Thursday, October 20, 2022

Film Rolls, Round 4: The Wild Boys and Dragonwyck

So I knew film festival stuff was going to derail this goofy project, but I didn't realize it was going to be like this! I have, in fact, been rolling the dice for Mookie and Bruce all year, but just haven't been posting reviews since a while ago, which means some of these posts are going to be shortish because the movies have kind of fallen out the back of my head.

A recap: Because I am terrible at choosing between multiple good options, I have set my "recently-purchased-but-unwatched" shelves of discs up like they are a game board and purchased a couple figurines to use as pieces, with a roll of a 20-sided die moving them along the path and in competition to earn more points than the other, with some completely arbitrary rules in effect for how things get rearranged as movies get watched and purchased. As of the end of Round 3, the movies Mookie had chosen earned 14 ¼ stars, while those Bruce landed on have rated 17.

Now it's Mookie's turn again:

That 13 catches Mookie up to where Bruce had landed in the "recent from the West" box, almost exactly, meaning he draws French oddity The Wild Boys.

How does Bruce respond?

… with a 17, which means he's the first to make it out of the top rowand into the second, landing on Twilight Time's release of Dragonwyck, which I readily admit that I tried to watch when i initially purchased it but conked out during.

So let's see how that went!

Les garçons sauvages (The Wild Boys)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 April 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Writer/director Bertrand Mandico's next feature would be Ultra Blue, another low-budget French fantasy that revels in its artifice and isn't shy with the nudity. It's a genre that seems to have been popping up at the likes of BUFF, Fantasia, and Nightstream (which I guess we're not doing this year) a little more frequently in recent years than a bit before, although that could just be a case of a biased sample: There could be a ton being cranked out and these are just the ones that happened to catch programmers' and distributors' eyes.

The premise for this one is pretty straightforward - a handful of troublesome teenage boys get into trouble, so their wealthy parents stick them on a boat with a stern captain to teach them some responsibility, but he takes them to a mysterious island where they get changed into girls, although not necessarily at the same rate - not terrific for those who change fast considering how their sins include a lot of mistreatment of women - and the captain and the mysterious woman on the island, quite possibly a man herself when she arrived, all have their own agendas.

I'm quite fond of gender-bending stories - there's enough on my shelf that I intended to do a sort of repertory-series-at-home when theaters were closed but never got around to it - but readily admit that they tend to fall into familiar patterns where a return to normal is almost fore-ordained (although the reasoning has kind of evolved in recent years) and there's not a lot of middle ground between the earnest comedies where nobody will find themselves on the opposite side of a sexual encounter from what they're used to to the porn where very little else happens. The Wild Boys, for better or worse, is kind of all over the place, treating the title characters' imposed femininity as a way to reveal themselves, whether as pragmatic, likely to double down on being aggressive monsters, or cowed by the more masculine people around them. The structure of it sometimes can feel like a lot of missed opportunities - all five castaways are played by women from the start and the island setting means that there aren't new clothes, identities to assume or conceal, etc. Maybe there's some method to it - Mandico is sort of positing a situation where the pressure on them comes from how they think of themselves and how women should be treated - but if you like this genre for watching people flail or thrive in new situations, there isn't much of that.

What there is, on the other hand, is a great deal of delightfully mad images. Mandico and cinematographer Pascale Granel shoot on 16mm film, with the crisp black-and-white of Paris and the ship giving way to color as the island, its strange flora, and the evil spirit that at times seems to goad them on exerts more influence. It's the sort of movie that seldom strives to look very realistic, not particularly hiding that it is being shot on relatively small soundstages, but also doesn't wink at the audience about how cute and cheap it is. It's that peculiarly French combination of busy and deadpan, sometimes seeming to hold back a bit because the filmmakers may not consider a bit important enough to potentially overshadow what they do care about, but even when the weirdness is a bit much and the material underneath is actually pretty thin, the intriguing usually squeaks ahead of the dull.

I don't know that it's a particularly good movie, and given that After Blue (Dirty Paradise) bored me to tears (as a lot of these lo-fi adults-only French fantasies have done), I suspect I like it as much as I do because it hits that one weird thing that I dig. On the other hand, I've certainly seen some real dreck in that category, an The Wild Boys balances its tendencies to be arch and chaotic better than the predictable body-swaps.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 April 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

The fun thing about movies like Dragonwyck is that they weren't exactly prestige films; this one's an adaptation of a recent bestseller that played to a wide audience, so even though the book was 400+ pages, it can be cut down to 105 minutes because it's basically a genre movie and people aren't betting big reputations on it.

You can feel that it was a book that had room to breathe, perhaps; Joseph L. Mankiewicz takes a story that has a pretty farmgirl (Gene Tierney) brought to the titular estate by distant cousin Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price) and his ailing wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne) to serve as governess for their daughter (Connie Marshall) to start and cuts it in a way that eventually requires some quick back and forth as she returns home, and then to Dragonwyck, and there's a little clumsiness in how the story is class-consciousness enough to fundamentally have problems with the aristocracy Nicholas represents. It's a streamlined gothic romance.

You can streamline it, of course, when you can cut description and let the production design team work, making the place lush but chilly, especially in comparison to the tiny house Miranda Wells grew up in, with Walter Huston's father underlining it a bit clumsily but earnestly. Mostly, though, it's got a fine central pairing: Gene Tierney is an appealing Miranda - luminous, of course, and naive enough to be seduced by Nicholas's wealth and sophistication, but she also sells that this girl is sensible and not prone to losing track of her kind nature. More importantly, though, is that this is the film where Vincent Price seems to be discovering his destiny as a screen villain: His early career played on his intelligence and sophistication, but this is one of the first movies where there's a haughty arrogance to it, and his Nicholas Van Ryn is smoothly casual in his entitlement, a suitable romantic villain even if the film hadn't slid in to thriller territory.

The rest of the cast isn't quite on Tierney's and Price's level - Walter Huston and Anne Revere don't just underline their intentions as salt-of-the-earth parents, but boldface them, for instance, although Glenn Langan's earnest solidity makes a fine contrast to Price, even if there's not necessarily greatness rather than just goodness being outshone. And it can, at times, be kind of middling genre entertainment, the basics rather than an exceptional, creative example of the genre despite its stars.

… And where does this leave us after Round 4?

Mookie: 17 ¼ stars - making a small gain

Bruce: 19 ¾ stars - still ahead, but not so far that Mookie can't catch up

Move some discs up, and we stand here:

Mookie's creeping up, but a couple uneven rounds could tighten things a lot more.

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