Castle in the Desert (1942)

*. The last of the 20th Century Fox Chan films with Sidney Toler, and while nothing new I still thought it was one of the better entries and not one that registers any dropping off.
*. The set-up is delightful. It’s basically a manor-house mystery, only the manor in this case is a medieval castle that’s been built out in the desert by a “scholarly millionaire” who thinks that by not having a phone he’s living like they did in the Middle Ages. In a castle. In the desert. Like I say, delightful. Delightfully silly.
*. Apparently the castle is based on Scotty’s Castle, a Death Valley villa still operating as a tourist site that I’d never heard of. I’d thought of it as a cross between Hearst Castle/Xanadu and Manderley. These would have been locations in everyone’s mind since Rebecca had just come out in 1940 and Citizen Kane the year before. Not to mention that the scholarly millionaire’s family name is Manderley. But scholars say Scotty’s Castle is what was meant, so there you have it.
*. This Manderley fellow (Douglass Dumbrille) has married a Borgia. Yes, one of those Borgias, a descendant of the infamous Renaissance Italians. He also wears a black mask over half his face and suffers from a weird psychological condition that makes him suffer anxiety attacks whenever his social status is threatened. What a weirdo! And then there’s a mystic kook named Madame Saturnia making surprisingly accurate prophecies, Henry Daniell playing . . . someone shady, Jimmy Lee running around in armour, and the usual gang of suspects (a doctor, a butler, a lawyer, a beautiful young woman, a handsome young man).
*. I don’t think the various plots make a lot of sense, but at least this time I could follow the basics of what was going on.
*. Busy and with decent production values it’s a lot of fun throughout. They might have gone on forever but with the coming of war it wouldn’t do for Fox to have an Asian hero. Monogram would pick the series up though, and Toler, who had purchased the film rights, would continue to star. Things would kick off in 1944’s Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, with Charlie working for the U.S. government’s war effort. But the later movies would be a big step down in budget and quality. For the good Chan movies, this was pretty much the end of the line.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

*. I’ve always heard, and read, that Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays, though rarely studied even in advanced Shakespeare seminars, were good theatre. Until now, however, I’ve never been able to put that to the test for the simple reason that they’re not often produced. With this BBC production of what’s called the first tetralogy (the Henry VI plays plus Richard III), it seemed I would finally get my chance.
*. Well, I came away impressed. This was great TV. My only reservation is that it’s a free adaptation of the source material. In making it a viewer-friendly, contemporary political thriller (they were aiming to make it “as dynamic and accessible as possible”) a lot of Shakespeare gets left behind, and much of what’s left is transformed. Inevitable? Yes. Responsibly done? Yes. But this is Shakespeare for the twenty-first century.
*. That much would need to be cut was obvious. Richard III is Shakespeare’s second-longest play. Henry VI Part 2 has his largest cast of characters. Something, quite a bit actually, was going to have to give. Henry VI Part 1, for example, comes in at just under an hour. Speeches that go on for dozens of lines are radically pruned to go with a modern editing style. None of Kenneth Branagh’s long takes here! Well, there is one good long take in Richard III as Richard and Elizabeth go walking through the woods together, but I think that was it.
*. The trimming even stretches to a streamlining of the cast, with the characters of Sussex and Somerset, not minor players, being mostly combined into a single figure (Ben Miles, as Somerset). I don’t suppose many people notice this, since I don’t think many people know the plays that well, but it confused me quite a bit.
*. Some cuts are obvious. I don’t think modern audiences can accept speeches that go on for pages. Or take the scene where Henry watches a son mourn his father on the battlefield and a father mourn his son. Anyone seeing that today would likely find it horribly artificial in its formal balance. And so we only get the son who has killed his father. In much the same way the ghosts appearing to both Richard and Richmond, offering up alternating curses and blessings, is almost always cut down to just show the ghosts telling Richard to despair and die.
*. I think in other places the cuts may make us feel a bit shortchanged. In Henry VI Part 1, for example, the conflict between Talbot and Joan of Arc gets short shrift. Talbot’s only big scene remaining is his death at the side of his son, and Joan (who is actually shown killing Talbot) has lost her demons and become a real saint, even going full Falconetti when burned at the stake.

*. Is that being politically correct, or just another nod to realism and authenticity? Seeing as these plays make a hash of history anyway I don’t think there’s much need for it. For example, Eleanor was banished years before Margaret came to England. That cat-fight stuff is in there just because Shakespeare knew it would play well.
*. Another nod to greater realism (or whatever you want to call it) is getting rid of almost all the asides and soliloquies from the Henry VI plays. It won’t do to have actors talking directly to the camera. Of course, this is a decision that had to be jettisoned when the series comes to Richard III, which is built around Richard’s confiding in the audience.
*. I’m all for colour-blind casting, but did they really want to have Sophie Okonedo playing the villainous Margaret, a character who is, to my eye, a close cousin to the ethnic witch Tamora from Titus Andronicus? That doesn’t seem very progressive. Still, it’s a great part.

*. I give Tom Sturridge a lot of credit. Henry VI is a difficult part. The historical Henry VI wasn’t a very impressive figure, by most accounts, and in the play he’s a type of the “holy king” at best (which wasn’t the best kind of king to be) or a dim wimp at worst. Ralph Fiennes played him once and was mainly concerned about his appearing “a weak, dithering fool.” A comic figure even. This is always a danger, but Sturridge really makes Henry believable and sympathetic. No mean feat. I only thought his transformation into Gollum a bit much.
*. Sturridge and Okonedo at least have the luxury of working alone. There aren’t that many performances of Margaret and Henry that audiences would have to compare them to, and almost none on film. Benedict Cumberbatch (a second cousin sixteen times removed of Richard) is playing in a different league, in the shadow of Olivier and McKellen.
*. Physically he’s more grotesque than either, and the opening shot of his naked, deformed back sets the tone. Producer Sam Mendes remarks on the “making of” featurette that “I don’t think you’ve seen Richard with his shirt off.” The prosthetics apparently took over three hours to put on and they add to that sense of realism I’ve mentioned already, going with the mudbowl Battle of Bosworth Field (mud = realism for any depiction of medieval life) and all the shooting on location.

*. One thing about Cumberbatch’s performance that’s really smart is not trying to re-invent the role. He’s very good, but aside from the scene of his naked back it’s not a star turn. If anything he plays some of the hamminess of the role down. What I came away liking best were quiet moments, like his observing Edward and Clarence falling out.
*. Stanley Townsend as Warwick made me think of Brian Blessed. How could you not be reminded of the guy who would naturally fit into that role in the past? Shakespeare had a stable company, and perhaps something of that consistency of players continues into the present day.
*. I started off saying that this is great TV. The hooks at the end of each part reveal a professional showrunner’s sense of timing. There is an attempt made throughout to emphasize a strong through narrative line that works quite well. It’s a treat to see Richard as a character following a real arc.

*. Some of the adaptations made by Ben Power and Dominic Cooke work very well. The death of Clifford, for example, involves wholly made-up scenes between Clifford and Richard and then Clifford and Henry, with both of the latter figures declining to finish him off, though for sharply contrasting reasons. Richard wants him to suffer while Henry can’t because violence sickens him. That’s not in Shakespeare, but it’s a nice touch.
*. Critics made the obvious connection to Game of Thrones, which may be putting the cart before the horse by more than four centuries. I certainly enjoyed these versions a lot more than the old BBC adaptations back when I was in school. Though those products were more faithful, I think perhaps because they were intended partly as study aids.
*. So if you’re looking for the language you may feel shortchanged at times. The dispute in the garden, where the business of the red and white roses is first introduced, often makes reference to the flowers as “dumb [mute] significants.” In this version the line just before the dumb significants line is kept, as is the one after. But dumb significants is lost. A dumbing down? I don’t think so, but it’s an evolution.

Naked Lunch (1991)

*. In my notes on Burroughs: The Movie I mentioned how I really don’t care for the writing of William S. Burroughs. Naked Lunch is by most accounts his best known work and I’ve made two determined efforts to get through it, both of which failed. In fact, they failed very quickly, which is really out of character for me. I can stick with a bad book for quite a while. I never came close to finishing Naked Lunch.
*. Is that a barrier to my enjoying Naked Lunch, the movie? Not at all. In the first place, it’s not really an adaptation of the book at all, but in David Cronenberg’s words an “amalgam of many writings of Burroughs” fused with biographical material. This was an approach Burroughs himself approved of, claiming that “all of his work was one work” anyway.
*. But even more than just a Burroughs mix-tape, it’s an amalgam of Burroughs and Cronenberg. The bug-typewriter that talks through it’s (human) anus? I think that’s all Cronenberg. Or take this bit from the DVD commentary track he did: “Joan was a junky, whether she shot up in her breasts or not I don’t know. But . . . the strange drug, the sexual, perverse, sadistic, masochism of it appealed to me so that’s why I wrote the scene this way.”

*. Not saying that Burroughs was uninterested in strange drugs and perversity, but this was definitely a meeting of kindred spirits, at least in terms of some of their obsessions. So when Cronenberg goes off on his own, like inventing the character of Cloquet (Julian Sands) he could do so with the assurance that while Cloquet was “not a character I think that appears directly in Burroughs [he was] very much a Burroughsian type character.”
*. In short, I think this film version is a triumph in taking unfilmable material and making it over into something both entirely new and at the same time true to the spirit of the original. And if I came away from it thinking it was maybe a bit more Cronenberg than it was Burroughs, then that’s all to the good.
*. If anything, I think Cronenberg was too deferential in some ways. He met Burroughs before filming and clearly admired him, even saying he found him sweet and vulnerable. On the commentary track he glides over the question of what sort of culpability Burroughs had in killing his wife. Maybe it was an accident. Who knows.
*. I did, however draw a line at what he says during the scene where Bill Lee (Peter Weller) gifts Cloquet the boy Kiki. “I suppose now this scene would be seen something along the lines of two sexual predators and their prey, but of course times have changed and in Tangier in the ’50s the relationship of the locals and the boys and the gay men who tried to seduce them, I think it was a very complex, intricate relationship and set of dynamics amongst them.” Oh, David. It’s really not complicated at all. They were sexual predators in the 1950s too.

*. Another pleasant trip back to that wonderful time before CGI (for some of Cronenberg’s thoughts on CGI, see my notes on The Fly). I think the puppets here — the typewriter-bug and the Mugwumps — still look terrific thirty years later. The only scene I don’t like is Cloquet and Kiki in the bird cage. On the commentary track Cronenberg admits it’s “the weakest scene in the movie in terms of effects” but that they ran out of time and money and couldn’t do it right. Which really is too bad because visually this is a movie that hardly ever puts a foot wrong.
*. I was surprised to find out that they were actually intending to go to Tangiers to shoot the Interzone stuff (the trip got called off because of the First Gulf War). I think having it look like a studio makes more sense, and visually it’s more of a piece with the rest of the film. But the disjunction of making Interzone more documentary in style might have been fascinating too.
*. Outstanding casting. Peter Weller nails Burroughs, the man as the mask. Judy Davis manages to avoid being just a victim, despite getting killed twice. Ian Holm is surprisingly sinister as Paul Bowles (or Tom Frost, as he’s called here). I thought Roy Scheider may have been enjoying himself a bit too much as Dr. Benway, but it’s a movie that was aiming for black comedy and he plays well off Weller’s dryness.
*. I’m a bit surprised Cronenberg got away with the Mugwump jism-milking scene. That’s pretty explicit fellatio. But I guess the Mugwumps were weird enough to let it get through.
*. Nice credits, made to mimic the style of Saul Bass. Which means they aren’t all that original, but they do fit the period. Naked Lunch was published in 1959 which was also the year of North by Northwest.
*. The DVD box says it’s “from the director of Crash and eXistenZ.” Both of which were still to come. I would have played up Cronenberg’s previous two films, The Fly and Dead Ringers, both of which were commercially successful at the time and have better name recognition today. Along with Naked Lunch I think it’s these three movies that mark a middle peak in Cronenberg’s career. I still might enjoy the early horror flicks like The Brood and Scanners more, but after this film I found him getting a lot less interesting. Still, he has more good movies to his credit than any other Canadian director I can think of. And I give him high marks for making something this good out of Burroughs’s mess.

Burroughs: The Movie (1983)

*. I can’t say I went into this one with high hopes. I don’t think William S. Burroughs was a great writer. In fact, I don’t think he was even a good writer. He survives today, I believe, mostly as a cult figure for his transgressive qualities/shock value. Meanwhile, in terms of his personality and biography I find him to be a creepy figure, bordering on downright repellant.
*. But he was at least a character, which makes him a good subject for a biography. As a documentary Burroughs just follows him around as he performs. And he is always performing. Various friends are interviewed, and you get the sense that most of them, especially Allen Ginsberg, are more than happy to play along.
*. There’s a bigger point here about biographies, either written or on film, of living figures. On the one hand, you’d expect that subject to be someone the author or filmmaker admires, at least to some extent. I think that was the case with director Howard Brookner here. On the other hand, working closely with the subject of your biography, and being given access, inevitably means you are compromised. To put it bluntly, you are being used. There have been notorious cases of this recently when it comes to writing the lives of literary figures, but it’s the same in any medium.
*. I think the best that can be hoped for in such efforts is a glimpse of something that one suspects the subject didn’t want made public. With Burroughs I don’t think there’s much in the way of revelations, and what minefields there are were avoided. Burroughs was an admitted junky, but the extent to which he was also a sexual predator (he basically partook of what we’d now call Third World sex tourism) and/or a murderer (he shot his wife) is left largely unexamined.
*. But then Byron took drugs, abused his wife, and ran off to places where he could have sex with boys, and he’s fondly remembered now as just the rake who was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” We seem to put up with a lot from celebs.
*. Oddly enough, the figure who apparently came out looking the worst in the film, at least according to Brookner, was James Grauerholz, who boasts of supplanting Burroughs’ son. That part didn’t sit well with me either, and the whole thing felt creepy as hell. But again: it’s the moments like these that give the film what value it has.
*. Did I feel any greater respect for Burroughs after watching this? No. Did I come away with a better understanding of him? Not really. His face is as fixed a mask as his flat delivery and three-piece suits, and while there are flickers behind that mask they are flickers of something I didn’t like, and certainly didn’t want to spend any more time with.
*. There’s something about drug culture that doesn’t last. Some of the Beats had talent, but I don’t think there’s much they wrote that has lasted. On the Road. Howl. I feel the same way about psychedelic music. I’d keep Pink Floyd, but what else from that era? Just a few songs.
*. If I could check my distaste for Burroughs at the door I’d say this was a game documentary, involving the editing of many hours of footage shot over several years. I like the idea of dramatizing the operating room scene, even if the results are, I guess appropriately, skid row. It’s been restored for the Criterion release but still looks dirty. If you’re a fan of Burroughs you might like that, though I doubt you’ll learn anything new.
*. In his later years, which would include the years covered in the making of this film, Burroughs was on his way to becoming a brand, even pitching Nikes at one point. This was a professional achievement as surprising as it was depressing. For what it says about celebrity and about us. Would you buy a pair of shoes from this guy?

Amulet (2020)

*. There’s a lot going on in Amulet outside of its fairly simple story, and I might as well deal with this stuff right away.
*. In the first place, it’s a feminist horror film. In an interview with writer-director Romola Garai that’s included with the DVD she’s asked to comment on “a great moment for women directors of horror films,” with the references being to Relic (Natalie-Erika James), Saint Maud (Rose Glass) and the remake of Candyman (Nia DaCosta). Slightly earlier, The Babadook was apparently some influence. In an essay on the new female horror in Time magazine Stephanie Zacharek also mentions She Dies Tomorrow. So it’s fair to call it a trend.
*. In response, Garai has this to say “I think that horror is the perfect female medium. Because I think that being a woman is just like being in a horror film, you know, just everything about being a woman is being scared all the time and weird things happening to your body and feeling out of place.”
*. That’s a valid perspective, and it’s a case that has been made before. Amulet even doubles down by being both a supernatural horror film and a rape-revenge thriller. Some sort of other-worldly and semi-divine female principle is meting out harsh justice on men who have committed the ultimate transgression. Given this is a horror movie and the vengeful spirit is described as a demon we may think of it as an evil force, but it seems something earthier or more chthonic than that. So really the female point of view that Garai identifies with horror is being reversed, or as the producer put it, stood on its head.

*. The story has it that Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), an intellectual border guard (he spends his copious downtime reading philosophy) in some Eastern European country has immigrated to London. Flashbacks tells us that while stationed at his very remote border post he raped a woman he’d befriended. In London a nun (a chilling Imelda Staunton) sets him up in a job as a handyman in a creepy old house inhabited by a young woman named Magda (Carla Juri), who is taking care of her ill mother, who she keeps locked up in the attic.
*. Well obviously something is very wrong here. You want to yell at Tomaz not to eat that stew. Doesn’t everyone know that stew is the archetypical horror cuisine? I mean, what goes into it? Nobody knows.
*. But more than that, there’s the further feminist-horror archetype of the madwoman in the attic. This is actually where I thought Amulet showed the most potential, in a way that made it a very similar film to Relic. Magda is the dutiful caregiver for an elderly parent, a kind of master-slave relationship, forced to watch as her mother descends into dementia, literally transforming into something else. This is an everyday horror story that will resonate with a lot of people. That and pulling dead bats out of the toilet.

*. Like I say, this is the part of the movie that I thought had the most impact. The rape-revenge story seemed awkwardly bolted on to it. It turns out Magda’s mom is actually . . . well, I’m not sure what. Some damned thing that gives birth to the bats. It’s the product of a previous act of male violence perpetrated by Magda’s father. In any event, the conclusion here is very weird indeed, having Tomaz entering into the birth canal of the Great Pink Sea Snail and then becoming impregnated as payback for his having eaten of the forbidden fruit. Or something like that. I found it all a bit muddled.

*. There are things to like about Amulet. I appreciated the feeling of creeping dread (also known as slow burn), as opposed to the usual haunted-house jump scares. That restraint carries through to the performances, with emotions largely held in check. This isn’t a screamfest.
*. There’s also a nice otherworldly atmosphere. To be honest, I was surprised that the film was taking place in London. I thought Tomaz had just left his border post for a job in Bucharest or some such place. That’s what it looked like. This seemed fitting too, as so many horror movies are now being shot in Eastern Europe. But no, this is a British production.
*. Unfortunately, I came away thinking this was a movie that just had too much on its plate and not a clear enough idea about what it wanted to say. Or maybe it does and it’s just not very clear about saying it. I honestly had trouble figuring out what was going on. What was the point of the bat babies? Wasn’t the fact that Magda had to continue taking care of the hosts a sort of punishment of her? How did Tomaz get selected for this extreme punishment anyway? Did he find the amulet or did it find him? Why does Magda bother getting in touch with Miriam at the end?
*. It’s ironic, but despite being a slow burn with an eruption of weirdness and gore at the end, the climax is still a let-down. The ending is actually the least interesting part of the movie. I haven’t anything against the feminist message, but it’s really not as new or dangerous as it’s made out to be. In fact, I think it plays here against what might have been more difficult readings. Like “What are we going to do about mom?”

Looking for Richard (1996)

*. Looking for Richard presents itself as an exercise in taking Shakespeare, specifically Richard III, to “the people in the street.” Many people met there see the language as too difficult and the plays as unrelated to everyday life. Hence the popularity of Shakespeare being translated into “everyday English” and discussions about his continuing “relevance.”
*. I think Looking for Richard addresses these issues in a responsible way, though it ironically does so in the form of a movie that I don’t think anyone outside of Shakespeare’s usual audience will find all that interesting. Put another way, I found it fascinating, but I’m not sure the man or woman on the street would feel the same way about it.
*. Basically what we have here is a documentary look behind-the-scenes at a fictional production of Richard III. It was Al Pacino’s first turn at directing and he shot it over a four-year period, ending up with over 80 hours of footage. A remarkable job of editing then, if nothing else, as it flows seamlessly, as though shot in a couple of months.
*. The politics behind the play Richard III are notoriously complicated, so some of the background material consists of interviews with historians and the like explaining what’s going on in the scenes we see being performed. Just what was “the winter of our discontent”? Now you know. It’s sort of like Coles Notes on video.
*. What I found more interesting though is the discussion behind how the play was going to be presented. For example there’s the letter Edward gets warning him that G of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be. Should the G be changed to C so as not to confuse people who don’t know that the Duke of Clarence’s name is George? Or would that be taking too big a liberty?
*. If there’s a disappointment in this approach it’s in the fact that this sort of discussion only revolves around issues relating to a stage production of the play. There is little to no talk of how to make Richard III into a more engaging or popular sort of movie. I missed that. For example, I really liked the angle of the shot of the soldiers coming downhill to finish Richard off after sticking him with arrows. But to what extent was that a conscious decision, for whatever reason, and how much of it was dictated by the location?
*. Pacino’s brand of Method acting can run very hot or cold, but in his favour I think he managed to pull Shakespeare off very well, both her and playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (2004). He does give a good sense of Richard enjoying himself, or Pacino enjoying himself being Richard. This led me to wonder whether this was really Pacino behind the scenes, or if he was still hamming it up for the camera, or if there is a difference. I have a hard time imagining Pacino not being “on.”
*. The cast runs hot and cold too. Winona Ryder, who specialized in being miscast in her career, is hopeless here as Anne. And I say that as a Ryder fan (she should have won an Oscar for her turn in The Age of Innocence). Alec Baldwin is also hopeless as Clarence. Some people should probably avoid Shakespeare.
*. Meanwhile, I know that he’s a fallen star now but I would have liked to have seen more of Kevin Spacey as Buckingham. A good choice for the part, especially as he would go on to play Richard on stage in a Sam Mendes production that ran from 2011 to 2012, and reprised the role in House of Cards. You’d think he’d have some real insights into the part.
*. Another interesting angle I wish they’d developed a bit further has to do with the different attitudes toward Shakespeare taken by British and American actors and producers, informed by snippets of interviews with the likes of Derek Jacobi, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, and Kenneth Branagh. At one point it’s suggested that Brits are less deferential to the Bard, and I think this may be right. Perhaps it’s a comfort thing. I’d note that Pacino originally wanted to just make a film of Richard III but then didn’t think he could compete with Olivier’s 1955 version. But Olivier took some pretty big liberties with the text, as he did with all of his Shakespeare adaptations (especially Hamlet). Ian McKellen would too.
*. All of which underlines the point I began with. I find Looking for Richard to be a real treat, but I doubt it does much to bring Shakespeare to the people. For all its jokiness and backward ball-cap style points, I think it plays better as a master class.

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)

*. In my notes on Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy I talked about how great a falling off it marked from the comedy-horror heights of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. But Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde actually came out two years before Meet the Mummy and it’s even worse, so it wasn’t a consistent decline.
*. This is grim stuff. Not just a clunker in terms of the humour — I don’t recall smiling once at it — but for the desperation of the comedy and general sense of unpleasantness. We begin with Mr. Hyde killing a man in the street, which isn’t a joke at all. In Britain the film would actually receive an X rating. In 1953!
*. The plot has our heroes, two characters named Slim and Tubby (I’ll leave you to sort them out), playing American cops who are visiting London and working with the bobbies as part of some kind of study-abroad program. But they are soon removed from the force after a chaotic riot at a suffragette rally. Meanwhile, one of the suffragettes is the ward of Dr. Jekyll (Boris Karloff), and she has caught the eye of a dashing young reporter. That’s the love interest. Dr. Jekyll wants to keep his young ward for himself though, and enlists the aid of Mr. Hyde to rid himself of the reporter. But, trying to get back in the good graces of the police chief, Slim and Tubby are on the case.
*. That’s the plot, and it’s dreadful. The would-be laughs involve very little wordplay and instead rely mostly on pratfalls and the like. One scene takes place in a wax museum so we get double-takes at wax figures being mistaken for living creature, and then vice versa. There are also a number of predictable scenes involving something scary coming up behind Slim or Tubby that they remain oblivious too. Ha-ha.
*. At one point Tubby (yes that’s Lou) gets turned into a mouse-man. Here’s how laboured the humour is. When they go back to explore the doctor’s secret lab they find it’s all been dismantled and made over into a wine cellar. No idea how, but there it is. Trying to find some explanation for how Tubby got turned into a mouse, Slim picks out a bottle of Moselle wine and says “See, Mouse-ell! That’s what turned you into a mouse!” So he then keeps giving Tubby glasses of Moselle to see if he’ll turn into a mouse again but it only makes Tubby drunk. I mean, it doesn’t make sense on any level.
*. Leonard Maltin: “Special effects are film’s main asset.” Which is noteworthy for two reasons: (1) if you’re watching an Abbott and Costello movie for the special effects, you’re in trouble; and (2) the effects are terrible. The transformation scenes are a considerable step down from what had been done in 1931, and the full Mr. Hyde is just a guy (not Karloff, by the way) wearing a mask.
*. Watching this one I was actually surprised it came out as late as 1953. It feels at least ten years out of date. Seventy years later on, it hasn’t improved a bit.

Force of Nature (2020)

*. A hurricane is bearing down on Puerto Rico. This made me question how many movies I’ve seen set in Puerto Rico. I can’t think of many (or really any) off the top of my head.
*. I really should have hated Force of Nature. Almost everyone else did. And for what are obvious reasons.
*. The plot has a cop with a tortured past (we first see him contemplating suicide) pairing up with a new kid. Haven’t seen that before. Anyway, their job is to go around telling residents to flee for safety from the hurricane. Upon arriving at one apartment building, however, they find themselves meeting up with a crusty old ex-cop (Mel Gibson) being nursed by his daughter (Kate Bosworth). He’s not leaving. Meanwhile, also in the building is an old German guy with a lot of stolen artwork, another guy with a big cat locked up in a spare bedroom, and a bunch of bad guys who are looking to steal the artwork. The stage is set.
*. It’s all as contrived as it is clichĂ©d. Every now and then the action just stops and we have characters explain their back stories. As soon as we find out about the cat in the spare room (is it a tiger? I wasn’t sure), and the fact that it’s been trained to attack people wearing police uniforms, we know that’s going to become important.
*. Nor does any of it make a lot of sense. Why don’t they tie something around the tiger guy’s leg to stop it from bleeding? Why does someone have to literally hold on to his leg? How is that guy keeping a tiger in his spare room anyway? How can he afford to feed it that much grocery-store beef? And isn’t that whole set-up cruelty to animals?
*. At one point Bosworth and the tiger guy are trying to get away from the bad guys and they go into the basement, which has been filling with water throughout the hurricane. By the time they get to it the water is nearly up the ceiling. “If there’s water coming in, there’s a way out,” Bosworth says. Um. No. Not really. In fact, not at all. It just means there’s water coming into the basement from outside. But there is a way out! Of course.
*. I’ve joked before about the late career choices of Bruce Willis. Apparently he was originally cast as the ex-cop here. So now you know what happens to the roles Bruce Willis doesn’t take. They go to Mel Gibson.
*. Which is too bad for Bruce, actually. The thing is, despite being so hokey that it feels at times to be meant as a joke, with Emile Hirsch’s performance bordering on comic, I kind of enjoyed Force of Nature. I certainly thought it was a better movie than Cosmic Sin, which is the kind of thing Willis was doing instead. And whatever else you want to say about Mel Gibson, he’s like Tom Cruise in that he gives every part his all. He’s like the anti-Bruce in that regard.
*. The ending underlines the sense of it not being meant to be taken seriously. The lights go out, the panther leaps, and then . . . break to the next day. On the plus side, at least we didn’t get one of those terrible CGI tigers or jaguars. On the other hand . . . what the heck?
*. Bosworth is surprisingly good, meaning she keeps her dignity intact. The fact that her husband Michael Polish was directing might have helped. Gibson is watchable, and at least gives the impression of someone who is trying, which is more than Willis would have bothered with. The budget was obviously tight so there’s not a lot of production value. But keep your expectations low and it goes down easily enough.