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Eyes Open on Kubrick

Plus New Artisan DVDs

An Aisle Seat Entry

By Andy Dursin

THE HAUNTING finds its way into theaters this week, and we can only hope it's scarier than its trailers would have us (not) believe. Also opening is the beauty-pageant satire DROP DEAD GORGEOUS, which has been garnering solid word-of-mouth (and stars lovely Denise Richards and the budding Kirsten Dunst, which should be enough reason to forget that Kirstie Alley receives top billing!). In the meantime, one of the year's most highly anticipated films has been released--my review follows below, along with a look at new Artisan DVDs. Of course, please send in your comments about Kubrick's final film to me at dursina@att.net and we'll get your gauge on the film.

In Theaters

EYES WIDE SHUT (**1/2): The final celluloid images from Stanley Kubrick are compelling in terms of visual design, photography and art direction, and yet--on an emotional scale--are so detached, in the general style of the director's past work, that the movie catches fire. It's a film about sex without passion, and is never once moving or emotional, something that one would think would be a necessity in a film about sex, love, and relationships.

By now you have likely read many articles about the film, from its controversial production to Warner Bros.' recent digitalizing of figures obscuring some sexual activity that would have given the film a NC-17 rating. What you likely have not heard is just how static EYES WIDE SHUT is--not to mention passionless, something unforgivable in a movie that seeks to understand human relations and sexuality. It's like watching a film that purports to understand relationships on a personal or sexual level without really knowing what drives them.

Tom Cruise plays a doctor who, after hearing his wife (Nicole Kidman, who has little do after the first hour) tell tales of infidelity, seeks out a night of carnal pleasure in an effort to either get back at her or please himself (which one is hard to gauge given how little exposition is revealed in the script). After being lured into a massive orgy--the film's lone set-piece that recalls some of Kubrick's best films--Cruise then goes through the paces of a storyline that, for some strange reason, comes to bear more than a small resemblance to David Fincher's THE GAME. Is it real, or is it a dream? How does it connect, or simply relate, to Kidman's own dreams, which convey in the subconscious what Cruise witnesses in reality--or at least seems to.

I cannot complain about the film's lengthy running time--its pacing is distinctly Kubrickian--or cinematography, or performances, though there's little chemistry between Kidman (who seems uneasy during the first half-hour) and Cruise (their lack of heat is more likely a failing of Kubrick and the film than the actors, but more on this later). Under the circumstances, Cruise gives a strong, controlled performance in a role that demands much but gives little dramatically to support him. The backlot sets, however, never evoke a sense of New York (you can separate the location footage from the British soundstages simply because there aren't any long shots where Cruise is walking through the city), though I am not certain that it doesn't make EYES WIDE SHUT more of a timeless story by avoiding too many contemporary references in its visual scheme. The eclectic soundtrack, meanwhile, features an annoying piano motif reprised at a redundant rate throughout the later stages of the film.

On the whole, though, little can be faulted on the technical end. The real trouble with EYES WIDE SHUT is that it wants to say much about how humans interact and how carnal pleasures obscure us from connecting with one another, despite the intimacy inherent in such a contact, but the themes are never conveyed as effectively or powerfully as one would expect from a director like Kubrick.

Indeed, the final half-hour finds characters explicitly telling us what the movie is about, and what it is trying to say--something that finds Kubrick coming to a surprisingly hopeful resolution, but also raises a series of troubling questions about the movie along the way. If we need the film explained to us in as many words, then what have we been watching for the last two and a half hours? And if this is a film about passion, how can emotions not be shown or involved? There's no soul in the film, no sense of longing, or love. Kidman has a line about her love for Cruise near the end of the film, and yet we doubt it since the one emotion missing from the film is just that. EYES WIDE SHUT is utterly devoid of the impassioned desire inherent in love and sex--it's not steamy and rarely sexy, to say nothing of its lack of emotion.

So, instead of being erotic and provocative, we get sequences that sometimes play like a cinematic experiment in the bizarre, shrouding characters in mysterious garb, hushing in secret societies and revealing that mankind has a seedy, bizarre underbelly after midnight where carnal pleasures are aroused. That's all fine and good, but somehow whatever profound impact the film might have had is ruined by its inability to close in on intimate relationships and show us--aside from a few throwaway scenes involving Cruise with Kidman and their daughter--what truly makes human relationships not only alluring but also complex in every sense of the word. Kubrick seemed more intent here obsessing with the animalistic nature of sex, but his failing is that, in his desire to tie this theme in with saying something lasting about human relations, he finds nothing to contrast it with in the rest of his screenplay (cowritten with Frederic Raphael). If this is love, it isn't emotional, and if it's sex, it's not passionate, either.

It leaves you with the feeling that EYES WIDE SHUT is a one-sided examination of what makes us tick as human beings. Like much of Kubrick's past work, the picture shows humans interacting without probing the soul of its characters, and the ultimate downfall of the movie is that the very detached world view Kubrick held in his films impacts this picture the most--it needed an opening for the door to the heart, and EYES WIDE SHUT never finds the key for it. (157 mins, R)

DVD: Artisan Round-Up

We'd like to welcome Artisan Entertainment onboard to the "Review Crew," and I received their batch of June DVDs just last week. Artisan previously was Live Home Video, and has the rights to their back catalog and Lumiere's library (which includes EMI Pictures); in addition, Artisan is also now distributing product from Republic Pictures on DVD as well. Transfers have never been an issue on Artisan's DVDs, and the company is delving into the vaults with some intriguing new releases on the horizon (including SATURN 3 and THE CASSANDRA CROSSING!).

In the meantime, their June releases showcase a handful of outstanding individual leading performances as well as a pair of relatively recent genre favorites.

The THX mastered edition of HIGH NOON ($24.98) is clearly the standout of the group, a solid presentation of the 1952 western classic with Gary Cooper as a courageous sheriff standing alone against an outlaw (Lee Van Cleef) in a town who refuses to back him. Dimitri Tiomkin's rightly-celebrated score includes the classic Tex Ritter ballad "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling" (added to the film following previews by director Fred Zinneman, who requested the song from Tiomkin), and the film--paced at a brisk 85 minutes--still entertains through its direction and performances. The lead-up to the climax does everything that it ought to, creating an amazing sense of anticipation and underscoring themes of heroism and loyalty (or lack thereof) that are timeless and universal. The DVD transfer is THX mastered and looks crisp with a lack of bitmapping, and a handful of supplements have been included. Among these are an interesting featurette hosted by Leonard Maltin, the original trailer and production stills--making this is an ideal purchase for western fans and lovers of classic cinema.

Jessica Lange, meanwhile, gives a superb performance in FRANCES ($24.98), the 1982 biography of actress Frances Farmer, who went from high school to stardom in the '30s, to eventual committal to a mental institution. Graeme Clifford's direction is efficient and while the script (authored by Eric Bergren, Christopher DeVore, and Nicholas Kazan) doesn't quite go into as much detail as one would like (the movie shows us what happened without really saying why), Lange's performance is a gem, as is John Barry's melancholy score. The DVD here is matted at 1.85:1 and certainly looks better in every facet than the old cassette release from Thorn EMI; the basic Dolby Stereo sound is perfectly acceptable though no other special features have been included.

Meryl Streep, not to be outdone, comes through with one of her '80s tour de forces in PLENTY ($24.98), Fred Schepisi's intriguing 1985 chronicle of a woman who never finds the glory in her life that her early days as a resistance fighter during WWII once promised. Streep's performance is the highlight of an extraordinarily well-photographed film, shot by Ian Baker in anamorphic Panavision, rendered in letterbox format here for the first time (don't be deterred by the jacket, which erroneously states the aspect ratio as being 1.85:1). Charles Dance, Sam Neill, and a straight-faced Tracy Ullman all contribute strong support to Streep, with John Gielgud, Sting and Ian McKellen rounding out the ensemble. Based on David Hare's play, and scripted for the screen by the author, PLENTY is slow-going at times but benefits from the superlative acting, as well as a good score by Bruce Smeaton and consistently interesting handling of the material by Schepisi. The DVD transfer and Dolby Surround soundtrack are both solid.

Robert Duvall's Oscar-winning performance is the highlight of Bruce Beresford's acclaimed 1982 small- town drama TENDER MERCIES ($24.98), with Duvall as a country singer whose life is energized by his meeting with a widow (Tess Harper) and her son, both of whom help Duvall recover his career and sense of purpose. Any script by Horton Foote is guaranteed to be filled with warmth, well-written characters and authentic background atmosphere, and TENDER MERCIES is no exception--the picture gets a huge boost from its dialogue and the winning performances of Duvall and Harper. The film isn't an Earth-shattering melodrama but more of a simple, straightforward character study, but is no less enjoyable because of that. The 1.85 widescreen transfer is strong and the Dolby Surround soundtrack fairly effective (though there's little in the way of directional activity); as with FRANCES and PLENTY, however, there's a lack of a theatrical trailer.

From three strong performances we come to FORTRESS, the 1993 sci-fi thriller with equal shades of LOCK-UP and TOTAL RECALL. Christopher Lambert stars as a poor chap whose wife (Loryn Locklin; whatever became of her?) is imprisoned for having a second child in a future society where the population is controlled by the government and the penalty for having newborns is certain incarceration in an underground maximum security complex. Stuart Gordon (RE-ANIMATOR) was the filmmaker behind this enjoyable, B-grade production, which somehow became a huge moneymaker overseas during its original theatrical run (a sequel has been in the works for some time now). Frederic Talgorn, who once appeared as a bright, new shining light in the film scoring community (with this score plus his better-than-the-material- deserved soundtracks for THE TEMP and ROBOT JOX), contributes a lush orchestral effort, and the movie has plenty of action for genre enthusiasts. Artisan's DVD is not letterboxed but, since the movie wasn't shot in any kind of widescreen process, it doesn't appear as if any peripheral information is being shortchanged here; more over, it looks crisper than the laserdisc release and the Dolby Surround tracks are effective. A theatrical trailer has been included this time out.

Finally, Artisan's Family Home Entertainment has released a DVD of last Spring's NBC ratings hit, ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Produced by Hallmark Entertainment--the same folks who brought us the FX-filled teleproductions of GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, THE ODYSSEY, and MERLIN--ALICE is actually one of the better efforts to come out of the Robert Halmi stable. Tina Majorino makes for a charming Alice and the supporting cast (notably Martin Short's Mad Hatter and other cameo turns by Gene Wilder, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Ustinov and Ben Kingsley) is terrific. Richard Hartley's score is quite good and while the entire production is always a bit over-the-top in terms of its outrageous visuals (Halmi's films generally go overboard in FX), at least they're appropriately applied here to the fantastical story. Even better is that this DVD enables you to enjoy the program sans the abundance of commercials the network ran (some 50 minutes in a three-hour slot), making the once-bloated length (130 minutes) less of a problem. Transfer and sound are both exceptional, with the Dolby Digital soundtrack containing an elaborate symphony of music and effects. Production notes and cast information (along with a trailer for the video release) are included in a nice package that should appeal to all ages of viewers.

Next up from Artisan are DVDs for RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER and EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY, which we hope to have reviews of when we come back from vacation in August.

NEXT WEEK... LAKE PLACID and "V" and "V: THE FINAL BATTLE" on laserdisc (we promised 'em for this week but they WILL be reviewed next week!). Until then, send all comments to dursina@att.net and we're off on vacation!


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