This Week in Geek (22-28/10/18)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Saw National Theatre Live's presentation of King Lear, with Sir Ian McKellen, and what do you expect? He's good in the role. I also want to throw some flowers at James Corrigan who plays Edmund. Lear is a very heavy play, and both actors find moments to inject humor. Phil Daniels plays the Fool, to which he brings a sometimes caustic levity, but this a play that kills off its clown. That's how dark it is. Kirsty Bushell's Regan is some piece of work too; if it's comedy, it's at its blackest when she's on stage. Every time I see a Shakespeare play staged, I get new things from it, such is the Bard's power. Between these performances, I felt more keenly the generation gap that means to swallow the characters up. Not just the ingratitude of the young, but the paranoia of the old. The theme of getting replaced isn't just in the young-old dichotomy, but in the brothers' fortunes, the beloved being cursed, and the King becoming the Fool, and that's all more than adequately highlighted on the production's small wet stage. The older I get, the more relevant the play seems, but I'm not completely there yet. I still see it at a remove. Give me another 25 years and I'll play Lear myself.

At home: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is a fun Arabian Nights adventure with creature effects by Ray Harryhausen, in most cases achieving a high standard of interaction between the live action footage and the stop motion puppets. The one people remember is the animated statue of Kali, but I really like the wooden figurehead coming to life. The last monsters are well animated too, but I don't feel like they're really part of the culture portrayed in that faraway land, so they are a disappointment in that sense. Stock creatures from Harryhausen's shop? As for the story, it's a quest to find magical treasure, or rather a race, since Sinbad and his crew of intrepids is dogged by the evil wizard Prince Koura, played with intensity by Tom Baker*, who wants it for himself (it's what famously got him the role of Doctor Who, and he really does carry half the film). An exciting adventure film with some neat set pieces.

A decade after The Spirit of the Beehive, Spanish director Víctor Erice made El Sur (The South), a film that has a lot in common with Beehive - a young girl whose imagination seems to translate events into the supernatural, an important father-daughter relationship, a crucial plot point being an old film played at the local cinema, the Spanish Civil War casting a shadow over the film - but it is less enigmatic. Or rather, the enigma dissipates over time. In this quiet story, a young girl is fascinated by her mysterious father, a water diviner, who left the South never to return, making myth of the place in her childish eyes. Everything he does is a mystery to her. As a child, she invents magical solutions to her question. As a teenager, her questions become frustrations. As an adult (from which vantage point she is telling the story), there may or may not be understanding. As with Beehive, the innocence is inversely proportional to that understanding, but the film is less elliptical, the enigma remaining with the girl, not with the audience. Obviously, it's beautifully shot as well, though I find it less inventive than its sister film.

If Isle of Dogs were a live action film and took place in Hungary, it might look a little like White God. On the surface of it, it is a thing of two parts. On the one hand, it is an indie drama about a young girl forced to stay with her father for a time, and on the cusp of running away after he leaves her dog on the side of the road. On the other, it is an exciting action flick starring the dog trying to navigate the dark city and hopefully get back to her. But he is so abused - if you have difficulty watching dogs in jeopardy, I probably can't warn you too strongly - that eventually he has enough, he rebels, he leads others into a riot, if not straight up a Dogpocalypse. The obvious metaphor is that the dogs are some mistreated minority, and there are parallels to various racist policies and images - segregation, SWATing, lynching, slavery, etc. If the metaphor is to hold, what of the ending? Does it then turn into a story about a girl and her dog that can no longer sustain the second level? I believe it does work, because what we have there isn't a sappy happy ending, but a compromise, and an image of equality, and yet, the realization that it's a very unhappy ending indeed. I won't say more except to say the girl is a bit one-note, but the dog (or the two dogs who play the central role) is really quite good.

To be sure, The Candidate's reality cannot match today's media circus, but if Robert Redford (as producer) wanted to explore that moment in American politics when surface became more important than substance, it does act as a fictional precursor of what we are subjected to today. He plays an environmental lawyer roped into standing against an incumbent Republican Senator in a California election. He doesn't really know much about policy or actual governance, he's just got a pretty face and his non-political approach charms some people. His opponent's policies are right out of the GOP playbook, so I hate him, but his hypocrisy makes him just as shallow as Redford, if actually experienced in governing. At first, I couldn't decide if it was wrong to make me root for the rookie candidate because I agreed with his politics, while also telling me he wasn't up to the job. On the score, thank God for the perfect ending. But the more I think about it, how many candidates have *I* voted for, knowing full well they had no real political experience, or really, BECAUSE they had no political experience (and thus no smell of corruption)? But because I worked in student activism, I've been in the room with pretty young men running for office, and surrounded by old party boys who acted exactly as Redford's staff does in the movie, laughing off his gauche pronouncements. Are the rookies doomed to be pawns, or worse, get corrupted in due course? There are no easy answers, and I found The Candidate very true to life as a result. The world has moved on since the 70s, but politics really haven't.

The Lady of Shanghai is, for the most part, a very ordinary effort for Orson Welles. It has little of the directorial flair of his other films, except for the crazy funhouse climax, which is deservedly iconic. As a story, it is also a thing of parts, barely earning its title, for example, and featuring an unbelievable trial at the start of the third act. But I can still commend the creep factor during the characters' Latin American cruise, injecting a kind of post-war dread into what in another tale would be purely romantic. As Welles' character, irritatingly going in and out of a bogus Irish brogue, gets caught up in the film's intrigue, we are drawn in as well. Whether we believe the mystery's solution or not may be due to the big cuts the studio made Welles' vision, though the shark analogy works quite well regardless. The big question is whether we can we forgive Welles for making Rita Hayworth a blond with short hair ;-).

Dreamscape is the OTHER Kate Capshaw movie in which someone rips another person's heart out. I smell double-feeeeeature! Somehow, even though I was a kid rabid for sci-fi in the 80s, this movie never fell on my radar. It has Dennis Quaid as a roguish psychic who learns to enter dreams to help people with their nightmares and is a fairly exciting scientific take on the Nightmare on Elm Street concept (both films out the same year). The problem with dreamscapes in movies is that they rarely match up to the reality - they're never as surreal, choppy, or fluid as real dreams (or at least, mine) - but they don't do a bad job of it here, considering. The 80s effects actually add a layer of oddness that I can take as "dream imagery". I was afraid the movie wouldn't fulfill the promises of its premise when the third act kicked off with government conspiracies and chase scenes, but I need not have been. In no way is Dreamscape really unpredictable, but it does pretty well for itself as a sci-fi thriller of the late Cold War era.

1940's The Mark of Zorro retells/reimagines the story of Don Diego leaving Spain and arriving in California, where the authorities are bleeding the peasantry dry. So though he gave up swordsmanship in the old country, he's forced to take it up again as the Fox. Quality swashbuckling ensues (that fight with Basil Rathbone's Captain Pasquale is really great). Tyrone Power is such a charmer in the lead that I completely understand having him unmask at the earliest opportunity. Not unlike modern superhero films' malaise about not showing their stars, Power has more charisma without the mask than with it. And it really does play like a superhero story, with Don Diego affecting a foppish attitude as a secret identity. Full of action, romance and wit, The Mark of Zorro proved a joy from start to finish, and I am frankly surprised (and dismayed) they never found a way to make more Zorro stories with Tyrone Power.

What I find interesting in Beetlejuice is the world building. What happens after we're dead? (And why Sandworms? If it's a Dune reference, it's a very deep cut.) The film gives some interesting answers, and turns the haunted house cliché on its head by making it about the ghosts' point of view. Indeed, they are the normal ones, and the family who bought their house are the real monsters. Tim Burton does tend to over-design, and at first I was a little put off that the made-over house was as bizarre as the afterlife. It lacked contrast. But then I realized that was the point. The new family was the ghosts' version of hell. Burton's love of the monstrous is manifest in the helpful daughter - Winona Ryder as the prototypical Goth girl - and in the way he steers his weird ship towards the unexpected. There's also a charming home-made feeling to the design, with stop motion monsters and a well-used model of the town in which Beetlejuice lives. I've been outspoken before about my disinterest in more recent Burton films, but Beetlejuice was made when he still had it!

Every superhero movie of the 90s looked like it was shot in Tim Burton's Gotham City. The Crow was no exception. But Alex Proyas' version is like the dark rock version of Gotham, with lots of imagery that could work as album cover art or rock video sequences. This is fitting, as James O'Barr's comic definitely takes its own cues from musicians like The Cure's Robert Smith. The story, I have to say, is slim. A man and his fiancée are killed - she is also raped, and while not graphic, the film returns to that again and again while you cringe - a year later, he returns as a supernatural avenger to kill them all. It goes pretty much where you think it will, and no, Brandon Lee's regrettable accidental death on set does not impact the film, in case you were wondering. Ultimately, it's watchable superhero/horror, with an interesting soundtrack and several memorable images and moments. But the overall design seems derivative and none of the performances really pop (maybe if Tony Todd had more to do). It'll always mean more to people who connect with the specific aesthetic, for the rest of us, it's good, but not awesome.

In Son of Frankenstein, Henry's son Wolf takes ownership of his father's barony and in due course, resurrects the dormant creature, played for the last time by Boris Karloff. But the real monster is Bela Lugosi's Ygor, now more deformed than ever, and seemingly protective of the Monster, though in reality he is its new master. Lugosi makes the character defiantly jolly, and a villain in his own right. Basil Rathbone as Frankenstein Jr. gets more and more discombobulated as the pacey story moves forward and he gets in trouble with a one-armed inspector (Lionel Atwill)... Really memorable characters in this flick, which I think I like better than the original and Bride. The story doesn't have any of its predecessors' longueurs, and the sets have a fun abstract quality, as if Castle Frankenstein had been created by Ken Adam. I do wonder why the kid - another "Son of Frankenstein", I suppose - has a Southern accent though. A small complaint, because he's fine otherwise (which isn't a given when it comes to children in movies like this).

Frankenstein Created Woman is more cerebral than many Frankenstein films, at least at first, as the migration of the soul is considered. The good doctor wants to create/preserve life, but the body can't be a soulless monster. It's the original Flatliners! Parallel to that is the story of his assistant Hans, his love for a disfigured girl, and their struggle with the rich town bullies. It makes for a slow start, but an involving one. Once Frankenstein gets up to his old tricks and people invariably start dying, you're very well invested in who needs to be avenged and against whom. (It still leaves one character on the table who needed to die, in my opinion, but who am I to question revenant politics?) With its neat twist on both the Frankenstein's Monster and spirit of vengeance formulae, Frankenstein Created Woman is a lot of lurid fun, with some excellent comic horror in the editing when it comes to the kills. Note also one of Mudd's Women, Susan Denberg, in the creature's role - as if her blip of a career had her typecast as a woman only artificially beautiful. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

One thing I've been remiss is complimenting with the Hammer Horror Frankenstein films is Peter Cushing's performance in the lead role. His Frankenstein is driven, singularly amoral in his scientific quest, witty, callous, ruthless, dangerous, and physically active. In most of the films, it's made him a kind of anti-hero. In Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed!, he goes full villain... and I don't like it. There are two moments specifically that go beyond his usual amorality and slip into evil for evil's sake - when he smiles at his unwilling assistant's corruption, and when he rapes said assistant's fiancée - both an unforgivable rewriting of the character. I get it thematically, he's a violator of the flesh, but it's gratuitous in the film. After that, there's no pretense of it being fun. Director Terence Fisher, early on, cuts for the joke, as he did in Frankenstein Created Woman, but this quickly turns into a more dour affair, with a less interesting plot despite Cushing's blazing performance. If only he wasn't betrayed by the script.

By virtue of having been written by director Nobuhiko Ōbayashi's 10-year-old daughter, and directed with an aesthetic more appropriate to anime and game shows, Hausu (House) is completely bananas, and without meaning to (because intent is something musty here), it manages to support several interpretations. To me, the witch's haunted house is like a haunted, post-WWII, post-Hiroshima Japan, holding on to a past that is long gone, and put in contrast with modern Japan, with its schoolgirls, weird TV, and sexual politics (as when its lesbian connotations are attacked/erased by supernatural elements). Its initial premise is right out of Miyazaki, even if the style are more like Yuri anime and Benny Hill, resolving into a third act that would have Dario Argento use Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animated collage techniques. None of my descriptions do it justice. It's bold film-making, breaking all the rules, a director's reel of trial and error. Worth seeing if you're at all interested in film even if the result is necessarily a mess. The only thing I didn't actually enjoy is the omnipresent score, which is noisome and disruptive.

White Zombie is aptly named because it features the whitest depiction of Haiti I've ever seen (there are black actors, but the black character with the most lines is a white man in black face - viewer beware). Bela Lugosi is all hands and eyes as the equally white houngan asked to steal the soul of a woman on behalf of the man unrequitedly in love with her... except he gets less and more than he bargained for. The memorable music, the production design, the make-up, and the acting are all out of silent film - look only at the climax and you could think it was made 15 years earlier - which gives this voodoo creep show a nightmarish quality. No doubt it looked awfully dated at the time, but unstuck in time, it works on an expressionistic level. And it has subtext, the creation of zombies (cinema's first) evoking slavery, which in turn comments on the heroine's fate, male domination, and marriage.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

James Corrigan plays Edmund in the NT Live version of Lear, not Damien Molony. He performed at the Chichester Festival Theatre's production in 2017, but along with some other cast did not join the transfer to the West End on 2018.

Anonymous said...

I've never seen the old "Mark of Zorro" film that set the standard. I did see the 70s remake with Frank Langella and Ricardo Montalban, though; don't overlook that one. A couple charming things: 1) Frank Langella plays SUCH a good fop, you'd never think he was Zorro. 2) The mask looks good on him. Anyway, worth catching.

I was just reading about "Beetlejuice" on cracked.com the other day; they had an interesting take on it. It's mentioned early in the film that suicides become civil servants in the afterlife. It's also mentioned that Beetlejuice was once the assistant of one of the civil servants, which is to say, he's a suicide as well. So you can make a real case that the film is not so much about "wacky ghost vs. uptight adults" so much as "hey Lydia, killing yourself won't solve your problems any more than it solved mine".

Siskoid said...

That is really interesting about Beetlejuice!

Anonymous said...

Here's the Cracked link:

http://www.cracked.com/article_25979_5-classic-halloween-movies-that-are-secretly-screwed-up.html

Gonna relate this to "Ferris Bueller". It gets downplayed in the version that made it to theaters, but Ferris worries about his friend cracking under pressure and ending up like some kid Ferris used to know (whom we meet later in the film, played by Charlie Sheen, at a police station). So the film is arguably a little less about wacky hijinks and a little more about helping a friend who's in a bad emotional place. That's more the sort of movie I can get into.

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