This Week in Geek (8-14/10/18)


Podcast listener and friend Vera Wylde wrote a book called Skirting Gender - Life and Lessons of a Crossdresser, which I happily helped Kickstart, and I got it in the mail this week.


At home: The Good Place ended its first season with everything topsy-turvy. Season 2 had me think it couldn't recover in the first couple of episodes as the focus switched to the immortal denizens of the "Good Place". Previous revelations mean we can see their POV a much as that of the human souls now, and wouldn't you know it, the show soon got back on track with some pretty clever narrative conceits and the addition of an extra "hero" as well. And by the end, we've gone through a couple more show-destroying twists and though I could see where Season 3 might go (and still be interesting and funny), but it went somewhere else entirely! Look, is there another sitcom out there that wrings this much comedy out of the study of ethics? It's pretty remarkable. At 12 episodes, it almost goes by too fast...

There's more to The Omen than I remembered. On the surface, it's one of those horror movies that trades on dispassionate kids being creepy. And obviously, it banks on the 1970s interest in the occult, with its da Vinci Code-like investigation of the Antichrist myth across Europe. But watching it again, I was taken by the subtext. This is about post-partem, isn't it? Though it's literal in this case, the mother comes to believe her child is evil and indeed, NOT her child. And though not exactly the poster child for adoption, Damien comes to be the rejected child who finds comfort in the arms of a nanny. That he's also at the center of a war between Heaven and Hell (in which Pat Troughton* is a soldier, always fun to see a former Doctor as a doomsayer) is almost besides the point. The Omen also has great atmosphere and every death scene is memorably staged by director Richard Donner (Superman, this isn't). An iconic supernatural detective story with thrilling horror moments peppered throughout.

Universal's second Mummy movie, The Mummy's Hand, is a much simple, more matinée affair, than the original. Indeed, at 66 minutes, it could have used more second act (or even third act) complications. We spend a lot of time introducing the characters, including some of the least convincing "archaeologists" ever put to screen - the movie really belongs to the magician and his daughter, with some fun tricks and y'know, actual naturalistic acting - but the pay-off to it all is rather summary. In the original Mummy, Kharis was soon out of his bandages and thanks to Karloff, more a suave evil wizard than a monster. They've decided to fix that, so the mummy here stays a mummy, while still retaining the same basic back story. That's fine. There are supposed to be monster movies. But there's not much meat to it when all is said and done, and while The Mummy's Hand passes the time, it's easily forgotten.

Instead of choirs singing in Latin, The Devil's Candy understands that heavy metal is Satan's real preference. I'm sure the characters in this horror flick didn't MEAN to invoke the Devil with their loud music, but there you go. It's not just a matter of diagetic score either. The climax is right out of heavy metal imagery. Director Sean Byrne doesn't show much, but evokes a lot. His darkest shots are understood through sounds. His editing between the story's demented killer and its demented artist - both being tapped by the Dark Lord - is brilliant. And the people put under threat feel real, upping the tension. The dad and daughter in particular are very original; you don't see these types in films very often, or ever. Now, I was a little mystified by the ending, though not in a bad way. Is there more to it than what we see? Is the way the sun rises a kind of time lapse? What's the meaning of the character's expression? Would another viewing yield more information? I'm not sure. But there's certainly something going on beneath the surface and I like that the protagonist never really puts words to it. It's a richer psychological experience that way.

Christopher Lee plays a rare heroic role in Hammer Horror's The Devil's Bride (AKA The Devil Rides Out), a devil worship piece that jumps RIGHT into the action straight away and lets you play catch-up as to who these characters are and what their relationships might be. Lee is an expert on the occult who goes up against a charismatic cult leader bent on baptizing some of Lee's friends and there's a whole lot of weird stuff that happens, including an admittedly clever deus ex machina at the end. Not all the effects work - many are quite ropey - and the nameless cultists are universally nonthreatening bad actors, but Lee is very strong, and the Satanic imagery and imagination that support the story make it very watchable. Visually and tonally, it's hard to believe it was released the same year as Rosemary's Baby, helping launch cinema's decade-long interest in devil worship, but there ya go.

Very much in the style of Cube, Circle is sci-fi psychological torture porn set, for all practical purposes, in a metaphysical punishment chamber named after a geometrical shape. It's not as clever or intriguing as Cube, and certainly doesn't evoke multiple interpretations the way that film did, but as our world becomes more and more polarized, more and more hateful, I think it grows in relevance. The simple idea is that 50 people from all walks of life, ethnicities and ages have been kidnapped by entities unknown and forced to act as a jury that kills one of their own every couple minutes. A very spare film, it's just talk and death, really, but it never gets boring. Not with its deadly ticking clock element. If it doesn't leave more of an impression, it's that it's about too many things at once. Bigotry in America, classism in the modern age, partisanship and politics, human nature, ethics, reality show tactics... and it's a puzzle movie too. In the end, it's a big dramatized thought experiment, and it works on that level. Hopefully, each viewer comes away with their own ideal "what would I do", which could be a conversation starter. But since our understanding of who each character is is necessarily cursory, Circle will never have the emotional punch of a more straightforward drama about similar themes.

Though Flying Down to Rio is Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' first pairing, and thus a page from Hollywood history, it really isn't their film. It's really a romcom in which pale-as-a-ghost Gene Raymond is a band leader trying to woo Dolores Del Rio (who started in silent film and it shows) away from her fiancé. But aside from some fun special effects where they have conversations with themselves, the romance is boring and unconvincing. It's like something out of a Marx Brothers film, there as the semblance of a plot (along with a silly "bankrupt the hotel" subplot) to hang comedy and musical numbers on. And that's where Astaire and Rogers come in. THEY'RE the Marx Brothers in this. All the comedy, all the musical numbers, all the CHARM, they're the ones who bring it. I will give some props (that's a pun) to the direction though, as part of the fun is all the effects, neat transitions, expansive sets, and brazen lack of restraint in the final musical number, which can't possibly be seen from the ground! Well, the camera's up in the clouds, so what do I care? A fun puff piece.

The noir crime story in Gilda is almost unwelcome, because as the title attests, this about the girl, not the mobsters. And what a girl. The film is basically playing for time until Rita Hayworth appears on screen (what an entrance!), and tends to flag when her razor-sharp love triangle isn't in play. Because crime story aside (and I'm already forgotten the details), this is about toxic relationships, which is where the tension of the film lies entirely. Gilda is married to a casino owner, but obviously had a past relationship with his right-hand man (Glenn Ford). As this is a woman whose beauty essentially destroys men - her face would launch a thousand ships - emotions boil over, jealousies flare, and hate proves to be akin to love and vice-versa. The magic of the film resides in Gilda's complexity. She's too vulnerable to be a real femme fatale, and yet plays that part for reasons all her own. She doesn't need to be on screen to have presence, as she haunts the men in her life. That's not easily done.

Gene Kelly teams up with Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl, a Technicolor musical that's frankly a little garish at times, not to say gaudy, which did make me disconnect with it at various points. Hayworth plays a singer and dancer in a Brooklyn theater house, in a relationship with co-star and theater owner Kelly, when she's discovered by a magazine publisher who had an affair with her grandmother for whom she is a dead ringer (Hayworth plays her in flashbacks). He puts her on the cover of a magazine, it causes strife between her and her colleagues (and her beau, of course). It's a Gene Kelly movie, so there are some great song and dance numbers, of course, none more spectacular than the one where he dances with his own conscience (I'm not even sure how this was done pre-computer control cameras). Many of the numbers seem unnecessary to the plot, even shoehorned in, but their quality excuses them. And ultimately, the romance is sweet, emotional, and works well. I may have dropped out here and there (mostly in the grandma's story), but I felt completely invested in the climax.

Eric Rhomer's Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach) is a talky French film that fits into one of my favorite movie genres, which I call the "stolen season". Characters find themselves thrown together during a vacation(in this case, the end of summer in Normandy), build relationships, and may never see each other again. It's a temporary idyll. I'm just discovering Rhomer, but wow can he write characters. I was riveted, even though this was more or less a slice of life, a small relationship story with a good-looking but hardly majestic backdrop. Pauline is a 15-year-old only dabbling in summer love, but her role is that of observer and arbiter of what happens with the adult characters, her desirable cousin Marion who seeks a romantic ideal, Marion's old boyfriend Pierre who wants a second chance, and the older and possibly less than sincere Henri Marion falls for. Each character has their own ideas about love, and Pauline, through her inexperience, asks pointed questions, reveals hypocrisies, and doles out no-nonsense advice (if anyone will listen). Arielle Dombasle gives an affected performance as Marion, but the deeper you get, the more you may think it is the CHARACTER'S affectation, not the actress'. It fit. The others are more naturalistic, and Amanda Langlet as Pauline comes across as a real winner, -who sadly did not go on to a big career. I can only hope that like Pauline in all things, it was her choice. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Hitchcock's last British film before moving to Hollywood is The Lady Vanishes, an entertainingly BRITISH comedy of a thriller that has a lot of fun spoofing stiff upper lip types, in addition to the comedy inherent to the cramped Alpine hotel setting, and then the equally cramped train bound from a fictional Eastern European country to Britain. At some point, the thriller takes over and the laughs because more rare, but it's a smooth enough transition that you may not notice before it's too late. The mystery, involving a kind old woman who disappears from a moving train (and apparently from other people's memories!), is an interesting one for our heroine (and her annoying hotel room neighbor) to solve, reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express, in its way, but with much loopier action. Hitchcock's humor would get darker in his more famous films, but The Lady Vanishes shows he was able to bend it to sweeter, less nasty amusements.

The always charming William Powell is the title character in My Man Godfrey, a homeless man picked by a society girl to become her zany family's new butler and/or the love of her life. The romance is strictly screwball and while the "oh darling" moment typical of such films from the 30s and 40s doesn't technically come, I don't really buy it. It has an odd Frog Prince quality, but Carole Lombard's character, being just as mad as the rest of her family, never feels like an appropriate match for Powell. But as a comedy about a mysteriously competent servant picked off the street, it certainly has its charms. Each of the family members brings its own brand of insanity and challenges for Godfrey, and it's fun to see him foil them, especially Gail Patrick's Cordelia who makes a snaky, but endearing, villainess. And I like how it questions the class system too. Bit screechy at points, so I'd keep an eye on the volume.

My favorite thing about Theodora Goes Wild is its mirror structure. In the first half, Irene Dunne's character is a steamy romance writer hiding her work from her small puritan town, but Melvyn Douglas' book cover artist, taken with her, follows her there and by posing as an obnoxious gardener, breaks her out of her shell so she can live the life she' meant to have. Except he gets a little more than he's bargained for because in the big city, HE'S the one who has to put on appearances for his family and so on, so in the second part, it's Dunne's turn to lay it on thick and ruin his life so he can escape it himself. That's pretty clever. It does mean that they have to play annoying jerks through half of the movie each, and the result is perhaps that you don't care if they end up together. But they do deserve each other. More fun, perhaps, is the stuff with the small town gossips.


Kurt Onstad said...

So, I believe what you're saying is that Circle was more...two-dimensional than Cube?

Siskoid said...


Anonymous said...

Glad you're enjoying "The Good Place"! There really is nothing like it.


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