Tag Archives: historical

Caligula – Review

31 Oct

Throughout the years, there have been films that redefine what’s possible when it comes to film making and how to tell a story. In the past, there were classics like Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia, which can both be seen as sweeping epics in their own ways. More recently we’ve had films like Inception or The Revenant. Both of these movies are unconventional in their means of telling a story and also offer visual spectacle that will be remembered for decades to come. Movies are a window into worlds that may otherwise never exist, and there are so many that so fully succeed into taking us away from our everyday lives and somewhere all together magical… and then there’s Caligula.

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In 37 AD, a young Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) is the next heir to the throne in the Roman Empire. His uncle and adoptive parent, Tiberius (Peter O’Toole), still is in control however, despite his growing physical and psychological sicknesses. After Caligula visits his uncle and sees the power he wields and is also almost assassinated by the sick man, Caligula decides to take fate into his own hands, along with the head of the Praetorian Guard, Macro (Guido Mannari), kills Tiberius. Now at the head of the empire, Caligula proposes many changes to the Senate and all seems to be going pretty well. The decline begins once a love triangle starts with himself, his sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy), and his new wife Caesonia (Helen Mirran). As if that isn’t enough, Caligula starts to grow paranoid of the people around him, which results in multiple arrests and executions, which forces certain members of the Senate and the Guard to plot to remove Caligula as Emperor.

Just look at that cast. You have Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, and Helen Mirran amongst some others. Don’t let that fool you like the producers fooled some of these actors. O’Toole had no idea that this movie would turn out the way it did. What could I possibly mean by this? Well, Caligula is the one and only film produced by Penthouse Films. You know…like the magazine. If you go into this movie expecting a historical epic that accurately portrays the reign of Caligula and the effects it had on the Roman Empire, than you’re going to be sorely disappointed. I like to think of this movie as the most expensive midnight movie you’ll ever see. There are hardly any redeeming qualities to this movie, but I’ll certainly give it a try. The performances by O’Toole and Mirran are both really good, while McDowell gives a fantastic performance as Caligula. You also can’t say that this movie shirks on showing the depravity that happened in the Empire. This kind of exploitation can go too far, however, and it goes way too far in this movie. I also have to give credit to some really amazing sets for the actors to perform in. It takes a lot to make this movie believable, and the sets can occasionally help.

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Let me just say that most of the critiques that I give Caligula, I do with a smile on my face just for the sheer absurdity of what I saw. Like I said before, this film was produced by Penthouse Films and the magazine’s creator, Bob Guccione, so be prepared for lots of sex and nudity. You can hardly get through a scene without some sort of nudity or sexual activity going on. It really starts to wear on you after awhile, especially when there are completely out of place sex scenes that can go on for about 10 minutes. When I  heard how controversial and graphic this movie is, I thought maybe a few scenes were the cause for such upset. I was wrong. It’s pretty much the whole movie. The way the story is told is also completely off the wall. The story’s filled with ridiculous and often clichéd symbolism that won’t add to the drama, but more so add to the unintentional hilarity. Don’t even try to follow the plot using any logic because the movie’s messy and troubled editing phase shines in a timeline filled with continuity errors and a failure to show the passage of time. You can’t even get a good historical retelling since this movie takes the term “dramatic license” and really runs with it.

Reading about the making of Caligula has really become part of the whole experience for me, because I can’t think of a bigger cinematic disaster story. From pre-production through post-production, this films was plagued with one catastrophe and betrayal after another. The original screenplay by Gore Vidal was bought and changed to the point of destruction that Vidal completely disowns it. The same can be said for Tinto Brass, the director, who was banned from the editing room so that Guccione had the control he needed. Even some of the actors had no idea what this movie was supposed to be and regret being seen in the final piece. McDowell even asked people in interviews not to see the movie. How could a movie that was this much of a problem amount to anything? Well, Caligula did amount to something. It became one of the most infamous cult classics ever made.

Caligula has completely earned that title of infamy. It’s a two and a half hour long disaster that could have been so much more if it wasn’t for a producer who had his own agenda, while the film makers and actors had a completely different one. For people who are interested in the goods and bads of cinema or people who have a fascination with movies as awkwardly weird as this one, it’s worth seeing for the history and legacy. For everyone else, keep far away from Caligula and save your sanity.

Final Grade: D-

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Glory – Review

11 Aug

Movies about the American Civil War only seem to crop up every so often. The more popular option to explore is World War II or even more current warfare, which is honestly all well and good when done right. My point is that I don’t think there are nearly enough movies that properly explore the time when America was completely at odds with each other. This is partially why a movie like Glory really stands out. It also stands above many others because it tells a story that’s rarely told, and that’s the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which was made up of the Union’s first only African-American soldiers. This film is not only a testament to what free thinking and ideals can do for an army, but also an incredible dramatization of a plan that helped turn the tide of the Civil War.

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During the early years of the Civil War, there was no certain way of telling wether the Union of the Confederacy would come out on top. There were many dedicated soldiers fighting for both sides, like Captain Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), a Union soldier who longs for peace but will not stray from a battle. After being injured in the Battle of Antietam, Shaw is promoted to the rank of Colonel, and put in charge of the 54th Regiment Volunteer Infantry, which was to be made up solely of African Americans. Many African Americans jump at this chance to fight and stand up for their rights, which inspires Shaw to be the best leader he can possibly be. During this time, Shaw meets John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), Silas Trip (Denzel Washington), and Jupiter Sharts (Jihmi Kennedy), who all become his finest soldiers and stand with him as they face opposition from both the Union and the Confederacy.

Like I said before, I feel like the American Civil War hasn’t been covered as much as it maybe should be in film. There’s so much material to explore, and Glory is a testament to that. This isn’t just a movie about the Civil War nor does it stop at just telling the story of this particular regiment. This is a movie about beliefs and ideals and how far people are willing to go to protect what they believe in. That’s what really gives this movie support. It’s a theme that’s been explored many different times in many different movies, but this era and situation adds an extra layer of gravity to the situation since it was such a historical event. That being said, Glory can be a very emotional movie. What’s really interesting about the feelings I got watching this movie is that it made me feel very proud of the characters and the camaraderie that forms between them, but by the end of the movie things turn very bittersweet and I was left feeling a combination of happiness and devastation.

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This movie is filled with excellent actors, and their performances is a big reason to watch this film. I never really thought of Matthew Broderick as a great actor, and while his performance in this movie is really good, there are a few awkward moments where I didn’t quite believe his portrayal. The real highlights in Glory are Morgan Freeman, Jihmi Kennedy, and Denzel Washington, who won an Academy Award for his performance. Each character symbolizes an area of slavery or of being a freeman during the time of the Civil War, and each actor brings these characters and what they represent to life. While the writing is great, it’s these performances that make the movie so powerful and feel so true. When actors can make the viewer really begin to care about what happens to them, that’s when you know you are witnessing great performances.

Along with Denzel Washington winning Best Supporting Actor, Glory was also awarded Best Cinematography and Best Sound. Watching this movie, you can see exactly why. One of the most important aspects of creating a historical movie is to be able to put the viewer in that time period without any doubt of what is being seen. The battle scenes in this movie, from the opening at the Battle of Antietam to the finale at Fort Wagner, this is an epic film in every sense of the word. The finale is especially an achievement, going from a battle in the daylight to a night time raid that is lit by the flares and explosions from the Confederate fort. None of these visuals would mean as much it wasn’t for the pounding sound design that felt like a cannon was being shot right into my living room.

Glory is an epic story of a group of people that helped turn the tide of the American Civil War. It’s a story about beliefs, brotherhood, and freedom that are told by an accomplished film maker (Edward Zwick) and actors that have a deep understanding of their characters. Over the years, this movie has be lauded as one of the best war films ever made, and possibly the best concerning the Civil War. I whole heartedly support this opinion, and not only because of the battle scenes. Glory hits all the right points in terms of narrative and themes and it’s a movie that should be seen and appreciated.

The Thin Red Line – Review

12 May

Terrence Malick is a very strange Hollywood entity that’s made not that many films over the course of over 40 years. His first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven, were met with huge success. After these two achievements, Malick disappeared off the face of the earth until 1998 when he released his World War II epic The Thin Red Line. This is around the same time that Spielberg released what I consider to be the best war movie ever made, Saving Private Ryan, but there are people who believe that Malick’s film is right up there with it. While I will say that it is one of the most memorable and well made war films to come out of Hollywood, it may also be one of the weirdest.

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After being picked up on an island in the South Pacific after going AWOL, Pvt. Robert Witt (Jim Caviezel) is chewed out by Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn) and sent to Guadalcanal to be a part of a siege to secure Henderson Field from the Japanese. While on the island, the mass of soldiers have to secure Hill 210, which causes devastating casualties for the American forces. As the battle rages on and the days begin to pass by even slower, every soldier looks death in the eye through the sights of their guns and has to come to terms with the life that he’s led, the inevitable future that lays ahead,  and the possibility that they may never return home to the world that they know and have created for themselves.

The Thin Red Line is an outstanding example of a war movie, and I’m not sure how many people would deny that. While many war films deal with the European front, this movie deals with the battle that was raging on in the Pacific, specifically on Guadalcanal. This movie takes a really long time to get started, but when the battle finally gets going it doesn’t let up for a really long time. The original cut of this movie goes on for a little over 5 hours, and this is a rare time where I’d actually love to see the full 5 hour version because the 3 hour one that we have is so enthralling I feel like I need to see more. The combat is so intense and realistic that I began feeling anxious for the soldiers onscreen, even though I knew well enough that it was a movie. Not only is this a very intense movie, but the scenes of battle are shot in the most intricate and beautiful of ways. The camera sweeps over the battlefield in such a fashion that I can’t say I ever saw before. That is where Malick’s vision truly shines, and it’s almost blinding.

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So the battle scenes are all excellent and beautifully shot, but also the quieter scenes are shot in such a way that we see all of the beauty of nature that stands idly by as men wage their wars. It’s a pretty strong antiwar message done well, but things do tend to get a little weird. There are parts throughout the movie where the characters give these long winded soliloquies about the turmoil that they face everyday and the toll it’s taking on their lives and their beliefs. Seriously, this movie would gain a lot of points if those voice overs were taken out completely. It’s melodramatic and distracting because people simply don’t talk like that, especially when it’s already been established that it’s definitely not how that character talks normally. It’s just way too over the top, but that’s really my only complaint with this movie.

The Thin Red Line has a very odd story behind the making of it that makes it something of a Frankenstein monster masterpiece. Malick is known for taking an absurd amount of time to edit his movies, and this is a clear example of how far he’ll go to ensure he gets the picture he wants. Adrian Brody’s character went from being a lead to a secondary character who barely even speaks. The opposite goes for Caviezel, who’s character became the main focus of the story. The cast of actors in this movie is huge, but a lot of them end up being only cameos. Like I said, this movie was originally 5 hours long, so a  lot of their screen time got cut. Still, Malick knew what he wanted and the final product is great.

Plain and simply, The Thin Red Line is one of the best war movies ever made. There’s been countless, both old and new, but this movie has a certain beauty to it that Terrence Malick is known for capturing. That’s what really makes it stand out. Unfortunately, the film does lose points for the weird voice overs that more than border on the pretentious side. While that is a flaw, the rest of the movie is an epic masterwork of human drama and war.

Masquerade – Review

2 Jul

I feel like I’ve been watching a lot of South Korean movies lately. What can I say, though? They’re a country that seems to have no problem churning out great movies that unfortunately don’t seem to get the attention they deserve over here in the States. One of these movies is the 2012 film that took South Korea by storm, Masquerade. It was so well received there that it took home 15 wins at the Grand Bell Awards, a ceremony that can be described as the Academy Awards for South Korea. Unfortunately. it didn’t get much play here in America, just at the certain film festivals, but I’m going to tell you now that it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

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In the early 1600s, the Korean king Gwanghae (Lee Byung-hun) attempted to make peace with the Chinese Ming and Qing dynasties. Under a constant threat of assassination, the king’s advisor, Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung-ryong), finds a double that can be placed in the throne as a means of protecting the king, but only under extreme circumstances. He finds his double soon enough in the street performing jester Ha-sung (also played by Lee Byung-hun). One night, the king is poisoned and has to be rushed out of the palace with the his double being brought in under the cover of night. Ha-sung, as the king, soon is forced into learning his way around the court and meeting its many characters, but he is also exposed to the corrupt nature of many of its members. Against the wishes of Heo Gyun, Ha-sung makes it his mission to become an actual king for the people, even when he begins risking his own life.

There’s so much to love in Masquerade. On the surface, it is a beautifully shot movie with one of the most impressive and artistic production designs I’ve seen in quite a while. These Eastern costume dramas have such an elegance in the way they are shot and designed, which means even if you aren’t a huge fan of the movie as a whole, you’ll definitely have a lot to look at. There’s also a lot of great history and speculation in this movie about a time that went completely unrecorded in Korea’s history. It’s a clever idea for a movie and is executed very well. The bottom line, though, is that amidst all of the politics and intrigue, this is a movie about humanity and kindness.

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All of these components come together to form a movie that is almost impossible not to love. There is literally something for everyone in this movie. There’s even plenty of moments that will make you chuckle. It’s a great fish out of water kind of movie, putting a jester from the streets on the throne, but that’s kind of an old idea. What really works about this movie is that we’ve all thought about something like this. Ha-sung wants to change the court and the laws to favor the people, which is what every government should think like, ideally. Who hasn’t thought that if they were given the chance, they could do a better job than whoever was in charge? We’ve all thought that. Masquerade praises that idea, and also shows that it isn’t as easy as you may think.

My only complaint with Masquerade is that it takes forever to actually get started. The film begins with some set up, which is to be expected. It then moves on to some more set up and then FINALLY we get a little bit more set up before the actual plot begins. When they story gets started, though, it becomes impossible not to watch. Like I said before, there’s a lot of political intrigue that really immersed me in the time period, but what was more important to me was the effect that the double had on the people of the palace. He brought a huge dose of humanity to a place where it didn’t seem to exist, and seeing his actions affect the characters around him made for some really interesting scenes and arcs, some of which unfortunately end in tragedy. This is a very happy movie, but for every scene of joy there is a scene of sorrow that is equally as powerful.

Simply put, Masquerade is another gem that has come from South Korea and has remained far too under appreciated. This film is just as good, if not better, than a lot of the films that come out at the end of the year that are your typical “Oscar Baits.” Like I mentioned before, this film took away 12 Korean equivalents to the Academy Awards. That has to be some kind of a record. This may not be that easy of a film to track down, but if you can it’s pretty outstanding.

 

Ironclad & Ironclad: Battle for Blood – Review

14 Apr

Movies about knights and medieval warfare and castles and kings and all that can be really awesome. There’s so much historical material to choose from that finding something and successfully making a movie about it can be a daunting task, especially making it in such a way that impresses an audience. One major success that comes to mind is Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. But let’s step away from a director of that magnitude and a budget that big. Instead we’ll be looking at two movies with much smaller budgets, these being Jonathan English’s Ironclad and the sequel Ironclad: Battle for Blood. One is a gleaming example of budgeted film making. The other is an absolute waste that unfortunately is stuck existing for all eternity.

Let’s start in 2011 with the original, as I deem that to be the most appropriate place to begin.

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After pissing off everyone in England, plunging the country into a civil war, and eventually signing the Magna Carta, it seemed obvious that King John (Paul Giamatti) was going to chill out. Unfortunately, he only seemed to get worse. After hiring a group of Danish mercenaries, John went on a rampage of revenge in a quest that would give him absolute control of England once again. Baron William d’Albany (Brian Cox) hires Thomas Marshal (James Purefoy), who is a member of the Knight’s Templar, and a group of other soldiers to defend Rochester Castle, an area that controls most of England. As the soldiers set up the defenses at the castle, King John and his mercenaries soon arrive, and the two sides engage in a bloody battle that lasts many months.

I’ve seen this movie described as Braveheart meets Seven Samurai, and to that I have to say slow down. It isn’t anywhere near those two movies, but I see what they’re saying as they all share similar characteristics in story. As far as Ironclad goes, however, it isn’t destined to be a classic. The movie’s fatal flaw is the absolute bottom of the barrel bullshitty camera work. Every fight scene is shot like the cameraman is having a life ending seizure. It made me sick and made the fight scenes way less awesome than I feel they were intended to be. It made some of the movie nearly unwatchable.

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Although it’s shot pretty miserably, I have to give it a lot of respect. Jonathan English wasn’t working with a huge budget, so the fact that he got good costumes and sets is really impressive. Also, Paul Giamatti and Brian Cox bring their best, as usual. Paul Giamatti especially really gives an amazing performance, which is reason enough to watch this movie. Also, I found it refreshing that instead of relying too heavily on CGI blood and gore, the film makers used prosthetics and other practical effects, which made me smile from ear to ear. Ironclad isn’t an especially good movie, but it is impressive considering the budget constraints. If you’re a fan of medieval movies, I might be inclined to say check this one out.

In 2014, Jonathan English returned to the director’s chair for Ironclad: Battle for Blood. The result is something best left forgotten.

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After the events of the first film, we find Celtic warriors raiding England, terrorizing and murdering its citizens. After a devastating attack on his castle, Gilbert de Vesci (David Rintoul) has his son Hubert (Tom Rhys Harris) track down his cousin Guy (Tom Austen), one of the survivors from the Battle of Rochester Castle, to enlist a group of fighters to help defend the castle. Guy, along with Hubert and other fighters, arrive at the castle and engage in bloody battles with the Celts and their vengeful leader Maddog (Predrag Bjelac).

Does this movie sound familiar to anyone? Wait… doesn’t it sound exactly like the first Ironclad? Well, that’s because it pretty much is a rehash of the first movie except without all of the cool parts. Remember the awesome gore effects? Gone. Remember the incredible acting by Giamatti and Cox? Gone. Remember the really horrendous shaky cam action sequences? Fear not! They’re still here and worse than ever. I don’t know what frame rate was used to shoot these sequences, but holy hell it made the camerawork so much worse than it already was.

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The only thing I really have to say about Battle for Blood is that everything that made the first one even a little bit worthwhile is completely gone. Instead we have pretty much a shell of a movie that shouldn’t even exist. I still can’t believe Jonathan English would return to direct and mess up everything he did before. The only semi cool thing is that Michelle Fairley of Game of Thrones fame had a role, and she’s not even in it that much. This was more than disappointing, it was downright stupid. Skip this mess.

Well, there you have it. The first Ironclad movie is pretty good and well worth checking out if you like the genre. It’s sequel, however, may rank as one of the worst movies I’ve seen in a while. Stick with the first movie, and you should have a pretty fun few hours.

The Bridge on the River Kwai – Review

9 Mar

World War II is a topic that no one can really stay away from, which is fair enough because there’s so much to do with it. There’s been a huge amount of movies, games, and books dedicated to certain moments throughout the war, be it real or fictional. There are some, however, that really stand out and one of them is David Lean’s 1957 war epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai. While it is a work of fiction, it’s based off of a true event, but nonetheless, it stands as one of the greatest war films ever made but also one of the most complex.

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Lt. Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and his British troops find themselves in a bind when they end up in a Japanese labor camp commanded by Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Nicholson and Saito soon butt heads when Saito orders everyone, including the officers, to start work on constructing a bridge over the River Kwai. Nicholson soon finds himself watching over the construction and believes it to be an accomplishment for the British, but also a way of raising the morale of his men. Meanwhile, escaped American prisoner, Commander Shears (William Holden) is put in charge of a mission to destroy the bridge and the first train scheduled to cross it. As Shears’ team gets closer, it becomes clearer that Nicholson will do whatever it takes to complete and protect the bridge, even if it means betraying the Allied forces that he is a part of.

What’s so impressive and difficult about this film, especially considering the time it was made, is that there are no real good guys or bad guys. The Japanese Saito runs the camp with an iron fist and mistreats certain prisoners, but deep down he’s a man who appears weak facing the code of honor and winning the war for his country. Nicholson appears to betray his own country to protect the bridge even though he’s doing it for reasons he thinks are for the long running good of Britain and his troops, making it easy to sympathize with him. Meanwhile, Shears is a liar, lazy, and cold towards other people making him more of an anti hero, despite him being an American soldier fighting for the Allies. It’s incredibly interesting seeing these morally ambiguous characters clash throughout the movie, and it makes them seem like real people.

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While it is ultimately the actor’s job at making the characters seem real, it would all be for nothing if nothing else had the air of realism about it. This movie feels very grounded in reality and part of what makes it feel that way is how huge it is, and I’m not just talking about the close to three hour run time. What I mean is that the jungle seems vast, the bridge looks gigantic, and everything just pretty much feels epic. This makes sense since Lean would go on to do his masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia just a few years later. That’s one thing that I just couldn’t get enough of in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Lean’s sense of space translates so well to the screen, especially with this being the first film that he shot in Cinemascope.

I look at this movie like it’s a two part type of deal. The first part is pretty much just in the Japanese labor camp with Nicholson and Saito trying to outdo one another. The second part deals mostly with Shears and the other British troops making their way to the bridge to destroy it. While the second part definitely has more action, I prefer the first part more because I loved Alec Guinness’ performance and his character. The second part had a lot of meetings and walking through the jungle that made me kind of fidget during. It all still comes together really well in one of the most memorable and intense climaxes in film history.

Simply put, The Bridge on the River Kwai deserves its place in just about every film textbook you can find. It’s a triumph as a character study, an adventure story, and a war epic. While the second half seemed to drag a little bit and got a tad derivative, the movie as a whole took a lot of chances in its viewpoint of soldiers from around the world during World War II. It’s a fantastic film that deserves to be watched way more than once.

The Elephant Man – Review

12 Nov

Joseph “John” Merrick is a man that throughout the years has become a very interesting individual. This isn’t due to any achievement or talent that he had, but because of the rare and extremely curious disease that ailed him, now known as neurofibromatosis. In 1980, the year of this film’s release, David Lynch only had Eraserhead in terms of feature films, but the uncredited producer Mel Brooks was so impressed with this film that he hired Lynch to act as director of the story of Merrick’s later life in The Elephant Man.

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Doctor Fredrick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) is a surgeon in London who comes across an interesting specimen at a traveling freak show one night. This specimen is John Merrick (John Hurt), a man whose extreme deformities make the general public reel in horror at just the sight of him. Treves takes Merrick to the London Hospital to be studied, but soon gets him permanent residence and care. Over the time spent together, the two men become very close friends and Merrick’s reputation as a tragic human being is made known after he befriends famous stage actress Mage Kendal (Anne Bancroft). While everything seems to be going better for Merrick with the help of many kind and caring people, hateful and greedy men from his past and present still use him for fear and money, making Merrick’s ailment all the more difficult.

The Elephant Man is a hard movie to summarize because it isn’t really a plot based movie, but more of a character study and a look at how society should see people who are different. Casting David Lynch was a very interesting choice given his absurd and surreal filmography. This is a much more straightforward film than his others, but there are still glimpses of his trademark style from nightmare sequences to the heavily industrialized area with beautiful shots of smoke blowing out of chimneys and grimy machinery being operated, all embellished an excellent industrial sound design.

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Now, there are a few movies whose sole reason for existence is to test the limits of my tear ducts. Crying isn’t the most enjoyable past time, but sometimes when I’m watching a movie (or the last episode of the John Adams miniseries!!) I just can’t really help myself. The Elephant Man is a very difficult movie to watch in this respect. Seeing Merrick dealing with his disease is hard enough, but seeing his very human reactions to people gawking, screaming, and making fun of him is even worse.

So no, this is not an uplifting movie at all, but this isn’t really a film to watch if you’re looking for a good feeling to be had. This is something to watch to learn about a man’s life, how to treat other human beings regardless of their individual circumstances, and to admire the cinematography by Freddie Francis, who went on to work with Lynch in Dune and later on with Scorsese in his remake of Cape Fear. The point is that you really need to know what you’re getting into with The Elephant Man.

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David Lynch may forever be known as one of the strangest and most surreal film makers of the modern era, with films like Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive to stand as testament. He did something beautifully different with The Elephant Man. He created a very human drama an very unusual and interesting man to come out of the Victorian era. It’s beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and succeeds in telling this man’s story, despite some historical inaccuracies. It’s one of those movies that are just plain perfect.