[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, November 1998]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View
presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors
for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for
In Bill Condon’s God and
Monsters the ghost of Frankenstein’s monster haunts James Whale (Ian
McKellan) even in retirement. Whale, the debonair, openly gay British director
who came to Hollywood from the London stage to make “art” and had his greatest
success with a string of “monster movies,” maintained a love-hate relationship
with Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein almost all his
life. Condon weaves the lumbering image of the misunderstood monster into the
fabric of the film like a haunting memory that won’t go away.
The pre-publicity for Disney’s live-action version of Beauty and the Beast might have revolved around any number of subjects: Why make a live-action redo of a classic animated film? How would Emma Watson fare outside her Harry Potter world? Had Disney spent too much money (a rumored $300 million, including marketing costs)? As it happens, the actual conversation has mostly been about director Bill Condon’s recent comment that a character in the movie might perhaps be seen as gay. This idea, that something about an American musical had gay coloring, apparently came as a great shock to—whom, exactly? After a minute of fuss about whether or not Russian film censors would allow the movie to be shown in their country (they will, but only to people over 16), the issue seems to have died down.
Ian McKellen was surely made to play Sherlock Holmes—that lanky figure and cultivated voice are ideal for the deerstalker hat, the pipe, and the highbrow cogitating. As it happens, all three attributes are challenged in Mr. Holmes, Bill Condon’s film about the waning days of the world’s greatest consulting detective. Holmes, now 93 and long retired to the countryside, irritably brushes aside the cap and the pipe as the fancies of those stories Dr. Watson used to write. More pressingly, Holmes’ mind is fading. As he loses his memory, he tries to put down in writing what happened in his last case, some 30 years ago. He’s forgotten the details, but he knows that something went terribly wrong.
A few short takes on SIFF offerings for the third weekend of the biggest, longest film festival in the United States.
PHOENIX (Christian Petzold, Germany, 2014; 98 minutes)
Fresh from Auschwitz and extreme facial reconstruction, Nelly returns to the noirish backstreets and bars of bombed-out Berlin, looking for what’s left of herself—and the husband whose memory helped her survive hell. Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) doesn’t recognize this gaunt, shell-shocked stranger as his once-glamorous wife, but plots to use her in a scam to inherit wealth left by Nelly’s gassed relatives. Sure to turn up on year-end Ten Best lists, this brilliant film plumbs the nature of identity, post-WWII guilt and denial, death and resurrection—and showcases a shattering performance by Nina Hoss. – KAM Sunday, May 31, 7:15pm, SIFF Uptown Theater
Originally released in the U.S. under the name Strange Behavior, Dead Kids is the debut screenplay by future director and Oscar-winning screenwriter Bill Condon (he Oscared for Gods and Monsters) and the directorial debut of producer Michael Laughlin (Two-Lane Blacktop), two Americans who got their offbeat horror movie made by filming it as an Australian / New Zealand / American co-production in New Zealand. The title Dead Kids makes it sound like a slasher picture or a zombie film, and while there are some elements of both of those genres echoing through the film, it’s really a mix of mad scientist thriller and revenge movie dropped into a somewhat surreal recreation of small-town Midwest America.
Michael Murphy stars as John Brady, an easy-going chief of police (or maybe county sheriff?) in Galesburg, a small Illinois town close enough to Chicago to request help from the city’s homicide detectives. He’s a widower and a single father to Pete (Dan Shor), a smart, good-looking high school kid who wants to go to city college, despite Dad’s insistence he go to a major university and see a little of the world beyond this town. Dad has good reason to send Pete away: he blames a professor at the local college for the death of his wife. The professor is long deceased yet his legacy still hovers over the school through pre-recorded lectures and professors who continue his psychiatric research and experiments in behavior modification. Pete, eager to make a little extra money, signs up as their latest test subject in a vaguely-described study being run by the doctor’s protégé (Fiona Lewis, with an air of icy dominatrix about her). The project, of course, turns out to have a sinister side, as an outbreak of violent, inexplicable murders attest.
The Fifth Estate (Touchstone, Blu-ray, DVD) – Benedict Cumberbatch makes such a fascinating Julian Assange that it only focuses attention the problems with Bill Condon’s portrait of Assange, WikiLeaks and the Bradley Manning revelations.
Ostensibly about how Assange and WikiLeaks rocked the word with a whistleblowing leak on a scale unseen since The Pentagon Papers, the film is more fascinated with the contradictions within the character of Assange, whose achievements were almost eclipsed by accusations of sexual misconduct and his flight from extradition, than on the reverberations of the web publication of classified documents.
I guess it’s no surprise that, like so much of the reporting on the issue, the real story—of government lies, of the vulnerability of secret information, of what the leaked intelligence does to our trust in our own government—is sidelined by the human sideshow.
As sideshows go, Cumberbatch is riveting as the thin white duke of digital activism, a churlish Sherlock under a white bleach job and pasty pallor who wants to be thought of as the mysterious mastermind in the shadows while playing the flamboyant showman for an audience of hackers. Is he an idealist who dedicates his entire life to fighting power or a pathological liar with an ego-driven personality, a holier-than-thou arrogance and a need for attention that trumps social activism? To put it in computer-age terms, it’s a film in a binary universe, all about singular contradiction as defining characteristics rather than a spectrum of detail. And when it comes to the WikiLeaks web network, Condon’s visual metaphors present the digital world with analogue sensibility. Or maybe an MTV video from a decade ago.
Daniel Brühl is the junior partner he adopts to help out what was essentially a one-man crusade hidden behind a digital network that suggested a small army of conspirators and ends up challenging and alienating Assange. Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie and Stanley Tucci stand in for the American intelligence community in a subplot that pretends to illustrate how the information dump put the life of an ally in peril, a storyline more calculated than convincing. What should be the 21st century All the President’s Men forgoes the complexity of the issues to hammer on the big contrasts and makes Assange’s petty personality eccentricities more of a focus than his actual accomplishments.
Blu-ray and DVD with three featurettes plus trailers and TV spots. The Blu-ray edition also features a bonus DVD and UltraViolet Digital HD copy for download and instant streaming.
Argento’s Dracula (IFC Midnight, Blu-ray+Blu-ray 3D, DVD) is how it reads on the disc case. On the screen it’s Dario Argento’s Dracula and on the IMDb it’s Dracula 3D. Any way you list it, this Dracula feels like the last gasp of a once creatively mad cinematic chemist, stirring combustible colors and unstable reactions into strange concoctions of murder and madness. There is a vibrancy to some of the art direction and set design in this busy but oddly inert take on the Bram Stoker novel, which adds a bunch of mayhem but else to justify yet another take on the same story, but over the last couple of decades Argento seems to have lost all sense of directing actors. The performances are all over the place here, some of them stilted and stuffy as if in a Victorian stage piece (Unax Ugalde’s Jonathan Harker looks like a dazed clown trying to remember marks), others sloppily hamming it up (Darios’s daughter Asia is one of the guilty parties on that score). Only Rutger Hauer brings a sense of history to his character when he appears around the 2/3s mark as a melancholy Van Helsing, as if his calling carries a high price in terms of loss and sacrifice.
Say what you want about Julian Assange, the guy is a talented blurb writer. Since reading an early screenplay draft about his WikiLeaks adventures, Assange has fired off a series of withering one-liners about the project. One recent declaration: “The result is a geriatric snooze-fest that only the U.S. government could love.” The adjective there is particularly cruel. Accuse the movie of distortions, or demonization, or of aligning itself with the CIA—fine. But “geriatric” is the kiss of death in Hollywood. What’s worse, Assange actually has a point.
The object of Assange’s displeasure does indeed carry the whiff of, if not old age, at least a pre-millennial’s attempt to understand this newfangled Wiki-world. Whenever director Bill Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls) wants to convey the Wild West reach of what can happen with information on the Internet, he uses cornball visualizations: hundreds of wired desks manned by hundreds of Assanges in a warehouse with no end, or fireballs exploding across the same space. The invention looks trite, but the effort is understandable. In some ways, The Fifth Estate lines up as a movie about people sitting at laptops. Sometimes they type.