Tag Archives: John Hurt

DAVID LYNCH’S THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980)

Critics and audiences were surprised by ‘s Elephant Man (1980), which in itself is surprising. Apparently after Eraserhead (1977) became a cult favorite, the assumption was that Lynch was unable to tell a linear narrative. It’s the very old either/or label that audiences are prone toward. (Lynch would delightfully prove his narrative skills again with 1999’s quirky, but linear, The Straight Story).

The only critic of note who was not surprised was Roger Ebert, in one of his most pedestrian essays. Hopelessly hindered by his belief in the bourgeois definition of “courage,” Ebert delivers a polemic,  writing that the death of Joseph Merrick[1] was, essentially, a suicide. Ebert further embarrasses himself in questioning the film’s point. We could just as easily question the point of virtually every film by or . Likewise, we could ask the purpose of an outsider art gallery. With dignity, grace, and sensuality, Lynch’s The Elephant Man edifies the outsider and obstructs our tendency to judge. Throughout his body of work, Lynch sympathetically locates the pulse of the alien, foreigner, and refugee with authentic depth. (Perhaps we should put Lynch into office instead of Donald Trump). Comparatively, is entirely artifice.

Broken down, the narrative of The Elephant Man is quite orthodox, but Lynch imbues the film with such an imaginative touch that it never fails to feel like a revelation. Smartly, Lynch opens the film in a full-blown horror milieu with ecstatic black and white cinematography from Freddie Francis (a Hammer Studios regular), which paves the way to Lynch shattering all of our preconceived notions. He is aided considerably by ‘s nuanced portrayal of Dr. Treves, who serves as the point of entry into the traumatic life of the so-called Elephant Man. Matching Hopkins is ‘s sensitive, tour de force portrayal of Merrick. Together, the two actors locate Lynch’s rhythmic pulse.

Wendy Hiller as the nurse, Mrs. Mothershead, and as the hospital’s Governor Carr-Gomm are equally effective. The film is hampered, however, by the predictable hammy acting of Hammer Horror veteran Freddie Jones as Mr. Bytes and, surprisingly, by Anne Bancroft’s superficial performance as upper-class Shakespearean actress Madge Kendal.

Still from The Elephant Man (1980)

Like the monster of ‘s Frankenstein (1931), Merrick is the protagonist in Lynch’s film. Set in turn of the century London, Treves rescues Merrick from the cruel Mr. Bytes, who regularly beats his freak. To his astonishment, Treves discovers that Merrick is both cultured and genteel.  After Carr-Gom’s eventual approval, both Treves and Mothershead care for Merrick until his death.

Lynch says quite a bit about class distinction and pulls no punches. The lower-class, uneducated masses are not spared simply because they are destitute. Indeed, Lynch depicts them as prone to barbarism. Nor does the film congratulate the aristocracy: as Mothershead points out, “we are exhibiting Merrick all over gain.”

In lesser hands, The Elephant Man could have easily been preachy, overtly sentimental (think late Chaplin) or caved into a melodramatic crescendo (Think Spielberg). Instead, Hurt’s performance breaks through Christopher Tucker’s ingenious makeup. Ultimately, it is that portrayal which we come away with. That Lynch never allows aesthetics to impede upon the soul of the film is a testament to his craftsmanship.

  1. The real life Joseph Merrick was referred to as “John” Merrick in the play and film. []

CAPSULE: ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , , Anton Yelchin

PLOT: A reclusive composer living in a cluttered house in a decaying neighborhood of Detroit is actually a vampire suffering from severe ennui; he reunites with his undead wife, who flies in from Morocco, and is visited by her troublemaking younger sister.

Still from Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: No Jim Jarmusch movie is ordinary or normal, but this languid vampire romance/drama, while intoxicating, doesn’t quite make it all the way to “weird.”

COMMENTS: I’ve always wondered how vampires keep from getting bored with eternal undeath. I occasionally find it hard to find something to do to fill up a few hours on a rare free Saturday afternoon; how in the world would I pass the endless nights of dozens of strung-out lifetimes? Only Lovers Left Alive starts from that very premise, with vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a centuries-old composer who now collects vintage guitars and composes feedback-laced funeral dirges, bored and contemplating offing himself with a new twist on the old stake-in-the-heart methodology. The only thing that keeps him from retiring to the coffin for good is his love for fellow walking corpse Eve (Tilda Swinton, who in an albino wig looks oh-positively undead, as well as slightly resembling a transgendered Jim Jarmusch). The mood of luxurious, decadent idleness is a fit with Jarmusch’s patient style of filmmaking. The vampires here are wan intellectuals, disaffected Romantics, above the common run of the living (whom they refer to as “zombies”). There is a reference to some recent corruption of the human world, in the idea that human blood is now largely contaminated, and it’s hard for the vampires to find “the good stuff” without a connection at the blood bank (the only truly funny moment in the movie comes when a bloodsucker feels sick after sipping at the veins of a poorly-chosen victim). The script is peppered with English-lit jokes (one of the vampires is a famous Elizabethan writer), and the soundtrack is largely dark psychedelia that give off a decadent, hashish-y vibe. The commonplace hemoglobin-as-a-dug motif further reinforces the film’s Bohemian aura. Some of the best moments are the blood on the teeth montages, when the undead each down a cup of red stuff and throw back their heads in ecstasy, looking for all the world like hopheads getting a fix. Later, disheveled, wearing sunglasses at night as they wander the streets of Tangiers looking for a score, Swinton and Hiddleston might as well be staggering in the footsteps of . Even though a couple of characters die, it seems that not much actually happens over the course of two hours, or that there is much new that can happen to these jaded walking corpses. Though not as abstract and punishing as his previous experiment in stripped-down spy fiction, 2009’s The Limits of Control, Jarmusch’s latest is bound to alienate many viewers with its lack of action and highbrow references that sometimes seem self-congratulatory. Still, if you get on its arty wavelength, you’ll find euphoric moments that hit you like a rush of fresh blood to the cerebral cortex. Colorful, arabesque, and throbbing with a melancholy drone, the purpose of the movie is not to tell a story so much as to enfold us inside of these vampires’ immortal languor. Only Lovers Left Alive is a film to soak in.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

‘…part spot-on Detroit travelogue, part pop culture satire and part fish eternally out-of-water anxiety exercise. Somehow it’s all very entertaining and weird and fitting, with Detroit looking like a place any vampire would be happy to be.”–Tom Long, The Detroit News (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SNOWPIERCER (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chris Evans, , Kang-Ho Song,

PLOT: The film takes place eighteen years after a global extinction event has plunged the world into a new ice age. The only survivors are those who managed to board the Snowpiercer, an enormous self powered train that now continually loops around the Earth on a journey with no end or purpose, in time. There is a class system, working from the front to the back, in place to keep social order. But dissent brews amongst the passengers between the haves in the front and the have-nots by the caboose.

Still from Snowpiercer (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s the weirdness, which goes beyond the central science fiction conceit, that actually makes the film unravel. Following an extremely tight and gripping first hour, it’s as if Bong is unsure where to take his film, so he halfheartedly offers a series of -esque impersonations set against increasingly flawed narrative logic. These slips distance and distract the viewer from what could have been an excellent addition to the canon of “great science fiction movies” (a list which in and of itself is a long way away from being 366 movies long).

COMMENTS: Joon-ho Bong’s first English language film generated a lot of buzz in Europe following its popular reception in his home country of South Korea. An ongoing argument between director and the stateside distributor (The Weinstein Company, as usual) over subtitled scenes not being cut means that the film may be sinking without much of a trace in the U.S.A., however, which seems a shame given Bong’s track record. The director of The Host and a segment of Tokyo!, amongst others, Bong is a director with good work to his credit. Snowpiercer, however, doesn’t stand up to critical attention. Without giving anything away, the opening section sets a very tense situation of confined spaces that are a certain class of people’s entire universe. Tired of the same food and the lack of windows, a revolution takes place with the intention of getting to the front of the train, and from here on in the film moves at a breakneck pace which is both tense and exhilarating. Particular kudos must go to Tilda Swinton, who is unrecognizable as a character based on Great Britain’s iconic Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher, and is a scene-stealer during her underused screen time. The film works as a high octane action movie, and it works in this manner for quite a while; but as the lower classes gain access to new carriages the dynamic of the film changes for the worse.

Snowpiercer‘s overall fault is that its enormous plot holes are impossible to forgive against its pretensions of an intelligent subtext and analysis of modern class issues. Entertainment-driven popcorn viewing that makes up the mainstay of the Hollywood summer slate can be forgiven for saying things badly, given that it has so little to say; but Snowpiercer has a brilliant central plot device, yet Bong and his co-writer Kelly Masterton’s increasingly obscure and irrational narrative comes across as a desperate distraction to take the viewers’ minds off the fact that the writer and director have no clue of where their film needs to go.

Ultimately, despite being a lot of fun at certain points, and certainly being considerably more cerebral than a most Hollywood action films can boast to be, Snowpiercer is a noble failure. More irrational than weird, and with an allegorical political subtext that doesn’t bear close scrutiny from either the left or the right, Bong’s English language debut disappoints, despite the praise being heaped upon it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…very good, unforgettably bizarre, original filmmaking and adventurously explored ideas can leave you feeling high, especially when you don’t know quite how it’s been pulled off.”–Wesley Morris, Grantland (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WATERSHIP DOWN (1978)

DIRECTED BY: Martin Rosen, John Hubley (uncredited)

FEATURING: Voices of , Zero Mostel, Richard Briers, , , Denholm Elliott, Harry Andrews, Nigel Hawthorne, Michael Hordern,

PLOT: Rabbits living in a warren called Sandleford leave their home when one of them, named Fiver (Briers), has a foreboding vision. Fiver and his brother Hazel (Hurt) lead their companions to a new hill, but the group finds even more acrimony and strife when they meet the imposing General Woundwort (Andrews).

Still from Watership Down (1978)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Because while often dark, violent and sad, this film is only weird if you think that “cartoons” are only for kids. Anyone who’s seen Yellow Submarine, or practically any anime from Japan knows better. Watership Down is mature, but not weird.

COMMENTS: :Since most audiences think of animated characters as cute, furry and musical (like in most Disney product) or incessantly wisecracking (as in the films from Dreamworks, and practically every other studio), it’s refreshing to mentally travel back to a time—1978—when animation was in the doldrums, and filmmakers would take a chance on something as melancholy and brooding as Watership Down. In this movie, based on Richard Adams’ 1974 bestseller, rabbits bleed, foam at the mouth and die—on camera. There are no pop culture references, no Broadway-style musical numbers, and no jokes about bodily functions. So it’s easy to admire and appreciate this British film—on an academic level– for doing something different. But, unfortunately, the movie is just not that compelling. The animation is… good enough, with the bunnies being still cute, but not excessively anthropomorphic. But some of the other supporting characters, like the annoying seagull Kehaar (voiced by the great Zero Mostel, in his final performance), seem to have flown in straight from a 1970’s Saturday morning cartoon. There are several impressive backgrounds, and effects like flowing water, which are particularly impressive when you consider that this was all done before the dawn of CGI. For a low-budget film, the animation isn’t bad. But the pacing is lethargic (it seems like the movie is almost half over before it really gets going), and it seems that trying to compress Adams’ 475-page novel into 92-minutes (which is only about as long as most conventional animated productions) is problematic.

With 36 years having passed since the release of this film, it’s difficult to watch it now without being reminded of other animated pictures with at least superficially similar plots. For instance, there was the admittedly much more light-hearted Chicken Run (another rare British animated film), about hens trying to escape a farm, as well as The Secret of NIMH, about a family of mice trying to relocate their home. Compared to those two gems, Watership Down comes up a bit short. On the plus side, the film’s music by Angela Morley is beautiful and haunting, as is Mike Batts’s song “Bright Eyes”, sung unmistakably by Art Garfunkel. When “Bright Eyes” is reprised during the closing moments of “Watership Down”, it’s genuinely affecting.

The DVD (there is no North American Region A Blu-ray) comes with a couple of behind-the-scenes documentaries that are arguably more interesting than the movie itself. In one of them, director-writer-producer Rosen explains how he–having never directed anything before–took over the reins after original director John Hubley left, and how Malcolm Williamson also bailed on the project after writing only two pieces of music for the film. Angela Morley then came in and adapted that minimal score for the entire movie.

One final bit of trivia. “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” called Watership Down “One of the best non-Disney animated films ever made.” While this is arguable in itself, the quote on the back of the DVD box eliminates the “non-Disney” qualification!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…filled with… extraordinary pieces of mythic imagery…”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review (DVD)

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

138. DOGVILLE (2003)

“To take ‘Dogville’ primarily as the vehicle for this [anti-American political] view, however, is to make it a much less interesting movie than it is… Mr. Von Trier offered, ‘I think the point to the film is that evil can arise anywhere, as long as the situation is right.’ It is the pervasiveness of that evil — the thoroughness of the film’s pessimism — that may seem most alien of all to doggedly optimistic American sensibilities.”–A.O. Scott quoting Lars von Trier in his New York Times article on Dogville

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Bettany, , , , , Philip Baker Hall, Chloë Sevigny, , Siobhan Fallon,

PLOT: Tom Edison, who fancies himself an intellectual and a moralist and dreams of becoming a writer, is bored with life in the tiny, isolated mountain township of Dogville, until one day he comes across a beautiful, refined young woman who is fleeing gangsters for unknown reasons. Tom falls in love with her and convinces the town to take the woman in and hide her; they agree that the woman, Grace, will do chores for the townspeople to earn her keep and gain their trust. But the more the self-effacing Grace offers to the people of Dogville, the more they abuse her forgiving nature, until they have turned her into the town’s slave; then, the men who were searching her out arrive…

Still from Dogville (2003)

BACKGROUND:

  • Dogville is the first movie in a proposed trilogy from von Trier entitled (ironically) “America: Land of Opportunity.” The second in the series, Manderlay (2005), was shot on a similar minimalist set, also narrated by John Hurt, and featured the character of Grace (played by Bryce Dallas Howard). Manderlay was not as well received and was a financial flop. The third film has not been announced. Von Trier refuses to fly and has never been to the United States.
  • Von Trier set up a reality-show style confessional booth next to the set where (sometimes disgruntled) actors could enter and speak to the camera. This footage was edited into the 52-minute documentary Dogville Confessions, which appears as an extra on some DVD releases of the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The shot of Nicole Kidman lying in the truck bed among the apples, seen through the transparent canvas, is probably the film’s most beautiful image. Dogville itself, however, is the film’s most memorable image: a single blank set, with house walls and gooseberry bushes indicated on the floor with chalk.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Think that maybe Dogville may not be such a weird movie? Imagine you are about to pop this DVD into your player when your friend with the most ultra-conservative movie tastes walks in the room and asks what you’re about to watch. You respond, “Nicole Kidman plays a saintly woman fleeing mobsters who’s taken in by a small American town and used as a sex slave. Oh, and it’s shot in a warehouse with the buildings painted on the floor.” If your friend doesn’t immediately leave the room muttering “sounds too weird for me” then congratulations! Your most normal friend is a complete and utter weirdo.


Misleading original American release trailer for Dogville

COMMENTS: What director has a lower opinion of humanity than Lars von Trier? An acid moral parable, Dogville is almost weirdly ultra-rational, in Continue reading 138. DOGVILLE (2003)

CAPSULE: MELANCHOLIA (2011)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, , Alexander Skarsgård, ,

PLOT: A young woman grapples with serious depression on her wedding day, causing rifts i nher already-tempestuous family relationships. Meanwhile, a planet known as Melancholia is making its way towards Earth.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Von Trier’s rumination on the end of the world is for the most part surprisingly understated, incorporating surrealistic imagery here and there but primarily relegating itself to a realistic study of a family in crisis with a science-fiction background.

COMMENTS: Opening with breathtaking slow-motion shots of a dreamlike apocalypse set to a bombastic Wagner score, Melancholia begins with the promise of something literally earth-shattering. Its ambition and scope seem far-reaching and all-encompassing, much like Malick’s confused 2011 offering The Tree of Life. Shifting to close-quarters shaky cam as the focus moves to new bride Justine’s wedding party, Melancholia becomes an investigation of her debilitating depression and how most of her wealthy, bitter family is unsympathetic. The second half keeps the setting of an isolated mansion inn, but puts the spotlight on sister Claire, whose extreme anxiety is increased by the foreboding presence of the incoming planet.

As the promise of a visually and thematically grandiose event lingers over the film’s proceedings, von Trier endeavors to first fully establish his characters and their relationships. We spend a lot of time with these people, seeing their connections and lack thereof, slowly understanding their underlying flaws and neuroses. The looming threat of complete world destruction is barely acknowledged during the first half as the script is absorbed in Justine’s efforts to hide her disease and Claire’s concern for keeping up appearances. It’s meandering and slow-moving, but the strong lead performances from Dunst and Gainsbourg—along with a charismatic supporting turn from Sutherland—are engaging enough to keep things interesting until the apocalypse strikes.

Because we spend so much time with these characters beforehand, their plight at the end is felt all the more acutely. Seeing how these women lived—raised in wealth but suffering internally (all very Salinger-esque)—is such an intimate experience that it’s hard to not feel involved personally. The planet Melancholia itself is truly an awesome sight, eerie and intimidating, seeming to affect the actors internally and causing a few mouths to open in the audience.  Of course, the ear-shattering Wagner orchestration helps build the intensity.

Weird movie fans will surely appreciate the gorgeous surrealistic imagery peppered throughout, but at its heart Melancholia is a serious examination of mental illness and family ties in the shadow of a cataclysmic event.

G. Smalley adds: Melancholia is an intensely metaphorical movie, but it is essentially a more conventional, dramatic reworking of the theme of clinical depression vonTrier explored in the weirder, more outrageous Antichrist.  The two movies contain common themes and a similar look (I was surprised to discover that they had different cinematographers), but they are so different in their approach that I’m not sure liking one will predict how you’ll react to the other.  In fact, I suspect that many of the people now singing the praises of Melancholia were the ones complaining the loudest at Antichrist and von Trier’s descent into “torture porn.”  Melancholia is strong throughout, but I found the opening the most astounding part.  It’s a six-minute super slow motion surrealistic montage that manages to enrapture while featuring characters and events about whom we know nothing yet.  It opens with a shot of a devastated-looking Kirsten Dunst with dead birds falling in the background, and includes what may be my favorite image of the year: Dunst trudging through a forest glade in her white wedding gown, dragging behind her a train of huge vines tied to her ankles and waist.  The slow motion photography is technically amazing; sometimes you believe you’re looking at a still photograph until you see a foot lift, and at other times it seems figures in the foreground and background are moving at different rates.  It’s thrilling (to me, at least) to see a director who once advocated stripping film down to its basics (the short-lived “Dogme 95” movement) now embracing the full operatic range of cinematic tools.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In many ways this bizarre, nihilistic meditation is a dreary, redundant, pretentious bore… On the other hand, the magnificent, ethereal visuals/special effects are haunting, particularly the opening collage which compresses the entire story.”– Susan Granger, SSG Syndicate

CAPSULE: 44 INCH CHEST (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Malcolm Venville

FEATURING: , Ian McShane, , Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Dillane, Joanne Whalley

PLOT: Four men (presumably gangsters, though it’s never made explicit) kidnap the lover of a cuckolded mate’s wife and try to goad the bereaved man into killing him for revenge.

Still from 44 Inch Chest (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not weird, although it is an example of how an isolated weird scene can creep into a mainstream drama.

COMMENTS44 Inch Chest sets up an intriguing conflict that captures our interest, but it fails to capitalize on the inherent drama and its force gradually dissipates into a wisp.  When sexy Liz (Whalley) announces she’s leaving Colin (Winstone), he first pleads with her not to go, then winds up beating the name of her lover out of her.  Afterward, Colin is so emotionally spent he can’t even get up off the floor or stop listening to Harry Nilsson wail “I can’t live, if living is without you” over and over. His four friends, shady characters at best, kidnap the adulterer and deliver him to their comatose mate so he can extract his vengeance.  There’s no evidence that Colin ever asks for their assistance or that his buddies kidnap the loverboy as a favor to him.  They are prodding him to do his duty; they take it upon themselves to set up the ritual revenge, and as they egg him on, it becomes clear that if the cuckold fails to conform to the code of gangster honor and kill the man who disrespected him, their value system will be undermined.  The problem is that Colin is a clinically depressed, blubbering, lovesick mess who’s barely capable of lighting his own cigarette, much less pulling a trigger and taking another man’s life.  The conflict isn’t between between Colin and his wife’s helpless lover (who spends the movie stuffed into a wardrobe or tied to a chair), but between Colin and the bad angels standing two on each shoulder, each using a different tactic to convince him to uphold his “honor.”  An actor’s movie, 44 Inch Chest unspools like an overextended one-act play, with each of the major characters getting a monologue and a turn in the spotlight.  Winstone’s performance is nuanced, burly and scary, but even more pathetic.  As a suave homosexual, Ian McShane dominates whenever he’s onscreen; despite his sophistication and questionable sexuality he’s one of the gang, as crudely masculine as any of them at bottom (in fact, his “love ’em and leave ’em” sexual philosophy is, if anything, the most authentically guy-ish).  John Hurt is also excellent as the bitter and shriveled “Old Man Peanut,” who’s as dried up a bundle of bigotry and spite as you’d ever have the misfortune of encountering outside of a Mafia nursing home.  Tom Wilkinson does well as Archie, the regular guy of the group and frequently the mediator among clashing egos, and Stephen Dillane is fine, if underused, as the youngest member of the group.   As Liz, Whalley is sexy, elegant and distant; the unknowable (to these guys, at least) feminine.  The F-word and C-word laden dialogue strives for profane poetry and strikes a reasonably nasty rhythm, though it never sails to the heights of a David Mamet.  The problem is the plot, which peters out long before the end and winds up in a philosophically sound but dramatically unsatisfying anticlimax.

A couple of fantasy sequences explain why this vulgar gangster drama is being covered on a weird movie site.  When Colin is left alone in a room with his bloodied-up romantic rival, he begins to hallucinate.  The visions elucidate his psychology and provide somewhere for the movie to go when the droogs seems to have run out of misogynist arguments.  Even when you’ve been warned they’re coming they may catch you by surprise, as its not always completely obvious where the objective world ends and Colin’s internal fantasies begin.  Nonetheless, they’re a diversion and don’t really substitute for a more thoughtful plot resolution.  Watch 44 Inch Chest for the performances by a superlative collection of British actors, and for the brief glimpse a John Hurt in a black cocktail dress; don’t watch it for the story, or for weirdness.

Louis Mellis and David Scinto, co-writers of the 2000 hit Sexy Beast, wrote the screenplay for Chest.  The movie also stars Beast‘s Winstone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The actors go at the material with obvious relish… On the debit side, and it’s a doozy, the picture’s narrative trajectory fails to deliver a third act that takes the story anywhere of note except into a silly realm of cut-rate surrealism. Final reel ends not with the expected bang but with an almost inaudible whimper.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (contemporaneous)