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STANLEY KUBRICK: A LIFE IN PICTURES

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Narrator:  Tom Cruise
Director:  Jan Harlan
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen, various ratios
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  Cast and Crew info
Length:  142 Minutes
Release Date:  October 23, 2007

Film **1/2

Stanley Kubrick was and is my favorite director…actually, to put it that way is a bit of an understatement.  Kubrick is the man who changed my entire view of filmmaking, who turned me from a movie lover into a devoted cinema student, and whose unique, singular vision altered my future.  I would not be doing what I’m doing today were it not for him and the effect his films have had on my life.

Which is why A) I was incredibly excited about the 2 hour plus documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, and why B) I was ultimately disappointed in it.  Sure, I enjoyed it, to a certain extent, but overall, it was kind of like one of those giant gumballs you buy for a quarter from a machine.  They look big on the outside, but they’re hollow on the inside, and lose flavor very quickly.  Quickly passing enjoyment does not equate to real satisfaction.

Let’s start with the good points, of which there are a number.  There is some invaluable and rarely-if-ever seen footage included, starting with home movies of Kubrick as a child playing with his younger sister, some later home movies of an adult Kubrick with his own family, some of his early Look magazine photographs, and a clip from his uncirculated first movie, Fear and Desire.  The large number of interview segments is impressive, as is the collection of people who participated in them, from wife Christiane to collaborators like Jan Harlan and Leon Vitali, stars like Jack Nicholson, Malcolm MacDowell and others, and colleagues, admirers and friends like Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen.

What is ultimately unsatisfying about this documentary, though, is how shallow it ultimately is.  It may argue that Kubrick’s reputation for being reclusive and closed off was unmerited, but it does little to prove otherwise.  It talks about each of his thirteen features singularly, but without a lot of detail.  Some moments are great, like getting an outside look at the incredible Ferris wheel-like set of Discovery in 2001.  But overall, very little exploration is done beyond the superficial.  We learn that Kubrick made these films, and how each helped build his professional reputation, but there is no discussion as to what made each of them such vibrant and important cinematic landmarks, or how they influenced a generation of younger filmmakers.

Though the wide collection of interview clips is welcome, one can’t help but wonder why so many were so fleeting.  Keir Dullea says maybe one line, Matthew Modine maybe two, Shelly Duvall maybe three.  These are the people who worked with Kubrick and spent great lengths of time with the man while he was in action…why are they given so little time to talk?

As far as his personal life goes, this documentary paints it with only the broadest strokes.  No mention is made of his first two wives, the fear of travel (particularly flying) that kept him from ever returning to America, or his sometimes rocky relationships with his daughters.  Perhaps longtime producer and friend Jan Harlan felt it better to leave such details out.  The problem, though, is that it turns his film from a documentary into a tribute.

The narration by Tom Cruise is passable, but the unfortunate timing of his recent much-publicized divorce from Nicole Kidman makes their interview segments a little awkward, along with the discussion of Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut.  Perhaps time will loosen the uncomfortability of such moments.

Will Kubrick fans enjoy this presentation overall?  Very probably…but the more you know about the man going in, the less satisfied you’re likely to be.   It was nice to spend a couple of hours in remembrance of the maverick and iconoclastic director, but it was also perplexing to realize how little was actually said in all that time.  Kubrick’s films will always serve as a testament to his genius and importance as an artist; this documentary won’t.

Video ***1/2

Overall, this is a satisfying though understandably varied presentation.  Most of the movie is in non-anamorphic widescreen format, but depending on the footage and the Kubrick film being discussed, the ratio switches all the way from Scope size to full frame.  The recent interview clips and such look terrific, particularly Christiane’s painting studio.  Needless to say, some older bits show their age somewhat, but overall, this is a clean and suitable transfer from Warner.

Audio ***1/2

Again, there are understandable variations in the audio, but overall, this is a quality 5.1 presentation, though surrounds are really only used during the film clips that call for it.

Features *

Only some cast and crew info…very limited.

Summary:

A Life in Pictures might be an eye-opener for more casual fans, but I'm a complete devotee.  The more you love Kubrick, the less you’ll appreciate this well-intentioned but underwhelming and shallow documentary of his life and films.

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