The Stanley Kubrick Project: The Shining (1980)

Of all the Movies That I Haven’t Seen But Probably Should, likely the most surprising is Stanley Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s multi-kabillion-copy bestseller The Shining. It is, after all, a horror movie, and I have moved through my life adoring the horror genre. If I’ve grown disenchanted with the genre over the years, it is because so much of the product created has little to offer me. I walk through the Halloween Haunted House, and spend all my time recognizing the props, so shopworn and rote has the field become.

When I find a movie that actually scares me, that’s something to cheer about. I suppose it’s some sort of desensitization, because my wife refuses to watch anything having to do with horror. It affects her on a level I can never hope to achieve again.

You see, I recognize all the props.

But we’re here to talk about The Shining, not me.

After the dismal box office on Barry Lyndon killed forever any chance of making his dream Napoleon project, Kubrick, while casting around for his next movie, must have been keenly aware of a need to make a commercial film. I don’t think box office ever truly mattered to him, but he was close to some of the executives at Warner, and making their lives easier might be a good thing. Horror had been a major force in the realm of Major Motion Pictures since The Exorcist blew up in 1973, and its possible, maybe even probable, that Kubrick was enough of an egotist to either a) feel that he was being left behind, or b) that he could show everyone what they were doing wrong.

So, Stephen King’s bestseller The Shining. That is what is referred to as Box Office Gold. Recognized name, recognized property. A Sure Thing.

Except that it wasn’t a sure thing. I remember everybody who saw it hated it, mainly because they’d read the book. Everybody had read the book. I think with international sales and all, The Shining made its money back, but the backlash was severe.

Then, it’s also a pattern with which we should be familiar by now. Derided at its initial run, The Shining is now considered a classic, almost always cropping up in those largely useless “Best Horror Movie” lists. (I hate lists.) Kubrick, as ever, if not ahead of the curve, is the curve.

Most of the ire directed at the movie is the changes wrought on the source novel, though really – how this surprised anyone is beyond me, given the changes made to the paper versions of Lolita, Red Alert, A Clockwork Orange and The Luck of Barry Lyndon. It is easier and far more common to pick up and read a book – (especially one in such plentiful supply as The Shining, which used-bookstores enforced a moratorium upon, they were so common) – than to examine a film director’s body of work. And admittedly, in 1980, it was damned difficult to examine Kubrick’s  oeuvre in a casual manner; you had to be a student at a well set-up university or a millionaire.

The Shining concerns the Torrances – man, woman, and child – who are going to spend six months in the fancy Overlook Hotel as winter caretakers. Jack (Jack Nicholson) is trying to write a book. The child, Danny (Danny Lloyd) is psychic, his abilities manifested through Tony, “a little boy who lives in my mouth”. The Mom, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) is pretty much the only non-imaginary friend Danny has – the family seems to have moved a lot recently.

Snowed in by one of the worst blizzards in years, The Overlook Hotel (built over an Indian burial ground, of course) begins to make itself known to the three people trapped inside. Danny keeps seeing ghosts – two sisters who were killed by their father, another caretaker, years before in similar circumstances. Jack begins having nightmares about murdering his family. And then he starts seeing the ghosts of Overlook Past.

There is a certain amount of controversy right from the start, with the casting. King wanted someone who could track from normalcy to insanity, suggesting Michael Moriarty or Jon Voight; he wanted a good man to be slowly corrupted by the Hotel. Jack Nicholson – a choice with whom I’m sure none of the executives argued – is twitchy from the get-go. He’s playing an alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink in months, and he’s quite obviously keeping a tight lid on, projecting normalcy; he needs this job.

The choice of Shelley Duvall was similarly a source of dismay. Nicholson, for instance, wanted Jessica Lange; but the choice of the unglamorous Duvall, playing a woman who is at a brittle truce with her marriage, who is trying to make it work, chain-smoking her way through days with an oddball son and a volatile husband, who is similarly trying… it’s just damned canny casting.

Duvall has said the filming wasn’t something she regretted, but likely wouldn’t do, ever again – interviewed by Roger Ebert, she stated that “… my character had to cry 12 hours a day, all day long, the last nine months straight, five or six days a week.” And to facilitate that, Kubrick was infamously mean and short-tempered with her, even instructing his daughter, Vivian, who was shooting a making-of documentary, “Don’t sympathize with Shelley.” Brutal technique, worthy of Eli Cross. I can’t really say that I can sanction it but, but my God, what results!

Kubrick’s movie takes a much less mystical track with the story, though the fantastic elements are still there – casting The Shining  as a movie of pure psychological horror simply doesn’t hold up, especially toward the end when the spirits of the Overlook start manifesting to Wendy. The Hotel finds a not-too-subtle toehold in Jack’s already tormented psyche, resulting finally in the closest thing Kubrick employs to a jump scare: Jack talking to someone who isn’t there in the abandoned bar, all liquor and provisions packed away for the winter – and in the reverse shot, we see Lloyd the Bartender, in a fully stocked bar. It’s a superb “Oh shit!” moment in a slow-burn movie.

A slight digression: In a scene before the snow actually comes in force, Wendy comes into the large lounge area which Jack has chosen for his writing space. What follows is a fairly upsetting scene that shows that Jack is fraying at the edges, as he tells her in no uncertain terms that yes she is interrupting and it takes time to get back to where he was and to never fucking come in there when he is writing. Look, I would like to think I would not be as offensive as Jack, but I swear to you that is a conversation every writer has wanted to have with his spouse.

A truly major change from the novel is the hedge maze, which, of course, replaced the topiary animals coming to life at the novel’s climax. Something like that might look incredible in the theatre of the mind (truthfully, I found it laughable even while reading the book), but in a movie, it is definitely something better left out. The Hedge Maze of the movie turns out to be a logical, satisfying replacement that lends itself to an exciting, fitting conclusion. (Due Diligence: I have not seen the “authorized” TV version of The Shining, but I understand the topiary animals are there – they just don’t move unless you’re not looking at them. That could work, but the Hedge Maze is so much more of an elegant solution)

I also think a good deal of the backlash against The Shining when it was first released was an unconscious feeling that Kubrick would re-invent the horror movie, just as he had re-invented the science-fiction movie with 2001. But truth to tell, Kubrick hadn’t re-invented the genre as much as delivered a good, stately science-fiction movie, a leather-bound version printed on wonderfully smooth paper, that would sit proudly on the shelf, next to its paperback brethren with rough pulp pages and gaudily colored cardboard covers. And that is what he did with The Shining: created a prestige version of a ghost story that has aged in only the best ways, as quality craftsmanship always does.

You see, I still recognized all the props. But they were so skillfully made, so well-presented, that I did not resent them one bit, and instead welcomed them, like old friends ’round a roaring fire.

To tell ghost stories.

The Devils (1971)

It seems like most of my life… well, from 1971 on, anyway… I had heard a lot about Ken Russell’s The Devils, and yet I had heard very little about it. The major impression I got – probably due to my father’s Playboy magazines – was “Lotsa naked nuns!” (with an understood undercurrent of “Hurr hurr!“) I knew it was based on historic fact, and largely on Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudon. Past that, I didn’t know very much, because it was almost impossible to see, hidden away by Warner Brothers as something to be ashamed of, or – more to the point – to be feared.

There were a couple of VHS releases over the years, of a reportedly heavily cut “R” version. An occasional festival showing was grudgingly agreed to. Finally, this year, the British Film Institute released a DVD of the “X” Certificate version which originally ran in England (to great controversy) in ’71. Still not a bona fide Director’s Cut – which we may never see – but probably the best we can hope for. Warners denied the BFI permission to press a Blu-Ray, even.

So finally, now, thanks to my region-free DVD player, I can watch this movie. And I found out how “lotsa naked nuns” can be reconciled with “genuine masterpiece”, because holy cow you guys is this movie ever good.

Oliver Reed plays Urban Grandier, a Catholic priest in the fortified French city of Loudon, circa 1634. Loudon is an anomaly in that time period, a place where Catholics and Protestants live and work together in peace. After the death of Loudon’s governor, a workforce arrives to tear down the city walls by order of Cardinal Richelieu, as self-governing, self-contained cities stand in the way of his consolidation of power over Southern France. Also standing in his way is Grandier, who has papers naming him the city’s governor. Lacking a royal decree to tear down the walls, the force must retreat, much to the ire of the Cardinal.

Grandier has been planting the seeds of his own defeat for years, however; he is not a very devout clergyman, and has, in fact, gotten the daughter of a local wealthy merchant pregnant, among other things. Concurrent with his assumption of the role of governor and protector, though, he finds and returns the love of a good woman, even marrying her illegally in a midnight ceremony. In Grandier’s own words, he finds “the Grace of God in a woman,” and this, while working to protect the city he loves, leads him to a higher plane of spirituality… although perhaps too late for him.

For in Loudon’s Ursuline nunnery is Sister Jeanne, a hunchbacked Mother Superior who, like many women in the city, is madly in love from a distance with Grandier, and becomes obsessed with strange, blasphemous sexual fantasies about him.  Once she finds out about the secret marriage – a very poorly kept secret – her frustration decays instantly into bitterness, and she makes accusations that Grandier is a sorcerer, an incubus who visits the nunnery at night and has his way with the nuns.

At first, these accusations are seen as exactly what they are, the fantasies of a frustrated, hysterical nun, but Jeanne makes her accusations more elaborate and bizarre, goaded on by the nobleman charged with bringing Loudon down and the Church’s own Witchfinder General. The other nuns, threatened with execution, basically turn state’s evidence and take part in what becomes a sensational freak show, attended by the bourgeosie and noblemen; three exorcisms a day, with the nuns giving it their all like an improv troupe from Hell. This is where you fulfill all your naked nun picture needs for Playboy and the like.

Grandier returns from a trip to the Palais Royale to secure the future of Loudon only to find the deck stacked against him. Arrested, tortured and condemned to burn at the stake, Grandier exhorts the assembled crowd – which has turned against him as only mobs can – to fight for their city. As he breathes his last, explosive charges bring down the walls of Loudon, completing Richelieu’s victory.

I knew that Ken Russell had described The Devils as “my only political film”, but I was unprepared for just how political it was; the movie is a nightmare about religion turned into a political tool, and I can think of few things more absolutely relevant to the world today than that central concern. Warner can hide behind the supposition that blasphemy is the reason for their reluctance to make The Devils more generally available, but it’s the politics that truly make this a dangerous movie. In a country where people refuse to see Hugo because Scorcese also made The Last Temptation of Christ twenty-five years ago, there would be theaters set afire for showing this movie.

But even the blasphemy charge becomes shaky when one makes the slightest attempt to do any research (which the beautiful 2 disc DVD from the BFI supports). The most infamous scene, which has come to be known as “The Rape of Christ”, which was excised before the movie even premiered, is defended by no less than the theologian Rev. Gene Phillips, SJ, for years a consultant to the Catholic League of Decency, who regards the movie as a depiction of blasphemy, and not actual blasphemy.

The excised scene occurs after one of my favorite scenes, where a nobleman (actually the King in disguise) is brought in to one of the exorcisms on a palanquin; after watching, amused, for several minutes, he offers the Witchfinder a small ornate box from the personal collection of the King, containing a phial of the Blood of Christ. The Witchfinder thrusts it at the assembled mass of naked, cavorting women, and they all fall, writhing, then proclaim themselves gratefully cured. The masked nobleman then opens the box, revealing that it is empty. “What trick have you played on us?” cries the Witchfinder. “What trick have you played on us?” asks the nobleman. He then turns to the nearest naked nun and says cheerfully, “Have fun!” before being carried away on his golden litter.

After this comes the censored segment, where the women go completely over the top, pulling down a lifesized crucifix and ravishing the icon of Christ. This is unquestionably the climax of Russell’s exorcism setpieces, and … this is very important… is intercut with scenes of Grandier on the road back to Loudon, stopping to have a simple Communion in some particularly breath-taking scenery, simply feeling the presence of God in his surroundings and his simple tools of faith. The contrast between the increasing purity of Grandier’s personal faith and the utter corruption of religion taking place in Loudon Is what Rev. Phillips appreciates and endorses, and if an ordained Catholic priest can see past the naked nuns and ballyhoo to perceive what the director is after, the rest of the bloody world has no excuse.

But you’re not going to see that scene, except in snippets in the extras of the BFI disc. The actual footage was thought destroyed until only recently, and timorous Powers That Be still do not wish it to be on display. For many years there was a very real effort to make the R-rated cut of The Devils the only cut.

The removal of that footage does little to reduce the impact of the movie, though Russell doubtless thought it had been hopelessly gutted. His point is still made in spades to anyone not going “Hurr hurr, nekkid nuns”. The movie is a symphony of intensity, and as Grandier is spared no pain after his arrest, neither are we, as he is subjected to torture to find his Witch’s Spot (a bit of tongue mutilation that the makers of Mark of the Devil must have seen and thought, “Ooh, we need to make a movie about that!“), a mock trial, shaving of his head and beard to humiliate him, then even more torture to wring the confession of witchcraft from him (not too explicit thankfully, but no less harrowing) and his subsequent burning at the stake.

The power flows from Russell’s first-rate, committed cast; Oliver Reed in possibly his best performance, Vanessa Redgrave walking a very delicate emotional tightrope as Sister Jeanne, obviously intelligent but trapped in a world and a body she despises. Marvelous supporting work from Dudley Sutton, Murray Melvin (who carved out a niche as the world’s finest portrayer of pinch-faced, cadaverously thin clergymen, see also Barry Lyndon), and Gemma Jones as the woman who turns Grandier’s life around, but alas, too late.

In case I’ve not made it clear: The Devils  is a stunning movie with incredible production design (a young Derek Jarman!), marvelous acting, and a message as sadly eternal as it is necessary to be eternally said.

You might say I liked it. And it is a damned shame I had to jump through so many hoops – import DVD, special equipment – to simply watch such an important piece of – not even merely political- but cinema history.

Movies: Shaolin List of Tears

There is typically not a whole lot of organization to my movie watching. Take last Thursday for instance. It hadn’t been a bad week, but it hadn’t been a great one, either. Bored, listless, I decided what I needed was some Kung Fu Treachery. So it was time for a movie I’d owned for years, but never watched: Shaolin Prince (1982).

This is, the box tells me the first of only three movies directed by fight choreographer Tang Chia,and at first glance it looks like pretty typical wuxia fare. Two infant princes manage to escape the slaughter of the rightful Emperor and his family by the villainous Lord Nine. Separated, one is raised by the Prime Minister as his own son, the other by monks at the Shaolin Temple.

You’re given some clue as the bizzareness of the rest of the movie by Lord Nine’s two underlings, who specialize in fire and water attacks. The Fire General’s attacks are especially impressive, blowing stuff up left and right. Then, when the other prince is handed off to the Shaolin Temple, he is adopted by what are basically the Three Stooges of Shaolin, who are living out a lengthy exile in a small building at the back of Temple, in punishment for doing… well, something wacky, I’m guessing. But it turns out that having nothing better to do, they have honed their kung fu to incredible heights, which they spend the next twenty years teaching their new charge. In wacky ways.

The Shaolin Prince grows into the always-wonderful Ti Lung, while the other prince tips his hand by traveling to the Temple to study the one style which can defeat Lord Nine’s Iron Fingers technique. This, of course, sets up a meet cute between the two princes, who have to join forces to survive.

Despite the fairly hoary plot, Shaolin Prince easily kept me entertained. The fights are creative, there’s a side plot with a murderous ghost the Temple monks must exorcise, Lord Nine’s sedan chair has more weapons than 007’s car… hell, the wacky monks, whom I was sure I was going to hate? I wound up warming toward them, too.

And there is lots and lots of Kung Fu Treachery, all the market could bear. The box also claims there were five choreographers at work, and some real difference in the tone of the various (and plentiful) fights bears that out.

The only trailer on youtube is in unsubtitled Mandarin and bears a pretty intrusive watermark, but I guess that’s what you get for not ripping the trailer yourself and uploading it:

The next night, I was casting aimlessly about (again), and finally decided to re-watch another movie I recalled seeing on TV while very, very young, but remembering almost none of: The List of Adrian Messenger.

List presents us with a British, moustached George C. Scott, a former member of MI-5, who is given a list of names by his writer friend Adrian, who is pretty coy about what the list means. He wants Scott to “see if those men are still living at those addresses,” and is unwilling to voice anymore of his suspicions at that point.

Well, when the plane Adrian is taking to America blows up the next day, Scott begins to realize what we, the audience, have privy to since the picture started – someone has been killing all the men on the list, and making it look like an accident, and Adrian is only the latest victim.

List is very oddly structured; we know the killer is played by Kirk Douglas and that he is a master of disguise; this revealed in a very effective sequence in an airport restroom where he first removes contact lens, revealing his true eyes – icy, steely grey in this black-and-white movie – and peels off the layers of his latex disguise. Though we know who he is, we discover his motive along with Scott, and The List of the title is completed about halfway through the picture; then Douglas reveals himself and begins the second part of his scheme.

The List of Adrian Messenger is going to appeal to a fairly narrow audience these days, I suspect; its story takes place mainly against a backdrop of genteel landed gentry – foxhunts play a major part in the proceedings – and though there is a fair amount of satire in those parts, it seems even more foreign and exotic here in 2012.

I almost forgot the best part – The List of Adrian Messenger is also a “gimmick” movie, though not in the same way as William Castle’s ballyhoo masterpieces. There are three other big name stars in small roles throughout the picture, disguised in Mission Impossible full-face masks, just like Kirk Douglas. Can you spot them? Spotting the make-up is easy, the identity of a couple of them, not so – and having Paul Frees do a substitute voice on one is just cheating.

Couldn’t find a trailer, and what is tagged as atrailer is actually the opening credits, but it does give you at look at these stars in disguise:

Saturday morning, I was the only one up and had unlimited control over the TV and Netflix, so I decided it was time to watch Tears of the Black Tiger, which continued my run of oddball movies.

The briefest way to describe Tears is: it’s a candy-colored Thai spaghetti western about two star-crossed lovers. Going deeper, though, what we find is a sweetly heartfelt romance blended into a parody of sweetly heartfelt romance movies, westerns in general, and even Hong Kong heroic bloodshed movies. Like many great parodies (Black Dynamite, Lethal Force, Lost Skeleton of Cadavra), it doesn’t single out one movie to target, it amasses all the cliches from the genres and incorporates them into a new movie, one that’s its own creature, reminding us of many movies but still establishing its unique identity.

The gunfights positively wallow in hyperviolent bloodshed, echoing Peckinpah and the more extreme HK gun-fu flicks. Director Wisit Sasanatieng manipulates color ruthlessly, creating a world that at its most realistic looks like a hand-painted postcard, at its most extreme, expressionist art. And still, despite all these boundary-pushing techniques, he keeps the love story affecting; you really come to care for the protagonists in this city-girl/country-boy plot, and want them to overcome the odds, to finally be together. The ending is not quite so easily spelled out as that, possibly Sasanatieng’s final nose-thumbing at these movies, but at least we get the impression that everybody’s cards are finally on the table. The girl is in the hero’s arms – what more can we ask?

Well, quite a bit more, but we ain’t getting it.

It’s Sunday morning as I finish this up. While unloading for last night’s show, a door pinned my foot and my leg stayed behind while my body moved forward. In short, I had a hell of a graceless, hard fall. Sleep last night was minimal, but at least I’m not too badly off this morning – the worst is a severe rug burn running the length of my right arm, which looks pretty gruesome. Finding a bed position where it doesn’t rub against anything is difficult, but I hope to give it another try soon. Thank heaven it’s short-sleeve shirt weather.

My wife is out of town this week, leaving me with a fourteen year-old who no longer likes my cooking. (But he does like making himself Ramen, so I guess that’s a win) I have three, count them, three City Meetings to work this week, so I won’t be watching another movie until Thursday night, it seems. Unless I sneak one in tonight, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to talk to you about that one.

So tally ho and all that. And watch out for doors. Those damned things will kill ya.

Movies: A Study in Angry Yellow

If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know that I love me some Sherlock Holmes. Own a nice set of the original canon, a huge annotated version of same, and am saving up for yet another, more recent annotated set. Lots of videos, of course. I wish I had more of the Grenada version with Jeremy Brett, or the BBC run with Peter Cushing, but I do have some one-shots that bear watching, and Sunday I decided it was time to re-visit one:  A Study in Terror (1965), available these days from one of my current favorite vendors, Warner Archive. I’d seen it on TV back in the day, but had not had a chance since the days of VHS.

The first thing to note is the really unfortunate poster that also forms the front of the box, a brazen attempt by the American marketing team to catch a lift from the Batmania craze. I wonder if it worked; I rather doubt it, but I also recall a slew of dubious offerings at the local cinema at the time (Rat Pfink a Boo Boo was only one of them, let me tell you), so perhaps claiming Sherlock was “The Original Caped Crusader” was the right way to go.

A Study in Terror is one of two Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper movies out there (Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree being the other), joining a ton of books and a videogame on the same topic. It’s a subject that really seems to bring out the best in all involved; I’ve yet to read or see one of the stories that didn’t entertain or at least offer a unique take.

Sherlock Holmes this time out is played by John Neville, another waypoint in a wide and accomplished career; Watson is essayed by Donald Houston, a character actor who strikes a fair balance between capable assistant and dunderhead. I’m very happy with the revisionist Watson movement that seems to have its roots in the Grenada series and Edward Hardwicke, culminating in the infinitely more able and believable characterizations by Jude Law and Martin Freeman. Both Neville and Houston offer reasonable, very human performances – it’s very possible to believe in the existence of both characters. Robert Morley puts in an extended appearance as Mycroft, but this version hardly grants the character the intellectual superiority Sherlock often mentioned in his older brother.

And if you look smartly, you will see a young Judi Dench in a supporting role.

Study plays pretty loose with the established facts of the Ripper murders, and its solution is a novel one, if also playing coy with its resolution as to explain why the killings are still considered unsolved. The one spoiler I will engage in is that the solution does not involve the Royals in any way, which seems to be de rigeur since publication of Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, which forms the core of Murder by Decree and Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell’s superb From Hell.


The other departure from fact in the movie is that every one of The Ripper’s prostitute victims is a stunning beauty. Necessary for the movies, I suppose, but if you’ve looked at photos in any of a number of books written about the case, very, very far from the truth. But: A Study in Terror is a good Holmes flick. Great costuming, good production design, good performances.

In the interests of contrast (I guess), I then turned to something that had been living on my hard drive a long time: a pretty bad VHS rip of Werner Herzog’s God’s Angry Man, a 1980 documentary about televangelist Dr. Gene Scott, an extraordinary fixture on late night TV whom I would watch, spellbound, not knowing what the hell was going to be coming out of his mouth next. Scott would rant and rave and throw temper tantrums and make occasional interesting points about scripture. He would cover a chalkboard in scribblings and bizarre diagrams years before Glenn Beck. And by God, you did not cross him or he would fire you on the air.

Herzog captures classic Scott as, live and on the air, he first refuses to say anything else until the thousand dollars he needs comes over the phones, and when that oppressive hunk of dead air yields no results, starts yelling at TV land in general:

The on air stuff is spaced out by interviews with Dr. Scott, in which he paints himself as a lonely man tasked to do an impossible job, with no friends and no privacy. All the privacy he has, he claims, is in a black leather bag. He of course refuses to divulge its contents to Herzog. Sadly, this all comes across as just as much shinola as his onscreen exhortations to hand over your money: he is an habitual world builder, and I don’t think he is capable of stopping. Though when he says he would love to ditch all this and just become an anonymous farmer, I do think I see a bit of honesty gleam in his eyes. At 45 minutes, I at first thought God’s Angry Man was too short, but I now think it’s just about the right length: you can’t take the full measure of the man, but you get a pretty good idea as to his character.

The scary thing is, even though Dr. Scott succumbed to cancer in 2005, apparently his tape recordings are still being broadcast by his foundation, Dr. Gene Scott yet haunts the airwaves.

The next day belonged to the Venus Transit. The astronomy mavens of the college where I work pulled out their equipment and made dang sure that anyone who wanted a look at the event had the chance, and I was there to record it all. You know what was really neat? The simple joy of students who had just been walking past, discovering they were able to see it, when they  thought they’d have to make do with YouTube and the like the next day. They got to see it live, and they were delighted with the opportunity. That was cool.

And the next day Ray Bradbury died. That’ll harsh your buzz, let me tell you.

I don’t have any movie versions of Bradbury’s work to hand, though I wish I did. So instead I looked to a recent arrival, a work of whimsy and imagination itself. I pulled out the new Blu-Ray of Yellow Submarine, and hoped that would be close enough.

Yellow Submarine is one of my favorite movies. I don’t know if you could say that your mind was blown at 11 years of age, but it certainly had that effect on me. Stunning use of many different forms of animation, and a kind of music that I was only just beginning to become aware of, something beyond the country classics played by the radio station.  A lot of things changed there, in the dark of the Rialto Theatre. I honestly don’t know what would have happened had I seen 2001 the same year.

I’m going to quote myself, from a review I wrote for the DVD, released in 1999 :

Yellow Submarine was like a present we gave ourselves at the end of the Sixties, preserving as it does the things that were right about the period – optimism, idealism, irreverence, and an innocent faith that Art could make all things right – and none of the negatives. Even past such philosophical frippery, Yellow Submarine was important historically, proving as it did that an animated film did not have to slavishly ape Disney movies to be successful.”

 The audio and video are both steps up from even the DVD, which was pretty doggone good. I had heard some grumbling about Digital Noise Reduction and the like, but I only spotted some glitching in the Sea of Holes segment (a favorite, of course – seeing those limitless planes of holes rushing at you and around you on the big screen was amazing). Past that. the colors are predictably eye-popping, and the music magnificently re-mixed. It looks like they even restored the live-action Beatles clip at the end.

If I have a complaint, it’s that extras on the disc are the same as the DVD’s: they appear to have covered up the animation sequences in the contemporary (1968) making-of, Mod Odyssey, with the restored footage from the movie, but that’s all.

So, um, nice upgrade on the movie itself, I suppose. But nothing else. The more you know, etc.

Thanks, guys, I forgot.

Briefly: Snow White and The Huntsman

So the wife said, “We’re going to see Snow White and The Huntsman. Want to come along?” I’d seen the trailers and it didn’t look horrible. So yeah. I don’t generally do much about current releases here, having less control over the presentation than I do with home video, not being able to rewind and confirm and the like.

I got reminded why I don’t do opening weekends. School is out, and even at a 3:00 showing, the theater is packed. But if there is one good thing about modern theater sound systems, they blare over the idiots in the dark. Until quiet moments. Then the hatred returns.

Like everybody else in the Net, I will start with the movie’s three major mistakes:

1) The worst: it spends its running time reminding you of other movies, instead of establishing its own character. There is a difference between wearing your influences with pride, and shopping for your own clothes.

2) Every fight scene is done with that thrice-damned close-up-shot-through-a-telephoto-lens style that started with Gladiator and has been dutifully aped in every movie with action scenes since. Making it worse: occasional intercutting with wide shots where you can actually tell what is going on. It is not immersive, it does not make the action more immediate, it is just confusing. Stop it.

3) It tries to make me believe that Kristen Stewart is prettier than Charlize Theron.

Past that, I actually enjoyed it.

1) Kristen Stewart is a better actress than I had credited. One of the ladies I was with opined that “she was acting with her teeth,” but hell, I was just glad she was acting. Some starlets don’t bother.

2) Charlize Theron always bothers, and holy cow does she act the hell out of the black queen.

3) Chris Hemsworth, I fear you are already typecast. But that is because you’re so good at this.

I’m kind of startled at the amount of vitriol I’ve seen unleashed at this movie, even given the three major problems I listed above. I was entertained, even at times spellbound by the imagery, and there is some great imagery in this movie.

When I sit down to watch a movie, the covenant I strike is simple: The movie agrees to entertain me, and I agree to be entertained. I’m actually a pretty easy mark. I do not expect every movie to blow me out the back of the theater; I do not expect to be constantly struck speechless by spectacle. I do not expect to have my life changed. It is sufficient to me that I simply go somewhere else for a couple of hours.

There are still movies that fail at hitting even that low mark. Snow White and The Huntsman wasn’t one of those. I went somewhere else for a couple of hours, brought back only briefly by the girl behind me demanding her date explain to her what had just happened.  Och, young people these days. Even have to have fairy tales explained to them.

If nothing else, I got a dwarf fix that will last me until The Hobbit next Christmas. Yes, it does come off as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Snow White, and while that is a curious thing, it is not necessarily a bad one.

The Stanley Kubrick Project: Barry Lyndon

I guess we should start with my confession that I have never read any Thackeray. Which is ridiculous when you consider that William Makepeace Thackeray is a totally bitching name (not “bitchen”, which I am assured is the correct spelling. “Bitching” seems only appropriate in this context). That is likely going to be my regret on my death bed: that I was a voracious reader in my youth, but I read mainly forgettable pulp crap. Sorry, Dr. Savage.

Well, enough of that. I’m still dealing with one of my chief regrets while still on my lifebed, and that is my neglect of significant mainstream movies. Oh, I still truck heavily in my first love, disposable genre movies, but my attempt to educate myself with a better class of entertainment has been educational, if not always… well, entertaining.

A case in point is the latest in my endeavor to watch all of Stanley Kubrick’s films in order, Barry Lyndon, based on the serialized novel of the same name by the aforementioned Thackeray. It’s the tale of Redmond Barry, a member of the landed Irish gentry who winds up in one form of trouble or another, serves in the English and Prussian armies in the Seven Years War, marries a Countess, and eventually loses it all because he’s really pretty much an opportunistic jerk.

It’s tempting to make something of the fact that Ryan O’Neal plays Barry, but the simple truth is that was mandated by Warner Brothers. WB made a whole lot of the creative freedom they gave Kubrick, but they’re weren’t above demanding things like he cast someone in the Top Ten of Moneymaking Faces for such a non-commercial film. The only two in the Ten who were gender and age-appropriate were Robert Redford and O’Neal, and Redford turned the role down. O’Neal is fine as Barry, but his star was already dimming, and he fell off that Top Ten soon after.

As you’ve likely already determined, I don’t feel Barry is a very likable protagonist; his journey is fascinating but not at all edifying, and is a prime tale of someone getting what they wanted and proceeding to completely screw it up. While the performances are not powerhouses, they are uniformly far more than adequate, a solid ensemble that does not overpower the story, but produces a solid patina of workmanship, very much in keeping with the contemporary paintings that Kubrick strives to emulate onscreen. This is history represented as a series of museum pieces, wonderful to gaze upon, absorbing in detail and execution, but – as is all art – untrustworthy as to its truth. Barry is a cipher, continuously re-inventing himself, and though an unseen narrator is constantly informing us of how things turn out before we actually see the mechanics behind his prophecies, so too is he studiously unspecific.

This is a gorgeous movie, if not a happy one. Kubrick had managed to successfully scam two of the older Mitchell rear-projection cameras out of Warner Brothers, who had switched to front-projection and was no longer using them; he then procured a lens made by the German firm Zeiss for NASA, a lens that was designed for satellite photography and had the widest aperture ever created at that time. Kubrick had the lens grafted onto one of the older Mitchell cameras and finally had an instrument that could film nighttime scenes lit only by candlelight. That is one of the most startling things about Barry Lyndon: those wonderful, candle-lit scenes. Technical nightmares to be sure, as the huge lens aperture meant no depth of field, and if an actor leaned back an inch, he might suddenly find himself out of focus – and I don’t even want to think about the continuity problems with the length of candles, given Kubrick’s penchant for multiple takes.

There are a few scenes that almost certainly required artificial light, but Kubrick’s determination to use natural light as much as possible – given a dry run on A Clockwork Orange – yields astounding pictures of great beauty, again echoing the paintings of that era. Where he found such unspoiled vistas for such long, loving shots is beyond me (but not, apparently, beyond Ken Russell, whom Kubrick asked for advice on the subject).

This painstaking period detail and the skill with which the regimental scenes are done in the first part of the story make me pine for the Napoleon movie Kubrick had wanted to make, but abandoned in the face of the disastrous 1970 Waterloo. The scenes of formations marching into battle, while not as extended as a similar scene in Spartacus, are still breathtaking, especially in this day and age, since it’s obviously a ton of extras, with no sweetening by CGI. Seeing a Kubrick-conceived battlefield between Wellington and Napoleon would have been truly astounding.

So this is my take-away from Barry Lyndon. It is a beautiful work of art. Though the story is not ideally compelling, it is intriguing enough to continue watching, to see what new window will open up to a time long gone, what painting is next in our walk through this exhibit. Though I doubt I will ever revisit the movie, I am happy to have seen it, and to have been able to share  this vision.