Movie of the Week: The Shining (1980)


Stanley Kubrick directs Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd in this classic horror based on a Stephen King novel about a family isolated in a haunted hotel. 

One of my favourite films featuring two of my favourite artists’ (Kurbrick and Nicholson) very best work. For the first two acts we get a psychological horror where a family becomes strained and a malevolent presence toys with them and us to breaking point. This measured and virtuoso section matches Don’t Look Now and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me For its indelible shock imagery and patient manipulation. Remember those gliding steadycam tracking shots over mazelike carpets and creaking floorboards… ghosts chasing the doomed. Just think about the timeless, otherworldly threat of Wendy Carlos’ weeping electronic score, a Lovecraftian wail of lamentation. Then Kubrick lets his hair down, probably for the first time since Spartacus, and delivers a true genre experience. A rollercoaster of gore, jumps, rattles and stalking that leaves you breathless with every watch. Nicholson is one of the few stars who seemed to flourish under Kubrick exacting and exhausting production methods. Unlike Kirk, Sellers or Cruise he emerges with his acting personality fully intact and embellished by the production ordeals demanding Stanley lobbed at him. Playing Kubrick’s preffered protagonist – a man losing his soul to forces greater than he can understand -, Nicholson runs at this concept full pelt. His breakdown is unguarded, stark and bold. He goes from wryly untrustworthy to demonically joyous. A threatening pleasure.  “You got a big surprise coming to you.” Stephen King’s horror works are marvels of visual motifs, creeping dread and big stock personalities. His writing style lends itself to cinema. He has been openly hostile about Kubrick’s adaptation of his best book, hating the cold tone and ignored elements. And as great a novelist as King is, his books uniformly have muddled endings. Kubrick takes all that is exciting about King and adds a conclusion that would go on to influence A Nightmare on Elm Street, Jurassic Park, In the Mouth of Madness and Hereditary. Between Kubrick and King, modern movie horror was redefined by The Shining.


My Top 10 Jack Nicholson Movies

1. The Shining (1980)
2. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
3. Batman (1989)
4. Reds (1981)
5. Chinatown (1974)
6. The Departed (2006)
7. A Few Good Men (1992)
8. Wolf (1994)

9. Mars Attacks (1996)


10. Five Easy Pieces (1970)


In The Fade (2017)


Fatih Akin directs Diane Kruger, Denis Moschitto and Johannes Krisch in this dramatic thriller about a woman who loses her family in a nail bomb attack.

A film of three chapters, with each exploring different genres. The middle section, a gripping courtroom drama, is the standout… though all have their thoughtful qualities and Kruger is excellent throughout.


Zama (2017)


Lucrecia Martel directs Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas and Matheus Nachtergaele in this period fable about a magistrate of a South American colony who cannot get a succession of governors to grant him a letter approving his return to civilisation. 

A mix of Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Kafka’s The Trial, this was Sight and Sound’s Critics Poll’s fourth best film of 2017. Obtuse and boring. As you might expect destitution and fruitless bureaucracy to be.


A Clockwork Orange (1971)


Stanley Kubrick directs Malcom McDowell, Patrick Magee and Warren Clarke in this sci-fi dystopian satire about Alex, a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven.

1995: And I had the choice between Léon: Version Longue or A Clockwork Orange. My sister was going to France and she promised to bring one VHS back for me. One film unavailable in the UK, that was freely purchasable on the continent. I went for the extended version of Leon. It was my favourite movie as a teenager and Kubrick was still a foreign country to me. By this early point I had seen Spartacus and Full Metal Jacket, possibly The Shining. I had liked them but, as a kid, their mature themes and peculiar craft probably stopped me from embracing them. And chances are if Orange Mécanique had returned then I’d had to watch it with my parents. Sitting around the telly for a gory evening of Desperado or Braveheart was perfectly acceptable but the rape and sadism of a suppressed film was something I’d rather experience alone. After all, the extreme violence and sex within, and the UK’s reaction to it on release, had caused Stanley Kubrick to withdraw his creation from distribution in this country, his home. A Clockwork Orange was not family viewing.

When I finally did see A Clockwork Orange, a couple of years later, I found it powerful and disturbing but also grimy and poorly paced. The colours were vivid but the palette was as dated as prawn cocktail or a Slade music video. I wasn’t disappointed but I was happy to file it away as a museum piece, an important artefact of its time, better left preserved for posterity than taken out and played with repeatedly. Yet over the last two decades I have often found myself removing it from its glass case and toying with it. And as an entertainment it has grown on me.


I would say the main issue with “enjoying” A Clockwork Orange, beyond good taste,  is it is a midnight movie that is very front loaded. All the glorious iconography of the Droogs, the balletic ultra-vi and the drawn out perversions are in the first half. The second hour, though equally histrionic and anxious, is talkier and less active. More ethical debate and less rock n roll. Just when your eyelids might start to droop, A Clockwork Orange gets static and serious.

Taken as a purely visceral experience there are distancing qualities that Kubrick implants in his adaptation that somewhat dampens the fun. While his camera often lurks in the outer reaches of a scene (I only remember three close-ups: Jesus statue, serum bottle, Alex’s eyes), rarely moving, the score he attaches is a wailing portent of doom. Visually he may be non-judgmental but aurally Wendy Carlos’ electronic score is a marvel of ominous alarm. Equally the brutalist architecture that Kubrick chooses to house the future in gives us rough, sharp, immovable, grey world. Utilitarian rather than spectacular. Harsh rather than progressive. Sure, the costumes, wall art and soft furnishing might be the height of dystopian fashion but the backdrop is lifeless and without comfort. A nightmarish vision of the future shot entirely on location in South East England.


There’s also something dispassionate about all the transgressiveness. When The Droogs interrupt another gang raping a girl, the victim is ignored in the ensuing carnage. When Alex brings two girls back to his flat for a sped-up orgy; it all happens too fast for us the viewer to savour the nudity and eroticism but equally makes the characters’ physical connection feel mechanical and comical. You get the feeling the only time Alex and The Droogs actually enjoy themselves is when breaking the rules of expectation rather than the actual crimes themselves. Listen to the dopey glee in Dim’s voice as he repeats “IN THE RAIN” mimicking Alex threatening performance of the old standard. Or Alex’s unfashionable love of Beethoven. These bad lads are only emotional when doing what isn’t expected of them by society… and that’s liking old music rather than being irredeemable thugs.

Much has been written about the film and the source material (a brilliant book by Anthony Burgess written in fictional patois of Nasdat) being treatises on Free Will. And we explore Alex, with his incongruous soft, lilting Yorkshire accent and unlikely toneless body, and his responses to the world. Here’s the thing… Alex can pretend to be a good boy… he can convince ladies to open their front doors to him, his parents he is too unwell for school, prison chaplins that he is redeemable and psychiatrists that he is up for rehabilitation. And he can appreciate beauty… whether it be fashion or old music. But he is expected to be violent for violences sake. He exists in a world where the police are former thugs, the bible is a pornographic text and the ladies on the other side of the door automatically presume he is a danger. The author and director need Alex to be a psychotic hellion to make their point. The viewer need him to be glamorous and anti-heroic to engage with the film. So how much choice does he ever have in his responses?


The hour where Alex is a victim of the system (and of his own victims) just doesn’t absorb us like the hour where Alex is an incorrigible agent of destruction. All Kubrick’s interior shot are as far back as possible. This is an unusual visual choice. We see the walls, floor and ceiling in nearly all scenes. Every interaction takes place in a box. Every moment feels caged in or viewed as if a lab experiment. Is Kubrick making a point about Alex’s free will? Or ours as an audience? If his camera is a passive observer, the glass of a two way mirror, then who are we?

We spend the first hour revelling in Alex’s repulsive behaviour. It is what we have bought a ticket for. He, the boundary-less criminal, is the product we have purchased for our own pleasure. He has been packaged fantastically in his bowler hat, eye make-up and codpiece. And he delivers exactly to the specifications we were promised on the poster’s tagline. He rapes, he is violent, he likes Beethoven. But after that hour of getting what we want with Alex as our avatar, Alex is then forced to watch videos of similar horror. His eyes are prised open, his head fixed so he cannot turn away. And the footage of a gang attacking a girl is filmed with precisely the same reality as Alex’s earlier adventures. Alex himself comments “It’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on a screen.”


Yet Alex has no choice but to keep watching. Even when his brain and body are so repulsed that he has an allergic reaction to the imagery. Imagery we have chosen to watch as our late night leisure activity. A Clockwork Orange was the 11th highest grossing movie of 1971. The current 11th highest grossing movie of 2018 is Peter Rabbit. We chose to enjoy A Clockwork Orange en masse. It presents a world where everyone is corrupt from snakey politicians to vigilante liberals, lazy hospital workers and actors who oppressively torment Alex then bow to a braying audience. It presents a world where the only happy ending is to reprogram Alex to be the violent, anti-social, little parasite he might have someday grown out of being… (see Burgess’ original ending).

Our final shot is the double brainwashed Alex’ fantasy. A rape in a white room without walls. The posh and the powerful applauding him. He is no longer boxed in. No longer reviled by the adults of his world. But all that is left is the sexual assault and audience approval. There is no context. Or reality. Beethoven’s Ninth reaches a crescendo. “I was cured, all right!”



Whitney (2018)


Kevin Macdonald directs Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown and Cissy Huston in this documentary charting the tragic rise and fall of a pop superstar. 

Reviewing documentaries can be difficult. I tend to enjoy the ones that open up a world to me I had very little knowledge of or capture individuals I thought I knew in revelatory moments of truth. Macdonald’s Whitney has few surprises for even those only casually acquainted with her story. So you are left poking through the remains of her life with little attention to the music and no real insight into her as a flesh and bones person. We get a lot of dark gossip but very little light shone onto her talent.


Grease (1978)


Randal Kleiser directs John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John and Stockard Channing in this high school musical about spunky seniors constantly battling with their non-conformist identities and their raging hormones.

I love Grease. I love the hit after hit songbook, a soundtrack that defined summer holidays and school parties for at least two entire generations. I love the dated Carry On style innuendo based humour. I love Stockard Channing actually puuting in an award worthy acting turn while everyone else is just trying to look a decade younger than they are. I like the thrills and spills of “Thunder Road”. I love the American Bandstand sequence which could be watched with no context to the feature’s plots and be the most frenetic, exciting and energetic short film you’ve ever seen. I love that bit where an animated sausage jumps into an animated bun and its more romantic than a million Love Storys. Flawed, messy perfection. “Why, it could be Greased Lightnin’!”


My Top 10 Musicals

1. Singin’ In The Rain (1952)
2. Mary Poppins (1964)
3. LaLa Land (2016)
4. The Jungle Book (1967)
5. Grease (1978)
6. South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut (1999)

7. Yellow Submarine (1968)
8. The Muppets Movie (1979)
9. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
10. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)


Beasts of No Nation (2015)


Cary Joji Fukunaga directs Abraham Attah, Idris Elba and Kurt Egyiawan in this African set war movie about an orphan lost to and indoctrinated into a squadron of child soldiers.

This was always going to be a hard watch at home… and I put it off for a fair few years for more obvious pleasures. It proves to be an expansive, uncompromising and gruelling, as expected. The imagery is vivid and the stylistic flourishes feel organic to the story rather than flashy overkill. Anchored by a powerful turn by Idris (he abandons suave and seemingly channels Tom Hardy’s or Oliver Reed’s trademark brutishness) and bluntly direct child performances, this is one of the finest war films in recent years.


Ocean’s 8 (2018)


Gary Ross directs Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Anne Hathaway in this girl’s only spin-off to the Clooney / Pitt / Soderbergh classy comedy heist series. 

Alarm bells rang with the trailers… there were no discernible jokes in the marketing footage. Turns out the trailer sold the film accurately. This is a movie so glossy it glides along its slick surface without ever hitting a snag or tickling out a laugh. If a security guard almost enters an area in which the ensemble are criming, then it is within a vague and tensionless proximity…. then the distractions come long before we could possibly fear the jig is up. If a character opposes the coutured crew then they are folded into the team with baffling speed and motivations. The plot moves from A to A with nary a skipped heartbeat in sight. The score: a 108 minute plastic mannequin for pretty dresses, a motionless vehicle for sort of stars to pretend they are flim flam grifters. Why no Emma Stone? Why no Angelina Jolie? Why no Scarlett Johansson, Jodie Foster, Jane Fonda, Michelle Pfeiffer, Pam Grier, Goldie Hawn, Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Angelina Jolie, Meg Ryan, Viola Davis, Angie Dickinson or Jennifer Lawrence?  Surely Julia Roberts, who has form in this series, was a shoo-in? Oh… Awkwafina is in the 8 “big names” though… I’m sure she’ll bring a lot to the table. (She doesn’t… four of the eight feel utterly disposable after their recruitment scenes). A wasted opportunity with only Anne Hathaway’s mark having any infectious larks.


The First Purge (2018)


Gerard McMurray directs Y’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis and Marisa Tomei in this prequel to the dystopian ‘crime is legal for one night, now survive the night’ The Purge series. 

The weakest entry so far. This is due to daftly unlikeable protagonists and occasionally overly restrained mayhem. If you come to The Purges for pure 100% carnage this feels a little stepped on. There’s still exciting shock imagery; glowing contact lenses typify the early adopters, KKK knights on quad bikes, exploding baby toys and a very disturbing “pussy grabbing motherfucker”. And Y’lan Noel makes the unbelievable but thrilling leap from drug kingpin to projects’ John McClane. He’s not quite Frank Grillo but the movie picks up whenever he’s onscreen rescuing the untrustworthy dogooders from the conspiracy death squads and more enthusiastic locals. Engaging if not revolutionary.


Adrift (2018)


Baltasar Kormákur directs Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin and Elizabeth Hawthorne in this true story of a sea faring couple whose yacht is rendered adrift weeks away from inhabited land. 

A solid adventure movie that works better as a flashbacking backpackers’ romance  than as a tale of gruelling survival. The post-disaster scenes have a drawn out morbidity (unavoidable) which mire the likeable leads. They are left with nothing more to work with interminable showboaty despair. Woodley in particular is too sweet and lovable a presence for that to be a situation you want to witness her stranded in at length. It is watchable, and has a late surprise up its sleeve, but 127 Hours covered the same emotional ground with more elan.