Tag Archives: Willem Dafoe

CAPSULE: TOMMASO (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Cristina Chiriac

PLOT: An aging American director living in Rome goes to AA meetings and struggles to relate to his much younger Moldavian wife.

Still from Tommaso (2019)

COMMENTS: It may be inevitable that as Abel Ferrara has aged and sobered up, he’s started to make self-consciously serious movies aimed at art houses, as opposed to the wild and exploitative hits like Ms. 45 (1981) and Bad Lieutenant (1992) that originally brought him cult fame. While his movies once graced grindhouses, prior to Tommaso Ferrara was last seen at the Venice Film Festival pushing a prestige biopic about fellow bad-boy director .

Now, he’s back with a navel-gazing domestic drama that’s heavy on scenes of walking though Roman streets, Italian lessons, squabbling spouses, and Alcoholics Anonymous testimonials. There is no doubt that Tommaso is Ferrara: an ex-alcoholic movie director living in Rome with a much younger foreign wife and daughter (who are played by Ferrara’s real-life wife and daughter). We also see him working on a movie screenplay (which, from the Eskimos and bears, one guesses is destined to become the soon-to-be-released Siberia). Ferrara wisely chooses the great Willem Dafoe as his stand-in: even when he’s cheating, or thinking of cheating, or having grandiose messianic fantasies, Dafoe is weighty and likable. He finds the legitimate human confusion and suffering that makes us empathize with every indulgence. (Although he’s awesome as always here, I still wish Dafoe would take fewer roles playing elderly filmmakers who can’t distinguish fantasy from reality and more roles playing foul-mouthed and flatulent 19th century lighthouse keepers).

The numerous fantasy segments scattered throughout this self-searching autobiographical character study give it the esque credibility required in the subgenre. Some of them nakedly illustrate Tommaso’s insecurities. He imagines his child in danger, his wife unfaithful. Others are more inscrutable: a Kafkaesque detention dream, or Tommaso literally pulling out his own heart while sitting around a squatters’ campfire. The finale is imaginary and catalysimic. But no matter their subject, the hallucinations do not seriously impede on the movie’s basic plotlessnesses, its focus on marital discord and sarcastic self-reflection.

Tommaso’s anxiety about whether his wife will seek comfort in the arms of someone closer to her own age, and his struggle with his own controlling nature—even with yoga and breathing exercises, he’s awfully high-strung and quick to jealous anger—form the essence of his internal conflict. Although his wife Nikki can occasionally seem a little bit immature (“I want to do what I want, when I want…”), Tommaso consistently comes off much worse. At one point, he spends his entire turn at an AA meeting complaining about his wife; the next speaker empathizes with him, but also offers some wisdom: “this program teaches me to stick to my side of the street… whenever I’m pointing a finger, I’ve got to look at myself.” The message is lost on Tommaso, however, who continues his bossy behavior, and flirts with other women while imagining Nikki is cheating on him.

This unflattering portrayal, of course, is Ferrara’s way of working out his own issues and anxieties on film—a public confessional that is as brave as it is uncomfortable for the viewer. After watching Tomasso, I feel like I know Ferrara intimately—more intimately than I should know a stranger.  On the other hand, I keep thinking about an AA speech where Tommaso describes those long-ago times when he directed indie movies by day and smoked crack and got pounded in the face by jealous boyfriends by night—and kept thinking how I wanted to see that memoir, instead of the one I was currently watching.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Much of the film feels as though it is going through the movements of a surrealist film, though lacking the dedication. It wants to be surrealist, giving a message in the symbolism of the film, though teasing audiences with a cohesive narrative that never truly arrives.”–Stephanie Archer, Film Inquiry (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MY HINDU FRIEND (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: Hector Babenco

FEATURING: Willem Dafoe, Maria Fernanda Cândido, Guilherme Weber, Rio Adlakha, Selton Mello

PLOT: Diego Fairman is an Argentinian filmmaker of modest fame whose apparently terminal cancer has prompted him to be a jerk to all of those around him; then again, he’s always been a jerk to those around him.

COMMENTS: Like most of you, I’m a fan of the musician Taco Ockerse and his gold-certified album, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” The plucky Western German had a smooth crooner’s voice and used his musical talents to drag hits from the mid-20th century into the 1980s’ New Wave. Three such songs featured in Hector Babenco’s My Hindu Friend. That’s not to say they used Taco’s versions, but “Ma Vie En Rose,” “Dancing Cheek to Cheek,” and Singin’ in the Rain form a trifecta of “Why is this song here, now, doing this?” in a movie ripped straight from The Hallmark Channel Presents: Fellini‘s Night of Melodrama.

Babenco presents a film a variant of himself, like Fellini did.  Babenco revels in whimsical dream interludes, like Fellini did. Babenco’s movie just sort of trails off at the end, like Fellini’s… (I’ll stop myself before completing that sentence so as to keep the comment hounds at bay.) Suffice it to say, My Hindu Friend is intensely personal: the upshot of which is that those of us who aren’t actually in the movie can merely try to enjoy Willem Dafoe moping around a hospital, moping around a Seattle mansion, and moping around his trendy home in Argentina.

It took over half an hour for me to find what could have possibly brought this on to 366’s radar. After untold days/weeks/months in hospital undergoing a bone-marrow transplant (and a similarly-feeling number of minutes), Diego starts hallucinating Death—who, in a refreshing twist, is just a work-a-day guy who’s having problems with his wife. There’s talk of the afterlife, but no secrets are  revealed; apparently such revelations are above Death’s pay grade. There are discussions about cinema. And, of course, there’s a game of chess—’cause that’s something a film fanatic might hallucinate while weakened to the core and dosed up on morphine.

Morphine. Yes, I would have preferred more morphine shots, as that not only brought forth the affable Death character, but also the only show-stopping scene in My Hindu Friend. In the middle of the night, the heavily-drugged Diego awakens singing a song through his breathing apparatus before removing it and, wonderfully, crooning into it as if it were a microphone. The song going through the dope-addled director’s mind? “Dancing Cheek to Cheek.”

And that titular Hindu friend? A young boy he meets in the infusion room at the hospital during his cancer treatment. The ailing director tells this narrative crutch anecdotes, ultimately living through fantasy stories as he does his best to comfort the eight-year-old whom the cosmos considered deserving of such a terrible fate. I’m rambling at this point, but I blame the movie. Touching, certainly; well-produced, without a doubt; but—well, I think I’m just going to trail off here…

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…told from [Diego’s] perspective, in an alternately surreal, reflective (though never sentimental) fashion with Fellini-esque flights of frank sexuality, eroticism and existential whimsy…”–Jarrod Walker, FilmInc (streaming)

7*. THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

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“God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart forever; the vulture the very creature he creates.”–Moby Dick

DIRECTED BY: Robert Eggers

FEATURING: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

PLOT: Ephraim Wilson attempts to escape his troubled past by seeking employ with the Maine Lighthouse Company. His four weeks of labor, under the supervision of the often tyrannical and always erratic Thomas Wake, stretch out indefinitely when the relief crew fails to retrieve them. Trapped on the lonely island, they both find each other to be increasingly vexing company.

Still from The Lighthouse (2019)

BACKGROUND:

  • Originally a ghost story (and, to a lesser extent, an adaptation of an unfinished Edgar Allan Poe tale), Robert Eggers and his brother Max, who co-wrote the screenplay, changed tack when Robert read a history of a pair of “wickie” Thomases trapped in a lighthouse off the coast of Wales in 1801.
  • The distinct visual texture was achieved through a combination of custom filters and the use of early 20-century lenses. Lighting was also a challenge, with so many lumens required for the exposure that the actors were practically blinded during shoots of some of the close-up scenes.
  • The Lighthouse‘s soundscape evolved from field recordings of actual weather and tidal events, later mixed in analog in the studio for a heightened, gritty effect.
  • To sexualize what otherwise would have been a prudish Victorian-style mermaid, Eggers and company drew design ideas by studying shark genitalia.
  • During production, there was no shortage of seagulls flitting and honking in the background—something appreciated by the filmmakers considerably more during the editing process than during the shoot.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are dozens of water-logged shots and scenes of mental deterioration, but the climax of The Lighthouse‘s frenzied, feverish collapse of sanity occurs in the penultimate scene, when the assistant wickie finally slays his demons and achieves his dream of witnessing, first-hand, the mysteries of the light atop the spiral tower.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Vindictive one-eyed seagull; visions of Neptune

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Eggers made his name with The Witch, exploring madness in an isolated community. With The Lighthouse he elevates the isolation and cranks up the corporeal unpleasantness in a story drained of color, drenched in water, and cramped by pared-down screen edges. The narrative perspective is unreliable, the psychology is toxic, and the obfuscation of water, liquor, sweat, urine, and more saturates both story and image. An ending that demands both a classical education and a willingness to shut up and run with it tops it all off.


Official trailer for The Lighthouse

COMMENTS: The Lighthouse is a considerable achievement in many Continue reading 7*. THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

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The Lighthouse has been added to our supplemental Apocryphally Weird list. Please see the official entry.

DIRECTED BY: Robert Eggers

FEATURING: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

PLOT: Ephraim Winslow attempts to escape his past and earn good money tending a remote lighthouse for a month under ex-sea captain Thomas Wake; things get desperate when they are not relieved on schedule.

Srill from The Lighthouse (2019)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: What begins as “standard” art-horror keeps shoveling on the madness until you can’t think it can go any farther. It does, and ends on a Promethean note that looks like it could have been lifted straight from a sharper-imaged Begotten.

COMMENTS: I sat too far to the front to be able to tell you if anyone walked out of the movie (often a good sign for us), but I can tell you that it passed the next best test: right after it ended, a viewer queried loudly, “What the fuck was that?” I have to admit that that is a fair question. I kept alternating my “Candidate/Capsule” toggle throughout the movie, right up until the soggy, sickly, climax when two compelling things occurred. The first thing: watching Robert Pattinson burn away any mainstream reputation he might have had from his Twilight movies. The second thing: I could not have hoped for a better, more mind-popping final shot.

The first word of dialogue isn’t one, really. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), recently arrived to as remote an island as possible, makes a muffled grunt when entering his quarters. At the far end of the room, his boss, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), finishes urinating into a chamber pot and pointedly passes gas before beginning to hum. Ephraim, his environment established and his company defined, does his lowly duties, forever pining to tend the beacon that Thomas jealously guards. A one-eyed seagull torments the young man, until one day he responds to its attack by smashing it thoroughly to death against a cistern. This forgivable outburst is the catalyst for a storm that smashes against the island, changing Ephraim’s circumstances from mundane and miserable to forlorn and febrile.

Its frame ratio, as far as I was able to observe, is one-to-one1, a presentation typically found only in very old movies. The motion of characters from one corner to the opposite diagonal of the screen just doesn’t have the same “punch” when there’s a standard panorama to cross, and the screen’s confines heighten the cramped nature of the setting. The lighting, too, hearkens back to cinema’s early days. The Lighthouse is set in the late 19th century on the edge of a watery nowhere, and the light comes only from occasional, well-diffused sunlight and dim candles. Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake, illuminated by a flickering light against the black room, was the stuff of comic nightmares. (His dialogue, the credits admit, is largely taken from Herman Melville, and every soliloquy is both bombastic and believable.)

Eggers drives the narrative in the one direction it can go—but while so doing brings in every horrible bit of natural humanity (Aleksey German crossed my mind on many occasions), grappling his characters to the edge before giving them a final shove into the roiling abyss. Knowing Dafoe’s filmography, I knew he had the chops; Pattinson, I have now seen, can match him. Dafoe is credited first, but this is Pattinson’s breakout-crazy performance (so here’s hoping he wanted one). Ephraim explodes in his final rant, its power almost a palpable force in the cinema, silencing the small crowd of hipsters. When the young man posed the question mentioned in the first paragraph, he was speaking for every viewer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a stark, moody, surreal and prolonged descent into seaside madness that will surely not be for everyone.”–Lindsey Barr, Associated Press (contemporaneous)

AT ETERNITY’S GATE (2018)

Vincent Van Gogh may be the art world’s quintessential paradox. That he was a great, idiosyncratic painter is indisputable. Yet, he was also an incurable romantic, zealously religious (he once sought to become a minister), highly argumentative (according to most of his contemporaries), extremely prolific, he cut off his ear, and he committed suicide at the age of 37. Today, he’s a Hobby Lobby superstar.

The subject of numerous cinematic treatments, Van Gogh has been posthumously canonized by the bourgeois who never would have accepted him in his life. They bypass his personal flaws in favor of “Starry Night” and “Sunflower” coffee mugs. He’s more myth now than human. Neither his contemporary Paul Gauguin nor his successor Pablo Picasso have been afforded such whitewashing. Indeed, their character flaws are often still held against them, despite the fact that they are both superior artists to Van Gogh (taking nothing from the Dutchman).

Another cinematic Van Gogh biography comes with about as much anticipation as another retelling of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.” Yet, Julian Schnabel has produced an aesthetically provocative Van Gogh biopic At Eternity’s Gate (2018). It’s about damned time.

One of the most frustrating things to witness in a gallery or museum is patrons zipping by paintings as if they’re Speedy Gonzales in a mall, spending a few seconds glancing at work that artists labored over for days, weeks, months or years. Schnabel, a painter himself, is having none of that, and paces his movie glacially. Although reactions to the film are predictable as hell, it’s almost refreshing to read audiences and critics harping about the film being so long and so pretentious. That would inspire a yawn, if it weren’t for the fact that Van Gogh is finally pissing people off once again. It’s about damned time.

Still from At Eternity's Gate (2018)Apart from the pacing, patrons complain about the impressionistic aesthetic of the film, and the fact that star today is almost twice the age of Van Gogh at the time of his death. Even a quick look at the artist’s self-portraits reveals the casting is astute: Van Gogh looked three times his age, ugly, ravaged, and cantankerous. As for the aesthetics: this isn’t a really a biopic at all, and indeed we do not need another. Instead, Schnabel has produced a gorgeous requiem.

Dafoe’s intensity is akin to pigment ground into celluloid with raw knuckles. On paper, reading Van Gogh waxing poetic about finding a “new light” would be unbearably pretentious, yet when we watch him painting the landscape before him, we see him practice what he preaches (and this artist was always a preacher). The result is a Van Gogh creation that reinterprets nature (Gauguin, who insisted that artists are to disregard and improve upon nature, would be proud).

Much of the dialogue is taken from Van Gogh’s letters. At times, the sentimentality of his language borders on the saccharine, but it takes a special artist to master sentimentally. did it (early on, before it throttled him). Van Gogh mastered it as well, but only because he backed it up with talent. Yes, he actually talked that way, and we have to remember that painting, once primarily commissioned by the Church, was seen in the 19th century as potentially obsolete with the advent of photography. However, painters of the period, like Van Gogh and Gauguin (played with humorous arrogance by ) set about to prove that death sentence premature. They—the artists- –would be the new priests, subverting common sense, and fought like hell to create a new language, since the Church’s clergy had become hopelessly complacent and status quo. Dafoe captures Van Gogh’s childlike innocence. He was desperate for unconditional love and, by God, that’s the preacher in him, making us recall the scripture passage that says one must be like a child in order to attain the Kingdom: AKA, Eternity’s Gate. We’re reminded that Dafoe previously played an equally provocative Christ. It’s no accident that these are his two best roles. Like a child, Van Gogh finds joy in repetition, and because he couldn’t find it in love, he finds it in paint.

Van Gogh tells his priest (the typically wonderful ): “Perhaps God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.” In this, he speaks the language of Mahler, who also realized he wouldn’t live to see his work accepted. Van Gogh’s heights are reached only through painting. Everything else is devastation. He takes Gauguin’s advice to escape the hierarchical community and head South. Gauguin joins him, but even that is disastrous. Gauguin was and remains a more innovative artist than Van Gogh, and while he rightly assesses his peer as being as much sculptor as painter, he doesn’t quite have the intuition to realize that their relationship is one of unrequited love. The chemistry between Dafoe and Isaac is bewitching.

At Eternity’s Gate focuses on the last years of Van Gogh’s brief life. Even then it’s fragmented, and by keeping it focused on “being Van Gogh,” (Schabel’s description) it becomes the most satisfying cinematic interpretation of the painter to date.

Initially, Schabel’s decision regarding the depiction of Van Gogh’s death is a curious one. He opts for a flimsy minority theory, although cause of death was almost certainly suicide. Yet, artistically and psychologically, it makes sense in the context of Schnabel’s Van Gogh. There’s an early scene in which the artist becomes almost violent in reaction to a teacher mocking his work. Van Gogh’s death, as presented here, throws out the notion of a “romantic suicide of a martyr for art,” and renders it even more visceral than the actual event. That’s apt; a bit like a requiem.

203. WILD AT HEART (1990)

“This whole world’s wild at heart and weird on top.”–Lula Fortune, Wild at Heart

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Diane Ladd, , , J.E. Freeman

PLOT: After being released from prison for manslaughter, Sailor Ripley and love-of-his-life Lula Fortune head west to California, but are waylaid by Lula’s psychotically protective mother and various colorful agents under the employ of the effete and mysterious Mr. Reindeer. Their travels take them to New Orleans, where Johnny Farragut, a hired detective, tracks them down. As the noose tightens, the West-bound lovers make a detour to the town of Big Tuna, where, unbeknownst to Sailor, hit man Bobby Peru awaits his arrival.

Still from Wild at Heart (1990)
BACKGROUND:

  • Wild at Heart was adapted from Barry Gifford’s pulpy 1989 novel “Wild at Heart” (which gave birth to multiple sequels). While the movie ending’s differed greatly from the book’s, Gifford was pleased and praised David Lynch’s choice.
  • Winner of the 1990 Palme D’Or prize at Cannes, the year before fellow Certified Weird movie Barton Fink. Film critic Roger Ebert headed a large group of those dissatisfied with the jury’s choice, and was among many American reviewers who were much less impressed than the Cannes crowd.
  • Wild at Heart was released just before “NC-17” became a ratings option with the MPAA later in 1990. It scraped by with an “R” rating by obscuring the effects of a nasty shotgun head wound. (It was subsequently re-rated NC-17 for the home video release).
  • Actors from Lynch’s then-current hit series “Twin Peaks” who have cameo roles in Wild at Heart: Sherilyn Fenn, , , David Patrick Kelly, and (appearing in his fourth Lynch feature).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Like so many offerings from David Lynch, Wild at Heart is riddled with great shots—but an early image of Sailor Ripley pointing defiantly at the woman who just tried to have him killed captures his character’s sheer force-of-nature that drives the film’s unrestrained progression.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Lipstick face; cockroach underpants; the Good Witch

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: While in the middle of working on his hit soap-opera “Twin Peaks,” David Lynch took a break to make something that allowed him to explore his weirder side. Throughout Wild at Heart, the viewer is exposed to such a smorgasbord of road-movie madness—highway hallucinations, small town weirdos, classic-cool criminals, a mountain of lipstick, and dozens of lit matches—that by the end of the movie, Lynch has already accomplished most of what and would spend the subsequent decade retreading.

Original trailer for Wild at Heart

COMMENTS: Before he got lost on a highway and before he went to Continue reading 203. WILD AT HEART (1990)

CAPSULE: LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Wes Anderson

FEATURING: , , , , ,

PLOT: An aging underwater nature documentarian assembles a team to hunt down the jaguar shark that ate his partner, including a pregnant journalist he has a crush on and a pilot who may or may not be his illegitimate son.

Still from Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Oh, Wes Anderson, you come so close to making weird movies, but you just can’t take that final step over the brink of madness, can you? Set in a skewed, child’s-eye reality where aquatic documentarians are major celebrities and decorated with toy-like animated glow-in-the-dark sea creatures, Life Aquatic is probably the closest thing to a weird movie Anderson has made. Looking at the direction of his latest projects like Grand Budapest Hotel, which are moving towards the mainstream, if ever so marginally, it seems unlikely that he’ll ever go full-out surreal. But his singularity makes him a director we will have to continue to monitor for signs of weirdness.

COMMENTS: Aside from their acknowledged “quirkiness,” Wes Anderson’s comedies are distinguished by their deadpan style: the characters are detached and weary, expressing profound feelings of love or betrayal while fighting off an overwhelming urge to nap. The other thing that makes an Anderson movie is the heightened, obsessive sense of design; each individual scene is costumed and decorated like a diorama exhibit. This mixture results in a highly artificial oeuvre, and Life Aquatic may be his most formalistic movie. Aside from the hard-to-believe plot, a mashup of “Moby Dick” and “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” which involves the laconic Zissou searching for a possibly mythical “Jaguar Shark” while dealing with family squabbles and fending off pirates and rival oceanographers, Aquatic features a deliberately fake (but extremely colorful) marine fauna—peppermint-striped crabs, rhinestone-studded stingrays—almost the types of fish designs you’d expect to see at an “Under the Sea”-themed prom. (These creatures are often stop-animated by none less than ). The running soundtrack supplied by a Team Zissou sailor (Seu Jorge) with a guitar and a David Bowie obsession, who performs amazing acoustic renditions of “Space Oddity,” “Life on Mars,” and “Changes” in Portuguese, adds to the movie’s one-of-a-kind feel. Poker-faced Bill Murray is a natural match for Anderson’s dry style. Murray’s Steve Zissou is an impressive portrait of the artist in a midlife crisis: he’s still competent, but showing cracks. Maybe he’s gone mad: is the jaguar shark he seeks revenge upon real, invented as a publicity stunt to stir up interest in his faltering career, or a hallucination brought about by nitrogen narcosis? Murray makes Zissou complicated, flawed, and sympathetic. The cast of supporting characters is sprawling and the adventure epic. There’s a topless script girl, a three-legged dog, and a seahorse in a champagne glass for additional color. All around, it’s hard to be bored, and I’d say Life Aquatic is Anderson’s most interesting and strangest movie.

Anderson’s style can be frustrating—why does he insist on inserting so many layers of “look at me!” between the audience and the material?—but his meticulous craftsmanship is undeniable. I’m not a part of the Anderson cult, but I find it impossible not to appreciate his vision.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[The script’s] bittersweet weirdness leaves a residue even as the narrative disintegrates.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)

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