This Week in Geek (25-31/12/17)


In theaters: Jumanji - Welcome to the Jungle was a nice surprise. Not a reimagining of the original, but a follow-up, definitely set in the same world, it amusingly works with video game logic (which is still more logic than the board game version supplied), while also delivering an unambitious but effective Breakfast Club/coming of age story, with clever nods to video games even in the "real world" sequences. The "game films" based on Chris Van Allsburg's books play out as a simple metaphor for kids working through their issues, and it's as true of this entry as well. I like the four leads -  Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, and Karen Gillan - and the jokes land pretty solidly. And so does the action, with some very fun set pieces peppered throughout, well balanced to give each hero their moments. A bit of silly fun, much like the original.

Darkest Hour looks at Winston Churchill's appointment to the post of Prime Minister and his struggle to get the country, especially his political opponents, on board with waging war against Germany. Set in May of 1940, it acts as a perfect companion to Dunkirk, with a similar ticking clock motif and everything. Of course, Gary Oldman is perfect as the witty, emotional, trouble-making leader, but full props to director Joe Wright for making more than a biopic thanks to bold image-making. The picture looks and sounds great, and boldness is, indeed, what is thematically called for when your subject is Churchill. Though this is largely a political story, the world outside the House of Commons is adequately addressed, and one scene actually had me holding back tears. That was a surprise.

Because it's a showy musical, The Greatest Showman really shouldn't be criticized for its lack of accuracy as if it were a garden-variety biopic. I've read those complaints, and rather thought P.T. Barnum's portrayal was nevertheless well balanced, even fictionalized as he was. And since he was known as a bit of a con man, the hokum involved is completely within the realm of the appropriate. I liked the songs, but it's the choreography of each set piece that really fascinates, incorporating various circus tricks to provide things we've not seen in a musical before, and following Barnum's own show business strategy of showcasing unusual abilities. The film also has a strong message about the dangers of success in the showbiz world, while also encouraging people to put themselves out there, whatever their talents might be. A nice combination of inspiration and warning, wrapped in a beautiful-looking package.

At home: When I was 12, I went to see Brainstorm. It freaked me out and stayed with me these last 35 years. How would it compare? Well, it still works as a hard science fiction tale in which Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher invent the technology to record and share sensations, feelings, memories and skills. The implications of such tech, good, bad and metaphysical are explored, sometimes without exposition that would put too obvious a bow on it (like how Walken's character revitalizes his marriage with Natalie Wood's, here in her last role before her untimely death). It's perhaps unfortunate that the movie turns into a thriller later on, but it's still an engaging one. Screen ratio changes meant to make recorded memories more immersive kind of look wonky on television (weirdly, it's the normal world that seems off until you get used to the convention), and probably why the film had such an effect on me at a young age. As an adult, still some thought-provoking SF.

I wanted to like Harvey more. Not the imaginary (or is he?) giant rabbit himself, but the classic Jimmy Stewart picture from 1950. After all, it's a feel-good ode to kindness, and does, by the end, still manage to seduce this grouchy viewer. But I do have to admit I may be on everyone else's side but Stewart's in the first couple acts. His imaginary friend business IS annoying! Much of the comedy comes from people interrupting each other or looking the wrong way at the exact right time, and feels a little broad or obvious at times. A lot of shouting and screeching. And the sexism of the day grates on the nerves almost 70s years later. Harvey hasn't aged as well as some other pictures of the era. And yet. And yet. And yet, the film eventually does get you on board, and I think knowing what's going on with Stewart's character will make repeat viewings much more pleasurable than the first run-through.

The Shop Around the Corner is rightly a Christmas classic and prototypical romcom, though it doesn't limit the scope of its comedy to the romance element. The leather goods shop in question is filled with vivacious characters, some of which have their own stories to tell, and most of which get funny moments. The story will seem somewhat familiar to fans of You've Got Mail, of which this is a remake, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, as pen pals who fall in love through the poetry of their thoughts, but fail to recognize they work in the same store in real life and dislike each other. The film's several threads start off funny and farcical, but head towards either poignant or romantic territory before the end, creating several memorable moments. Quite rewatchable.

Bad Santa might also be called Sad Santa given the level of self-loathing that motivates Billy Bob Thornton's eponymous mall Santa/department store thief. The comedy inherent in a Santa that swears, drinks and screws gets old pretty quickly, but the film eventually finds its heart (but not overt sentimentality) when he encounters a particularly clueless kid who acts like Billy Bob really is Santa. I'm a fan of neither swearing for swearing's sake, nor impossibly dumb characters, but the flick eventually wins me over by mixing the two. The leads have fun interactions (as do the members of the supporting cast, like John Ritter's PC manager, Bernie Mac's callous head of security, and Lauren Tomas the elf's evil girlfriend), and the caper, while simple, is well executed.

Nine Queens (Nueve Reinas) is an excellent con man movie from Argentine in which a young short con artist is taken under the wing of a more experienced operator for a day. On that day, they get a one in a million shot at big money, if only they can sell counterfeit rare stamps to a rich exile before he leaves the country. It sounds too good to be true, but is our young grifter getting swindled by his new mentor? This is the kind of movie where you can't really trust anything you see (and that therefore can be fun to watch a second time), but it also does a good job of crafting characters you care about (and that goes for both con men, whether one of them is a "villain" or not). Lots of twists and turns in their fortunes give the story momentum, and the end credits have a nice surprise (though not in the usual sense - I'm just trying not to spoil anything for you).

More than Revolver, 2008's RocknRolla could lay claim to be the third film of a Guy Ritchie crime movie trilogy that started with Lock Stock and Snatch. In other words, it's a stylish but convoluted crime comedy with an all-star cast, where the set pieces are probably greater than their sum (no really, for all the love the other two films get, are you more likely to recall favorite scenes or the whole plot?). Essentially, we have thieves stealing from crooks, ruining their deals, and it all turns into a massive fiasco, but the plot is merely an excuse for introducing interesting characters and letting them interact with one another. The ending overtly promises a sequel, but it seems to be Ritchie's lot in life to try to start franchises and never get further installments green-lit  - Sherlock Holmes is the exception to a trend that now includes The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and King Arthur. Unlike those films, RocknRolla doesn't make you beg for more, but it's still a fairly entertaining ride while it lasts.

The Killing is an early Stanley Kubrick, and it's a little hard to see how novel it was because 1) it's in a genre that was pretty common in 1956 (crime noir), and 2) its unusual structure wouldn't be out of place in today's cinema. I say unusual, but it's still pretty straightforward by today's standards - the planning and execution of a race track heist is shown from different points of view, backtracking in time to show what another character was doing meanwhile, etc. A narrator who sounds like he's working on Reefer Madness acts as a vocal time stamp, which feels a little clumsy at first (in fact, before you realize it'll be a requirement to making sense of the structure), but soon starts to act as a ticking clock. And if the voice-over style sounds dated, it does tie in well with the "crime does not pay" twists in the story. So no, it's not one of Kubrick's greats, but even his lesser works have a lot going for them, and the flaws might actually be strengths.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels stars Michael Caine as a high-class swindler of rich women on the French Riviera, whose work is interrupted by Steve Martin's equally adept, but low-rent scam artist encroaching on his territory. The rivalry eventually makes them bet on who can get the next big prize (Glenne "Tess Truehart" Headly), with some nice twists and turns along the way. All three leads are funny, but also smartly played, even Martin's who is, yes, more or a caricature. But this wouldn't work as the story of grifters trying to outplay one another if the characters hadn't been clever. And if they'd played it straight, maybe we wouldn't be as quick to forgive them their crimes. So yeah, a fun comedy from the late 80s, one that probably deserves more attention.

In 1970's Le cercle rouge ("The Red Circle"), Jean-Pierre Melville tells the story of thieves set on their path by chance, fate, or doom to meet, then plan and execute a jewelry store heist. And he does it with his trademark slow and near-silent pace, which makes for a long and often quiet film, but as with Le Samurai, it's nevertheless never boring. Evoking Rififi's long, quiet, procedural caper, the heist itself is probably the weakest part of the film, but unusually for this genre of film, we're not shown how the characters figure things out, we're just presented with it. There's no excess talking in a Melville picture. Named after a Buddhist fable, The Red Circle also has subtext and a sense that the universe is playing tricks on these men, and that a sort of morality is at play. It's fairly straightforward, but it intrigues in other ways.

The Bank Job proposes to tell the "true" story of the 1971 Baker Street robbery, which beat the Great Train Robbery's record for most loot stolen, but if quotation marks apply, it's that it weaves a conspiracy around the event that includes a Royal Family scandal and a gag order that has hidden this "truth" from the public, but which the producers have gotten from a source. Well, true or not, it makes for an effective thriller and allows its star, Jason Statham, to play a smart character (and he shows rather more emotion than usual). Everything from the caper itself to police and government's reactions are well thought-out, and there's even mix of cleverness and luck keeping the robbers afloat. It's a bit high on gratuitous nudity, but then, there's an important character who's a pornographer in here, so probably to be expected. Still, it seems rarely important to the plot, as the caper and thriller elements stand up very well without it.

Doctor Who Titles: World War III is a 1982 3-hour TV Cold War epic that creates the circumstances for a covert Soviet attack on Alaska that may well lead to world war. Lots of familiar faces in this, and three real threads to follow, all of them about men who are seen as failures of a sort and will either prove themselves or won't. The ground battle in Alaska is led by David Soul, as a Colonel who was always too much of a maverick to make general. The U.S. President is actually a kinged VP not expected to even get his party's nomination in the next elections; he's played by Rock Hudson. And in the U.S.S.R., the KGB really controls the situation and the Glastnostian Secretary is handed the situation to him. There's a lot happening, but the movie need not have been this long. There's a LOT of air in most talking scenes, and the action feels repetitive and interminable at times. And they do want us to know who these characters are as people, so the first half features a lot of character-building. Past the halfway point, however, things get more interesting. The tactics, politics and ethics of the situation are well thought-out and give no easy answers. The threads' various endings are a bit wonky though, especially the Alaskan bit that is suddenly overcome by pretentious scripting and direction. Still, better and more balanced than I would have imagined based on the subject matter and the medium.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 5th Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Adric are shocked to find themselves in Alaska trying to prevent a war the Doctor knows isn't in the history books.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps you would prefer the remake of "Harvey", known as "Donnie Darko".

Though you just know that, if they remade "Harvey" today, they'd do Harvey as a CGI rabbit with Chris Tucker's voice. He'd wear a baseball cap backwards, of course; and the whole movie would be about Harvey trying to help his human pal get laid on spring break.

Anonymous said...

World War III's ending uses a very simple effect to be rather haunting.

Siskoid said...

Anon 1: I like Donnie Darko, but would't call it a remake of Harvey, haha.

Anon 2: Yes, I agree.


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