The Little Prince

'The Little Prince' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 5, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Irena Brignull; Bob Persichetti

Directed by: Mark Osborne

The Little Prince is a gem. It’s a crime it never received a theatrical release. It’s a heartwarming journey rivaling anything Pixar has created on an emotional and intellectual level, and perhaps it’s the complex, multi-layered animation that truly sets the film apart, interweaving crude stop-motion with crisp, computer-generated imagery to produce an aesthetic you’ll struggle to find elsewhere.

Kung Fu Panda director Mark Osborne’s enchanting tale is a reimagining of the 1943 French novella of the same name, penned by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a successful commercial pilot (and novelist, poet, aristocrat and journalist) prior to World War II. The man once traveled to American shores in an attempt to convince the government to bring the fight to Nazi Germany following his disenfranchisement from the French Air Force in the early 1940s. He spent a little over two years in the States writing what would later become three of his most popular works. He later would re-join the Force only to disappear mysteriously soon thereafter à la Amelia Earhart.

Saint-Exupéry’s experiences as an aviator factor into this modern interpretation of The Little Prince in curious ways. (It should be noted, however, that his original story was published before he enlisted.) Fantastical elements are of course front-and-center and the story is entrenched in the stresses of modern living, but under the surface lie untold mysteries and tales of bravery, heroism and self-discovery. Strong emotional hooks are drawn from an impressive, inspired voice cast and Osborne’s touch, though ultimately nothing unique, is just confident enough to steer the story in a direction that, come the end, very well may have you in tears. The good kind, of course.

We’re introduced to The Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy, who thus far has Interstellar, The Conjuring and Ernest & Celestine on her résumé, and at the time of writing she’s yet to turn 16) who lives in a very grown-up world driven by rules, schedules and obedience. Her Mother (Rachel McAdams) wants her to attend the prestigious Academy so she can grow up and become an essential, contributing member of society. The initial interview does not go well as the panel, led by Paul Giamatti‘s intimidating and overly harsh instructor, springs an unexpected question upon her that causes her to panic. Mother has a Plan B: make her daughter cram so much studying into each and every day of her summer vacation she’ll be sure not to have any distractions (i.e. friends).

Mother draws up an impossibly elaborate Life Plan and constructs it so that each minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year is accounted for. Soon enough, The Little Girl rebels. She befriends their eccentric, hoarding and elderly neighbor, The Aviator (Jeff Bridges), who is introduced as the scourge of this SimCity-esque neighborhood — one comprised of identical blocky houses and roads filled with cars driving identical speeds and in organized right-angled patterns. Mother looks at the situation like so: “Just think about [his] house being the reason [ours] is available. This is the place where you’ll learn to grow up and become Essential.” (I paraphrase.)

The Aviator is a wonderful creation, and Bridges brings the character to life in ways that are difficult to fathom. Practically speaking, his performance is little more than a voice laid over/synced up with a cartoon character. It’s not the genuine article, and yet, he is mesmeric as he regales The Little Girl about his past experiences with an enigma he calls The Little Prince, whom he met after crashing his plane in the Sahara Desert many years ago. The Little Prince (voiced by the director’s son Riley) shows him a world where everything is possible, a reality that The Aviator has been trying for years to communicate to anyone willing to listen. Finally he has found someone who will, even if her intelligence means she’s skeptical about certain details.

The Little Prince is a space-traveling young lad who once lived on a tiny planetoid, a celestial object so small you could traverse on foot in a matter of minutes and whose existence is constantly being threatened by hungry tree roots eager to take over the entire planet. He left this world and a Rose he fell in love with (voiced by Marion Cotillard for some reason) in search of greater truths amongst the cosmos. In the present day, The Little Girl decides it is her responsibility to track down The Little Prince and prove to The Aviator that he still does exist, and that even though he has grown into a jaded, passive adult, he never abandoned the child within.

The Little Prince astounds on a visual level. It is an exercise in contrasts, the real world from which The Little Girl temporarily escapes suffocating with its seriousness and sterility, while the universe expands into this wondrous, strange space in which individual worlds are populated by simplistic, insulated communities comprised of childless, passionless adult drones. Scale is quirkily reduced to something almost tangible. We’re not talking interstellar travel here, more like a weekend road trip amongst the stars. You’ll find the stop-motion animation reserved for backstories concerning The Aviator’s relationship with The Little Prince while the rest operates in a pristine, colorful world that gives Disney a run for its money.

Much like a Roald Dahl creation, The Little Prince refuses to condescend to its pint-sized viewers. It strikes a delicate balance between entertaining youngsters while providing the more jaded a few different ways to look at the lives they’ve shaped for themselves. Occasionally the chronicle trips into the realm of the pretentious with a few overly-poetic spits of dialogue that attempt to spice up an already fairly advanced narrative. It doesn’t have to try so hard. The exploration of just what it was that caused the kid in us to go away is profound enough on its own.

The Little Prince

Recommendation: The Little Prince offers adventurous viewers something a little different. Generally speaking the story arc isn’t something you’ll be experiencing for the first time, but it’s the incredible nuance and the textures and the layers to the animation that make it one of the most original works this former animated-film-skeptic has seen all year. Stellar performances abound. There’s even a cute fox voiced by James Franco, a Benicio del Toro-sounding snake and Albert Brooks is along for the ride so the cast is reason enough to check it out. Also, stop-motion. Have I mentioned how awesome the technique is? Yeah, it’s pretty awesome. Available on Netflix.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “It is only with heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

30-for-30: The ’85 Bears

'The 85 Bears' movie poster

Release: Thursday, February 4, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Jason Hehir 

There will never be another quite like the 1985 Chicago Bears defense. Or their offense. Or their coach(es). Or their cult of personality. If you’re from the area you probably don’t need the reminding, but Jason Hehir’s surprisingly moving documentary makes it abundantly clear to the outside observer that times have certainly changed.

Today fans are expected to embrace quarterback Jay Cutler, a Vanderbilt alum who looks like he might cry at any given moment. Sure, the guy’s built Ford tough but I’m convinced neither he nor the cast that surrounds him is as entertaining as the freak show the mid-80s spawned. Granted, Cutler is also no Doug Flutie. Under the thumb of head coach Mike Ditka and his defensive coordinator, the late Buddy Ryan, the Bears were less of a sports team than they were a hit squad powered by a trifecta of brute athleticism, mental tenacity and celebrity swagger. There was no pretense about them; they were the real deal, asserting their dominance throughout an historic regular season campaign and an even scarier post-season run that netted the great city of Chicago its first and so far only Superbowl victory.

The ’85 Bears, narrated by Vince Vaughn (who also executive-produced), is a love letter to those glory days, gathering together the surviving members of the team (may Sweetness rest in peace) for a candid chat about how they viewed themselves as young, emerging stars as well as their thoughts on the legacy they ultimately shaped. There’s a lot of the banter and inside joking that one expects from former players reliving their heyday — the way Hehir’s able to cozy up to a group of guys who have never seemed so vulnerable is a major factor in the film’s appeal — but undoubtedly one of the most intriguing aspects is the running discussion about the Bears’ unique coaching situation. What happens when you have two alpha males jockeying for a position of authority?

One would naturally assume nothing but dysfunction. In this case you’d assume incorrectly. In this case you get the formula for establishing a championship caliber team. And yeah, okay, a little dysfunction as well. Ditka vs. Ryan: a heavyweight bout, a battle of contrasts forged out of the former’s gruff, urban machismo and the latter’s rural southern roots, one that resulted in an oft-icy tension between the two on and off the field. Players recall Ditka becoming irked by Ryan’s insistence that weekly practices assume the same level of physical intensity actual games demanded. Ditka didn’t deem it necessary for players to sustain injuries during practice, a point of view that is as understandable as Ryan’s, who believed the only way to victory is through militaristic discipline and routine. (After all, his ’76 – ’77 Minnesota Vikings didn’t earn the nickname ‘Purple People Eaters’ because they stood around crocheting during scrimmages.)

The ’85 Bears feels more like a family reunion than a sports documentary. Relationships trump all, be they ones characterized by conflicting egotism or remembered for their controversial nature. If you’ve never met Jim MacMahon, the successor to Walter Payton (according to some, the greatest Bear that ever lived) and a BYU alum, wait until you get a load of him here. MacMahon’s infamous appearances at press conferences with a beer in hand or his off-hand comments about how people in New Orleans are all ugly and dumb may have earned him a certain reputation, but his contributions on the field spoke for themselves . . . even if his habit of improvising plays routinely frustrated Ditka.

Then of course there’s Mike Singletary, who now finds himself shouldering assistant coaching duties for the recently relocated Los Angeles Rams. Many of the interviews are information-dense and insightful enough on their own but it’s Singletary’s recounting of a once-turbulent relationship with Ryan that gives the film a beating heart. Watching him visit Ryan at home as he deals with increasing health problems is both touching and a reminder that football is more than a game. It is family. And good luck keeping a dry eye when Hehir exposes the handwritten letter Ryan wrote to his players. We also meet William “The Fridge” Perry, who remains to this day one of the largest men to ever don a football uniform at 6′ 2″ and 335 pounds. Well-spoken and extremely amiable, Perry’s demeanor is the epitome of, in MacMahon’s own words, the “big, happy fat guy.”

The ’85 Bears makes it clear no opponent looked forward to dealing with them. If other rivals — namely Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers and the Windy City’s BFFs the Green Bay Packers — claimed they happily embraced the challenge of solving Ryan’s smothering defense or MacMahon’s ability to change plays at will while maintaining a high completion percentage, they were lying. Few, if any, teams looked forward to getting broken the way the Bears broke people. Their physical brutality all but locks the narrative in a time capsule, particularly as the league today continues to feign a stronger interest in advocating for the well-being of its players, both active and retired. One can’t help but think that such an evolution has naturally come about as a direct result of this epic chapter in Chicago’s storied football history.

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Buddy Ryan and Mike Singletary share a moment

Recommendation: Thoroughly entertaining and moving in equal measure, The ’85 Bears is much more than a film about a rare collection of football talent. It is about legacy, about pride and about how sports bring people together. I absolutely love this one. One of the best ESPN films has to offer. Definitely seek this out if you come to the realization that this chunk of NFL history is one of your blind spots.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “You know when there’s a pack of wild dogs, if one of them is mean, they’re all going to be mean. Guys are getting their asses handed to them out there.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.usa.newonnetflix.info; http://www.chicagotribune.com 

The Fundamentals of Caring

'The Fundamentals of Caring' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Rob Burnett

Directed by: Rob Burnett

A long time ago I made some comment to the effect of being frustrated by how easily I’m tricked into watching movies starring Paul Rudd. This knee-jerk reaction was inspired by a viewing of the terrible 2012 comedy Wanderlust which paired him with Jennifer Aniston. That movie did nothing for the world of comedy or fans of either performer, but it was wrong of me to question my loyalty to Rudd.

Because here’s the thing about him: Paul Rudd is still Paul Rudd in poor films. In great movies he’s . . . holy crap, Paul Rudd. The Oxford grad-turned-professional-penis-joke-teller has weathered a few flops in his time and yet he emerges on the other side grin still intact. Every. Time. He’s never what’s wrong with a film and more often than not he’s the major box office draw. That couldn’t be more true when it comes to Netflix’s road trip comedy The Fundamentals of Caring, a movie that will have no box office intake to speak of, but will still leave audiences satisfied and smiling.

He plays Ben, a retired writer now looking for a way to move on after the loss of his young son. The restraint in his performance marks something of a diversion for Rudd, taking on a more dramatic persona here (though he’s not completely sullen — just think more stoic, as in Perks of Being a Wallflower and dial the infectious inanity of Anchorman down to 1). Ben turns to caregiving and starts looking after Trevor (Craig Roberts), a teen with muscular dystrophy and a dark sense of humor. His mother Elsa (Jennifer Ehle) isn’t exactly enamored when she finds out Ben has little experience in care-taking, especially since her son is more needy than the typical teen.

Ben thinks it would be good for Trevor to get out of the living room and see some of the world before his cynicism suffocates him. So he’s going to take him on a road trip to see “the world’s deepest pit.” Because the rest of the movie needs to happen, Elsa gets over her (completely understandable) fears in a heartbeat and soon we’re on the road, packed into an old van bound for a few tourist traps and maybe even some personal revelations along the way. Of course there’ll be a girl, too. The fundamentals of at least a decent road trip comedy. Check, check and check.

Rob Burnett’s adaptation of Jonathan Evison’s novel rarely breaks out of Checklist Mode, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments worth savoring. One manifests as a trip detour when Trevor decides he wants to see his estranged father who he hasn’t seen since he was three. He’ll have the chance to get some answers at the luxury auto dealer he now runs. We all know how this is going to go, but let’s just say there’s even less reconciliation in this scene than what’s expected. Bob (Frederick Weller)’s a cold-hearted bastard who’d rather shell out $160 than offer even a hint of an apology to his son.

The encounter is pretty heartbreaking. It has immediate repercussions that are hard to watch unfold as well, such as when Trevor, in a moment of bitter dejectedness, interprets the entire cross-country endeavor as a favor to Ben to make himself feel better, rather than the mutually-beneficial adventure Ben intended it to be. The fall-out is one of those many boxes the film must ultimately tick but because it, like much of the story’s moodiness, is handled with a particularly appealing brand of brashness (if that’s actually a thing), it doesn’t become another throw-away moment.

In stark contrast to what’s familiar and/or predictable, Selena Gomez ends up doing something absurd. She actually helps endear us to Fundamentals‘ bent-but-not-broken spirit. Though her character, a strong-and-silent type named Dot (terrible name), doesn’t have much to do or say, Gomez finds a way to inject sensitivity into a story that heretofore has largely lacked it. Truly, it’s Roberts’ cynical, self-deprecating outlook that funds the nonchalance. There’s an unshakable sense that Burnett never really wanted his project to be different. Just darker. Gomez doesn’t expose a truly complex character but she helps steer Trevor out of his deep funk. Her presence is perpetually welcomed.

Shot in just 26 days, Fundamentals is only ever a trio of lesser performances away from being forgettable road trip fluff. Because of the obvious comfort and chemistry between said performers, the adventure soon becomes one that’s surprisingly difficult to disembark from.

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Recommendation: Performances make The Fundamentals of Caring worth sitting through for there’s not much else separating it from the dearth of other road tripping adventures. Paul Rudd restrains himself once again to effect yet another example of how he is much more than just a penis-joke-teller. Best of all, he never overshadows his co-star Craig Roberts, who is also a lot of fun, and hey, even Selena Gomez is good here. Everyone’s all in on this one, and it shows.  

Rated: NR

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Yes, and I’m not an a**hole. And since you want an a**hole, my not being an a**hole makes me more of an a**hole than the a**holes that you normally date, because they’re giving you exactly what you want; whereas I, by not being an a**hole, am not. Which makes me an a**hole.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com

Room

'Room' movie poster

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Emma Donoghue

Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson

How does one begin to describe a film like Room? Do I write a poem? Do I send Lenny Abrahamson a letter saying ‘thanks?’ Do I wax lyrical about the emotional highs and lows only a film about a mother and son being isolated in a garden shed for years can provide?

Nah, not really. I’m not feeling any of that. What I do feel is that I’ve had the life force sucked out of me after watching this, the big screen adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel. If this is meant to be uplifting, it’s uplifting in the way One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was uplifting.

What I see in Room is an indictment of humanity; we are an unapologetically ugly species. I see relentless psychological torment, a young woman’s life pointlessly sent off the rails after she helped a man “and his dog” one fateful night. I see suffering not just in the moment but in the aftermath of a highly improbable escape from confinement.

Lenny Abrahamson devotes roughly half the running time inside a shed in the backyard of some nondescript home in suburban USA. This is where we first meet the characters, going about their day, interacting with each other and finding creative ways to pass the time. Jack (Jacob Tremblay) says hello to all of the inanimate objects he’s surrounded by upon awakening. Repressed anger be damned, ‘Ma’ (a never better Brie Larson) is going to make sure her son celebrates his fifth birthday properly.

Life is a certain way for these people. It doesn’t take much time or effort to realize it’s neither healthy nor normal. But after some psychological ingenuity on the part of Ma, life shall prove to be even more difficult on the outside. Indeed, there will be a transition, not just for the characters but for how we are able to invest in the performances. Given the novelist is also the screenwriter here, is it safe to assume the book is just as dull and arduous in the second half?

‘Room,’ as Jack calls it, is compelling in a morbid kind of way. Maybe all I need to say about this is Sean Bridgers. Given so little to do, the man effects a thoroughly despicable human being, an archetypal abuser who probably blames the economy for his being such a shit-bag. However he’s in the frame so infrequently he can’t take all the credit. In fact he’s pretty incidental compared to the weight of Larson and Tremblay’s performances.

If you’ve heard the word already, it is true: these are some breathtaking performances. Were it not for the depth of Larson’s commitment to pretending to be Tremblay’s mother, Room would be unwatchable. It is such a thoroughly depressing film, tracing the trajectory of that commitment as the pair are faced with an entirely new set of challenges. The real world is both exciting and maddening. Jack is the ray of sunshine in an otherwise dark room. At nine years old, the Canadian youngster is a revelation.

He informs the film’s deeply introspective narrative, professing his interpretation of the world around him. His descriptions give the film a jolt of inspiration; it’s better when Tremblay talks to us. When he’s not we’re like the psychologist who finds their first major breakthrough with a patient who’s generally been unwilling to talk about a past trauma. Those breakthroughs happen all too infrequently though, and we’re left with the difficult task of telling the patient that everything is going to be okay. We promise.

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 4.36.39 PM

Recommendation: Room proves an acting showcase for its young stars. And honestly, it is a credit to those efforts that I have reacted, perhaps to a great many’s surprise, somewhat unfavorably. That a film inspires an emotional reaction at all is one of the highest praises you can give a film. While recognizing Room‘s brilliance, it’s still ultimately not something I’d ever care to sit through again.

Rated: R

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “There’s so much of ‘place’ in the world. There’s less time because the time has to be spread extra thin over all the places, like butter. So all the persons say ‘Hurry up! Let’s get going! Pick up the pace! Finish up now!’ Ma was in a hurry to go ‘boing’ up to Heaven, but she forgot me. Dumbo Ma! So the aliens threw her back down. CRASH! And broke her.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Road Within

Release: Friday, April 17, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Gren Wells

Directed by: Gren Wells

The Road Within is far from a realistic take on how mental illness affects one’s ability to socially interact but I’d be lying if I said it isn’t incredibly uplifting and heartwarming. Gren Wells has created a wonderful pick-me-up and that’s all you really need to know.

I suppose I could go into more detail, else this would be the shortest film review ever.

The schmaltzy-titled film follows a trio of teens who break out of a mental health facility and embark on a three-day expedition during which they bond, sharing in their anguish and collective suppressed emotions. The goal of the journey is for Vincent (the emerald-eyed Robert Sheehan), who has Tourette’s, to reach the ocean and scatter the ashes of his recently passed mother. He is joined by his roommate Alex (Dev Patel), a boy of similar age who is perpetually overwhelmed by his obsessive compulsive disorder, and a girl sporting purple-dyed hair played by Zoë Kravitz. Her name is Marie and she’s battling anorexia.

Vincent’s father (T-1000 Robert Patrick), unable to cope with his son’s turbulent behavior in the wake of the tragedy, sends him away to this facility run by Kyra Sedgwick’s Dr. Rose, a counselor who means well but is fairly incompetent. Given her hands-off approach and Vincent’s determination, the mechanism for the story’s development still feels a bit too clumsy: all it takes for Vincent’s wishes to come true is for Marie to stumble upon his room one day, flirt ever so slightly with him, and then steal doc’s car keys. It’s fairytale-esque how easily they are able to break from their shackles (and a tiny bit naughty — she stole car keys, thief . . . THIEF!)

The Road Within doesn’t play out as something that would happen in real life yet the adventure is too much fun to dismiss altogether. It features an incredible performance from the young Sheehan, who I was convinced actually had Tourette syndrome. His brown curly hair a perpetual mess and his face beset with worry, Sheehan’s Vincent is hugely empathetic despite his inability to control his temper when his tics have subsided. The 27-year-old actor masterfully steers his teenaged character through emotional turmoil that’s in addition to his literal knee-jerk reactions and spasms. That it becomes difficult to watch on occasion (and listen to — be prepared for a stream of profanities in the early going) is a credit to how committed Sheehan is to inhabiting this head space. It’s easily the crowning achievement of the film.

Less effective, but affecting nonetheless, are Patel’s Alex, whose crippling paranoias have him constantly wearing latex gloves and render him unable to slap his newfound friends a high-five in a brief celebratory moment, and Kravitz’s headstrong yet visibly physically unhealthy Marie. Over the course of their adventure, one which finds the actors juxtaposed against the breathtaking backdrop of Yosemite Valley, their precarious states begin to act as a galvanizing agent — “we’re all sick so we aren’t that different from each other” — though frequently the development rings hollow. I simply couldn’t buy into how quickly the characters moved past their severe illnesses, shedding symptoms as if they were layers of clothing.

The story isn’t completely lacking in validity. Vincent finds himself attracted to Marie (naturally), a development that only compounds Alex’s sense of loneliness and frustration over his condition. While romance is hinted at, it’s wisely handled with vulnerability and even an air of distrust. And while the melting of Vincent’s father’s icy exterior over the course of the story as he and the doctor set off in pursuit of her stolen car and the three renegades similarly sends up red flags, Robert Patrick has the acting pedigree to make the sudden shift somewhat legitimate.

One need look no further than The Road Within‘s emotional conclusion to find everything that’s wrong, and right, with Wells’ handling of the material. It tidies up much too quickly and leaves viewers with the impression that the hellish travails prior to the kids’ rebellion will no longer exist; this is a happily-ever-after for people who sadly do not travel down such a finite road. Mental illness, like an addiction, is permanent. It’s inescapable. It’s infuriating. However, none of these shortcomings are enough to drown the piece. It may be sentimental and unrealistic but The Road Within is immensely enjoyable. It’s optimistic and upbeat, easy to embrace. This is the kind of film you’ll want to reach for when you find yourself enduring a particularly rough stretch, even if you may not suffer from any kind of ailment at all.

Recommendation: The film has its flaws — and quite a few of them — but this is a winning road trip comedy that I recommend on the backs of an incredible performance from Robert Sheehan (as well as Dev Patel and Zoë Kravitz). Upbeat and entirely inoffensive (save for the litany of swear words in the opening third), The Road Within offers something for all but the most cynical of viewers. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “You know, there’s a clown in my head and he shits in between my thoughts and he forces me to do the most inappropriate thing at the most inappropriate moment. So relaxing is pretty much the one thing I cannot do.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.shaanig.org

IMDb Top 250: The Elephant Man (1980)

imdb top 250 logo

I would like to thank Table9Mutant (a.k.a. Mutant, a.k.a. Mutey) of Cinema Parrot Disco for the opportunity to review a film that is, in my estimation, a downright classic. If you have yet to check out her site yet, please drop what you’re doing now and head over there (or after you’ve read this, that works too. 😉 )

So there was this movie I needed to watch for this IMDb Top 250 movie challenge thing I was participating in. I’m using the past tense because this was something I had committed to about . . . a year and a half ago at this point. (Is that about right Mutey? Year and a half? or has it been longer?) The movie was David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and I finally managed to calm my ADHD down enough to where I could actually watch it. However, as I was cueing it up to watch my mind started being a bit of an ass, provoking me and stuff, telling me to flip to a different On-Demand channel, something that was playing a more recent movie.

“No!” I yelled back at it, out loud. Seated on a couch in the middle of a very quiet living room. All I had done over the last several months was learn to procrastinate better. Err, sorry, excuse me — blog about other movies that to me at the time seemed more urgent. Finally I realized I could always procrastinate — yes, that ‘extremely-nonsensical-combination-of-letters-that-if-repeated-enough-over-a-short-span-of-time-makes-even-less-sense-but-somehow-if-you-only-say-it-once-you-know-exactly-what-it’s-referring-to’ word — later on anyway. I had to hit the play button now.

I was transported back to the late 1800s, and Victorian England, where traveling circuses were still all the rage and attracted (semi-) massive crowds. I think it’s only fair to assume those who did not turn out for these shows had some kind of moral compass that wasn’t shattered into shitty little useless bits. After a brief but trippy dream-like sequence, Lynch pans in on a striking man (Anthony Hopkins) moving through the crowds, trying to access a particular exhibit known only as ‘The Elephant Man.’ However a shift in the public perception of what these most bizarre and unholy of events actually represented — not curiosity, but cruelness — led to more than a few of the more obscure and unattractive exhibits being closed down by authorities. ‘The Elephant Man’ was one such exhibit.

Cut to a dank and depressingly dark alleyway somewhere in the London area, where once again Hopkins’ Dr. Frederick Treves is trying to get a glimpse of this elephant-like man. To do so, he must uncomfortably agree to some terms (mostly monetary . . . natch) set by the manager, a horrible man named Bytes (Freddie Jones). When he’s finally granted access Treves is so moved by what he sees that he asks if he may ‘study him’ back at the London Hospital, where Treves is a renowned practitioner of medicine. Or whatever fancy way 19th Century English people referred to medical-y people.

As Lynch’s often powerfully emotive work seeks to explore the relationship Dr. Treves formed with his patient, Joseph Merrick (a breathtakingly good John Hurt), during the time he stayed in this hospital, the narrative gets cozy in this facility, spending much of the remaining time concerned with the passage of time and how it can quite literally heal wounds. Unfortunately, the London Hospital had been deemed a facility fit only for those who could be cured of their ailment(s). Go figure, Victorian England. As if Joseph needed the added pressure of becoming an inconvenience to the bureaucracy. (Random bit of trivia: Joseph’s so commonly mistakenly referred to as John that he is actually ‘John’ in the movie as well, so for the purposes of this review I’ll stick with his movie name from here on out.)

The fabric of this narrative is weaved from a tough, humanistic cloth. The Elephant Man is an absorbing study of one of the most fundamental aspects of existence, the need and desire to fit in and belong to something. For the heavily disfigured John, it’s heartbreakingly sufficient for him to have his presence actually acknowledged by at least one person. Perhaps this explains why he opens up at all to the doctor who found him in the streets and why he said precious little to his circus manager/owner. John sees Dr. Treves as a paternal figure of sorts. At the very least, a reincarnation of his mother, of whom he carries around a picture in his pocket. Since early childhood, around the age of 10 when she passed away, John was always curious to know if she, too, would have rejected him like his father and his new wife had . . . or would she have accepted him for what and who he was?

The Elephant Man is powered by two tremendous performances from Hurt and Hopkins, the former being one of the strongest in all of cinematic history. (Certainly in my history of watching movies, which is like, so totally not a history at all . . . . . ) I feel pretty comfortable making that claim even when factoring in make-up effects that were ahead of their time, effects so convincing they inspired the Academy to introduce an award category the following year specifically for Make-Up Artistry.* Hurt, behind a mask that graphically depicts the brutality of random chance (a.k.a. the nature of genetics), is mesmerick (see what I did there? I spelled that word as if it were his last name as part of the . . . okay, yeah this is pointless information). But for cereals, you cannot turn away from this performance, not for a second. The man is utterly transfixing throughout, in ways that ingeniously distract from the grotesque physical appearance. Physically embodying the character was one step, but giving the man personality . . . that’s another challenge entirely. And yet, it doesn’t seem to be a problem for Hurt. He’s stoic yet nevertheless heartbroken by his past; grateful for Treves’ kindness yet still aware that not everyone can be like him. There’s an aura surrounding John that is wholly indebted to Hurt’s interpretation.

Obviously Hopkins is no slouch either. A complicated individual, Treves is first at odds with the hospital and its ‘curable patients’ policy. Over the months and years of John remaining under his care Treves makes more enemies than just Bytes, who reemerges infrequently throughout, eager to reclaim his prized possession any day. John’s life in the London Hospital begins in isolation, but as the doc makes leaps and bounds in progress with the patient, and the tenuous bond of trust they establish eventuates in John’s transfer to a more social area of the hospital, Treves must face up to the ethical consequences of using John as a pseudo-medical experiment. Hopkins is immensely likable as Dr. Treves, yet he’s perfectly imperfect. He doesn’t immediately question his approach with John, like how one of the first things he did with him was show him off to an auditorium packed with, yes, other medical-y people and laying claim to how this would be his most interesting patient yet. Instead, that question comes much later, after circumstances have changed dramatically. Yet, if we’re meant to feel ambivalent towards Treves, Hopkins does a damn fine job of convincing us of his better qualities.

This is of course not easy material to get through. If you have the patience to sit through some many trying scenes (I’m talking the kind that make you angry), then the upshot will be powerful, a potent reminder that people have an immense capacity for kindness in spite of all that has been shown here. Yet the treacherous scenes that come before are often punishment on the conscience; their bluntness at times visceral and greatly upsetting. Some parts are sickening, while others can be downright unwatchable. How can ignorance beget such monstrous behavior? The kind of freakishness that occurs naturally only in tents that capitalize on monsters. Lynch crafts a beautiful symmetry between John’s unfortunate looks and society’s collective hideousness.

The Elephant Man has been described as one of Lynch’s most accessible films. Structurally speaking it’s as straightforward as a . . . I don’t know, something that’s straightforward — a ruler, perhaps? No, a documentary. As straightforward as a documentary. I hesitate to make that comparison because it makes the film sound uninspired and possibly even lazy. Given the way The Elephant Man flows from one stage of life to the next, ducking and diving in and out of the various rooms that constituted John’s life the film does take on some of the evaluative properties of an in-depth documentary. Lynch didn’t have to concoct a timeline-distorting, reality-bending head trip to leave an impression here. He just needed to let the subject matter speak for itself.

slight correction: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created the new category for the following year’s ceremony, but only after they were pressured publicly to do so. When The Elephant Man failed to garner attention for its make-up effects, it was petitioned to have an honorary award bestowed upon it, even though the AMPAS refused. An American Werewolf in London was the first film that won the prize in the following year

Recommendation: Emotionally devastating and difficult to watch on more than one occasion, The Elephant Man is an essential experience for fans of deeply human stories. In this case I think the subject matter far outweighs the talents involved in creating it (with perhaps the exception of John Hurt who makes the product worth the while on his own). This may be a David Lynch film but I will probably remember it more as just a generally classic film with astounding performances. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “I am not an animal! I am a human being! I . . . am . .  . a man!”

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