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On Blu-ray/DVD: FILMWORKER (2018), GHOST STORIES (2018), and DISTORTED (2018)


(US - 2018)

Since his death in 1999, Stanley Kubrick's legend has only grown, especially with some once-verboten looks into his filmmaking methodology, which was largely shrouded in secrecy during his lifetime. Such projects include the documentary STANLEY KUBRICK: A LIFE IN PICTURES, by his producer and brother-in-law Jan Harlan, the archival making-of doc by Kubrick's daughter Vivian that's on the SHINING Blu-ray, and Matthew Modine's essential Full Metal Jacket Diary, a coffee table book compiling the actor's bluntly candid journal entries and behind-the-scenes photos he took from the audition process through the completion of 1987's FULL METAL JACKET. Kubrick's dual nature--a genius artist with a demonstrable capacity for warmth and humor and the mercurial, 100-plus-take perfectionist who thought nothing of mercilessly haranguing actors and colleagues to the point of tears and even nervous breakdowns in the pursuit of his art--is on display in all of these. But Tony Zierra's documentary FILMWORKER gets inside the head of a man who walked away from his acting career just as it was taking off to essentially serve at Kubrick's beck-and-call to this day, even though the director has been gone for nearly 20 years. Born in 1947, Leon Vitali was a jobbing young British actor in the late '60s and early '70s, landing gigs on stage, TV, and in a few movies, never really breaking out but never out of work. His big break came when he landed the pivotal supporting role of Lord Bullington in Kubrick's 1975 film BARRY LYNDON and immediately bonded with the director, who wrote additional scenes for Vitali, expanding his role to keep him on the production. Vitali was fascinated by Kubrick's attention to detail and intensive, obsessive management of every aspect of the gargantuan production and expressed an interest in working behind the scenes. After finishing BARRY LYNDON, Vitali had the title role in the 1977 Swedish/Irish co-production VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN and asked director Calvin Floyd if he could stick around after filming wrapped and observe him putting the movie together in the editing room. He reconnected with Kubrick, who gave him an assignment to read Stephen King's The Shining and before long, Vitali was pressed into service as the director's chief assistant and trusted confidante, abandoning his promising acting career and heading to America to both oversee auditions for the crucial role of Danny Torrance in THE SHINING as well as taking extensive photographs of lodges and hotel interiors across America in order to help Kubrick design the perfect Overlook Hotel interior to be constructed on sets at Elstree Studios in London.

BARRY LYNDON stars Ryan O'Neal and
Leon Vitali, reunited over 40 years later.
With his dark glasses, long hair, and hoarse voice ravaged by decades of chain smoking, the present-day Vitali looks like the kind of aging rocker that Bill Nighy played in STILL CRAZY. It was Vitali who discovered Danny Lloyd for THE SHINING and functioned as his guardian and protector through the shoot. It was Vitali who worked closely with R. Lee Ermey on FULL METAL JACKET and had to break the news to an already-cast Tim Colceri that Kubrick decided to replace him with Ermey in the key role of the merciless drill instructor. Colceri, who was given a consolation prize of playing a crazed door gunner ("Get some!") is interviewed, and still seems haunted by losing the role, and though he was kept in the movie, he remains resentful that Kubrick demoted him via a typewritten letter (Colceri still has the letter) and tasked Vitali with delivering it to him. Numerous talking heads appear with memories of Kubrick and the heavy workload dumped on Vitali: Modine, Colceri, the late Ermey, a grown-up Lloyd, BARRY LYNDON star Ryan O'Neal (Zierra arranges an affectionate reunion for Vitali and O'Neal), EYES WIDE SHUT's Marie Richardson, past Warner Bros. execs, film historian Nick Redman, and Vitali's adult children. In addition to his duties on Kubrick's films, Vitali was also responsible for cataloging negatives, color timing, lab and restoration work, cutting trailers for countries all over the world, overseeing and approving DVD and Blu-ray transfers according to Kubrick's strict specifications, and even, as shown by one handwritten note ("Leon, billiard room!"), tidying up rooms and offices at Kubrick's estate.

Vitali at the far left, with Joe Turkel, Stanley Kubrick,
and Jack Nicholson on the set of THE SHINING

Vitali with Kubrick on the 
A look back at Vitali's childhood reveals his stern, domineering father died when he was eight years old, and it's more or less inferred by three of his siblings that his need give over everything to Kubrick was a way of filling a paternal void that's existed since Vitali was a child (one Modine diary entry in his book reads "I feel sorry for Leon, but he's chosen this life," and in FILMWORKER, he calls Vitali's servile sacrifice "a crucifixion of himself for Kubrick"). Over old home movie footage of Vitali's young children playing around stacks of film cans in a cluttered office while Vitali slaves away at a desk, his now-grown son describes his dad's 24/7 work schedule for Kubrick as "Kafka-esque," recalling a childhood memory of Vitali working late one Christmas Eve, long after everyone else left the office. Kubrick gave him some gifts and wished him a Merry Christmas, but then, "Sure enough, around 1:00 in the afternoon on Christmas Day, the phone started ringing. It was Stanley." When Kubrick died just after finishing EYES WIDE SHUT, Vitali took it upon himself to act as the keeper of all things Kubrick, nearly wrecking his health with countless sleepless nights at the Warner offices in L.A. supervising a frame by frame restoration of all of the director's films, approaching it with his mentor's same obsessive quest for perfection, so much so that he proceeded to alienate the execs overseeing the project (this is the only point in the film where an upset Vitali cuts off Zierra and says "I don't want to talk about this anymore"). Vitali recognizes the dysfunction that existed in his relationship with Kubrick (he says his tirades were similar to those by chef Gordon Ramsey), but accepts it as his calling, has no regrets, and misses him dearly. FILMWORKER is a fascinating glimpse into one of the most enigmatic and unsung figures in the Kubrick universe, a man whose selfless devotion to the filmmaker and preserving the integrity of the presentation of his work almost seems to take precedence over every other aspect of his own life. (Unrated, 94 mins)

(UK - 2018)

An earnest British horror film that plays like an old-school Amicus portmanteau for the BLACK MIRROR crowd, GHOST STORIES was written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and star Andy Nyman, based on their popular play that debuted in 2010. The change in medium doesn't always work in the film adaptation's favor in terms of telegraphing its plot turns on its way to a reveal that isn't as clever or as original as it thinks it is, but there's some nicely atmospheric chills along the way. Nyman stars as professional skeptic and paranormal debunker Prof. Philip Goodman, the host of a reality TV show called PSYCHIC CHEATS. He's contacted by Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), another celebrity debunker who went off the grid in the late '70s. An embittered Cameron is aged and sickly, and confesses that he feels like an arrogant fraud and excoriates Goodman likewise. Cameron now believes the supernatural is real, and with one directive ("Tell me I'm wrong...I need to know") hands Goodman a file with three cases that he's been unable to debunk. "Case 1" is Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a widower who encountered something evil as a nightwatchman at an abandoned asylum. "Case 2" is Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther of Netflix's THE END OF THE F***ING WORLD and the great "Shut Up and Dance" episode of BLACK MIRROR), a teenager with cold, impossible-to-please parents who had an up-close-and-personal encounter with a goat-like creature that believes is the Devil when he hit it with his dad's car on a dark and lonely road. "Case 3" is Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), a self-absorbed, asshole businessman who believes he was being targeted by a poltergeist while his wife was in the hospital about to deliver a baby that may or may not be human.

Dyson and Nyman utilize the anthology element as each case is shown as a flashback as they tell Goodman their tales, but it's Goodman's wraparound story that ultimately becomes the central focus. There's references throughout to his own miserable upbringing with a psychologically abusive, devoutly religious father and a mother who remained quiet and looked the other way. He was also bulled by other kids for being Jewish, and as Cameron suggests, his present career as a sarcastic debunker is his way of getting back at the world. Where GHOST STORIES--both the ghosts in the cases and the ghosts of Goodman's past--eventually goes won't really be surprising by the end, but it's an enjoyable ride for the most part. The filmmakers stage numerous shots where it looks like an ominous figure might be lurking in the background, the dysfunction in young Simon's house is suffocatingly uncomfortable (he has multiple locks on his bedroom door to keep his parents out, telling Goodman "They don't like me"), and Matthews wandering the long, underground corridors of of the abandoned asylum and encountering a roomful of mannequins is an unnerving enough image that it'll take you a few moments to question exactly why mannequins are being stored in an asylum. The inconsistencies (if Cameron is off-the-grid, how are people still sending him cases?) are such that it becomes clear that there's at least one unreliable narrator among these characters, the directors can't resist going for one hackneyed, INSIDIOUS-style jump scare (no doubt a necessary concession in the transition from stage to screen) and the payoff isn't quite worthy of the elaborate buildup (it's ripped off from a certain acclaimed TV drama from the 1980s), but GHOST STORIES has its heart in the right place. Not essential viewing, but worth a stream for sure. (Unrated, 98 mins)

(Canada/US - 2018)

Right on the heels of his HUMANITY BUREAU triumph, Canadian director Rob King is back with the equally dismal techno-paranoia thriller DISTORTED. Lauren (Christina Ricci) and Russell (Brendan Fletcher of Uwe Boll's RAMPAGE trilogy) are a financially well-off but emotionally troubled couple who move into The Pinnacle, a high-tech, state-of-the-art "smart" building with around-the-clock security and surveillance. Prior to the move, Lauren is plagued by disturbing dreams and visions of a figure in their apartment, and despite The Pinnacle's sense of security, the nightmares increase in frequency and intensity. Lauren starts seeing subliminal words and images flash across their TV, is constantly being stared at by neighbors scratching the left side of their neck and humming "Beautiful Dreamer," and even watches one Pinnacle resident take a dive off the top of the building. After a cursory browse through a chat room and a conversation with a neighbor (Vicellous Shannon) whose father just so happens to be a pioneer in the world of subliminal advertising, Lauren becomes convinced that the building's owners are conducting secret experiments involving binaural sound waves and message transmissions on a higher-frequency level than the conscious brain--or Rob King--can process. She learns a lot of this from underground journalist and dark web hacker Vernon Sarsfield (John Cusack), who informs her of covert government projects to brainwash the public via subliminal transmissions in "smart" buildings.

One of the dumbest thrillers of 2018, DISTORTED could've been fun in a batshit way, but its story is so muddled and its twist ending so confusing that nothing in it makes much sense. Ricci freaks out a lot, but never really sells you on what Lauren is going through, and a past trauma from which the couple still hasn't recovered is so obviously and repetitively telegraphed from the get-go that when it's finally revealed, it's not even a surprise. The exterior shots of The Pinnacle are laughable--the building is a completely computer-generated visual effect, looking like something out of a shitty Pixar knockoff, and a typically sweaty, disheveled-looking Cusack turns up midway through for a few scenes and disappears from the movie during the climax. He's wearing his usual black ball cap (as seen in RECLAIM and DRIVE HARD) with an added hoodie, a cleverly-deployed accoutrement that frequently obscures Cusack's face and allows him to further embrace Cusackalypse Now by fully committing to the groundbreaking methods pioneered by Dr. Bruce Willis and Prof. Steven Seagal, whose collaborative tutorial "Fake Shemping in the Age of Redbox" takes what was once an unfortunate necessity in the event of an actor's unexpected death and has co-opted it to vigorously prepare any once-relevant and now-visibly inconvenienced actor in the fine art of just sticking around long enough for the close-ups and a quick raid of the craft services table before letting a stand-in handle the rest. (R, 86 mins)

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