This Week in Geek (10-16/09/18)


At home: Have I ever been truly convinced by any actor playing Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan? I'm not saying that as someone who read any of the books (I've ready some Clancy but no Jack Ryans), just as someone who keeps getting drawn into watching the character on screen. Maybe it's because each take is so different from the others. Slick Alec Baldwin, aging action dad Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Chris Pine... and now thanks to Amazon Prime, John Krasinski. Krazinski physically towers over everyone and yet seems like a hapless desk jockey most of the time, playing up the character's boy scout attitude to the point of naivete. Well, this is Jack Ryan Year One (like Shadow Recruit was) so it's probably allowed. It's a well put together show, though I'm consistently more interested in his boss played by Wendell Pierce, Ali Suliman's super terrorist (made sympathetic by giving him exclusive rights to flashbacks that show his radicalization), and John Magaro's touching portrayal of a drone pilot whose story invisibly intersects Jack's. Just looking at the tropes in play, there's little to distinguish Jack Ryan from 24 or Homeland other than there forays into the lives of these other characters, but that makes Ryan a bit of a cipher (despite having his own arc and subplot), especially if some of these characters of interest aren't going to be part of a second season.

If you liked the first season of American Vandal, Season 2 just dropped and while you can never recapture the freshness of the original experiment, it provides just as a good a mystery, set of twists, and resolutions... As easy to chug as the original. The high school criminal - and they switched up schools, but not documentarists - is @theturdburglar, a poop-centric terrorist someone has confessed to being, but it's really not that clear cut. Though nominally a parody of "true crime" shows, American Vandal is rather a fair satire of high school culture (by fair I mean that it isn't a take-down job) and thus Millennial culture (on which it has something interesting to say). It seemed to have great fun this time around with its crafting of hypocrites whose dialog reveals more than they'd like. But turns out, it was all in servive of its theme. Will Peter and Sam graduate to a college crime next year? I sure hope so.

Double Indemnity has such a reputation, I was sure it was one of Hitchcock's. But Billy Wilder isn't exactly the B-team. One of Film Noir's best known accomplishments, the film concerns an insurance scam that hinges on committing the perfect murder. It all seems to work out well enough for the malefactors played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, until Edward G. Robinson's Columbo-like claims investigator (particularly great) starts getting a feeling in the pit of his stomach. From there, panic sets in and our leads are going to start making mistakes, potentially fatal ones, in stark contrast to how precise their original plan was. As the niggling details start to mount, so does the tension and the mistrust. Goes to show you can do perfect Noir without putting a private eye at the center of it. Who knew the world of insurance could be this exciting, or attract its share of femme fatales?

Based on a play, Wait Until Dark is a tight little thriller in which three men (Richard Crenna, Jack Weston and a creepy Alan Arkin) run a complicated con on a blind woman played by Audrey Hepburn to recover a doll full of heroin passed to her husband at the airport. If it really is in her apartment. As a lover of con jobs, this was a lot of fun, though it's Hepburn who elevates the material beyond the level of crazy crime caper. Her character is such a pleasantly-spirited lady that you want for her to succeed (or else you'd be screaming at the screen to have her just give them the doll already), not just in figuring out the plot, but getting these guys the comeuppance they deserve. Her blindness and the way she uses her other senses and situational awareness to confound the criminals' expectations is part of the fun, as is the film's sense of clarity when it comes to its limited set's geography. That apartment is a complete world. Filed under "Audrey Hepburn can do no wrong".

But let's combine those two great tastes... Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon works as a young woman's fantasy about an older man, with Audrey Hepburn very sweetly creating a false identity for herself so she can be an enigmatic and alluring match for Gary Cooper's millionaire playboy. Unfortunately, Cooper, only in his 50s but somehow looking older, looks uncomfortable with the affair, and Hepburn is such a sophisticate, his folksy manner jibes with neither this romance or all the others he's said to have had. He's miscast, pure and simple, and we could perhaps accept the young woman's infatuation as a kind of projection on her part if the film weren't moving inexorably towards a romcom resolution. That's just the way of these things. Maybe it should cut off before the last minute. Nevertheless, Wilder has some fun with the opening narration and creates many lovely moments between Hepburn and other characters (like her father played by Maurice Chevalier). An ultimately flawed piece, but as a leisurely, undemanding watch on a Sunday afternoon, you could do worse.

I love Myrna Loy and generally dislike Clark Gable, so I watched Men in White for her presence and in spite of his. Unfortunately, Loy is mostly wasted in this hospital melodrama whose script has none of the wit and charm I associate with her usual performances. To be fair, it does Gable good not to play the slick hard man, but in the 21st Century, it's a little weird to hear about doctors are "starving" and how his intern, destined for great things, might screw up his life by going into general practice or marrying. The film is also quite interested in what being a doctor is like, throwing small scenes with a wide cast of characters at us like this were the pilot to a television show. Decades of medical dramas on TV has taken the bloom off that rose. There are some great directorial flourishes from Richard Boleslawski here and there - the opening plunge into this world as if edited by Eisenstein, the queasy surgery scene, the way a woman is laid to rest near the end - but the lack of score and the dull script make it go terminal in the second act especially. If it weren't under 75 minutes, I might have bailed early.

While I think Motel Hell loses steam in the second act where it gets a little repetitious (the different set pieces on how to get livestock are varied, but there's too much farming), I'd rather this exist than not. Because when it comes to genre movie-making (action, sf, and horror in particular), you want them to show you something you've never seen before. I think Motel Hell (a good title that's only barely justified since this is about cannibal farmers, really) fits that bill. I don't know that it's a comedy necessarily, but it's quirky and absurd enough that it definitely tips into that territory. The beginning has a nice air of mystery before you find out what's really happening, and the climax is properly demented. It's just the middle that needs tightening up (and yet there's lots of recommend there too). The whole thing probably wouldn't work without the eminently likable performance of Rory Calhoun as Farmer Vincent. There lie the film's most interesting contrasts.

Two master thieves (Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall) fall in love at the top of Trouble in Paradise, then set their sights on a rich perfume heiress (Kay Francis) who may not be without charms of her own, setting up a romantic triangle in this saucy pre-Code crime comedy. What a romp! The dialog crackles, the characters are smart and insightful, and Ernst Lubitsch's direction is slick and inventive. So many great ideas for transitions, bits of humorous montage, and provocative shots. It's great right down the line. But you know what? Whichever pairing you root for, it's irresistibly ROMANTIC. Not that you can take any of it too seriously, but it's like Marshall has chemistry of some sort or other with everyone he meets in this. And me a huge fan of grifter movies... where has this been all my life? FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Led by the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and Lucille Ball, Stage Door makes us spend time with a large company of actresses PLAYING actresses, or would-be actresses, in a boarding house dedicated to that clientele - a lively ensemble! The women differ in terms of talent, dedication, integrity, background, and goals, presenting not just a strong cross-section of the people attracted to the profession, but also depicting the chaos that would ensue when put in close proximity to one another. There's great banter, but it's not just a comedy. It can be heartwarming and it is definitely heartbreaking. And it addresses the ugly side of professional theater work: the vanity, the opportunism, the sexual harassment, the unfairness, the emotional cannibalism... But also the camaraderie. Funny and sad and true, Stage Door is the full package.

The 1996 version of Jane Austen's Emma is a whole lot of fun, a comedy about an incorrigible match-maker who should weed out her garden before going into others', with Gwyneth Paltrow giving her usual charming mid-to-late '90s performance. The film is genuinely funny, Austen's trademark wit supplemented by editing that understands comedy, cutting from one moment to the next in a kind of accelerated montage that's entirely amusing and keeps the pace up. If I go looking for flaws, then perhaps Mr Knightley is too sympathetic to Emma too early, and maybe Emma's class snobishness doesn't come across as fully as in the book (is Paltrow too likable in the role?), but it still works as a period romcom with blazing dialog and a modern, but not too modern, feel.

You can definitely watch Clueless today as a perfect time capsule of 1990s culture, or as a satire of Hollywood rich kids like Paris Hilton et al., but I think it stands to gain a lot from combining and comparing it with its source material, Jane Austen's Emma. First, it helps explain some of the more iffy elements in Clueless (a 15-year-old's potential romance with her college-age former stepbrother), and second, the parallels are just so damn fun to draw! Watching Clueless in isolation, you wouldn't think it would have THAT much in common with Emma, but plot, style, characters are poached wholesale and translated into the '90s high school environment (class warfare? that's where it starts!), but through rewrites (presumably), it becomes its own (still surprisingly literate) animal and isn't slavish to the book either. And man, Alicia Silverstone is resplendent in this. If you were there in the mid-90s, she was one of the biggest upcoming stars. Looking at this, it seems incredible that though she was in a number of movies around this time, she didn't end up with more sustained stardom.

Romance on the High Seas is a fun little romantic comedy filled with mistaken identities and amusing day players doing shtick for our amusement, and Doris Day finding in-story reasons to sing while impersonating a society dame on a cruise so said dame can catch her husband in an affair while he thinks she's away (Doris must fall for the private investigator trying to prove the DAME is a cheater). Directed by the genre-proof Michael Curtiz, it bounces along pleasantly, with strong staging throughout and charming musical interludes. What's most surprising is that this is Doris Day's first film. She's so charming and confident, so sparklingly funny, and sexier by far than in Pillow Talk, the movie where they tried to update her screen persona by "sexifying" her. As the movie says, it's magic.

Now here's a strange one. Lili is a musical on what seems like a technicality - there's exactly one song, but two balletic dream sequences, and the sets are painted as to give the film a fairy tale quality - and stars French dancer and actress Leslie Caron in the eponymous role of a naive orphan who ends up as the human figure in a carnival's puppet show. And I honestly don't know what to think of it. The puppets are expressive and surprisingly endearing, used as characters in their own right though they give voice to the puppeteer's most inward thoughts and feelings, but there's something off-putting about Lili's child-like relationship with them. Caron, cute as a button, might as well be playing an 8 year old, but then she's also caught in a romantic triangle (a girl's, not a woman's though, at least until she grows up in the third act). Between the admittedly good dream ballets, the painted backdrops and the mutable age of the character, maybe this should be taken as a fantasy, a fabulistic coming of age story that lives more in the metaphorical than the literal. An oddity.

It's hard to get too mad at The Great Ziegfeld's problems because they're thematically consistent with the biopic subject's life. It's too long at nearly 3 hours? Yes, but all of Florenz Ziegfeld's shows were enormous white elephants (note the leitmotif, in fact) that, like this film, were big and costly. It lacks structure? Yes, but Ziegfeld was best known for his Follies, which had no plot at all. Myrna Loy is second-billed but doesn't show up into the third hour and has little screen time? Yes, but Ziggy was Broadway's P.T. Barnum and had that con man mentality. Loy's name got me watching, didn't it? She's not in it much, but her presence is still notable. It's essentially short-hand for "William Powell's true match", and you spend much of the film waiting for her to show up. Indeed, if there's a loose structure here, it's basically this: Ziegfeld finds a leading lady, is inspired to create a show around her, we see some of that show (usually great spectacle; warning: a bit of blackface too), and we move on to the next. And while the musical acts are good, none of the ladies hold a candle to Loy and we know it. So in a sense, the movie is about his journey to find that perfect someone (one should definitely contrast his visit home in the first reel with the Christmas scene in the last). When the Depression hits, we might also come to think of his career as a metaphor for the extravagance of the early 20th Century. Unfortunately, while the movie tries to do a lot, these different themes don't really support one another. So it coasts on Powell's charm (which is considerable), acting as a showcase for impressive show stoppers that nevertheless never seem to stop the show.

The theme to The Odd Couple takes me right back - to the iconic movie, to be sure, but to my youth watching the sitcom version in French and later in English. Neil Simon's play did offer a great set-up for a long-running sitcom (and various other less successful iterations), and the title has become a comedy trope. Watching the original film with Lemon and Matthau (who has become my favorite actor of the interregnum between the Golden Age of Hollywood and the modern day), it has a lot more humanity than I remembered. Though Felix's suicidal tendencies are played for laughs, I was touched by how supportive his friends were despite their mostly gruff exteriors, none more so than Oscar. It's quite lovely. Of course, the dialog is cracking and funny, and it has something to say about platonic marriages (which anyone who's had a roommate can relate to, especially if adult roommates). I like how it is completely unselfconscious about potential gay subtext, platonic love between men nothing to be worried about. But if the LGBTQ+ community wanted to claim Felix Unger (he's definitely "coded" as a gay stereotype), that would be fine too, and perhaps make the anti-homophobia argument stronger.


snell said...

Young Baldwin, I think, was by the far the closest to the book's version of Jack Ryan. I don't know that he could have sustained it--later forays into comedy have perhaps changed his image too much, a la Leslie Nielsen, and of course aging. But I've always felt Hunt's book & film Jacx Ryan were the closest match.

Siskoid said...

I've thought the same, but I wondered if it was because 1) he was the first, 2) The Hunt for Red October is the best of all the adaptations.

snell said...

Both true, but I thought Baldwin came closet to capturing Ryan as Clancy wrote him.

Randal said...

This may be an odd question, but in American Vandal, is it really the shitburglar in Canada? We got turdburglar but I’d be fascinated if they’d shot two versions.

Siskoid said...

No, it was my mistake. But you know, sometimes you have to change the names to protect the innocent.


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