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The Films of Stanley Kubrick

Fear and Desire (March 5/18)

Stanley Kubrick's directorial debut, Fear and Desire follows four soldiers (Frank Silvera's Mac, Kenneth Harp's Corby, Paul Mazursky's Sidney, and Stephen Coit's Fletcher) as they're stranded behind enemy lines and eventually forced to fend for themselves. It's an exceedingly thin premise that's employed to sometimes striking yet often underwhelming effect by Kubrick, with the picture suffering from a decidedly amateurish feel that's compounded by less-than-accomplished performances and an ongoing emphasis on overwrought, unconvincing dialogue and narrative. (One of the soldiers remarks, for example, that "sometimes, as I look at these maps, I wonder if my own grave isn't being planned.") There's little doubt, though, that Kubrick's solid eye for compelling visuals is firmly in place even at this nascent stage in his career, and it's worth noting, too, that the movie boasts a very small handful of genuinely compelling sequences (eg Mazursky's unhinged character is left alone with a woman from a nearby village). It's ultimately clear, however, that Fear and Desire simply isn't able to justify its feature-length running time (ie the whole thing feels padded-out even at 61 minutes), with the movie's less-than-consistent vibe paving the way for a second half that could hardly be less interesting or anti-climactic - which does, in the end, confirm the film's place as a fairly ineffective first effort that does, at least, highlight the eye-catching visual sensibilities of its preternaturally-talented director.

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Killer's Kiss (January 7/14)

Killer's Kiss follows boxer Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) as he meets and falls for a beautiful dancer (Irene Kane's Gloria), with problems ensuing as Davey subsequently raises the ire of a shady nightclub owner named Vincent (Frank Silvera). It's clear that Killer's Kiss requires a great deal of patience from the viewer, as much of the movie's first half suffers from the feel of a rather unimpressive student film - with director Stanley Kubrick exacerbating this feeling by suffusing the proceedings with needlessly ostentatious visual choices. (There are, having said that, a number of striking shots that almost compensate, including a memorable nighttime sequence in which a character walks through New York's Times Square.) The less-than-enthralling vibe is compounded by a narrative that is, to put it mildly, rather disjointed, with the almost total lack of an entry point holding the viewer at arms length for much of the movie's opening 45 minutes. There reaches a point, however, at which Killer's Kiss begins to morph into an unexpectedly compelling film noir, as the narrative begins revolving around Davey and Gloria's efforts at escaping from Vincent's increasingly nefarious clutches. It doesn't hurt, certainly, that Kubrick has packed the movie's final half hour with palpably captivating interludes, with the film's climax, which boasts a rooftop chase and a confrontation within a mannequin warehouse, packing a far more visceral and engrossing punch than one might've naturally expected. Killer's Kiss is, in the end, a thoroughly erratic effort that feels long even at 67 minutes, and yet there are enough positive elements here to ultimately warrant a mild recommendation (and it goes without saying that the movie is a must for Kubrick aficionados).

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The Killing (March 14/18)

The first genuinely great film by Stanley Kubrick, The Killing follows Sterling Hayden's Johnny Clay as begins planning a racetrack heist almost immediately after his release from prison - with the movie detailing the buildup to and eventual execution of said heist. There's little doubt that The Killing gets off to a relatively rocky start, as Kubrick delivers a slow-moving first act that dwells a little too keenly on the exploits of Johnny's crew - with the movie, even at this early stage, at its best when focused on the protagonist's efforts at arranging the intricate operation. (There are, having said that, a few exceptions to this, including and especially everything involving Timothy Carey's Nikki Arcane's ongoing attempts at murdering a horse.) The film's proliferation of irresistibly compelling elements keeps things interesting even through its less successful stretches, with The Killing benefiting substantially from, among other things, Kubrick's typically hypnotic visuals, Hayden's consistently engrossing performance, and Jim Thompson's irresistibly hard-boiled dialogue (eg "you've got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart"). It's clear, then, that the movie improves immeasurably once the heist itself starts, as Kubrick, employing an impressively conceived and executed time-shifting structure, does a superb job of exploring every facet of the crime and its subsequent impact on the other players - with the spellbinding atmosphere heightened by an ongoing inclusion of electrifying interludes. By the time the note-perfect conclusion rolls around, The Killing has cemented its place as one of Kubrick's very best films and, in addition, one of the all-time classic heist thrillers.

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Paths of Glory (March 14/18)

Set during the first World War, Paths of Glory follows Kirk Douglas' Colonel Dax as he's forced to defend three of his soldiers against a charge of cowardice. Director Stanley Kubrick, working from a script cowritten with Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson, kicks Paths of Glory off with an admittedly less-than-engrossing stretch, as the movie boasts (or suffers from) a somewhat talky first act that doesn't contain much in the way of compelling elements - although, by that same token, it's clear that the film benefits substantially from Kubrick's stellar directorial choices and a host of above-average performances. (In addition to Douglas' consistently riveting turn as the moral protagonist, Paths of Glory features stirring supporting work from, among others, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, and, delivering the movie's most entertaining performance, Joseph Turkel.) There's little doubt, then, that the picture improves substantially once it progresses into its admittedly erratic yet often riveting midsection, with the emphasis on the aforementioned soldiers' court martial perpetuating the engrossing atmosphere and paving the way for an unexpectedly spellbinding (and undeniably grim) final stretch. The strong, decidedly unconventional conclusion confirms Paths of Glory's place as a fairly striking drama from Kubrick, with the film ultimately faring better than the director's next few (and far more well-known) endeavors.

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Spartacus (November 17/14)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick, Spartacus details the larger-than-life exploits of Kirk Douglas' title character - with the movie charting Spartacus' journey from a slave/gladiator to the leader of a full-blown revolution. It's clear immediately that Spartacus has little in common with the rest of Kubrick's output, as the film, for the most part, boasts the feel of a fairly typical old-school Hollywood epic - with the movie boasting a leisurely pace, a cast that runs into the thousands, and a seriously over-the-top score. (That score, by Alex North, is often overwhelmingly grandiose and thoroughly distracting.) It is, as such, not terribly surprising that Spartacus remains unable to wholeheartedly capture the viewer's interest for most of its palpably overlong running time, although it's equally clear that Kubrick does a nice job of peppering the narrative with undeniably engrossing sequences. (It is, for example, impossible not to be drawn into the slave revolt that occurs early in the picture.) There's ultimately little doubt that Spartacus is at its best when focused on Douglas' commanding character, which ensures that the movie seriously falters when the emphasis is placed on the behind-the-scenes happenings within the Roman government (ie virtually everything involving Laurence Olivier's Crassus is dull and momentum-killing). And although the movie spins its wheels in the buildup to its final battle, Spartacus benefits substantially from an absolutely enthralling skirmish that stands as the high point in the proceedings - to the extent that most everything that follows, which comprises an additional 40 minutes or so, is simply unable to avoid an anticlimactic feeling of superfluousness by comparison. The end result is a passable historical epic that has little in common with the rest of Kubrick's output, and it's ultimately telling that the film's most engaging aspect is the sweet romance between Spartacus and Jean Simmons' Varinia (ie the love story should absolutely not be the most compelling part of a movie of this ilk).

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Lolita (November 28/14)

An epically misbegotten, misguided adaptation, Lolita details the illicit relationship that forms between a middle-aged college professor (James Mason's Humbert Humbert) and a fourteen-year-old nymphet (Sue Lyon's Lolita). Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick admittedly gets Lolita off to an strong start, as the film kicks off with an engrossing in-media-res opening detailing a confrontation between Humbert and Peter Sellers' Clare Quilty - with the movie subsequently (and effectively) establishing the growing bond between Mason and Lyon's respective characters. (It doesn't hurt, either, that Kubrick peppers the proceedings with typically striking instances of bravura camerawork.) But Kubrick, working from a script by Vladimir Nabokov, squanders the promising setup by suffusing the movie's midsection with a series of rambling and downright pointless interludes, with this particularly true of virtually everything involving Sellers' aggressively off-the-wall character (ie there are too many scenes, including one in which Quilty pretends to be a cop, that meander to an infuriating extent). It is, as a result, not surprising to note that Lolita essentially crawls from one barely-connected set piece to the next, with the movie's few positive attributes (eg Mason's stirring performance) ultimately lost beneath a crush of hopelessly irrelevant elements. The movie's massively overlong running time only exacerbates its often interminable atmosphere, and it's finally impossible not to wonder just what Kubrick originally set out to accomplish with this mess.

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Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (December 6/14)

An unfocused, unfunny black comedy, Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb details the chaos that ensues after a nuclear attack is mistakenly triggered against the Soviet Union - with the film following a host of disparate figures, including George C. Scott's Buck Turgidson, Sterling Hayden's Jack D. Ripper, and Peter Sellers' title character, as they attempt to neutralize the threat. It's a promising setup that's employed to curiously (and consistently) uninvolving effect by director Stanley Kubrick, as the filmmaker, working from a script cowritten with Terry Southern and Peter George, proves unable to wholeheartedly capture the viewer's interest right from the get-go - with the movie suffering from a stagy, talky vibe that grows more and more problematic as time progresses. And while the film admittedly does fare relatively well in its war-room sequences - it's hard, for example, not to get a kick out of the President's ongoing phone conversations with the Russian leader - Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb suffers from an erratic and thoroughly meandering narrative that's rife with scenes and interludes of a palpably pointless nature. (This is especially true of everything involving Hayden's unhinged character.) There's little doubt, as well, that the movie's many attempts at comedy fall hopelessly (and aggressively) flat, with Kubrick's decision to seemingly give Sellers free reign contributing heavily to Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb's atmosphere of almost aggressive triviality (ie the majority of this stuff is distressingly free of relevance or even laughs). By the time the (admittedly iconic) finale rolls around, Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb has confirmed its place as a decidedly underwhelming entry within Kubrick's increasingly spotty body of work - with the film's place as a bona fide classic nothing short of baffling.

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2001: A Space Odyssey (November 17/14)

Notoriously baffling yet oddly compelling, 2001: A Space Odyssey essentially follows two astronauts (Keir Dullea's Dave Bowman and Gary Lockwood's Frank Poole) as they embark on a quest into the farthest reaches of the known galaxy. Director Stanley Kubrick, working from a script cowritten with Arthur C. Clarke, has infused 2001: A Space Odyssey with a continuously striking visual sensibility that remains a highlight from start to finish, as the filmmaker suffuses the proceedings with one absolutely astonishing set-piece after another - with, for example, Dave's gravity-defying jog within the spacecraft's interior nothing less than jaw-dropping in its impact. Likewise, Kubrick does a superb job of wringing suspense out of a few key sequences - with the best and most cogent instance of this certainly Dave's revenge-fuelled attempts at shutting down the ship's psychotic computer, HAL. It's just as clear, however, that Kubrick's decidedly avant-garde approach often prevents the viewer from wholeheartedly connecting to either the material or the characters, and it subsequently goes without saying that the movie, which is never boring, certainly, generally does struggle to justify its 146 minute running time (ie there are too many stretches here that just go on and on and on). The hands-off atmosphere is ultimately compounded by a climactic stretch that's designed to raise more questions than it answers, which does, in the end, confirm 2001: A Space Odyssey's place as a singular cinematic achievement that one admires more than one completely enjoys.

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A Clockwork Orange

Barry Lyndon (April 29/18)

Based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon follows Ryan O'Neal's title character as he bumbles and connives his way through a series of misadventures in the 18th century - with the narrative detailing Barry's humble beginnings as a soldier through to his ascension within the English aristocracy. Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick has, rather infamously, infused Barry Lyndon with an incredibly potent and thoroughly memorable sense of style, with the movie's often jaw-dropping visuals, courtesy of cinematographer John Alcott, proving effective at sustaining one's interest even though its more palpably unsuccessful stretches (of which there are many, ultimately). It's just as clear, however, that the picture remains wholly unable to justify its disastrously overlong running time of 185 minutes (!), as Kubrick, working from his own screenplay, delivers a meandering midsection that's riddled with padded-out and pointedly needless sequences - with the decidedly (and continuously) far-from-engrossing atmosphere exacerbated by O'Neal's often stunningly weak performance (ie the actor delivers a bland and thoroughly forgettable turn entirely devoid of charisma or presence). The arms-length, sluggish vibe is eventually alleviated by a final third that, quite unexpectedly, boasts a number of admittedly electrifying sequences (eg Barry's duel with a long-standing rival), which finally does cement Barry Lyndon's place as a maddeningly hit-and-miss drama that's all-too-often far more miss than it is hit.

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The Shining

Full Metal Jacket (January 8/15)

Full Metal Jacket follows several Vietnam-era soldiers as they're trained and sent into battle, with the movie specifically detailing the exploits of Matthew Modine's Joker, Arliss Howard's Cowboy, and Vincent D'Onofrio's Gomer Pyle. And while the narrative eventually details the recruits' experiences during the war, director Stanley Kubrick offers up a first half devoted to the aforementioned characters' punishing treatment at the hands of R. Lee Ermey's hard-nosed drill sergeant - with the decidedly engrossing nature of this stretch heightened by Ermey's thoroughly captivating performance. The spellbinding opening 45 minutes, which concludes with an astonishingly riveting climax, ensures that the film loses some momentum in its midsection, as Kubrick abruptly shifts the focus to the troops' initial arrival in Vietnam and their subsequent efforts at finding their footing there. There's little doubt, then, that the comparatively traditional second act comes off as palpably erratic, with Kubrick offering up an almost equal mix of engaging and padded-out sequences - although, to be fair, it's impossible to deny that when Full Metal Jacket is cooking, it's really cooking. The film improves substantially as it charges into its impressively tense final stretch, with the movie's closing minutes packing an emotional power that one might not have necessarily expected - which, in the end, cements Full Metal Jacket's place as a justifiably iconic war film.

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Eyes Wide Shut (November 6/14)

Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut follows Tom Cruise's William Harford as he embarks on an odyssey of sexual discovery after he learns that his wife (Nicole Kidman's Alice) almost cheated on him. It's clear immediately that Eyes Wide Shut is dripping with Kubrick's distinctive, singular sense of style, as the movie boasts an extremely lush visual sensibility that's immediately hypnotic and also, at the outset, compensates for the decidedly deliberate storytelling. There's consequently little doubt that the film, while always watchable, suffers from an opening half hour that's simply not all that engrossing, with Eyes Wide Shut's transformation from decent to electrifying triggered by a fantastic sequence detailing William and Alice's stoned confessions to one another. From there, Eyes Wide Shut progresses into a strangely episodic midsection revolving around William's nighttime exploits in New York City - with Kubrick, working from a script cowritten with Frederic Raphael, offering up a number of seemingly pointless, palpably comedic interludes (eg William's encounters with an oddball costume-shop owner). The decidedly erratic vibe persists until Cruise's character bluffs his way into a bizarre upper-class orgy, as this sequence, which is easily the movie's high point, possesses an absolutely enthralling feel that's heightened by Kubrick's flawless execution. (The auteur's use of previously-composed music, for example, is nothing short of breathtaking.) It's equally clear, however, that the film peaks with this section, which, given that the movie progresses for an additional hour or so, ensures that Eyes Wide Shut's second half suffers from a padded-out feel that is, to put it mildly, regrettable. The movie's overall impact is ultimately heightened by its extremely memorable (and extremely Kubrickian) atmosphere, which does, in the end, compensate for the various flaws contained within Eyes Wide Shut's 159 minute running time.

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© David Nusair