My Week in Movies (8/13–8/19)
Remember these? Let’s see if I can get back in the swing of things here. I’ve been doing fairly well lately with full reviews for current movies, so I’m going to try to stick to that, and keep the MWIM posts to stuff on home video/streaming.
THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS — By now I probably no longer need to explain who H.P. Lovecraft was or the broad strokes of what he wrote. Cthulhu, Mountains of Madness — references to and an awareness of Lovecraft’s legacy, if not necessarily all the details of his literary mythology, have gone mainstream.
Adapted here by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, who previously adapted The Call of Cthulhu as a silent film (currently available on Netflix streaming) — basically, in the style of a film that would have been released in the year the story was first published — WHISPERER likewise is not just a period piece but a period production, designed to evoke the kind of film the Whisperer novella might have become had Lovecraft’s work been more appreciated in its time. Whisperer being written several years later, it’s a talkie, which as you might guess from the title is appropriate to the subject matter.
As with CTHULHU, the HPLHS embraces their low-budget approach, lending the film a DIY charm that also, frankly, helps its authenticity as a period production, using miniatures and various perspective tricks to great effect. The creature effects this time around are digital (rather than the stop motion namesake in CTHULHU), but they manage to feel stop motion for the most part, which is great. It’s not just a matter of leaving out the motion blur, the animation actually feels like it has the personality of old school Harryhausen monsters.
One of the adaptation challenges of Lovecraft’s work is that most of his stories are creepy mood pieces, culminating in a sudden shocking* reveal. As the filmmakers themselves mention in the BTS content, that’s fine for a short story, but in terms of cinematic story structure, Lovecraftian twists are better as the act three turning point than the climax or conclusion. This is true of Whisperer as much as any of his other stories, and so in adapting the story to screen they essentially had to create a third act, and pepper set-up for the new third act throughout the other two. All things considered, I think they did a fine job of balancing the original story with the needs of the screen. Worth checking out.
DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME — From what I can tell, this is basically the Chinese equivalent of ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER. The people really existed but the story itself never happened (as far as I can gather). The story follows the eponymous detective as he investigates a series of spontaneous combustions in the days leading up to the coronation of China’s first female Emperor.
I know it’s ethnocentric and I shouldn’t still be surprised to see extensive digital effects popping up in non-U.S. films (especially when the U.S. is outsourcing the effects in its own films to these very countries), but the sheer amount of effects work — not brilliant but certainly solid — took me by surprise. Lots of digital environments/set extensions.
It’s a bit overlong, with some story fat that could be trimmed, and the fight scenes — despite action directing by Sammo Hung — aren’t anything to really write home about, but fans of fantasy and martial arts movies will probably want to check this one out.
GRIFF THE INVISIBLE — (Spoilers this paragraph. Spoiler free version: don’t bother.) A weird Australian indie flick, ostensibly about a young superhero but actually, it turns out, about a dangerously delusional young man and the equally delusional young woman who comes into his life to enable him. I think I see what they’re getting at, the idea there’s someone out there for everyone, but in the execution it comes out morally questionable, if not outright objectionable. But besides that, it’s weird, meandering, and overall just kind of dull.
BAD MOON — Based, apparently, on a novel from the point of view of the family dog who is the only one who realizes there’s Something Wrong with Uncle Ted, the end result is a werewolf movie that’s way too violent to be family friendly, but too after-school-special, boy-and-his-dog adventure to be properly horror. The one on-screen transformation occurs in a series of hopelessly bad digital morphs, but the final werewolf puppet (which, if you’re a student of the JAWS school of “less is more,” we see far too much of) is pretty damn scary.
DONNIE BRASCO — I really enjoyed this film. Johnny Depp and Al Pacino both turn in terrific, passionate performances without going over the top, which is rare to see in both cases — in different senses — today. Shot simply but effectively, filled with moments of real tension. I’m not generally all that interested in mob movies (although I like many of them, so maybe that’s silly of me), but I would definitely recommend this one.
*Readers today will probably see many of them coming a mile away, not the least reason being so many stories since have plundered Lovecraft for inspiration, but for their time they were shockers.