Author Archives: Alex Good

Young Frankenstein (1974)

*. There’s a point I’ll start with that comes near the middle of Young Frankenstein, just after “young” Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) has failed to give life to a corpse. His assistants Inga (Teri Garr) and Igor (Marty Feldman) try to console him but he declares that “If science teaches us anything, it teaches us to accept our failures as well as our successes with quiet dignity and grace.” I think even if you haven’t already seen the movie a dozen times you realize right away that this is a set-up, and sure enough Wilder will turn around and begin furiously choking the monster, calling him names (“Son of a bitch bastard!”), and then finally breaking into sobs and wishing himself dead. That’s the joke. But then, as Inga and Igor lead him away, Feldman turns to the camera, rolls his eyes, and says “Quiet dignity and grace.”
*. That’s basically how Young Frankenstein works. It’s obvious, overplayed, and makes up for this by doubling down on both these qualities. It is madcap, slapstick farce dialed up to nine, aimed at the second-lowest common denominator. There’s no way Mel Brooks is going to let you miss a joke, no matter how obvious or old it is (though he thought the “Walk this way” gag was almost too old, even for him). This doubling down is, in turn, part of the joke.

*. I say it’s only dialed up to nine because this is correctly regarded as one of Brooks’ more restrained efforts (“more confident and less breathless” in Roger Ebert’s phrase, calling it his “most disciplined” work). He wanted something that was not quite the Three Stooges, so he walks up to that line and dances on it. To be sure there’s lots of coarseness and crudity, but at least he isn’t making ethnic or gay jokes, which were so much of his stock in trade in other films. You can laugh at the lines about the pair of knockers or the monster’s “enormous schwanzstucker,” but by Mel’s standards this ribaldry is pretty tame.
*. I think this is for the best, as send-ups usually work best when they tweak material gently instead of just beating it unconscious. The production here is true to a lot of the spirit of the original Universal Frankensteins, with beautiful black-and-white photography and equipment for the lab that included some of Ken Strickfaden’s original set dressing. The cast is also terrific, in fact so good it gets hard to tell who is stealing the most scenes. Which is what you want to do in a Brooks movie, since you can’t overplay it. So Feldman? Cloris Leachman? Madeline Kahn? Kenneth Mars? Gene Hackman? They’re all in top form.
*. A movie that absolutely belies its age. 1974! I had thought it was from the mid-’80s. But this kind of humour, which either works or it doesn’t, can’t go out of style. If you giggle at Frankenstein having a big dick then . . .
*. Well, it’s a near perfect example of its type of comedy. I still find it kind of charming, but I don’t laugh at it like I did as a kid. I know people though who think it’s the funniest movie ever made. Which I guess it is, if you’re in the mood.

Ran (1985)

*. In my mostly gushing notes on Grigori Kozintsev’s 1970 King Lear I remarked on how he made the war into a part of the landscape as well as a vital backdrop to the story, with the characters swept along by its power. I also drew a comparison to The Lord of the Rings in the way the different scales — the human and the historical or mythic — played off against each other.
*. Those comments are even more applicable to Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. You have to remind yourself while watching it that Shakespeare’s King Lear isn’t a war story, the scales have been so completely flipped. Kurosawa is painting on a broad canvas, with landscape and armies reducing human figures to insect size. We have to wait a long time before we get anything like a close-up, forcing the characters to perform in a very physical manner, with mask-like make-up, just to read them on screen. This may relate to the fact that Kurosawa was going blind, but I think it has a deeper meaning as well.

*. As Roger Ebert observed, the tragedy of this Lear, Ichimonji Hidetora, almost seems to be pushed to the side, unimportant to the sweep of events he plays no part in. “King Lear has the old man at its center. In Ran we sometimes get the impression that life is hurtling past Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wanders from one tragedy to another, pushing in from the margins, bewildered.”
*. Then there is that connection to Lord of the Rings I mentioned. This mainly came to mind because the sulfuric landscape (much of the film was shot around Mount Aso, Japan’s largest active volcano) recalled not hell so much as Mordor. That sense of violent forces bursting forth in fiery destruction is a visual theme that’s worked throughout, from the burning castle at the end of the first big battle scene looking like an erupting volcano to the squads of harquebuses spitting their demonic fire in the ambush scene, leaving the banners of the old order trailing in the dust.

*. But I wouldn’t take the Lord of the Rings comparison much further. Those aren’t CGI armies sweeping across the battlefield but extras decked out in 1,400 handmade outfits. It took three years to do the costumes, which won an Academy Award. And that whole sequence of the castle being stormed is such a brilliant expression of total film, with a perfect use of sound and score, editing, choreography, colour, and everything else, that it makes you stop and appreciate how you’re actually watching great art, and not just some animated CGI lightshow.
*. You’ll notice that I haven’t said much about the performances. I find them hard to rate, both because of the foreign language but also because of what I’ve said about their distant and stylized quality. Mieko Harada is convincing as the evil demon fox Lady Kaede, but is anything as remarkable about her part as her painterly end? Now that’s a highlight arterial spray!

*. So this is a different sort of Lear. Much of the story is the same, with many of the roles gender-swapped (three sons instead of daughters, and Lady Kaede being the Edmund role), but it’s not as much a human drama. Or rather it’s a movie that’s about the generic human condition. I think this is what Pauline Kael meant when she called it “perhaps the biggest piece of conceptual art ever made.” It’s not a movie about people so much as ideas.
*. That said, it is a humanistic movie, and indeed one of the great passion projects in movie history given how Kurosawa identified with Hidetora. Most directors, indeed most artists, get duller and less interesting as they get older. Perhaps because Kurosawa had been largely frozen out of the industry by this point he was able to paradoxically make what was then the most expensive Japanese film in history such a personal statement.

*. Gorgeous to look at throughout. Tōru Takemitsu’s mostly understated score is utilized expertly. The things I did find to carp about were mostly minor. The castle battle is so good it makes the second big battle scene seem less impressive. There’s no storm on the heath but just the wind picking up a bit. The real storm is that of war. The Kent and Fool characters from the play get pretty short shrift and I thought might have been cut. The religious meaning felt obscure. Has God (or the gods) deserted us, or have we lost our connection to the divine? If chaos (ran) is hell, is any order preferable to it? Note that if Lady Kaede is a demon, she’s one that Hidetora in his prime as a warlord summoned.
*. If not great Shakespeare, it is a great and original interpretation of Shakespeare, and a movie that can be appreciated on many levels. It may not be a favourite movie of mine, but that’s only because of the kind of movie it is, or more exactly the direction it takes. I think it’s a great film and brilliantly expresses Kurosawa’s vision in the boldest and most memorable of strokes.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

*. The kind of film, I think even in 1975, that (they say) they don’t make any more. Here’s how Roger Ebert kicked off his review: “John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King is swashbuckling adventure, pure and simple, from the hand of a master. It’s unabashed and thrilling and fun.”
*. You could say that in 1975. But times change. Star Wars would come out just two years later and Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, setting new benchmarks in “swashbuckling adventure.” They were faster, more “thrilling and fun,” less interested in sex, and perhaps most significantly, more mystical. What I mean is that Kipling’s version of the Great Game only has a pair of rakes pretending to be gods so they can loot and screw the natives; there’s nothing like the Force or an angry Ark of the Covenant operative in Kafiristan.
*. So you could see this movie as the end of something. It was dashing derring-do of a previous age of filmmaking, and literature. Huston had liked the story as a kid and had been planning on making a movie out of it for more than twenty years. The original pairing was going to be Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, if you can believe either of them as the scourings of the British Empire. Then Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas were approached, followed by Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, and Robert Redford and Paul Newman. That’s three full generations of Hollywood stardom.

*. Even with Sean Connery and Michael Caine the movie seems old. Post-Raiders of the Lost Ark audiences (an audience I consider myself a member of) expect things to move a little quicker, with less talk and fewer time outs for epic location photography. Huston (born 1906) was someone from an earlier dispensation. He could certainly do an adventure story like this. I love The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and it’s actually a very similar sort of story as the one we get here, with the roguish buddies making a pact but then falling out over some treasure (only with Sean going after Caine’s wife being added to the mix). Then the treasure is blown to the winds. But times weren’t just changing, they had changed.
*. All of which is to say that I found this to be pretty dull when I first saw it and it was no better this time around. But then I’m not a fan of Kipling’s story either. To be honest, I find it a bit hard to follow. If anything, the script here is an improvement, streamlining some bits and introducing more cinematic material, like the stolen pocket-watch stuff that introduces Kipling (Christopher Plummer) and Peachy (Caine) at the beginning.
*. Of course, Kipling’s attitudes, in particular his enthusiasm for imperialism and the white man’s burden, haven’t dated well. Apparently Caine had some objections to Saeed Jeffrey’s Billy Fish character, and I can see that, but the treatment of the watermelon man in the train carriage is even worse. In any event, no one was “woke” in 1975 so these Brits may be scoundrels but they can still have some good fun killing all those beastly natives and then take as well as they give by keeping a stiff upper lip under pressure and going down singing some jingo anthem.
*. The leads are both in good shape, though I’d pull up far short of Andrews Pulver, writing in the Guardian, saying that this was Caine’s best-ever performance. The problem is that Huston is more a director of great talk and the talk is nothing special here. I think both actors considered this to be an enjoyable shoot, among their favourites, but that feeling doesn’t always translate to on-screen fun and it doesn’t here.
*. It’s not a turkey. I’d just as soon watch this as Gandhi or A Passage to India or Carry On . . . Up the Khyber again. But it’s a movie that I don’t think has lasted and I’m not sure anyone watches it much anymore. Times, and movies, change. And while some things never go out of style, the action here has.

The Munsters (2022)

*. In my notes on Halloween II I quoted from film critic Kim Newman who said “Rob Zombie plainly loves horror films . . . but proves frustratingly unable to apply his talents to making them. . . . His Halloween is less a remake than fan fiction.”
*. I thought Newman’s observation was spot on, as Zombie’s fandom is plainly evident in films such as his Halloween movies and House of 1000 Corpses, even though these aren’t good movies (to put it charitably). As The Munsters reveals, he’s also a fan of ’60s sitcoms, but he can’t do comedy either.
*. It would be easy to dump on The Munsters because it isn’t very good, received poor reviews, and the pandemic killed any chance it had at box office. Or I could damn it with the faintest praise by saying it may be Rob Zombie’s best movie to date. But I think I’ll just say that it’s not all bad.
*. While Zombie was a fan of The Munsters, he says he didn’t want to just make a two-hour version of the TV show. What I took this as meaning is that he wanted to go with a more developed story that would take longer to fill out. But that’s not what this is. Instead, The Munsters splits up pretty neatly into an even more segmented version of the traditional three-act structure: the making of Herman Munster, Herman meets Lily, and the Munsters go to L.A.
*. None of these parts have much to do with each other, and characters who are introduced in one subplot don’t appear in the others. The mad scientist who gives Herman life takes up a large part of the first section but then disappears. The gypsy Zoya who tricks Herman into giving up the family mansion in Transylvania vanishes completely as soon as her function in the plot is served. The baby dragon Spot that’s rescued from the sewers of Paris becomes a bed-warmer for Lily, but all we see of him again is his tail sticking out from under the sheets. Lily’s werewolf brother Lester also just pops up whenever he’s needed to move things along.

*. So the script is shaky to say the least. There’s no real sense of what’s supposed to be important. As for the comedy, the feeling I had was that Zombie was going more for groans than laughs. Like the signs that say “If this tomb’s rocking don’t come knocking” or “Tomb Sweet Tomb.” Or the way just saying the word “Uranus” is supposed to be funny. I can’t say any of this was a misfire though as Zombie gives Herman the brain of a hack stand-up comedian and it fits with what I remember of the show, which is that it wasn’t terribly funny either.
*. It’s hard to say much about the performances as most of the actors are covered in prosthetics and Zombie, who was aiming for “real-life cartoons come to life” was always urging them to “go bigger, go bigger.” Which is to say, play as broadly as possible. So Sheri Moon Zombie throws her hands around like she just ate something hot. Jeff Daniel Phillips doesn’t sound a bit like Fred Gwynne, but he does work his mouth about in a familiar way and manages the mannerisms pretty well. Daniel Roebuck is the Count (not Grandpa yet) and his make-up is very good.
*. The look of the film is striking and is the best thing about it. I don’t see where it has anything to do with the original series though, instead looking more like a neon version of The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. Or I could say it looks like Zombie’s other movies, which is a look that I don’t think goes with horror at all, but which suits a modern take on The Munsters.
*. Whatever else you want to say about Zombie’s films, he does bring the energy and he’s not afraid to “go bigger” anyway he can. Normally it doesn’t work, but it’s fine here and at least keeps you watching. There’s also some nice use of a couple of Budapest locations and the night sky has some inspired flourishes tossed in, like an oversize moon and some shooting stars.
*. Zombie also has a good commentary on the DVD. Not every director handles that well so I’ll give credit where due. I was impressed by some of the things I learned. Like the fact that they actually built all the houses of Mockingbird Heights, including the Munster mansion, and even paved the streets and sidewalks. That seemed terribly wasteful to me, but apparently there were no streets in Hungary that looked like suburban America. This always makes me wonder just how cheap it must be to make movies in Eastern Europe if you have to build sets to this extent they did just to make it look like Everytown, U.S.A. The answer seems to be plenty cheap.
*. The whole thing staggers along, groaning all the way, until it ends so suddenly that I was actually surprised when the retro credits started to run. Well, at least it didn’t drag. And at an hour and fifty minutes that’s another thing you have to give Zombie some credit for.
*. I watched The Munsters a bit when I was a kid, but I was never a big fan. I was one of those people who was always mixing it up with its broadcast rival, The Addams Family. So I can’t say I was upset at anything being done to my childhood memories. As it is, The Munsters plays like a respectful if off-beat origin story for what was a meh show from an era long before anyone in the target audience for this film was born. Put another way, I don’t think they had a lot to work with in the first place but at least Zombie made a movie that looks neat and isn’t (deadly) dull.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2005)

*. In the short interview pieces included with the DVD for this film (the last of the four ShakespeaRe-Told adaptations put out by the BBC in 2005), the writer remarks that A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t a play that made him laugh. This is a response I often hear from people I know who go to see Shakespeare comedies: that they’re not funny. Because if A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or The Taming of the Shrew, don’t make you laugh (and I don’t think they make many modern audiences laugh) then that’s a problem isn’t it?
*. Few things date like comedy. Old scary movies are often just as scary or scarier than today’s horror flicks. And drama can be just as intense today as it was in the 1940s. But it’s a rare comedy that still works. So a comedy written more than 400 years ago is going to need some work if it’s going to make us laugh.

*. This version of the Dream didn’t make me laugh. I did think it was a clever adaptation though, at least for the most part. The enchanted forest is a tourist getaway called Dream Park that’s hosting the wedding of Hermia. Everything gets mixed up because Hermia’s true love crashes the party and then the faeries start splashing some Love Potion No. 9 in the eyes of the young people.
*. In doing updates of Shakespeare the supernatural elements are the hardest to translate. Being modern usually means being more realistic and believable, so the faeries seem a bit out of place even in Dream Park. On the other hand, they’re also very human faeries. Almost too human. Oberon (Lennie James) is downright nasty to Titania in a way that he really isn’t in the play. This Oberon thinks she’s a slut that needs to be humiliated, and their dysfunctional relationship is mirrored in that of Theo’s marriage. The two husbands even get together for some mantalk that just doesn’t feel right. James and Bill Paterson (who plays Theo) are both likeable actors, but they really play against that here.

*. Better off are the Mechanicals, who are tasked with providing some entertainment for the wedding. Bottom (Johnny Vegas) is an aspiring stand-up comic who’s looking to be the next Ricky Gervais. What’s nicest about his transformation into an ass (which mainly just means having big ears) is that he doesn’t want to taste any of the physical delights the faeries have to offer. No, all he wants is someone to finally laugh at this jokes.
*. Puck (Dean Lennox Kelly) is a figure I’ve seen described as a “wide boy,” which is a British term I had to look up. I found him annoying. Not as annoying as Mickey Rooney, but still pretty bad. The upshot is that this is a smart version of the play but with a gritty undertone that often felt out of place. In the end there are only some good bits, and a lot that should have been reconsidered.

Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)

*. I went over the story behind the production of this film already, in my notes on Dominion, but just to recap: originally the film was to be directed by John Frankenheimer but he died so Paul Schrader stepped in. The studio, Morgan Creek, didn’t like what Schrader did so they hired Renny Harlin to do some re-shoots. Harlin’s re-shoots, however, turned into a complete do-over. Then Exorcist: The Beginning was panned so Schrader was asked to finish up his film, which was released as Dominion.
*. So what we have here is what I think is a nearly unique instance of the same project being filmed twice, back-to-back, and released as two different movies. The outlines of the script are the same, as are the sets and most of the cast. And yet they’re clearly very different movies.
*. Most critics prefer Schrader’s film. William Peter Blatty (author of The Exorcist) had a particularly extreme responds, judging Dominion a good film while considering The Beginning to be his “most humiliating professional experience.” On balance, however, I think The Beginning is clearly better entertainment. Schrader wanted to go off in his own direction, which didn’t include trying to be scary, while Harlin (given a task few would envy) knew what was expected and delivered. I don’t think The Beginning is a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but as popcorn horror flicks go it’s not a washout.
*. Some of the script should have been dropped. I was puzzled by a line in Dominion about the church being built at some point after the Byzantine Empire “adopted Christianity.” This made no sense, as the Byzantine Empire was always Christian. This bit of dialogue is expanded on here in an early scene where the antiquities collector hiring Father Merrin (a scruffier looking Stellan Skarsgård) says the recently discovered church was built “circa. 5 A.D.” To which Merrin responds that this is impossible since “the Byzantine Empire had adopted Christianity at that time [!] but they never got that far south.”
*. This is obviously wrong, as the Byzantine Empire didn’t exist in the year 5 A.D. In fact, it wasn’t even known as the Byzantine Empire until after it fell (it was the Roman Empire up till the end). Obviously someone knew this was wrong, as it’s later said that the church is 1500 years old and that it was built during the reign of the emperor Justinian (r. 527-565). These dates at least make some sense, though Merrin’s point that the empire never got so far south still stands. So obviously they were aware of the mistake in the 5 A.D. line and probably the bit about the Byzantine Empire adopting Christianity, but they still left that part in.

*. Sticking with the matter of a clumsy script, do you think when they said that Bession was in a sanitarium that they meant a sanitarium/sanatorium, or (what I think was meant) an asylum? I seem to remember this being a mistake that pops up when Tony Montana comes to America in Scarface. I don’t think Monsieur Bessoin is suffering from tuberculosis.
*. As I’ve said, Harlin took on this job with a basic understanding of what the job demanded and I think he did his best to make something out of a dog of a script and a cast that didn’t seem very enthused about the project the first time around. I can’t imagine how bored they were with having to go through it all over again. But there are some jump scares and you get to see the lady doctor go nearly-full Linda Blair at the end before Merrin finds his faith and rids her of the demon. There are some scenes that are even a bit spooky.
*. The effects are just as bad as in Dominion. As I’ve noted before (The Possession, The Haunting of Sharon Tate), CGI does not do swarms of insects well and I wish they’d just give up trying. The hyenas are back and they’re silly, but quick editing and only showing them at night helps. Some of the gore looks pretty good. I wanted someone to ask how all those birds were found to be living in the church after it was uncovered but I guess given the other goofs this has to be taken in stride.
*. Elizabeth II was Queen of England for a long time. When the British officer says that the natives will “have to answer to the might of his majesty King George” I did a double take before twigging to the fact that he was referring to George VI, he of the speech made by Colin Firth. The film is set in 1949.
*. This is a dumb bit of trash that would probably have passed without notice if not for its name. As it is, even with being part of the Exorcist franchise I think it is now almost completely forgotten. I didn’t even know of its existence until I came across it by accident. Still, I think it’s better than Dominion for being aware of the fact that it’s only meant to be trash, and Harlin tricks it out so that it looks pretty slick given all of the limitations he faced. I don’t think it’s worth anyone bothering with today though.

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)

*. I kicked off my notes on First Reformed by saying that I hadn’t heard Paul Schrader’s name in a while. In fact, I hadn’t seen anything he’d done since Affliction (1997). Well, one of the things he’d done was this movie. Turns out I hadn’t missed much.
*. Dominion was, appropriately enough, a cursed production. John Frankenheimer was originally slated to direct, but he got sick and died so Paul Schrader replaced him. I’m not sure this was a wise choice, as Schrader didn’t seem much interested in directing a horror movie and was more attracted to the idea of following Father Merrin’s spiritual journey when an archeological dig in post-War Africa being watched over by some knobby-kneed British soldiers turns up a demon’s crypt.
*. The studio didn’t like what Schrader came up with, and so hired Renny Harlin to come in and do some re-shoots. What happened is that Harlin ended up making an entirely new picture, which was released as Exorcist: The Beginning. This was panned, and bombed with audiences, so they had to go back and get Schrader to finish his picture. They didn’t give him enough money, however, to do it right, which is apparently why, for example, there’s such a patchwork score and the CGI is so bad.

*. Apparently William Peter Blatty (author of The Exorcist) hated Harlin’s film but found this to be “a handsome, classy, elegant piece of work.” He was one of the few to think so, but I’ll grant it does look better when set alongside The Beginning (and it’s a fascinating exercise to watch the two back-to-back). Now for the record I actually enjoyed The Beginning a lot more than I did Dominion, but such a comparison is likely all you can say in that movie’s favour.
*. Given Schrader’s difficulties I was a bit surprised, and definitely intrigued, by the fact that the DVD has a commentary. I figured he’d have a lot to vent about. Alas, that is not how these things work. The commentary was recorded in early 2005 when he was still in the process of completing the final mix on the film so maybe he hadn’t experienced a full measure of frustration yet. More surprising is the fact that he never mentions how the movie was taken away from him, or makes any reference to Harlin’s effort whatsoever (which by this point had been released). That would have been fun to listen to!
*. The only disappointment Schrader lets on is with the hyenas. These are digital and they look terrible. They might have thought it was a bad idea in the first place, given that hyenas aren’t that trainable (unlike all the bad dogs in the Omen movies), and besides they’re cowardly animals individually. But instead we get CGI hyenas. And cows eating dead hyenas. A scene that Schrader thought was going to be really creepy but that he admits doesn’t work at all. It looks silly.

*. It’s a very bad movie even without the uniformly poor effects. I get that Schrader wanted to focus more on Merrin’s struggle with his faith, and that the demon (which I guess is the same Pazuzu who winds up in Georgetown) is just there to effect his return to the cloth. But this doesn’t work. Merrin here, played with granite restraint by Stellan Skarsgård, has a far less compelling struggle with his faith than Father Karras in the original movie, and that still managed to be an effective horror flick. Schrader wanted Merrin to be like John Wayne, even sending him off through a doorway in homage to the shot at the end of The Searchers, with a rosary as his six-gun, but how often did you ever think John Wayne was threatened with spiritual backsliding?
*. Part of the problem is the same as in The Exorcist, and indeed it’s a problem I have with a lot of movies like this. That is: given the existence of such a powerful, supernatural force (be it a demon or alien or whatever) why is it even bothering to do what it’s doing here? Hasn’t Pazuzu something better to do than test Merrin’s faith, especially given that he’s already lapsed? And let’s face it, in the final showdown Pazuzu doesn’t put up much of a fight. Basically Merrin just has to read a bit from what I take is the exorcism ritual and that’s it for Mr. Perfection, even if he can make the Northern Lights come out in Kenya. They’ve seen queer sights, but never as queer as this!
*. So a dead movie and a dead commentary make for a dull day indeed. At one point Schrader remarks that he’s less interested in action than interpersonal drama. “Just give me two angry actors in a kitchen and I’m happy,” he says. I would have taken that over this as well. I also was interested to hear that Mel Gibson was shooting The Passion of the Christ at Cinecittà at the same time as this movie (the exteriors here were shot in Morocco, but the studio stuff in Rome). Two productions that were going in very different directions.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

*. On the DVD commentary track for Big Trouble in Little China director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell (who are obviously having a lot of fun reminiscing about the good ol’ days) mention how the movie had great test screenings but tanked at the box office, in large part (they felt) because of a poor effort at advertising and then having to go head-to-head with Aliens. It took later audiences to discover Big Trouble on glorious VHS, which (I think) is where I first saw it.
*. But VHS felt and still feels right for it. It’s a movie packed with ’80s cheesiness that belongs on a cassette, like some old albums need to play on vinyl. VHS even fits perfectly with its Hollywood version of Chinatown, which is all studio sets dressed up like a strip-mall Chinese restaurant. It’s hard to think the fate of the world is at stake when your climax takes place in the Temple of the Neon Skull, which you get to by going down a corridor lined with fat Buddha statues.
*. Russell’s Jack Burton definitely belongs in the ’80s. He has hockey hair to go with his fetching ensemble: a wifebeater with some cheap print on it, faded jeans, and knee-high moccasins. And then as a kicker you get an actual theme song, “Big Trouble in Little China” by The Coupe De Villes (John Carpenter singing back-up), played over the closing credits. Whatever happened to theme songs?
*. I wouldn’t argue that this is a great movie, but it is a great little movie with buckets of charm and no interest in taking itself seriously. Russell is perfect as the tough-talking but sadly underperforming leading man. Or leading man who is really a sidekick, as the joke is that Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi is the more conventional hero. Jack Burton gets all the usual action-hero tag-lines, but he’s all talk. Except he does come through in a pinch and he is a hit with Kim Cattrall, who looks sensational here and plays very bright and funny coming off Porky’s and Police Academy. In contrast, Wang Chi’s love interest Miao Yin doesn’t even have any lines, at least that I can recall.
*. Throw in James Hong and Victor Wong as dueling good and evil sorcerers and you’ve got a great cast that knew just how to play this material. Carpenter keeps things moving — literally, he loves to have his characters run from scene to scene — and as an added bonus the fact that this is an ’80s flick means you get some fun practical effects instead of a lot of crappy CGI. Of course the Wild-Man orangutan looks ridiculous, but I’d still take him ahead of a digital demon any day.
*. So this is one of those movies where everything came together. Even the lipstick that Gracie smears all over Jack’s mouth was a happy accident that came up during filming. Sometimes things just work out, and aside from the box office that’s what happened here.
*. But of course, box office is what matters. Over the years there’s been a lot of talk about a remake or sequel, but so far fans have had to make do with a series of comics. And maybe that’s for the best. \what happened in the ’80s should stay in the ’80s. It’s better that way.

The Merchant of Venice (2004)

*. Shylock is one of those few Shakespearean characters who have taken over the plays they appear in, Falstaff being the other most obvious example. It’s easy to forget that The Merchant of Venice is not about Shylock, that he is not the merchant of the play’s title, that he in fact only appears in a handful of scenes and doesn’t have that many lines (13% of the total, which is the same as Bassanio and less than Portia), and that he disappears from the play entirely at the end of the fourth act, not even being mentioned again indirectly.
*. Shylock takes over the play, or has taken over the play (the way he’s been played has evolved over the centuries) for a couple of reasons. In the first place because he’s a well-written, compelling character. But also because he’s surrounded by a bunch of wallpaper. Antonio (the merchant) is a drippy Christ figure (with that aspect really played up in this production by Jeremy Irons). I’ve never understood what anyone sees in Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes here), who strikes me as little more than a possibly bisexual gigolo (or “ambassador of love”). Portia (Lynn Collins) is a bit more lively, but the feisty crossdresser was a Shakespearean stock player. Shakespeare himself doesn’t seem much interested in the clown Launcelot, and in this production he’s almost invisible.

*. And so naturally Shylock becomes the focus of our attention. Today it’s usually played as a message play about the evils of anti-Semitism, and that’s again the direction taken here. The film even opens with a bunch of pre-title text giving the status of Jews in Venice in this period, and a scene (not in Shakespeare’s play) showing Jews being harassed and abused (including Antonio spitting on Shylock).
*. The effect of this is to get us to sympathize with Shylock. Other choices made advance this further. For example, we never hear Shylock equating the loss of his daughter with that of his ducats except in such a way as to strongly imply that he in fact never does so. This is a fair interpretation of the text though, as the scene is only described to us indirectly in the play, and from a biased source. A heavier finger is put on the scale however when Shylock’s reasons for hating Antonio are elided. In the play he confesses in a soliloquy, cut here, that “I hate him for he is a Christian” and for his naive generosity. None of this is made out in the film, and instead we’re led to see his actions as driven by his need to revenge himself on Antonio for the abduction of his daughter. Which is a bit of a stretch, given Antonio’s vague complicity in that plot and the fact that Shylock’s revenge was already being planned before Jessica elopes.

*. One can certainly understand a modern production not wanting to present Shylock as a caricature, and in truth that is not Shakespeare’s Shylock. On the other hand, he is a villain. He has his reasons, but he’s still a miserable piece of work. Drawing too sympathetic a Shylock loses this. Pacino wanted to play him as someone suffering from depression, but I find this still falls short of his vindictiveness.
*. Well, doing Shakespeare means making choices and I can’t argue much with the ones made here. There were some eyebrows raised at Bassanio kissing Antonio, but I think the film does a good job of suggesting the nature of their relationship without being any more explicit. There are a number of subtle interpretive touches like this. Another example is the way Shylock seems aware of Jessica’s duplicity before she runs away. There’s nothing explicit there either, but you sense something you can’t put your finger on.

*. The Prince of Morocco’s accent is irritating and takes something away from his scene. Apparently the producers wanted Eddie Murphy for the part, and David Harewood ends up playing Murphy playing a caricature African prince. In its defence, however, it is one of the few comic scenes in what is, at least formally, a comedy (meaning the pairs of young lovers overcome various difficulties and the play ends up with everyone getting married). I don’t think The Merchant of Venice is a very funny play though, so you have to pick your spots to go for laughs.
*. On the plus side, I don’t think I’ve seen the cross-dressed female leads done more convincingly as male. The facial hair helps.
*. Since this is Shylock’s play/film that means it’s also Al Pacino’s. I think he’s very good, playing the part in the same low-key register as the rest of the cast. Even in his big scenes he doesn’t tear up the scenery. He’s not Tony Montana, who takes pleasure in cutting people up, but more Michael Corleone, for whom everything is just business. As I’ve already indicated, my own impression of Shylock is that he’s a darker figure than this, but I found this Shylock perfectly defensible.

*. As with this tone, the photography is also kept consistent. There was a conscious reliance on painterly compositions throughout, with the final image being a gilded Carpaccio. This has the effect of slowing things down, but not in a bad way. We often seen the actors blocked out as though frozen on a canvas. On the DVD commentary director Michael Radford even mentions a static quality. Again, maybe not the way I’ve come to think of the play, but something I can appreciate.
*. Radford also mentions that this was the first time a film crew had been allowed to shoot in the Doge’s Palace since Orson Welles made Othello fifty years earlier. An interesting connection.
*. In my notes on L’Inferno, the 1911 Italian production of Dante’s poem, I registered my surprise that after over a hundred years it remains the only feature-length production of such famous material. I was even more surprised when doing a bit of reading about this movie to find that it was the first big-screen adaptation of the play. That seems impossible to me, and I’m still not sure it can be right. It is, however, the only movie version I’ve seen and while I found myself resisting it at several points it finally won me over. It doesn’t jump out at you, but it’s quietly accomplished and a faithful rendering.

Vengeance (2022)

*. Vengeance was the directorial debut of B. J. Novak, who also wrote and stars in the film. Novak is probably best known for his turn in the American version of The Office, and while it might be lazy to draw a connecting line from that show to this I think the shoe in this case fits.
*. So the basic idea here is the sane person surrounded by madness and idiots. Novak is the straight man in this case, a New York City player and podcaster named Ben Manalowitz. He’s looking for a catchy project to break into the podcast big leagues and one lands on his plate when a girl named Abilene who he’d hooked up with is found dead down in Texas. Abilene’s brother calls Ben up and insists he come to the funeral. At first reluctant, Ben soon sees this as a possible break when the brother explains how he thinks Abilene was killed by a drug cartel.
*. An aside: podcaster is the new freelancer now. And it’s potentially even more lucrative. Though I’ve never been a big fan of podcasts myself. Aren’t they just blogs for people who don’t read?
*. The set-up is an old story: the bit-city type who ends up out in the boonies trying to relate to some heartland hicks who he begins by mocking and then comes to like and respect. Because Ben himself isn’t just a fish out of water but someone who has to learn a lot himself. Like what the Alamo was and how important it is to have real relations with people.
*. If that were all that there was to Vengeance it would be thin gruel indeed. It’s not hard to stay a half-hour or more ahead of the plot and the jokes really aren’t that funny. But Vengeance is still an interesting movie for one performance and one new wrinkle it gives to the old story.

*. The performance is by Ashton Kutcher as a sinister record producer who had a connection to Abilene. I really haven’t followed Kutcher’s career at all, and was surprised at how well he plays here. He’s not an evil or malignant force so much as a phony who’s dangerous precisely for being so weak. We don’t get the sense that there’s any substance behind him. He is all hat and no cowboy, which in turn fits perfectly with the wrinkle I mentioned.
*. That wrinkle has to do with the way the dichotomy between country and city, real people and fake, is transposed into the digital realm. In a moment that recalls the ending of James Joyce’s “The Dead” (honest!) there’s a leitmotif about how we are all turning into ghosts in the age of social media. None of us, New Yorkers or Texans, have any substance anymore. We’ve gone from being people to characters, and type characters at that. Even the stories we tell and the songs we sing are ethereal, ephemeral, existing only (for a time) in the cloud. Fame is viral, a fever that runs hot and then breaks, leaving us diminished or dead.
*. This is a point that I wish had been pushed a little further and made a little darker, as it’s the real message of the movie. Unfortunately there’s a tug toward predictable comic situations and at times the plot seemed rushed and forced together. I didn’t buy Ben turning against the family in the restaurant parking lot at all, and then it got worse when he actually returns to sleep at their house. This seemed highly improbable, like it was just meant to end the second act and prepare us for the climactic showdown without slowing things down. Which, of course, it was.
*. Vengeance is a low-budget movie without huge ambitions. The form it takes is hokey and most of the humour feels played, but there’s a timely idea behind it that’s developed in a creative and intelligent way. If you’re not expecting even that much, and I wasn’t, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise.