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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Frankenweenie: Samsara



FRANKENWEENIE  (Also Four Disc Blu-ray/3D/DVD/Digital Copy & Two Disc Blu-ray/DVD) (Three and a Half Stars)

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. (I remember seeing it in a theater in the early ‘80s, with mingled bemusement and delight — and filing away Burton‘s name in my noggin.) The other gem, the black and white featurette Frankenweenie, was a Frankenstein parody set in a black-and-white sit-commy stop-motion suburb, about a child named Victor Frankenstein who revives with electricity his dead pet dog. 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 anti-social 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 (at least, Short doesn’t), 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 the long lost Frankenstein, Where Art Thou?) (just kidding), 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 — the fun of all the best Burtons, from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure to Alice in Wonderland — 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. Or at least he would have liked — and maybe even have been able to spell — Mr. Rzykruski.


SAMSARA  (Also Blu-Ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

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.

I know. You, or some of you, think that sounds pretentious. Sappy. You think that the film already sounds like a crock of phony crap and bunk spirituality, pseudo-Buddhist bibble-babble, a snob-trap to divert our attention from the real world — from its ugliness, its horror, its need for change. You, or some of you, yhonl you’d rather see a good show and the hell with all this 70mm mysticism and spirituality. Well, as William Blake once wrote “Mock on! Mock on!” You’re entitled.  But the cinema exists to reveal the true beauty (and the true ugliness) of the world too, and these days we don’t see enough of either. I‘ll forgive Samsara director-cinematographer Ron Fricke his pretensions, in appreciation for the lovely images he‘s here captured for us here.

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.

One of the tasks of art is to create beauty. (I’ll call it a sacred task, since I lived most of my life with an artist and treasure her memory, and it‘s what she would have said.) Another is to reveal the truth, or to give us both, together. I wouldn’t be so pretentious as to say that Samsara achieves all or any of these. But it tries. Honor to it then, and praise to all cinema that reveals a world to us — worlds upon worlds, the wheels of death and the Wheel of Life as well.


Special Features: Ron Fricke Interview; Behind the Scenes Featurette; Trailer.

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