Tag Archives: Kiefer Sutherland

331. DARK CITY (1998)

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“The fleetingly improvised men are transient figures of human shape, which naturally disappear or slowly dissolve after a short period of existence. Their appearance always is the result of a wonder.

Fleetingly improvised men lead a dream life. As a result, they are incapable of entering a regular conversation with people around them.

Fleetingly improvised men sometimes resemble dead people.”–M. Rautenberg, Daniel Paul Schreber: Beginner’s Guide to Memoirs of My Nervous Illness

DIRECTED BY: Alex Proyas

FEATURING: Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard O’Brien,

PLOT: John Murdoch awakens in a bathtub, remembering nothing: certainly not the reason why the dead, mutilated woman is in the other room. As he travels through a night-cursed city to discover his identity, John is simultaneously pursued by a dogged police detective, a psychiatrist who knows more than he lets on, and a coterie of very pale gentlemen in black coats and hats. Ultimately he discovers that his alleged past is just that—and that the forces behind the frame-up are responsible for something far more grand and sinister.

Still from Dark City (1998)

BACKGROUND:

  • The opening narration, included over Alex Proyas’ objections, was included at the insistence of producers who feared the audience would be confused by being thrown into this world. Many fans think it’s a spoiler of the worst kind. Proyas’ director’s cut of the film excises the exposition.
  • Proyas based the Strangers’ looks and mannerisms on Richard O’Brien’s “Riff Raff” from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Proyas also wrote the role of “Mr. Hand” specifically for O’Brien.
  • The Matrix not only ripped off did a variation of Dark City’s central premise, it also re-used a number of its actual sets after Dark City‘s production had wrapped up.
  • Kiefer Sutherland’s character, Dr. Daniel Schreber, was named after an early 20th-century schizophrenic who wrote a memoir of his illness.
  • Proyas intended the final showdown between John Murdoch and Mr Book to be an homage to the famed manga comic (and anime) Akira.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll cast aside the montages of warping buildings, stylish noir streets, and sinister Stranger gatherings in favor of the mirroring scenes of Mr. Hand and John Murdoch after their respective imprints. Both rise from the gurney with comparable looks of grim determination, after painfully twitching through a series of forced memories.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Steampunk brain syringes; quick-rise concrete; creepy kid with teeth

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: About five years ago we argued that Dark City shouldn’t make the list. Since then, our minds have been changed—possibly while we were asleep. Any movie the plot of which can be described as “telekinetic collective memory space jelly bugs abduct tens of thousands of earthlings to populate a jumble-Noir cityscape in perpetual darkness in order to find out more about us” deserves a slot on the list of the weirdest movies ever made. The fact that it follows its dream logic into uncanny valley Gothic visuals is to its credit as well.


Original trailer for Dark City

COMMENTS: Focus. Focus. Every event flows into, bolsters, and undermines every other event. John Murdoch can defeat the Strangers Continue reading 331. DARK CITY (1998)

LIST CANDIDATE: DARK CITY (1998)

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DIRECTED BY: Alex Proyas

FEATURING: Rufus Sewell, , , , Ian Richardson, , Bruce Spence

PLOT: J. Murdoch (Sewell) wakes up in a dingy hotel bathroom. In the adjoining bedroom lies a dead prostitute, and Murdoch is soon suspected of murdering five women, although he has no memory of these events. Inspector Frank Bumstead (Hurt) interrogates Murdoch’s wife, Emma (Connelly), who hasn’t seen her husband in days.

Still from Dark City (1998)

WHY IT SHOULDN’T MAKE THE LIST: What seems like a typically Hitchcockian “wrong man” scenario gradually turns into something far more complicated and weirder… but not weird enough (in my mind) to be considered one of the 366 weirdest films of all time. I suspect Dark City seems “weird” mainly to people who consider all science fiction weird (and revealing that the film is science fiction may already be giving too much away). Still, it is a truly fascinating and visually stunning production that continually asks the question, “what is reality?,” and does so in a far more sophisticated manner than the similar and much more popular The Matrix.

COMMENTS: At first Dark City seems to be film noir, and the look of the movie is vaguely 1940’s, with almost every scene taking place at night; all of this is somewhat similar to director Alex Proyas’ previous The Crow. The film’s highly impressive art direction (by Battlefield Earth’s Patrick Tatapolous) is reminiscent of Metropolis, Blade Runner and Brazil, although on his director’s commentary, Proyas denies any such influence. Kiefer Sutherland plays creepy Dr. Schreber, Murdoch’s therapist, in a manner that subtly recalls 1940’s character actor Peter Lorre. But the 1990’s-style special effects, produced some 15 years ago, are still flawless. The sight of skyscrapers sprouting out of the ground predates Inception by more than a decade. And the musical score by Trevor Jones (The Dark Crystal), part of which was used to advertise the first X-Men film, is electrifying. Dark City is a true gem, and, unlike The Matrix and its sequels, it raises the questioning of reality, and then actually grapples with the idea, instead of forgetting all about it and simply indulging in showy displays of special effects. Dark City presents plenty of visual spectacle, but that spectacle is actually germane to the storyline. It’s well worth seeing.

This Director’s Cut DVD is about 11 minutes longer than the theatrical version. The changes seem relatively minor, although Sutherland’s opening narration, which gave away too much of the plot, has been removed for this new cut. Also, Connelly plays a nightclub singer, but her singing isn’t very good in this extended version; in the theatrical cut, a woman with a better voice dubbed her. Somehow, the fact that her singing is now rather flat and… sleepy… only adds to the film’s dreamlike, creepy atmosphere. The DVD extras are quite extensive. There are three audio commentaries, one from Proyas, a rather dull one from screenwriters Lem Dobbs and David (The Dark Knight) Goyer, and another from Roger Ebert, who admires this film a great deal. He has only done two other audio commentaries: for Citizen Kane and Casablanca! There is also an on-screen introduction from Proyas, who explains why he assembled this new cut in the first place, the theatrical trailer, a couple of “Making Of” documentaries, and a Production Gallery of photographs taken by Sewell, who was apparently a real shutterbug on the set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…relentlessly trippy in a fun-house sort of way… Proyas… is a walking encyclopedia of weird science-fiction and horror imagery.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MELANCHOLIA (2011)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , 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