This Week in Geek (30/07-05/08/18)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: There are different levels on which to enjoy Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. For the younger kids, it's colorful and zany and has a number of fart jokes. For the older kids, it's a cool action comedy with memorable songs and amusing jokes. For the geeky adults, there are tons of references to DC Comics (not just DC, in fact), obscure characters, visual gags, and a savage take-down of the superhero movie craze. Sometimes it's as sly as Nicholas Cage playing Superman's voice, sometimes as thuddingly obvious as not wanting to talk about the Green Lantern movie. Where it perhaps gets into trouble is in juggling the required mix of tones. It's at times so silly, the violence innate to superhero narrative (Bruce Wayne's parents dying is just one example) feels jarringly dark. So I'll safely assume that your age and background will entirely determine which bits you think are worth a laugh, a smile, or a smirk. The film is preceded by a Batgirl/DC Girls short which is fun, but just an extended set-up for a punchline, not a complete adventure. May have been worth it just to hear that little girl in the crowd shout out "BATGIRL!" long before Barbara ever got into the suit.

At home: Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove's big competitor (lawsuit threatened) was Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe, based on an entirely similar book (lawsuit settled out of court) about an American bomber who crosses into Soviet airspace and might accidentally cause World War III, no take-backs. Where Strangelove plays it as a dark but still overt comedy, Fail-Safe is a proper suspense thriller. And though it obviously suffered from the comparison in its day (and still today), I like it almost as much (and I consider Strangelove my favorite Kubrick film, probably). Lumet is also a master film maker and his own experimentalism is brutal here. The tension is palpable. The scene with President Henry Fonda talking to the Soviet Prime Minister through his translator Larry Hagman is a high point (or several), and the resolution completely unexpected. There are moments where it's a bit didactic as part of its proceduralism, but that's my only problem with it. Strangelove is transcendent and really about something more than Cold War anxiety, which makes Fail-Safe its purest and most powerful manifestation.

I don't know about the remakes, but 1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three takes the procedural track to excellent effect in this thriller about a hijacked New York subway train and the transit police's attempts to get the hostages back safe, and the perps apprehended. The crime is somewhat absurd, a feeling supported by the extended cast of the film who tend not to take it seriously. I've never seen a better showcase for New York attitude, and that's where the movie really shines, and why it feels real. I had to check if I wasn't watching a "true story" (which might have explained the two remakes), but no, it's based on a book. Well, the behavioral realism wins you over. A thriller that doesn't resort to action tropes, yet still makes transit cop Walter Matthau cool as hell.

Ahhh, yet another procedural... Likely the first science fiction film, loosely based on Jules Verne's novel, 1902's Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) is a maverick little silent by Georges Méliès that uses all sorts of theatrical and circus tricks to make the journey to a fantastical moonscape inhabited by acrobatic zebra people come to life. I'll admit, I'm not always sure how they did it, which is a measure of how impressive an achievement it still is. It's necessarily light on story, and I don't think it would even have gotten to 13 minutes without the padded scene at the beginning which just seems like an exercise in Méliès getting all his friends (and financiers?) into frame for a group shot. But at that length, can you really afford not to watch this whimsical part of film history? (I was joking about it being a procedural. You found me out.)

A Bigger Splash is Luca Guadagnino's behaviorist remake of Jacques Deray's La piscine, but he really ought to have done away with the thriller elements of the third act. It just doesn't interest him enough. Like his more celebrated Call Me By Your Name, this is a stolen season story, but one interrupted by a mostly harmless snake (as per the film's symbolism). We have Tilda Swinton as a famous rock star who can't speak after a surgery, and Matthias Schoenaerts as her troubled but loving boyfriend. Into their lives returns Swinton's old flame, a still-very-much-in-love chatterbox played by Ralph Fiennes, his seductive possible daughter played by Dakota Johnson in tow. These latter two seem designed to break up the first two. But after focusing on a quartet of intriguing characters for the length of a Bible - who they are, how they interact - the film half-heartedly decides it kind of needs a stock plot to wrap things up. The way Guadagnino treats it, it just about works in the story, but seems out of place tonally. I wish it had, so to speak, made a bigger splash.

One Day explores a friendship/romance over the course of 15 years, but by looking at only one day a year, necessarily the 15th of July. A cute conceit for a book, it just does not work as a film. I had hopes since I'm generally interested in unusual structures, and the cast includes a lot of people I like - Anne Hathaway, Patricia Clarkson, a bit part for Jodie Whittaker - but in addition to American actors putting on British accents (a pet peeve of mine), there's just no real interiority here. It feels like we have to be told where we're up to all the time because there's just no room for the characters to evolve. We just have to take it on faith that their friendship has grown, or that it's on the rocks, or whatever. Some bouncy dialog and occasional truths make it watchable, but ultimately, it just comes off as dull. The gimmick takes away too much of what's needed for the narrative to function on an emotional level.

Seven Wives for Seven Brothers is a raucous musical about a family of woodsmen in the wilds of 1850 Oregon who decide to get themselves some wives after the eldest (Howard Keel) lucks out with a sassy orphan girl from town (Jane Powell). It's old-fashioned in a number of ways - the singing style and the gender politics - but the former is par for the course, and it gets away with the latter by knowing full well it's sexist. Powell's character is a strong woman who won't stand for her husband's shenanigans, the period is forgiving, and well, it's all very flighty and not to be taken seriously even if the brothers do act like vikings. Of course, not of that would matter if there weren't memorable songs (there are) or fun dance (and fight!) choreography (there so is). In addition, the film's primeval Oregon has an unexpected epic quality, grandiose in both location and studio-bound scenes. An amusing throwback that's more inoffensive than it sounds. Oh, and early role for Julie Newmar as well, which is a always a plus in my book.

If Annie Get Your Gun is at all cringy today, it's because of the way it treats Native Americans - nothing new in old Hollywood flicks, but it could be argued we're seeing the kind of Native that was portrayed in Wild West shows like Buffalo Bill's, i.e. a period caricature. And Betty Hutton as Annie Oakley certainly plays it like a cartoon. She's right out of Tex Avery at times. So in the end, this musical comes off as amusing even when it's wrong-headed. If it doesn't do well by its Native characters, it manages a certain feminism in Annie herself. Lovelorn yes, and the ending is right out of The Taming of the Shrew, but she was raised without gender norms and would never think of being less than she is to satisfy a man's fragile ego. That fragile ego is supplied by Howard Keel, who's made a career of playing misogynists who've found their match (Seven Brides, Kiss Me Kate) and apparently, he wasn't all that different in real life. Here, he's a loud-singing dandy who doesn't deserve Annie, except that it's a biopic, so she sort of has to end up with this peacock. Heck, I don't think his horse appreciated him much either. And of course, none of this would play if it wasn't filled with memorable songs, many of them classics in fact, supported by strong choreography, lots of humor, and the odd rodeo action. Some of it is dated, yes, but some of it is eternal.

When I was a kid, a formative week for me was that one time some channel ran a daily creature feature in the afternoon. War of the Worlds, some Godzilla picture, the Blob... I was going to watch them all, but had to miss the Friday presentation on account of some family outing. That movie was going to be The Thing From Another World. Here I am 35 years later watching it for the first time. Obviously, I've seen the Carpenter remake AND Doctor Who's The Seeds of Doom a number of times, so it was fun to visit the original (well I guess the original is actually the short story, but you know what I mean), on an archaeological basis, you might say. But of course it works in its own right. The characters were actually the most striking, with real camaraderie on screen between the military men (and the reporter), and bouncy banter between the male and female leads. In most monster films from the 50s, good and bad, the focus is more on plot mechanics and characters come off as types (Them! is a good example of this). Not here, except maybe the head scientist who is an incarnation of the amoral science principle you see in this kind of story. But because it is such a "human" film, it feels alive and energetic. Its weakness is, ironically enough, the monster, which fails spectacularly at the task of being the "other" the scientists speak of. Just a shambling vegetative Frankenstein's Monster. It works when we don't see him, but it disappoints when we do. But we can accept it as a limitation of the time, because the rest works so well.

It was for research that I sat down to watch three of BBV's The Stranger videos on YouTube (those I could find), but I'm not unhappy I did. After Doctor Who was cancelled back in 1989, these were productions that used Who actors to tell new stories in the Doctor Who mold, all numbers (and rights) filed off. The Stranger and Miss Brown were very much like the sixth Doctor and Peri, in the sense that they were time travelers played by Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant, but it seems each of them got to play the parts as they would have liked to. The Stranger is a more somber figure who dresses in dark clothes and doesn't run off at the mouth, while Miss Brown uses Bryant's perfectly good English accent and doesn't scream or blubber at every given moment. Now, the first of these adventures, Summoned by Shadows, is a rather arty introduction that features Michael Wisher as a Master-like figure. It's light on dialog and a little elliptical, shot with little means, a fact not completely hidden by the extreme close-ups, so it feels like a curiosity, but not a satisfying story. Expanded, it could definitely have fit the 7th Doctor era however. In Memory Alone is a much better one-off and feels a heck of a lot like an episode of Sapphire & Steel (except with chunky robots added). In this one, the Stranger and Miss Brown mysteriously find themselves in a train station with no memory of who they are, along with a young Nicholas Briggs (who you know as the modern Daleks' voice, if nothing else) who is caught in a loop. A watchable sci-fi mystery that trades on the "erased past" of the Doctor and Peri, if you will. With The Terror Game, the Stranger takes off on its own path. Miss Brown is sadly gone and the Stranger learns disturbing things about his past, who he used to be, and the sort of War in Heaven that's going on in the background as the series introduces its own version of the Time Lords. No Nicola Bryant, but Colin Baker is stuck between the effervescent Louise Jamison (Leela) and David Troughton (King Peladon), representing the two factions. Not sure I follow the plot entirely, and it's more or less to be continued in the next chapter which I haven't seen, but I felt more invested than I thought I would, and wouldn't be adverse to more.

Books(ish): I didn't know if I would review these as you're unlikely to come across them, regardless of recommendation, but to at least satiate my good friend DJ Nath's curiosity, since she gave them to me for my birthday, I think I will. I'm talking about a collection of vintage 1940s romance... let's call them booklets... from Quebec, each with a ±30-pages short story. The first on the pile is called "Comment j'ai tué..." (How I Killed...) by Viviane Perrault, more murder mystery than romance, and it was, by and large, terrible. But in a fascinating way that made it enjoyable anyway. You can tell these were meant to be disposable by the amount of typos in them, but Comment j'ai tué also plays fast and loose with verb tenses, features an unreliable narrator in a way that does not feel calculated, and guest-stars a detective whose handle on the law is astonishingly bad. I give it credit for presenting a mystery from a perspective OTHER than the detective's, but there's something naive about even the story's successes, stumbled upon in the rush of writing. Will the other stories be better? I'll let you know.

3 comments:

Brendon Wright said...

Awuuugh!!
We in New Zealand have to wait 'til October to see Titans GO......
Our school holidays finished the week before the film's release and so its been held back til' the next holiday.
I'm just gonna hafta sulk, that's all there is to it. Sorry, cruel world for my lack of stern, strong, manly character.

Green Luthor said...

Don't know if you knew of it, or had any plans to check it out, but in 2000 CBS aired a live remake of Fail-Safe. Being that it was live, there are parts that could have been pulled off better, but it might make for an interesting comparison to the 1964 version if nothing else. (A really good cast, though, with George Clooney as the bomber group leader, Richard Dreyfuss as the president, Noah Wyle in the Larry Hagman role, Harvey Keitel, Hank Azaria, Brian Dennehy... worth a watch, at least.)

Siskoid said...

Sounds intriguing, Luthor!

 

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