Tag Archives: Gore Verbinski

LIST CANDIDATE: A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Harry Groener

PLOT: A young executive goes to a remote spa planning to recover his company’s CEO, who appears to have gone insane and joined a wellness cult; circumstances lead him to become a patient as he investigates the place and learns its dark secrets.

Still from A Cure for Wellness (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s uneven to the point of frustration, A Cure for Wellness is going to be the weirdest Hollywood-backed movie of the year, making it one we need to consider. Gore Verbinski blew all the Hollywood goodwill he earned from directing the Pirates of the Caribbean series on this majestic vanity, so we are unlike to see anything this strange in cineplexes for a while.

COMMENTS: A Cure for Wellness is a spin on “Dracula”‘s basic plot. Dane DeHaan is Lockhart, the Jonathan Harker character, sent to fetch the Reinfield character (Harry Groener as CEO Pembroke) from the castle (now a sanitarium on a Swiss mountaintop) run by a mysterious aristocrat (now hospital director Volmer, a name that sounds like it could have come out of an unpublished Bram Stoker novella). The villagers living at the base of the mountain despise the residents of the castle—er, spa—-and there’s even legends about ancient degenerate evils perpetrated by an evil Baron on the site now occupied by the sanitarium. There’s a Mina Harker-ish love interest (Mia Goth’s waify Hannah, enticing  both Lockhart and Volmer). The bulk of the film has Lockhart imprisoned and convalescing, under friendly pretenses, in the demonic lair, investigating his surroundings and his host and making terrifying discoveries (Harker’s scenes inside the vampire’s castle were always the best part of “Dracula”). Water takes the place of blood as a symbol of the leeched life-force.

It’s a sturdy and well-tested horror structure, disguised just enough by the modern setting. Unfortunately, it does not completely pay off. Gore Verbinski has a chance to update the dusty old tale with new satirical furnishings: digs at the modern corporate structure and the wellness movement. The targets are set up, but not knocked down. Lockhart has a rich psychological backstory explaining how he became such a selfishly driven bastard, but while flashbacks suggest this history might hold a key to the story’s deeper meaning, it turns out to be either window dressing or a red herring. A Cure for Wellness can’t decide if it wants to be a straight horror story, a twisty psychological thriller, or a pure Surrealist dream movie. It doesn’t commit to any one of the these genres, and in the end it settles for what may be the least interesting possible compromise between the trio of possibilities. (A movie’s not knowing what it wants to be is no bar to weirdness, but in this case I suspect the rough edges are more a result of waffling than of artistic dementia).

When Lockhart first meets Pembroke, he has been tracking him through the spa’s labyrinthine steam room. He enters a room and finds that the exit has disappeared; impossibly, he’s now trapped inside four walls, filling up with steam. Turning in circles, he suddenly spies an doorway in one of the walls; a stag walks past it. He exits the chamber where he was trapped and finds the CEO sitting on a bench, sweating. Immediately, he forgets the previous minutes eerie events and starts interrogating his quarry about why he left the corporate boardroom. He doesn’t waste time asking why wild animals are roaming the halls; his experiences are immediately forgotten. That sort of thing suggests either sloppy screenwriting, or an “it’s all a dream” interpretation (a reading the script supports by repeatedly referring to a dreaming ballerina figurine crafted by Lockhart’s mom). If Wellness means to be a dream film like that more famous Surrealist institution down the road, The Hourglass Sanatorium, however, it shouldn’t take it’s silly conclusion so darn seriously.

It seems more likely that the script simply incorporates fuzzy possibilities of hallucinations into the story as a way to have its cake and eat it to. Fortunately, the cake is good–if, at two-and-a-half hours, there’s a little too much of it. Verbinski fixates on the eel as a horror image. They show up in the strangest places, and elicit delicious chills almost every time. The sanitarium is a winning setting, and slow camera pans through its off-white halls provide effective suspense. Also, I would advise not going to the dentist for at least a week after seeing this film. The whole thing may not add up to much, but the ian intensity of individual scenes is undeniable. I was totally enthralled by Wellness for the first hour or so, before it’s structure began to crumble into repetitive noodling. But it’s rare to see this much money thrown at the screen to evoke such elaborate weirdness—so I would urge readers to get out and see it on the big screen during its sure-to-be-short run.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…about as weird as modern Hollywood movies get… Simply put, nothing stranger is likely to make it to multiplexes any time soon. Savor the oddness.”–A.A.Dowd, The A.V. Club (contemporaneous)

THE LONE RANGER (2013), OR, THE CONTINUING PARODY THAT IS JOHNNY DEPP

Humphrey Bogart once said: “The industry hurts itself by making so many lousy movies—as if General Motors deliberately put out a bad car.” Bogart did not try to defend his own contribution to slipshod productions: “I have made more lousy movies than actor in history.” That statement was a slight exaggeration, but at least Bogart did not go the route of Johnny Depp’s recent insinuation that there is a critical conspiracy to see The Lone Ranger (2013) fail. For the producers’ sake Depp should indeed promote such an expensive endeavor, even if he himself does not like the finished product. However, Depp’s aggressive defense against the overwhelming critical consensus is an incredulous and depressing parody by an artist long dead.

Depp was indeed an artist once, careful about the roles he appeared in. His body of work revealed an actor whose choices were guided by love of challenge and exploration, as opposed to box office appeal. His collaboration with the young  seemed an ideal pairing of two pop revolutionaries. Unfortunately, that ideal climaxed with Ed Wood (1994). Since then, both Burton and Depp have come to personify the Hollywood Sell-Out. Both were ruined by their work with the imposter company now claiming to be Disney Studios. Depp, it seems, can no longer distinguish a good script from a bad script; or, most likely, he no longer cares. He has gone the opposite route of an actor like Burt Lancaster. Once Lancaster achieved a degree of mainstream success, he began to seek out roles that transformed his late body of work into something approaching incandescence. In sharp contrast, Depp has become increasingly vapid. Tellingly, Depp’s “other” big collaboration is with a Disney director (Gore Verbinski) who birthed an entire franchise from a theme park ride. For the studio, that is a steep decline from classics as innovative as Pinocchio (1940), artistically risky as Fantasia (1940), or as exquisitely organic as Dumbo (1941). For Depp, this amounts to the polyurethane varnish on the caricature he has become. In place of Edward Scissorhands, Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood, Don Juan, William Blake, Raoul Duke or Cesar, we are witness to a fossilized Depp encased in his own career avarice. While he has certainly surpassed his monetary goals, that success will prove to be the derailing of a once admirable oeuvre. Depp’s fan base, naturally, remains in denial.

The Lone Ranger (2013) is yet another example of cinematic postmodern arrogance. Of course, we need not put a B level pulp character that was probably most interesting during the days of radio on a pedestal. A few of the Clayton Moore/Jay Silverheels movies and TV shows were moderately entertaining, albeit as products of their time. Yet, Verbinski, Depp and the film’s plethora of screenwriters serve up a thoroughly unentertaining mess. Erroneously thinking themselves clever and hip deconstructionists of naïve filmmakers past, their idea of entertainment amounts to an early heart-eating scene, and the protagonist being dragged through a pile of horse excrement. Amazingly, it goes downhill from there.

Still from The Lone Ranger (2013)True to postmodern tenets, the film borrows from virtually everything and never finds its own identity. It makes the classic “haven’t we learned yet?” mistake of casting a white man in the role of a Native American. It’s akin to Al Jolson slapping on blackface. Predictably, the filmmakers take the PC route of making the white man look dumb, while a white man is passing for an Indian. This is merely one of the movie’s numerous hypocrisies.

The movie weaves Anti-American sentiment throughout, manifested in the portrayal of silver-hoarding executives of the train company. It could have played out as a well-deserved sentiment if the film itself had not echoed the gluttonous white shareholders. Dumbed-down crude jokes and loud explosions saturate the excessive second half.

Oh, and I did forget to mention Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger himself? That’s rather easy to do, since he has no charisma. Worse, he has no chemistry with Depp’s Tonto. Predictably, Tonto is the main character, which is problematic when he is nothing more than an eccentric buffoon. Alas, there is not a single, likable character. The Lone Ranger himself is reduced to a clueless representative of naïve patriotism, shorn of morals (he only saves Tonto’s life because he needs the Indian’s assistance). His “creed” is a law book, which he attempts to adhere to in the face of surrounding ignorant religiosity (Western Christianity and Native American spirituality are treated with equal contempt).  (Mrs. Tim Burton) shows up for a cameo, which should have been (and is) a bad omen. She is a whore with a gun hidden in a peg leg, but still manages to make the character dull. Only the horse, Silver, has an iota of personality, but even he is not spared belching jokes.

By the time we hear Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” we are too numb and too tired to care. The movie opens and ends (2 and a half hours later!) with a Little Big Man (1970) rip-off. It was the first and last item from the kitchen sink.

In my review of Man of Steel (2013) I referred to that movie as postmodernism at its worst. I stand corrected.

CAPSULE: THE RING (2002)

DIRECTED BY: Gore Verbinski

FEATURING: , Martin Henderson, David Dorfman

PLOT: An urban legend says that seven days after watching a mysterious videotape, you will die; a journalist investigating the phenomenon has a week to figure out the secret behind the tape.

Still from The Ring (2002)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Ring conjures up the mysterious, but only for the purpose of reassuring us that everything obscure will eventually be made clear. It’s the typical horror movie strategy for dealing with the uncomfortably supernatural: acknowledge the weird by treating it like a monster, as the enemy to be banished. At any rate, if we were going to include this story on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies, we’d select the original Japanese Ringu (1998) ahead of this (admittedly faithful and effective) American remake.

COMMENTS: The killer tape begins with an image of a fiery ring of light, then segues through shots of a woman in a mirror, a bleeding nail, severed fingers twitching in a box, a closeup of a horse’s eye, a levitating chair, a falling ladder, and more.  “It’s very ‘student film,'” says AV expert and potential victim Noah dismissively. In fact, the fake avant-garde film-within-the-film stands alone as a weird and disturbing artifact. It’s also the center of the plot: after heroine Rachel watches the tape, the images imprisoned therein escape into the real world—by eerie coincidence, she sees a dead ringer for the ladder from the film leaning against an alleyway wall, and what happens with the fly on the lens of the camera is even more inexplicable. Furthermore, almost every symbol that appears onscreen is eventually decoded and de-randomized as she investigates the history of the curse; the demonic motivation behind the tape is fully revealed, and the only unanswered questions relate to its manufacture. Although this demystification process is standard procedure in psychological horror, and in fact an essential part of the appeal of the genre, from our peculiar perspective here at 366 Weird Movies there is something ironic about making a surrealistic short film the centerpiece of the story, then taking it apart and mapping each mysterious symbol to a plot point on the backstory until all the weirdness has been leached out of it. Be that as it may, The Ring is a fine piece of supernatural filmmaking, with brisk pacing and genuine scares that aren’t tacked on but develop out of a horrific storyline with psychological depth. The story’s mystery isn’t groundbreaking or shocking by genre standards, but director Verbinski parcels out the clues slowly and judiciously to build dread and anticipation. The performances by Watts and Henderson, each of whom play slightly unsympathetic characters who are reformed during their trial by terror, are good. Young Dorfman makes for a creepy, prematurely grown up kid, even though his character is poorly conceived and one of the movie’s weak points (the part shamelessly suggests a variation on the psychic boy from The Shining). All in all, The Ring makes for an effective fright machine; it’s the only Hollywood remake of a J-horror hit that’s capable of standing on its own against the Asian original.

The 2012 Dreamworks Ring Blu-ray release doesn’t appear to be remastered (the movie’s not that old) but it looks and sounds great. It doesn’t feature any commentary but includes numerous extras besides the expected trailer: “Don’t Watch This,” a strange featurette which mixes deleted scenes with highlights from the film to create something akin to a ten minute alternate cut; cast interviews; “The Origin of Terror,” a mini-doc on urban legends; and, best of all, the 16 minute short film Rings, a self-contained mini-sequel set in the Ring universe. The cursed film-within-a-film itself is included as an Easter egg (instructions on accessing it can be found here).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…teeters right on the edge of the ridiculous. Enormous craft has been put into the movie, which looks just great, but the story goes beyond contrivance into the dizzy realms of the absurd.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)