Possessor (2020)

*. To get the obvious out of the way, this is the second feature for director Brandon Cronenberg (coming eight years after his debut Antiviral), and comparisons to his father’s oeuvre are inevitable. I think Brandon was actually having fun with this. I mean, the main character’s name is Tasya Vos, which must have come out of one of his dad’s old notebooks. Throw in some artistic production elements (lab equipment, office furniture) that make for a really bizarre mix of design and technology, a mysterious quasi-medical institute up to no good, and a splash of body horror, and presto! you’re back in the early ’80s watching this on VHS.
*. Actually, the feel of the movie is deliberately retro, which may be another nod to Cronenberg’s classic horror period. I think the cars go back to the ’70s or even earlier, and even the high-tech, like the full-wall TV screens feel like an homage to the future that we saw in Fahrenheit 451.

*. The plot is simple on the surface and muddled in the details. Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) is a field agent for a neo-Murder Inc. organization. What happens is that likely candidates are kidnapped and a jack put in their skull that an agent then uses to enter their consciousness and control them. They (the agent) then kill the target the organization has been paid to assassinate and destroy the meat puppet just as they’re extracted from the host body. So the target is dead and the host commits suicide, meaning there are no loose ends to tidy up. Presumably even the skull jack is destroyed when the agent forces the host to stick a gun in its mouth and blow its brains out the back of its head.
*. As a premise I don’t think that’s anything special, though it’s not bad. Of course things get complicated as Tasya starts to come undone when she goes bodyhopping, culminating in a messy adventure when she jacks into Colin (Christopher Abbott), someone selected as the perfect candidate to kill Sean Bean, a jerky tech billionaire (I know, I know: there are no other kinds) with really poor home security (though this is Toronto, so he probably figured he was safe). Poor Colin. I guess he’s a bit of a heel, but we still end up feeling sorry for him.
*. The movie is built around a number of interlocking conflicts. There’s a conflict between Tasya and her controller, a cool lady named Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is beginning to suspect Tasya’s loyalty to the corporation and suitability for purpose. Then there is the conflict between Tasya and Colin as they fight for control of his body. And finally there is the conflict within Tasya as she looks to either hold on to or jettison what’s left of her humanity.

*. The cast helps. I’ve always liked Jennifer Jason Leigh and miss not seeing her in more. Andrea Riseborough is often wasted, but she’s well cast here as she really does strung-out well and the juxtaposition of her slight frame and icy-killer personality is great. Christopher Abbott is also well cast, as he always looks vulnerable. Mia Wasikowska had no trouble handling him in Piercing, and he was supposed to be a killer in that movie.
*. While Abbott is fine, his character, Colin, is less so. He’s a cokehead toy-boy with zero back story, for starters. But after a while I started to think Cronenberg was intentionally making him out to be a bit of a comic figure to enlist our sympathy. Surely that’s the point of the vaping. Does anybody cool vape? And what on earth does his job consist of anyway? They don’t have software that can register the drapes in people’s homes? It seems absurd. And why does he have to wear those welder’s goggles?
*. Even the mask Tasya wears while jacked, while evoking something of the facehugger in Alien, has something silly about it. It’s like the face-mask that Colin pulls off Tasya in his dream/vision in being sinister and creepy but ridiculous at the same time. I think Cronenberg is aware of his balance and it’s one of the things I like about Possessor. It’s playful without being ironic or disarming.

*. I mentioned though that the story is muddled in the details. Why does Tasya insist on getting messy by stabbing or hacking or clubbing her victims to death instead of just shooting them? is she that much of a sadist or psychopath? Or is she just having a breakdown? Does Colin take the chip out? How does he even know about its presence? And why would Tasya still be in control of him then?
*. All of these questions climax in the film’s final conundrum, which is who is in control when Colin/Tasya pulls the trigger. I like that the movie is ambiguous here though, as the question of whether Tasya has agency or is conflicted or is just a pawn in Girder’s game is better left open. At first I was disappointed there wasn’t more of a twist, but I think the mystery we’re left with is rich enough.
*. Stylish, though I didn’t care much for the effects. There’s gore that plays with being over-the-top, in keeping with the rest of the movie’s sense of balancing horror and humour. I sort of wish this had been more inventive than just wading through floors covered in blood, and its artiness is maybe a bit much (the pattern of the blood in the final crime scene matching the wings of the butterfly), but it’s better to have too much of this than none at all.
*. A good movie that I had high hopes for and that didn’t disappoint. That’s something I don’t get to say very often. It does give the impression of a movie that Cronenberg might have thought about too much though, making it seem a bit overdetermined. It has that clinical, detached, even manipulative feel to it. But then, that’s the point it wants to make

City in Darkness (1939)

*. Coming after Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, widely regarded as the best of the Sidney Toler Charlie Chan movies, City in Darkness has to register as a big disappointment.
*. It’s a mess. I found the plot impossible to follow. Victor Sen Yung’s Jimmy Chan is missing, replaced by veteran series hand Harold Huber, who this time is playing the enthusiastic but bumbling godson of the Paris police chief. An indispensable figure in a Charlie Chan movie, it seems.
*. The setting is Paris on the eve of the Second World War, specifically during the days of the political crisis brought on by Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia. This context is, in turn, the only thing that makes the movie of any interest today.
*. An opening newsreel outlining rising tensions in Europe sets the scene. Paris is on high alert, having already put in place blackout precautions (giving the film its title, as well as a plot point near the end). I’m still not entirely sure what was going on, but I think the bad guys are smuggling weapons to the enemy. Or something. Which in turn means that killing them isn’t really a crime.
*. The twist here is that, in John Cork’s words, this is “a World War Two propaganda film before World War Two had broken out.” The movie was made before fighting started, though it only opened in November 1939, just after Germany invaded Poland. This makes the final lines in the movie prophetic, as everyone celebrates the parties getting together at Munich to discuss peace in our time and Charlie isn’t buying any part of it.
*. Germans weren’t quite the enemy yet in Charlie Chan at the Olympics, but there were plenty of misgivings on display in that film. Meanwhile, Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t start fighting Nazis until 1942’s Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. So give Charlie some points for being quicker off the mark. Unfortunately, such a footnote is all this movie amounts to now.

Spiral (2021)

*. Subtitled From the Book of Saw. Please.
*. Well, if Saw isn’t a book at least it’s a franchise. According to Guinness the most successful horror franchise ever, which I’m guessing is based on box office. Spiral is officially the ninth instalment, and unlikely to be the last. Remember Saw: The Final Chapter? That was ten years ago. Then there’d been Jigsaw. And now we have this.
*. Is “this” even a Saw movie though? Some of the voices canvassed on the special features included with the DVD say no. Executive producer Oren Koules says “it’s a different movie but it’s under the same umbrella” while his fellow producer Mark Burg is more adamant: “Spiral is not a Saw movie.”
*. What they mean, I think, is that it’s set in the same universe, meaning the events of the previous movie have taken place, but it’s not a sequel or prequel or reboot. There’s no John Kramer, or for that matter Dr. Lawrence Gordon or Mark Hoffman or even Logan Nelson. There’s no Billy the Puppet, his place now taken by a doll called (by the filmmakers) Mr. Snuggles. There are no fancy transitions, and the colour scheme has been adjusted somewhat away from the usual blues and greens (though they’re still here) to something more sunburned.
*. That said, it is a Saw movie. It’s the same basic idea of a killer kidnapping people and sticking them in elaborate traps that they can only escape with their lives from by some act of self mutilation. There’s the “Hello Zepp” theme. There’s a pop montage at the end that throws a solution at us, though this time it isn’t nearly as convoluted a puzzle to solve as in the other movies, with their fragmented time schemes.
*. It’s always a tricky matter with a movie like this though because you have to give the audience what they expect and want, and something new and different at the same time. By this point I just don’t think there was any new direction for them to go with using the original template so they tried to add some new blood in other ways.
*. Perhaps the biggest change is the introduction of Chris Rock, whose interest in doing a Saw movie is what led to Spiral being made (director Darren Lynn Bousman was told “Chris Rock wants to do a Saw movie! Figure it out”). Apparently Rock envisioned something that was a cross between Se7en and 48 Hrs. I’m not sure that’s what he got. It’s only a discount Se7en at best and has none of the buddy-humour of 48 Hrs. In fact there are just a few snappy lines from Rock, and given that this is not a comedy they feel quite out of place.

*. Samuel L. “Do you wanna play games, motherfucker?” Jackson. Does he have the same agent as Bruce Willis now? Because I can’t understand why else his career has taken the recent direction it has. In any event, he’s here again playing the same stereotyped tough guy who drops f-bombs every other word and otherwise doesn’t seem to be that engaged in what’s going on.

*. The two main boxes to check for a Saw film are the quality of the kills/traps and the trickiness of the plot. Spiral fails at both. The kills are the usual chains and blades, with a couple of them qualifying as not so much disgusting (a given) as depressing. One victim has to save herself from having boiling wax waterboarded on her face (presumably suffocating her) by severing her spinal cord at the base of her neck. That just turned me right off. Mark Kermode considered this trap to be “obtuse,” which is a nice way of putting it. Then the final kill involves a slow exsanguination that I could have also lived without seeing. As the bodies piled up I just found myself wondering with each new abduction “Ah hell, what’s it going to be now?”
*. The twist isn’t interesting either. I thought it if not obvious than at least likely who the killer was right from the start. But according to Bousman (back after helming Saw II, III, and IV) the identity of the killer wasn’t the mystery so much as why he was doing it. I rolled my eyes at this. As if I could possibly care why he was doing any of this. And the fact that he’s a flat bore as a villain doesn’t help.
*. Maybe the question of why the killer was doing this was supposed to be making some kind of political point. That’s how Shirley Li, writing in The Atlantic, tried to read it. But I don’t make this out. The idea that the police are being punished for their transgressions struck me as just a convenient hook to hang things on. I don’t think there’s any message here.
*. In my notes on Jigsaw I mentioned in passing that I prefer the Final Destination movies to this franchise. Why did they stop making Final Destinations? On the whole they maintained a pretty high level of creativity, cleverness, and fun. It’s been a long time since I recognized any of those qualities in a Saw film.
*. Frankly, without the presence of Rock and Jackson, who are not great, I would have rated this one of the weakest and worst of the series. But even when those two are not at their best they still make Spiral watchable, at least barely. I think box office was good enough, given the pandemic having shut theatres down. And, for what it’s worth, audience ratings were much, much higher than the response from critics. Which means things may continue to spiral along, or circle the drain. Choose your own metaphor.

Throne of Blood (1957)

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*. Shakespeare isn’t known for his great original plots. He usually just borrowed some old (sometimes very old) stand-by or took an episode from a historical chronicle to dramatize. Among the few plays where he did come up with an original storyline (The Tempest was one), it’s not the story that stands out.
*. So when a director decides to “do” a Shakespearean play in another language, thus losing all the language and only keeping the plot, he’s playing from behind. He’s going to have to go big (meaning give the play a novel interpretive angle or a bold look) or else go home.
*. I think Akira Kurosawa pulls it off in this movie, in large part because he’s drawing on such an alien theatrical tradition. And while I can’t be sure, I think he’s made a movie that probably means something very different (though still meaningful) to Western and Eastern audiences alike.

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*. A literal translation of the Japanese title (so I’m told) is Spider Web Castle. Not as catchy, but it does introduce one of the main motifs of Kurosawa’s interpretation of Shakespeare: from the mist that conceals and reveals to the “labyrinth” of the forest, we feel we’re lost and caught in a trap.
*. In my notes on Rashomon I talked a bit about how the point of that movie was not that people experienced the same events differently, but that they were all lying, not least of all to themselves. Kurosawa saw the theme as being that “human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves.”

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*. This is the same point being made here. The Witch is surprised (or perhaps just disappointed, it’s hard to tell) that Washizu isn’t happy about having his good fortune told. “You humans. Never will I comprehend you. You are afraid of your desires — you try to hide them.” Washizu should embrace his fate, and not lie to himself about it. As the Witch tells him during their second meeting: “If you choose ambition, choose it honestly, with cruelty.”
*. The Witch is against hypocrisy. But hypocrisy, for Shakespeare, is what makes the world go ’round. All of it, after all, is a stage. Washizu and Asaji are players in both the old and the modern sense. They strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then disappear.

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*. This is especially interesting in relation to Asaji. She’s made up as a stage actress and is obviously performing for her husband (I don’t believe her for a second when she tells him she’s with child). The keynote of that performance is her surprisingly cool demeanour.
*. David Thomson says Asaji “fails to suggest the nagging sexual force that urges her husband on”. True, but different cultures find different things sexy. Asaji knows her gender role and she knows her man: she can play the yin to his yang, her quiet, unemotional cool against Washizu’s hyper-emotional, eye-rolling glowering.
*. Toshiru Mifune’s acting really carries a load here. Everyone else around him is far more composed, sedate. It’s not just Asaji but Miki as well. It’s even the sets, the interiors of which are quite minimal and theatrical. You need a passionate performance to play against so much blank canvas.

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*. At the end, the same temperature differential can be seen writ large inside the fort as Washizu screams and yells at his men, who listen in stony silence before reaching for their bows.
*. Yes, shooting real arrows at Mifune makes the finale seem even more impressive. But you have to wonder then if the soldiers in the fort are all such bad shots or if they’re trying to miss him. Sure he gets hit, but the arrows all cluster to one or the other side of him. Of course that was necessary to film it the way they did, but despite being “real” it doesn’t look entirely realistic.
*. I’ve seen Birnham Wood go to Dunsinane many times, on stage and screen, but I don’t think it’s ever been done better than it is here. Pauline Kael thought this one of the two great moments in the film. It helps that no human figures are seen, only the soft, shaggy tops of the trees undulating in the mist, looking like an evergreen amoeba coming to absorb the castle.
*. I’m not as fond of the opening and closing chorus. The effect is to present the movie as a legend, a ghost story, a tale of long ago. Compare the equally un-Shakespearean epilogue to Polanski’s Macbeth, where the effect is very different. Polanski underlines that this is not a unique story but one that will be repeated many times in ages hence.

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Snowden (2016)

*. What happened to Oliver Stone? Nothing out of the ordinary. His most creative years are now long past and he hasn’t been able to reinvent himself in an interesting way. In his prime he was a passionate, forceful filmmaker, but more recently he seems to have lost focus. Not mellowed so much as become tired and disoriented.
*. When did he lose his mojo? I’m not sure, but Savages and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the two dramatic features before this film, were both terrible. Snowden isn’t much better.
*. Though I think you could make an argument that it’s actually worse. What I mean is that it takes a true story, ripped from the headlines, dealing with matters of global importance and everyday application, bound up in a thrilling plot involving a heroic whistleblower and intrepid journalists. How do you mess that up?
*. It’s not as though Stone was uninspired. I think material like this really turns him on. But he just can’t make anything of it.
*. This is a movie with no sense of tension or outrage or much of anything going for it. It’s almost comfortably sure of its convictions about the idea of America triumphing over its enemies. As Stone remarks in his commentary for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, he’s really a romantic at heart and this kind of stuff comes naturally to him.

*. The thing is, most whistleblowers are complicated and not always likeable people. Just look at Julian Assange or Chelsea Manning. Or, if you’re a film buff, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) in The Insider.
*. The same could be said for most computer geeks, and I suspect Edward Snowden is cut from the same cloth. I support the stand he took, but I don’t know if I’d want to have a sandwich with him. And yet Stone seems determined to make him into an All-American Hero.
*. This makes the whole movie into something dull and formulaic. The script is full of stuffy speeches even in the most informal of settings (Snowden going on about the Nuremberg trials at a party, O’Brian lecturing on how secrecy is security while out hunting with Ed). And the look of it!
*. What was I just saying about dull and formulaic? The dialogue has nothing on the direction here. It’s hard to believe a younger Stone so un-ironically indulging stuff like (1) Snowden walking out of the tunnel from the surveillance headquarters into the blinding light of justice and freedom; (2) pointless filler shots of him playing “cute young couple in love” on the beach with his long-suffering girlfriend (a conventional part in such stories); (3) a final scene of an audience rising to give Snowden a standing ovation, which is as subtle as a sit-com laugh track in telling us what our response to the film we’ve just seen should be.
*. There are glimmers of originality. It seems at times as though they were thinking of making more out of the screen as a motif, including Snowden’s glasses often being shot in extreme close-up and reflecting some other shiny surface. The giant face of Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) as Big Brother is about the only interesting visual in the entire movie. But when Robot-Snowden wheels on to the stage at the end he seems to have shrunk, and been made less real, in a way that I don’t think could have been intentional.
*. You’re in pretty bad shape when your movie on a dramatic and important headline story is a lot less interesting than the story itself. I’m afraid Oliver Stone is in bad shape.

The Vanishing (2018)

*. Lighthouses are symbols that have long had a grip on the imagination. What they’re symbols of is often sketchy though. They remain mysterious, from Edgar Allan Poe’s final, unfinished (or was it?) story “The Light-House,” to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, to one’s obelisk-like significance at the end of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (also there in the film version).
*. In 1900 this mysteriousness took a real form when the three keepers of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to them, though it’s assumed they were swept out to sea by a rogue wave. Their disappearance would, in turn, provide the germ of this film, which is set on the Flannan Isles. I’d thought it had also inspired Max and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse but apparently that one was based on an unfinished Poe story. Or at least that’s what they say. I didn’t see much of a connection to Poe.
*. But back to The Vanishing. Perhaps the main thing to say here is that it’s not as weird a movie as The Lighthouse. In fact, its naturalism is almost a gimmick. Three men arrive at a lonely lighthouse station: the old man (Thomas/Peter Mullan), the burly family man in his prime (James/Gerard Butler), and the kid (Donald/Connor Swindell). A nearly-dead man with a chest full of gold washes ashore. They’re rich! But then two other guys, Locke (Søren Malling) and Boor (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) show up. They were shipmates of the (now fully) dead guy and they were just sort of wondering if the lighthouse keepers might have seen anything suspicious in the last couple of days. Like a guy with a chest of gold.

*. So the set-up has us expecting the usual sort of moral fable you get with all such tales of discovered gold, from Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There are, of course, eruptions of violence, but the real theme the movie wants to address is guilt. These aren’t zipless kills. The men have to assure themselves that all this isn’t their fault. Even Gerald Butler breaks down! How many people have we seen Mike Banning kill without batting an eye? Now there’s some serious casting against type.
*. It’s a new take on what I thought going in was going to be more of a straight action-thriller. I’m not sure that’s enough though to recommend it. And I can’t help thinking a big part of the problem is Butler being miscast. Also, for a character study I didn’t think it had enough traction. I just didn’t feel I knew these people well enough, or cared enough about them and their problems. Tom had a family, and they’re gone. So what? James has a family back on the mainland we don’t know anything about. It’s hard to feel any of these connections.
*. Instead, the two visitors provide all the spark. Malling is great as the sinister Locke, eyes just dripping with malice and menace. And I love it when Boor rages at James, calling him a pig. Because he’s right! The money isn’t his! So where’s the damn gold? And what happened to the other guy they took it from? From Boor’s point of view the lighthouse keepers are pigs, and probably murderous pigs at that.
*. A good looking movie, as you should expect given that lighthouses are among the most photogenic locations imaginable. But the direction by Kristoffer Nyholm never dials up any suspense and the whole thing just felt like a bit of dead weight. If they were going to tell such a story and make it about the men then somehow it had to find a way for us to care more about them, and I feel almost a little ashamed to say that I didn’t. Maybe it’s just a case of falling between two stools — action film and existential drama — with neither really taking hold. It’s a tough trick they tried to pull off and I want to give them credit for trying but that’s the best I can do.

Westworld (1973)

*. For Michael Crichton, next-generation amusement parks were an abiding source of fascination. One of his early novels, Drug of Choice (written under the pen name John Lange), is about people taking vacations that are really just drug-induced hallucinations. Probably his most famous creation was Jurassic Park, a novel that went on to spawn a blockbuster movie and an entire franchise of dinosaurs-on-the-loose movies. In-between he wrote Westworld, an original screenplay that he also directed. The idea here not being drugs or genetically restored dinosaurs but robots providing the thrills.
*. Of course all of these amusement-park rides go terribly wrong. It’s not quite clear what happens with the robots. One explanation is something like a computer virus, which none of the scientists sitting around the conference room seems able to understand. A “disease of machines”? What the heck is that? It doesn’t make any sense. Innocent days.
*. Speaking of the innocent days of computers, this was the first feature film to use digital image processing. It shows up in the thermal-imaging shots representing the Gunslinger’s point of view. Not very impressive, but you have to cut them slack for being pioneers. The process work has held up better than those cheesy screensavers that are on the control room monitors and which I suppose are meant to represent some kind of complicated work being done.
*. Among the general public at the time I think it was unclear just what computers did. They had lots of flashing lights and banks of reel-to-reel tapes spinning away like a laundromat, but who knew what kind of work all this was meant to represent? One imagines a vault of punchcards filed away somewhere containing the programs used to control the robots. Crude, but where there’s a desire for such an experience as Delos is offering, science will always find a way to make it happen.

*. That notion of desire is key. Westworld (and its neighbouring theme parks set in ancient Rome and Medieval times) are adult fantasies. You don’t take your kids with you on these getaways! As the trailer puts it, this is a place where “frustrations find release, [and] desire ends in satisfaction.” You go there to fuck and kill. It’s not a coincidence that The Stepford Wives is only a year away now too. Both films took their robots from the animatronic models at Disneyland, which is a family park. Crichton and Ira Levin obviously saw more mature possibilities in the technology.
*. And so we get some leering nods and winks as to what’s really going on here. Even the woman interviewed for the Delos promo spot at the beginning of the movie is obviously feeling hot and flustered just thinking about what life was like back in decadent Roman times. When they arrive, guests are told to “please feel free to indulge your every whim.” We might also think of the way sexual fantasies are peddled, to men and women, in Total Recall. Like it or not, libido drives a lot of what we think of as progress. Porn built the Internet, after all.
*. It’s no surprise that such a story has never gone out of style, turning up again as an HBO series in 2016. We’re used to the idea now of robots taking over. There’d been rumours of a remake earlier starring Arnold Schwarzenegger but it had never worked out. I’m guessing Arnold would have been the Gunslinger. Apparently he modeled his portrayal of the Terminator on Yul Brynner’s bad guy (John Carpenter was similarly influenced, basing Michael Myers in Halloween on the same relentless, stalking killer). Such casting would also make sense because Yul Brynner was the only big name in this movie, and got star billing. Richard Benjamin and James Brolin were both unknowns cast at the last minute.
*. I like the role reversal between Peter (Benjamin) and John (Brolin). Peter is the city slicker, a lawyer out of Chicago who has never picked up a gun. John exudes an almost smarmy confidence. But in the end this is Peter’s fantasy, even down to rescuing the princess out of the dungeon. He really has lived the vacation of his dreams. I like to think that’s something he understands at the end. This is Movieworld, after all. As Pauline Kael pointed out, these are “movie-fed fantasies” all the way through, with the Westworld environment being a pastiche of Western clichés only slightly tethered to historical accuracy.
*. As an aside, I wonder why the greeting voice refers to Western World. I feel like that should be an artefact left over from an earlier version of the script, which seems unlikely since I’m pretty sure Westworld was always going to be the name.

*. Another part of the abiding interest in the concept is the political and philosophical meaning. In the former case, the peasants (robots) are revolting! This is what the fall of empire looks like. Our pleasure palaces aren’t built to last.
*. In the latter case (the philosophical interpretation) we have a very early foreshadowing of the simulacrum. This is something I’ve written about before with regard to the Year of the Simulacrum (that would be 1998, and The Truman Show et al). As John says to Pete just before the snake attack, “this is as real as it gets.” And sure that’s ironic, but not as much as you might think. Just a few years later Brolin would be killing that snake and eating it after having escaped the simulacrum of Capricorn One. This is a theme that the movies just love, and that we love them for. Neal Gabler even wrote a book about it (Life: the Movie — How Entertainment Conquered Reality, also 1998).
*. Is it a subtle joke then that Benjamin wakes up along with all the rest of the park when they are activated? Note how his yawn echoes that of the guard at Medieval world. The point being that the guests are just as much automatons as the cyborgs, programmed for sex and violence and then needing to recover after a long night of fucking and fighting before getting up to do it all over again.
*. Well, yes, men did have moustaches like Benjamin’s back in the 1970s. I had a moustache too for a while. One of several regrets. Or too many to mention.
*. I think Crichton had it as a maxim to eschew dialogue at the end of a movie. When the shit hits the fan (the robots or dinosaurs running amok), then there’s no time for chat or exposition. In general, this is a pretty safe principle to adhere to. Crichton’s instincts were gold when it came to popular entertainment.

*. The greatest full-body burn in movie history? It’s certainly spectacular when the Gunslinger goes up like a human torch (not that even that is likely to slow him down much). The only competition I can think of is when the monster gets torched in The Thing from Another World, which I might give the prize to just because it was earlier and was performed with less safety protocols in place.
*. Brynner is cool and iconic, decked out in the same outfit he wore in The Magnificent Seven. And even behind those silver contact lenses I feel a sort of sympathy for his confusion at the end. After all, just like Frankenstein’s monster, he didn’t make himself. He’s akin to an early prototype of Roy Batty in Blade Runner, if less given to poetry. You sense a flicker of independent intelligence at work. Of course, in the HBO series this would be taken a lot further, but this movie was planting seeds.
*. I always marvel at the theatrical trailers from the 1970s where they show you all the highlights of the movie and reveal the entire plot. I wonder why they did that, and when it changed.
*. I think Kael got it right: “The idea is ingenious, and the film might have been marvelous: it isn’t, quite (it has the skimped TV-movie look of a too-tight budget), but it’s reasonably entertaining, and the leads (Richard Benjamin and Yul Brynner) are far superior to the actors in the usual sci-fi films.”
*. Bang-on, but it couldn’t really have been otherwise. This was Crichton’s debut directing a feature, after doing a made-for-TV movie the year before, and MGM really wanted it done on the cheap. So it’s no surprise the production is a bit of a let-down. But I think it succeeds as well as it could have, and the idea was so strong it went on to be a box office smash. Meanwhile, Crichton was so far ahead of his time he could go back to the the amusement park twenty years later with an even bigger hit, and forty years later the idea would still work. It’s good stuff.

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939)

*. Fox did a great job bringing out the Charlie Chan movies on DVD, including lots of bonus featurettes on various Chan-related topics as well as audio commentaries. But while you get two featurettes for Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, and they’re both interesting, I didn’t think they added much to my appreciation of the film.
*. The first is a documentary on “The Real Treasure Island.” I’ll confess that when I went into this one I was actually hoping for something a little more along the lines of Robert Louis Stevenson, with Charlie looking for buried pirate gold. But the real Treasure Island is a man-made island in San Francisco Bay (it’s still there) that was built to host the World’s Exposition in 1939-40. Apparently they gave it that name because they thought there might have been some gold in the muck they were dredging up to build it.
*. Anyway, like I say, this is interesting enough but kind of beside the point because the movie really doesn’t make any use of the setting at all. Treasure Island is seen in one aerial shot as Charlie’s plane lands in San Francisco but that’s it. I’m not sure Treasure Island is even mentioned again and the movie doesn’t make any use of the fact that the World’s Fair was going on.
*. The second bonus featurette tries hard to make something out of the fact that the killer here is named Dr. Zodiac, and that this might have some connection to the Zodiac Killer who terrorized northern California in the 1960s and ’70s (and about whom David Fincher later made a rather ho-hum movie). This is something I wondered about for a few seconds, but I quickly dismissed the thought of there being any connection. After watching the featurette I still don’t see it.
*. In this movie he’s Dr. Zodiac, after all, and a public persona. Specifically, he’s a charlatan magician who seems to be involved in the murder of various people as part of a blackmail scheme. What’s really going on is more complicated than that but I won’t bother to explain because it would take too long and none of it makes any sense anyway. As Ken Hanke and John Cork say on their DVD commentary, the matter of Zodiac’s motivation really doesn’t stand up to close examination.
*. Hanke begins the commentary by saying that Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is “widely regarded as the best of the [Sidney] Toler Chan films.” If so it marks another instance of what Cork and Hanke talk about in their commentary to The Black Camel relating to the superiority of films that come second in a series. This is also the case here, because even though it’s the third Toler Chan film Charlie Chan in Honolulu was a bit of a bridge picture and might not count.
*. What makes it the best of the Toler films? Well, Norman Foster’s direction is sprightly. The big reveal is quite theatrical, though it plays off all the usual formulaic elements (the lights going out, the hand holding a pistol appearing from a doorway). But a lot of the credit goes to the co-star. And I don’t mean Sen Yung (though he’s fine).
*. If The Black Camel was the one with Bela Lugosi and Charlie Chan at the Opera was the one with Boris Karloff then Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is the one with Cesar Romero. Romero is probably best known for playing the Joker in the Batman TV series (and the movie), but he was multitalented and had charisma and energy to burn. Admittedly it’s not hard to upstage Toler’s Chan, but while Romero’s on screen here he’s the only one you’re watching.
*. The plot really is kind of nutty but the movie as a whole is fun to be sure. I’ve said before that I don’t care for Toler’s Chan very much but he’s bearable here and at least doesn’t get in the way. The proceedings are interesting and there are lots of things happening. The behind-the-scenes look at how the magic trick was being done was the icing on the cake. I don’t know about it being the best of the Toler Chans, but it’s better than average and one to enjoy.