This Week in Geek (9-15/07/18)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Ant-Man and the Wasp isn't just about Hope Van Dyne as the Wasp, but about Janet, the original Wasp as well. That's perhaps what I like most about the Ant-Man franchise - not the comedy, which other Marvel properties do as well or better, but the sense that this universe has a history the reaches back before Iron Man I that isn't just about Captain America. Hope is pretty great in this and the real badass hero to Scott Lang's comic relief, while Hank Pym gets more to do as well. While the first film had an underwhelming villain, the sequel instead goes for a variety of threats, which ties into the "everything goes wrong", overcomplicated vibe heist movies have. Works better that way, though it does mean the plot becomes a continuous chase for one MacGuffin or another. There are a lot of fun moments - though way too many of them were spoiled by the trailer, surely only a problem with the first viewing - but I feel like the movie only really kicks off when Luis gets interrogated. Until then, I was like, okay, enough with the technobabble.

At home: I've seen a number of giant bug/animal movies from the 50s (and beyond) and most require the Mystery Science Theater 3000 to get through. Not so with Them!, which is surely the high water mark in the subgenre. Ants. It's giant ants. As cornball as can be. But by playing it as a straight procedural, it feels more like Quatermass, or a serious kaiju movie, though the bugs don't grow to the poster's impossible sizes. The original Godzilla, in fact, was procedural in how humans dealt with the monster, but the science was nowhere near as well grounded as it is here. The approach necessarily means there's nothing in terms of character arc, but it doesn't mean there's no personality. The characters are types, yes, but colorful, well-defined ones. This early in the atomic age monster movie game, the archetypal caricatures give Them! an iconic bent. And in terms of effects, it looks pretty good too!

Andrei Tartovsky's Stalker is a real head trip about a guide taking two men, a writer and a scientist, into a mysterious "Zone" where the laws of physics do not apply, in the quest to find a room where all of one's wishes are granted. I know Tartovsky's languorous shots are boring to many, and may not seem necessary to modern audiences. What he's actually doing, here as much as in Solaris, is allowing you to think not AFTER the film, but DURING. Because there is a lot to think about. The films is open to multiple interpretations to the point where it DEFIES interpretation. A perfectly posed philosophical film about unhappiness, at its broadest, it is about anything the unhappy person takes refuge in. Relationships, work, greater principles, democracy (if you see the film as a critique of Soviet communism), venal ones, drugs, violence... the imagery and plot support them all. The most striking, however, is spiritual enlightenment, with the two travelers representing two sides of the atheist's coin and the Stalker as prophet/apostle. Allusions to the the New Testament abound. And while it may seem like enlightenment is impossible, and the Stalker often feels like a failure - the crux of HIS unhappiness - I do believe he succeeds, in a way he doesn't understand. But see what you think; there's no one simple answer. None of Tartovsky's films are easy to sit through, but this one, at least, has a powerful look and a host of strange locations; additional viewings to get more out of the allegory will benefit from the cinematography.

Cards on the table, I have a bias for pretty much any realistic astronaut narrative. Countdown may be an alternate take of America's first moon shot - released almost a year before Apollo 8 went round the Moon, 18 months before Apollo 11 landed, 28 months before Apollo 13 - but it was made in and around NASA and without being strictly procedural, feels very authentic. This was Robert Altman's first film after 10 years of working exclusively in TV, and so his vision was compromised by the studio who fired him for overlapping dialog (it's part of the realism, dunderheads!) and changed the ending (which isn't much more satisfying than Altman's ambiguous downer). James Caan and Robert Duvall are good as competing astronauts who have to put aside their differences if they're to beat the Russians in a closer space race than history's, but what I most liked, character-wise, was the glimpse into their family lives, and the toll the space program takes on them. Both endings are lacking on closure for the people on Earth, but that's the only time I really felt let down. Otherwise, lots of tension and verisimilitude, even in the training scenes. Definitely interesting to see how the fiction compares to the eventual truth. If you're not a space nut like I am, feel free to knock one star off my score.

In Key Largo, Humphrey Bogart is an old army buddy of a Florida hotel owner's son. When he comes for a visit, he's disturbed to find gangsters have taken over the place, and worse, a hurricane is coming that will keep the goodies and baddies together in a confined space. For a movie with Bogie and Bacall, you'd think this would be their vehicle, but no, it's really an ensemble piece that betrays its theater roots. Edward G. Robinson as the lead mobster is particular good, and I can't argue with Claire Trevor's Oscar for Best supporting actress as the alcoholic moll. Every character, even the smaller parts, has personality. Bogie has fewer lines than usual, his war hero more silent than many of his famous parts, but he does a lot with relatively little, using his persona to project both hard man ruthlessness and empathy. The real star, however, is director John Huston who discretely but surely adds a lot of interesting flourishes - the boat pull courtship, Robinson's Universal monster introduction, the lush with the fish halo... And that's a very good looking hurricane too.

Jean-Pierre Melville's Le deuxième souffle may just be my favorite of his French noir films, though Le Samuraï is more accomplished. His last in lustrous black and white, it's the story of an escaped convict doing one last job to get enough money to leave the country. But this isn't a one-man show. Melville introduces us to many characters, on both sides of the law, and gives the film enough scope to make the various relationships work as more than "types". It feels lived in. And in a sense, the audience's rush to try and catch up in the first act is a shade of what Gu (Lino Ventura's protagonist) must be going through, after a few years in the clink. Blazing noir dialog (especially in the original French) abounds despite Melville's reputation for silent sequences (which he indulges in here too, and no one ever says something fake-sounding "for the audience" in any case). It's Paul Meurisse as Inspector Blot (pronounced Blow, but great name either way) who really makes the film. He's tracking Gu with flair and charm, someone who understands the rules of this world and takes no little pleasure in playing the "nemesis". His every scene is brilliant.

The Gazebo is a fun Hitchcockian comedy (by George Marshall, but Hitch is kind of sort of a character in it) about a neurotic, mild-mannered TV writer (Glenn Ford as a restrained Jerry Lewis type) who kills a blackmailer and stuff him under the eponymous gazebo, then trying to hide the truth from his engaging wife (Debbie Reynolds) and district attorney friend (Carl Reiner). Of course, Ford is a complete screw-up and this darkly comical universe neither wants him to get away with it nor suffer too much for it, which leads to all sorts of unforeseen problems first with trying to pay off the villain, then his murder, then finally the disposal of his body. Is it funny? You damn right it's funny! And the leads give such affable performances, we easily let them off the hook for the crimes they (almost inadvertently) commit. A delightful black comedy of misunderstandings and karmic backlash.

Sometimes, the real world gets so dark, you need to watch a Frank Capra movie. In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Gary Cooper plays a simple, small town guy who inherits a fortune from a distant relation. He's thrust into a world of cynical and greedy city slickers who either try to scam him, or think he's nuts for wanting to give away the money. At the same time, this fish out of water is quick to identify phonies. He's no rube, except when it comes to love (enter Jean Arthur as a Lois Lane type). Not surprisingly, the film is full of charm and takes aim at the hypocrisies of capitalistic/high society in a way that's remained current. It wants to revive your faith in your fellow man, and succeeds, give or take the era's dated take on physical violence (Deeds punches a lot of people, but that, of all things, isn't really much of an issue, while playing the tuba is). It's full of amusing little moments that feel true to life, which is necessary to keep the ideal from turning into a corny fable. Capra doesn't get enough credit as a behaviorist, but look at what he gets his actors to do here. MY only real complaint is that I wish the final scene had more meat to it. Cooper and Arthur deserved a little more to play there.

The Time of Their Lives is one of the few films where Abbott and Costello aren't partners, but rather separate characters, and I think it shows why that's not the preferred paradigm. Lou Costello, unmoored from the double-act routines, is grossly annoying and needs tempering that Marjorie Reynolds - his partner in the film - cannot provide, despite giving a good performance. He overplays everything and isn't funny; he just seems tonally out of phase (that's a little joke) with the rest of the film. What the film loses in comic chemistry, it makes up for with a solid story. Two people (Costello and Reynolds) are wrongly killed as traitors during the American Revolutionary War and cursed to be ghosts until they can prove their innocence. 170 years later, they get their chance, as does Abbott's character to atone for his ancestor's role in their deaths. It rolls along fairly well as a madcap supernatural comedy, and still surprises with the level of its practical and optical effects. But yeah, hopefully Costello's ghost will forgive me, but his persona doesn't quite work without his usual partner.

I hear Groucho hated the script of Monkey Business and threw it out, leading to a collaborative effort to kit-bash a new one. Oh for want of a script! Many Marx Brothers films have a loose plot, but this one is thinner than most's. For the first half, the Brothers are stowaways on a cruise liner, trying not to get caught. For the second half, they crash a high society party just so Chico and Harpo can join the band and play their usual musical numbers (which are always great, but repetitive if you've seen other Marx flicks). Oh, and there's a gangster/romance subplot in there as well, which culminates in a mess of sequence where I fear for the cows. While I do wish it were built on a stronger foundation, you hardly watch a Marx Bros. film for the story (indeed, Monkey Business was banned in certain countries for promoting anarchy!). Where it excels is the rapid fire jokes and puns, which ARE well-written and clever. Sit back and enjoy the cartoon insanity.

You know, sometimes I think I like swashbucklers only in principle, as I'm often lukewarm on the results themselves. Then I watch 1952's Scaramouche and my faith is restored in the genre. What fun! Stewart Granger plays the title character, a French rogue who poses as an actor until he can get good enough with a rapier to take his revenge on his best friend's killer, caught between two women (Eleanor Parker and Janet Leigh), and hopelessly in over his head. This revenge story could have been grim, but no, it's played with such comic charm that Sabatini's original melodrama (and it's the kind of soap opera you only see in parodies) doesn't make you bat an eye. Well, maybe one eye, but not both. Touted as having one of the best sword fights in cinema history, its extended action climax is indeed delicious (I think it's a matter of Scaramouche almost never having the upper hand), but I also want to applaud the pantomime scenes which are just as expertly rendered. My only complaint is that the French names are often butchered and inconsistent, but that's a personal pet peeve, nothing you should worry about. I might have appreciated more of a coda, but a grand entertainment, witty and filled with surprises.

Gregory Peck takes on the role of Captain Horatio Hornblower in a 1951 adaptation of Forester's first three books, which makes for a rather episodic high seas adventure. And one in dire need of British accents. Wow. I had real trouble getting into it because most of the cast was American and not even pretending (never mind the Central Americans in "brown face"). It does move along at a good clip, with Hornblower's thoughtfulness on show and enough variety in the action to keep the audience on the hook. The ship battles are extremely well done (at least the miniature shots are, it's a bit chaotic when we close in). But on a strict plot level, most of the film focuses on the first book, then sort of tacks on the rest, which moves at break-neck speed (especially given Bush's injured leg). If this had been made with today's predilection for franchising, the first half would have been extended, and the second made into a sequel, no doubt filmed at the same time. As is, the structure is a weak point, but the adaptation finds a fair narrative through-line in its romantic entanglement, which is from the books, not a Hollywood addition, somewhat surprisingly.

Books: Michael Chabon's Moonglow presents itself as a "memoir", the death bed confessions of Chabon's grandfather novelized with the author's usual stylish prose. It's hard to know how much of it is true and how much fiction, and that's part of the point. How do our memories betray us, how much of our history have we (or others) fictionalized, told as a story, found patterns and themes, etc.? By taking second-hand truth and giving it the novel's interiority, Chabon challenges what a memoir is "meant to be" and offers a textured family portrait that moves us from his grandfather's childhood, to WWII, to a chaotic marriage to a haunted woman, to a latter-day romance, and finally to the death bed and beyond, loose from chronology, much like memory. An interview at the end of the book almost ruins it for me (so I'm sorry to mention it, you might want to look away, I don't know), but there Chabon and his wife reveal Moonglow is far more fiction than fact, and that the grandfather and grandmother are, in many ways, them. So the truth is there, just hidden under an extra layer. After this trip, the characters live and breathe in my imagination so well that I prefer to think they lived just as described. But then, Chabon's convinced me of that without resorting to genre trickery in the past.

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