This Week in Geek (1-07/01/18)


At home: Black Mirror Season 4 moves away from feature-length episodes, most under an hour, and one closer to 40 minutes. The show's futurist nightmares also start with a couple of American/Canadian episodes, which made me believe the British content was completely excised (it wasn't, it's half and half). Is the format better/worse? Well, I'm not convinced it reaches the heights achieved in the first three seasons, and its lows (which are still better than most shows') are more shallow. I'd say the strongest episodes are about love, and the weakest about hate, with a couple of thrillery endings that have you wondering what kind of scum the leads were to even get to that point. Targets include parental controls, MMORPGs, and dating apps, with a strong focus on downloaded consciousness. The season starts with the much ballyhooed Star Trek spoof episode, which should have been my jam, but featured the hateful nerd trope (which I disliked) and made the character unimaginative in his fandom (which irked me even more). The strongest episodes were definitely Black Museum, Metalhead (the shortest, but most efficient story), and Hang the DJ. The series could be in danger of repeating itself in the long run, but for now, the repetition serves to connect the series into a more cohesive world.

Six Degrees of Separation has the kind of heightened language that immediately reveals its origins as a play, but the maverick editing makes one wonder what it actually looked like on stage, or if playwright John Guare was trying something new. The story, told at different points at various high society events, concerns a rich couple hoodwinked into briefly taking in an erudite young man who claims to be a friend of their own kids, but as it turns out, is a con man. Will Smith plays the latter and is sadly less than convincing saying the dialogue (even if he IS supposed to be a fake), especially compared to Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing. This is nevertheless a grift that doesn't go where you think it will, and that has something to say about the con we casually perpetrate on our own lives. Oh, and not to distract from what is a smart and engaging film, but young, acting J.J. Abrams as a whiny college kid alert!

Wreck-It Ralph is a perfectly fine animated flick, trading on nostalgia for the days of video game arcades (which makes me wonder who it was made for, the parents or the kids), doing some world-building à la Toy Story, with at least SOME licensed game characters as supporting players, while all the leads are necessarily from fictional games that nonetheless feel like games we've seen (Ralph is his game's Donkey Kong, for example). We do spend a LOT of time in "Sugar Rush" though, to the point where the movie feels less like it's about an arcade universe than a world of candy. The theme is similarly muddled, because it seems to be about rejecting destiny, but then turns out that's what the villain is doing, and order is restored only when destiny is put back on track. I guess it's about accepting people's differences and not ostracizing them. Like I said, perfectly fine, even at times clever, like when it uses video game logic/aesthetics to tell its story, but not on the level of Disney or Pixar's best.

A necessary introduction to the Marx Brothers, the peculiarly-named Duck Soup shows the trio (sorry Zeppo, we hardly notice you, straight man that you are) at their rapid-fire best. Together, they pretty much represent the three main branches of comedy: Groucho is a wise-cracking verbal pun artist, Chico's funny is based on the character he plays in various routines, and though Harpo is mute, it would be wrong to say he represents slapstick because they're all proficient in that. Rather, he's an absurd cartoon character walking among us; anything can happen when he's in the room. In the world of Marx Bros., they are agents of chaos, always useless or even destructive in their jobs, but no one else really seems to notice the absurdity. In Duck Soup, Groucho is made president of a country called Freedonia, while the other two are spies working for Sylvania, all of them inept. If it's the golden standard of their films, it's that it's extremely pacey, has lots of background gags to catch on subsequent viewings, has better songs, and manages at least some political satire.

A Night at the Opera is the first Marx Brothers film at MGM, and creates a template for most of their films at that studio. Essentially, the Brothers get tangled into the lives of ingenues who are responsible for most of the romance and the musical numbers. Along the way, Chico and Harpo will find an excuse for mesmerizing piano and harp numbers (I never mind the padding, not with such talent), and guest performers, high or low brow, will get to showcase their talents - in this case, opera, which makes for a nice cultural experience amid the crazy comedy shenanigans. Steering the career of an alto has never been so fun. It's not all stage stuff, as a big chunk of the film takes place on a cruise liner, including the famous crowded cabin scene. As with most of their films, the resolution is comic chaos at its best, and yet, has a sweet musical number too.

A Day at the Races drops the Marx Brothers in a sanitarium next to a racetrack, and the comic action moves from one to the other to make a get-rich/save-the-business plot work. It's not the kind of thing where the plot is all that important, so long as it provides ample justification for comedy routines and slapstick set pieces, but that plot is amusing enough and isn't TOO close to A Night at the Opera, despite having mostly the same guest cast. Indeed, it appears that if you can stand to work with the clearly insane Marx Brothers, you'll have a job for life. In addition to Margaret Dumont (Groucho's leading lady and eternal foil), and Sig Ruman (usually the heavy), we have Allen Jones AGAIN playing a struggling singer, the better to introduce musical elements (including a very cool, if unnecessary, ballet number with Vivien Fay). It's still the Marx's longest film and it feels like it. Warning: There's a mercifully brief black face moment (though a lot of actual black performers in what is a good musical routine, at least up to that off-putting point).

Room Service is an atypical Marx Brothers movie as it doesn't have the usual musical numbers, doesn't alternate between two locations, and doesn't feature the usual support players. It's an altogether more restrained affair (give or take a mechanical flying turkey). That's because it started out as a farce on Broadway, adapted here to the trio's shticks. Its origin as a play is evident. For most of the story, we're trapped in a hotel suite. Indeed, the Brothers can't move out or else they'll be evicted for good, and only the success of their play (to be shown on the hotel's stage) can save them from being kicked to the street along with their whole company (which includes a small role for a young Lucille Ball, but she doesn't get to be funny much). Despite the restraint, or perhaps because of it, it could be a good introduction to the Marx Brothers, easing yourself in rather than jumping into the deep end right away.

The Marx Brothers return to form in At the Circus, in which they all work for the same traveling show in some capacity (and so a lot of the action takes place aboard a train), and try to deduce who stole the owner's money so he can give his belle a good life. This time, the romantic leads are pretty watery, and I don't care about them breaking into song. Groucho actually has the better musical numbers - at least they're about things you don't often hear about! So a lot of zany silliness, with the more high-brow showcases of previous films traded in for circus tricks, but a lot of that is highly entertaining, especially the trapeze climax. That's a show stopper for sure! Other fun routines include the one where Chico and Harpo try to get evidence out of a sleeping strongman, and the cigar bit in the little person's cabin.

The Marx Brothers spoof the western genre in Go West, a film that's entirely too plotty compared to previous efforts, sometimes putting the comedy hijinks on pause while the nevertheless incoherent robber baron plot unfurls. Similarly, the musical numbers aren't funny or clever, just boring. But while I agree the Marx star is on the wane by this point (a change in producers turned the films into relative rush jobs, apparently), the comedy content is still quite good. Groucho has some good puns, Chico and Harpo have a couple of shticks up their sleeves, and I wouldn't part with the final, insane train sequence for all the gold dust in the world. The bad portrayal of Natives can come right out, however. It's no Blazing Saddles, but Go West still provides its share of smiles and chuckles. If nothing else, it proves the Marx brand could be inserted into all sorts of Hollywood genres, even if the actual result is a little inconclusive.

The Big Store really is the Marx Brothers on the back side of the curve, with a lot of dead air, shticks made to work with fast motion and wires, and lonnnnnng musical numbers to make up for the thinnest of plots (about trying to sell a large department store so the non-Marx lead can build a music conservatory). Chico is terribly under-utilized, which is surprising given the balance these films usually strike. Still, there are some good moments, including Harpo acting as a one-man orchestra, the shenanigans at the private eye office, and Groucho's early, extended musical number, which features a bit with Virginia "Miss Deadpan" O'Brien, who is hilarious. I'm not really buying what The Big Store is selling, but there are certainly sequences that would go in a good Marx Bros. highlight reel.

1947's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a fair Danny Kaye showcase - for his singing and nervous slapstick - but it seems to miss the mark in terms of understanding what the original short story was about. In the story, Walter has such a dull life, he's forced to imagine himself the hero of various adventures. Here, Walter soon gets tangled into a film noir plot à la Maltese Falcon and starts to use his daydreams as inspiration or morale boosters so he can push through. But he can't call his life dull. (One might say the same of the 2013 version with Ben Stiller, except there, the point is to make Walter realize he should "seize the day"; there's no such lesson for Kaye to stumble upon.) It's all certainly amusing, if often over-played, and at times feels like a collage of vignettes, the visions interrupting the story more than supporting it. The use of Walter's job at a pulp magazine publishing company is a nice touch too. But as there is a better film version of this story...

My Fair Lady is one of the all-time great musicals, no doubt about it. Hadn't seen it since I was a kid, but with adult eyes and ears, it not only still stands up, but becomes even more interesting. Its attack on the class system via language, its takedown of the elitist upper crust, its empowerment of women (note not only the suffragettes in the background but how the story doesn't resolve into the usual romantic formula) and the poor (an effect of America's lack of an aristocracy)... it's all much more socio-political a story than you'd imagine. Whether or not she sings her own songs, Audrey Hepburn is never not watchable as Eliza Doolittle, but it's Rex Harrison's Professor Higgins and his faux wife Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) who are my favorites characters. Harrison in particular manages to portray an arrogant, elitist misogynist and make us like him. And the movie certainly doesn't skimp on the songs, which have particularly good rhyming schemes. Great from start to finish.

Doctor Who Titles: By the Canadian crew who also brought us such groundbreaking schlock as Manborg, Father's Day is just about one of the filthiest, goriest things I've ever seen. It starts out as a vigilante grindhouse pastiche (not unlike Hobo with a Shotgun) about a man who must find and kill a serial killer who rapes and eats bad dads, turns into more of a spoof, and finally heads into crazy horror territory. Throughout, disgusting (possibly disturbing) gore, male and female nudity aplenty, and a bit of heresy for good measure. While I enjoyed it, it may be too graphic for a lot of audiences, which then makes it hard to laugh at the black comedy. And it's probably too silly for gore fetishist, I don't know (but then, I'm a fan of Zombeavers). Unfortunately, while I appreciate the unexpected twists, the joke gets old before the last act, which seems tacked on ("What?! There's a half-hour left?!").
#The TARDIS lands in the film... And suddenly, this whole story is edited down for tea time viewing. As a Doctor Who story, it's probably about an alien virus that makes you turn into a depraved killer (no need to go into the details). The 11th Doctor, Amy and Rory keep it from getting the NC-17 I'm sure it would probably get if they ever sent it in to the MPAA.

I have just a couple months to get through the movies I won in last year's Oscar pool, which looks like one a week until we get to the next contest...

Oscar Pool Stash Forced Watch: Spring Breakers is not at all what it seems to be from the poster/DVD cover. I mean, James Franco, Selina Gomez and three blonds in swimwear? This is gonna be some silly, possibly raunchy comedy. While it does feature a lot of nudity, this is instead an art house crime thriller that, to my eyes, equates spring break college debauchery with the gangster lifestyle as portrayed in movies. We initially follow Gomez's churchy, wholesome character who runs off to Florida with her childhood friends who have become dangerous party girls. There, they eventually run into Franco's seductive poet gangster (one of his better performances) and get into more trouble (or find their true selves, depending). It's also around this point that the focus shifts and we lose what we felt was our protagonist. I get the point about the group losing its conscience, but it's still jarring in terms of structure. Whatever the problems, Spring Breakers looks beautiful. Director Harmony Korine brings his artful sensibilities to the lighting, sound design and editing to create a poetic experience that yields more than one answer to the film's thematic questions. The DVD includes a director's commentary (somewhat awkward, but the behind the scenes stuff is interesting).
#OscarPoolResult: A keeper. If I'm being honest, this kind of art house stuff is my jam, even if I identify weaknesses.


American Hawkman said...

I will ALWAYS love the Marx Brothers unconditionally. Truly great films.

Siskoid said...

I have to thank TCM for the marathon. I will shamefully admit I'd never seen one before that.

Null and Void said...

Pity you weren't able to review the Marx Brothers film 'A Night in Casablanca'. While its a stretch to call it an underrated classic, it does have a few good moments in it, with some great lines by Groucho (including my wife's favorite "It's been quite a night... I was stood up by a girl and knocked down by a car."

Anonymous said...

I find the last 10 minutes in My Fair Lady particularly hard to watch. She's essentially screwed by Higgins's classist, misogynist experiment.


Siskoid said...

My newest theory: She goes back to make good on her promise to kill Higgins. The staging supports it, I think.

Michael May said...

I highly recommend The Cocoanuts. That's my favorite Marx Bros.

Siskoid said...

Null and Michael: I plan to catch the rest of their films when I can.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the updated "My Fair Lady", the sitcom "Selfie" starring Karen Gillan. It even featured David Harewood (J'onn J'onnz) as Karen Gillan's boss. But not enough people watched.

Siskoid said...

I liked Selfie too.


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