Just a note to let you know that Real Life ™ has once again reared its head and I’m going to have to take a month off of posting new reviews here. See you again around the end of June!
The Sacrifice (1986)
*. I want to begin by saying that I’m a huge fan of Andrei Tarkovsky. Solaris and Stalker are among my all-time favourite films, though they’re both flawed masterpieces. The thing is, when Tarkovsky is “on” his flaws, which can be substantial, don’t matter. You’re left with the feeling that very few filmmakers are working at the same level.
*. Which brings us to The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky’s last film. It was made in Sweden and very much stands as a sort of homage to Bergman, with the main actor being Bergman veteran Erland Josephson and Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist behind the camera (though it wasn’t shot on Faro, as was apparently often reported). What this means, unfortunately, is that it’s a movie that has a lot to say about Man and God and Love and Death and the End of the World, and says it in a very ponderous way.
*. Look, Tarkovsky is a slow filmmaker. There’s a 45-minute parable here stretched to 142 minutes by way of lots of very long shots and exquisitely composed frames. That’s not the problem. Tarkovsky is also a spiritual guy, so there’s a lot of vague religiosity on display that I didn’t think added up to much. Words like “truth,” “ritual,” “sin,” and “sacrifice” are turned into leitmotifs. But that’s not the problem either.
*. The problem is that these two things are combined, without any great payoff at the end. Here’s Roger Ebert in what was a four-star (his highest rating) review: “The movie is not easy to watch, and it is long to sit through. Yet a certain joy shines through the difficulty. Tarkovsky has obviously cut loose from any thought of entertaining the audience and has determined, in his last testament, to say exactly what he wants, in exactly the style he wants. . . . The Sacrifice is not the sort of movie most people will choose to see, but those with the imagination to risk it may find it rewarding.” Wow. How enticing does that sound?
*. As things proceed we may well think that the presiding spirit is less Bergman than it is Ibsen or Strindberg. What year, nay what century is this? Surely the nineteenth! Is there running water in this house? But no, someone is seen driving a car. And there’s a JVC home stereo (in a wood housing) and television. And as we’re finally told in the film’s final act, the year is 1985. Which is about 100 years later than it looks to be. Or sounds like. It’s a movie that deals with anxiety over nuclear war, but don’t expect to hear Nena belting out “99 Luftbaloons.” This is Tarkovsky, and only Bach is going to do.
*. It also feels like nineteenth-century drama because the interiors all look like stage sets. I mean, there’s an acreage of (mostly empty) floor space not just in the main house but in Maria’s supposedly more downscale cottage. But then the exteriors seem no less staged, as they in fact were. That house, and that tree, planted out in the middle of nowhere are more an art installation than anything that’s part of nature.
*. Staging also informs nearly every shot of the film. This is taken to the point where you know how shots are going to end even as they’re being set up. I’ll give two examples, in one a group of figures walk toward an open doorway. There was a space to the left of the screen that was empty and when the last person entered the frame I said to myself “he has to walk over to the left to fill in that empty space and then stand there to complete the tableau.” And he did.
*. In the second, we see the main character, Alexander (Josephson) standing in front of a dresser with a full length mirror in the door. The door slowly opens, reflecting Alexander in the shot. Again, I said to myself “the shot has to end with the door stopping just at the point where Alexander is framed perfectly in the mirror.” And it did.
*. When your shots become this predictable I think there’s a problem. In a way it’s even worse than a script that you’re always two steps ahead of. It adds an extra level of impatience to one’s experience of a film that is already moving slow enough.
*. Reinforcing the slowness of the proceedings is the photography, which deliberately reduces the amount of colour throughout the central part of the movie. It’s almost like black and white (Nykvist says nearly 60% of the colour was removed). Now Tarkovsky is no stranger to this sort of experimenting with juxtaposing different levels of colour — it plays a big part in Stalker and is used dramatically at the end of Andrei Rublev — but here I had trouble getting the point. Is the middle section of the movie all a dream/nightmare? Maybe.
*. Much of what I’ve said here about the staginess of the compositions, the long takes, the fiddling with colour, and the Bach chorus, could be said of all of Tarkovsky’s work, including some of the best of it. What undercuts it all here is the vagueness of the message, and my sense that what I did understand of that message was something I didn’t like very much.
*. The parable, in outline, has it that a nuclear war is launched and Alexander gets down on his knees and prays that the world can go back to the way it was, and in return he’ll sacrifice everything he loves the most. Then a fellow who studies occult happenings tells Alexander that another good way to save the world might be to sleep with the maid Maria, who is sort of like a good witch. This Alexander does, and things do sort of go back to normal, but Alexander figures he has to keep his part of the bargain with God so he burns his house down.
*. I don’t know where to begin with this. First off, Alexander doesn’t give up all he loves and possesses by burning down his house. I was figuring he’d be sacrificing his son, who’s called Little Man but might as well be Isaac. Also, bargaining with God is a bad look and I don’t think makes for good theology. Then there’s the stuff with Maria. It’s an even worse look for an old guy to figure he can only save the world by sleeping with a woman half his age, and who even uses emotional blackmail (putting a gun literally to his head) to get her to go along. Not even another levitating bout of lovemaking can make this right.
*. In fact, I didn’t like Alexander-as-Christ at all. He’s a combination of the intellectual vice of preferring talk to action wed with the old-person vice of fearing change and wanting everything to magically go back to the way it was before (a golden age, pre-technological, pre-nuclear weapons, when he could still get it up). I didn’t find anything tragic about his ending at all, and didn’t even think the ambulance (which miraculously appears out of nowhere) should have bothered with him. He doesn’t need therapy so much as he needs to be taken to the woodshed.
*. The house burning down is a great image. But then so is Holly Hunter playing a piano on the beach in The Piano, but just as in that case a great image does not a great movie make. Tarkovsky doesn’t have any kind of point here. When he’s at his best, you can feel what he’s saying in a deep way. But I didn’t feel much of anything in The Sacrifice except a sense of frustration and grumpiness with the world. I couldn’t help thinking that Tarkovsky would have been as happy seeing the world burn as watching that house go up in flames. As for the next generation, they can pray to a dead tree. Just keep the faith.
As You Like It (2019)
*. One of the things that I think everybody knows about Shakespeare is that when his plays were first produced the female roles were all played by men, or boys. This has always invited a bit of head spinning when watching plays like As You Like It or Twelfth Night where one of the main characters is a woman who disguises herself as a man. So audiences were watching a man disguised as a woman pretending to be a man.
*. This version of As You Like It promises “Shakespeare like never before” but it’s really just Shakespeare with an all-male cast, which isn’t being original so much as originalist. There have been celebrated (and not-so celebrated) productions of this play with an all-male cast for quite a while in our own time, at least on stage. We may have moved the Forest of Arden to Death Valley here, but having the players all be men isn’t breaking any new ground.
*. Of course, gender politics in the twenty-first century are a little different than they were in the English Renaissance. So, for starters, an all-male Shakespeare today is inevitably going to be a gay Shakespeare. Now I don’t think this movie plays the gay angle up, at least on the level of what Derek Jarman would have done with it, but at the same time it’s obviously there in a way that goes beyond just crossdressing some of the cast. That’s immediately indicated by the epigraphs from Christopher Marlowe, “All they that love not tobacco and boys are fools,” and the Village People: “Go West!”
*. I’ve seen crossdressed Shakespeare on stage before. These are productions where the male parts are played by women and the female parts by men. I’ve always found these to be only half successful, in that I have no trouble buying a female Macbeth or Lear in uniform or corporate attire, but as soon as a guy comes out on stage wearing a dress it’s pretty much game over. Is that prejudice on my part? Probably. And attitudes do seem to be changing. But it still registers as silly in a way that hurts the play. Maybe in a hundred years we’ll look at these things differently. If anyone is still doing Shakespeare in the 2100s, which I doubt.
*. So I think they make a good choice kicking things off here introducing us to Rosalind (Jordan Grant) and Celia (Joseph Haro), two young men wearing dresses, as soon as the play opens (there’s an introductory chorus-like address that gives us a bit of background info, but the first proper scene is Act 1 Scene 2 in the play). Best to get the surprise factor out of the way as quickly as possible. After this we’re only going to be shocked by the sight of the country wench Audrey appearing as a barrel-chested dude with a bushy moustache and a one-piece swimsuit. But Audrey is a comic figure anyway and I did think Haro made an attractive girl.
*. This is a very low-budget effort. I don’t think many people have seen or even heard of it. The DVD didn’t even have a menu much less scene selection! I know nothing of the director, Carlyle Stewart, or any of the cast aside from a couple of veterans in supporting parts (Graham Greene as Corin and Tom Bower as Jaques). But, to my surprise, it’s actually not bad.
*. Some of the actors were hard to warm to. They even seemed angry for no apparent reason. Grant as Rosalind and Stephen Ellis as Touchstone stand out in this regard. And did we need Orlando beating Charles by throwing sand in his face and kicking him in the nuts? To this I would add that the whole thing feels clunky in its pacing (the transition shots are heavy beats) and dramatically flat. Perhaps more music would have helped. As You Like It is a frothy play that skips and dances, a quality that I’ve only found the 1936 version really captures.
*. I won’t deny that I had very low expectations going into this one, and they were happily surpassed. For a low-budget indie it has an interesting spin and is competently put forward in most departments. The cuts — like some of the wordplay with Touchstone, the hedge-priest Sir Oliver Martext, and the encounter with a lion (here a gunfight) — are sensible, and indeed have become routine. That said, it’s a niche film that mainly just keeps its head above water and is unlikely to appeal to anyone except the Shakespeare curious.
*. I wasn’t far into Amsterdam before I felt the need to go look something up. The question being: How tall is Taylor Swift?
*. I didn’t even recognize Swift at first. The face just looked sort of familiar. Then I looked at the crowd of names on the DVD box cover and it twigged. But then I was struck by how big she was. I don’t know why, but I’d never thought of Taylor Swift as being a particularly tall women. But here she seemed taller even than her co-stars. Was she just wearing sky-high heels?
*. Actually, no. She’s 5’11”. That’s a tall woman. The average — mark that: average — height of an American woman is 5’4″. So a full seven inches above average, which is a lot. Meanwhile, Christian Bale is listed as 6′ and John David Washington 5’9″. Take the official heights listed for male actors as usually shading taller than reality (it’s a publicity thing) and Swift may well have been one of the tallest actors in the cast. Margot Robbie is 5’6″. Robert De Niro 5’7″. Chris Rock 5’10”.
*. Anyway, there’s the one signal observation I made while watching Amsterdam. And in the event, Swift isn’t long for the movie as she’s quickly run over by a truck. Which, all things considered, is probably the best thing that could have happened to her. She didn’t want to see where things were going.
*. At the start, and through a lot of its middle section, where writer-director-producer David O. Russell was going seemed interesting. It’s a period piece, sort of in the vein of the Coen brothers (I was thinking particularly of Hail, Caesar!) mixed with Wes Anderson. Bale, Washington, and Robbie are three buddies who meet at the end of the First World War, with Bale and Washington heading back stateside while Robbie disappears. Bale becomes a doctor and Washington a lawyer (though he seems more like a private dick to me). One day Swift tries to enlist their help in finding out who might have killed her father, but then she gets pushed under the aforementioned bus.
*. Swift’s death precipitates the rest of the action, which has the three amigos reuniting to take on a conspiracy that’s based on the so-called Business Plot of 1933 (an initial title card tells us “A lot of this actually happened”). Basically a bunch of fat-cats want to take over the U.S. government by way of a fascist coup, installing a popular general (Robert De Niro) as president.
*. This part of the movie was enjoyable enough. It’s fun seeing all the different stars doing their thing — at least until De Niro puts in an appearance, as his “thing” now consists primarily of being boring — and it’s a beautiful looking movie, with great production design and photography. But as I’ve said many times before, the care and skill lavished on the look of movies today is in reverse relation to the quality of the writing, directing, and any attempt at originality. As again we see here.
*. Unfortunately, a beautiful table is set and we’re served wieners and beans. The rest of the movie goes nowhere. Or to be more precise, and even fair, it just goes where you know it’s going. Or to be even more precise, an even more crude version of where you know it’s going (a destination that Bale’s character nevertheless has to explain, at length, at the end). Guess what? Fascists, Nazis, racists and anti-Semites are bad. Democracy, tolerance, love, and loyalty are good. I’m shocked. Shocked, I tell you!
*. So no twists or surprises or even insightful political commentary. I mean, just get a load of Bale’s final voiceover and the film’s moving takeaway: “Each one of us is given a tapestry, our own opera. This person and this person. Thinking about it . . . love is not enough. You got to fight to protect kindness. You get attached to people and things. And they might just break your heart . . . but that’s being alive.” Believe it or not, I’m not a cold-hearted cynic. I often cry at movies. But hearing these words I was only moved to say “Oh, fuck off.”
*. “Oh, fuck off” is not a good note to end a movie on. But I’m struggling to say anything nice about this movie beyond its well-appointed period dressing. The characters seem like props. Andrea Riseborough is the upper-class bitch of a wife. Chris Rock got more exercise in Spiral. Anya Taylor-Joy continues to disappoint me in everything I’ve seen her in but Emma. Rami Malek doesn’t even get to play the villain I’m sure he was expecting to play. Washington, previously seen as the Protagonist in Tenet, has yet to be called upon to do much in the way of acting. Margot Robbie is a dull romantic lead. Bale spices thing up a bit with his Columbo impersonation that includes a hunched over and head-tilted delivery and lots of gesturing with his hands. It’s a bit of a caricature performance, but paradoxically makes him seem like the most human person we meet.
*. A major box office failure and not a big hit with critics either, what Amsterdam really needed was more complexity, as well as some building of tension and suspense. Despite some jarring violence it never creates any sense of danger or threat. Perhaps it was trying too hard to be funny, but I think if it had been darker the jokes would have worked better too. As it is, this is just too bland a movie to care much about. Heaven knows the political message was timely, but it’s put into such simplistic terms here (chanting Nazis facing off against Black veterans) that it’s easy to ignore. Instead of scaring us with the threat of a coup we’re made to feel warm and safe. Because all you need is love.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
*. Frankenstein . . . not destroyed but rather reinvented. Again. Because there’s no Christopher Lee here to play the Monster, and indeed no Monster to speak of. Instead Dr. Frankenstein, still the urbane and drily unbalanced Peter Cushing, has gotten into the business of brain transplants. That’s not quite the same thing as reviving sewn-together corpses.
*. Things begin with a shock, specifically a splash of blood sprayed against the metal plaque on the wall of a medical office when a man with a sickle decapitates someone on the street and steals their head. Now that’s a way to grab the audience’s attention!
*. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to that opening, though I do give the Hammer team credit for trying to do something new. This was their fifth Frankenstein film, and to be honest there’s never been a lot you could do with this story in the first place.
*. The idea here, and it’s a stretch, has it that a former associate of Frankenstein’s by the name of Brandt has been committed to an asylum but Frankenstein wants to break him out so that he can (1) cure his mental illness, and (2) get him to reveal a secret formula he’d been working on. Brandt dies though, so Frankenstein, with the help of a young, unwilling accomplice (Simon Ward), has to transplant Brandt’s brain into the body of another guy (Freddie Jones). Brandt doesn’t like what Frankenstein has done and determines to kill himself and take the mad doctor with him.
*. Despite the opening bit of splatter, this isn’t a terribly gory movie, and the most upsetting moment is the transplant scene, with its clinical use of the drill and saw. I wonder if people actually thought brain transplants could work like that in 1969. Doctors probably knew better, but maybe a general audience would buy it.
*. But let’s give a shout out to the general audience here. Frankenstein blackmails the younger Doctor Holst into helping him with his ghoulish scheme and tells him at one point “Dr. Knox had Burke and Hare to assist him. Think what they did for surgery between them. Now I have you.” In 1969 I think Burke and Hare would have been, if not household names, familiar enough to make a line like that in a movie like this work. Today I doubt many people, at least outside of Scotland and the north of England, will get the reference.
*. Frankenstein has another great line that comes when Holst says that he’ll continue to help him but that he should let Holst’s fiancée go as Frankenstein doesn’t need her. To which Cushing responds with the clipped pronouncement “I need Anna to make coffee!”
*. Coffee and other things. This film is notorious for a scene where Cushing rapes Anna (Veronica Carlson). Apparently it was a scene nobody wanted to film but that the studio insisted on as a way of livening things up. I think it plays as very awkward, but it’s not totally out of character for Cushing’s Frankenstein, as we’d already seen how he’d treated women in his first outing in the role a dozen years earlier, The Curse of Frankenstein. It does give some idea of the way these movies were slapped together though. All the stuff with the police investigation was also bolted on later, and it shows as it has no direct connection to the rest of the movie and is totally superfluous in terms of plot.
*. Even without these unwanted additions I still don’t know how good a movie this is. As I’ve said, it’s certainly different. This may be the saddest version of the Monster ever, in large part because he isn’t a monster. It’s just Freddie Jones with big puppy eyes and a shaved noggin with a scar going round the top. Nevertheless, his (that is, Dr. Brandt’s) wife still can’t bear the sight of him, no matter how delicate he is about preparing her by telling her in advance what has happened. Not a lot of understanding there. And indeed, the climax is all pretty downbeat, with even poor Anna being killed in a fashion that might have been meant as symbolic of her rape. It’s all a bit grim. But there is a great fire scene. Say what you will about the cheap horror films of yesteryear, but they really delivered when it came to burning men and buildings.
*. Hammer fans, and Frankenstein aficionados, rate this entry pretty highly, I think for the way it gives us a unique variation on the Monster as the victim of a medical experiment that, surprisingly, mostly goes right. The overall effect was akin to what I felt watching Hitchcock’s Frenzy, with its mix of grubbiness, sleaze, gore, and gruesomely effective and darkly comic thrills. The reveal of the body by the burst water main, for example, is pure Hitchcock, and done reasonably well in that style. Overall, however, this is too gloomy a movie for me to return to all that often. It’s a worthy entry in a storied franchise, but not an experiment anyone found worth repeating.
*. Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 and 2 are sometimes produced together, and at least once they’ve been combined on film to great effect (Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight). I don’t know if double-bills are a good idea though. Part 1 is a better play, so depending on how you cut and splice the audience is likely to feel some dropping off. Part 2 just plays like a long death scene. And you will have to make pretty significant cuts. This movie runs through both plays in an hour and 46 minutes, so you can be sure you’re only getting a greatest hits mix-tape.
*. The big novelty here though is the setting, which has jumped from the scepter’d isle of England to the streets of L.A., and more specifically the predominantly Black neighbourhoods. Henry IV (Harry Lennix, wearing a rakish eyepatch) is a sort of local crime boss while Hal (Amad Jackson) is the Prince of Watts. Other geographical locations are translated in amusing ways. A reference to Ireland is changed to Cuba, while Scotland is Jamaica throughout. The general forces meet at Compton, not Bridgnorth, and Shrewsbury clock has moved to South-Central.
*. Aside from such cosmetic changes, which extend to changing cups of sack to 8 balls, it’s actually a pretty faithful rendition of the two plays. And the players mostly do their part. Lennix is joined by Angus Macfadyen as Falstaff. The two had last played Shakespeare together in Julie Taymor’s Titus (Lennix as Aaron and Macfadyen as Lucius). But I particularly liked Geno Monteiro’s turn as Hotspur. He has a fresh-faced boyish energy that you don’t often see the part played with, which is too bad as it fits Hotspur well. But after he dies (at the end of Part 1) we’re not left with much.
*. I didn’t care too much for Macfadyen’s Falstaff. In part because I couldn’t figure out why he was one of only two white faces in the cast, in part for wearing a moustache that didn’t seem real, in part because he didn’t seem that old, in part because he had sunglasses on in half his scenes, but I think most of all just because I’ve always been less enamoured of the character. Isn’t Falstaff just a creepy old guy and a blowhard who lives by sponging off others?
*. The way he does Hal’s father as Brando’s Don Corleone in the extempore bar scene though was clever. I thought there should have been more stuff like that. For example, they really missed an easy trick by not having Falstaff’s troop of cannon fodder being homeless types pushing shopping carts around. That would have been perfect.
*. This is a very inexpensive, barebones production, funded partly by Kickstarter and shot largely in an actual theatre and taking no pains to conceal the fact. That’s something they might have got away with, but the actual filmmaking isn’t up to the task. The blocking is terrible, nobody seems to be pulling focus, and at times the camera just drifts about as though wondering who or what is supposed to be in the shot. In short, it isn’t quite at a professional standard.
*. That’s too bad, as they had an interesting idea here to run with and seemed to have had a route to making it work. I think it’s only fair to say that the money just wasn’t there to make it into a proper movie and they didn’t want to go the route of shooting a play being put on in an abandoned theatre. So it’s certainly not the mess it might have been, but I can’t say it’s very good either.
*. I think Oliver Stone was one of the more dynamic talents of his generation, but his career travelled a definite arc of rise and fall. He hit the ground running, and writing, with edgy political thrillers like Midnight Express and Salvador, and topical dramas that still pack a punch like Platoon and Wall Street. My own feeling is that he reached his apex with JFK in 1991. After that there was still work of interest, but things were clearly going downhill. Alexander was more than a bit ridiculous. By the time of W. (2008) I was calling him a spent force. Savages (2012) was wretched all the way through.
*. Nixon is a movie very much in the hit-and-miss part of his post-JFK oeuvre, coming between the oddities Natural Born Killers and U-Turn. In retrospect JFK, Nixon, and W. form a sort of presidential trilogy, and I think Nixon again falls in the middle. Parts of it are great. It has the grandiosity and paranoia that typify so much of Stone’s work, and is told in his signature style of a jumpy visual rhythm, but it also falls into some of the hubris, incoherence, and slackness that were symptoms of his decline.
*. As far as the script goes, I think it does a reasonable job of squeezing a biopic out of Nixon’s final days. Though I have to admit that even with a pretty solid grounding in the history of the Watergate affair I still had some trouble following what Stone was implying, or just muttering about. What was “that whole Bay of Pigs” thing they kept mentioning? And then there are all the oblique references to the way the mob/CIA/Cubans really killed Kennedy. I wonder if Stone believes this.
*. The real delight, and disaster, in this movie though is the cast. So let’s go through that.
*. Top billing goes to Anthony Hopkins, who was as surprised as anyone that Stone wanted him to play Nixon. Give the man credit, he does everything he can by way of performance to give us a believable Nixon. Sure he doesn’t look like the very distinctive, and easily caricatured, president, but for Stone this was irrelevant as acting is more an art of expressions and gestures, “as long as the spirit of the man comes across.” Yes, and no. Hopkins doesn’t sound like Nixon either, though again I really appreciate the effort made. He does do a thing with his tongue that I guess was a Nixon mannerism, but aside from that I just didn’t feel like I was watching anything more than a Nixon impersonator struggling madly to keep his head above water. So I have to rate it a fail, even though I think Hopkins does give it his considerable all. It’s just that at some point no actor can overcome miscasting.
*. A couple of other players find themselves stuck in the same hopeless situation. Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover? Really? No. Just no. Powers Booth as Alexander Haig? He doesn’t register as dirty enough. I like both Hoskins and Booth but they’re way out of place here.
*. As an aside on Hoover, I think Stone would get in trouble today with his presentation of the stereotype of what Gore Vidal called “the villainous fag.” What he does to Hoover here, and Clay Shaw in JFK, is cringeworthy.
*. But there’s a plus side of the ledger. Joan Allen is Pat Nixon. A dead ringer and a solid performance too. James Woods as Bob Haldeman is a home run, just toning down the usual Woods nervousness enough to project an air of absolutely cynical authority. Paul Sorvino must have had fun doing Henry Kissinger’s croaking delivery, and I think he nicely captures the sense of an arrogant individual playing with fire. Finally, even though she’s only on screen for a minute or two, Madeline Kahn is great as the larger-than-life Martha Mitchell.
*. And then there are a few faces I’m still undecided on, even after seeing the movie several times. J. T. Walsh doesn’t look a bit like John Ehrlichman, and I think disappears into the wallpaper a bit too much. David Hyde Pierce must have seemed like a good choice for John Dean, but I feel like something is missing. He has the look, but never gets the chance to show us the scheming intelligence (or blind ambition) that possessed Dean.
*. Stone thought it his “most encapsulated . . . most structured picture.” I think it’s not nearly as tight as JFK. The DVD version, which is 213 minutes, has a bunch of stuff with Sam Waterston playing CIA director Richard Helms that was cut from the theatrical release, perhaps because Helms threatened to sue. Stone claimed artistic reasons. I think it might have been both, as none of those scenes add anything except a bit more of the conspiracy innuendo.
*. So it’s lively, even at the length of the director’s cut, and there’s lots to be enjoyed, especially if you have an interest in the period. I guess not as many people did as the studio might have hoped though, as it bombed. Perhaps if it had been a little more conspiratorial it would have done better. That’s certainly the direction things were trending.
*. I don’t think it adds up to much though. We kick off with an epigraph asking us what good it will do someone to gain the whole world and lose their soul. Not much. Of course, if you don’t believe that you have a soul (immortal or close to it) then gaining the world would be a bargain. Stone remarks on the DVD commentary that this is “one of my favourite quotes in the Bible” (it’s Matthew 16:26) and he wanted to kick things off with it because it introduced the notion of Nixon losing his spiritual side in his rise to power. Actually, Nixon had pretty much lost his faith in college. In the lead-up to Watergate he talked to Kissinger about how his dirty tricks campaign might be going too far, and added “I don’t think we’re losing our soul. If we do, it’ll come back.”
*. The same epigraph, by the way, is used to kick off Caligula. Coincidence?
Frankenstein 1970 (1958)
*. If I told you that Frankenstein 1970 was made in 1958 your curiosity might be piqued. A futuristic Frankenstein movie?
*. If I told you it starred Boris Karloff as the last of the line of his Frankensteins you might be intrigued. Sure, the end of Karloff’s career was mostly a wasteland of garbage, but he was often good in some bad roles.
*. If I told you the premise had the now destitute Karloff renting out his castle to a bunch of hack filmmakers looking to make a TV documentary about Frankenstein’s ancestors you might be really interested. It’s a meta-horror before — long before — those became all the rage. The whole opening scene is one of those teases where it turns out it’s all just a movie. In 1958 that was pretty clever.
*. If I told you that this Frankenstein, who is both a famous scientist and a master hypnotist, had been tortured by the Nazis in Belsen during the Second World War (he didn’t want to help them in their experiments), and is now looking to continue the family line by installing an “atomic steam generator” in his basement laboratory you might be grinning. Nazis and nuclear power!
*. If I told you all this and added that there are actually a number of clever flourishes made all the more impressive for this being a Grade Z picture shot in 8 days — like the monster looming up in the photographer’s viewfinder, or a dissolve that takes us from a living character’s eyes to the same eyes now transplanted into the monster’s head, or even an unintentionally funny flushing sound made by the baron’s disposal unit in the lab — you might even be planning to watch Frankenstein 1970 the next chance you got.
*. Alas, all of this is true, and none of it means a thing because Frankenstein 1970 is hellaciously dull. Even at just over 80 minutes you’ll have a hard time sitting through it.
*. Leonard Maltin: “BOMB. Film is slow, monster unexciting, Karloff hammy.” Yes, it’s slow. Very slow. The monster I would describe as laughable rather than unexciting. His head looks like an upside-down garbage pail wrapped in bandages (and I wouldn’t be surprised if that is what it in fact was). He also doesn’t do much as he is blind throughout most of the movie (something which doesn’t seem to affect him in any way) and can’t express himself except through growls. The woman he “kills” simply screams and drops dead when she sees him.
*. Karloff hammy? Well, sure, but how else was he going to play this? I don’t think he had a lot of options.
*. I will, however, mostly agree with the BOMB rating. Despite the moments of cleverness this is a sub-Roger Corman production and with all it had going for it in the camp department it’s amazing it isn’t more enjoyable. Everything just seems thrown at the screen without any sense of how it all connects. Even the attempt at a surprise ending doesn’t raise more than a shrug. To say it’s not as bad as it should have been is only to say that it isn’t total garbage. And if you like this kind of thing you might get something out of seeing it. Once.
Last Will & Testament (2012)
*. Let’s start by talking about snobbery.
*. When discussing politics and the recent slide into anti-democratic populism (a global phenomenon) there’s a tendency to locate the undercurrent of rage in the masses of the “left behind” by the global economy, and in particular white males without a college education. This has always struck me as simplistic, as many of the angriest people I know are affluent, well-educated professional people. Could anyone imagine angrier people than the current slate of “conservative” justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, or Donald Trump? These people aren’t losers, but they’re positively incandescent with rage.
*. By the same token, and near allied, is the association of conspiratorial thinking with ignorant rubes who swallow the fantasies of QAnon wholesale. But many of the leading lights of today’s wildest conspiracies are again well-educated professional types who just have a blind spot or a particular axe to grind.
*. The idea that William Shakespeare, the “man from Stratford,” didn’t write the works attributed to him during his lifetime (and posthumously in the First Folio) is a good example of what we may call highbrow conspiracy thinking. It’s not like the people who say they believe any of the alternative-author stories are dummies. Many of them are academics, with Ph.D.’s in the field. And yet, if you take a step back to look at what they’re saying, it’s madness.
*. There’s also a lot of snobbery attached to the anti-Stratfordians, whose main line of argument is that Shakespeare couldn’t have written the plays because he was uneducated, even illiterate, and was low-born (of the middle class, but not the nobility). Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford seems to them to be a more likely candidate.
*. Last Will & Testament presents itself as an examination of what it calls “the greatest literary mystery of all time: who wrote the works of William Shakespeare?” It isn’t all anti-Stratford, as Stanley Wells and Jonathan Bate are given time to argue the orthodox side, but it does have a finger on the scale by allowing the Oxfordians substantially more play.
*. That Shakespeare was really Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson or Francis Bacon or Queen Elizabeth I or Emilia Bassano or any one of over a dozen other candidates are theories that are only mentioned without being addressed in any depth. Though the point is made by one anti-Stratfordian that the sheer number of alternative Shakespeares provides the “final nail in the coffin” for Shakespeare’s authorship because it indicates a “widespread dissatisfaction” with that conclusion. In other words, “people are saying.” Which is not an argument I put much stock in. Or really one that I think can be considered an argument at all.
*. Oxford gets the most attention as an alternative candidate, and the idea is further floated that he might actually have been the love child of Elizabeth I, and Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton their love child in turn. Now if that nutso idea sounds familiar it’s because it was the basis for the speculative (and entertaining) 2011 film Anonymous, which was directed by Roland Emmerich. And Emmerich was executive producer for this film, which might almost have been included as a bonus feature with the Anonymous DVD. As it is, footage from Anonymous recreating the Globe Theatre in operation back in the day is included throughout, which helps make the link between the two films even stronger.
*. I’ve listened to many of the anti-Stratfordian arguments and find none of them convincing. Take the matter of Shakespeare being illiterate. This leans heavily on the fact that we have no proof that Shakespeare attended the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon. But all the records for that school have been lost so we don’t have evidence that anyone attended it. Given that Shakespeare was the son of a former mayor and could attend the school for free it seems more likely than not that he did, so the illiterate smear seems far-fetched to me.
*. Then there’s the matter of Oxford having died in 1604, after which point Shakespeare went on to write quite a bit more. Some special pleading has to be put into work here (he’d already written the plays and they were only produced and/or touched up later).
*. But even more to the point the question has to be asked as to what the point of this giant Shakespeare fraud was.
*. Derek Jacobi talks of how “we’ve been duped” and “had this author [that is, Shakespeare, or “Shaxberd” as they like to call him] foisted upon us.” But by whom? That Oxford wanted to keep his authorship a secret seems a stretch to me, and would have involved far more people than I can believe capable of keeping a lid on such a story (the fatal flaw in most conspiracy theories). But then who continued, and continues, to “dupe” the public with this supposedly false tale of the man from Stratford being a playwright? Here’s where conspiratorial thinking becomes more generic.
*. The guilty parties include authors and publishers looking to sell Shakespeare biographies, the tourist industry in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the Shakespeare-industrial complex of merchandising that has, in the words of Vanessa Redgrave, “benefited, over the centuries, many people.” Beneath all of this is a hatred of elites and academics who aren’t open to the truth, or anyone who happens to be “just asking questions.”
*. This strikes me as projection. If anyone is cashing in here it’s the anti-Shakespeare crowd, who also have books to sell.
*. All of the best evidence suggests that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. This includes new evidence like that drawn from stylometrics (which is not mentioned here). Meanwhile, nothing presented here as evidence in support of Oxford strikes me as even being remotely likely. As so often with this kind of thing (think of a question like “Did Jesus exist?”, for another popular example) I can see reasons for doubting the “official story.” The record isn’t everything we could want it to be. But while I understand why doubters reject official stories I can never understand why they put stock in stories with even less, and I mean far less, evidence to support them.
*. As Chesterton wrote, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” Which can be liberating, and a lot of fun. But can also be dangerous.
Black Phone (2021)
*. I’d read the story this film is based on in Joe Hill’s debut collection 20th Century Ghosts, and while I really enjoyed it I was scratching my head a bit as to how they were going to stretch it into a feature film. However, great movies have been made out of less so I was optimistic.
*. Hill is the son of Stephen King. He published under the name Hill because he didn’t want to use his dad’s name, and it’s very much to his credit that he’s earned a lot of success in his own right. He’s a good writer, and an original one. The link to King is strong though, and perhaps all the more so here seeing as the story “Black Phone” was early work. A broken family. Threatened children. A sense of providence or good magic operating in the world to balance out the evil. A couple of epic rescue fails. Even the balloons that have drifted in from It. The Grabber is presumably some kind of magician here, though Ethan Hawke saw him as the “evil clown” he is in the story (it was Hill who suggested the change to a magician because he didn’t think another evil clown would work after the recent movie adaptation of It).
*. The movie also adds its own homages to the oeuvre of King senior. The hole dug in the wall recalls The Shawshank Redemption. The use of the phone at the end is like the end of Misery and what Caan does with his typewriter. The little girl has a psychic power that we might call Shining (or, in Simpsons vernacular, “Shinning”). So there are lots of connections, really.
*. One change I found interesting is in the appearance of the Grabber. In the book he’s a fat man (even called a hippo at one point) and “his head had been shaved to a glassy polish.” In the movie he’s a thick but not obese Ethan Hawke, with long greasy locks. This made me think of how Norman Bates in Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho was another tubby killer who was transformed by Hollywood into the slender Anthony Perkins. I like Hawke here, though I couldn’t help wondering about a heavier actor in the part. But I guess John Goodman had already done his stint as the captor in 10 Cloverfield Lane.
*. Movies, of course, have to have visual cues. In the story the Grabber doesn’t wear a mask, for example. Another, sillier point comes with one of Finney’s telephone conversations (of which there is only one in the story). Finney asks the Paperboy what he should do with the buried wire he’s found and instead of simply telling him the ghost spins a bottle and then makes it levitate so that it points to the window. I rolled my eyes at this. You’ve got the guy on the phone, just tell him what to do! Why play charades?
*. I mentioned the Grabber’s mask. It’s quite something, and maybe the only thing you’ll remember about the movie a week after you’ve seen it. Hill has even said he might be inspired to write a sequel based on its “iconic imagery.” I think we all know the only inspiration for any movie sequel. In any event, the poster got a lot of praise when it came out (director Scott Derrickson: “I knew no matter what, the mask is going to be the central part of the marketing campaign for this movie”), though I don’t think the Grabber is ever seen in that particular combo at any point in the film. So a great poster can still be false advertising.
*. Directed and co-written by Derrickson, who also had Hawke in the child-horror Sinister. Derrickson apparently (I’m going off his DVD commentary here) wanted to work through some issues he had with his own childhood growing up in North Denver in the ’70s. Being bullied, etc. He was even thinking of it as his version of The 400 Blows. Now there’s a connection I didn’t register.
*. Great moments in DVD commentary. I really need to start a collection of these. Scott Derrickson: “I believe in ghosts because millions of people see them, you know. I believe them really based on the evidence more than any belief system. But of course I don’t think they manifest themselves as clearly as they do in this movie.” Right.
*. How does Finney stay in that basement so long without getting dirty? At the very end he has a bit of dirt smudged on his face but that’s it, and his clothes look straight out of the laundry. Plus all that digging through the dirt with his hands and his hands still seemed really clean. That sort of bugged me.
*. I realize I haven’t said anything yet about the plot here. So there’s a child serial killer who the media dub the Grabber (Hawke) and he’s abducting boys in the Denver area, locking them up in his basement and then killing them. I’m not sure what the Grabber’s hang-up is, since he doesn’t sexually interfere with the boys before killing them. He just seeks to punish them by killing them.
*. One day the Grabber grabs Finney Blake (Mason Thames) off the street and locks him in the basement. Along with a mattress and a toilet the basement’s only other furnishing is a wall-mounted phone that’s disconnected but nevertheless starts ringing. On the other end of the line are the voices of the Grabber’s previous victims. They give Finney advice on how to escape, most of which is useless. But finally he gets out on his own, killing the Grabber in the process, just before his psychic sister was about to lead the police to his rescue.
*. As you can see, there’s not a lot there, and what is there doesn’t feel very original. It’s thin gruel and there are no twists aside from the wrong-house gag they just stole from The Silence of the Lambs. Thames, Hawke, and Madeleine McGraw (as Finney’s sister) are all really good. Derrickson does a decent job with the suspense, though I thought he left quite a bit on the table. In any event, he seems more interested in evoking a particular image of the ’70s than telling a horror story. And that part of it is pretty well done. As I’ve said so many times in these notes, today’s production design (credit to Patti Podesta here), even in low-budget films, is wonderful. But as I’ve also said, it rarely serves any function. The ’70s angle seems kind of superfluous here.
*. I might still have given this a (barely) passing grade but for the ending. This was awful. First the father, who is an alcoholic and sadistic brute breaks down and cries when Finney is rescued and he says he’s sorry so . . . I guess he’s OK now? Redeemed? I don’t know. Derrickson explains that the kids have “got to go home with this guy” and that’s it.
*. Then it gets worse because the next day at school Finney, who was previously a picked-on nerd (despite being pitcher for his local little league team), is now the coolest kid in the school because he killed the Grabber with his bare hands! He’s even more confident with the chicks, and the final line shows us that he’s a man now and he’s about to score! All from learning a painfully clichéd moral about how you gotta learn to stand up for yourself in life. Lesson learned (with some supernatural nudging). Now let’s party!