Monday, May 30, 2022

Back from the Dead

Films: Ghostbusters: Afterlife
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

Any time someone messes with a classic, there’s going to be some worry. Look at what happened with the Ghostbusters reboot, for instance. While I thought it was about as good as it could be, all things considered, it never found its own voice and relied far too much on trying to ape the original film. There were worries about Ghostbusters: Afterlife for the same reason, at least for me. How do you add on to one of the greatest genre films in history nearly 30 years afterwards?

That’s not to say that this hasn’t been done before, and done successfully. The 2018 direct sequel of Halloween is a case in point. With Ghostbusters: Afterlife, we are very much looking at the same sort of thing—an iconic film with a reboot that may or may not tarnish the reputation of that original film. There’s no way it could honestly measure up to the first film, but we can hope for it to at least be good, right?

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Someone's Horny

Films: Antlers
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

It will be a shock to no one who reads this blog with any regularity that I am a fan of Guillermo del Toro. That said, it’s worth noting that del Toro has a much better track record as a director than he does as a producer. If you remove his own directorial efforts from his producing and executive producing roles, it’s much more hit or miss. On the one hand, you get a masterpiece like El Orfanato and on the other, you get Mama. Sadly, Antlers falls more on the Mama side of the scale both in terms of overall quality and to a disturbing degree in terms of the overall story.

Antlers is a new spin on the Wendigo myth. We start with what feels like a poem in Ojibwa that seems to talk about something like a vengeful spirit arising because of the destruction of the environment. That, we will soon learn, is the Wendigo of the story. Or that’s the idea. In truth, our Wendigo doesn’t really seem to have a particularly serious environmental bent to it. This may be the cause of its arrival, but it’s not like the creature is specifically hunting down corporate executives dumping toxic waste into Oregon’s water tables or greedy lumber company bosses.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

We Need to Talk About Bruno

Films: Encanto
Format: Streaming video from Disney Plus on laptop.

When you think of Disney animated films, there is a particular sense that you almost certainly have in your head. A lot of that is going to be the basic Disney Princess story. We’ve got a na├»ve (often) young girl who has some magical powers in one way or another, or who is special in some meaningful way and is going to spend the bulk of the film essentially finding the guy she’s going to marry. Disney has honestly gotten better at this in the last decade and a half. A film like Tangled, for instance, follows that traditional Disney pattern on the surface but gives our heroine a lot more agency. That’s more the case in Frozen. With Encanto, we’re changing a lot of the script, and the movie is all the better for it.

When I say that Disney is changing a lot of that script, I mean that almost all of the things that you associate with a Disney Princess movie are not here to the point where I’m not sure that our main character would even qualify as a Disney princess. In fact, she is the one person in her family who doesn’t have special powers. But I see I’m getting ahead of myself, so allow me to take a step back.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

(Ro)Dental Problems

Films: Willard (1971); Ben
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

I used to have pet rats. When I say that, I learn that there are two basic types of people. There are a few people who know the joys of pet rats, but by far the most common response is a slight recoil and a wrinkling of the nose. I’ll happily tout just how good rats are as pets. They’re smart, affectionate, and trainable. In fact, the only real drawback to them is that they don’t live very long. We had a rat who lived for three years, and that’s sort of the equivalent of a human living to 110. I bring this up because Willard is a rat movie.

There are a few kinds of creature movies when we’re talking about real-world creatures. Jaws is the classic version of a big creature going on a rampage, and most other films of the same vein are pale shadows (Orca and Grizzly come to mind). There are also the classic giant vermin films that have good examples (Them, for instance) and plenty of terrible ones (The Deadly Mantis, The Killer Shrews, Night of the Lepus, and The Giant Leeches to name a few). And then there are swarm movies. Phase IV, Squirm, Frogs, Piranha, Kingdom of the Spiders and more fit into this category. That’s the category for Willard, with the swarm being rats.

Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison) is an introvert and something of a loser. Is job is at a plant that was started by his father but taken over by a man named Martin (Ernest Borgnine), who treats Willard terribly in the hopes of getting him to quit. Willard lives with his shrewish mother (Elsa Lanchester) in a dilapidated house that she constantly demands he fix. One of those fixes is getting rid of a nest of rats. Willard attempts to drown them but takes pity on them instead and keeps them in a shed. Slowly, he learns to like the rats, and has a favorite named Socrates. He also has a rat named Ben, who seems to have more a dark influence over him and his thoughts.

With the rats as the main positive in his life, the rest of Willard’s world spirals out of control. His mother dies, leaving him not money but a pile of debt. The house is going to be foreclosed on, and his boss desperately wants to buy it to knock it down and put up an apartment building. Willard, though, wants something like revenge. He’d also like a life with Joan (Sondra Locke), a temporary worker at his office.

What separates Willard from the rest of the swarm movie pack is that in this case there is a mind controlling the swarm. Willard trains his rats to obey simple verbal commands, and because he treats them well, they do as he asks. This includes helping him steal money to pay the back taxes on his house and helping him get revenge on the people who have wronged him. Willard only wants a normal life, but it appears that there is nothing but obstacles in front of him, preventing him from having it.

Willard is not the movie I thought it was going to be. Based on what I had heard about it, I expected something along the lines of Sugar Hill but with rats. Willard hunts down the people who have treated him poorly and sics his rats on them, allowing them to gnaw on his enemies and getting them a free meal out of it in the process. True, this does happen a time or two, but the movie is smarter than this. Willard isn’t so depraved an individual that he sees his actions as being entirely justified and justifiable. As the ending comes close, we see that Willard has decided that may rodental revenge isn’t always the best choice.

Bruce Davison is very good in this. Willard works because Davison is pitiable, and we need for Willard to be someone for whom we feel sorry. Even when he takes things too far, we need to be in his corner and rooting for him. He’s the one who has been put upon, and the is where our loyalties need to lie, and for the most part, they do. Ernest Borgnine is delightfully campy and chews all of the scenery, and it’s glorious to watch.

I’m not sure I’m keen on the ending of Willard, but overall, it’s a fine movie, and kind of surprising.

Willard was successful enough that it spawned an immediate sequel, Ben. This is the story of Willard’s surviving rat Ben looking for a new person to live with and looking to lead the pack to prosperity, or at least what counts as prosperity for a rat. We start the film with the last five minutes or so of the previous film. That was probably a good idea in 1972 since the audience likely needed that refresher, but when you watch the movies back-to-back, it’s a very odd recap.

Ben the rat escapes and makes his way to the house of the Garrison family. It’s here that he encounters young Danny Garrison (Lee Montgomery). Danny has heart problems (he’s clearly had heart surgery at one point, and shows his scar) and is something of a weird, introverted kid because of it. He likes to play with puppets and make them sing, and seems to be unable to do so without laughing at his own wit. He is also desperately lonely, which makes him a perfect target for Ben the rat. Danny lives with his mom (Rosemary Murphy) and his older sister Eve (Meredith Baxter).

What happens is that Ben shows up to Danny’s “workshop” where he keeps all of the things he likes to build and play with. Ben becomes his new friend despite the fact that there is essentially a city-wide rat hunt for the swarm of rats that is known to have attacked several people and that apparently lives in or around the old Stiles place. Not wanting his friend to be hurt, Danny keeps Ben safe and even lies to the police about the location of the rat swarm’s nest and about having seen any rats in the area. Despite his best intentions, the rats are spotted several times and eventually the police call in extermination experts and guys with flamethrowers(!) to deal with the menace.

In truth, the most notable thing about Ben is probably that the title song, which can only be described as a young man telling a rat that he loves him. The song was originally performed by Michael Jackson, so it’s got that working for it, too.

I’ll be blunt on this one: Ben isn’t nearly as good a movie as Willard is. There’s far less plot for one thing, in large part because a great deal of the film is about the police going into the sewers and attacking the rats with flamethrowers. Believe me, it’s not nearly as fun and exciting as it sounds like it’s going to be. The bigger problem with Ben is that a great deal of the plot simply doesn’t work. We have to make a lot of intuitive leaps to get from where we start to where we end up (which in this case happens to be a city sewer, covered in filth).

Ben isn’t bad. It just isn’t that great, either.

Why to watch Willard: A swarm movie with a difference.
Why not to watch: It’s not the ending you want.

Why to watch Ben: More ratty goodness.
Why not to watch: It makes less sense than Willard and it’s sappier, too.

Monday, May 16, 2022

A Drop of Dandelion Wine

Films: Belfast
Format: DVD from Nippersink Library through interlibrary loan on basement television.

Before the release of Belfast, Kenneth Branagh had a very odd relationship with the Oscars. He had been nominated five times, all in different categories but had never won. Finally, with three nominations for Belfast, he finally got a win. I like Branagh in general, and I tend to like a lot of what he does. His Hamlet is pretty great and I’m still of the opinion that his Henry V is the best one available. I think he should have won for that, for director at the very least.

Belfast is a story about growing up in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles,” the euphemistic name of the internecine war between Protestants and Catholics. Buddy (Jude Hill) is eight or nine and appears to very much be a stand-in for Branagh at this age. Buddy is vaguely aware that there are problems—hard to be ignorant of them completely when there are riots and house fires on his street. His family is Protestant, as are most in the area, and most of the people in the street don’t seem to care that much that some of their neighbors are Catholic. But, of course, religion remains a great divider, and those who want the Catholics to leave are starting to get violet.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

What I've Caught Up With, April 2022

While there are only five movies listed below, I watched a bunch from last year that I put up as full reviews. These include Mass, The Last Duel, and Halloween Kills. So, that’s a total of eight removed from that giant list that, the more I look at, appears will never go away. I’m always hopeful I’ll get more done, but life intervenes sometimes. A new work project and an intensification of something in my private life (nothing bad, just time consuming) has left me less time for movies, though, so that seems less likely. O, fortuna!

Friday, May 6, 2022

The (Not So) Straight Story

Films: Swan Song
Format: Streaming video from Hulu Plus on Fire!

I say regularly that the Oscar posts on this site are not a celebration of the Academy but a reckoning. After watching Swan Song (the one with Udo Kier and not the one with Mahershala Ali), it might be closer to say that this is an indictment. The entire ridiculousness surrounding Will Smith could have been solved by nominating the right people. For starters, Jason Isaacs should have been nominated for Mass, but the fact that Udo Kier never got a look is a damned crime.

Kier has been in some very strange movies over the course of his career, and it would be easy to write him off as someone who did a lot of strange, experimental horror and the like. It would be easy to think of him as someone who is more gimmick than anything else. Swan Song demonstrates just how much of a lie that truly is. If he never did anything else, if everything else he had ever done was garbage, he would have this movie to look back on as his career. For a younger actor, this is a career movie, and for someone the age of Udo Kier, it might well still be that.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Gidget Goes to Innsmouth

Films: The Dunwich Horror
Format: Streaming video from Pluto on Fire!

Some authors don’t translate to the screen well. Ray Bradbury, a favorite author of mine, is notoriously difficult to adapt to the screen in large part because no one really talks like his characters talk. Another author is H.P. Lovecraft. When you write stories about creatures that the author tells you are impossible to describe and impossible to exist in the real world, you’ve got something hard to depict. Lovecraft stories and Lovecraft-inspired films are hit and miss. Generally, films that are more Lovecraft-inspired (like Carpenter’s The Thing or Annihilation) are better than direct translations of his work to the screen. Sure, there are some good exceptions--Dagon, The Color Out of Space, and Re-Animator come to mind. Of all of them, The Dunwich Horror might be the most accurate, which is ironic considering how far it deviates from the source material.

The film starts with a woman giving birth, and it’s heavily implied that the birth does not go well. We then jump forward 25 or so years into the future and meet Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley), lecturer at Lovecraft-made Miskatonic University. When the film starts, Armitage has just finished a lecture on local history and has used a rare book called The Necronomicon (just leather bound and not “bound in human skin and written in blood” as Evil Dead fans might expect). As he returns the book to the library with his assistants, a strange man asks to see it.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Got a Black Magic Woman

Films: Sugar Hill
Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on Fire!

In 1973, there was a movie called The Girl Most Likely to in which a nerdy woman played by Stockard Channing, after a serious accident, has her face reconstructed so that she is both unrecognizable and gorgeous. She uses that new sex appeal and anonymity to go back through her previous life, seduce all of the men that wronged her, and kill them. If you replace Stockard Channing with Marki Bey, replace the car accident with her boyfriend being murdered, and add in a heaping helping of Voodoo, you end up with Sugar Hill.

Sugar Hill is a Blaxploitation film that dabbles in the same end of the cinematic swimming pool as Ganja & Hess and Blacula. I name those two films specifically because I genuinely like both of those films, and Sugar Hill is a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a hard film to dislike, even if it ultimately doesn’t have a great deal of plot.