Friday, January 27, 2017

John Hurt 1940-2017

This one hurts me. Sir John Hurt has passed away from cancer at the age of 77.

Hurt was a sort of recurring figure in my childhood, and as a result I was usually thrilled to see him pop up here and there. I'm not sure, but I think I first encountered him as the voice of Hazel in the 1978 film of one of my favorite novels, Richard Adams' Watership Down. I saw that movie on network TV when I was pretty young--probably around six. Around Easter one year, it aired (weirdly) over two nights. We recorded it on VHS and I watched that thing a million times. To this day, it's one of my favorite stories. So much so that, when I found out Hurt had died, I thought to myself: My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.

A couple of years after that, he was the voice of the Horned King in Disney's The Black Cauldron... I had to wait over a decade for that thing to finally come out on home video, and seeing it confirmed I had built it up a lot in my mind over the years. Definitely not a perfect movie, but it did introduce me to Lloyd Alexander, whose books are among my all-time favorites. Hell, I'm still reading them today--I just read the Westmark trilogy about three years ago.

I saw Alien in high school. And The Elephant Man. I'd come to love the sound of his voice so much--a voice that spoke the role of Aragorn in Ralph Bakshi's 1978 The Lord of the Rings, which I love despite, or even because of, it's flaws--that I even get nostalgic when it's late and I find Don Bluth's Thumbelina on cable, which also features his voice. And which is another fascinating failure to me.

I've loved Hurt in so many films of varying quality that hit my aesthetic. Midnight Express, Rob Roy, Contact, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Hellboy, V for Vendetta, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Melancholia, Only Lovers Left Alive, Snowpiercer... as the War Doctor on Doctor Who. I always wished he had done the voice of Draco in Dragonheart.

But towering over them all for me was Hurt's appearances as the title character in Jim Henson's The Storyteller, one of my all time favorite Henson productions. His voice was so perfect, so dark and rough, yet so playful at the same time. When it first showed up as a special in 1988, I just remember being so captivated, and that submitted Hurt as the voice of dark, mysterious tales to me. He's one of the few voices I think I impersonate rather well. Archaia Press currently does series of The Storyteller comics, and I sometimes read them aloud in his voice.

You'll always be in my imagination, Sir John, because you worked your way in there at a very early age. And I thank you for that. Wherever you are, I hope you're sitting in the best by the fire. In my head, you always will be.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.


THE CHALK GARDEN (1964)
Melodrama about a new governess (Deborah Kerr) trying to rein in a self-loathing wild child with arsonist tendencies (Hayley Mills). There are deep secrets to be mined, of course, as the two talk around their pasts and whether their mistakes have made them unworthy of being loved. Based on an Enid Bagnold play. Interesting movie, well-acted (Mills is a bit over the top, but I think it works for this kind of Technicolor melodrama). ***

This poster is tremendous, though:
I wish I could paint an entire interior wall with this image. It's wondrously crazy.

CHILD'S PLAY 2 (1990)
I liked the first one, but this sequel really transcends it, with its demented production design and that bizarre toy factory showdown. The movie really strips things down to plot essentials, but it creates a focus that really builds suspense for a climax that's equal parts Friday the 13th and Terminator. I love it when a horror sequel assumes you're up to speed and hits the ground running and just goes for it. ***1/2

BLACK CAESAR (1973)
Fred Williamson stars in this Larry Cohen-written-and-directed crime flick. What's so fascinating about this movie is the way Cohen takes the typical gangster story and frames it as the story of a Black man forcing his way into the world of white organized crime, and how far he can take it before he gets pushed back. There's a lot of stuff in here that's commentary on racial oppression and on poverty, and it's still really relevant. Fred Williamson is a handsome and charismatic leading man, which adds a twist to how scary the character is; smiling one moment, capable of real horror the next. ***1/2

BRIGHT LIGHTS: STARRING CARRIE FISHER AND DEBBIE REYNOLDS (2016)
I wanted this documentary to just keep going and going. There's a sort of coziness to it that I can't adequately explain, something that comes with acceptance of life. It would be a poignant film in any case, but after Fisher and Reynolds both passing away, it does take on a new meaning. These two recently deceased legends are showcased here in a movie that lays everything out honestly, but without stirring up old passions that have been put to bed. Carrie Fisher here is her mother's caretaker, as her mother prepares to retire from show business and sell off her vast collection of movie memorabilia. The movie is, really, a love story--between mother and daughter, between subjects and camera, between the present and the past. There are mutual resentments just under the surface, but they seem happy to let those be in the name of having a relationship and taking care of each other; if anything, I think the resentments give them a layer of realism that kept them from going full Grey Gardens. It's a touching experience without being treacly. ****

HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)
What bothers me here is that I've read so much about the Mercury program, seen so many movies about it, knew many of the beats of history as I was watching it, and yet I've never heard of the black women this movie is about. Not even Katherine Johnson, whom NASA named a building after. Any criticism I've been seeing of this movie is along that lines that it's not very subtle or artful (that's outside of the AV Club's usual tone of "I've seen this about white people before, so this is all very routine, because I don't get that things are maybe different for non-white people"), but it is very engaging and heartfelt. I found myself very invested in the women played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae. ****

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Song of the Week: "Ladies First"

Queen Latifah and Monie Love from the Golden Age of Hip-Hop.