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Foreground Material: “Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection”

Here’s one thing I learned while working my way through “Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection”—there may be no director more difficult to casually watch. Having seen all eight of the films in the new Blu-ray set—“Lolita,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Barry Lyndon,” “The Shining,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Eyes Wide Shut”—more than once, I presumed I could sort of use them as background viewing while I worked on other things. Silly me. Kubrick films draw you in; they defy casual viewing for serious film fans. Every carefully considered shot in “2001”; every turn of phrase in “Eyes Wide Shut”; every hidden message in “The Shining” (kidding, don’t write me about the moon landing)—they are all foreground, not background. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Give this set your complete attention.

Warner Bros. and Stanley Kubrick always had a close relationship, and so Christiane Kubrick allowed the company exclusive access to a lot of his personal, archival material to produce a new, exclusive documentary for this set called “Kubrick Remembered.” It joins two, new-to-Blu-ray documentaries—“Stanley Kubrick in Focus” and “Once Upon a Time…’A Clockwork Orange’—and additional documentaries “Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures” and “O’ Lucky Malcolm!,” which were issued as a part of WB’s last holiday season wave of Kubrick Blu-rays. Yes, it is undeniable that WB has been here before, although the new material is interesting, the packaging is the best to date, and the physical materials, including a new 78-page hardcover book, will be enticing to fans of the late, great director. This is one of those releases which can be difficult to recommend if you already own the eight films contained within it. However, if you don’t own them yet, it’s now the best way to correct that grievous cinematic oversight.

As these sets often do, it starts with 1962’s “Lolita”—for the record, earlier films such as “The Killing” and “Paths of Glory” are available in Criterion Blu-ray editions that are must-owns while “Spartacus” is also available in a lavish standalone release. Kubrick’s adaptation of the timeless Vladimir Nabokov novel stands as one of the best, even fifty years later, and despite the severe restrictions placed on the production by the Hays Code. Kubrick was reportedly disappointed by the final product because of the censorship required to get it made, but I’ve always found his approach to “Lolita” fascinating partially because of how he had to “talk around” the issues that the Catholic Legion of Decency found so offensive. It creates a film that almost feels more like a dream state than the literal approach that complete freedom of subject matter may have allowed. And it emphasizes some of the dark comedy aspects of the film. Some of the discs in this set include phenomenal special features—this is not one of them. All that found its lonely way to the “Lolita” disc is the theatrical trailer. Boo. The film itself looks good but no better than previous releases. In fact, you can consider that the assessment of every film in the set—their transfers are solid but comparing HD quality on standalone releases for films like “2001” and “The Shining,” I could discern no notable improvement or decline, adding to the sense that if you already own the films, this set may be a tough upgrade.

Two years after “Lolita” came one of Kubrick’s most rewatchable films, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” a black comedy that feels nearly as current to the state of international politics today as it did five decades ago. With phenomenal performances by Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, among others, “Dr. Strangelove” was a film that really changed the cinematic comedy language. Kubrick’s film was both hysterical and terrifying, often in the same beat. Comedy didn’t have to be slapstick; it could comment on serious issues through the humor, often connecting more than its dramatic counterparts. The disc for this film makes up for “Lolita,” offering numerous special features, including an interesting piece called “The Art of Stanley Kubrick: From Short Films to Strangelove,” and, believe it or not, an interview with Robert McNamara of all people. May all satirical targets one day do an interview about their satire. I long for the Dick Cheney interview on the anniversary edition of “W.”

The hits keep coming with “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a regular entry on lists of the best films ever made. If you ever get the chance to see a 70MM presentation of Kubrick’s most influential film, take it. Even if it’s hundreds of miles away. Get there. What more could I possibly say here about “2001,” a film that thousands of people have dissected in classes, at presentations, in books, etc.? Perhaps that’s something to consider—has any film been as completely broken apart, analyzed, and considered as “2001”? Sure, some of the Hitch classics, “The Godfather,” etc. are in the conversation, but “2001” has a special pedestal in the history of film museum. It defined so many things about the era of filmmaking that it was going to usher in in the ‘70s—auteur-driven, unapologetic, completely unconcerned with the mainstream, pieces of art. “2001” is one of those films that grows richer as I age—a work that I see new things in every time I watch it. When you’re young, “2001” is about something different than it is as you age. As a kid, it was the technology of it all that amazed me—a cousin of my favorite movie, “Star Wars.” Now, I appreciate so many of the visual choices and daring storytelling turns Kubrick was willing to take. “2001” speaks to what I love about cinema in that no other filmmaker would have adapted Clarke’s story exactly the same way. It is Kubrick’s film as much as it is Clarke’s. The special features on “2001” are extensive, given that they’re ports of previous Special Edition releases, including “2001: The Making of a Myth” hosted by James Cameron, “Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick: The Legacy of 2001,” a 1966 interview with Kubrick, a commentary by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, and much more.

1971 saw the release of Kubrick’s most divisive and controversial film, “A Clockwork Orange,” a film I’ve had an up-and-down relationship with over my years as a film critic. As a teenager amazed that a major, Oscar-nominated filmmaker had even produced something this aggressive, powerful, and dynamic, I was blown away. As I’ve aged, it’s slid down a bit on my list of Kubrick faves. Maybe it doesn’t hold up quite like his other films—having its greatest impact the first time you see it. Maybe I’m just getting soft as I get older. Whatever you think of Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel, it is an important film, a work that’s still referenced and still influencing the form. Again, this film has been released by WB individually numerous times, and so it comes loaded with special features, including a commentary by Malcolm McDowell and historian Nick Redman, and special features like “Still Tickin’: The Return of Clockwork Orange” and “Great Bolshy Yarblockos! Making A Clockwork Orange.”

If “A Clockwork Orange” has slid the most in my estimation as I’ve grown older, Barry Lyndon has gone in the other direction. When you’re a teenager falling in love with movies and blasted through the back of your living room by “Clockwork Orange,” “The Shining,” and “Full Metal Jacket,” there’s nothing less interesting than the candle-lit period drama of the Seven Years War. I still find the film a bit too fussy and stuffy at times for its own good, but, again, the deliberate cinematic choices that I couldn’t appreciate when I was younger look more remarkable now. The coldness that would often be used as the biggest criticism against Kubrick’s work (and led to this film falling relatively flat at the box office and with critics on release) feels like careful consideration now more than emotional detachment. We observe the saga of Barry Lyndon instead of being asked to fill his shoes or even empathize with it. That’s a remarkable achievement in and of itself. It’s also one of Kubrick’s most technically accomplished films, a fact one realizes more completely on Blu-ray. I don’t want to blame VHS for my initial lack of appreciation, but it didn’t help. Sadly, WB has yet to re-appreciate the work as the only special feature on the disc is the theatrical trailer.

From the detailed costume drama of “Barry Lyndon” to the outright insanity of “The Shining,” the 6th film in this 8-film set. Again, what more could I possibly write about one of the most dissected horror films of all time? Personally, I love “The Shining,” more with each subsequent viewing. It is one of cinema’s most remarkable blends of physical and mental horror. What I mean by that is that we often see physical threats—the ghosts of “Paranormal Activity,” the killers of slasher films like “Friday the 13th,” the game players of movies like “Saw”—but it’s rare that a filmmaker can blend the actual threat of violence with the psychological underpinnings of isolation and familial betrayal like “The Shining.” It is a film that recognizes that ghost stories are much more terrifying when they speak to relatable issues like the wrath of an angry father. And it is technically phenomenal on every level. I love “The Shining.” Given that I’m far from alone in that love, the special features here are extensive, including “View from the Overlook: Crafting The Shining,” “The Visions of Stanley Kubrick” and “The Making of The Shining,” which includes footage of Kubrick directing the film.

If “A Clockwork Orange” is Kubrick’s most divisive films, “Full Metal Jacket” is very close behind. It’s always been a work that frustrates me, largely due to its two-film structure. The first half of the film, the definitive cinematic look at boot-camp hell, still resonates, but I often found the second half of the film derivative to a fault. Yes, I understand the argument that it’s supposed to be—that Kubrick is commenting on cinematic examinations of war as much as he is war itself—and yet the final hour of “Full Metal Jacket” still frustrates me more than anything else in this set. There’s some stunning filmmaking here, but the emotional detachment argument against Kubrick resonates most strongly here for me. Special features here are more scant but the commentary by Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, and Jay Cocks is great.

Which brings us to the end of Kubrick's career and one of the most underrated films of the last quarter-century, the masterful “Eyes Wide Shut,” a film that still hasn’t gotten the reappraisal it deserves. Watching it again in this set, I felt its power even more resonantly, and got angry all over again for its dismissal in 1999. Sure, some critics understood its power, but too many people got caught up in the ratings controversy and the casting drama of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to really see what Kubrick was doing here—creating one of the most memorable dramas about the insecurity of the modern male that’s ever been made. It is, at its core, a film about a man whose life unravels after he learns that his wife is a sexual being in ways he can’t control. It is about how lack of control can be the most life-changing thing possible. And it is technologically breathtaking. From the very beginning. In fact, this is the one that distracted me the most as I tried to use Kubrick as background material. That’s a mistake I won’t make again.


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