This Week in Geek (2-08/10/17)


In theaters: American Made makes the best use of Tom Cruise's shit-eating grin since I don't when, as the real life pilot who got himself tangled into very south-of-the-border scandal of the early 80s - the drug cartels, Manuel Noriega, the Nicaraguan Contras - played as an absurdist comedy, more The Big Short than The Wolf of Wall Street, though one might recognize the latter's "based on a true story" rags to riches to rags formula. Bourne's Doug Liman shoots it handheld, as is his wont, which almost turns it into a documentary - especially with the video confessional asides - but it doesn't quite achieve the style. Did love the retro video bits at the front and back of the film though. Ultimately, not a must, but still a fairly amusing look at how the big news of the Reagan era were connected. Especially interesting if you remember that time, and I personally did (Iran-Contra was my first scandal!), but fellow audience members who weren't alive back then still appreciated the glib history lesson.

At home: The Sandra Bullock vehicle Our Brand Is Crisis makes me think I should have held out for the original documentary it's based on. As a former communications professional, this kind of thing should be right up my alley - an American campaign manager is brought in to a Bolivian election to rebrand an unpopular candidate - could and should have been a lesson in conservative (given the candidate) politics, but aside from the big epiphany already contained in the title, there's really very little insight. Unethical shenanigans and spin doctoring are mixed with the lead's psychological problems and a rivalry with an unsavory opponent (Billy Bob Thornton), but none of it feels particularly finished, or thematically coherent. It's one of those biopics where we go from true event to true event, but it doesn't come together as a STORY, if that makes any sense. And while I'm sure Bullock is channeling her subject, the performance comes across as a collection of mannered quirks. It just doesn't engage the way it should.

Gerald's Game, based on the novel by Stephen King and directed by Mike Flanagan (Oculus and Ouija: Origin of Evil, so there lies my interest), is for the most part a very efficient thriller about a woman left handcuffed to a bed when her sex-game-playing husband dies from a heart attack on top of her. Her mind snaps, and her struggle to survive is hampered by her own past, with her father and her husband, characters acting as fragments of her mind and livening up what would normally be a very static set-up. There's the horror of the situation, and then there's the horror within, a lifetime of repression and insecurity. It's quite well done, but for the terrible 10-minute, tacked-on epilogue that actually hurts the narrative with its "revelations". It would be better to stop watching when it looks over and fades to black. If you get to the bit where someone is writing a letter, you've gone too far. Switch off.

Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is pure, camp delight. In this 1988 flick, the horror hostess quits her job after having been sexually harassed and moves to a Puritanical Massachusetts town where she's in line to inherit her witchy great-aunt's house and book of spells. At the intersection of local TV, schlock horror and burlesque, the comedy is a joke-a-second, many in the double-entendre mold (as per Elvira's show), and most of them land. Sure, there's an inordinate amount of boob jokes, but Elvira (or Cassandra Peterson, if you prefer) owns them, and makes her character a feminist icon in the process. A lot of great lines (Elvira should have written for Mad Magazine's Stupid Answers to Stupid Questions feature) and an amusing send-up of modern Puritanism, Elvira Mistress of the Dark leaves you with a smile even if it would never win any acting awards.

1931's Dracula with Bela Lugosi is worth seeing because it is iconic. However, it is at times painfully slow and theatrical. The latter is at least understandable given that it is more an adaptation of the stage play than Stoker's original novel, and Lugosi was cast precisely because he was in the stage play. But truth be told, while they do some interesting things with lighting to make his hypnotic tricks come alive, the possessed Renfield and Mina Harker are scarier than he is! But then, isn't that kind of the point? Universal more or less created the civilized, aristocratic, and suave Dracula with this picture, surely more insidious a villain than more monstrous portrayals. If it flags, it's in the middle once we reach London. While Edward Van Sloan is striking as Van Helsing, he's essentially an infodump device, making you realize we're too early for audiences to know all the vampire tropes by heart.

Going back to 1922's silent classic, Nosferatu, a Dracula movie in all but name (or names, all changed, but not enough for director F.W. Murnau to be sued by Stoker's widow, which led to the film almost being lost when a judge ordered all copies destroyed - an American print survived) and one that's even SLOWER than the 1931 Universal classic. By the time the vampire gets to the equivalent of London, we're in the third act. It is still interesting to see the very old school effects - I particularly love the play of shadows that no doubt inspired Coppola's 1992 Dracula film - but truth be told, everything people remember about this film is in the last 15 minutes. That's where it's fascinating. Otherwise, it's just playing for time and the modern literate audience is probably just drawing up differences between it and the source material.

Universal's Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff, came out in 1931, just like Dracula, its cousin franchise, did, and I'm happy to report it doesn't suffer from a similar slowness. Of course, it's not the Mary Shelley novel. I find her book to be astonishing in that it creates an entirely new Gothic monster, not one pulled from folklore like vampires, werewolves, etc. Universal's version does that too, because its child-like, but dangerously strong monster with an "abnormal brain" is completely different from Shelley's existential "Modern Prometheus". It's worth celebrating its originality and sustained popularity. The film is well shot, the violence shocking without being overwhelming, the make-up iconic, and the monster sympathetic. I might question the mix of American and European accents in what appears to be Gothic Bavaria, but overall, Frankenstein retains its power and does not feel as dated as Dracula.

Director James Whale returned (with some coaxing, apparently) for Bride of Frankenstein, which has a fun conceit - Mary Shelley herself telling Byron and Percy that her story isn't quite over. If the sequel followed the novel, it would end on an ice flow, but while the movie pays lip service to some events in the book (like Frank learning to speak), it actually goes in a completely different way. To put it colloquially, it's bananas. Like, what's that bit with the tiny homonculous? Beyond some pretty impressive effects, I mean. That's just very weird. But the Bride herself is a too-little seen triumph, and the plot moves along at a great pace, straight from the last moments of the original. My only problem with the movie is Una O'Connor over-acting all over the place as Minnie the Maid. They use her less in the back half, thankfully. Bride should be on anyone's list of sequels equal or superior to the originals.

Moving right along in my Universal Monsters education... 1932's The Mummy stars Boris Karloff in the title role, which he plays as an ancient wizard seeking immortality. None of the shambling bandage zombie I was sort of expecting. In short, the "mother of all mummy movies" defies expectations by turning itself into a supernatural thriller at the earliest convenience, and not hiding its star under a costume. Between the atmosphere established in the film, the very interesting make-up, and the performance they support, Karloff is magnetic. Unfortunately, no one else comes close, up to and including Zita Johann as his would-be queen. All in all, an exotic Universal Monster film that doesn't quite fit the budding franchise's usual structure. No freight train, but its pace is adequate for its purposes.

Doctor Who Titles: Normally, The Green Death would have been next, but this Japanese film from 1924 proved unfindable, and based on the scarcity of information on its IMDB page, it may have been lost to the ages. Unfortunately, that sends me to...

Time Warrior is meant to be the post-9/11 answer to The Last Starfighter, but in saying that, I'm giving it too much credit. Essentially, it's about a kid who is so good at Call of Duty (sorry, Time Warrior), the game asks him to sell his soul for armor and weapons and to become an elite fighter for the Lord of War. While the film has machinima-type moments, it never really fulfills that promise, only really able to afford showing us the kid's recruitment, deluding itself that it would all be resolved in a sequel. So we're left with teen angst, high school romance, and a more selfish kid becoming an agent of evil. Plus lots and lots of padding to get this trifle to feature length. But the movie's main feature is that absolutely NO ONE in it can act. It's either over the top or completely wooden, with the lead having zero presence or intonation. I've appreciated films with bad acting in the past, but this is remedial, and the dialog is almost as bad. Were it not for this silly little project of mine, I wouldn't have suffered through more than 10 minutes of it.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 11th Doctor and the Ponds team up with the kid after he gets mysterious powers, and free him from the Lord of War's influence, after which the Doctor punishes the bad guy for mucking about with history.


Anonymous said...

Give the Mexican version of Dracula a go if you haven't already. I personally think it's better than the U.S. version.


Toby'c said...

^Yeah, I haven't been able to see it myself, but that does seem to be the consensus. Better camerawork, better performances (aside from Dracula himself), better character development and fewer plot holes.

Siskoid said...

At the mercy of Turner Classic Movies this October, but I'll try to keep it in mind.

Michael May said...

Yay! Glad you're tackling the Universal monster movies.

I agree with most of your assessments except Nosferatu. The plot is pretty slow, but it's SO atmospheric and creepy that I don't feel like it drags at all. Especially compared to Dracula, which desperately needs a musical score.


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