Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Classics Revisited: The Elephant Man

(1980) Directed by David Lynch; Written by: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren and David Lynch; Based on the books The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Frederick Treves and The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu; Starring: John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud and Freddie Jones

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: **** ½

“People are frightened by what they don’t understand. And it’s so hard to understand, even for me, because my mother was so beautiful.” – John Merrick (John Hurt)

Considering that his only prior feature-length film to date was Eraserhead, David Lynch seemed an unlikely choice to helm a major studio production such as The Elephant Man. Perhaps just as odd was the pairing of Lynch with producer Mel Brooks and his production company, Brooksfilms Limited, to bring the decidedly grim tale of Joseph Merrick (John Merrick in the film) to the big screen. While this cooperative venture surely raised an eyebrow or two, the end result suggests that strange bedfellows could yield exceptional results. In retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine any other director handling the material as well, deftly merging art and popular entertainment. The Elephant Man is at once familiar and novel, with its conventional biopic plot, juxtaposed with the sort of unique surreal flourishes that one would come to expect from Lynch. While it’s definitely accessible, a closer examination reveals it’s not so far removed from Lynch’s previous effort. Both films deal with deformity, isolation and otherness, set amidst an industrial backdrop

It would be easy to veer on a tangent about what doesn’t match up between Merrick’s real life versus the character’s reel life, but that would be missing the point. More relevant, is how The Elephant Man addresses the subject matter. As a work of fiction based on real people and events, the film encapsulates “civilized” society’s less than civil response to Merrick’s affliction. Lynch chooses a stylized approach that favors an expressionistic interpretation over slavish devotion to the details of Merrick’s life. In the dreamlike opening scene, we catch of glimpse of Merrick’s alleged origins, as his mother is knocked down by an elephant. Of course, it’s    nothing more than sideshow ballyhoo, but the scene as presented here is organic to the story, as myth intersects with reality.

Freddie Francis’ cinematography, shot in gorgeous black and white, creates the perfect backdrop to tell Merrick’s story. We’re immersed in a hellish depiction of industrial age England, dominated by shadows and gaslight. Francis’ lens dwells lovingly on 19th century machinery, filthy alleyways and a seedy circus sideshow. This inhospitable environment is accompanied by John Morris’ effective score, which evokes a dark carnival. The score also introduced many to Samuel Barber’s classical piece, “Adagio for Strings,” providing an appropriate somber mood. Lynch contributed to the sound design, transforming Victorian-era London into a living organism, with the clamor of factories and steam engines coursing through its veins.

Christopher Tucker developed the unforgettable makeup by studying the real Merrick’s bone structure and death mask. As John Merrick, John Hurt is unrecognizable beneath the extensive makeup, but his performance shines through. Born with an incurable, disfiguring disease, Merrick is the object of scorn and revulsion by greater society, and     reduced to slavery as the star attraction in a traveling freak show. Hurt does a commendable job conveying an individual whose life is overwhelmed by abject misery. Through eye movement, gestures and limited speech, he manages to create a portrait of physical and mental pain that would be unendurable for most. The mere act of sleeping becomes a life or death struggle, as Merrick must remain propped up by a mountain of pillows to support the weight of his head.

Anthony Hopkins plays the virtuous (and ambitious) Dr. Frederick Treves, who rescues Merrick from his abusive handler Bytes (Freddie Jones). Treves initially takes Merrick’s reticence as a sign of diminished cognitive capacity, but soon discovers an intelligent, thoughtful human being lying beneath the horribly distorted exterior. On the other hand, while Treves’ motives seem superficially noble, the film raises the question whether or not he’s really much better than Bytes. In the course of moving from the circus to the hospital, Merrick transitioned from one form of exploitation to another. He’s simply become fodder for a higher class of gawkers. Although Treves arguably risked his professional reputation to serve as Merrick’s advocate, he had everything to gain by his munificence.

It’s easy to see why The Elephant Man appealed to David Lynch’s sensibilities, with its grotesque themes, depiction of unfathomable suffering, and struggles for identity. It represented one of the rare moments in cinema when the material and the artist were perfectly suited for one another. Despite a conventional narrative, the film could be called subversive by virtue of the fact that it introduced mainstream audiences to Lynch and his singular vision. It was unusual enough to attract the art house crowd, yet engaging enough to appeal to those with less esoteric tastes. This deeply affecting tale could be called a David Lynch movie for people who claim they don’t like David Lynch movies (I remember seeing this with my parents in the theater, so yes, it’s the perfect Lynch film to watch with your mom). Like all good films, The Elephant Man taps into some universal truths. It affirms the best and worst of human nature: the depths that some people will sink to denigrate others who are different, as well as the heights that others will take to rise above ignorance and hatred.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Blue Velvet

(1986) Written and directed by David Lynch; Starring: Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ****½

“I like things that are different… and I like distortions because I see so many distortions either inside of people or on the surface. I see this kind of confusion and darkness and distortions, and it’s sort of fascinating to me.” – David Lynch (from documentary, Mysteries of Love)

“Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?” – Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan)

There are a handful of directors whose names routinely prompt a visceral response from filmgoers. Depending on what side of the fence you’re on, a David Lynch movie promises a transformative experience or an exercise in confusion. One thing is for certain: his films, if nothing else, are unlikely to elicit a neutral reaction. Blue Velvet features the elements that we’ve come to expect from Lynch, with iconic imagery, eccentric characters and uncomfortable situations. It’s a formula that paradoxically attracts and repels, garnering fans and detractors in equal measure.

After the debacle that was Dune, Lynch returned to his roots with a smaller, more personal film in which he could exercise creative control. With Blue Velvet he does what he does best, by peering beneath the glossy veneer of a Norman Rockwell-esque town to reveal the sordid secrets that lurk beneath. Wilmington, North Carolina stood in for the idyllic Lumberton, a sort of Anytown U.S.A. The film opens with shots of a neighborhood with rows of perfect little homes, neatly manicured lawns, white picket fences and red roses. A fire engine replete with Dalmatian rolls by slowly, as if on parade, while a fireman waves to an imaginary crowd. Just as we’re lulled into a false sense of security, everything falls apart as an elderly man watering his yard suddenly collapses with a heart attack. As the camera zooms into the grass, we see the bugs crawling in the soil and hear them scuttling about. Underneath this prim exterior lies a world of entropy and filth.

Kyle MacLachlan stars as Jeffrey Beaumont, a clean-cut college kid who returns to Lumberton to take care of his father’s hardware store. Jeffrey gradually uncovers the town’s dirty little secrets one layer at a time, starting with the discovery of a severed human ear in a field. His mind starts to reel about the owner of the ear (Is he dead or alive?) and the story behind his find. He befriends Sandy (Laura Dern), a police detective’s daughter, and they try to piece together the clues, which lead to a singer’s apartment. When Jeffrey hatches a plot to sneak into the apartment to find out more, the situation escalates quickly. In spite of the danger to himself and the people around him, he feels an unshakable compulsion to continue his investigation. He later confides to Sandy, “I’m seeing something that was always hidden. I’m involved in a mystery.”
MacLachlan is an appealing choice as lead,* with his "aw shucks" demeanor and preppy boy-next-door appearance, which belies his dark side.

* Some have speculated that MacLachlan was cast due to his resemblance to Lynch, in an effort to reinforce the autobiographical components of the story.

Isabella Rossellini plays night club singer Dorothy Vallens, whose husband and son have been kidnapped by a dangerous psychopath. She lives in constant fear and sadness, tempered only by the prospect of one day being reunited with her family. After she catches Jeffrey spying on her, she turns the tables and we witness a brief reversal of roles, as she exercises a level of control she’s powerless to exert over anyone else (“Don’t touch me or I’ll kill you!”). As Jeffrey is drawn into her dysfunctional life, and inadvertently becomes her lover, she brings out his more unsavory aspects. In one scene of lovemaking, he initially refuses to comply with Dorothy’s demands to hit her, but eventually gives in, suggesting he’s not exactly the white knight he envisions himself to be. Dorothy and Sandy represent opposite ends of the spectrum for Jeffrey. While Dorothy represents something dangerous, a template to satisfy his illicit desires, he feels an opposing compulsion to shelter the virginal Sandy from the ugliness he’s uncovered.  

Dennis Hopper leaves a lasting impression as the sadistic, mentally unstable small-time criminal Frank Booth. Hopper’s performance is unpredictable and scary, oozing menace from every pore. We never know what he’s going to do next, but it can’t be any good. Frank’s world is ruled by dominance, verbal and physical abuse. He carries a tank of nitrous oxide wherever he goes, so he can stay in a constant state of detached euphoria as he uses Dorothy as his personal sex object. She becomes the focal point for his uncontrollable rage and mother fixation. We feel on edge when Frank eventually discovers Jeffrey at Dorothy’s apartment and takes him on a hellish joyride. Lynch underscores the class divide between the two, as prim college student Jeffrey drinks Heineken, while blue collar Frank prefers Pabst Blue Ribbon. Although Frank and Jeffrey appear to be polar opposites, there is a kernel of truth as Frank tells him, “You’re like me.” Jeffrey has already crossed the line, based on his own treatment of Dorothy. Hopper commented that he was cautioned by his agent not to take the part, due to his character’s “irredeemable” nature, but the role helped pave the way for his comeback as an actor. It’s a fascinating study of a man driven by only his base impulses, who lives to manipulate others.

Blue Velvet features some standout supporting performances, notably by Dean Stockwell as Ben, one of Frank’s partners in crime. Ben’s role is never made entirely clear, but he appears to be involved in drug dealing and prostitution. Like everyone else in Frank’s gang, he seems to live in constant awe and fear. In one scene, he placates Frank with a memorably creepy rendition of Roby Orbison’s “In Dreams.” George Dickerson is also notable as Sandy’s father, Detective Williams, one good cop swimming in a sea of corruption.

Is Blue Velvet art or exploitation? The late great film critic Roger Ebert famously lambasted the film for what he considered Lynch’s demeaning, reprehensible treatment of Rossellini. While Ebert’s intentions were noble, he failed to differentiate between the humiliation Rossellini’s character experiences, versus the actress humiliating herself onscreen. The particular scene in question depicts Dorothy wandering nude, beaten and bloodied in front of Jeffrey’s house. It’s a strong scene that’s uncomfortable to watch, but Lynch isn’t sexualizing Dorothy or glorifying the violence that was perpetrated against her. Rather, the scene underscores the depths her character has sunk, and the trauma she has experienced at the hands of a madman. It’s a risky scene that works, thanks to Rossellini’s courageous performance and conviction.

Like many David Lynch films, Blue Velvet is a typically hypnotic and polarizing experience, virtually impossible to take in on an initial viewing. It remains one of his most challenging films, running the gamut of tones – at times darkly comedic, melodramatic and mysterious. Lynch consistently plays with your expectations and dashes them at every turn. Nothing is quite as it seems, and no one is as squeaky clean as they appear.

Monday, December 1, 2014


(1977) Written and directed by David Lynch; Starring: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph and Jeanne Bates; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ****

“Everybody has a subconscious and they put a lid on it. There’s things in there. And then along comes something, and something bobs up. I don’t know if that’s good.” – David Lynch (excerpt from 1977 interview with Stephen Saban and Sarah Longacre, David Lynch Interviews, edited by Richard A. Barney)

It would be a gross understatement to say there’s nothing else quite like David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Describing the film to the uninitiated is akin to the parable about blind men attempting to identify an elephant by touching its constituent parts. Each viewer takes away something different, based on his or her individual perceptions. It’s a polarizing experience that seems to divide people into two camps: an exclusive club of worshippers who “get it,” versus those who don’t have a clue what it’s about. Lynch has been evasive about its meaning, perhaps trusting that viewers can reach their own conclusions. With little compass to go on outside of my flawed interpretation, Eraserhead is at once the most ideal and frustrating title to start off this month-long retrospective of Lynch’s films.

Eraserhead was filmed over a period of five years, from 1971 to 1976. In addition to writing and directing, Lynch had his hand in virtually every aspect of the production, including sound effects, special effects, music, editing, art design and production design. Because he had such a high level of creative control on Eraserhead, it might just be his most stereotypical film, abundant with images, sounds and tropes he would continue to explore in later projects. The film is populated with an assortment of bizarre characters who occupy discrete universes, at once intersecting with each other but isolated.

We are immersed in a bleak, post-industrial landscape – an alien environment unlike our own, yet eerily familiar.* It’s never expressly stated  where the film takes place or the time, although a framed portrait of a mushroom cloud in Henry’s apartment suggests a post-apocalyptic era (whether it’s on another planet, alternate universe, or a damaged Earth is anyone’s guess). Accompanying the film’s stark black and white images is a cacophony of noises engineered by Lynch himself. Each sound carries its own unique texture. Steam courses through pipes like blood in arteries, and factory noises drone in the background. In Lynch’s world, even innocuous sounds take on sinister undertones, such as puppies suckling or preparing a salad for a family meal.

* The Montana-born Lynch cites his time living in Philadelphia* as a major influence on his film. Lynch once remarked, “It’s my Philadelphia Story. It just doesn’t have Jimmy Stewart in it” (from interview “The Icon Profile: David Lynch,” by Chris Rodley, David Lynch Interviews, edited by Richard A. Barney).

Henry (Jack Nance) is our ideal guide to the world of Eraserhead, with his perennially baffled, childlike expression, a tourist in his own land. Through his protagonist, Lynch captures the everyday horrors of mundane activities and social interaction. We sense Henry’s discomfort as he joins his girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) and her parents for dinner. Dining with strangers and eating unfamiliar food suddenly becomes an unbearable trial. When Henry sits with Mary’s father Bill (Allen Joseph), the scene plays out a bit long, but it’s intentional. The awkward silence between the two men is palpable. Henry’s discomfort reaches a zenith when Mary’s mother (Jeanne Bates) confronts him about his relationship with Mary.

Lynch appears to comment on the fears of parenthood and the consequences of sex. Henry and Mary share their one-bedroom apartment with their infant child, a sickly inhuman creature that cries incessantly. Henry is repelled by its vaguely reptilian appearance and constant squawking. He’s torn between selfless devotion and feelings of enslavement to the helpless creature. The arrival of the child initiates his estrangement from Mary, and forges an irreversible rift between the two. As they drift apart, he takes refuge from his stifling existence by fantasizing about his neighbor (Judith Roberts), and staring into the radiator where The Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) resides. The Lady in the Radiator dances as wormlike, intestinal things drop from the ceiling (don’t ask me what that means), and sings the song “In Heaven,” where “everything is fine.”

37 years after its release, Eraserhead resembles nothing you’ve seen, or will likely see again. It defies conventional genre constraints, borrowing equal parts from science fiction, horror, drama, fantasy and comedy. It’s an unsettling blend that will continue to garner new devotees and spur revulsion among others. The only reliable reaction to the film is that you could probably ask ten different people and get ten different responses, but that’s the appeal. Your results may vary, but for my money, it’s an intentionally disturbing experience that plunges one into the darker corners of the mind and challenges us to confront what we find. If liking Eraserhead is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Turkey Day Crap-tacular

Ah, Thanksgiving – that venerated holiday when our nation celebrates manifest destiny, the overindulgence in turkey* (or Tofurky, if you swing that way), and terrible movies. Submitted for your disapproval are the following cinematic leftovers for your indigestion. I’ve conveniently parsed them into three categories: “So Bad They’re Good” (the cream of the crap), “Could’ve Been Good” (movies that had potential, but failed), and “Just Plain Bad” (so bad, they’re bad). You’ve been warned…

* Random useless fact: Did you know that a group of turkeys is called a rafter? 

So Bad They’re Good:

Gymkata (1985) U.S. Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas stars as Jonathan Cabot, a gymnast (surprise!) hired by the government to infiltrate the mysterious country of Parmistan, and help pave the way for the installation of an early warning system vital to security. The plot, which rips off The Most Dangerous Game, concerns a barbaric competition where Cabot must run for his life. After working with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, director Robert Clouse probably hoped to capture lightning in a bottle once more, but only proves that Thomas is no Lee. The goofy mix of gymnastics and karate seems impossibly cumbersome and contrived, and Thomas, with his wooden acting, is devoid of charisma. Gymkata is full of unintentionally hilarious moments that make viewing worthwhile, as in one scene when Cabot conveniently finds a bar to swing on (watch for his chalk-covered hands) after being chased down an alley, or when he discovers a thinly disguised pommel horse in the middle of a village square. Unbelievable.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Showgirls (1995) After the career highs of Robocop and Total Recall, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven went on to direct this glittery turd. Joe Eszterhas’ tone deaf script aims to make some sort of statement about the pursuit of fame, but fails miserably. The ham-handed dialogue only demonstrates that he has no idea how real people speak, and his superficial treatment of the seamy underbelly of Las Vegas seems to suggest that the full extent of his research was to watch some pole dancing.

Showgirls follows the exploits of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), a girl with a shady past who will stop at nothing to fulfill her dreams of becoming a Las Vegas dancer in a schmaltzy production. Although the filmmakers likely intended her to have an edge, as a protagonist she’s unlikeable and irritating. Besides being disproportionately defensive and combative with every character she encounters, she’s completely obtuse, especially when she’s manipulated by sleazy talent director Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan).  Leaving Las Vegas was a better advertisement for the city that never sleeps than this flick.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Street Fighter (1994) There’s not much in the way of street fighting going on in writer/director Steven E. de Souza’s movie, based on the video game with the same title.  Jean-Claude Van Damme stars as Colonel Guile, leader of an international anti-terrorist force, tasked with bringing super criminal Bison (Raul Julia) to justice. The real attraction in this ridiculous film is Julia (in his final movie appearance), who seemed to enjoy himself in spite of the material, and takes every opportunity to ham things up. His cartoonish lair includes a “hostage pit,” where his victims are conveniently stored for later rescue. The filmmakers seem to actively apologize to the audience at one point when a character comments “I can’t watch this,” while his comrade is being tortured. Indeed.

Rating: *½ (**** for Julia’s performance).  Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Could’ve Been Good:

Robocop 3 (1993) Director Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad) took a step in the wrong direction with this misguided third installment in the Robocop series. Evil corporation OCP is taken over by stereotypical Japanese businessmen, and takes steps to rid old Detroit of its working class residents. Some of the displaced urban dwellers won’t leave without a fight, however. Robocop (this time played by Robert Burke) teams up with a plucky little computer whiz kid (Remy Ryan) to help militant city residents combat the OCP menace. Robocop 3 unceremoniously kills off a beloved character from the series, and features goofy battles with sword-wielding androids. The coup de grâce for this misfire occurs when Robocop straps on a jet pack (depicted with unconvincing flying effects) to fight the bad guys. If nothing else, the film moves along at a decent clip. While it’s not as awful as I expected, it’s not particularly good either. Someone should have pulled the plug on this half-baked sequel before it ever got the green light.

Rating: **. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Masters of the Universe (1987) I was a bit too old to appreciate the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon, or the Hasbro toys that spawned the beloved franchise, so I probably wasn’t the target audience for the eventual live action film. Instead of starting from scratch, the filmmakers seemed to assume we already knew who the characters were and what the hell was going on. As a result, we never learn much about the origins of He-Man (Dolph Lundgren), Skeletor (Frank Langella), or anyone else. As the main character, Lundgren demonstrates about as much range and expressiveness as his plastic counterpart. Billy Barty appears as the diminutive, loathsome Gwildor, who provides dubious comic relief to the proceedings. Instead of taking place on another planet, most of the action for this wannabe epic is confined to a small (mostly deserted) town in the middle of nowhere, where a battle ensues for a glowy cosmic key. In a move that prefigured the current crop of Marvel Comics flicks, the filmmakers inserted a scene in the end credits, optimistically hinting at future installments. A defeated Skeletor proclaims, “I’ll be back.” Fortunately for everyone, he proved to be wrong.

Rating: **. Available on DVD

Just Plain Bad:

ThanksKilling (2009) I can appreciate what director/co-writer Jordan Downey managed to do with a microscopic budget, but this comedy/horror flick hurt. Even with a running time of 70 minutes, this story about the legend of a murderous turkey seems overlong. Some college buddies (who have the relationship dynamics of high school kids) go on a camping trip, and are terrorized by a rubber turkey puppet. The humor consistently falls flat (the same lame joke is used three times), and the leads are aggressively unlikeable. ThanksKilling reminds us that the best bad movies are unintentional. Watching this film only makes me pine for the painstakingly crafted ineptitude of an Ed Wood film. When it comes to this movie, you won’t be asking for seconds. 

Rating: *½. Available on DVD and Hulu Plus

Mortal Kombat (1995) Hack director extraordinaire Paul W.S. Anderson’s (Resident Evil) interpretation of the eponymous popular video game franchise won’t please fans with its PG-13 violence, nor will it please aficionados of martial arts flicks. With quick cuts and poorly staged fights, it’s tough to tell what’s going on most of the time. This shoddily executed action movie also features unconvincing computer-generated effects (the lizard-like character Reptile resembles the GEICO gecko), and a repetitive techno/dance ditty, punctuated by the battle cry “Mortal Kombat!” to remind you of the title, in case you forgot. The forgettable cast is led by the very Caucasian actor Christopher Lambert, playing the mystic Asian fighter Rayden. Shameful.

Rating: *½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD