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Wilmington on DVD: Frankenweenie, Samsara, The Words


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Frankenweenie (A-)
U.S.: Tim Burton, 2012, Buena Vista

Two of the best things Tim Burton ever did were a couple of black-and-white cartoons he made for Disney back in the early '80s, when he was a lad in his 20s. One of them, Vincent (1982), was the tale in rhyme of a little boy who adored Vincent Price. Narrated in his inimitable evil-ish sneer by Mr. Price himself, it was a critical hit, and deserved to be. The other gem, Frankenweenie, was a Frankenstein parody set in a sit-commy stop-motion suburb, about a child named Victor Frankenstein who revives his dead pet dog with electricity. This one apparently dribbled into some theaters, offended some parents and/or Disney executives, was shelved and maybe got Burton fired.

Success, not to mention electricity, is the best revenge, especially for an artist who still retains the heart of a dark little boy and his dead little dog in a puppet graveyard on a dark and stormy night. Nearly 30 years after the first Frankenweenie's ignoble mistreatment, Burton -- who has long since gone back to Disney in triumph as a superstar director, commanding huge budgets (Alice In Wonderland, Sweeney Todd) and mucho respect -- now has remade Frankenweenie in black-and-white, stop-motion and 3D, and expanded it to feature length, which is what he always wanted.

If you spend nearly 30 years, on and mostly off, on something, you've got plenty of time to iron out all the kinks -- though, actually, kinks are what we usually expect and want from Burton. This new show has plenty. The first Frankenweenie (which came out on home video after its shelving) was good. This second is good as well, and longer and crazier and more exciting -- and kinkier.

Like all the best Burtons, it takes us back to our second or third childhood. It has a little boy named "E." Gore (Atticus Shaffer), a cat that turns into a monster-bat, crazed sea-monkeys, Winona Ryder in a reprise of the strange antisocial girl she played for Burton in Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, and a turtle named Shelley who turns into Godzilla. It has Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short as Victor's parents, who don't want him to seem weird, antisocial or unsportsy, or to spend so much time in an unpromising activity like making and showing movies in the attic.

It even has Martin Landau doing a Vincent Price imitation, seasoned with a little Bela Lugosi, as the school's mad (or at least angry) science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski. It was the untamable, unconquerable, unpronounceable Rzykruski who inspired young Victor F. (voiced by Charlie Tahan) to his feats of dead-dog-revival on the corpse of his beloved terrier Sparky, voiced (or barked) by Frank Welker.

The movie begins Spielbergishly, with Victor showing an amateur movie upstairs in which Sparky stars. He's a delightfully glum, 'shroomy-looking little chap, a tyke all in monochrome, and Sparky is a bouncy, happy, irrepressible little doggie who has a yen for the poodle next door. Sparky is also Victor's best friend, indubitably. But one day, he unfortunately interrupts a school baseball game (part of Mr. Frankenstein's normalization regimen), to run and fetch a home run ball across the street, and returns right in the path of one of those onrushing cars that keep popping up in movies.

Sparky is buried on a high black-and-white hill, under a gray stony cross, and Victor's heart seems broken, until Mr. Rzykruski demonstrates in class that dead frogs can twitch with a little jolt of electricity. What about lots of electricity? What about lightning and kites and a spooky graveyard at night? Will it work? It's working! IT'S ALIVE!!!!

That's pretty much the story the old Frankenweenie told, very well. The new Frankenweenie adds a lot, including lots of allusions to James Whale's almost universally admired horror classics (Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein) and some sinister schoolmates of Victor's ("E." Gore's pals) who discover his Sparky secret. Scheming to snatch victory from Frankenstein in the school's science fair, they come up with their own electric jolts, engendering the oddball gallery above and more, all of whom then run amok in the town. It's a familiar tale, but done with just the right dark little touches. In this case, lightning does strike twice -- and at the right running time.

The fun of Frankenweenie is the way he mixes the macabre and the whimsical, layers chocolate childlike playfulness with cheese-and-wine adult sophistication. The cute little black-and-white children here, even when they connive wickedly or talk like Peter Lorre, are the kind of cinematic toy-creatures that dance in your dreams, take root in your imagination. They're grand little puppets, grandly embarked on a whale of a voyage. And Frankenweenie, in both its versions, is Burton to the core. Vincent Price would have adored it.


Samsara (A-)
U.S.: Ron Fricke, 2011, MPI

Samsara is a film that, without words and without conventional scripting, with images and with music, gives us the face of the world: mountains, water, factories, cities, a "goddess" with many arms and a man of many masks, places of worship, places of imprisonment, places of death, places where we see religious men and artists toiling over objects of beauty -- including an image perhaps of samsara itself, the Sanskrit word that signifies the ceaselessly turning wheel of life. It is a beautiful film, and it makes you feel, if for only a moment, that the world is beautiful, or can be.

Fricke, who photographed Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, and (with producer-co-writer Mark Magidson) made Baraka and Chronos, returns here to the form that he and Reggio mastered. Clear, crystalline images of an amazing world, usually the Third World and the wilderness and cities (whirring ahead in time-lapse), accompanied by the throbbing, trance-like, repetitive scores of, originally, Philip Glass and here the very Glass-like music of Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci.

Samsara doesn't simply drown us in pretty pictures, accompanied by pretty drones. There is terror and death here too: scariest of all, the images of factory-farm-bred chickens pulled into moving walls that squash and kill them en masse. The implications of mass slaughter, of humans as well as of animals, are inescapable.

Why the juxtaposition between these few images of destruction and/or modern decadence, and the many scenic wonders Fricke and Magidson unfold? No explanation is offered. There is a world around us, one we mostly don't know, a world we miss. And here we have an hour and half to watch part of it, ponder on it, not to solve it perhaps, but to explore it. (Special features: Ron Fricke interview; behind the scenes featurette; trailer).


The Words (A)
U.S.: Brian Klugman & Lee Sternthal, 2012, Sony

As a youngster, I adored books and the words that made them up, loved the very feel of the pages on my fingers. Some of that old passion seems to course through the The Words: a literature-intoxicated film about writing and writers, and how people love and betray them both.

There's a very good idea here: the notion that, in literature as elsewhere, fame and achievement aren't necessarily wed together, but that art and life should always or mostly always be. Though the filmmakers -- writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal -- don't entirely realize that theme, they have some fun with it. This good looking, likable movie about the literary life is full of good-looking likable (but not necessarily literary-looking) actors like Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde and Ben Barnes. It's well designed (by Michele Laliberte) and beautifully photographed (by Antonio Calvache), and it shows an engaging feel for books and authors, brushed with a darker cynicism about the ways books are written and how reputations are made.

A very successful, almost offensively arrogant writer named Clay Hammond (played by Dennis Quaid, in full smirk) reads to a small, select audience, passages from his latest novel, also called The Words, while a pretty Columbia journalism student, Daniela (Olivia Wilde), eyes him from the crowd. Hammond's Words is about a young, good-looking writer named Rory Jansen (Cooper), who wants to be a serious novelist and is scraping by, with his attractive wife Dora (Zoe Saldana), in a nice-looking New York apartment, mostly it seems on his wife's salary and handouts from his businessman father (J. K. Simmons) -- and later from his salary as a mailboy in a publishing house.

Rory writes several novels in the early part of Clay's story, and one of them even wins some sincere but apologetic plaudits from an editor, who nevertheless, like everybody else, declines to publish them. We get a sense of what these books are like from what we see that Rory is like: He's ambitious, pretentious, self-absorbed, unimaginative, somewhat humorless.

Rory and Dora go to Paris. (His life is not too hard, you see.) They roam. Rory stares at the plaque outside Hemingway's famous old apartment. Later, in a shop, Dora buys him an old leather briefcase, and in it he finds an old yellowing manuscript that somebody obviously forgot, and that remained unnoticed all these decades -- and that has no author's byline or address. Intrigued, he reads it. It has no title. Not even "The Words." The mysterious book tells the story of a young World War I veteran and would-be writer (Ben Barnes), nameless in the manuscript, and of his marriage to a French waitress Celia (Nora Arnezeder), who bears him a child who dies. The mood of these scenes suggests something momentous, like Hemingway reading Scott's Gatsby. He is deeply moved. This is writing. This is art.

Inspired, Rory types out the novel into his computer. He says he's doing this because he wants to feel the story streaming through him. Dora, without asking, reads it, believing it to be Rory's work. She is deeply moved. She embraces him, insists that he give it to the world -- and his agent. He keeps mum about its origins. But, interest piqued, he shows the novel to his brusque publishing guy, Joseph Cutler (Veljko Ivanek), who is deeply moved, looks at Rory almost with tears in his brusque eyes, and insists the book be published. Rory, in a weak moment, agrees.

The novel, now called A Window Tear, comes out and becomes a literary sensation. Audiences everywhere are deeply moved. Rory, his prayers answered, is now a famous and much-loved author. But then, suddenly.... Sitting on a city park bench one day, staring into space (or Calvache's camera), musing on the ways of fate and fame, Rory is gently but firmly addressed by what seems to be an old, sad-eyed semi-bum (played, superbly, by Jeremy Irons). The Man says he is a fan of A Window Tear, which deeply moved him. Rory, polite, nods, smiles, tries to leave, but then is more fervently accosted and even insulted. He is called a "pissant" and accused of thievery.

Uh-oh. This is not, it seems, just any old sad-eyed semi-bum who reminds you of TV's Brideshead Revisited. This is the man who wrote the book that Rory stole, and what is more, who actually lived the book, lived all its beauty and sadness and pain, and then, with grace under pressure and phrases out of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, put it all down on paper that would eventually yellow. This is A Man, whose wife Celia lost the briefcase on a train. The Man and Celia split up, and he never wrote again, saw her only once. He stayed a nobody and tried to forget his sad stillborn literary career, until one day he saw....

I liked this movie more than others have. It looks good. It holds your interest. It's about something, even if it could have been much, much better about it. Most of all, I liked it because there are books on the room shelves in the movie, instead of ceramics and little plants and such. In The Man's Paris apartment, where he lives as a young writer and tragic figure, there are even books on the floor and on the steps of the staircase. And Jeremy Irons is tremendous.

The Words is the story of a writer who is a phony and a thief (Rory, who has very few books in his place). And of a writer who is a famous New York social lion and acts like a phony and a thief (Clay, who has almost no books, if any, in his expensively barren place). And of a writer who lives and writes and loves deeply and loses almost everything, (The Young Man in Paris, who has books all over the place.)

It's a story about plagiarism, written (and filmed) for a society where a lot of the books on our bestseller lists are signed by people who never wrote them: all those literary shams who outsourced the job of writing their books to ghost writers. But if there are no books, and if the books left are counterfeits, is it still possible to need and love them as we used to? Will we ever actually have a world without books? And will young writers still want to be Hemingway, or outdo Hemingway, or outdo Fitzgerald, or Virginia Woolf or Willa Cather? I just took a look at one of my bookshelves, packed and living and breathing with all those authors and more. I was deeply moved.

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