle along the hotel corridors is iconic as is the scene were Jack axes the crap out of the bathroom door. I also noted that hiding from the bad guy in a metal kitchen unit with a sliding door features and obviously influenced Spielberg in Jurassic Park (for bad guy substitute velociraptors).

The only disappointment I have with this film is with the female character who, although very well acted by Shelley Duvall, is rather pathetic throughout. Ripley she ain’t, although she does have a few swings at crazy ol’ Jack with a baseball bat and cuts him with a knife after his famous ‘here’s Johnny’ line to stop him getting the bathroom door open. Both Kubrick and King have been criticised in the past for their portrayal of women in there respective mediums. Having read pretty much all King’s work I would have to disagree with the critics – he has written a lot of good three dimensional female characters – as for Kubrick… well…

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

This film took a long time in the making and was released after three excellent Vietnam films – Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Platoon and in the same year as Good Morning Vietnam and Hamburger Hill.

The first 45min of the film is spent on recruit training camp and the drill sergeant’s (the splendid Lee Emery – who worked as a drill sergeant so knew the drill ‘scuse the pun) breaking down of Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio – the hilarious alien infested ‘feed me sugar’ man in Men in Black). This time is spent almost exclusively on developing two characters who don’t feature in the rest of the film with only a slight development of the main character Private Joker (Matthew Modine) and makes for a disjointed viewing experience.    During the training section the trainees seem to spend an inordinate amount of time singing and while I appreciate the importance Kubrick places on music in his films it sometimes felt like ‘Vietnam the Musical’. This element is revisited when at the end of the film the surviving marines have another sing-song before the credits roll with the excellent Stone’s Paint it Black.

It is not until Joker gets posted to Da Nang as a military journo for ‘Stars and Stripes’ that there is any real sense that this is specifically a Vietnam film rather than one about soldiering in general. The use of music continues with some classic tracks such as Peter Griffin’s personal favourite The Trashmen’s ‘Surfin Bird’. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WNrx2jq184

As is to be expected from a Vietnam war film there is much discussion of death, war, and sex. Adam Baldwin has an excellent but small part (TWSS) and a differentiator in comparison to the other films listed above is the ‘news crew’ angle where the grunts give talking head style interviews and allows for some interesting viewpoints from the marines before Joker is involved in some proper combat action.

The final action is for me where this film finally delivers and I think these films should be about showing us war not telling us about war – something HBO’s excellent Band of Brothers and Pacific do very well. However, it does seem that the training they had does them little good as they seem to ignore basic military flanking tactics and decide instead to make a pile of bodies in a kill-zone. Here we have one of Kubrick’s few strong female characters – a Vietnamese sniper who is typically brought down to size by the men and reduced to a quivering lump begging for death. She is only strong when not identified as a woman it seems and the fact that these great marines have been picked off by a woman is seemingly the worst of deaths. Kubrick misogynistic – you decide.

While this film gave us some good catch-phrases (‘me love you long time’ being the most lasting) it doesn’t compare well to the other films listed and in comparison to Kubrick’s other films is only fair to middling.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Sigoth said ‘well that’s two and a half hours of my life I won’t get back’, which seems like a fair summary and I only have a little to add:

This film was slow on the heels of Full Metal Jacket more than a decade earlier. It is a tale of a young doctor (Tom Cruise) and his wife of 8 (?) years (Nicole Kidman) and sex. Wifey confesses to having fantasised about banging another guy and that sends Doc into a tailspin of sexual adventure. He uncovers a secret society that holds masked orgies and gets into a spot of bother.

Similar to 2001 some of the soundtrack elements are jarring and some of the scenes are tediously slow. This is not Kubrick’s finest hour or two and half hours, in fact this is the most disappointing film of the boxed set. Sure you get to see some boobs, but anyone with the Internet can see some boobs and they don’t need to be subjected to tiresome plots in the process. The plot, what there is of it, is clunky and less than dynamic.

I had no sympathy for either main character, and Kidman’s character was yet another one of Kubrick’s weak women. My favourite character was the fancy dress shop owner (Rade Serbedzija – he’s Boris the Blade in Snatch) who pimps out his own daughter (a young Leelee Sobieski – a glimpse of goodness in the awful Deep Impact). This film seems to revisit Clare Quilty’s unseen orgies from Lolita and while vaguely thought provoking in places is mostly dull despite the lovely Nicole.   The premise is just too shaky to allow the suspension of disbelief – If your wife or girlfriend confessed to once almost being unfaithful to you would you go off and try and poke a prostitute or attend an orgy? Kubrick supposedly has a cameo as a coffee shop customer – perhaps trying to keep himself awake after viewing the dailies.

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