Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection Blu-ray Review

     December 13, 2014


Is that the sound of double-dipping?  Oh right, it must be Warner Bros with another extraneous Blu-ray set.  Having already released a terrific Stanley Kubrick collection in 2011, they now hit us with a bigger, sexier box set… with one fewer movie and several more documentaries to differentiate it from the old one.  In and of itself, it’s an excellent collection, despite the absent film.  But for those who bought the earlier set, it makes for an exasperating choice.  Hit the jump for my Stanley Kubrick Masterpiece Collection Blu-ray review.

stanley-kubrickNaturally no film lover’s Blu-ray collection is complete without a healthy sampling of Kubrick’s work.  As one of the unquestioned masters of the medium, his canon helped define cinema as an art form, and Blu-ray makes an ideal format to appreciate it.  The new Masterpiece Collection assembles his final eight movies: Lolita, Dr.  Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut.  (Spartacus is not included, the only omission from the 2011 set.) All of them are pristine, with spotless transfers and gorgeous sound and visuals.  Taken together, they demonstrate not only Kubrick’s amazing range and growth as an artist, but the common themes of flawed humanity that bound those incredibly diverse movies into a single vision.  Cold, clinical and even obtuse at times, he nevertheless understood what the medium could accomplish in ways that only a tiny handful of filmmakers could match.

And indeed, the loss of Spartacus in this set feels more forgivable since he basically took that job as a work-for-hire and it thus reflects the studio’s sensibilities more than his.  The remaining films cover all manner of stories and ideas, but retain the master’s unique sensibilities at their heart.  Of the lot, the first is probably the weakest.  Lolita speaks more to Kubrick’s ambition than his talent: undeniable after early works like The Killing and Paths of Glory, but not quite ready to tackle such a challenging piece.  I’m not sure that Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial book can ever be acceptably reproduced on film (Adrian Lyne took another stab at it in 1997), but Kubrick at least had the tools to take a stab at it.  The tale of an aging professor (James Mason) obsessed with his landlady’s nymphet daughter (Sue Lyon) loses both the cleverness and the sympathy of the original book in favor of something darker and crueller.  The humor is still there, but it lacks the sad knowingness that allowed the novel to work.

Even so, Kubrick hits the bullseye more than once, particularly when dealing with the characters’ various hypocrisies and the early sequences when forbidden love first blooms.  His fascination with the characters’ flaws prevents him from handling the required shifts in tone, but he evokes strong performances from his cast and manages to skate through the rough patches on sheer technique.  You could do a lot worse than a noble failure with material like this, and while Kubrick’s cynicism ultimately proves too much to handle, it helped him refine the tools that served him so well in later works.

lolita-kubrickSpeaking of which… if he left the misanthropy on the sidelines for Lolita, he took it completely off the chain for Dr. Strangelove, a terrifyingly plausible scenario of global apocalypse presented as a full-bore farce.  When an Air Force colonel (Sterling Hayden, never better) loses his nut and orders his bombers to nuke the Soviet Union, the President (Peter Sellers) and his advisors work desperately to stop the dominoes from falling.  The absurdity of their dilemma is on full display, but so too are the real-world attitudes that fostered it: the belief that you could win a nuclear war and even if you couldn’t, it might be worth it just to make those commies pay.  With the Cuban Missile Crisis only two years in the rearview mirror, the film’s looming doomsday scenario never felt so close, and though Strangelove remains one of the funniest movies ever made, the humor sits side by side with some of the bleakest nihilism ever put on film.  That was Kubrick’s secret weapon: acknowledging a scenario so universally horrifying that the only thing we could do was laugh at it.  In the process, he created what might be the final word on the Cold War, and left no doubt that we were in the hands of a virtuoso.

And in case we were inclined to forget it, he followed it up with the greatest science fiction movie ever made.  Cold War horrors linger in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with unspoken paranoia lingering over the revelation that aliens may have influenced our evolution.  But he marries it to a far broader meditation on our essentially animalistic natures, the way we bury it in the name of civilization, and whether true morality can arise if our twin halves are so dramatically in opposition.  It makes for some weighty material, no less so because of its baffling, brilliant and ultimately transcendent final minutes.  Kubrick’s steadfast refusal to coddle us with easy answers actually enhances the movie’s grand questions: questions that delve into every corner of our known experience.  Add to that a compelling vision of the future – one that holds up despite our having passed it 13 years ago – plus effects that haven’t aged a day, an impeccable visual palate that continue to dazzle us, and a brilliant reinvention of the Frankenstein scenario with the murderous HAL-9000, and 2001 becomes perhaps the director’s greatest triumph.

a-clockwork-orangeHis next film, A Clockwork Orange took a more vigorous look at the animal vs.  angel tension that 2001 only touched upon.  Like Lolita, Kubrick based it on a supposedly unfilmable book, though in this case, he masters it with far more aplomb.  The opening shot of Malcolm McDowell’s infamous hellraiser Alex DeLarge enjoying an evening out still sends chills down the spine, though not as much as what Kubrick ultimately puts us through with him.  Having established DeLarge as an unrepentant monster, he then has the stones to make us sympathize with him as he falls into the hands of the System.  When he emerges from his treatment — helpless as a babe and utterly gelded – we suddenly realize that something vital has been lost. We may need monsters like him if the species is too survive, the film whispers.  It’s not an easy thing to ponder, but Kubrick never allows us to look away, swathed in the trappings of an outlandishly stylized future that hasn’t lost an ounce of cool in forty-plus years.

Two genre masterpieces in rapid succession make for quite a feat, and a lot of critics believe he was due for a stumble.  1975’s Barry Lyndon supposedly represents that stumble: a costume drama depicting the rise and fall of an Irish scoundrel (Ryan O’Neal) generally regarded as the runt in the Kubrick litter.  I’m a defender of the film, thought its stately pace requires a certain mindset and it soars more on technical proficiency than compelling storytelling.  But the director’s obsession with detail – to the point of lighting the entire set with candles to avoid historically inaccurate electric lights – becomes compulsively fascinating for those in the right mindset.  Kubrick staged each shot with a painter’s sensibilities, and his dedication to a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist speaks to his ability to push boundaries in unexpected directions.  Of all the films in the set, this one benefits the most from the Blu-ray treatment, and earns a second look from anyone who dismissed it prematurely.

the-shiningIf I’m willing to go to the mat for Barry Lyndon, I’m much more cautious with The Shining: initially considered a gobbling turkey but now widely regarded as one of the greatest horror movies ever made.  It don’t dispute its ability to scare the pants off of us, thanks to an iconic performance from Jack Nicholson as a hotel caretaker driven mad by malicious spirits and Shelly Duvall as his emotionally battered wife.  Kubrick supposedly tormented Duvall during the shoot, which might account for the profound levels of terror she exhibits.  There’s always an air of artifice in horror movie victims, but not with her.  That fear is as real as you’ll ever see. Coupled with Nicholson’s unhinged maniac and the endlessly obsession labyrinth of a hotel, it makes for plenty of scares… yet I’m still not certain it makes for a great movie.  Kubrick misses Jack Torrance’s slow descent – we know he’s going nuts the minute he appears – and can’t quite reconcile the pedestrian tragedy of a family falling apart with the supernatural goings-on in the hotel itself (to say nothing of the telepathic powers of Jack’s young son Danny).  Stephen King infamously disowned the project (though admittedly his own film version took some giant steps down), and his reasons for doing so are strong.  The Shining remains fascinating, like all of Kubrick’s work, and time cannot diminish its terrors.  But neither can one deny its flaws, as obsessively crafted as its assets and woven indelibly into its fabric.

From there, Kubrick’s output slowed down considerably, with just two movies completed in the last twenty years of his life.  The first, 1987’s Full Metal Jacket, caught the trend of Vietnam movies just short of too late: when innovation was turning into cliché.  Despite that, or perhaps because of it, he created a masterpiece to rank alongside Oliver Stone’s Platoon, eschewing that film’s po-faced solemnity for cheeky subversion and highlighting the madness of war in ways that only Kubrick could.  Like most of his other films, it feels all-encompassing: charting the dehumanization of soldiers in war and the tragic absurdity of taking lives for nebulous causes.  In the process, he delivered yet another indelible character: R. Lee Ermey’s sadistic drill sergeant who pounds his Parris Island recruits until one of them cracks like an egg.  The Vietnam sequences feel almost comforting after Ermey’s indelible brutality, leaving us wondering where war actually begins and why it lingers long after the guns fall silent.

eyes-wide-shut-posterThe set is anchored by a film almost as flawed as Lolita, but no less watchable for its failings.  Eyes Wide Shut recounts a tale of sexual obsession and dream-like wish fulfillment: shambling and almost pointless as times, but uncanny in its ability to put us in the protagonist’s shoes.  Tom Cruise’s buttoned-up doctor takes a tumble down a rabbit hole of fetishized deviance, and we’re never quite sure whether he fully escapes it at the end… or indeed if any of it ever took place at all.  It shudders forward in fits and starts, and its status as a minor Kubrick entry is unquestioned.  But the technical details remain as gorgeous as ever, and the tension between its central couple comes infused with a serious does of real life.  (Cruise and co-star Nicole Kidman were in the final years of their own marriage while the film was being made.) It’s a strange coda to the master’s career, but its enigmatic tone and compulsively watchable plot fit right in with his canon.

That’s a lot to take in and the Masterpiece Collection provides plenty of bells and whistles to accentuate it.  Each of the discs carry their own special features – the same you get by purchasing the movies individually – but the real juice comes in a quintet of documentaries that delve into Kubrick’s life and art.  A Life in Pictures is the most straightforward of the bunch, narrated by Cruise and covering the man’s biography and exacting technique.  Kubrick Remembered delves into his archives and work ethic, while Stanley Kubrick in Focus includes interviews from numerous filmmakers (including Steven Spielberg, Stephen Soderbergh, Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin) who were influenced by his films.  Once Upon a Time… A Clockwork Orange focuses on Kubrick’s most controversial film, with any eye on its big questions rather than details about its production.  Finally, O Lucky Malcolm covers the life and times of McDowell, a comparatively curiosity in this set that nonetheless merits a look.  It’s all encapsulated in a sturdy box and contains a gorgeous hardcover book full of still photos that any fan can appreciate.

2001-a-space-odyssey-set-photo-stanley-kubrickWhich brings us back to the central question that accompanies any piece of double-dipping: is this worth the price you’ll pay? If you already own the 2011 collection, you can give this one a pass.  You’ll gain only three of the five documentaries (Kubrick Remembered, Kubrick in Focus, and Once Upon a Time… A Clockwork Orange) at a prohibitive expense.   If you don’t own the earlier edition, ask yourself if those additional documentaries are worth the loss of Spartacus.  Both sets are priced at about the same level, and the real reason for the purchase – the movies themselves – are marvelous in each one.  One wonders, of course, why Warners wouldn’t just release one set with all of them instead of foisting the choice on its customers, but what are you going to do?  At least you have options, and the Masterpiece Collection is as solid a choice as you could make.

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