Tag Archives: Ewan McGregor

CAPSULE: BIG FISH (2003)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Albert Finney, , , , , , Robert Guillaume, , , Loudon Wainwright III,

PLOT: William Bloom (Crudup) returns to his Alabama hometown when he receives news that his father, Edward (Finney), is dying. William has never gotten along with his dad, a spinner of tale tales, but is it possible that any of his stories are true?

Still from Big Fish (2003)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is Tim Burton for people who don’t like Tim Burton. It’s classic Oscar bait: a sentimental story of a dysfunctional father-son relationship with the Burtonesque elements—werewolves, witches, conjoined twins—coming in on the margins. As it is, the film is quite enjoyable, but not one of Burton’s best and definitely not one of his strangest—so it’s definitely not weird enough for the List.

COMMENTS: : Big Fish is Tim Burton lite, which doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. On the surface this is a story of father-son reconciliation, and since Burton had lost both of his parents in the few years before Big Fish, the story must have had extra resonance for him. But this is still a Tim Burton film, with moving trees , a giant and mermaids, among other contrivances, and it definitely dips into any number of fantastical realms. Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney play Edward at 30ish and 65ish, respectively, and Alison Lohman (whatever happened to her?) and Jessica Lange are the younger and older versions of Edward’s wife, Sandra. All four are convincing, as is Crudup in the thankless role of Edward’s perpetually grouchy son, Will. However, future Oscar winner Marion Cotillard makes little impression as William’s wife. Philippe Rousellot’s cinematography is digitally manipulated, which would be a hallmark of almost every Burton film after this, and everything looks so beautiful that it’s not difficult to be sincerely moved by this film’s third act—the first time that Burton attempted to tug the heartstrings since Edward Scissorhands. He certainly hasn’t tried anything similar since. Of course, this is exactly the kind of manipulation that had naysayers complaining that Burton had sold out, and that Big Fish  was too bland and impersonal. Manipulative it may be, but the film feels far more Burton-esque than the lamentable Planet of the Apes or the the dispiriting Alice in Wonderland. Big Fish may be the rare Burton film that can please both his acolytes and detractors equally.

Sharp-eyed viewers will note a very young Miley Cyrus as a little girl in a Brigadoon-like town that Edward visits, and sharp-eared listeners will notice that, except for Cyrus, there isn’t one authentic Southern accent in this Alabama-set tale. Lange still sounds like she’s doing Blanche Dubois. It all adds to the (intentional?) unreality of this charming tall tale.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There are quirks aplenty in Big Fish, but spirited performances from a talented cast, led by a standout Finney as the slippery-fish raconteur, help domesticate the wall-to-wall weirdness.”–Megan Lehmann, The New York Post (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Nick.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: JACKBOOTS ON WHITEHALL (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Edward McHenry, Rory McHenry

FEATURING: Voices of Ewan McGregor, , Rosamund Pike,

PLOT: British farmers unite with Churchill and Scotsmen to repel Nazis who invade London by

Still from Jackboots on Whitehall (2010)

tunneling under the English Channel.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The idea of an absurd Nazi invasion of England acted out by children’s toys is odd and appealing, but the premise is undercooked, and never hits either the weird or (more importantly) the comic notes that it should.

COMMENTS: Hitler in a dress!  That should be funny, right?  It could be either a great punchline, or the beginning of a running series of gags that see (for example) der Führer more concerned with what’s going on with his hemlines than with developments on the front lines.  But Hitler’s transvestite cameo is emblematic of the problem with Jackboots.  The joke is never developed; the movie just trots out the dictator dressed as the Queen of England, with a pearl-handled Luger, and expects us to laugh.  Although the occasional amusing one-liner slips through the fog of war (usually delivered by in his dead-on Churchill impression), for the most part Jackboots‘ quips don’t exactly stomp on your funny bone.  They’re sparse, as well.  A lot of time is devoted to chuckle-free dramatic scenes between big-handed farmhand turned soldier Chris (McGregor), his lady-love Daisy (Pike), and her disapproving Vicar father (Grant), as well as to intricate battles between plastic Panzers and Punjabi guards that—considering they’re enacted with toy tanks fighting Ken dolls in turbans—are more thrilling than expected.  Jackboots is part WWII movie parody (with a roughneck American pilot who thinks the Nazis are Commies), part clever historical references (the defeated Brits retreat to Hadrian’s Wall, and the Germans are fearful of pursuing where even the Romans dared not go), and part pure silliness (a Braveheart spoof takes up a large part of the last act).  There is a running undercurrent of mock-prejudice against the Scottish (who are depicted as cannibals in skirts) that must be funnier to U.K. residents than to those in the U.S. and elsewhere—at least, I hope it is; otherwise, it’s just another Jackboots comic misfire.  The movie manages to be unique without ever finding its own voice, which makes it interesting without ever being engaging.  Mainstreamers hoping for a script with the sly gross-out humor of Team America or the pop-culture savvy of TV’s “Robot Chicken” (which uses the same action-figure aesthetic as Jackboots) will be disappointed, if not angry and frustrated, by the oblique comedy on display here.  But even if it’s not riotously funny, little touches like a ghoulish pig-nosed Goebbels, a cat who looks like Hitler, puppet gore, and an attack vanguard of bazooka-wielding Nazi dominatrices in black lipstick should be enough to keep weirdophiles watching to the end.

Though the end result is mediocre, Jackboots‘ crazy synopsis managed to attract top-notch cult British acting talent.  Besides McGregor, Pike, Spall and Grant, the voiceover cast includes Alan Cumming (as Hitler), Tom Wilkinson (as Goebbels), and (as Himmler).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…for sheer oddity value… must rank as some kind of collector’s item.”–Henry Fitzherbert, Daily Express (contemporaneous)

88. THE PILLOW BOOK (1996)

“I am certain that there are two things in life which are dependable: the delights of the flesh, and the delights of literature.  I have had the good fortune to enjoy them both equally.”–Sei Shōnagon, “The Pillow Book,” Section 172.

DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway

FEATURING: Vivian Wu, Ewan McGregor, Yoshi Oida

PLOT: Every birthday, Nagiko’s father draws calligraphic figures on her face while ritualistically reciting the story of creation. Nagiko grows into a beautiful young fashion model obsessed with the intersection of calligraphy and sex, seeking lovers who will use her naked body as a canvas on which to write. She meets and falls in love with a bisexual British translator who convinces her to write on others’ bodies, and together they conspire for revenge against the publisher who wronged her father.

Still from The Pillow Book (1996)

BACKGROUND:

  • The “Pillow Book” from which the movie takes its title is “The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon,” the diaristic collection of anecdotes, observations, poetry and lists by a lady-in-waiting to Empress Sadako of Japan in the Heian era (the book was composed around 1000 AD).  Shōnagon’s work, though probably never intended for others’ eyes, became one of the classics of Japanese literature and a tremendous source of historical data about the Japanese imperial court.  Greenaway was inspired by “The Pillow Book,” but the film is not an adaptation of Shōnagon.  In an interview he explains: “I took some of [the book’s] sensitivities, primarily where Sei Shōnagon said, ‘Wouldn’t the world be desperately impoverished if we didn’t have literature and we didn’t acknowledge our own physicality?’ And the movie’s just about that.”
  • Occasionally, the spoken Japanese dialogue is not translated into subtitles. This is deliberate.
  • Venerable cinematographer Sacha Vierny had shot Greenaway’s previous six feature films and had previously worked with Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad), Buñuel (Belle de Jour) and Raoul Ruiz (The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, Three Crowns of the Sailor), among other notable (and weird) directors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are a bewildering number of nominees to choose from, especially since Greenaway frequently places two or three images on the screen at once, picture-in-picture style.  The overwhelming repeated image is that of writing inked on nude bodies, however, and so the shot of glowing letters cast on Vivian Wu’s darkened, reclining body as she writes in her diary in bed best captures The Pillow Book‘s visual fetish.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Pillow Book is a movie about a fetishistic, eccentric, obsessed


Trailer for The Pillow Book

character, brought to us by an auteur with firsthand knowledge of those qualities.  Greenaway splashes the screen with visual extravagances, with pictures framed inside of other pictures, and images layered on top of one another, melding one into the next.  Full of obscure musings about the nature of art and sex, The Pillow Book tells a story of lust and revenge, but subjugates the text to the image, the narrative to the cinematic.  The result is visually hypnotic, frequently frustrating, and all Greenaway.

COMMENTS: A man and woman make love.  The entwining limbs are spectral, as their Continue reading 88. THE PILLOW BOOK (1996)

CAPSULE: STAY (2005)

DIRECTED BY:  Marc Forster

FEATURING: Ewan McGregor, ,

PLOT:  A private practice psychiatrist takes over the case of a suicidal art student after his regular therapist takes a leave of absence due to stress, and discovers the case has metaphysical as well as psychological implications.

stay

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEStay gets a pretty weird vibe going through its trippy second act—not coincidentally, the part of the movie many mainstream critics complain grows tiresome—but ultimately this mindbending plot has been handled more elegantly before in more memorable films.

COMMENTS: Stay is often a feast for the eyes and a masterpiece of meaningfully employed techniques. Shots are packed with subliminal detail, and everyone notices the amazing transitions that flow seamlessly from one scene into the next (a character gazes out the window to see the person they’re talking to sitting on a bench, having already started the next scene, or wanders out of an art department hallway that magically becomes an aquarium).  The artistic editing and camera tricks all lead up to a beautiful visual climax on the Brooklyn Bridge, where Sam (Ewan McGregor) and Henry (Ryan Gosling) deliver their “final” speeches while engulfed in a sea of waving strings, as if small filaments of cable have broken off the bridge and are drifting in the wind.  Unfortunately, the story, while clever at times, can’t justify the enormous care devoted to the production design.  Long time fans of psychological thrillers will guess the twist from the first shot, although through directorial sleight of hand and a shift of protagonists the film constantly suggests that it’s just about to head in a novel direction.  In the end, the story is both resolved and unresolved—the unresolved parts being those leftover scraps of the script that relate not to the mystery’s solution, but to the screenplay’s attempts to misdirect the viewer from that solution.  These questions wave around in the mind like those wavy filaments from the Brooklyn Bridge: not part of the supporting structure, just there to add atmosphere.  The end result is a series of admirable tricks strung together, without a huge narrative or emotional payoff.

A curious and disappointing feature of the DVD release is that the widescreen version of the film, with limited commentary by director Forster and star Gosling, is hidden on side B of the double-sided DVD, with a fullscreen version with no commentary taking up side A.  Renters who don’t have the opportunity to read the box cover or who miss the note on the disc’s label may view an inferior presentation of the movie by default.  Ironically, one of the B-side commentators advises, “Never watch this in 4:3.  You’ll miss too much.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sam can’t figure out why Henry wants to kill himself, but it probably has something to do with his inability to differentiate between his hallucinations and reality. Despite his professional training, Sam fails to come to the obvious conclusion: the movie around him has been hijacked by an overzealous D.O.P.”–Adam Nayman, Eye Weekly

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Melissa.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)