Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Frankenweenie and The Waiting Room

     The Salvation of Science … in Some Cases but Certainly Not All
                    Review by Ken Burke              Frankenweenie       

Tim Burton delivers enjoyable stop-motion animation in a retelling of the Frankenstein story with a kid reviving his dead dog, creating the usual havoc in the community.

                                                                                               The Waiting Room       
This is a straightforward documentary of a miserable day in the life of a public hospital desperately attempting to treat the many uninsured who come for needed help.        

            You may find the “science” connections a bit far-fetched in this joint review (Yeah, I’m back to that again this week, no matter my original one-film-is-all-I-can-handle-right-now intentions but the relationships keep calling out and, after all, who needs sleep anyway?), yet bear with me and see if the links lock or maybe that the real needed linkage is I should have my brain synapses reattached.  To begin, assuming that you enjoy what he regularly delivers, Tim Burton is one of our most reliably effective filmmakers, with a consistent interest in the off-kilter (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, 1985)—if not the fully macabre (Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 2007)—aspects of life, drawing (so to speak) on his early interests in animation as an underling in the Disney empire and then his self-directed work (but recently in successful distribution collaboration with Disney) that often revels in the world of the weird.  All of this background comes together quite nicely in his latest movie, Frankenweenie, in which he revisits his 1984 live-action short of the same title but expands the cast and complications in meticulous, marvelous stop-motion animation.  Essentially, this is the Frankenstein story, even shot in appropriately retro black and white, but with some significant twists:  (1) It’s set in modern day rather than early 19th century (although the Universal Studios classics with the mad doctor’s reanimated creature never were too bound to chronology anyway—witness how the setting of The Bride of Frankenstein [James Whale] shifts back and forth from Mary Shelly’s time to later 19th century [with a telephone that seems to have predated or at least come at the time of Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 invention] to what would have to be almost contemporary with the film’s release [the body the Bride is built upon died in 1899!]); (2) Victor Frankenstein is now a young boy; and (3) the love of his life is not his fiancée, Elizabeth (simpering, woeful Mae Clarke, then Valerie Hobson in the original James Whale movies of 1931 and 1935), but his devoted dog, Sparky.  Beyond that, though, the basic concept of using a deranged version of science to overcome the natural circle of life still holds true, as does the chaos unleashed on Victor’s community with not only the presence of a nature-defying doggie resurrection but also all manner of truly dangerous monsters unleashed by other kids anxious to reclaim their departed pets as well, with everything culminating at a scene at a burning mill on the hill just like the one where we originally thought Boris Karloff’s version of the monster had met his end (how naïve of us, as Universal kept mining that box-office gold through the next decade, finally throwing in the towel—and even the hint of serious storytelling—with the finale in their ongoing monster series in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein [Charles Barton, 1948]).

            Burton (who has clearly studied the original Frankenstein films’ graveyard and laboratory scenes as thoroughly as Mel Brooks did for Young Frankenstein [1974]) even references the famous lightning-generated white hair accents from Whale’s female monster (played by Elsa Lanchester, who ironically also began the film as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, narrating the sequel to her original tale to her husband, Percy Shelly, and their fellow poet, Lord Byron) in Sparky’s neighbor poodle, Persephone (nicely named from the Greek myth of a goddess’ daughter who must spend half of her year with Hades, the lord of the underworld, but upon her return each spring our world is blessed with rejuvenation), when she gets too strong a dose of Sparky’s sparks, so you can easily tell that Burton had as much fun making this as his audience members have in watching it (although it’s a PG I found myself in a theatre with more young kids than I normally do, all of them seemingly having a blast with the silly antics on screen, just as the critical community has done with averaged ratings from the mid-70s on up).

            If you look at the clip in the second video recommendation below you can see the glee in Burton, talking about this film and his work in general, although in looking at him I kept seeing something of a cross between Nicholas Cage and the latest incarnation of Bob Dylan.  (Pictured to your left in his latest persona, which I recently witnessed firsthand at the U.C. Berkeley Greek Theatre—thanks to a guy who resold his tickets to me through StubHub for a mere 110% profit—a concert if you encounter it on Dylan's ongoing tour that I would not recommend nearly as much as Frankenweenie, not only because you could save at least $190 on the admission price but because if you came to hear anything from Dylan in any recognizable tempo and vocal delivery based on his recordings you’ll instead get a raspy, guttural voice in which every song has roughly the same cadence as “Ballad of a Thin Man” [from the Highway 61 Revisited album, 1965; take a listen if you like to a more melodic version than I heard last week at], which is not a bad thing for that tune but when you force “Desolation Row,” “Highway 61,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and even the encore of “Blowin’ in the Wind” into that same sausage casing it makes for a night of overall disappointment to my ears.  At least the beat was easy to groove to—as if we were listening to a roadside bar boogie-woogie band providing a consistent flow of dance music—but I’m glad we were sitting toward the back of the place [I can only horrifyingly imagine what the close seats were scalped for] or my marvelous but angry wife, Nina, would surely have rushed the stage and beat him silly with that goofy hat.  Having seen him a couple of times before when he has totally illegible as to what was being sung I should have known better about what to expect from a guy who insists on constantly reinventing himself as he also insists on constantly touring, but like a box of Forrest Gump’s chocolates, “You never know what you’re gonna get”—Nina gets credit for that reference.)

            Just as I assume that Dylan is delighted with his constant self-reconstructions, you can tell by looking at Burton in his interview (or have I successfully completely unconnected you from where the above paragraph began, leaving you “Tangled Up in Goo,” so to speak?) that he was ecstatic to revisit the concept of Frankenweenie, turning it into a more elaborated version of his 30 min. original (which you can see at, along with a 1982 Burton 6 min. stop-motion animation film, Vincent, about another boy’s fascination with the ghoulish side of life but this one focused on Vincent Price, who gamely serves as the narrator).   Unlike Dylan’s reinvention of his previously successful wheels, though, Burton keeps the new Frankenweenie within the same structure and tone as the original, he just expands it with organic elaborations (maybe that’s how Dylan could satisfy both himself and me, by singing “Desolation Row” more like he wrote it but just adding another dozen or so verses—except he admits that he can’t write that kind of surreal stuff anymore so maybe I should just shut up and go listen to the Blonde on Blonde album again and be satisfied that “Visions of Johanna” ever existed in any version, jazzed up or not).  I’m certainly satisfied with Burton’s delight in Frankenweenie because the movie generates that kind of infectious joy where a lot of active craziness with dead pets brought back to life finds a tender resolution for Victor and his once-and-future pooch, with even the torch-carrying mob brought around to Sparky’s rescue in a great ending scene where they hook him up to a circle of cars to use their combined batteries for another successful jump-start back to life, allowing a communal acceptance of the unusual among us that was denied to equally-strange-but-ultimately-rejected Edward Scissorhands (as played by longtime Burton ally Johnny Depp in the film of that name back in 1990).  All’s well that wags its reattached, reanimated end well as Burton successfully proves in this sweet story of second chances, further enhanced with vocal talents such as Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, and Winona Ryder.

            Unfortunately for the many troubled would-be patients waiting—some not so patiently—for desperately needed treatment in Peter Nick‘s The Waiting Room, a documentary of a typically horrible day in the life of Oakland, CA’s community-access Highland Hospital, very little ends well except for those who can be brought back from the brink of death (here the science of medicine is more consistent than the “weird science” of Tim Burton’s world but the problem is access rather than reliability).  While I’m sure that the more cynical among us might dismiss this simple but heart-breaking film as a politically-motivated attempt to drum up support for Obamacare and its near-universal insurance requirements (especially because it’s partially funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting [I can hear the budget axes being sharpened already], but when such a stark contrast is shown to Mitt Romney’s assertion that the uninsured can just turn to emergency rooms for medical needs it's hard not to see both the political and non-partisan aspects of this vitally real health crisis in our supposed First World society), I hope that anyone who gets the chance to see The Waiting Room, either while it’s on a likely-limited first run in theatres or later via video options, will accept it for what I think it really is:  a tribute to the seemingly endless endurance of those who valiantly give all of themselves daily in these ER circumstances on behalf of others who can’t afford regular medical care but need it for survival and to the poverty-stricken patients themselves who teeter on the edge of deteriorating health or worse on a regular basis, yet have no option than to sit for hours at a time trying to contain their pain and confusion while an institution of needed salvation is forced to keep them at bay until one of the many who came before them is patched up enough to be sent back into the streets or to ill-equipped home care so that a space can be opened up for the next needy sufferer (although we see a case of a doctor making a very tough decision to keep a patient for the night who could technically be discharged because he’s marginally ambulatory but if he leaves the hospital he’ll literally be on the streets because even his previous church-run shelter doesn’t want him back due to his constant relapses into substance abuse).  It’s tragic to realize that, while I would never seriously advocate this, in such a situation as what Highland’s constantly overloaded waiting room offers you’re almost better off to have a “friend” shoot you (preferably in the leg rather than a vital organ) so that you can be rushed past the others who are there with “mere” respiratory or gastric problems because, as with so many of our newscasts, “if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead.”  The combined pressure and agony weighs on those who sit, waiting needfully to finally be called, although we don’t directly experience the burden of those lost hours because this film moves at a quick pace jumping from situation to situation in its brisk overall running time of a mere 81 minutes.

            The anchor in all of this editorial jumping from place to place, with the various doctors, treatments, and eternal waiting in The Waiting Room’s overcrowded intake area, is Certified Nurse Assistant Cynthia Y. Johnson (everyone on screen is named at the end but only in order of appearance so unless you truly have a photographic memory it’s hard to know who is who; however, the official website—noted below—does put some names to memorable faces so I was glad to learn who she is).  This woman is a paragon of patience (for these would-be patients; I know, a recycling of an already weak joke but even thinking about this film is so depressing in many aspects that whatever humor is available is a welcome relief as I’m reliving my viewing experience), organization, perseverance, and—when needed—discipline, as when she berates one of her angry guys for his unnecessary use of profanity toward her despite his pain and frustration with the lengthy admittance process.  We keep coming back to her as she keeps forging ahead with deliberate but good-hearted command of the almost-intolerable situation that she and all of her charges have been put in by the two-tiered health system that plagues our society today (case in point: even my own Kaiser Permanente providers, who have always done right by me, are shown to be clueless or cruel caretakers of a young man’s health as they diagnose him with the need for an immediate operation for testicular cancer, then deny that to him on the day of surgery because they finally realize or acknowledge that he’s not a Kaiser member so he’s sent off to Highland to start his critical care process all over again).  We see doctors driven by decency as well, making every effort to keep up with their constant loads, putting pressure on others within their system to provide follow-up care, and trying their best to balance the needs of those already occupying the ER beds and hallways with the unattended needs of the many more still suffering in various levels of silence in the always-occupied waiting room where even into the late hours of the night there are still new cases to see, new traumas to address as this film works its way around one cycle of the clock and we understand that every new day is just as traumatic for all involved.

            For those who already occupy the lowest levels of our so-called “classless” society, whose poverty status denies them the care that those of us with insurance coverage can assume as our right (a total in this nation that would amount to a lot more than Mitt Romney’s written-off 47% if we all raised our hands when asked), the ignominy of having to exist day-to-day with medical treatment via the spirit-sapping waiting room/ER route is enough to make you wonder if living is even worth it at all, as one patient shouts in such disgust.  He’s been through the roadblocked routine of this system long enough that he questions aloud whether being alive really matters.  The little girl who’s finally diagnosed with strep throat after agonizingly unknown hours of exploration that take their toll on both of her parents probably hasn’t come to the point of feeling that fatal level of frustration yet, but if she has to endure many more years of this sort of medical care she might well feel as hopeless as the man ready to just leave the hospital and embrace certain death.  The Waiting Room represents another aspect of science entirely from that of the whimsy of Frankenweenie, a science of serious narrow escape from death or prolonged illness rather than the comedic science of imagined resurrection from fate’s decisions; in fact, I wonder how many of The Waiting Room’s patient population would even want to be brought back if they didn’t survive their trip to the hospital (as one doesn’t, allowing us to see what it’s like for a young doctor to deal with the reality that all of our efforts sometimes result in nothing more than a toe tag).  It’s interesting to see these presentations in context of each other, with the one allowing us to laugh in the face of death because, even in its exaggerated manner, it gives us hope that we’re able to rise above even the ultimate challenges to our existence while the other forces us to acknowledge those challenges and how debilitating they can be even when we do cheat death, not by reanimation (or even animation of the stop-motion variety; as always, not done with the puns yet, one of my health tactics even if not so healthy for my readers) but by finally getting the health services assumed to be the birthright of any citizen in our society (“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; sound familiar, Mr. Romney?).  Frankenweenie is a well-produced diversion that might even give you the opening to discuss matters of the physical and metaphysical with kids too young to yet understand the nuances of such but at least to be introduced to them; however, when you’re ready for a serious conversation about life, death, health, and compassion for the whole community, not just some percentage of it, then you’re ready for a dose of The Waiting Room.  Open wide!

            If you’d like to know more about Frankenweenie here are some suggested links: (a 16 min. interview with Tim Burton at San Diego’s Comic-Con—surely a posting from an audience member given the constant shaky camera but the sound is excellent and the framing on the director and his interviewer are better than the infamous Mitt Romney “47%” video)

            If you’d like to know more about The Waiting Room here are some suggested links: (I put this link here not because I actually recommend it as with the others in this reference section but because it’s like many you’ll find in YouTube for The Waiting Room in which you supposedly click to get access to a free download of the film but then find out that you have to fill out a constant series of surveys trying to peddle various products to you.  I wasted about 30 min. going through the process just to see if it was a legitimate access and never got past the screening survey where I had to choose some item or service that I didn’t want.  Unless that sort of thing appeals to you, beware!  I only explored this because I know this fine documentary isn’t going to be very available in theatres so I was hoping there was a legitimate means of you getting access to it.  Unless you want to become friends for life with some Internet advertisers I doubt you’ll have much chance to see The Waiting Room until it’s available on video or by legitimate download.)

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  1. No Cloud Atlas review yet? The way you detail and analyze your movie evaluations must be a challenge on this one...

  2. Unfortunately, my real job at Mills College has interfered with my blogging to the point that I can only get to one review toward the end of each week (It's amazing how much people think you owe them just because they pay you on a regular basis!) so while I'm still ruminating over the complexities of "Cloud Atlas" it'll be a couple of days before I can attempt the review. Regarding the challenge aspect of "Cloud Atlas" you couldn't be more correct; this is going to be a very difficult task. Wish me well.

  3. I look forward to better understanding that film beyond the clearly obvious.

  4. Let's see if I can deliver on either "better understanding" or "beyond the clearly obvious." Based on my completely off-base predictions on how the World Series would turn out, I'd hedge my bets until you see what emerges from the fog.