This Week in Geek (29/01-04/02/18)


In theaters: Guillermo del Toro's meticulously-designed The Shape of Water may very well be his best - by which I mean most relevant and most emotional - film since Pan's Labyrinth. Not unusually in his case, every image seems to speak to every other in some way, with water/fluidity and sea life most prominent, but Biblical allusions also feature heavily, especially Old Testament figures that have some relevance to the characters in the story. Del Toro has said this his his most personal film, and one can perhaps see why - it's on one level about the destructive nature of progress (which is tied to Ugly Americanism), which does away with all the things the director feels nostalgia for, a future of acid greens washing over the film. If it is one of his better works, it's because the dialog and acting are more on par with the look of the film. And more surprising too. I certainly wasn't expecting it to be this much of an erotic thriller, or to in some way be a backdoor musical. Not such a surprise is that Sally Hawkins gives another beautiful performance.

While all biopics can't take that road, I really liked I, Tonya pulling a Big Short with its material, recreating interviews, having the characters turn to camera, and fully admitting this pack of self-serving liars made contradicting statements. It's something that works well when the actual events are outrageous and ridiculous. And Tonya Harding's story is that. While the film makes her sympathetic to a point - one can appreciate the unfairness of her situation - it doesn't so much redeem Harding as indict the audience for enjoying this crazy page of sports history when it happened. Regardless of athletic ability, she never catches a break and finds herself in abusive relationships even with strangers, but her reaction (and that of the stupid criminals in her entourage) deserves no flowers. The film makes a fair few points besides, about the skating world, organized sports, and the media. Engrossing, wryly funny, but sad too.

At home: Hitchcock made a straight screwball romcom?! That would be 1941's Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which everybody insists on comparing to his suspense thrillers, even the remake which decides to properly "Hitchcock" it up by making the characters spies (and little else the same but the name). The original is the story of a quirky married couple who discover their marriage was not legal on a technicality. It's just a matter of doing it again, but the volatile Mrs. Smith decides Mr. Smith isn't enthusiastic about it enough and decides to perhaps marry his best friend, much to his consternation. It's an amusing film, with the right chemistry between Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery that, at the end of the day, is about finding your perfect match, not just warts and all, but because the warts match the other's capacity for forgiveness too.

Noah Baumbach's semi-autobiographical The Squid and the Whale presents his parents as the two battling monsters, both New York intellectuals and writers (Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney), sharing custody of he (Jesse Eisenberg) and his younger brother (Owen Kline) after their divorce. Both boys immediately start misbehaving, but in very different ways, just as each chooses a parent they like better. As we explore each character's psychology, Baumbach never force feeds answers. We're presented with well-acted behavior and left to draw our own conclusions, which makes for a rich, detailed, textured portrait of a dysfunctional family. Most interesting is how it shows how attitudes and behaviors are passed down to children by their parents, the writer-director rather brutally honest with his and his family's cinematic stand-ins.

Can you perhaps tell which Nicolas Cage movies are bad based on the quality of his wig? No really, does anyone working in movies today have as bad a collection of fright wigs as Nic Cage? Based on that evidence, Next goes in the "bad" column, but I can't help but show interest in any movie based on a Philip K. Dick story, even if 75% of them are VERY LOOSE adaptations, and terrible. The premise is fairly cool, mind you. He plays a stage magician who can see 2 minutes in the future, and FBI agent Julianne Moore wants him to help them counter terrorists who want to nuke L.A. (why the bad guys are French is anybody's guess). After that, it's an action movie where the hero has spidey-sense, for the most part. If you don't see the Dickian twist coming, I'd be surprised, but I don't think, as some might, the film ends too soon; what happens next should be clear. The reason it's not a good film, though, is the love story at the center of it. Cage and Jessica Biel are a preposterous match that is far less believable on screen than the character's psychic powers or both the FBI and the terrorists believing such powers exist. I would excise it from the film, if only the contrivance didn't motivate Cage's character so much. Next!

There's something modern, or maybe timeless, about All About Eve. Betty Davis is of course great as the aging diva whose throne is about to be usurped by Eve, the pretty young thing who's finagled her way into her entourage. Cracking dialog, well-acted psychologies, and a truthful look at the theater scene combine to make this great drama. But writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz gives it several stylish spins that make it rise above even that level. Novelistic voice-over and freeze frame are well-used, and a particular mirror shot at the end manages to put into images the idea that the young and ambitious continually replace the old and experienced, in every field (it's ALL theater, isn't it?) is an infinite cycle. Masterful and witty, it doesn't show its age. Plus, early Marilyn Munroe!

Playwright Alan Bennett (The History Boys) adapted his mostly-autobiographical The Lady in the Van for the screen, about an old homeless woman (here played by the powerhouse that is Maggie Smith) who parked her van in his driveway for 15 years. While the intrigue would have us care about why the woman is where she is, Bennett is honest with himself and also explores the self-centeredness of a biographical writer, with two Bennetts inhabiting the scenes (the one who lives and the one who writes about it), one of a couple of stylistic touches that make the film interesting beyond its subject matter. With a perhaps unhealthy dose of auto derision, Bennett makes sure we do not think he is a saint for helping "Miss Shepherd", and his catharsis is essentially arrived at by observing someone else seek forgiveness and redemption (though he may not have known it at the time). Comic and tragic, this is a strange slice of life to be sure.

When I think of Who Framed Roger Rabbit - which I hadn't seen in decades - I remember all the crazy practical tricks they had to do to match the animation that would later be put to screen, and that still holds up well. I remember the fun of seeing animated character from every cartoon company (up through 1947) sharing the screen the screen with memorable NEW toons, and that last part is no mean feat. I remember the amusing world-building, merging Old Hollywood, rubber hose animation and film noir. But what I didn't recall was just how madcap and genuinely FUNNY the opening Roger Rabbit/Baby Herman cartoon was. And how much subtlety there is in the humor throughout the movie. Zemeckis never pushes too hard and lets you get the joke when you're ready for it, on whatever viewing. Rich in detail and silly fun.

Did Luther really need a fourth series (and now an announced fifth)? I thought Series 3 ended quite perfectly, with Idris Alba's character having gone through a soul-confronting arc and ending on a note that was just ambiguous enough to let the imagination fill in the blanks. Series 4 is just 2 episodes (as opposed to 4), just enough time for a serial killer case and a reason to "pull him back in". The B-plot about Alice Morgan's presumed death and the consequences thereof tries to create a new femme fatale for Luther, but the series' length kind of means it's all a bit of a rush, and at times a little hard to get a handle on. Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones' Ygritte) plays his new partner and works well in the role. I feel I might have accepted a coda at this point, but this is clearly a transition instead. I had said my goodbyes and may ultimately regret keeping up with the show.

Mission: Impossible's third season is its last with what we consider the iconic cast - Phelps, Rollin, Cinnamon, Barney and Willy - before Martin Landau and Barbara Bain leave the program. It's really the show at its best, and having resolved to mostly use these agents, it doesn't feel the need to do the old (and ultimately silly) sequence were Phelps chooses his team with 8x10 glossies each time, and changes things up once in a while by starting on a mission gone bad, then having to spend the bulk of the episode on rescuing the lost agent. It does hark back to an older way of making television, showing all the nitty-gritty of, say, Greg Morris fiddling with screws or wires. There are a lot of silent sequences in Mission: Impossible. In this age of bingeable TV, it's not something you'd necessarily chug, but if I'd need just a small shot of iconic IMF adventure, this is probably the season to get it from.

Doctor Who Titles: Before Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman collaborated on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the made Human Nature together. It's something of a misfire, either because Gondry isn't in yet the director he will become, or because Kaufman's script doesn't have the usual opportunities for absurdist art direction, I'm not sure. Going by the first image, of two mice being attacked by a bird, the film is ostensibly about the impossibility of going down two roads at once, in terms of the story, following instinct or societal norms. But it gets sort of lost along the way in what is more or less a screwball sex comedy about a hirsute woman (Patricia Arquette), a man raised as an ape (Rhys Ifans), and the psychologist who tries to civilize them both (the problematic Tim Robbins, playing a kind of caricature). Even if it doesn't quite work, I would rather scripts like Kaufman's get produced than not. Even his failures are more interesting than most people's successes.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 8th Doctor, Fitz and Anji feel obligated to free the ape man Puff from his glass box, but are amazed to find out he thinks of it as home!

Oscar Pool Stash Forced Watch: I went into The Scorpion King 4: Quest for Power with only the 1999 Mummy film under my belt and nothing else from that cinematic universe, but it doesn't seem to matter. The fantasy adventure is a complete story and thankfully, one that doesn't take itself seriously. Thankfully because, for the most part, it's very "televisiony", with flat lighting, bloodless fighting, and casting based on who can throw a punch more than can act (every "name" actor has about 3 minutes of screen time, but watch for Lou Ferigno, Michael Beihn, Rutger Hauer and M. Emmet Walsh). Think of it as a light Xena episode, and you've got the tone. Victor Webster does the comedy easily in the title role, and he's as much an archeologist adventurer as he is a swordsman, which surprisingly fits the franchise better than expected. It's unambitiously-produced fluff, but still casually entertaining.
#OscarPoolResult: I'm not running to the bargain bins to find other installments or anything, but this might serve as inspiration for a D&D adventure some day.

Some more MST3K movies (classic and new series), regardless of comedy commentary... The Rutland, Vermont Amateur Theater Company presents Time Chasers, a time travel movie shot with always too much headroom and inept in almost every possible way, though I can't fault its impossible ambitions; must've been a hoot to film on the weekend. Werewolf might have done something interesting with the Native American skinwalker legends, but instead becomes as generic as its title, shambling along with bad hair and accent continuity. What if Scrooge was Santa's landlord? The Christmas That Almost Wasn't dares answer with a a silly whimsical adventure starring Santa and his lawyer (it's dumb, but probably my favorite episode of MST3K The Return). Zombie Nightmare makes a promise it can't keep in its opening credits (a top-billed Adam West, Tia Carrere in her first film role, big name heavy metal bands), but it's a murky, atrociously-acted voodoo zombie picture with a resolution that comes out of nowhere; of interest only for West's crazy noir dialogue). The 1976 adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' At the Earth's Core starts off well, with Peter Cushing and Doug McLure visiting Pellucidar, but while (speaking of Cushing) this is no better or worse than Dr. Who and the Daleks, it looks like it was made 10 years earlier, and the silly effects don't seem quite as charming as 70s fare; worse, it gets a little dull in the middle when it should be a rollicking adventure. Roger Corman's The Undead is preposterously titled (it's about a hypno-therapist sending a girl's mind back in time to her life as an accused witch), but though it's a wonky time travel story featuring cod-Shakespearean dialog and Satan himself, it's for the most part effectively directed and imaginative.


Anonymous said...

I find it hard to get mad at "Time Chasers"; its biggest problem is that it's hard to get worked up about the stakes, which are an apocalyptic timeline that we can hit the "reset" button on at any time. Yeah it might take a little doing to do it, but the hero is never really up against powers that dwarf his own. It's basically a matter of stealing the plane back and forth, and there's not much suspense at work.

"The Undead" is a favorite of mine, just because it tries so hard to be artistic. But it features Mike / Kevin / Bill at their best, wringing comedy out of the ether. "Y'know, Smolken's naked sometimes" is one of the greatest filler jokes of all time.

Best parts of "Werewolf" are the end credits and the guy who gets into a fistfight with the werewolf. I really get the feeling they hired the guy to just get thrown around by the werewolf, and he said, "no way am I going down without a fight! At least let me punch the werewolf before I go down."

I guess Tyrone wasn't available. TUSK!


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