The Frighteners (1996, Peter Jackson), the director’s cut

The Frighteners came right after (well, two years) Heavenly Creatures, so I assume–and sort of remember from 1996–it was supposed to be Jackson’s big break. Instead, it bombed. So, obviously, it’s his best work. The Frighteners is a Universal Pictures Michael J. Fox star vehicle (following Greedy and For Love or Money and The Hard Way) and it’s Fox at his best, when he finally shrugged off the trying-too-hard attitude that ruined his 1980s work. The film plays to Fox’s comedic, self-referencing traits, but without forcing references to earlier work. The scenes where he’s not being funny, fail. It’s not all Fox’s fault, the script fails there too. The Frighteners is best when it’s being silly. (However, as “Boston Legal” further confirms, Fox does well as a romantic leading man).

I wasn’t expecting much from The Frighteners. I haven’t seen it since the late 1990s, probably when the laserdisc came out. I missed the much-eBayed director’s cut laserdisc and waited to watch the film again until it became available in whatever format. I remember Jackson once referred to the version as “The Director’s Fun Cut,” as opposed to anything else, and it is quite a bit of fun. The Frighteners is so well-cast, has so many good jokes and performances (Dee Wallace-Stone is particularly good), it’s rather disappointing when it falls apart. The added footage does the film no harm, it just has a bad third act….

Throughout the entire film, Jeffrey Combs irritates as a wacko FBI agent, but he once disappears only to reappear, it becomes obvious how little he brought to the film. When he returns, the heart sinks and the eyes roll… He’s actually doing a Jim Carrey impression in the role, stealing mannerisms and expressions from Carrey’s early work–most visibly Ace Ventura and Dumb & Dumber. I kept wondering if they’d wanted Carrey (he and Combs share a resemblance), but couldn’t afford him or something. Even the initials are the same. It’s not just Combs who ruins the third act, it’s just heavy-handed and poorly written… but not so much it spoils the film.

Oh, lastly, the awful CG special effects. They don’t really affect the film’s quality, but many of these shots could have been achieved without CG, just with a minuscule amount of imagination and they would have actually looked good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Fran Walsh and Jackson; directors of photography, Alun Bollinger and John Blick; edited by Jamie Selkirk; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Grant Major; produced by Selkirk and Jackson; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Frank Bannister), Trini Alvarado (Lucy Lynskey), Peter Dobson (Ray Lynskey), John Astin (the Judge), Jeffrey Combs (Milton Dammers), Dee Wallace-Stone (Patricia Ann Bradley), Jake Busey (Bartlett), Chi McBride (Cyrus), Jim Fyfe (Stuart), Troy Evans (Sheriff Perry), Julianna McCarthy (Old Lady Bradley) and R. Lee Ermey (Sgt. Hiles).


Interrupted Melody (1955, Curtis Bernhardt)

Interrupted Melody is an interesting example of economic storytelling. The film covers about ten years, has a number of strong character relationships, but moves gently through all of it. It’s got moments where there isn’t any dialogue, just the look between characters, it’s got a great love story–and, even better, a great struggling marriage. Director Bernhardt deserves a lot of the credit–for example, he knows just how long to let these scenes go and the first date between Eleanor Parker and Glenn Ford does better in five minutes what most films–most good films–spend twenty doing. It’s not just Bernhardt though. Interrupted Melody was co-written by Sonya Levien, who also worked on The Cowboy and the Lady and it had similarly perfect pacing.

Most of Interrupted Melody is a showcase for its actors, whether it’s Parker or Ford or even a young (and good-looking) Roger Moore. The film’s structure varies in focus–for instance, there’s a large part where Ford is the protagonist over Parker–but manages the transitions back and forth beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, I don’t even recall the first transition. The second, later one, I still do….

Besides being Parker’s best performance (probably, at least in the lead), Interrupted Melody has a great Glenn Ford performance. Ford never gets the proper respect–search for him on IMDb and the first title to come up is Superman, but he’s really good, especially in this, mid-1950s period of his career. Melody‘s not out on DVD, but it does run occasionally on TCM. TCM has their wonderful database, which allows you to vote for films for Warner Bros. to release on DVD. Like Interrupted Melody, for example.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Curtis Bernhardt; written by William Ludwig and Sonya Levien; directors of photography, Joseph Ruttenberg and Paul Vogel; edited by John D. Dunning; produced by Jack Cummings; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Glenn Ford (Dr. Thomas King), Eleanor Parker (Marjorie Lawrence), Roger Moore (Cyril Lawrence), Cecil Kellaway (Bill Lawrence), Peter Leeds (Dr. Ed Ryson), Evelyn Ellis (Clara), Walter Baldwin (Jim Owens), Ann Codee (Madame Gilly), Leopold Sachse (Himself) and Stephen Bekassy (Count Claude des Vignaux).


This film is also discussed in Sum Up | Eleanor Parker, Part 2: Technicolor.

Angel Baby (1995, Michael Rymer)

Regardless of quality, Angel Baby will always have a special nostalgia for me. Years ago I was admonishing a friend for not watching foreign films and he challenged me, asking for an example of a recent, excellent foreign film. I gave him Angel Baby. I think it was a few days later he came back and complained Angel Baby, an Australian film, wasn’t really a foreign film. Having just watched it again (as I prepare to retire my laserdiscs), I think will go out and say Australian films are not American films. They are foreign films. Maybe not all of them, probably not most of them, but certainly Angel Baby.

Whenever there’s a Hollywood movie about the mentally ill or handicapped, it tends to fail. These films aren’t necessarily complete failures, but they always somewhat fail. The first major problem with these endeavors is their attempt to make the mental illness or handicap an avenue for (somewhat respectful) comedy. We, the presumably mentally fit audience, are expected to laugh at the characters. We might think they’re cute, but they’re still funny. The characters immediately are not treated with respect. Angel Baby never lets the audience laugh after the opening credits, doesn’t even let them crack a smile, at these characters. It does let the audience sympathize with the “fit” characters, but it never lets the mentally ill characters become pitiable. Never even approaches it.

The second major difference is in the conclusion. Most of these films promise a bright future. The film being the story of reaching the bright future. Except the bright future is tacked, so the film isn’t really that journey, but that’s not the point. Angel Baby doesn’t pander in that way. It tells its story and it tells it beautifully. Michael Rymer is still around (after years of Hollywood dreck), he’s directing “Battlestar Galactica” and co-writing a few of the episodes too. That work, however, good, doesn’t compare to Angel Baby. Angel Baby is perfectly directed, beautifully written, beautifully acted. Jacqueline McKenzie was so good in it, I almost saw Deep Blue Sea. She’s still making interesting films, however, you just have to get them from Australia. John Lynch is sort of around, but not in anything I’d see. Of the two, I suppose Lynch is best.

Angel Baby is not out on DVD in the US (I think Paramount’s got the rights, so it’ll probably never happen) and the Australian disc is hard to find and appears to be pan and scan.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Michael Rymer; director of photography, Ellery Ryan; edited by Danny Cooper; music by Chris Gough; production designer, Chris Kennedy; produced by Timothy White and Jonathan Shteinman; released by Cinepix Film Properties.

Starring John Lynch (Harry), Jacqueline McKenzie (Kate), Colin Friels (Morris) and Deborra-Lee Furness (Louise).


The Call of Cthulhu (2005, Andrew Leman)

Here’s an interesting one. A modern silent drama. When I saw Gance’s Napoleon at Northwestern, someone besides a film professor introduced it. I can’t remember what he did, but he was just a big fan of silent films. In his brief introduction, he talked about how silent films and talkies vary not just by the audio, but by the storytelling methods. The Call of Cthulhu is a silent drama. The goal of the filmmakers (the H.P. Lovecraft historical society) was to adapt the 1920s story in that time period’s film medium. From the language of the title cards to the expressions and make-up of the actors, they succeed.

The silent drama is more of a visual storytelling medium than the talkie. Through the 1930s, when people were getting used to talkies, you still had some of these visuals–communicating information to the audience through a means outside the characters’ experience. A reasonable modern example is the maps (the moving dots) in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s not a precise example, but it’s a similar method. While these visuals do not currently “work” in film, in The Call of Cthulhu, they’re brilliant. The original story–I’ve never read any Lovecraft and don’t necessarily plan to do so, but he’s got a lot of great fans (John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro)–is multi-layered, four or five story timelines going on at once, and the visual storytelling allows easy understanding for the audience.

The film’s official website attests there’s no CG, but some of the direction is obviously influenced by post-1920s work. It’s not disconcerting at all and I only noticed the shots because I watched the film with such mad love. With many of the “location” sequences, there’s raw, brilliant filmmaking innovation. CG has all but done destroyed that sort of innovation (to the point it’s surprising to find out something is not CG), and The Call of Cthulhu certainly shows film needs that innovation–needs that struggle–to achieve. This particular film achieves a whole lot through such innovation.

Though the film is out on DVD and has been reviewed at many mainstream DVD websites, Netflix isn’t carrying it, so it’s $20 from the official website. (You can also get it at Amazon). It’s well-worth the price.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Leman; adaptation and screenplay by Sean Brannery, based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft; director of photography, David Robertson; edited by Robertson; music by Chad Fifer, Ben Holbrook, Troy Sterling Nies, Nicholas Pavkovic; produced by Brannery and Leman; released by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

Starring Chad Fifer (Henry Wilcox), Ralph Lucas (Professor Angell), Matt Foyer (The Man) and John Bolen (The Listener).


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