This Week in Geek (15-21/10/18)


In theaters: Bad Times at the El Royale is set in a hotel literally sitting on the state line between California and Nevada, introducing the concept of duality from the beginning. The end of the trendy 60s and start of the corrupted 70s, red and black, rain and fire, good and evil... and the duality within as well. No character here is what they seem at first, or even at second, if you'll pardon the expression. So I don't want to say too much because almost everything is meant to be a surprise. But it is about making choices. While one character says choosing right and wrong is merely a distraction perpetrated by those on high so they can take advantage, I think the film itself has a different opinion, and ultimately this Coen-sized fiasco story belongs to lounge singer Darlene because she gets the best speech, a bold choice of sorts that sends us into the climax as surely as if she'd been the action hero of the scene. So while this is a perfectly entertaining and gorgeous-looking ensemble crime picture, it's also about something more. About American amorality, false prophets, and ultimately, what it means to do the right thing.

I like space race movies a lot, so I wasn't sure First Man would be able to surprise me. And for the most part, that is to say when it comes to story beats related to the Mercury and Apollo missions, it didn't. But where most movies (and TV, as I count the superlative From the Earth to the Moon) are rather procedural, Damien Chazelle's take is much more intimate (perhaps to the point where I missed some of the proceduralism). The camera is out of cinéma vérité (shaky and unfortunately blurry at times), favoring tight close-ups over model shots, taking us into the cramped spacecraft with the astronauts. The story likewise sticks close to Neil Armstrong and his family life, and even chooses that aspect over NASA's professional achievements. But it's cleverly done. Instead of showing us a scene where Armstrong - this man of few words nonetheless responsible for speaking some of the most famous words in history - argues with other astronauts as to what should be said to the world upon landing on the Moon, we have one where he doesn't know what to say to his kids before he leaves. And even once we're on that stark, alien landscape, the achievement is turned into the most deeply personal of moments. Armstrong in the film has an emptiness that's akin to the Moon's, but not one that needs be filled, only confronted and tamed. We chose to go to the Moon and do the other things, but those "other things" may differ from person to person. The film's answer is rather more beautiful than I expected.

At home: We have a lot of movies about the Vietnam vet experience, but The Best Years of Our Lives is an oddity, a truthful film about the the WWII vet experience made in 1946. Three men return from the war and struggle with reintegrating into society, each in a different situation, with his own challenges. One has PTSD, another has lost both hands, the third a drinking problem. And while the film veers into a kind of melodrama about family strife and potential romances, its first half-hour sets things up so well, and so poignantly, that you're quite happy to follow these characters to the end of the film's almost three-hour run time. The iconic image is that of a scrap yard fully of war planes being dismantled, with their amputated propellers, discarded soldiers in need of recycling. Director William Wyler is limited in what he can show by the Hays Code, so resorts to clever ploys to evoke realities not permitted on screen. For example, when the amputee is said to be in the tool shed out back, we hear a gun shot. He's just practicing so he can later go hunting, but the immediate, shocking image is that of a suicide. The film is full of little scenes that suggest OTHER veteran experiences, all the more surprising in an era where WWII in movies were mostly depicted as tales of heroism, or a reason for song and dance numbers. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

I'm really on the fence about Éric Rohmer's Le rayon vert (The Green Ray AKA Summer). On the one hand, I appreciate the portrait of a woman struggling with anxiety and feeling isolated and incapable of having a good holiday. Marie Rivière is best as Delphine when she is overcome with fear and sadness, but when she talks, it's mostly to awkwardly justify herself so as not to come off as depressive. And I know a lot of people will relate. I don't NOT relate. But truth be told, I kind of hate Delphine. She is SUCH a drag. And like the people around her, I'm annoyed that she never wants to do anything, that her isolation is something she creates herself, and when she feels like she has nothing interesting to say, I AGREE WITH HER. I probably wouldn't be so critical if it weren't clear that Rivière is mostly improvising. As far as improvisations go, there's a lot of repetition, grasping for what to say next, and so on. I can't decide if it works for the character or if it's just boring. And then, there's the beautiful ending, which references the lesser-known Jules Verne story that shares its title with the film. And is all forgiven? Maybe. If this is the type of romcom where one of the lovers thinks they're a loser until they find love, it almost only lives in the first act. Its relentless sadness is truthful, but overwhelming. Can I like the film and have no use for its protagonist? Like the last ray of the sun hovering on the horizon, I'm teetering.

1966's movie version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum omits two thirds of Stephen Sondheim's songs, and so cannot be considered a good film adaptation of the stage musical. But as a black comedy that spoofs Roman movies in the same way Mel Brooks might have (a year before The Producers came out), it's amusing enough. I want to call it the "Blazing Sandals" version. Taken for what it is, rather than what it might be, the songs become comedy set pieces rather than the grammar and syntax of the film. What's missing is replaced with visual gags of all sorts, some broad, some slapstick, some editing punchlines, some rather more clever. Zero Mostel is good as the slave who will do anything to be free, up to and including finding a wife for his master. You see the ending coming a mile away, but it's not all that important. As an example of Sondheim's upbeat darkness and playfully vicious ironies, it's a bit diluted, sure, but most of the jokes landed for me. Now, if you're watching this for Doctor Who Jon Pertwee*, you really might be disappointed. He's got like three lines.

If it weren't for the casting and a few (and only a few) of the effects, I would believe it if you told me The Black Hole was a contemporary of Forbidden Planet. Its plot is right out of 50s sci-fi, and so it its dialog, glacial pacing, and design aesthetic. If it really WERE from the 50s or 60s, I would consider it a charming movie and a technical marvel. In 1979, it's dated right out of the box, even compared to the era's genre television like Battlestar Galactica. Disney really learned the wrong lessons from Star Wars, which took its cues from older cinema, but was still a thoroughly modern-looking film. You do feel the Disneyness of it, what with the Captain Nemo villain, and the overly cutesy robots. I'm not really down on V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and B.O.B., mind you, as they're just about the only engaging characters in the story. (Psst, by the way, if emotions in robots is going to be a crucial clue to what's going on, don't give your main robots emotions!) Things get better in the action-packed third act, I admit, though it all kind of ends on a "see you in the sequel" beat, and as we know, that would never come. Perhaps the 2001-ish epilogue should have been the third act.

Three women are sewn together in Patchwork, a Frankensteinian horror-comedy in which their three minds survive, must learn to work together, and go on a gory rampage. If I tell you that it starts off with a pretty overt Re-Animator joke, it may be enough for you to decide whether to see it. It's fun, with lots of practical effects, and a structure that reveals things about the characters in due course, with some surprises in the offing. And it also works as a feminist revenge picture, since our Patchwork Girl was wronged by a number of men (up to and including the role the Patriarchy has played in the plastic surgery industry). Not to say this thing is deep or anything - it really doesn't take itself seriously enough for that - and I AM disappointed in the core make-up effect (it doesn't look like her face really is made up of others'), but not in the core performance; there's a lot of physicality to the role, and Tory Stopler aces it.

The French sci-fi/horror film Évolution feels like someone crossbred Under the Skin with Womb, with a dash of Spring. Experienced through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy, one of several being experimented on in seaside colony of oddly similar women, the film doesn't yield clear answers to the mysteries it sets up. Who are these women? What do they want? Where do the boys come from? What happens to them? What are the motivations at play? Where and when are we, even? That's not to say there ARE no answers, only that the spare and quiet script doesn't include any kind of exposition scene. It's all there to be understood, but you shouldn't look away at any point or you'll miss it. It helps that the cinematography, though bleak, is quite effective. The ocean is a mysterious living place. The beach, a charred apocalyptic place. The resort and hospital, Fincheresque. There are multiple viewpoints at play too. Taken from the point of view of the women, this is about the malaise of child bearing (to say more would be a spoiler). From that of the boys, the push and pull of the world, its wonders and its terrors. Narratively, I might have wanted a bit more from it, but the more I think about it, the less I feel that need.

In Parents, a young boy with a morbid imagination comes to see his parents as sinister in a way that I find quite truthful. I mean, to a child, a lot of what parents do and say can be upsetting, mysterious, and downright nasty, whether that's drunken behavior, keeping secrets, sexual activity, and conversation not meant for children's ears. It doesn't help that Randy Quaid (who sure does a lot with reflections in his glasses) seems to have a pretty creepy job. And as long as we remain in that ambiguity, the film works. Unfortunately, it eventually feels the need to give us an explanation one way or the other. Is the kid imagining all this, or is there really something nefarious happening in his home? Well, I didn't want to know. And I'm not sure I can keep spinning it as still ambiguous by the end, even if it's a square peg I'd definitely try to jam in a round hole. I guess I'll always have a question regarding the tall girl from school and whether or not she's an alien, right?

Frailty is one of only two feature films directed by Bill Paxton, who also stars, and it's a pretty cool crime thriller with a supernatural bent and occasional neo-Noir cinematography. It's about an ordinary single father who believes he's had a vision from God, and undertakes to destroy demons with the help of his two young sons. One of them believes, the other doesn't, and somewhere in there is the birth of a serial killer or two. This leads us to the frame tale in which this story is recounted, which I initially found to be a somewhat clunky structure (especially in how the obligatory twist is revealed), but the present day stuff does nicely pay off. The creep factor, however, is definitely with the kids thrown in an impossible situation. Surprisingly, there's little gore despite all the axe murdering that's going on, which at times made me wonder if this was destined for television rather than the big screen. But what's happening just off-screen is chilling enough that it doesn't need it.

After the success of Frankenstein, James Whale made The Old Dark House, again with Boris Karloff as a lumbering man-monster. And what a strange film it is. It's certainly a showcase for Whale's ability to conjure a spooky atmosphere, lighting most of the film in what feels like flickering candle light, where the mind tricks the eye. But through most of the run time, he uses it to fake us out. The monster is just an ugly drunk. The scares just an odd shadow, the wind making a noise, etc., while the story of people holing up in an old house plays more like madcap comedy or romance. Only a late third act actually takes the plot into the realm of horror as the film keeps introducing new characters until one of them really does prove to be an effective menace. It's fun - indeed, I don't think I've ever seen something that looked so much like the direct ancestor of the Rocky Horror Picture Show - but thin, as if it didn't really want to be a horror flick, then finally decided to give in.

Unlike the Gothic productions of Universal and the oblique impressionism of RKO's, Warners' take on the horror genre is more grounded. The Walking Dead might have been called Dead Man Walking, as it's about a man sent on death row unjustly, framed for murder by gangsters to get the heat off their backs. Only, this man is played by Boris Karloff, so a scientist manages to bring him back to life. There, the crime drama turns into a horror film, or at least, a supernatural one, as the man becomes a sort of spirit of vengeance. If you're expecting brutality and lurching zombie action, think again. Karloff is a sympathetic presence throughout, tapping that part of his Frankenstein performance, and it's almost like his power is only to expose guilt, sending divine intervention after the malefactors in the process. Michael Curtiz directs it admirably, with great atmosphere and use of lighting, doing a lot with little means.

I liked the first season of Ash vs. Evil Dead, but I loved Season 2. What a riot! There are more monster and gore effects, more disturbing images, and more scares in a 30-minute episode than in most horror movies, even if they are in the service of what is essentially an action comedy. Instead of the first season's road trip, Ash and his team go back to his home town where he is reviled, giving us a chance to explore one location and cast of characters, all of which have ties to our hero. Featured actors include Lee Majors as Ash's dad(!), Ted Raimi (fun to see him team up with Bruce Campbell again), and even someone from the original Evil Dead! Throw in a possessed car, a killer puppet, Kelly becoming more and more of a badass, Pablo as a human Necronomicon, two Lucy Lawlesses in the same room, and some fun 80s TV and movie references, and you've got a great time in front of the binge-screen.


Anonymous said...

I agree 100% on Best Years of Our Lives ... great movie. Teresa Wright was amazing (I've liked her in everything I've seen her in) and Harold Russell (a Canadian who really did lose both hands in the war) was so good, he got two Oscars. Great stuff.

Mike W.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

FRAILTY is one of my favorite films. I like Paxton (NEAR DARK over ALIENS), and the late Powers Boothe was in the film, too. Boothe was very good in everything I've seen him in, even back in the 90s when the US still had made-for-TV movies on the network channels.

Siskoid said...

Powers Boothe is in my favorite western (Tombstone) and my favorite guilty pleasure Van Damme movie (Sudden Death).


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