Tag Archives: Ian Holm

CAPSULE: EXISTENZ (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , ,

PLOT: A game designer and a security officer flee violent sabotage during a virtual reality game demonstration and are thrust into increasingly bizarre and dangerous scenarios inside the virtual world.

Still from Existenz (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This movie is weird in a very obvious way, full of gross insect brunches and squishy scenes of body horror.  Since nothing less is expected from Cronenberg, however, eXistenZ simply remains a solid entry in the sci-fi/horror genre, but not one of the weirdest.

COMMENTS: It’s not difficult to imagine the comment section of a youtube upload of eXistenZ to be laden with the now-famous phrase “WTF did I just watch?”  If you were to present eXistenZ at a casual movie night with friends, then there would be no question that at least one person in the room would not-so-kindly ask for the movie to be turned off, and it’s probable that this would happen in the first twenty minutes. To its credit, eXistenZ reels in even mainstream viewers quickly, as the audience is desperate to find out just how the virtual video game will work (especially considering the game controllers look like alien sex toys from LV426). But Cronenberg sends the squares back to their cubicles when the characters Ted Pikul (Jude Law) and Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) actually begin the game, which soon takes us from one “WTF?” moment to the next.  eXistenz is not a dream, nor is it the Matrix.  It hints at something dark within us, something ferociously organic and nasty, filled with bile and ooze and slime.

From the beginning, it appears that there is something vaguely sexual about the game.  During the opening sequence we see several adults–this is peculiar, since video games are assumed to appeal to a younger demographic–sit in wooden chairs and fondle their controllers, which are be blobs of gooey, elastic flesh.  As the game begins they squirm while sitting with eyes closed, and we are given a powerful image of human beings experiencing something sensationally fleshy. When Allegra (Leigh) is shot with a gun made of human teeth, she tells Pikul (Law, who was placed in charge of her safety) to pull over for “an intimate encounter”; we then cut to him holding a Swiss Army Knife and slicing into her flesh to remove the tooth. The sexual imagery reaches a peak when the game controllers are revealed to be biological organisms that plug directly into the spine via a lubricated bio-port.

Sidestepping the usual sci-fi entrapments of robotic laser fights and anti-gravity fight scenes, Cronenberg focuses on the complexity of the human body, desire, consciousness, and free will. There are moments when the characters are compelled to make certain decisions in the game in order to progress, and they must endure extreme discomfort (i.e. eating mutant frogs) to move forward. Cronenberg’s frequent jabs at philosophy are far from cliché, and with its powerful score the movie stimulates the curious mind holistically and sometimes aggressively, all the while maintaining an exhilarating sense of fun that comes from the wackiness of it all.  The two leads both give powerful performances, while some of the minor characters in the movie fall flat (Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe are typically intense but perhaps a bit over-the-top). The picture’s strength comes from its volatility.  Slimy fish guts, assassins, virtual games that run up a tab of 36 million dollars, and back-stabbing (literally and figuratively) wild-eyed gas station attendants make up the bulk of this wild romp through a world where games are hip, powerful, and significantly more important than reality itself.  The relevance of these ideas can’t be understated in a world where kids in China die from playing too much World of Warcraft.

eXistenZ is an underrated picture, with detractors arguing that its ideas are worn out and too similar to other sci-fi movies. There’s no doubt it stands in the shadow of Cronenberg’s masterpiece Videodrome, but eXistenZ is intriguing, suspenseful, and creative on its own terms.  It falls flat at times, especially when side characters are introduced, but whatever slump it rolls into is quickly saved by the bizarre plot progression, where characters change moods and motives at the drop of a hat in a setting that is at once alien and strikingly familiar. We experience what the characters are experiencing; we don’t know what the game means or if it even has an end.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In the hands of anyone else, the notion of computer game terrorists would be ludicrous, and even Cronenberg fails to explain their motives, using the film instead to indulge in surreal exercises of dream logic.”– Jamie Woolley, BBC (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: GARDEN STATE (2004)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Zach Braff

FEATURING: Zach Braff, , Peter Sarsgaard,

PLOT: A small-time actor, doped up on heroic doses of antidepressants, returns home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral and finds love with a quirky lady while working through his family issues.

Still from Garden State (2004)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It ‘s quirky, not weird (and, by the end, it’s barely even quirky anymore).

COMMENTS: Originality is hard. There’s a moment in Garden State where Sam, Natalie Portman’s epileptic paralegal, stands up and spazzes out while babbling randomly in an attempt to do something completely original. Andrew Largeman, our narcotized small-time actor protagonist, is skeptical, and asks “so no one’s ever done that?” Sam’s response is “no, not in this spot.” Garden State gives us a meet cute, a manic pixie dream girl, and the power of love as an instrument of personal growth; the unavoidable stuff of its genre we’ve seen many, many times before. To make up for being unoriginal, the movie also gives us Kenny Rodgers funeral covers, knights speaking Klingon, and Method Man as a peepshow-running bellhop. No one’s ever done any of that before—at least, not in that exact spot on the quirk spectrum. Garden State is really two different movies. Before it launches into the romantic comedy, the first third is a deadpan comedy of alienation a la The Graduate (it’s no accident that Simon and Garfunkel appear on the soundtrack). So deadened that he’s unable to enjoy playing spin the bottle with a beautiful, possibly underage girl during an ecstasy-fueled orgy, Braff conveys some idea of what it must be like to have your emotions submerged under an ocean of lithium. This part of the film is the most interesting. Dysfunction makes for better stories; the healthier Largeman gets, the less interesting the movie becomes. He goes from seeing the world as bizarre and threatening to bizarre and welcoming—a saner, but less dramatic stance. Still, it would have been difficult (and possibly pointless) to sustain the initial mood of aimlessness for an entire film (The Graduate also had to leave it behind). What follows is Largeman slowly waking up from his pharmaceutical coma, helped by Sam and a stoner pal played by Peter Sarsgaard, as he goes on a therapeutic journey searching for the root of his emotional dislocation (which is where the excellent but underutilized comes into the picture). It may not be completely original (except for superficial quirks), and it’s not weird, but it is a good movie. Braff and Portman are hygienic and lovable, bringing an infectious spirit of youth that captures what its like to be lost and hopeful in your twenties. Add a Grammy-winning folk-rock soundtrack, and it’s no surprise that Garden State has become minor cult film.

The Garden State DVD is a lavish affair, with over 30 minutes of deleted scenes, another half-hour “making of” featurette, and two separate commentaries (one with Braff and Portman, the other with Braff and the crew).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Stormy twentysomething emotions seethe under a deft quirkfest.”–Ed Park, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Billy” who even wrote it up as a reader recommendation. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

DREAMCHILD (1985)

Gavin Millar’s Dreamchild (1985) received critical accolades upon its release. It was written by one of the most impressive of television writers, Dennis Potter, and features some of ‘s most impressive work in his renditions of ‘s Wonderland creatures. The film received scant distribution upon its release and, additionally, sat unreleased on DVD until 2011. Far from jettisoning of the darker, surreal elements of “Alice in Wonderland” (as happens in Tim Burton’s neutered version), Dreamchild does not flinch from the nightmarish qualities in this famous tale. Like its source inspiration, Dreamchild remarkably manages to evoke a darker milieu, while retaining warmth and wit.

That is not to say this is a perfect film. It dwells upon the contrast between English sophistication and American crassness a bit too much (even if it is spot on), and a romance between a reporter (Peter Gallagher) and Alice’s ward, Lucy (the quite good Nicola Cowper) is an intrusive misstep. Yet, along with Henson’s vividly designed vision of life below the rabbit hole are two stunning star performances. Most critics rightly singled out the performance of Coral Brown as Alice Hargreaves (formerly Alice Liddell). But, equally impressive is ‘s eye-of-the-hurricane performance as Lewis Carroll.

Carroll (whose real name was Charles Dodgson) was a latent pedophile. Although it seems likely that he never acted upon his desire for underage girls, he did photograph many of them in nude poses. Those photographs have come to light since Carroll’s passing. Alice Liddell, his inspiration for the Wonderland Alice, was not among Carroll’s models. Apparently, Alice’s mother quashed the relationship between Rev. Dodgson and her daughter, deeming it potentially improper.

Still from Dreamchild (1985)Potter’s depiction of that relationship stops short of lewdness, and that was a wise choice. The film opens with a view of a surreal and dark ocean. Atop a rock the aged Alice discourses with two spectral characters: a self-pitying Mock Turtle and the Gryphon. This is hardly the Muppets!

Later, in another world, the 80-year old Alice is sailing to America to receive an honorary doctorate on the centennial of Lewis Carrol’s birth. She is aghast at American commercialism and constantly berates her young ward. Initially, Alice is not altogether sympathetic. But, through flashbacks, we discover that her role as the inspirational source of Carrol’s famous tale has left her, in her advanced age, caught in a flood of nightmarish memories.

Caught in the recesses of her past, the characters of Wonderland imbue terror in her, and at the seedy center is the shy, awkward Lewis Carroll. For the young Alice, Carroll is a source of ridicule, curiosity, and devotion. Holm invests into Carroll such an introverted intensity that this performance calls to mind some of the great character acting from the likes of Montgomery Clift and James Mason.

Although Carroll’s attraction to the young Alice is outwardly platonic, his twitching giddiness from her mere embrace reveals a disheartening adoration. Yet in spite of  that salaciousness, Holm makes us care for this literary misfit.

Alice’s ominous visions of the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar, and Dormouse prove to be minuscule compared to her memories of the man who made her famous. This is an instance in which a very brief exposure in life proved to have a long-lasting impact.

The aged celebrity treats her ward and the American paparazzi with the same Victorian contempt in which she once treated Lewis Carroll. Yet, she is better than her worst moments. In the eventual realization of her life’s arc, Alice again becomes the girl who inspired a great writer. Brown’s performance is admirably intelligent and touching. It borders on criminal that the late actress did not receive a single award for her role.

A small, but perhaps apt trivia note: Jane Asher here plays the mother of Alice Liddell. Although Asher has no scenes with the grown Alice of Coral Brown, she did previously act with Brown’s husband, Vincent Price, in Masque of the Red Death (1964).

PROMETHEUS (2012)

Numerous artists, from Ludwig van Beethoven to modernist composer Luigi Nono and Trappist monk Thomas Merton have found useful symbology in the legend of the great existential seeker Prometheus. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) filters the legend through the director’s pop science fiction sensibilities. Prometheus is the most ambitious film of the Alien franchise, so it is not surprising that fans are not altogether responding to it.

Still from Prometheus (2012)Alien (1979) was, of course, Scott’s breakthrough. It is a film that holds up far better than many of the period. Alien borrowed from other films, including Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965) and numerous old dark house movies. A highly stylized film, its intensity is most nervously heightened early on. The infamous indigestion scene with John Hurt and the building tensions between  and Sigourney Weaver (climaxing with the two actors locked in a mortal combat involving a girlie magazine) create searing impressions. Weaver’s performance in the original film is a pitch-perfect example of femininity locked into Herculean survival mode when coming fact to face with H.R. Giger’s impeccably designed monster of the house. Still, following the Jacques Tourneur rule, the most frightening of the man-meets-monster scenes involves Tom Skerrit, in claustrophobic setting, pitted against an unseen adversary.

1986’s Aliens (dir. James Cameron) was a rousing take on the Ritz Brothers (as redneck outer space Marines) versus a slew of aliens with a returning Weaver (complete with Joan Crawford shoulder pads and ray gun) leading the charge. While Cameron’s Aliens appeased twelve year-old boys fantasies, it was also filled to the rim with risible dialogue. Weaver, surprisingly, received an Academy Award nomination for her second turn as Ripley, even though her performance was nowhere as nuanced as it was under Scott’s direction. Her nomination, although deserving, is even more surprising when viewed today because she is saddled with eye-rolling, tough guy one-liners and a hackneyed scenario in the director’s cut (wherein we find that, during her hibernation, her only daughter had grown old and died. This, of course, gives Continue reading PROMETHEUS (2012)

85. BRAZIL (1985)

“Port Talbot is a steel town, where everything is covered with a grey iron ore dust.  Even the beach is completely littered with dust, it’s just black.  The sun was setting, and it was really quite beautiful.  The contrast was extraordinary.  I had this image of a guy sitting there on this dingy beach with a portable radio, tuning in these strange Latin escapist songs like ‘Brazil.’  The music transported him somehow and made his world less grey.”–Terry Gilliam on his inspiration for the title Brazil

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: , Kim Greist, Michael Palin, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Peter Vaughan, Bob Hoskins, Charles McKeown

PLOT:  Sam Lowry is a lowly, unambitious bureaucrat working in the Records Department in an authoritarian society “somewhere in the Twentieth century” who frequently dreams he is a winged man fighting a giant robotic samurai to save a beautiful woman.  An error results in the government picking up a Mr. Buttle as a suspected terrorist instead of a Mr. Tuttle; Buttle dies during interrogation. Sam visits Buttle’s widow to deliver a refund check for her dead husband, and finds that the upstairs neighbor, Jill, looks exactly like his dream woman; he transfers to the “Information Retrieval” Department to access Jill’s personal files and learn more about her, but ends up running afoul of powerful government interests.

Still from Brazil (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Brazil is the second part of Gilliam’s unofficial “Imagination” trilogy, which began with Time Bandits and ended with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.  Time Bandits is told from the perspective of a child, Brazil from that of an adult, and Munchausen from an elderly man.  Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm and Monty Python buddy Michael Palin all appeared in Time Banditsas well.
  • Terry Gilliam co-wrote the script for Brazil with Charles McKeown (who also plays Harvey Lime here, and would later collaborate on the scripts for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) and playwright Tom Stoppard.  The three together were nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.  Novelist Charles Alverson also worked on an early version of the script, but he and Gilliam had a falling out and he was not credited for his work, although he was paid.
  • Besides Best Original Screenplay, Brazil was also nominated for a Best Art Direction Oscar.
  • The movie is named after its theme song, Ary Baroso’s 1939 “Aquarela do Brazil” [“Watercolors of Brazil”].  “Brazil” represents the exotic, colorful world (with an amber moon) that Sam dreams of escaping to. According to one story, the film was originally to be titled 1984 1/2, but the title was dropped over worries about lawsuits from George Orwell’s estate (a fine adaptation of 1984 had been released the previous year).
  • Robert De Niro read the script and lobbied to play the part of Jack, but Gilliam turned the star down because he wanted Palin in the role.  De Niro accepted the role of Tuttle instead.
  • Brazil has a legendary distribution story.  The film was released overseas in Gilliam’s original cut, but in the U.S. Universal Studios did not like the unhappy ending and attempted to recut the film, reducing it from 142 minutes to 94 minutes and editing the ending in an attempt to give it a happy ending.  (This studio cut of the film later played on television and has been dubbed the “Love Conquers All” version of Brazil).  Gilliam opposed the changes and feuded publicly with Universal Studios head Sid Sheinberg, blaming him personally for holding up the movie’s release, appearing on the television program “Good Morning America” and holding up a picture of Sheinberg, and paying for a full page ad in Variety reading “Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my movie?”  Against studio orders, Gilliam screened the uncut film for free at the University of Southern California.  Curious critics attended the screenings, and before the movie had been released to U.S. theaters, the Los Angeles Film Critics voted Brazil Best Picture of 1985.  In a compromise agreed to by Gilliam, Universal cut only 11 minutes from the complete version, left the unhappy ending largely intact, and released the movie soon after (reportedly so as not to jeopardize its chances at winning an Academy Award).
  • Calling its style “retro-futurism,” Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet credit Brazil‘s art design with influencing their vision for Delicatessen and The City of Lost ChildrenBrazil’s junkyard of the future look also directly inspired the visual sensibilities of movies such as Dark City, Tim Burton‘s Batman, and 2011’s Sucker Punch.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Some may nominate Sam’s dream of soaring as a mechanical angel battling a giant robotic samurai, or the torturer posed in his decrepit doll’s mask in the foreground with his tiny victim chained in the center of a massive open-air tower in the distant background, but it’s Katherine Helmond’s personal plastic surgeon gripping and stretching her facial flab impossibly tight that’s the most striking, incisive and unexpected of Brazil‘s many visual non sequiturs.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Terry Gilliam explained his vision for the milieu he molds in Brazil

Original trailer for Brazil

as one that’s “very much like our world” but “just off by five degrees.”  He was shooting for an atmosphere that’s uncannily familiar, something just strange enough to shock the viewer while still highlighting the absurdities of modern existence.  Watching Brazil‘s many surreal touches—as when what appears to be a giant boozing tramp peers over a horizon dominated by cooling towers painted sky blue with white clouds—most viewers will conclude Gilliam overshot the five degrees at which he was aiming.  But in the unlikely event the rest of the film isn’t strange enough for you, wait for the finale in which Gilliam pulls out reality’s remaining stops, including a scene where a man is literally killed by paperwork.

COMMENTS:  Terry Gilliam wasn’t kidding when he located Brazil “somewhere in the Continue reading 85. BRAZIL (1985)

37. TIME BANDITS (1981)

“…Gilliam fearlessly brings the logic of children’s literature to the screen.  Plunging headfirst into history, myth, legend, and fairy tale, Gilliam sends his characters—a boy and six good-natured if rather larcenous little persons (i.e. seven dwarves)—careening through time-twisting interactions with Napoleon, Robin Hood, and Agamemnon (played, respectively, by Ian Holm, John Cleese, and Sean Connery).  The landscape is populated by the giants, ogres, and sinister crones of legend and fairy tale, all in the service of Gilliam’s weird, ecstatic vision.”–Bruce Eder, “Time Bandits” (Criterion Collection essay)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: Craig Warnock, David Rappaport, David Warner, , Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall, Sean Connery, , Katherine Helmond,

PLOT:  11-year old Kevin is largely ignored by his parents, who are more interested in news about the latest microwave ovens than in encouraging their son’s interest in Greek mythology.  One night, a gang of six dwarfs bursts into his bedroom while fleeing a giant floating head, and Kevin is swept up among them and through an inter-dimensional portal in their scramble to escape.  He finds that the diminutive and incompetent gang is tripping through time robbing historical figures using a map showing holes in the space-time continuum of the universe that they stole from the Supreme Being; things get complicated when Evil devises a plan to lure the bandits into the Time of Legends in order to steal the map for himself.

Still from Time Bandits (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Time Bandits is the first movie in what is known as Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination” or “Trilogy of Dreams.”  It deals with the imagination in childhood; the second movie, the bleak Brazil (1985), with adulthood; and the third, Baron Munchausen (1989) with old age.  Gilliam did not intend from the beginning to make three films with similar themes; he only noticed the connection between the three films later, after fans and critics pointed it out.
  • Gilliam began the script in an attempt to make something marketable and family-friendly, since he could not find anyone interested in financing his innovative script for Brazil.  The success of the idiosyncratic Time Bandits allowed Gilliam to proceed making imaginative, genre-defying films.
  • The film was co-written by Gilliam with his old Monty Python’s Flying Circus mate Micheal Palin, who is responsible for the snappy dialogue.
  • Ex-Beatle George Harrison helped finance the film, served as executive producer, and is credited with “songs and additional material” for the movie.  Only one Harrison composition is featured, “Dream Away,” which plays over the closing credits.
  • Gilliam shot the entire movie from a low angle to give an impression of a child’s-eye view of the world.
  • Sean Connery was not originally intended to appear in the final scene, but was meant to appear in the final showdown with Evil.  The actor’s schedule did not allow him to appear when the battle was being shot, but Connery suggested that he could play a role in the final scene.  His second, quite memorable, role consists of two shots, filmed in an afternoon.
  • A low budget release, Gilliam’s film cost about $5 million to make but grossed over $42 million.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The avenging floating head of God appearing out of a cloud of smoke.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  As an utterly original blend of history, comedy and theology


Original theatrical trailer for Time Bandits

wrapped in Monty Pyhton-eque verbal sparring and presented as a children’s fable, Time Bandits starts with a weird enough design.  As the film continues and the bandits journey from history into myth, the proceedings get more mysterious and existential, until the flick winds up on a shatteringly surreal climax that is bleak enough to supply the most well-adjusted of kiddies with years of nightmares.  As the tagline says, it’s “All the dreams you’ve ever had—and not just the good ones.”

COMMENTS: Sandwiched between the Biblical parody of Life of Brian (1979) and the Continue reading 37. TIME BANDITS (1981)