Tag Archives: Jim Sturgess


DIRECTED BY: Philip Ridley

FEATURING: Jim Sturgess, Joseph Mawle, Clémence Poésy, Nikita Mistry, Eddie Marsan

PLOT: A photographer with a disfiguring heart-shaped birthmark on his face sees demons on

Still from Heartless (2009)

the streets of London, then is drawn into a Faustian bargain with a sinister being known as “Papa B.”

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not weird enough.  Although the ending delivers a sudden load of psychological ambiguity, and the middle section contains great eerie moments and dreamlike images, Heartless‘ odd tone too often results from the uneasy attempt to mix an arthouse character study with standard horror film tropes.

COMMENTS: For better or worse, expectations make a difference in appraising movies.  If Heartless had been the work of a first time director, it would be a promising debut; as Philip Ridley‘s first new film in 14 years, it actually arrives as a very slight disappointment.  Whenever Heartless falters, there’s the temptation to ascribe the failing to directorial rust rather than to inexperience, and to wonder what Heartless might have amounted to if Ridley had kept up his cinematic chops all these years.  That’s not to say Heartless is a bad film, just one that fails to live up to its promise.  It starts off with an intriguing setting: London (in the near future?) is literally Hell on Earth.  The urban decay on display goes way beyond shoplifting chavs and the litter of graffiti covering every public surface; the gangs prowling the streets setting little old ladies on fire are actually demons, wearing hoodies to cover their reptilian features.  Our protagonist, photographer Jamie, is one of a few who has accidentally caught a glimpse of their real visages; this supernatural vision doesn’t make as much of an impression on him as you might guess, however, as he’s more preoccupied with his own problems, in the form of a disfiguring birthmark which makes him hide his face from all but his closest relatives.  After a long, but not particularly deep, session of character development, things start cooking 40 minutes in when out of the blue Jamie gets a call from a mysterious “Papa B.”  Papa B lives in an apartment in a tenement tower building in London (the one with the eerie green glow coming through the window) where he recruits new hoodie-wearing hoodlums to go out and spread chaos in the streets in return for the favors only he can provide.  Papa B’s lair, with its distressed walls and bizarre lighting schemes, is a masterpiece of low-key nightmare set design; the entity himself is portrayed by a scary-as-hell Joseph Mawle with a narcotic detachment.  Living with him in the flat is Belle, a young East Indian girl who seems to know Jamie’s family history intimately and immediately bonds with him; she plays good cop to Papa B’s bad cop, and the pair’s seduction of Jamie is Heartless‘ high point, dreamlike and freaky.  Things cool off down the stretch, however, as the deal not unexpectedly turns rotten for Jamie, and the script dabbles in gratuitous jump scares and other horror movie clichés (including a victim whose incomprehensible stupidity makes him complicit in his own demise).  A visit from a Satanic Cockney bureaucrat known only as “the Weapons Man” livens things up before the movie trickles to a conclusion.   Suddenly abandoning the supernatural for a symbolic psychological explanation of Jamie’s torments, the ending proves unsatisfying because we don’t actually know his psychology well enough to respond emotionally to the resolution.  The threat from the once omnipotent Papa B simply fades away, and we get a flashback to a maudlin speech from Jamie’s dead father about darkness and stars that illuminates nothing.   Heartless winds up as a familiar Faustian fable with a trio of extraordinary diabolical characters (Papa B, Belle and the Weapons Man) and some wonderful sets (the mad tenement apartment, the streets of London glowing sickly yellow as midnight approaches).  The results are worthwhile, and individual scenes are knockouts, but it feels like there’s a classic weird horror tale lurking inside this movie that just can’t quite burst out if its shell.

Director Philip Ridley debuted in 1990 with the Certified Weird The Reflecting Skin, the strange story of a troubled boy who believes his neighbor is a vampire.  In twenty years Ridely has only completed three feature films, but the polymath has kept busy, writing nine children’s novels, thirteen plays for adults and children, and seeing three major exhibitions of his photographs.


“Best appreciated for its sustained creepy vibe and sporadically arresting images, ‘Heartless’ moves from one outré moment to another, from one self-conscious allusion to the next (‘Donnie Darko’ and ‘Taxi Driver’). It doesn’t go anywhere special or much of anywhere, though it goes there in appreciably icky style.”–Manhola Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)




FEATURING: Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood

PLOT: More than thirty Beatles songs illustrate a romance between a working-class Liverpudlian and a New England WASP during the tumultuous 1960s.

Still from Across the Universe (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Set in a sentimentalized Sixties, it’s inevitable that Across the Universe heaves to that decades psychedelic squalls. Spectacular director Julie Taymor relishes slathering lysergic pigment on her CGI canvas for five or six of the thirty plus songs, but the ultimately the story is more about how all you need is love than it is about girls with kaleidoscope eyes.

COMMENTS: In a career of a mere eight years, the Beatles probably cranked out more memorable melodies than Mozart. It was a minor stroke of genius to adapt that songbook into a musical.  he script of Across the Universe, which tells the story of a pair of young lovers and their friends with the Vietnam War protests and the Summer of Love as a backdrop, can be viewed in two ways. It could be seen a complete failure, built out of equal parts of romantic cliché and self-congratulatory Baby Boomer nostalgia. Or, it could be looked at as a masterpiece of craftsmanship, considering the fact that the scriptwriters had to weave a coherent epic tale from a relatively small catalog of three-minute song-stories containing no recurring characters.

Like most musicals, however, the story is almost beside the point; it only needs to be good enough to set up the next production number. Fortunately for weirdophiles, the numbers Universe‘s story sets up are frequently cosmic, though you will have to wade through an hour of character setup before it starts coming on. This being an archetypal 1960’s tale, there’s a nod to acid culture: more than a nod, it’s a magical mystery tour through an extended three song medley. It starts with the principals sipping LSD-spiked drinks at a party while a Ken Kesey type (played by Bono) lectures on mind expansion using “I Am the Walrus” as the holy text; whirling cameras and and tie-dye colored solarization gives their trip to the countryside via magic bus the requisite grooviness. This sequence segues into “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” where another acid-guru (Eddie Izzard) takes the crew inside his magic tent for a twisted computer-generated carnival complete with a roller skating pony, a dancing team of Blue Meanies, and contortionists in spooky wooden tribal masks. The scene’s an impressive visual spectacle whose impact fizzles thanks to Izzard massacring the lyrics through an off-the-beat, spoken-word delivery with some unfortunate improvisations. The dreamy comedown features the flower children staring up at the sky, imagining themselves tastefully nude and making love underwater.

Psychedelia intrudes into other numbers, as well: the carefully layered images of “Strawberry Fields Forever” feature bleeding strawberries that morph into fruit bombs splattering on the jungles of Vietnam. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” includes a cameo by Salma Hayek as five sexy dancing nurses, and a bliss-giving syringe filled with a nude dancing girl. The best and weirdest segment may be “I Want You/She’s So Heavy,” which addresses the draft board and stars a talking poster of Uncle Sam, dancing sergeants with square plastic chins, and a platoon of soldiers lugging the Statue of Liberty. Standout non-weird numbers include a gospel version of “Let It Be” set during the Detroit riots and a funky “Come Together” performed by Joe Cocker, who sings as three different characters, including a natty pimp backed by a chorus of hookers. Hardcore Beatles fans will rate Universe a must see (and they’ve probably already seen it); unless you’re some sicko who absolutely can’t stand Lennon-McCartney compositions, you’ll want to check it out just for the visuals. It can get pretty far out.

Despite its weird parts, Across the Universe was able to secure a mainstream release. Audiences were willing to accept the unreal scenes because they were presented in the lone format where the average person expects and accepts surrealism—the music video. Unfortunately, however, even the Beatles fan base couldn’t make Taymor’s experiment profitable at the box office.


“A cameo by Bono as a sort of godfather among hippies (delivering a forceful cover of ‘I Am the Walrus’) shifts the movie into a hallucinatory realm, with a tie-dye color scheme that suggests scenes were shot during an acid trip with Baz Luhrmann. Viewers who like movies to reflect their out-of-body experiences will gladly inhale, but for others, the excess may seem off-putting.”–Justin Chang, Variety (contemporaneous)