Altered States (1980) Poster

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Above all, a love story
inspectors7118 January 2006
It's been a quarter century since I first experienced Altered States, Ken Russell's take on Paddy Chayevsky's novel of the search for a common bond between all of us, the ability to love. I personally don't care if Chayevsky disowned the movie or if Russell resented him for it or how many angels you can set on the head of a pin, for that matter. Altered States is a harshly beautiful and intellectual movie based on a book with the same adjectives.

I'm not going to praise the fine performances, the dazzling special effects, or the painful, emotional epiphany that the lead character, Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) experiences as he fights his way past the roadblock of pure intellect. I want to praise Altered States for its emotional and intellectual message of the power of love to embrace us all and heal our wounds.

Altered States is not for the weak of stomach or the easily offended. The imagery is disturbing and, at times, repulsive. There are scenes of blasphemy that I know have put off Evangelical friends of mine. But the central idea of a commonality, a kinship that humans have with one another and the danger of setting oneself apart to avoid the pain of interacting and loving is, I believe, supremely satisfying at both an intellectual and emotional level.

Altered States isn't one of the very best films I've seen, but it surely has been a source of joy for me. And if it doesn't turn your crank--or turns it the wrong way--then find your joy in another film or other media . . . and remember to love.
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Altered States
I_John_Barrymore_I9 January 2006
Altered States is frightening, disturbing, bizarre stuff. It also has a strong heart, and the dialogue is witty and sharp.

This film creates its very real sense of horror from foreboding, often disarming musical cues, and a sense that we're on the journey with Jessup, and we don't know what's real or imagined. It rarely relies on gore, or overt "horror" sequences to affect the viewer, but still manages to be truly frightening and horrifying. Russell tones down his usual excesses, but his stamp is nevertheless all over the disturbing hallucination sequences.

It's easy to spot the strong influence this film must have had on Videodrome. It creates a similar mood.

Thoroughly recommended to anyone with a taste for intelligent horror.
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One of Ken Russell's best films
fred-8311 October 1998
This is one of Ken Russell's best films. He manages to balance plot and wild visuals as never before. The acting is also first rate. I watched it again recently I think it still holds up surprisingly well compared to many modern sci-fi movies. The plot is intriguing, I keep thinking that there might be some truth to the concepts presented, and the fact is that our own brains are still largely unexplored territory. A special mention to the extraordinary music written by John Corigliano, and for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. It dares to be loud and violent, and complements the visuals extremely well. This is a wild, original movie unlike any other.
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Tripping the Plastic Fantastic
roddekker23 May 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Directed by the excessive and flamboyant film-maker, Ken Russell - Altered States is a perfect example of a heavy-handed psychedelic experience from the early-1980s. At times the viewer can't help but be swept away and almost overwhelmed by this film's impressive state-of-the-art visual effects.

William Hurt (in his film debut) plays Eddie Jessup, a brilliant, young, "mad" scientist, delving into the unfathomable field of primal research. With the use of a Sensory-Depravation Chamber and lots of hallucinogenic drugs, Eddie physically and mentally devolves into an ape-like creature with a serious attitude problem and an immediate instinct to kill.

Believe me, Altered States' visuals are, at times, an extraordinary feast for the eyes. But, hey, don't expect too much when it comes to a plausible storyline.
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Not just for the FX...
boomaga13 December 2006
Okay, the character of Dr. Eddie Jessup is kind of a pompous ass, and there are a few groaner moments of, call it, self-importance.

But this movie breaks real ground.

One of my all time favorites.

And I'd like to point out that everyone is crazy about the much-touted and notoriously-expensive hallucination sequences, ...

Of course if you've seen Russel's "Tommy," some of the over-the-top sequences will look familiar and tinged with peculiar British-isms. And then there's the ending - well, it's controversial, that's for sure - anticlimax or not ?

But for me the most electrifying parts are the ensemble cast acting.

In the scene where Blair Brown is trying to cope with the trauma of the events in the isolation tank room, there's a very beautifully conceived long single shot through house windows. Russel needs credit especially for the argument between Balaban and Haid - some of the best acting I've ever seen - character actors hardly EVER get to put this kind of stage-acting energy on film. It stays with me still. They truly seem absolutely furious with each other, their lines overlap, it's absolutely convincing.

Some of the greatest effects of this movie are simply good movie craft - when Jessup first sees the love of his life walk through the door, fantastically back-lit, and the music comes up and cross-fades into the next scene - it's breathtaking.

It's the moments like that, and the very intro of the movie, with the slow title crawl, the deadpan lines read by Balaban, the first shots of Hurt in the tank, the eerie music ... This movie still stands out, still looks good,... and stands superior to other, more recent imaginings of internal hallucination become external.
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This movie will make you THINK!!!!
Space_Lord29 December 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Watched this movie for the first time the other night, after hearing about it for years from mates who raved on about it. Most descriptions went along the lines of: "This professor who takes trips and gets into sensory deprivation, man. The dude turns into an ape and all kinds of crazy $#!+. It's a real mind f**ker". So with glowing praise such as this how could I not watch this film!!! William Hurt gives an outstanding performance and is kind of like Magic Johnson to the surrounding cast, in the sense that he makes them better, and they continually feed off his energy.

To top it off you have special makeup effects by a true master in the field, Dick Smith.

While I can certainly agree with the mindf**k comment, I felt this film went much deeper than what the average stoner thinks. This movie asks some pretty powerful questions, and leaves the viewer to draw their own conclusions.

I look forward to another viewing of this film!!
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Great Material, Artistically Handled
DanIrish15 December 2004
If you are a thinker now, or grew up looking up at the stars and trying to figure out how the universe could just go on and on forever, this film is for you.

If you like boundaries, and the familiar you will not understand why this film was made, or why this film was made the way it was.

Chayefsky's material is brilliant, and challenging. Russell's approach is startling; more like abstract expressionism than any kind of realism. The performances, especially by Blair Brown and William Hurt are raw and completely authentic.

From start to finish, this film is fascinating, original and consistently realized.
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A flawed but sentimental favorite
darwendarwen29 November 2002
Altered States is not everything that it could be, and that's because director Ken Russell was more interested in assaulting the viewer with a series of startling (by 1980 standards) images than he was in exploring the stories subtext. Eddie Jessup is a scientist so introverted and afraid of human connections that it's not enough to abandon his family, he also has to further deprive himself of any and all stimulation, performing sensory depravation experiments on himself to attain better understanding of "ultimate truth." Jessup proclaims himself to be an atheist, but the visual content of his hallucinations reveals him to be a man who's more at war with God than a man who disbelieves. His descent into a more primal state of being is an obvious metaphor for how easy it is for a man with commitment issues and fear of intimacy to turn completely inward, leaving the real world behind. Some of what the character says early on about family and love make his motivations clear... Jessup is a man shattered by his father's death and unable to accept the vulnerability of the human condition. A viewer has to really work to absorb and enjoy these metaphors, though, as Russell never slows his onslaught of special effects. The movie also suffers from smart but unrealistic dialogue and ham-fisted performances from some of the principle characters (watch Blair Brown's over-the-top breakdowns in the last act). Altered States isn't the total package, it doesn't combine the visceral and the philosophical as well as movies like Jacob's Ladder or Natural Born Killers. But it's better than most of today's equivalent movies (Donnie Darko, etc) that want to stimulate and provoke the viewer and don't quite pull it off.
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Bizarre and eerie
zetes18 May 2008
Bizarre cinematic head-trip that is far better and more entertaining than anyone could guess from a description. I put it on my Netflix queue without realizing it was directed by Ken Russell. If I had seen that earlier, I would have avoided it. Thankfully I didn't. It contains everything that is good about Russell, that is, his crazy imagery, and none of the bad stuff. That is, it's not an enormous bore. The script was written by Paddy Chayefsky, based on his own novel. Not the writer you would associate with horror or sci-fi, which is the proper genres to which Altered States belongs. He disowned the film before he even saw a cut of it, despite the fact that Russell was contractually obligated not to change a word of the script. The greatest asset of the film is the fantastic acting. William Hurt makes his screen debut as a mad scientist, a Harvard professor, actually, who is experimenting with sensory deprivation, mixed with some choice hallucinogens. He hopes to lose his modern mind in the sensory deprivation tank and regress to a primitive state. Unfortunately, some mushrooms that he finds in Mexico help him regress not only mentally, but physiologically. Blair Brown plays his estranged and worried wife, and Charles Haid and Bob Balaban (love the Balaban!) play colleagues who help Hurt do his experiments. The plot is silly, but it's legitimately eerie and frightening, thanks to Russell's surprisingly excellent direction. The film ends up in territory very reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I thought it all worked pretty well. Drew Barrymore makes her film debut at age 5, and also keep an eye out for John Larroquette.
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9 out of 10
Bleeding-Skull21 June 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Altered States is a visually stunning movie, a tour or force as they say, that is more thought-provoking than even 2001: A Space Odyssey. William Hurt in his first movie debut plays Dr. Eddie Jessup, a man who has been influenced by his father's death by cancer. As such Eddie is driven to find what he thinks is the true meaning of life.

First he does so by using a water tank formerly used for sleep studies, but when the "ultimate truth" still eludes him, he seeks out and tries a drug used by Indians to elicit their first memories. Still not getting the answers he seeks, Eddie begins to combine the two only to discover that some of his hallucinations are becoming all too real and are getting out of control.

He is going beyond mass and energy, his body regressing to earlier physical states. At one point Eddie becomes an "ape man" is found wandering the Boston Zoo after one his trips. But his friends are still skeptical, while his wife (played by beautiful Blair Brown) is becoming terrified that Eddie really did regress hi body back to some primitive form.

To prove that he is telling the truth, Eddie tries for one more experiment that starts slowly but suddenly takes a unique turn as Jessup's body regresses way too far back. I won't spoil the ending, but it is far more stunning than anything even Kubrick could do. But I will say for some of those that don't quite know what's going on, Eddie has discovered the power of the mind and it is through that power-- call it psychokinesis-- that he destroys the laboratory with and maybe even regresses himself back to his beginnings. Eddie discovers the Ultimate Truth and it nearly destroys him. It is his thoughts and fears that damn him, yet it is also his will to live that ultimately saves him in the end; his will made flesh in one of the most mind-blowing endings ever made.

I just love this movie! It's too bad Paddy Chayefsky couldn't see how much infinitely better Ken Russell had made his script than the dry, dull, book the movie was based on.

Rated R for Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity and Graphic Violence.
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I enjoyed watching one man's search for himself
powwowdancer25 September 2002
I beg to differ with the negative review that I saw at this movie's page. I enjoyed William Hurt's manic portrayal of one man's desperate search for truth. Granted, it's a selfish, often self-flagellating journey that quickly becomes nihilistic in the extreme, but it's not so much the journey, it's the destination, n'est ce pas? He finally does find his truth and redemption, and I was quite relieved to see it happen after all the pseudo-scientific mumbo-pocus that was used to bring us to the brink of destruction/enlightenment along with Dr. Jessup. Jessup's angst and subsequent travail of self-destructive discovery in an attempt to find the "meaning of it all" is such an apt metaphor for anything we humans use as a substitute for love and acceptance, vulnerability and trust to give meaning to our lives, i.e., alcohol abuse, drug abuse, eating disorders, quack/fundamentalist religions, UFOlogy, psychic quackery, et al. Name your poison! It's the same manic, self-deceptive, self-destructive pursuit that we find reproduced here in stunning, eye-popping detail, and which consequently finds resonance within me as a movie viewer. I could go on and on about the archetypal symbolism that Director Ken Russell used as well, but these paradigms and icons of American culture, and some of it's darker elements seem all too familiar as we share Dr. Jessup's descent into madness. The biblical imagery in particular was most disturbing, and yet strangely familiar. All of the over-powering devastation of Dr. Jessup's ordeal gives a wonderful sense of simple beauty and grace to his redemption and his discovery of that universal human truth: love.
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Surreal and intelligent sci-fi.
TermlnatriX26 May 2008
This is William Hurt's debut, and there's much to praise about it. Firstly, outstanding performance. The kind that lasts an impression and is thought of every time "William Hurt" is pronounced out loud. The film, in a nutshell could be summed up as a man's obsessive quest for the "truth". Truth about life, and the universe, why we're here, who created us? These are the core questions Ken Russel - more fairly, the original author Paddy Chayefsky - asks. All of that, is assisted by insane hallucinatory and downright horrifying visual sequences and music, which when combined, literally gave me goosebumps when I saw it all on screen. They take you on a surreal 'trip' and are a way for the viewer to experience what Hurt's character undergoes when he is in the isolation chamber. On another note, the pacing is a little slow in the first act, but sudden outbursts of surreal visual sequences get you back up in form.

If you're a thinker, this one's for you.
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States Altered
DarthBill14 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Ah the heartwarming story of a bright young man's obsession with finding the higher levels consciousness no matter the cost... until he realizes just how pricey that cost actually is.

Having not read the original novel, I'm afraid I can't say how the film compares with it.

William Hurt is the ambitious scientist Eddie Jessup, who's obsession with the higher levels of consciousness nearly destroys him when not altering his "state" as it were. Hurt takes a bold, risky chance here in his first leading role in a feature film, with his naturally cerebral screen persona proving to be both captivating and alienating as he becomes more and more disconnected from his friends and family. Red head Blair Brown is Emily Jessup, his brainy, beautiful but flawed, insecure, and above all else lonely wife who just wants to be loved.

Some truly spectacular special effects imagery and full body nudity by the lovely Blair Brown highlights this odd, surreal but undeniably unique science fiction film.
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Altered States is a REALLY cool movie!!!
andy-22721 January 1999
If there is any reason to like a film as meaningless or pointless as this, it's that it is a "Cedar Point" of a special visual effects ride! I still haven't figured out how or why the things in Altered States happened the way they did. But I think that this is one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made. Who cares if the plot or characters worked or not? When you are watching the mesmerizing images and special effects (which are only slightly dated), then you will understand why this is such a great movie! I still don't know how Ken Russell got these images on film. And the very intricately constructed images fly by so fast in the quick cuts, that it's like a dream that we can barely remember. It's a dream that you can't define or put your finger on. And that is the real reason why I like this movie. I just purchased the Dolby Digital reissue on LD, and I hope more special editions of this film come soon!
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Stunning form from Ken Russell
projectmogul13 February 2008
It seems somehow ironic that Ken Russell - usually the most indulgent and variable of directors - produced his most solid work in North America. 'Altered States' (like 'Crimes of Passion', its odd, binary-star sibling) teeters toward a kind of brilliance that Russell never really demonstrates in his British output. Although the film is certainly flawed, almost ultimately collapsing under its own ambition and finite budget, certainly the first two acts are as good as anything I've seen in the cinema. At its heart is a jaw-droppingly stunning ensemble cast who Russell choreographs (there can be no other word) with remarkable precision and confidence: those who equate Russell with only the low-camp depths of something like 'Gothic' will be astonished at this film's naturalism. Balaban's house party, set early on in the proceedings, is a case in point, effortlessly summing up both an entire era and a complex set of relationships.

'Altered States' also boasts John Corigliano's fine score and Jordan Cronenweth's lucid cinematography - it's worth noting that Cronenweth subsequently moved on to DOP perhaps one of cinema's most arresting visual landmarks: 'Blade Runner'.
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A Very Intelligent Concept Becomes, a Movie, a Bad Movie
Matthew Neubauer28 April 2005
Warning: Spoilers
This movie begins well enough. Two professors are experimenting with sensory deprivation tanks, with one of them, Hurt, as the test subject. Years later the two meet again and begin experiments with the tanks while taking powerful hallucinogenic drugs. This combination reveals to Hurt visions which he believes are primordial species-wide memories, primates hunting and fighting and what not. As the movie continues Hurt takes greater doses of the drugs and goes "back" further and further until, and this is where the movie loses me, he turns into a monkey. At this point, ladies and gentleman, the movie begins to smell more than what that monkey is throwing The once clever plot becomes like that of a bad horror film, too dumb to be scary and too serious to be funny. The final scenes are so ridiculous as to be laughable. Sober or otherwise this movie is not good.
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Tremendously disappointing
libba10420 May 2012
Warning: Spoilers
This film was a huge letdown for me, especially considering all the hype surrounding it. The first half an hour or so (up until the parts after the Mexico scenes) seemed to hold tremendous promise and I couldn't wait to see where and how the train of thought would be followed in the rest of the film. Unfortunately from there it becomes less of a train of thought and more a train wreck. The film starts out with a brilliant but decidedly narcissistic scientist seeking to explore the boundaries between conscious and unconscious and finding what lay beyond the boundary. Would it lead him to a deeper understanding of himself and the human race and our oneness with the universe? Well, apparently not. Basically it led him into a decidedly over-the-top, melodramatic Jekyll-and-Hyde type scenario involving his 'devolving' into more and more primitive states of being. The film took an extremely interesting premise and, instead of following it to a thoughtful conclusion, twisted it into a third-rate horror film. The crowning turd in this punch bowl was Blair Brown's overly dramatic performance. From the moment she meets the protagonist she goes from being an in-control, competent woman to a hapless damsel in distress, complete with incoherent overly-sentimental babbling, fainting and flailing about. The so-called love story (which sadly takes center stage after the first half hour) is not in the least a meeting of minds but more of a lame fairytale.
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A work of art
shredguitar1015 January 2005
After seeing this movie i didn't feel like doing much, in fact i sat in my room and thought about this movie for the rest of the night. It still has had more impact on me than any other movie. I'm not the greatest film critict but i know that this movie had something that no other movie has ever created. This is the only movie i would call a masterpiece. I highly recommend this for the spiritually involved. The film Contains to much substance to fully understand and relate to it after one watching. In my favorite scene The main character (Eddie)takes hallucanagetic mushrooms and tumbles out into the open desert night and he lies down to see his lover holding her torso up with her hands and her legs straight along the ground. Slowly the wind makes the sand from the desert cover the two up and after they are fully covered the figures disintegrate away from the wind until the sand is flat. This scene makes you feel impermanent and disconnected from your body. It was almost the feeling of a good meditation. This is just an example of what this movie has to offer but it is very hard for me to explain it. all i can say is it is a MUST see for any patron of the arts.
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one of the great on-screen relationships
melody2325 January 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I really wish people would watch the film the director made rather than the film they think the director made. This isn't science fiction - it's a parable about man's regression to primordial forms in pursuit of the truth. Paddy Chayefsky considered it an argument against using hallucinogenic drugs. Thankfully, Russell considers his audience smart enough to make up their own minds, but "Altered States" should still be seen in that light.

Everyone is directed WAY over the top in this film, but William Hurt and Charles Haid find a wonderful balance in what is one of my favorite all-time male relationships in film. Charlie Haid clearly has a LOT of fun with this role, and Mason is nearly always forgotten in film reviews. In point of fact, Haid's Mason Parrish (the staid, symbol of reductionist science, named no doubt for "builder of the church"...and perhaps even May Soon Perish) is as much a hero in the film as is Hurt's Eddie Jessup (doubtless "Eddie" for "eddy" and "Jessup" for, perhaps, up from Jesus, in the Transhumanist sense). Poor Mason (who repeatedly saves Jessup's backside) must go down as one of the most unappreciated friends in film history.

However, here I'm going to damn myself with my own edict by discussing the film Russell DIDN'T make, rather than the one he did.

Far too much time in the film is spent troubling over the sexual iconography of the Eddie/Emily relationship. It's what chiefly dates the film, in all its Salvador Dali visual exploration.

Beyond that, I have a special place in my heart for this film...yes, down to the silly apeman rampage scenes.
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Beautifully odd movie
siderite30 August 2007
Ah, the 80's. A time when brilliant scientific geniuses fresh out of universities and doing their magic was cool rather than frightening and dorky. I have seen this movie before, when I was a child, and I remember the sense of awe I got from it, if nothing else. This time, the awe is just as real.

Most impressive for this movie is the construction. Ken Russel does a brilliant movie that grabs your emotions and twists them around. The soundtrack plays a great factor here, too. William Hurt is just wonderful, while the other few actors are just there to support him.

I can't say much about the story. I feel that in the context of this movie, it is irrelevant. I plan on reading the book, see what the author actually meant. It is not a horror story, either, although it is frightening at places; certainly not a monster and gore film.

Bottom line: the realization is great, the feel is awesome, the story highly intellectual. Something movies today pretty much lack altogether. You just have to watch this, but beware: people that are not fans of trippy sci-fi movies will only spoil your experience. This is one of the few films that must be watched alone.
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Don't miss human interaction and the power of touch
Mark Branson10 November 2006
Certainly, Altered States took on its cult status due to the sfx of Hurt's altered consciousness (the film was the "head film" of the 1980s like 2001: A Space Odyssey was for those in 1968). However, the compelling part for me is not the "trip" but the touch. On the next viewing, pay particular attention to the climactic scene in the hallway. Ken Russell frames the sequence effectively and shows us that we must maintain our humanity by simply reaching out to touch on another. If we don't, we are lost.

Human touch is iconographic--from the Creation of Adam to ET--and in a world where we are "wired" 24/7--we are still out of touch. I believe this film is important for revisit because it reminds us of the power of touch.
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very disappointing considering cult status
allyrd11 July 2008
First off whats wrong with this movie is pure lack of research that Ken Russel and his team must have put into this, rather sensationalises new age concepts and shaman practises. This film is complete utter nonsense and seems to be coming from the mind of a conceited coke head than a new age tripper.

The main character, far from being introverted as one viewer commented, is purely a selfish self centred, narcissist. There was no regression to caveman to be done because he was already one anyway, about as devolved as this movie. This seems purely like a cynical attempt to cash in on concepts and ideas of the time, badly mixing subcultures and new age ideas. Using a mish mash of ideas being thrown about at the time to create a rather weak horror story. Unfortunaly it seems a lot of folk fell for it.

Fails on so many levels, horror film, sci-fi, drug film, love story (love for himself maybe)

I watched for the first time in 2008 with someone that watched this when it came out, their memory thought it was kind of crap then, nothings changed and i agree. Years later its easier to see the flaws in this movie but i find it hard to imagine it being good back then.. and i think some of you need to evolve your tastes or take off those rose tinted glasses you all seem to have on.

a waste of time - smoke some DMT instead.
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20 Years Later and It's Still Crap
bronty22 July 1999
I saw this in 1980 and just didn't get it and haven't watched it since (I tend to give movies a 2nd chance) because I figured if I was older, it might make more sense; well...20 years later and it's still crap!!! Yes, the movie has some visually stunning, but it's just filled with 50-cent words to let you know it's all just SO brilliant. There's not a character worth caring about (except Blair Brown's); William Hurt's lead character is pretty much a thorough-going jerk who cares only for himself. He's impossible to care about. As usual, Ken Russel has made an interesting-to-look-at movie that's a real chore to watch. Highly unrecommended. Only for film-school devotees who use words such as 'subtext'. (Roger Ebert, are you listening?)
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