This Week in Geek (13-19/08/18)

Buys

I've always had a love for the Torg RPG in concept, so when I heard good things about the new edition, titled Torg Eternity, I could help myself and splurged on the Core Rules, and the Day One adventure book. I think you might read about Torg sometime in the coming weeks as a result.

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: The Spy Who Dumped Me more or less seems to exist in the same tonal universe as Melissa McCarthy's Spy, and that's not a bad place to be. It means it's a comedy first, but also that it works as an action spy thriller. Its premise is different, but it really does have a similar plot. Whether we're talking plot or comedy, I do think the script could have benefited from another pass, but it still has some laughs (mostly through Kate McKinnon's uninhibited character, though there's some fun to be had with the CIA/MI-6 double act early on) and thrills (I'd say the action is both exciting AND darkly amusing). McKinnon and Mila Kunis have good chemistry and make us believe in their friendship, and I was also happy to see Jane Curtin and Gillian Anderson in smaller roles. If it starts as an "in over your head" comedy, the leads do eventually process what's happening to them and become kick-ass (only somewhat hapless) heroines, and it's all for the good. I might have wanted it to be sharper, but it's still a good enough time at the movies, with a few set pieces I haven't quite seen before. Like Spy, if they make another one, I'm likely to see it. Hey, how about a team-up sequel?

At home: Patrick Brice's Creep (starring pretty much just him and Mark Duplass) does a better job than most at justifying its found footage style, but there's really more than one movie idea in it, and I'm not sure we ended up with the best possible version. The initial concept has Duplass hiring a videographer to tape a day's reflections for an unborn child, and for the first half of the film, what we get is an awkward situation that only gets more awkward. Its edge feels real, and it's where the film is at its most disturbing. As it moves towards the final act, it sort of switches gears into horror/thriller territory, and is far less effective (though I do love the final "inception" jump scare). Because from there, it feels like we know where it's heading. The ending's revelations are still good and creepy, but nothing like getting to know the character in the first and second acts.

I've now seen each of director J.C. Chandor's three films, and like All Is Lost and Margin Call, A Most Violent Year shows an interest in the details, a welcome fascination with "how things work". But in this case, the drama has more scope and it feels less like a niche film. Set in the slushy, sepia New York of 1981 - one if the most violent years on record - the film follows Oscar Isaac as a gas salesman trying to grow his business in a market rife with corruption, getting his trucks jacked, his accounts audited, etc., and not only desperate to keep his head above water financially, but morally as well. He doesn't want to fight fire with fire, but I'll leave it up to the viewer to decide if he does anyway. Isaac is well supported by the rest of the cast, which includes Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks and Davis Oyelowo, as well as the cinematography, some tense action scenes, and Chandor's notion that we've seen enough crime movies to know what goes on on the gangster's side of things. The focus is squarely on a victim this time, and that's just as engaging.

More than a rural crime picture, Charley Varrick hinges a lot closer to the heist and con genre, which I have a particular fondness for. It starts with a well-planned bank robbery, but the title character, played by a more serious than normal Walter Matthau, soon realizes they stole the Dixie Mafia's money, and so getting away with it requires a much more complicated plan! Well, it's smartly done, with Varrick never actually letting you in on it, but letting you discover it as it moves forward. Along the way, some surprising biplane action, and a quirky/creepy performance from Joe Don Baker as the hitman contracted to kill Charley. I guess the big trick Matthau plays on the audience is cutting out his normal humor and still making his ruthless bank robber someone you want to see succeed.

I'm not a particular fan of either Doris Day or Rock Hudson, but I couldn't resist Pillow Talk's premise - during a phone line outage, they are forced to share a party line, and hate each other, but the Hudson sees her, and adopts a Texan identity to romance her. Well, it's amusing enough, even if you can only go so far smiling at Hudson's caddish persona, and even "sexied up", Day fails to get a rise from me. There's a good "Much Ado" vibe coming from the movie in general, with some gentle pushing at the limits of what can actually be said, though Tony Randall's character was probably the funniest of the lot. There's a stupid subplot about a doctor believing Hudson is pregnant that needs to be trimmed out, however. One scene that plays differently today is the one where you can sort of see Hudson's eyes sparkle when he suggests his other self might be gay - a homophobic moment, as written, but the sting is possibly taken out of it with what we know today. In fact, the whole affair is mostly harmless despite being about men behaving badly, thanks to the friendly chemistry between the leads.

Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory is an early film, but it often feels as accomplished as many of his masterpieces. Less enigmatic, perhaps, but there are still some great moments of direction. I like to think the film hangs on three tentpole tracking shots - one walk and talk (or salute and talk) through the French trenches, one tracking through No Man's Land during a doomed attack, and the last, less impressive but no less important, following a general through a fancy ball. In these three shots, we get the full portrait of the soldier. Trench life, warfare, and as an ironic contrast, the cushy life of the top brass. And that contrast, that DISCONNECT, is very much at the heart of the film, what with a general sending troops on an impossible action, then court-martialing the men when they fail. At the upper levels, it's all politics, and the men are pawns. At the lower levels, officers might as well vengeful gods. At the center of the story is Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas, an officer, yes, but a humanist in the face of the dehumanizing war machine.

A Walk Among the Tombstones has Lian Neeson play yet another ex-cop , but this time, it's not a crazy action flick. Rather, the film goes for neo-noir - even referencing noir heroes - with Neeson as a private eye and recovering alcoholic working for a drug trafficker whose wife was horribly murdered. He sets himself on the trail of the demented serial killers responsible before they kill again, sometimes assisted by a ragtag group of younger characters whose lives are just about as hard as his. Good atmosphere, tough the attempt at making this properly apocalyptic - it's 1999 and Y2K looms, the tombstones of the title get a scene, but could also mean New York's buildings - isn't as clear as I would want it to be. Fans of Neeson's action flicks do get a couple of sequences, but for the most part, we're following a procedural investigation. On that score, I think it works well, the dots connecting in logical enough fashion, and the protagonist acting as smart as he is conflicted.

On the surface, On the Waterfront is a crime drama about a corrupt longshoreman union, but it's really a character piece, at the center of which is Marlon Brando's washed-up prize fighter, at the periphery of the criminal gang, but conflicted after he's made to finger a man who gets killed. Brando is excellent, thoughtful in the skin of a character who isn't all that smart. Helping or hurting him, depending on your point of view, is Eva Marie Saint, the girl he loves, and Karl Malden as the priest who becomes the moral center of the story. The villains are less textured, but these three give fine performances. Director Elia Kazan is no slouch either - I want to single out the moment when Brando tells Saint what he did as a highlight, diagetic sound used as psychological background. Will this turn out to be a rousing victory for the common man, or a naturalistic tragedy? It could go both ways, and therein lies the film's tension.

I'm not the audience for movies "based on a true story", especially tragedies that take place in recent memory, as I find them particularly exploitative. So why would I watch Deepwater Horizon? Surely it can't be because it's by the director of Battleship! Or by the producers and star of Transformers. The writer of Ninja Assassin? No, it's because Kurt Russell is in it. I'm not made of stone here, folks! Anyway, despite its dodgy resume, the film IS an effective real-life disaster movie that, in its first half, captures what life on an oil rig is like, with real-sounding technical jargon, and stakes the film finds a way to spell out adequately. Russell makes a great blue collar patriarch, and Mark Wahlberg, as usual, does well as a blue collar hero. And of course, the explosive second half has plenty of excitement. What Deepwater Horizon does not do is tell us anything particularly novel about the event. Greed is bad. Good folks needlessly died. The ecological disaster merits a line of text. But beyond the pure mechanics of drilling for oil, it's short on illumination.

Its really too bad Freaks was butchered by a studio uncomfortable with its content, though it does seem thematically relevant in a medium is the message kind of way. Nevertheless, it WAS butchered, which gives it a disjointed feel, where the able-bodied leads (or "leads") serve no purpose, the film runs out just as it gets truly interesting, and the frame tale is undermined by a tacked-on coda. So there's a lot wrong with this circus thriller, but also some transcendent elements. The treatment of side-show acts is particularly interesting. Real so-called "freaks" are the stars, which does mean uneven acting and sometimes impenetrable accents, but the audience is asked not to see this as a filmed version OF a side-show circus, but as a community of real people, being themselves before the camera. At least, in the first two acts. The plot demands action after one of their own is harmed by would-be exploiters, metaphorically representing side-show runners and patrons, possibly. When the tone turns to horror, it's a cinematic reversal where you're with the nominal "monsters" and against the characters with perfect physiques who are the true, moral, monsters. The terror is the villains', not yours. It's really quite surreal when you think about it. If some see exploitation - as most certainly the studio did by marketing it as horror and pulling it out of theaters as soon as they could - to the filmmaker it's a loving tribute, to the actors it's a chance to show their way of life, and to me it's a subversion of traditional horror film tropes.

The Girl from Mexico spawned 7 more films in the "Mexican Spitfire" series, starring Lupe Vélez, but the comedy is far less raucous than in later chapters (from what I've seen). This first chapter is a pretty standard romantic comedy with a couple of musical numbers, and Vélez giving the kind of slapstick performance one might later expect from Lucille Ball, with an extra dollop of national stereotype. The year is 1939, so we can perhaps accept that her character comes from a less technologically-inclined village in Mexico, but some of the trouble she gets up to makes her seem more than a little dumb. If we're supposed to laugh at the fiery (i.e. easily angered), dippy latina who doesn't know her English idioms, well, that doesn't play great today. And it's perhaps at odds with this actually being a vehicle for a Mexican actress AND showing progressive thinking in having the white bread lead marry her instead of the catty white socialite he was rather apathetically engaged to. I guess it's kind of cute without being too funny.

Mexican Spitfire is The Girl from Mexico's immediate sequel (titled after Lupe Vélez's nickname in the media, all subsequent films in the series will feature it), with our comic heroine and her boring beau coming back from their honeymoon and immediately falling afoul of his ex and his aunt who try to break the marriage up. Though present in the first film, this is where Leon Errol (as the sympathetic uncle) and Vélez become a double act. It's really THEIR series, not just hers. As far as the plot goes, it pretty much hangs on an extended dual identity sketch, and nothing else. The gag even repeats later. The traditional romcom elements have been sidelined in favor of more shtick, especially from Errol. Vélez is about the same, but has more clever malapropisms this time, so I'd say this one is funnier than the original, but not by a wide margin. Too much of a one-trick pony for more of a recommendation.

Not too long ago, I caught the middle of The Rains Fell on TV and was blown away by the earthquake/flood sequence. That they could achieve something so epic, so real-looking, so savage in 1939, just floored me. I endeavored to watch the listings and see it whole as soon as I could. That time has come. Other than that incredible sequence, the film is a pretty standard melodrama set in exotic India, so we are stuck with colonial attitudes and blacked-up actors. Still, taking that as a problem of the era, one can still enjoy Myrna Loy as a flighty aristocrat who finds a calling after the crisis (and the same for George Brent's layabout artist), the earthquake a metaphorical upheaval in their lives as well as a physical one, and the rains of course washing away the unhappiness of the past. As melodramas go, then, this is a good one, though dated in all but special effects (cuz I still don't know how it was all done).

Audrey Hepburn is probably watchable in anything, but as a Belgian nun in the '30s and '40s? Well, yes! The Nun's Story, based on a tell-all, may be a bit long and sag in the middle, but Hepburn keeps you hanging on with as efficient a performance as any she's given as Sister Luke. What is most striking about the film is the look inside the convent and just how CULTISH it feels. Sister Luke enters the order because she wants to be a nurse in impoverished countries (specifically, the Belgian Congo), but spiritual ambitions contrary to her nature keep being forced on her. The film thus explores the contradiction between the Church's role (doing good works surely among them) and the clergy's purpose (devotion to the faith), and the irony is that Sister Luke is a better nun for feeling she fails the various tests her order and life plague her with. I dare say most would just sweep their sins (and we're talking about an inability to void the self here, very abstract) under the carpet and fake it. Things may have changed since the era pictured, or they may not, but how things are/were done, especially one's entry into and exit from the sisterhood, is completely riveting.

1932's Kongo is a very dark take on the Heart of Darkness idea, with its "Kurtz", Flint (Walter Huston), a physically and morally crippled monster of a man who uses stage magic and fear to lord over his little corner of the African jungle, cruelly using both the local tribe and the small group of dregs and addicts that live in his compound. Lupe Vélez is almost bizarre in a non-comedic role, but though she gets second billing, the real heroine is Virginia Bruce, an alcoholic prostitute tortured by Flint as part of a long-term revenge plot. When a strung-out doctor shows up by accident, he may be her salvation, if she isn't sacrificed by the tribesmen first. This is a dark, pre-Code jungle thriller where the Congo is used as an exotic, strange, and thus disturbing setting, and where Flint's ugliness is really colonialism's, redux. While a lot of this kind of fare feels dated and systemically racist today, Kongo rises above that because its setting IS steeped in horror and its racist characters in no way meant to be "normal". I do think the final scene is tacked on, however, and do not need the relief it's meant to offer. The film's vision is just too bleak to really warrant it.

Reads: Yet another of those vintage 32-page romance "novels" out of 1940s Quebec (or more likely France, looking at some of the credits) La Métisse (essentially, The Half-Breed) is by the same fellow who wrote last week's entry, Jean Langaran. And remember how I said that story was misogynistic? Well, this one is racist AF! It concerns a pair of doctors in Africa, real colonials out to save the tribes from their own barbarity, one of them severely alcoholic (cuz living with the primitives, y'know?), and the latter's son who falls in love with the title Métisse. Now, the story is so scared of the idea of a white boy marrying a black girl that the girl is actually half-Egyptian and half-Portuguese (but still treated like a witchy woman). And look at that cover, which has absolutely nothing to do with the content. But I don't need that deep an analysis to call this racist. Though it's established that there are only three white people on this corner of the African continent, the author keeps slinging the n-word at us to qualify the rest of the cast. Or some variation, making sure we understand the leads are trapped on some God-forsaken patch of land where everything, including the people, is hellish and backward. Wow. For a literature historian, this is an ugly peek at the mainstream pulp of a bygone era. As a book(let), it's less a bathroom reader than a bathroom flusher.

1 comments:

Tony Laplume said...

Thanks for filling me in on what A Walk Among the Tombstones actually is. I thought it was another of his action movies, too. Sounds like a nice tonal shift for Neeson.

 

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