Saturday, December 5, 2015

Swearwolves and Other Outcasts

Roxanne: adapted by Steve Martin from the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand; directed by Fred Schepisi; starring Steve Martin (C.D. Bales), Daryl Hannah (Roxanne), Rick Rossovich (Chris), and Shelley Duvall (Dixie) (1987): Steve Martin's charming, slapstick romantic comedy riffs on Cyrano de Bergerac, albeit with a much happier ending. 

Martin plays C.D. Bales, the fire chief of a small mountain town in the state of Washington. He falls for Daryl Hannah's astrophysicist, but she keeps him in the Friend Zone after falling for a dim-witted fireman in Martin's company. Problems ensue. Fred Schepisi does a nice job with both the romantic and the slapstick elements, as does a fine assortment of supporting players. Martin's nose prosthetic and stunt man both do a lot of heavy lifting. Recommended.


Jason and the Argonauts: written by Jan Read and Beverley Cross; directed by Don Chaffey and Ray Harryhausen; starring Todd Armstrong (Jason) and Nancy Kovack (Medea) (1963): Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion wizardry gives various scenes in this mythological adventure movie the quality of a dream -- or a nightmare. 

The actors may not be great, the plot may meander, but the film's stop-motion/live-action integration achieves remarkable effects. It's not that the creatures look realistic. It's that they look just realistic enough while maintaining a look that also suggests their otherworldly nature within the narrative.

Jason and the Argonauts contains two of Harryhausen's greatest achievements -- the giant bronze 'robot' Talos and the great skeleton battle. We also get a nifty battle between Jason and the Hydra and a somewhat disappointing sequence involving Harpies, who never seem to be integrated as effectively as the other stop-motion creatures. Oh, well. 

Jason and his crew of merry Greeks search for the Golden Fleece, Hercules screws up, and many great battles are had with monsters while the Greek gods help or hinder Jason in his quest. The battle between Jason and several reanimated skeletons occurs at the end of the film, and it really is a show-stopper. Highly recommended.


Freaks: written by Tod Robbins; directed by Tod Browning; starring Wallace Ford (Phroso), Leila Hyams (Venus), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra), Henry Victor (Hercules), Harry Earles (Hans), Daisy Earles (Frieda), and Rose Dione (Madame Tetrallini) (1932): You really don't watch Freaks for the acting or the writing or that static, early sound-era direction. You watch it because the disabilities and deformities are real, because the story has the crude power of a fable, and because Tod Browning does manage a couple of effective scenes in the dark and the rain, when he's able to stage something that doesn't require camera movement.

So far as I can tell, the longest restored version runs 64 minutes, lacking about 20 minutes of lost footage that were cut from the film after its first couple of weeks of release. The lost footage apparently deepened the horror while also making the 'Freaks' of the travelling carnival more sympathetic and the 'normal' people much less so. What's left is still stunning, and surprisingly sympathetic in its treatment of the carnival grotesques who are simply trying to make a living in a world where the best they can hope for is life as a sideshow attraction.

Besides the unnerving night-time attack scene and the late-movie revelation of what revenge the carnival folk took on the homicidal trapeze artist, other scenes also achieve a sort of Grimm's pastoral. A scene involving 'pinheads' and their protector playing in the woods near the village they're visiting has a grace to it, and a grace note of kindness involving one of the townspeople's treatment of the frolickers. 

Only a coda added to the movie after its bowdlerization rings absolutely false. The rest is crude and powerful and impossible to imagine being made today. The horror of the movie begins as a contemplation of distortions of the human form and ends as a classic tale of horrific revenge in the manner of EC Comics or Poe's "Hop-Frog." The viewer's identification moves inexorably towards that of the 'Freaks,' and away from those who would harm or kill or even just mock them. Highly recommended.


What We Do In The Shadows: written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi; starring Jemaine Clement (Vladislav), Taika Waititi (Viago), Jonny Brugh (Deacon), Cori Gonzalez-Macuer (Nick), Stu Rutherford (Stu), Ben Fransham (Petyr), and Jackie van Beek (Jackie) (2014): Hilarious fake documentary from the people who brought you Flight of the Conchords centered on the exploits of four vampires rooming together in the Greater Wellington Area of New Zealand. There are jarring moments of violence throughout, but the movie overall is surprisingly genial in its portrayal of the vampires and their kith and kin. 

One of the things that makes the movie so enjoyable is its rigorous attention to the details of living as a vampire, spun at most points for maximum hilarity. It's hard to groom when you can't see yourself in a mirror, for instance, and for a young vampire, learning to fly can be a real hassle. The vampires are aware of fictional constructions of their habits -- they even crib one bit of hypnotic shenanigans from The Lost Boys, all the while mispronouncing 'spaghetti' as 'basgetti.' 

The laugh-out-loud moments are often truly gross -- Dandy vamp Viago's problems with tapping the vein of a victim lead to an awful lot of spurting blood, while new vamp Nick learns the hard way why vampires shouldn't eat chips. Meanwhile, 8000-year-old Petyr lurks in the basement listening to his headphones and refusing to attend house meetings. But he's a good listener!

I mean, really one wishes a 'serious' vampire movie would be this well-thought-out. The writers know their vampire mythology. But they also work some ridiculous changes on their sources, whether it's through Vlad's problems with shape-shifting or the eternal war between vampires and werewolves. What We Do In The Shadows is a sheer delight. Leave your reflection at the door. Highly recommended.

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