Author Archives: Alex Good

Dawn of the Deaf (2016)

*. Zombie movies have been allegories since they got started, and by that I mean even before George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). We can go as far back as I Walked with a Zombie (1943), where zombies represented a slave-labour force used to harvest sugar cane. Though with Romero the social allegory in particular really took off, from zombies as mindless consumers walking the mall to a revolutionary underclass.
*. So if Dawn of the Deaf isn’t just a zombie splatterfest but instead seems to be a movie about other things, that’s not a bold new direction so much as a natural extension of the super-plastic zombie metaphor. Zombies being always among us, they can be made to stand for anything.
*. Unfortunately, even for a movie that seems so intent about standing for something, I was never sure what that something was. Which is surprising given that it’s just a 12-minute short. The basic idea is that an audio “pulse” makes everyone drop dead and then, a few minutes later, rise again as flesh-eating zombies. The only ones not affected are the deaf.
*. Sticking with the plot outline here, I found it surprising that the IMDb plot summary has this to say: “When a sonic pulse infects the hearing population, a small group of Deaf people must band together to survive.” This is not at all what the film is about, or even what happens. There are only two girls at the end who are together after the pulse, and that’s where we leave them. There’s no banding together to survive. I wonder where this summary came from. Could it have been supplied by the producers? Also: is Deaf now supposed to be capitalized? I keep missing these memos.
*. In addition to being deaf the two survivors are also girlfriends, so as lesbians they are doubly marginalized. In addition, one of the girls is the victim of incest, as her father is sexually abusing her. This is really unpleasant stuff, and not at all what I was expecting from a movie with such a joke title. In fact, the title had been used in a zombie comedy out of Australia just the year before. There was some real mixed messaging going on here, as this is not a comedy and indeed doesn’t even try to raise a smile at any point.
*. Aside from the two girls there’s also a deaf man who is addressing some gala event. After the pulse he will be torn to pieces.
*. As I say, I’m not sure what the point here was. Ironies are pointed. The one girl tells the other that she doesn’t care who knows that they’re lovers, only when the world has been transformed so that there’s nobody left who will ever care or know. The man making a speech is proud of doing so in his own voice, but then has his tongue ripped out. I get it, but then I don’t.
*. There’s one neat bit of business when the subtitles for hand signing go in and out of sight as the two girls are arguing in an underpass. Aside from that, the film is a mess. In particular, I couldn’t figure out the timeline. Does the girl kill her father before or after she goes to meet her friend? Because he seems to be coming back to life on the bed, which would be well ahead of schedule. And what’s with the pranksters scaring random people? Just a pair of jerks?
*. I can’t say I liked this one much. It left me confused and with a bad taste in my mouth. Why include all the creepy incest stuff? I guess the point is just that the world pre-pulse is full of predatory jerks like the guys pulling pranks and the girl’s father, so that when they get turned into zombies they haven’t changed all that much. This is a familiar theme in zombie movies, but it’s not put forward with any real urgency here. It’s nicely turned out for such a low-budget effort, and marks an early teaming of British director Rob Savage with writer Jed Shepherd, who’d go on to make Host a few years later, but that’s all that’s worth noting.

Minimalism (2015)

*. An interesting and I think important subject only superficially glanced at.
*. Here it’s called minimalism, but it’s been elsewhere marketed, and I think that really is the word, as decluttering, anti-materialism/anti-consumerism, self-editing, and mindfulness. It’s an idea that goes back to ancient times (the rejection of worldly goods by Stoics and early Christianity) but which has only grown in relevance in a mass consumer society: the world is too much with us so get rid of all the stuff that’s complicating your life and that the advertising industry has tricked you into thinking you need. Simplify! Simplify!
*. The documentary Minimalism basically follows a couple of buddies — Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn, a duo who call themselves “the Minimalists” — on a book tour promoting their book about, you guessed it, the minimalist lifestyle. You will immediately recognize a sharp dissonance. The Minimalists present themselves as determinedly against advertising, yet the entire movie (which they produced) is essentially an infomercial for their book. There’s even one clip at the end from their appearance on The Today Show where they include the plug the hosts give for the book. My jaw dropped slightly open at this. Was this irony? I don’t think so. The movie is a pitch, just as the name “the Minimalists” is a brand they are flogging.
*. To be sure, lots of documentaries have companion books to go along with them. Just among ones I’ve looked at recently there are Inside Job and Requiem for the American Dream. But Minimalism takes this a whole lot further. It’s a straight-up ad.
*. That’s painful, but there are other aspects of the movie that are just as troubling. Chief among these is the way minimalism is presented as a lifestyle choice indulged in by — and I hate to use this language — privileged, upper-class, white people. At one point Nicodemus refers to the listeners of National Public Radio as their “peeps” and target “demographic.” Meaning older, wealthy, and white. People who have everything and may decide that, since they’re not totally happy, they should get rid of some of it.
*. As I say, there is nothing new in any of this. When Millburn reads a passage from his book I honestly thought he was just quoting from Edward Norton’s monologue at the beginning of Fight Club. I spent most of the movie wondering where all the kids were, and though a couple are introduced at the end nothing much is said about how minimalist families work. Nor, despite the subtitle — A Documentary About the Important Things — is there any clear sense of what these important things are. Self-enrichment (in the non-material sense). Personal growth. An authentic self. It sounds mushy to me, especially as I think it likely that “the important things” will be different for every individual.
*. It’s a shame the movie is such a dud because this is an important subject. As one of the talking heads, a designer of tiny homes, puts it, “we’re not very going to be able to achieve the environmental gains that we’re seeking while still expecting our lives to be the same. We’re going to have to give up a lot. The secret is that a lot of that we’re not actually going to miss.” I think this is right. Our present mass production-mass consumption civilization is unsustainable. We will have to lead simpler lives, making do with less, either by choice or (more likely) by necessity. Such a life can, however, be both healthier and happier than what we have now. I believe in all of this, and my own life is, at least in relative terms, quite minimal. I like the message here. I’m just not stuck on the messengers, or the slickness of the packaging.

Promising Young Woman (2020)

*. A highly touted picture that received near universal critical adulation and lots of award nominations, Promising Young Woman is one of the bigger disappointments I’ve had in the last little while.
*. Essentially it’s a rape-revenge fantasy for the #MeToo generation, only different from other examples of its kind, going back over fifty years now, by the currency of its references and being bootstrapped into a rom-com. There’s also a bit of a twist at the end, but not much of one and the fact that it’s a twist only underscores how stale the rest of it is.
*. Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, who dropped out of med school and started working in a coffee shop after her classmate and best friend Nina was gang raped by a bunch of fellow med students. It’s implied, I think, that Nina committed suicide at some point after this traumatic event, so now Cassie is taking her revenge on men by pretending to get drunk at local clubs and then letting guys pick her up and take her home, where she may kill them or let them go depending on how nice they are. If her murder journal is any indication she seems to be one of the most prolific serial killers in history, but presumably she’s discreet as the police don’t appear to be after her. Or maybe she isn’t killing anyone. The movie is surprisingly silent about what’s actually going on. Perhaps she’s just leaving her dates high and dry.
*. So, continuing with a bit of exposition, some years later Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate of Cassie’s, walks into her coffee shop and falls in love. This gives Cassie the idea of getting a more specific revenge on the actual guys who raped Nina. One wonders why she hadn’t thought of that before. Or thought of the fact that her sweetie pie Ryan might not be so innocent himself. I didn’t give a spoiler alert for that twist because it’s so obvious from the get-go it doesn’t count as a twist. At least not for me.
*. There are a lot of things holding Promising Young Woman back. In the first place they seem to have been trying to get a PG rating because there’s nothing shocking or violent about it at all. I was surprised when I checked and saw that it was actually rated R. For what? According to the advisory warning: “Strong violence including sexual assault, language throughout, some sexual material and drug use.” Strong violence? There’s one murder at the end, but it’s no more than what you get at the end of any production of Othello. The drug use is one comic scene of a guy snorting coke. Language? On the commentary track writer-director Emerald Fennell says the line “That’s a kick in the cunt” was one of the things that led to an R rating. Really?
*. Now I can certainly respect Fennell’s desire not to go the exploitation route here and show . . . well, show anything even mildly upsetting. But doesn’t packaging all of this in a PG box undercut the story just a bit? What does Cassie really do to her dates? She’s actually quite forgiving when it comes to the people she holds responsible for Nina’s death. And come to think of it, what exactly happened to Nina? I guess we’re left to just imagine the worst, but to leave out the evidence for what was a case that we know was lost at court also undercuts the message a bit by leaving the actual crime ambiguous. If we saw the video, would we see what Cassie sees? Does she seem stable enough to be trusted?
*. That may seem like I’m taking a stand against our promising young woman, but I’m not sure why Fennell leaves this ambiguous, or even if she thought it ambiguous. Take the scene where Cassie smashes in the lights and windshield of the pick-up truck. This is because she had fallen asleep at the wheel and her car was blocking the road. The truck’s driver pulls up alongside her and he yells at her, which causes her to wake up and smash his truck with a tire iron (to the soaring strains of Wagner’s Liebestod). On the commentary Fennell seems to think this was justified. Haven’t we all wanted to do that to someone who yells at us, she asks. But surely Cassie is in the wrong here. If the truck driver had been a cop she probably would have received a fine. So are we really meant to be on her side?
*. Another way of looking at this is that in the mixture of tones that went into this movie, the rom-com elements won out. This was bad news for me, as I’m more a fan of violent psychological thrillers than I am of rom-coms. When Fennell said that Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” is her favourite song of all time on the commentary track I took a double take. Not that it’s a bad bit of ear candy, but because I didn’t even know Paris Hilton knew how to sing. That’s how far out of the target demographic I am. Though the soft ending can’t be blamed on Fennell, as it was insisted on by the studio because leaving us off with Cassie’s cremation was thought to be too bleak.
*. Fennell won an Oscar for her screenplay. I don’t like it at all. There are no memorable lines. The plot is filled with weird improbabilities that seem to take it into the realm of fantasy (or rom-com fantasy). Just to instigate a basic turn in the action Madison (Alison Brie) has to show up and give Cassie a video of Nina’s rape. Why does she (still) have this? Why does she give it to Cassie? Why does she give it to her now? Just because that’s what the plot demands.
*. If the script feels like fantasy, and it does, that’s something that’s further assisted by the set design. I made notes on this as I was watching, which is a bad thing because usually if you’re noticing set design then it’s not for a good reason. Here I was thinking that the coffee shop didn’t look at all like a coffee shop and the pharmacy not like a pharmacy and the homes and apartments not like any space that people actually lived in. All the more strange that Fennell goes out of her way to compliment the set dressing in her commentary, and how she insisted on giving it a more “cluttered” and realistic look. Cluttered? The kitchen set in Cassie’s parents’ house, which she specifically sites as being cluttered, looks pristine. The other homes and apartments look like they’ve just been professionally cleaned and staged for an open house. I didn’t see any clutter at all.
*. Another big weakness with the script is the way all of Cassie’s enemies are presented as stereotypes. They’re just there to spout off some misogynist, rape-apologist lines before crumbling before Cassie’s steely determination and empowered female gaze. As I said in my notes on Black Christmas: “This is a #MeToo film that’s all about the oppressiveness of the patriarchy and rape culture and cancel culture and toxic masculinity (symbolized by the black goo that turns clean-cut kids into alpha male monsters). I don’t think this was a bad idea, but it just gets laid on so thick that you start to feel that it’s the movie’s whole reason for being.” Well, ditto here. Which leads me to another question: Is this a better movie than Black Christmas? Even a better #MeToo movie? I don’t think so. And I didn’t think all that much of Black Christmas.
*. I mention Black Christmas, but there are a lot of other movies I was thinking of too. Let’s face it, if we’re embedded in a rape-revenge plot how can you not think of Zoë Lund putting her war paint on as Thana in Ms. 45 when you see Cassie doing her lipstick in the car’s sideview mirror? And is she Frigga from Thriller or Harley Quinn from Birds of Prey as she heads off for the final showdown at the bachelor party? Finally, I think it goes without saying that in her fetish nurse uniform she’s playing Asami from Audition at the end.
*. Not surprisingly, given the nature of most DVD commentaries, Fennell doesn’t mention any of these movies as sources or inspiration. Instead she points to a couple of borrowings from Night of the Hunter, to which I can’t see any connection here at all, and Fatal Attraction, which I would have thought cast Cassie in an even worse light.
*. Yes, Carey Mulligan is good. She plays against cuteness to do what she can to save the whole project. But there’s nothing new here and even by 2020 the #MeToo stuff was all starting to sound like clichés; clichés that are then watered down further by the intermixing with a rom-com plot, a deliberate vagueness in the presentation, and a fantasy setting. That Fennell and Mulligan are Brits may have played a bit into this latter point. This just doesn’t feel like America (Ohio, to be exact). Even Hollywood America.
*. The DVD box cover comes with this pull quote: “A game changing masterpiece” (no hyphen). I struggled to read the print underneath to make out who wrote this little gem. Apparently it comes from some website called We Live Entertainment. For what it’s worth, at least one review I found at this site, by Staci Wilson, was lukewarm: “I would have liked it even more if Promising Young Woman had either been a lot darker or much funnier. As it was, I felt vaguely unsatisfied as the credits rolled.” For some reason, this review still resulted in the movie getting a score of 8 out of 10. This is one of the curious ways the hype machine works. I mean, what do you have to do to get a 6 out of 10? Or a 4?
*. Just to be as critical of Promising Young Woman as I’ve been probably invites a charge of some kind of thoughtcrime, but at the end of the day I can’t see where this is a good movie. As Matt Lynch, in one of the rare dissenting voices, put it in his review, it’s a movie “built on a shaky foundation of cheap douchebro stereotypes, retread girl-power revenge tropes, and cheeky formal gimmicks.” Then, with studio intervention, it flubs the ending and only sends us off with just desserts and another ironic reuse of “Angel of the Morning.” Now that’s sad.

Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937)

*. Charlie Chan was an ethnic Chinese detective based out of Honolulu but in the series of films based on his character he turned into quite a globetrotter. Hawaii was exotic enough for one movie (The Black Camel, extravagantly shot on location), but after that he took flight for such foreign destinations as London, Paris, Egypt, and the Berlin Olympics, while visiting domestic spots of nearly equal drama like the Opera, the Circus, and the Race Track. Given that the stories were all pretty similar, it’s no big stretch to say that the location was everything that set these films apart.
*. Which is a roundabout way of introducing Charlie Chan on Broadway. A title that, alas, means nothing at all. Charlie does go to New York City, and the opening credits are presented over some stock shots of Times Square, but that’s it.
*. “Broadway” is usually taken as shorthand for New York City’s theatre district, so with a title like this you’d expect it has something to do with that world. It doesn’t. I’m not sure Broadway — referring to either theatre or just the street — is even mentioned. I guess they just went with the title for what Miles Kreuger, an authority on American musicals interviewed for the featurette included with the DVD, refers to as Broadway’s “cachet of glamour.” Struggling to find some connection between the title and what’s actually going on in the movie, Kreuger says the only reason it’s called Charlie Chan on Broadway is because of the newspaper gossip columnists being such an important part of the plot. Which isn’t very much to hang your hat on.
*. Overall this is one of the weirder of the Warner Oland Chan films. The female lead the movie begins by introducing actually pulls a Janet Leigh and turns into the murder victim halfway through. Then the romance angle is frustrated when the heroine’s love interest turns out to be a heel. Though I don’t know what she would have been expecting from a guy with a name like Speed Patten.
*. The other thing that makes it weird is that the murder takes place at a dance joint called The Hottentot Club on “candid camera” night. On candid camera night the guests go around taking pictures, mainly of the dancing girls, hoping to win a prize. This made no sense to me and I wondered if this really was a thing in the 1930s. It seemed really pervy, what with horny-looking guys running around snapping pics of girls.
*. Photos are brought into the plot in a few different ways though, so they do make something out of it. But to be honest, I felt like they were reaching here.
*. One of the more compact stories in the series, which makes it easier to follow. And it mostly plays fair. Harold Huber is also pretty memorable as a New York police detective. Not a bad entry at all, but not one of the best.

American Pie (1999)

*. The legendary screenwriter William Goldman once formulated a rule of Hollywood that has become a kind of holy writ: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. What he meant is that there was no way to predict what was going to be a hit. “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”
*. It’s had not to be reminded of that bit of hack wisdom when reflecting on the mega-success of American Pie, which did $235 million box office (out of a negligible $11 million budget), and spawned three direct sequels. For what? A generic teen sex comedy (the script’s working title was Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy) about a bunch of high school boys looking to lose their virginity before they graduate.
*. I guess the best that might be said of such fare is that every generation needs its Porky’s. Young people have to go to movies and watch something other than superhero movies. Don’t they?
*. Comedy doesn’t age well. Even the most hilarious raunchy-stupid flicks from this period — Dumb and Dumber (1994), There’s Something About Mary (1998) — aren’t very funny today. Some of the humour here no longer plays as fresh. It’s hard to remember a time when MILF wasn’t a widely known acronym, with its use here being a joke that has to be explained. Or the idea of laughing at a guy tricking his girlfriend into having sex while livestreaming it over the Internet. No, that’s not so funny now.
*. A side note. Here is Roger Ebert on that scene: “When the lucky hero gets the foreign exchange student into his bedroom and she turns out to be ready for a romp, it is funny that he has forgotten and left his CU-See Me software running, so that the entire Internet community can watch him be embarrassed. It would not be funny if he left it on deliberately.” Well Roger, he did leave it on deliberately. That was the whole point. I’m not sure how Ebert missed that part.
*. But the thing is, I’m not sure any of this movie was all that funny to begin with. It’s hard to identify the laugh lines in the 2010s. Fucking an apple pie on the kitchen counter? Well, I suppose. But really, nothing about the script strikes me as very good, and it’s telling that when Eugene Levy came on board he apparently insisted on improvising his lines. Levy’s a guy who knows good material and he clearly wasn’t seeing it here.
*. Nor does the cast do much to help things along. The four horny musketeers (Jason Biggs as Jim, Chris Klein as Oz, Eddie Kaye Thomas as Finch, Thomas Ian Nicholas as Kevin) strike me as being charmless at best. Meanwhile, their girlfriends are only slightly more appealing.
*. Not as shocking today as it was twenty years ago. Perhaps even more nostalgic. I suppose most of it qualifies as being good-natured, but that’s about it. The main comic conceit is that the girls are more mature than the boys, which is a point I think everyone will have grasped in the first few minutes. But then it’s not a movie I was in the target audience for at the time, and I feel even less obliged to care for it now.

Henry V (1944)

*. While doing some background reading for these notes I was a bit surprised to hear this movie so often referred to as the first successful film adaptation of Shakespeare (successful meaning both popular and a decent interpretation of the play). Was this true? I thought Max Reinhardt’s 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream pretty good. It failed at the box office, but then Henry V didn’t do that well either.
*. Though even without box office it did have value as propaganda at the time, what with England about to invade (German occupied) France again. Shakespeare may be timeless, but this Henry V is also a movie of its moment. As such, it has taken on a kind of iconic value, along with whatever personal place it may have in the memories of fans. David Thomson: “maybe there is no gainsaying the version of Henry V you were born with. I am helplessly loyal to Olivier.”
*. I think this is true, as Kenneth Branagh’s version has the same sort of resonance for me. But there’s no denying Branagh was responding to Olivier, as I think nearly everyone has since.

*. I can’t think of other Shakespeare adaptations that have anything like the same look as this. At the time it must have seemed incredibly daring. The Technicolor was still something new (there was only one Technicolor camera in England), but most of all the production design, going from the costumes, elaborate models, sets, and painted backdrops to the green fields of Ireland, is something I can’t think of anything to compare to. It’s remarkable, and fits perfectly with the whole idea of the playhouse disappearing as we’re drawn into its world.
*. The art direction was by Paul Sheriff and he deserves a lot of credit. So much credit that I had to wonder how much to give to Olivier for directing. I think quite a bit. He hadn’t wanted to direct, but all his first choices (William Wyler, Carol Reed, Terence Young) turned him down and since he’d wanted complete control over the production anyway it only made sense that he’d direct. And would anyone else have been so daring? As Bruce Eder remarks on the Criterion commentary track, “no one else could or would have gotten away with making a movie that looked like this.”

*. The brashness, daring, and originality of a rookie? The obvious comparison is to Welles and Citizen Kane, and while I don’t think Olivier was a filmmaker on the same level as Welles, the fact that this was his first rodeo might have made doing his own thing a little easier. I made a similar remark with regard to Clive Barker and Hellraiser. I think there’s something to be said for the freedom an artist feels when they’re starting out.
*. In terms of the film’s conception, the drawing in and then drawing back out, I think it’s brilliant. That cavalry charge is such a fitting climax in terms of the camera finally cutting loose on its mile-plus racing dolly shot. But the long takes were probably less showing off (as they are with Welles) than the result of just working in a way that the cast was most comfortable with.

*. Something else that few other directors could have gotten away with is the job that’s done on the text. As in all of Olivier’s major Shakespeare productions, this is a heavily edited and re-arranged version of the play. Even the language is changed to make it more accessible (an elder-gun, for example, becomes a pop-gun, which is the same thing). Eder mentions that only half of the lines in the play were kept, and if you know the play well you can really feel the gaps. But it works, because Olivier knew what would work. And as I’ve said before, it’s not like a full-text Shakespeare would have been produced even in Shakespeare’s own day.
*. As an example of how the rearrangement and presentation can result in a wholly new interpretation, take the scene where the French leaders moan about the shame of their defeat and then pledge to go off into battle (“to the throng”) to try and salvage something from their disgrace. In the film this is followed by their immediately attacking the defenceless baggage train, and killing “the poys and the luggage.” The short scene where Henry commands the English to kill their prisoners is cut (as it usually is). Then when the nobles return the Dauphin is seen riding away. Not, I think, in cowardly retreat, but in disgust at what his compatriots have just done. It’s an interesting interpretation (the Dauphin is usually portrayed as a poltroon) and I’m not sure where it comes from, since it would probably be hard to do the scenes the same way on stage.

*. Eder points to how it’s a modern production that is both grounded in Shakespeare’s Globe and in medieval art (the sets and backdrop paintings are lifted from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry). It’s also, I think, grounded in different styles of filmmaking. At times it plays like the drama of the silents, with oversized gestures and lots of physical business. But then it becomes more subtle, quieter, and more naturalistic, to the point where Henry’s monologue before the battle is done entirely as a voiceover. Though even in the battle scenes there is a strong sense of stylized action, recalling Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, among other sources.
*. I think if you want to know why Olivier is such a great actor you just have to watch his eyes. I’m honestly mystified at how he manages to project so much with them, while not changing his facial expression at all. His face may even be mostly covered up, as when Montjoy the herald arrives for his final parley. Those eyes make it perfectly clear that this is a man not to be pushed any further, and yet his expression is completely blank. How does he do this? Is there an art to it?
*. The supporting cast is great. Henry V has I think Shakespeare’s biggest role for a Chorus, and Leslie Banks (Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game) handles it well. Robert Newton made a whole new career for himself with the broad comedy of Pistol. Renée Asherson as Princess Katherine is fittingly doll-like (Olivier had wanted his wife Vivien Leigh to play the part, but she was under contract). Photography by Robert Krasker that really paints with colour and light. A classic score by William Walton. It’s hard to think of anywhere they went wrong. They even won the war.

Doomwatch (1972)

*. As a general rule, British TV has never been very popular in North America. There are still some people who enjoy classic Britcoms and can endure Coronation Street, but they are dying out. Even Doctor Who is a niche taste over here.
*. Doomwatch was a program that ran on the BBC from 1970 to 1972 about a government agency set up to deal with the unanticipated consequences of scientific research. Apparently it was quite popular but I’ve never seen it, and given the BBC’s policy of wiping master tapes after transmission I’m not sure all the episodes even survive. I think it was a bit like the X-Files of its day, and like that show it led to a big-screen spin-off.
*. Anyway, the story here has it that a chemical company dumped a bunch of experimental growth hormone with Food of the Gods properties off the shore of a remote island. The barrels sprang leaks and contaminated the fish, which, when eaten by the local fishermen, led them to develop a form of acromegaly and drove them mad. A doctor from the Doomwatch patrol (Ian Bannen, not a regular on the show) is sent to the island to investigate an unrelated oil spill and slowly twigs to what’s going on.
*. That’s all there is. About as much plot as you’d get in an hour television show. As a timely ecohorror thriller it’s not very scary, especially when you figure out that the “monsters” are only to be pitied. Nor is there anything terribly interesting going on. The only highlights are the locations, with the picturesque town of Polkerris in Cornwall standing in for the island.
*. The lowlights are another matter. I’d list the wardrobe here, though there may be some out there who will groove to Dr. Quist’s odd belted sweater-jacket or Dr. Shaw’s mauve turtleneck. More distressing is the appearance of George Sanders as the Admiral. Doomwatch was one of his last films, with only Endless Night and Psychomania to come, which lets you know that he had a lot to be depressed about on a professional level. On first seeing him my mouth fell open and I had to say to myself “This man is not well.” He wasn’t. He was suffering from dementia as well as depression, had perhaps experienced a stroke, and apparently had very basic mobility issues. His appearance is just sad.
*. So I’d pass on this one. The next year there’d be a much better British horror movie about an authority figure visiting a strange island where the locals guard a deadly secret. But this would be the end of the line for Doomwatch.

The Dresser (2015)

*. I came to this movie after watching the 1983 Peter Yates version starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, but also after watching director Richard Eyre’s 2018 adaptation of King Lear with Anthony Hopkins as Lear and Emily Watson (Her Ladyship/Pussy) playing Regan. Since The Dresser is a play that takes place in the wings of a performance of King Lear this seemed more than coincidental, but I don’t know how planned it actually was.
*. I also don’t know how much I’d want to lean on the parallel between King Lear and what’s going on off-stage. Yes, Sir is like Lear in some ways: an elderly tyrant losing his marbles as he loses control of everything else around him. Is Norman the Fool though, as Ian McKellen thought? I mean, there is a real fellow playing the Fool, and it’s a bigger part in this movie than in the 1983 movie. He’s also Edward Fox, who charmingly was in the earlier film as well playing a different character.
*. If Sir is Lear he is also, in this production, more like a modern Lear. That is, less an Old Testament prophet/king than an old man suffering from dementia. This is a lot more obvious in this version than it was in Yates’s film, in large part because Hopkins is an old man (Finney was only 47, so his breakdown never made a lot of sense). I think this production does a good job capturing the pathos of aging and the slide into paranoia, self-pity, and dementia, which is just one of the many sad charms it holds.

*. It’s very much more a studio production, a film of a play, and it actually plays better for it. That’s not something I say very often, but the thing is this isn’t a play that gains anything by being taken outdoors. It’s a small group of people talking in small rooms. Eyre lets them work.
*. And work they do. You’re watching a pair of heavyweights here in Sir Anthony and Sir Ian and they don’t disappoint. McKellen in particular is perfectly on, leaving us to wonder how well Norman, who knows everyone else so well (Ducky!) actually knows himself. He also plays Norman in a far more restrained manner than Courtenay, meaning less flamboyantly gay. Courtenay himself isn’t (as far as I know) gay, and McKellen is, so it’s interesting to compare the two performances in that respect, making me think of the cross-casting in Strangers on a Train.
*. The 1983 version was more of a two-hander. The supporting players get a lot more room here. Or perhaps it just seems that way. I didn’t note their screen time, but Her Ladyship and Madge (Sarah Lancashire, stolid and vulnerable) seem much larger characters.
*. In sum, a production I enjoyed more, and thought much better than, the first version. This isn’t to take anything away from that movie. Courtenay’s performance is powerful in a different way and it strikes some notes a little stronger. But this adaptation strikes me as both quieter, more evocative of its vanished world, and more moving. Though perhaps everyone has their own Dresser and this just suits me better. Fans of the play, and these actors, will want to judge for themselves.

The Dresser (1983)

*. Based on a 1980 play by Ronald Harwood, which was based in turn on Harwood’s own (post-WW2) experiences as dresser to the actor Sir Donald Wolfit. As is often the case with adaptations supervised by the author (Harwood co-produced and wrote the screenplay for this film version) it actually takes more liberties than you might expect in moving beyond being just a filmed version of the play, and some of the location stuff of England being bombed looks really good. Does it add much to the story aside from a nice backdrop? Does it help for us to see Sir having his market meltdown instead of just being told about it? That I’m not so sure about.
*. Also sticking through the jump from stage to screen was Tom Courtenay, who played Norman during the play’s initial theatrical run. Again I wonder if this was the best move. The thing is, my own sense is that Courtenay overplays the role in a manner more fitting on stage than on screen. I do like him in the part, but wonder if director Peter Yates might have wanted him to dial it down a bit.
*. Then again, Courtenay was playing opposite Albert Finney as Sir, and Finney was dialing it up too. I wonder how deliberate this was (I was wondering about a lot of things watching this movie). Yates could excel with actors playing cool. Think of Steve McQueen in Bullitt or Robert Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. But here he wanted large. Like Sir flagging down a train in a station.
*. Adding to this sense that Courtenay and Finney are coming on too strong is the fact of their ages. The play seems to me to be about two elderly figures. Sir, who is at death’s door, is even drawn in a way that suggests dementia. But Finney was only 47 and is too hale and hearty for the part, while Courtenay was roughly the same age. In contrast, when Richard Eyre did a TV version in 2015 he did it with Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen in the leads. Hopkins and McKellen are roughly the same age as Finney and Courtenay, but their version was made over 30 years later, when they were in their mid- to late-70s. Is 77 the new 47? I don’t think things have reached that point yet.

*. I prefer the 2015 version, but think this one is definitely watchable. Of course it was catnip for critics and got all sorts of awards attention. Even though I don’t really see it as a play “about” the theatre world so much as being about codependent relationships. Norman is more of a nurse than a dresser, utterly committed to propping Sir up and keeping him going, perhaps feeling that this gives him a kind of power. The kind of power one attains by debasing himself before his idol. I like the scene where Sir makes him go out in front of the audience to make an address. Does Sir see this as a punishment? Does he relish Norman’s humiliation? And does Norman enjoy it a bit himself? After all, imagine him going on the same stage as Sir!
*. Roger Ebert saw the dynamic at work clearly: “Much of mankind is divided into two categories, the enablers and the enabled. Both groups accept the same mythology, in which the enablers are self-sacrificing martyrs and the enabled are egomaniacs. But the roles are sometimes reversed; the stars are shaken by insecurities that are subtly encouraged by enablers who, in their heart of hearts, see themselves as the real stars. It’s human nature.” So Norman is upset that he doesn’t get so much as a mention in the dedication of Sir’s memoirs. But is his anger heartfelt? There is a masochism that drives the codependent personality. They want to be used, and Norman is. His only reward is to be taken for granted.
*. I think that downbeat message fits with the anticlimactic ending here. I’ll confess that when I first saw it I was surprised when the credits rolled. Was that it? But I think that abruptness makes the point. With Sir gone, that’s really all there is. Norman doesn’t have a story of his own. What will he do now? Is there anyone left who cares?