Tag Archives: John Hurt

CAPSULE: MELANCHOLIA (2011)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Charlotte Gainsbourg, , , ,

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)