When talking about swords and sorcery movies, what we’re really doing is slapping a fairly vague label on an extremely broad genre. Swords and sorcery distinguishes itself among other fantasy genres through what should be obvious means: there are swords, and probably several magical people in robes finding themselves opposite said swords. From that simple starting point, the genre sub-divides into several other categories. Perhaps most recognizable is the barbarian movie, characterized by hyper-masculine heroes like Conan or Prince Talon from The Sword and the Sorcerer. Films like these are fairly naked in their goal of being male power fantasies, a hormonal dream of strength, sex and violence, all of which can be a lot of fun, but swords and sorcery has more to offer than just rippling biceps and chain-mail bikinis. Take Dragonslayer, for example: rather than a sword-wielding beefcake, our hero is a baby-faced apprentice sorcerer trying to find himself and slay a dragon at the same time. Far from the titillation of The Sword and the Sorcerer, Dragonslayer‘s approach is a tad more thoughtful, and one perhaps more relevant to its core audience of adolescents. When you combine this with the film’s now legendary special effects, it’s no wonder that Dragonslayer has the devoted following that it does.
Peter MacNicol, in his first screen role, plays Galen, the eager pupil of a powerful mage. His aging master is approached by the people of a nearby village with a plea for aid. Their village, it seems, isn’t too far from the lair of a dragon, one the local ruler keeps placated with virgin sacrifices. Naturally the townsfolk want this to stop, so they enlist Galen’s master as a dragonslayer. However, before the quest can get under way, the old wizard kicks the bucket, leaving Galen as the only one who can save the day.
By moving away from the peerless heroes of the barbarian genre, Dragonslayer opens itself up to much greater possibilities in terms of characterization. Galen, in stark contrast to the self-assured heroes of barbarian movies, is equal parts over-confident and under-confident, going through several phases of bold and humble before coming out with just the right amount of confidence that he isn’t constantly losing father figures as a form of penance. This care towards characterization goes a long way in helping Dragonslayer carve out a niche within its genre. Like Galen himself though, the film’s narrative has a fair number of stumbles along the way. The pacing is extremely odd, enough so that the film frequently feels jumbled in its storytelling, and new elements and characters are introduced rather carelessly, like the princess who shows up around forty minutes in, a whole new main character suddenly dropping into our laps with very little warning. Galen’s story arc happens in fits and starts, and numerous members of the supporting cast seem to constantly be waiting offscreen to briefly snatch away the narrative reins so that they can get in an arc for themselves. Obviously there are ways to balance multiple character arcs within one broader narrative, but Dragonslayer feels awkward in its attempts to do so.
This doesn’t, however, keep the film’s writing from working just fine on a scene-by-scene basis. The characters are all well-defined and play off each other well, and there’s a very distinct vein of tongue-in-cheek humor running through the whole thing. It only pops up here and there, but when it does, Dragonslayer takes on a very subtle Discworld vibe that will doubtlessly put a smile on your face.
When Dragonslayer comes up in discussion, it isn’t the occasionally wonky storytelling that tends to dominate the conversations. The centerpiece of the film – and the reason it’s so beloved among lesser-known swords and sorcery films – is the dragon of the title, and good golly is it a sight to behold. A gorgeous, elegant creature brought to life entirely with practical effects, the dragon is the main reason why you watch Dragonslayer. It’s an effect that gets hyped a lot, but one that lives up to that hype. The design of the creature is gorgeous, realized via a wide range of miniatures, optical compositing, stop-motion and even some full-size props. Looking at the finished product, it’s not at all surprising that it took a quarter of the film’s budget, eight months of work for artists like Phil Tippett and Brian Johnson to pull off.
Dragonslayer is far from a perfect movie, despite what its more ardent fans may tell you, but its flaws aren’t numerous enough to justify its obscurity, and they’re more than balanced by the many things the film does right: solid characterization, legendary special effects, and an overall fun and breezy atmosphere. It may be a tad scattorshot at times, a bit unfocused and maybe even too long by twenty minutes or so, but when it’s functioning as intended, it lives up to its reputation as an unsung high spot in the genre.
Tom Hanks Soars in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’
Every film about a famous person needs a journalist as a way into their private lives; at least, that’s what the last few years’ worth of biopics might have one believe. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood follows this now-tired convention, but her film is miraculously the rare one that actually benefits from this peek into her subject’s life. She’s created a comforting yet complicated portrait of Fred Rogers that gets at the essence of his unshakable kindness, while also examining how such an unimpeachable figure impacted the lives of others.
Rather than with starting with Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood begins with burnt-out journalist Lloyd Vogel (The Americans’ Matthew Rhys, playing a version of the writer Tom Junod). He’s encountered great success and has a position at Esquire in 1998 — when print is riding high, and the internet hasn’t yet devoured most of the media ecosystem. But his unvarnished and aggressive investigative pieces have made him plenty of enemies, even if they did garner him awards. Looking to help him out, Lloyd’s editor assigns him a 400-word smidgen of a profile of Mr. Rogers (a magnificent Tom Hanks), who is about as far as possible from the kinds of people he usually writes about.
Tom Hanks looks nothing like Mr. Rogers, but he’ll charm even the most cynical in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
After some grumblings, Lloyd dutifully sets up the interview, only to get a call from Rogers himself, who is happy to start talking right over the phone. Once the journalist arrives on set in Pittsburgh, the television host puts the latest episode’s shoot on hold just to greet Lloyd and spend some time getting to know him, even though he’s working on a tight deadline. We don’t actually learn much of the back story about Rogers (viewers looking for that should seek out Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? ), but Hanks has the remarkable ability to give us far more valuable insights into his inner workings.
Though he looks absolutely nothing like Rogers, and barely even sounds like him, Hanks manages to affect the same cadences that made his on-screen delivery so mellifluous. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, presents a version of Mr. Rogers who is delicately and empathetically attuned with everyone around him. He’s a seemingly selfless person who takes more time out of his days for others than anyone could be expected to, and Hanks has a way of asking leading questions that present radically simple ways of living in harmony with those around us. I’m not exactly a movie crier, and even I found myself misting up when Hanks reminded Lloyd (and the audience) just how easy it is to be kind. Rhys’ Lloyd can’t understand this, and is initially convinced that there must be a darker inner-Rogers. However, anyone who has seen the documentary will know that what you saw was what you got with Mr. Rogers.
This is why the choice to use the journalist angle actually works for It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A more conventional summation of his life from childhood to death would have been trapped by the constancy of Fred Rogers; the whole point of his existence is that he was always good and kind, and never deviated from that script. By focusing on a fictionalized Junod, we get to see how Rogers ingratiated himself into a single person’s life, which is more interesting than a never-ending list of his good deeds.
Hemingway’s style in most of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is fairly dry and reserved, which perfectly captures the aggressively unglamorous nature of Mr. Rogers’ show. She adds in a fun departure from her previous work by creating a fictional framing device that treats the entire film as if it were an extended segment on the TV show. She also borrows the series’ charming miniature neighborhoods, and uses them for all of her establishing shots and transitions. When Lloyd flies off to Pittsburgh, we see a little model jet zoom away from New York City as model cars shuffle through traffic. But it’s her ability to coax great performances out of her actors that is her defining strength. Hanks is excellent (as expected), but she even draws a compelling performance from Rhys, who’s stuck playing the movie’s most difficult role. He could easily have been seen as merely a distraction from Mr. Rogers, but (most of the time) his solo scenes still have plenty of depth.
In 2019, a figure like Fred Rogers seems like something we dreamed as a society, rather than a real human being. His focus on forgiveness and understanding seems at odds with the moral certitude that affects certain corners of the internet. The Mr. Rogers of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a memory of simpler times, but also a call to arms to bring back some of his unbridled kindness. It may not seduce the most cynical among us, but it’s worth a try.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 10, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.
‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot
The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.
The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.
Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016.
For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.
We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them.
But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein.
The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day.
And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.
The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory.
Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject.
‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past
Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.
After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.
The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.
The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.
However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.
A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.
Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?
The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.
‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.
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