For nearly four months now, my family and I have gotten up on Saturday mornings, piddled around, watched TV, and then sometime after lunch, we start talking about what we want to do. We all agree we’d love to leave the house but to do what is always the question. There were a few times when the weather was cooler that we’d make our way to a park or hiking trail. But these are the dog days of summer and the answer is always nothing. Covid numbers continue to rise in my neck of the woods and there is no way in this world I’m taking my family to the store to do a little fun shopping. Or to dinner. It is far too hot to go for a drive for some outdoor activities. So instead we just watch some more TV, play on our computers, and otherwise occupy ourselves in our house.
Sometime today, as the sun was getting close to setting, my wife turned to me and noted that we never once today asked each other what we wanted to do. We have now resigned ourselves to not going out and doing anything fun for the foreseeable future. How crappy is that? Not that crappy I guess. I mean, all things considered, we’re doing ok. There were times pre-Covid when I used to dream of spending my weekends laying around the house watching movies instead of always going, going, going. I do enjoy watching the movies, but yeah, I’d really like to go to the movie theater, go to a bookstore, go someplace. Any place. But for now, I watch TV and try to dream of a day when things will be normal again.
Here are five things I enjoyed while staying inside this week.
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell
The British studio Hammer Film Productions are best known for producing dozens of horror films from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. Their best and most revered films in that genre are the ones in which they took the classic Universal Monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy) and updated them for modern audiences. This basically means they were filmed in bold colors, emboldened the story’s inherent sexuality, and upped the violence and gore. One of the things that makes them so fascinating to watch today is that these “modern” retellings are now 50-70 years old. So it’s like watching a “new and improved” version of something that could itself definitely use an update.
The studio made seven Frankenstein movies with Peter Cushing playing Dr. Victor Frankenstein in all but one of them. This was the final film in the series. In it, Dr. Frankenstein has been sentenced to life in an insane asylum where he is given quite a few liberties and is secretly trying to continue his experiments in creating new life from old body parts.
Outside in the real world, a young scientist named Helder (Shane Briant) has been studying Frankenstein’s books and performing his own experiments. Early in the film, he is caught and sentenced to the same asylum where Frankenstein is a prisoner. Together, they work on his experiments. The monster this time is an ape-like man (played by David “Darth Vader” Prowse) whom they slowly attach various other body parts (hands, eyes, brain) to hoping to make him the perfect man.
Of course, things go horribly wrong, it wouldn’t be a Frankenstein film otherwise. It takes a bit too long getting to the fun stuff and it doesn’t tread any new ground with this old story. But Cushing is always great in these types of roles and Prowse is a hulking, menacing presence. He’s covered in prosthetics and hair, giving him a grotesque ape appearance. It’s exactly the sort of thing you want from a Hammer Horror production if perhaps nothing more.
When I’m not feeling well, I have a small selection of films I like to watch. These are films like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark (ok, maybe I just like to watch Steven Spielberg films from the first half of his career), A Few Good Men, Groundhog Day, etc. These are movies I’ve seen a million times and so it doesn’t matter if I fall asleep or miss some of the plots. They are also really well-crafted movies that are a joy to watch at any time but give me comfort when I’m not well.
A couple of days ago I woke up feeling a little off. There were some intestinal issues, body aches, and a lot of fatigue. I got my work finished in the morning and then took the afternoon off to rest. I clicked around looking for something fun, but not too taxing to watch. I spent like half an hour browsing around Netflix and Amazon not finding anything that met my needs. I took a break to browse Twitter and one of my critic friends started talking about Zodiac, the 2007 thriller from David Fincher. That is neither a fun film nor one that I can casually watch. It is plot-heavy and intense, yet I went downstairs, found my DVD copy and gave it a spin.
Feeling ill or not, I was once again completely riveted. The film follows both the cops and some newspapermen as they try to figure out who the Zodiac killer is. For those of you who don’t follow serial killers like I do, in the late sixties, a serial killer murdered at least half a dozen people in central California. He wrote taunting letters to various newspapers calling himself the Zodiac with several different cryptic codes that when cracked supposedly gave up his identity.
Fincher’s film is methodical in its approach. It moves through every detail we know about the killer, presenting clue after clue, fact after fact, and yet the film doesn’t feel like a documentary or a textbook. Fincher keeps the tension running throughout, a masterful move considering so much of the film is people talking in offices. There is a scene towards the end in which one character is in the house of a man who may possibly be the killer that is a masterclass in suspense. Cinematographer Harris Savides makes every scene look stunning. Much of the film takes place in darkness and its lit perfectly.
If ever a movie was perfectly cast, this is it. The four leads are played by Robert Downey, Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Anthony Edwards, all played to perfection. But even the minor characters are played by excellent actors including Brian Cox, Chloë Sevigny, John Terry, Phillip Baker Hall, Dermot Mulroney, and John Carroll Lynch. Seriously, every small role is played by a freaking great actor.
I mentioned this film in a Five Cool Things column back in 2017 noting that I liked it better than viewing than my initial one. Well, I liked it more this time that that one. It truly is a movie that gets better every time you see it.
I’ve always heard El Dorado, Howard Hawk’s 1967 film, was basically a remake of Rio Bravo, his own film from 1959. Now that I’ve seen them both I can see where that reputation comes from but I think they are different enough movies to make them both worth watching.
Both films star John Wayne as the John Wayne type. Both films costar lawmen who have become alcoholics but must sober up to fend off the bad guys, and both films end in a bloody shoot-out where the heroes are held up inside a jail. But El Dorado expands on the story, spending more time with whom the John Wayne character is and it is quite a bit funnier. It has been a long time since I watched Rio Bravo (2015 to be exact, and you can read my review of the experience) so I’ll end the comparisons here and just focus on El Dorado.
Here, Wayne plays Cole Thornton, a gun for hire in the old west. He comes to El Dorado planning on working for the man who winds up being the villain of the film. His old friend, J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum), convinces him that’s a bad idea. Thornton heads out of the town and gets shot in the back for his trouble. He heals, goes off on some adventures, and comes back to find old J.P. in a drunken stupor over losing a girl. The bad guys are up to even more no good and Thornton realizes he’s got to sober J.P. up, enlist the help of his young friend Mississippi (James Caan), and beat the bad guys. They find themselves holed up in a pretty well-fortified jail, have numerous shoot-outs, and win the day.
Yea, so ok that is pretty much the plot of Rio Bravo (and Rio Lobo made three years later) but there are enough changes to make it worth watching. John Wayne is playing the same guy he played for most of his career, but there is a reason he was a star and he’s still got it here. Mitchum is terrific as the down on his luck drunk and Caan is clearly having fun. It is superbly directed and tons of fun.
As I’ve mentioned before, a few old college chums and I have been getting together regularly to discuss a film. Initially, we were doing it every week as everything was in lockdown, but that has slowly morphed into every-other-week to maybe every three weeks and I soon expect it will die altogether. But it has been fun while it lasts. Last week, we were supposed to have discussed Papillon the 1973 prison escape film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. But one of us wasn’t feeling well and we put it off another week. Hopefully, that discussion will happen this Sunday.
Anyway, you all don’t care about my discussion with my friends off-line. You care about what I feel about this film right here. Or at least I hope you do. Papillon is a film I first watched sometime after college, either right before I got married or right after. I’d never heard of it before but I liked McQueen and Hoffman and I gave it a blind watch. I really liked it back then and always held it high amongst their films and films made in the 1970s.
So I came to it this past week with high expectations. I must admit they were let down a bit. It is a well-made movie. Both actors give fine performances. McQueen especially gives one of his best performances ever. He stars as a man convicted of murdering a pimp, a crime he proclaims to be innocent of, though he readily admits he was a regular thief. Hoffman is a forger and embezzler who got rich counterfeiting bank bonds, swindling millions from unsuspecting dupes. Because of this a whole lot of people, including some of his prison guards, hate him. Those that weren’t affected by his crimes figure (correctly I might add) that he’s got a lot of that ill-gotten money tucked up inside his tuckus and they are all waiting on their chance to cut him open and find out.
He enlists McQueen’s Papillon character to protect him and the two forge a long-lasting friendship. They meet on a boat taking them to an island in French Guyana that will serve as their prison. It is a brutal place. It is a hot and sticky jungle full of creatures and disease ready to kill them and guards who’d rather torture them than give them any sort of care. Papillon immediately tries to escape. In fact, the entire film is nothing but him attempting to escape, getting captured, being put into solitary confinement, and then trying to escape again.
Solitary is even more brutal than regular prison life. He’s kept in a tiny cell, given gruel to eat, and when he refused to rat on his friend, who has been slipping him coconuts, he’s forced to live for six months with no light whatsoever on half rations of food. Yet he continues to try to escape. The film is about his undying spirit, and thus the undying spirit of mankind. You can bend the man, the film seems to say, you can beat him and batter him, but you can’t kill the light inside of him. To put it another way, you can take away his life, but you can’t take away his freedom.
The trouble I had with that this time is that we’re never given a reason why Papillon deserves that freedom. He claims he didn’t kill that pimp, but we’ve no reason to believe him. Even if he is innocent of that crime, he’s admitted to being a thief and thus a criminal. One could say he doesn’t deserve such cruelty in a prison as awful as that one, but then I’d argue no one does. The film doesn’t let us get to know who he is other than a guy who can’t stand to be imprisoned. Unlike Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption, I never really cared about Papillon as a human, and thus his quest to escape never really mattered to me.
That being said the film is well made and thrilling at times. Those escapes are wonderfully executed and the tortures excruciating. Maybe a little too much so. At nearly three hours long, the film can at times feel exhaustingly bleak. That feels like faint praise, but really, overall it is quite good.
This comic from Timothée de Fombelle and Christian Cailleaux tells the story of a woman who sits atop a New York City skyscraper tending her bees and watching the gangster who lives across the way. Who she is and why she watches the man is a mystery the book takes its time in telling. But it does so in such a beautiful, interesting way that you’ll wish there was more.
Brandon Cronenberg, son of Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, has a new movie out. The trailer doesn’t reveal much except its beautifully shot, and weird, and full of the sort of body horror and strangeness his father loves.