Offbeat Mainstream Movies. Films Reviewed: The Frankenstein Theory, I’m So Excited, Thermae Romae
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies forculturalmining.comand CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
Is it an oxymoron to be both mainstream and offbeat? This week I’m looking at movies conventional in their genres, but unusual in their subject matter, style or location. There’s a horror movie that takes place in the arctic; a campy comedy that flies through the skies; and a manga rom-com that takes place… in a bathtub!
Dir: Andrew Weiner
John (Kris Lemche) is a young university professor in LA whose pet theory has landed him in hot water. He is convinced – based on some old manuscripts and letters he found – that Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was not a story. It’s all true. And not only is it true, but Frankenstein’s monster – the man himself — is still alive, hundreds of years later.
And where does he live? All the maps he has point to the far north. So he sets off with a camera crew to Whitehorse, Yukon. From there, with the help of Karl (Timothy Murphy), a chiseled-featured guide with an unplaceable accent, they head up to the sub-zero temperatures of the tundra.
Soon enough they are camped out in a wooden yurt in the middle of nowhere. John is convinced that this where they’ll find frankenstein’s monster. They spend dark nights listening to howling wolves and Karl’s stories of fighting polar bears.
But when they wake to find human footsteps in the snow, they realize that someone with very big feet is watching them. Is it the monster? What will they do if they actually meet him? And is it safe to fool around with modern nature? Soon enough, they realize they may have bit off more than they can chew… and that they might be chewed up themselves.
This Blair Witch-style found-footage horror movie is a bit eerie with some breathtaking arctic scenery (for once, the US is masquerading as Canada, not vice-versa). I like the premise, and there are some neat parts involving a meth-head, huskies, and snow drifts; and the acting is generally pretty good. But the plot is unbelievably predictable. Most important, for a thriller/horror movie this just not scary enough.
Dir: Pedro Almodovar
A plane flying from Spain to Mexico runs into trouble with its landing gear. After putting the economy class to sleep using muscle relaxants the staff has to deal with the eccentric business class passengers: A bald CEO; a mysterious, moustachioed Mexican; a much-feared female celebrity; a shy psychic who wants to lose her virginity; a young couple on their honeymoon; and a middle-aged actor with marital difficulties. Each one has a secret to be revealed.
Meanwhile the flamboyantly gay flight attendants and their macho pilots trade sexual barbs, innuendos and hidden rendezvous in the cockpit and washrooms, even as the plane endlessly circles airports, still unable to land.
We discover the passengers’ stories via two odd features of the plane. All telephone conversations are broadcast on the PA system; and one flight attendant Joserra (Javier Camara) always tells the complete truth whenever asked a question.
Like Woody Allen, Almadovar started as a comedy director, only later turning to serious dramas. I’m So Excited is a screwball-style comedy harkening back to his early days. This is comedy at its most camp. The flamboyant flight attendants feel compelled to ogle every man, gossip with every woman, and perform lip-synch dances up and down the aisle.
I really like movies with twisted plots, strange characters and unexpected revelations – there are lots of lots of those. And the plot turns (things like a telephone call followed from the sky to the ground and back again, involving multiple coincidences) were great. And it’s fun to see lots of the old Almodovar stalwarts, like Cecelia Roth.
But at times the humour felt strangely dated, and most of the gags fell flat. (Were they lost in translation? Who knows?) I just wasn’t laughing as much as I expected. So if you plan to see this movie, go for the story, not for the laughs.
Dir: Hideki Takeuchi (Based on the popular manga by Mari Yamazaki)
Lucius (Hiroshi Abe) is an architect in ancient Rome under the reign of Hadrian. He always enjoys a dip in a thermae romae – that is, a roman bath. Mami (Aya Ueto) is an office worker (and budding comic book artist) in present day Japan. She also frequents the local sento or public bath.
But one day, strange circumstances suck the naked Roman down a whirlpool and spit him out again into a pool of doddering, elderly Japanese men. Who are these “flat-faced” people who speak no Latin? Pretty but bumbling Mami falls for him, of course, but keeps her passions in check. Handsome Lucius, on the other hand, is fascinated mainly by the advanced technology he finds: the mundane accoutrements taken for granted in modern times. And when he is transported back to ancient Rome he revitalizes his career with his new inventions. They meet up again in a hot springs, in a client’s plumbing display, and other strange places. Can Mami and Lucius find true love in a relationship spanning time and space? And can the relentlessly hardworking nature of the Japanese people rescue Lucius’s Rome in its time of trouble?
This is one of the strangest mainstream movies around, combining the mundane minutiae of Japanese daily life with outrageous fantasy. This, combined with toilet humour and bathhouse lore, make a very weird but totally fascinating movie. Based on a manga, it has a serial comic book’s plotting, that makes it feel more like a TV sitcom ( a series of episodes with recurring characters who solve problems and then move on) than a traditional movie:. But I thought it was hilarious, and uniquely Japanese in its odd and eccentric ordinariness.
The Frankenstein Theory starts today at the Big Picture Cinema; I’m So Excited also opens today at the Varsity in Toronto – check your local listings; and Thermae Romae is another great movie playing at Toronto’s Italian Contemporary Film Festival which is on right now – go to icff.ca for more information.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website,culturalmining.com.