This Week in Geek (11-17/12/17)

Buys'n'Gifts

Everyone's been saying I should read it, so I got Strange New Worlds: TOS vol.1, and off a Christmas sale, and since I was exploring cons and heists this month anyway, White Collar the Complete Collection (I've only seen Season 1). Annnnnd many thanks to friends (fans of the podcasts will recognize the names) who came through on our annual gift exchange. I am now the proud owner of Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus vol.1 (Marty), Michael Chabon's Moonglow (Isabel), Monty Python Fluxx (Amelie), a print of one of Blake's poems (Nath), a mug of Shakespearean insults (Elyse), two wine glasses, one ginormous (a CougarTown joke, Amelie again), the other with a SHIELD logo cooked into it (Shotgun made various glasses with Marvel logos on them for the oHOTmu gang), and a custom t-shirt with a visual joke I won't try to explain today designed by Art-Girl herself (that's Josée). Wow, cool swag. Thanks again guys.

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: The Disaster Artist is more about the strange and strained friendship between modern-day Ed Wood Tommy Wiseau and aspiring actor Greg Sestero than it is a tell-all about the making of the cult hit film The Room, but a good chunk of the movie is nevertheless devoted to it. It's a weird one, definitely aimed at fans of The Room, and indeed, if you've never seen this "worst film ever", you may well wonder why people in the theater are laughing at certain bits. And yet, there's comedy there that should work for everyone, James Franco's Wiseau, played as a tantrum-prone child, is such an extreme type, that the unwary audience member may well think it's complete invention (until the credits sequence allows them to compare this reproduction with the original). Dave Franco's Sestero is the one to watch, navigating some dangerous waters with his ever volatile friend. And though I don't particularly rate the impressions (the actors are too good to play bad ones, generally, and the wigs aren't good), there are some interesting parallels between the story and The Room's plot. Seth Rogan, as the truth-telling audience identification figure, really makes the film.

Pixar's new tearjerker Coco is beautiful to look at, and from what all my friends of Mexican extraction tell me, very true to the culture. It's all about Miguel, a boy born in a family that hates music for ancestral reasons, who really wants to be a musician (and yet, it's not quite a musical; the song and dance numbers are simply part of the story). When he defies them, he gets into a bit of trouble and finds himself in the spectacular Land of the Dead and of the Many Gags That Can Be Done with Skeletons, where he must get a family member's blessing... but will it cost him a life of music? Coco doesn't pull punches, as it deals with death and loss honestly despite its fantastical trappings - even non-religious audience members will recognize the link between memory and existence - and by the end, if not by the middle, will probably wrench tears out of your eyes. Plus, some very fun Mexican celebrities make appearances on the other side.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is part of one of my favorite movie genres, the author biopic that mirrors that author's work (Shakespeare in Love, Kafka), in a screenplay written by Susan Coyne (Slings & Arrows) who knows well how to do this. This time, Charles Dickens tries to write his early classic A Christmas Carol, while disturbed by his chaotic family life and haunted by his dark childhood. The movie makes parallels between many of his books and his life, and there's some fancy in his being visited by his characters, most importantly the malevolent Scrooge, who also stands in for his writer's insecurities (a great turn for Christopher Plummer). It's touching and unashamedly sincere - like perhaps the best Christmas movies are - but above all, it's FUNNY. Dan Stevens brings a light touch and dazzling energy to the role (on the spot, some of my friends said he could play the Doctor, if that means anything to you). All in all, and fun way to retell A Christmas Carol for the umpteenth time.

At home: 1951's A Christmas Carol (originally, Scrooge) is considered the definitive adaptation of Dickens' work, and it must be. There are so many scenes here, the other adaptations I remember feel like CliffsNotes! But then, some of the material, especially Scrooge's rise in business, expands away from the original story (and there are other, slight deviations). The overall effect is to better justify Scrooge's eventual turn, show exactly where he went wrong, where he was corrupted, where he lost faith in people. So Alastair Sim is a more sympathetic Scrooge than most and when he does turn, he gives a giddy, infectious, even touching performance. The heart swells because most of the film reads more like a spooky horror story than a Christmas fable (indeed, it was originally released in the States on Halloween, which seems perfect), so when Scrooge wakes up, the world really has changed... which is the Christmas promise, after all.

Tim Burton's Batman Returns is visually and tonally of a piece with his first Batman film, that is to say, it strikes an odd chord between camp and Gothic horror. At times, you wonder if Batman's even in this, given the number of villains on parade. There's a ruthless businessman named after a famous vampire actor, a revenant Catwoman animated by vengeful cat spirits, a revolting mutated Penguin written as Quasimodo with a heart of coal, and a gang of sewer clowns for good measure. Batman, in contrast, in sometimes little more than a bystander (Burton not being a very good action director hurts him probably as much as the screenplay's disinterest in the hero). It's got some good bits, like a snowy Gotham Christmas, a masquerade where only the masks come barren-faced, the giant rubber ducky, Michelle Pfeiffer's pretty great... But my problem with the movie was and remains how vile the Penguin is. My memory was that he was gory and icky, but watching him now, decades later, it's the "inappropriate sexual behavior" that turns my stomach. I get that they were sort of floating the idea of Catwoman as a feminist icon, but they don't hit that theme hard enough to justify Cobblepot acting like a real-world politician. Felt out of place. I just don't want to be thinking about the script's misogyny while watching your big, noisy,silly, superhero movie.

Aziz Ansari (and fellow writer Alan Yang) delivered two seasons of Master of None, a meandering observational comedy about a 30-year-old Indian actor in New York, and they are pretty great. The focus is on his character's life, professional, personal and romantic, but it doesn't mind exploring some of the ancillary characters, or in one case, completely random New Yorkers. The opener to the often romantic second season, is a full-on, beautiful tribute to the great Italian film The Bicycle Thief. Most of the time, an episode has a theme, spelled out in its title, and the tone swings between comedy and drama, but is always character-based. The perspective remains fresh because Master of None's world is filled with diversity, and matter-of-factly explores the lives of Indian-, Asian-, Jewish-, LGBT-, differently abled, etc. Americans. A funny/sad show that despite its cleverness and style, draws from reality. The music in the show is pretty cool too.

Being There stars Peter Sellers as a TV-obsessed, simple-minded gardener who is evicted from his home and by chance (which is his name), finds himself propelled on the international stage, mostly by parroting others, or through misunderstandings. Shirley MacLaine gives a sweet, vulnerable performance as a woman taken with him for other reasons. This is a quiet, quirky satire that nevertheless savagely attacks a number of things, whether our general complacency, our edification of what's on television, our ability to fill an empty vessel and project our opinions into it, white male privilege, the glorification of ignorance, and fabricated manifest political destiny. The last scene has implications that take the cynicism to even greater depths. This was made in 1979, on the eve of Ronald Reagan's presidency, but more relevant today than ever.

Though made in 1973, Paper Moon takes place during the Great Depression and looks and feels like it is a product of that era. It's not just the black and white, it's the character designs and the sound design. Slightly more potty-mouthed than the 30s would allow, but still. The film concerns a traveling con man who "inherits" a 10-year-old girl (Tatum O'Neal famously became the youngest person to win an Oscar in the part of Addie - and she IS quite engaging) who shortly becomes his partner in all manner of scheme on the road to her foster home. Completely charming and full of fun little cons and bad behavior, the film's high-wire act is to keep Ryan O'Neal (father of Tatum)'s character from becoming irredeemable or unlikable, despite his taking a child on a crime spree. Madeline Kahn also shows up in an effective role as a somewhat pathetic floozy.

The Great Train Robbery mini-series from 2013 tells the true story of a famous crime committed on the British railway in the early 1960s. Writer Chris Chibnall (Torchwood, Broadchurch) splits it into two 90-minute films. The first from the robbers' point of view, the second from the coppers'. Luke Evans and Jim Broadbent are the leads of each episode, in that order. Mostly a procedural, the mini-series is dramatically hampered by the real events, which means the caper isn't carried off quite as well as one would hope (from a heist film fan's point of view), and the manhunt tends to lose steam just as it really did. And yet, all the most ludicrous and exciting elements are used to make the story interesting, and getting to know the robbers in part 1 means their eventual capture has some punch. It's an odd feeling to completely root for one group during part 1, and then more or less shift your allegiances in part 2, but that's what happens (though perhaps a piece of your heart stays with the crooks).

I don't think I liked The Grifters. It stars John Cusack as a small-time short con operator with an Oedipal complex (not my favorite dynamic, ick), Anjelica Huston as his mother who works a racket with the mob, and Annette Bening as a long con operator who uses sex as a weapon and is currently slumming it as his girlfriend. It's got some interesting cons going, but turns into a brutal thriller that doesn't sit well within the genre, and I wish I understood what Huston was doing at the track, but I just don't. The movie doesn't do a good job of explaining it, which it should considering the amount of time spent on it. And then there's Benning falling out of her clothes every few minutes. It's not necessary. The overall effect is the creation of an interesting drama about the relationships between untrusting, damaged hustlers, but its third act turn wastes the first two's potential on shock noir. I get that it's trying to be grittier and in a way more realistic than most movies about grifters, but heightened melodrama is its own kind of irreality, and I think that line is definitely crossed.

The star-studded The Long, Hot Summer, based on various (but linked) William Faulkner stories, follows Ben Quick, a con man type played by Paul Newman, who shows up in a small Mississippi town and immediately ingratiates himself with the rich family that runs the town. He has business with the patriarch (Orson Welles, mumbling all the way through) who in turn wants him to marry his daughter (Joanne Woodward, arguably playing the actual lead character), attracting the jealousy of the man's son (Anthony Franciosa). The cast also includes Angela Lansbury, Lee Remick, and Richard Anderson. This complex web of relationships is perhaps one only a con man could untangle. I wasn't too surprised to learn the screenplay was cobbled up from different stories because it has that feeling. We jump around story lines and incidents across Faulkner's "decaying South", and in the end wind up with a rather happier ending than I would have expected, where the movie world intrudes on the makeshift literary one. Bottom line: There are problems, but the romance (and its likable leads) and the father-son plot should satisfy.

Why is Guy Ritchie's Revolver even called that? Jason Statham plays a con man out for revenge on a crooked casino owner in this one, but it really feels like Ritchie watched The Usual Suspects and Fight Club back to back and resolved to make a twisty-turny movie in that general style. Except it's much harder to follow and more pretentious. In fact, it's pretty much a mess, if a good-looking mess filled with interesting scenes. It just never gels nor earns its twists and turns. The various theories injecting the Devil and/or chess theory into the film to make sense of it, while intriguing and quite possibly part of the director's thinking, are nevertheless unsatisfying because the movie just doesn't work as a structure. I'm interested in its puzzle, but the pieces are presented in too disjointed a manner to make the puzzle-solving enjoyable. Alas.

Two scoundrels find each other on the road (running from various consequences) in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (respectively, Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges) and eventually, they set about to commit a daring bank robbery. I say "eventually" where normally, one might say "pretty soon", because the movie takes its jolly time getting there. So as the buddy action/heist movie it purports to be (and it has enough car chases to make that statement true), it offroads almost fatally. As a character-based dramatic comedy about two thieves bonding over their life style rather than the money, it's not exactly Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but it's in that vein. The performances are good, the caper itself is pretty solid, and there's something to see in every scene. If you can forgive it its aimlessness.

I Love You Philip Morris is just about the sweetest prison romance you're likely to see, and stars Jim Carrey as real-life con man Steven Russell who'd do anything for his man (Ewan McGregor as the title's Phillip Morris), running every possible scam in and out of the penal system, except live honestly. Russell's story is SO crazy, it couldn't be treated as anything but a comedy, despite having its dramatic moments. The tone struck works exactly BECAUSE Russell is such an extreme. The humor comes from the bold insanity of the source material, and the directing team of Ficarra and Requa know how to get extra smiles and laughs out of the editing, but pathos too. It's the kind of movie that makes you chuckle and go "WHAT!?" every few minutes. The soundtrack is pretty great too.

Doctor Who Titles: Rose (or Róza) is a Polish film about a former soldier helping a woman survive in war-torn, post-WWII Poland, in a region formerly part of the German Empire. As such, its inhabitants are treated badly by the Poles and Soviets both, and the film is incredibly bleak and brutal, with about a dozen rapes shown (take them as horrible slice of life or metaphor for what's being done to the region) along with other crimes against humanity. Somehow, there are still moments of fleeting hope that some critics have called romantic, and I think rightly so. It portrays an engaging, if tragic, relationship, based on sympathy and compassion rather than passion. Obviously, I'm not equipped to completely grasp the political and cultural importance Róza has in Poland (where it is a multiple-award winner), but a quick visit to Wikipedia to find out about the Masurian region was more than enough to situate me, though it works with no real knowledge, as the same wicked lawlessness no doubt exists in every war-torn country, to this day.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 11th Doctor and Amy find 1945 Masuria quite unpleasant, and learn harsh lessons about history while protecting a farm from Russian bandits.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ryan O'Neil is incredible in "Paper Moon". I've heard -- and I can believe -- that his great liability as an actor is, he inhabits a role so perfectly that people forget he's an actor.

Adam Scott's the same way, I feel.

Michael May said...

Glad to hear you liked The Man Who Invented Christmas. I have some time this week, so I might try to tear myself away from Last Jedi rewatches to find a place showing it.

 

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