Tag Archives: Nicole Kidman

LIST CANDIDATE: THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic

PLOT: A cardiologist’s odd relationship with a teenage boy reveals a secret about his past, and will lead him to a dilemma in the future.

Still from The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Two-time Certified Weird director Giorgos Lanthimos never fails to deliver weirdness; it’s in his DNA. His first official stab at a horror movie is every bit as disturbing as you might hope—which is to say, every bit as disturbing as his comedies and dramas.

COMMENTS: The Killing of a Sacred Deer flips the script of The Lobster. That was a comedy with terrifying moments, while Deer is an unapologetic horror movie with a few funny bits (most of which come from blasé or inappropriate conversations about weighty or grotesque subjects). As is always the case with Lanthimos, what you notice first is the anti-acting acting style: the characters barely register emotions, and when they do express, say, marital tenderness, it’s strained, like they’re pod people trying to fake it to fool the humans. That’s the case here, where Steven, Colin Farrel’s cardiac surgeon, trudges through relationships with both Martin, a pleasant but mysterious teen boy, and his own family with the usual Lanthimos-imposed rigidity. This lack of humanity magnifies the mundanity of the family’s suburban existence. The drama is accented by heavy, obtrusive bursts of dissonant classical music (e.g., cue a Ligeti chord at the conclusion of mother/daughter conversation re: smartphones) to give it that ominous horror film feel. It sounds forced, but it’s effective; combined with the awkward interpersonal relations, the technique creates a real sense of dread that rises for nearly an hour before the first major revelation.

Despite the initially repressed thesping, an interesting thing happens in Deer. Delving into horror forces the director to allow his actors to reveal genuine feelings, however briefly. You can’t remain restrained and unreactive when faced with immediately horrific situations like mental or physical torture, however absurd the premise from which they flow might be. Farrell (and Kidman, but mainly Farrel) gets to play furious, frightened and bereaved here. The further into the plot they venture, the more emotions are unleashed, an unexpected progression that feels natural and satisfying.

Although this isn’t a thriller that depends on a twist, I still don’t want to give away too much of the plot. I think it will be more rewarding if the viewer is in the same position as Steven when Martin quickly and casually recites the rules of the game at a cafeteria. I will say that the tale involves a moral dilemma, of sorts. I also feel obliged to say that I found the final resolution unsatisfying, for reasons I can’t discuss in detail without crossing the border into spoiler territory. Let’s simply say that the way Lanthimos resolves the situation, though perhaps the only reasonable solution, allows the protagonist to avoid responsibility for his choices—a surprising cop-out in a movie otherwise so uncompromising, both formally and in its cruelty.

Before sailing to Troy, Agamemnon, the high king of the Greeks, unknowingly killed a deer that was sacred to the goddess Artemis. Angry, the goddess calmed the winds so that the fleets could not sail. To atone for his sin, she demanded that Agamemnon sacrifice his own beloved daughter, Iphigenia. Even though Steven’s daughter Kim got an “A” on her presentation on Iphigenia in class, it’s not necessary to know how that story ends (versions of the myth differ, anyway) to understand Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer. But the title is intentional foreshadowing that lets you know you’re in for something approaching classical tragedy—and if you know your ancient Greeks, you know they liked their tragedy gruesome. So do modern Greeks. They also like it a little weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as things spun out of control, getting ever stranger, I started to wonder if the director had merely written himself into a corner and was doubling down on weirdness to get himself out. And yet the film never quite loses its mythic drive. You walk out feeling like you’ve truly had an experience.”–Bilge Ebiri, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Todd Field

PLOT: An upscale married couple struggles with the temptations of infidelity in modern Greenwich Village, leading the husband to become enmeshed in a secret sex cult.

Still from Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from the creepy centerpiece involving an orgy of masked figures in cloaks, nothing weird happens. Eyes Wide Shut is a serious, deliberate psychological study with some interesting political undertones about power.

COMMENTS: Everyone loves a good sex party, especially when there are masks involved. You can role play, burn incense, and even participate in pagan rituals without worrying about being ratted out. In Eyes Wide Shut, Nicole Kidman, playing the melancholic wife Alice Harford, kicks everything off, posing to show off her pump-raised buttocks, and what follows is an odyssey about power and lust. The tragedy is that this film, Kubrick’s final—starring everyone’s favorite Scientologist and his then real life spouse—has been repeatedly reduced to some kind of vague warning about the dangers of an unchecked elite society (Illuminati, etc.), especially since the juiciest segments of the movie come from interpersonal struggle and subsequent identity distortion. These characters terminally deceive themselves and others. Cruise completely owns his role as the terribly charming but ultimately insecure professional Bill Harford, reminding us why we tolerate his wacky off-screen cult endeavors. Offering a multilayered performance with incredible range, restraint and subtlety, he provokes inquisition into his on-screen psyche. Kubrick is the master auteur he’s always been, while Kidman makes everyone horny, forming a powerful trifecta.

Judicious attention is given to high society, people with power and influence, to how they stew in immorality and the instability of their relationships. Kidman displays aggressive coquetry by teasing a suave ballroom gigolo, while at the opposite end of the party Cruise has two women swooning over him. This is a muddy affair hiding behind a façade of elegance and sophistication. We imagine all of the private lives of the patrons here have the same debased, amoral existence, rooted in treachery and egocentrism. Detachment is prevalent, indicative of wealthy people so confident in their endless supply of bailouts that there’s literally nothing they can’t get away with, nothing that can’t be covered up.

Like any good doctor, Bill Harford enjoys playing God. He’s a man with pride and confidence in his professional demeanor, infinite charm spiraling outwards from an desire to dominate others with his own compassion and experience. “Doctors are so…knowledgeable,” says a flirty party gal to Bill. When the camera closes in on Alice’s beautiful behind once again, the question remains: is it good enough Continue reading CAPSULE: EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)

CAPSULE: FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF DIANE ARBUS (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Steven Shainberg

FEATURING: , , Ty Burrell

PLOT: Diane Arbus is an artistically repressed housewife whose creativity is stirred when a circus freak moves upstairs.

Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although I hesitate to rule any movie that includes Nicole Kidman shaving a wolfman off the list of the weirdest movies ever made, the fact is that the disappointing Fur never really flies.

COMMENTS: While I admire the chutzpah behind the concept of an “imaginary portrait” that, as the prologue explains, seeks to convey the “inner experience” of the artist, I’m afraid Fur doesn’t deliver the goods. Fur never really delves into Diane Arbus’ inner experience, instead choosing to metaphorize it as a Beauty and the Beast romantic fantasy that ends up feeling surprisingly conventional, given the (deliberately) ridiculous premise. That premise involves the future famous photographer (a wan and lovely Nicole Kidman) as a frustrated housewife who becomes obsessed with her new upstairs neighbor who always wears a mask in public and clogs her drains with wads of hair. The stranger is soon revealed to be Lionel, played by an extra-downy Robert Downey, Jr., and he serves as a White Rabbit that leads Diane/Alice down a rabbit hole into a Wonderland of carnivalesque visions. (The “Alice in Wonderland” references are heavy during the first Platonic night Arbus spends in his lair, including a tiny door, a note instructing her to drink a cup of tea, and even actual shots of a white rabbit). Fur gets its surrealistic impulses out of the way in that initial meeting between Diane and Lionel, which segues into Arbus’ dreams, broken up by establishing conversations with the always-in-control Lionel. Diane plans to shoot a portrait of her neighbor as her first artistic venture into photography, but rather than setting up a tripod, she spends more and more time gadding about Manhattan with Lionel, who introduces her to his glamorous cadre of freaks and outsiders that includes an armless woman, a prostitute, an undertaker, a transvestite, and, naturally, dwarfs, dwarfs, dwarfs! Her long-suffering and very devoted husband Allan understandably grows jealous at her absorption into Lionel’s world—I laughed out loud when, late in the film, he grows a thick beard to try to compete with Lionel’s locks! Although Downey’s “sensitive” performance received praise in some quarters, I wasn’t happy with the portrayal of the character. For someone who had been shunned due to his looks for his entire life, Lionel comes across as too confident a seducer of the submissive Diane. He’s far too cocky for a guy who looks like a cocker spaniel. The movie builds to a truly unsatisfying consummation that senselessly defangs—er, defurs—Lionel’s deformity, which is ironically the opposite of what Arbus’ photographs did to their subjects. Even accepting Lionel not as a real character but as the personification of the allure of the grotesque, Fur doesn’t give us much insight into Diane’s passion. Creativity it is simply analogized to romance, and left at that. We never get any sense of the fire Arbus must have had for her work, only her ardor for a symbol. Although I’m no fan of biopics and their enslavement to historical fact, I think that in Arbus’ case a more traditional, non-imaginary portrait may have served its subject better. Or, maybe just a portrait with more imagination.

Diane’s husband Allan Arbus, played here by Ty Burrell, is the same Allan Arbus who starred in Greaser’s Palace and other movies. He did not take up acting until after Diane left him to follow the photography muse. He even appeared in two films with the young Robert Downey, Jr.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…far too impressed with its own weirdness.”–Dana Stevens, Slate (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: STOKER (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Matthew Goode,

PLOT: A girl’s father dies on her 18th birthday; the uncle she never knew she had shows up soon thereafter and installs himself in the isolated house she lives in with her lonely mother.

Still from Stoker (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough, although Chan-wook Park fans should find enough perversion, violence and sublime cinematography to keep themselves engaged in it.

COMMENTS: From the long-lost uncle right out of Shadow of a Doubt to a subversive quotation to Psycho‘s shower scene, Stoker is Chan-wook Park’s Hitchcock tribute movie. But where Hitch was a master of plotting as well as suspense, Park substitutes high stylization and on-the-nose perversity for carefully shaded storytelling. The events of Stoker are highly implausible, and the characters act like dancers in a psychosexual ballet rather than three people mourning the loss of a beloved breadwinner. The triangular character structure draws you in, presenting sets of relations—mother/daughter, uncle/niece, and widow/brother-in-law—which shift throughout the tale. Allies will become enemies, buried family secrets will be uncovered, and Uncle Charlie, naturally, is not what he seems. Oh, and blood will flow when longings grow unchecked. Stoker unavoidably flirts with the Electra complex, as mother and daughter compete for the attentions of the surrogate father figure, the new Man of the house. Mysterious Uncle Charlie, whose very existence was unknown until he showed up at his brother’s funeral, is a figure of fear and desire to young India. The way he tries to win the 18-year old’s allegiance by waiting for her in his convertible parked next to the school bus would creep out Chris Hansen, and the way newly widowed and prematurely lonely mom Evelyn courts Uncle’s attention would boil Hamlet’s blood. There are a lot of naughty, nasty possibilities in a tale that teases a potential transformation into a taboo love triangle, but it has less transgressive sting because nothing onscreen bears much relationship to reality. Characters show up as if by magic when the script calls for it, ominous music plays for no obvious reason, and no one’s reactions are very believable. (You’ve got to call the police when you find that first body, folks!) The way India’s feelings for Charlie flow from disdain to prurient interest and back again, in particular, makes little outward sense; the vacillation only reflects her conflicted attitudes about sex and upcoming adulthood. Unannounced dream sequences further distance us from reality. A near-rape plays twice; the second time through, it’s unclear whether it’s meant to be a continuation of the previous scene, or a new version re-imagined as a sexual revenge fantasy. All of this is presented neither with a repressed Freudian subtlety (the way a Hitchcock would have handled it) or with a balls-to-the-wall operatic insanity (the way we might have expected a Chan-wook Park to treat such material). Stoker instead exists in the netherworld between the real and the surreal, the realm of melodrama. It’s like a too-logical dream that’s uncomfortable precisely because it’s not bizarre enough to meet our expectations. And although the script proffers the twists we’d expect in a thriller—secrets are revealed fast and furious in the third act—in the end, much of the plotting just seems lazy, particularly in a senseless, character-arc-erasing final scene that caps things off with a meaningless shock. On the plus side, the slow-paced Gothic tenor of the drama is refreshingly different from typical Hollywood “realism,” and Park grants us a couple of wonderful moments—a breathy erotic piano duet (of a Philip Glass composition made expressly for this movie) and a striking shot where Nicole Kidman’s hair transforms into a field of grain. In the end, Stoker is lurid, loopy, and occasionally lovely, no masterpiece but a passable guilty pleasure.

Korean director Park had to work with a translator on the set, and so the actors may have been largely left to direct themselves. This may be why some of the performances seem subdued, while Park’s camera is as vibrant as ever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Park’s skills for surreal subjectivity and the mischievously weird certainly don’t hurt, but they can’t quite banish Stoker’s narrative speed bumps and draughts of cold air as the film bluntly denotes the compulsive correspondence of orgasm and murder…”–Peter Canavese, Groucho Reviews (contemporaneous)

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)