This Week in Geek (12-18/11/18)

Buys

I got the new version of Doctor Who's Shada on DVD (how many versions do we need? for the one serial that was never completed, I sure ended up buying it often), and Outside In Takes a Stab - as the book series looks at Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I once again get to contribute an essay to the collection (page 220, if you're looking). And as I discussed last year, I got myself a C64 Mini and have been fooling around with nostalgic pieces of early computer gaming. It might wind up inspiring some retro-gaming articles.

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: There was something special about From Dusk Til Dawn in its day, that people flocked to see the new Tarantino-scripted crime film, and halfway through it turned into a WTF vampire movie. Some loved the surprised, I'm sure some didn't, but it was a surprise. These days, you really have to play it close to the vest for word not to get out. And then there are those films that don't care to keep it a secret so as to attract the right audience, I guess. Such a film is Overlord, on the surface a World War II film that doesn't care much about historical fact, which turns into a horror monster movie at the midpoint thanks to terrible Nazi experiments. With the twist known, Overlord should have tried to surprise us in other ways, but doesn't. It's all quite formulaic, every beat predictable, and the only surprises are that certain things seem telegraphed but DON'T happen (giving the lead a certain heritage should have been more important, for example). Which isn't to say it's badly made, quite the opposite. The characters are engaging, the action well produced and exciting, there's never a dull moment, and the cast well chosen given the spirit of the piece. But there are no real surprises and the humor, which you'd expect with a crazy premise like this, is scarce.

At home: Though the fake-looking costume is a problem, 1979's Dracula with Frank Langella in the role, may well be my favorite of the Count's first movie outings. I love the look of it, with its dusty grays full of sharp relief, it really feels, casting aside, like it could have been made in later decades. The changes made to Lucy and Mina's roles gives us a more involved, more emotional Van Helsing in Laurence Olivier, and a Dr. Seward who is by turns clinical and overwhelmed in Donald Pleasence (a story of fathers rather than suitors, this one). Kate Nelligan is a powerful presence as Lucy, the object of Dracula's desire, because she seems so modern and strong-willed. And of course, there's Langella himself, a handsome and magnetic Count whose hypnotic skills are not hidden, but which may not play as much of a role in Lucy's seduction. And I like that. Langella and Nelligan sell the idea that Lucy may have chosen Dracula, as much as the reverse, which works within Gothic's hypnotic control metaphor - the fear of, yet desire for, losing oneself. I'm not a big fan of Dracula, or vampires in general, and not gonna lie, I came to this to see Doctor Who's Sylvester McCoy* in a small role, but I like what I got - a stylish, big budget adaptation, with a strong John Williams score, beautiful art direction, and holy crap, a scene I saw as a 12-year-old on TV that freaked me out and forced me to change the channel! I knew I'd find it again one day! "Papa... PAHHHH-paaah!"

The Great Dictator proves Charlie Chaplin could do wordplay, and Chico Marx-type shtick, in addition to being one of the great slapstick comedians. But his first speaking film is a lot more than that. What immense BALLS to use one's facial hair resembling that of Hitler to make fun of him, IN 1940! Chaplin is in a dual role, playing both a Jewish barber and a dictator very much like Adolf, in a black comedy that takes the Fuhrer down in an amazing number of ways. Hitler is at once disrespected by followers and allies, a clumsy and silly oaf, a political hypocrite, shown to look exactly like the Jews he hates by casting, and his demagoguery is argued into irrelevance by the final, blazing - and sadly still relevant - speech. There's nothing that's not calculated to act as an answer to the Nazis' words and actions. It's funny and it has grit. It seemed ahead of its time then, and it's still somewhere ahead, waiting for us to catch up. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Though Hollywood had moved on to talkies by the 1930s, Chaplin kept the silent form alive with such classics as City Lights, which integrated sound effects, fun scores (written by Chaplin), and even a mockery of bad voice recordings (as in the first scene) to create as rich an experience as any produced with dialogue. There's a lot going on in City Lights - a despondent drunk millionaire who forgets the Tramp when he's sober, a monument inauguration, lunch breaks with street sweepers, a loopy boxing match, etc. - and it'd be easy to think they were all loosely connected set pieces as was the case for many raucous comedies of the day (the Marx Brothers', for example). But no, the narrative actually flows from a sweet romance between the Tramp and a blind girl, for whom Charlie would do anything, up to and including getting into all that trouble. If there's a theme to these misadventures, it's that no good deed goes unpunished. Is there a reward at the very end, though? For movie lovers, there certainly is.

Only two reels of The Curse of Quon Gwon have survived, some 35 minutes, but with some imagination, it still works and is thus more than an "important film artifact" - the earliest known indie film by a Chinese-American film maker, and one of the earliest pieces crafted by a female director. It's the story of a young Chinese couple, and the mostly westernized young woman's difficulties living with the young man's very traditional family. According to my research, we've lost the Chinese political context of the day, but arguably, this would have been a little opaque to modern audiences. Indeed, without the interstitial cards, it's difficult to fathom the "Unkind Woman"'s motivations, and those who have less familiarity with Chinese customs than I (a side-effect of watching so much Chinese cinema) may be confused by even more scenes. Still, the missing material seems to work in tandem with some of the film's surprising fantasy sequences to give it a nightmarish quality, which seems in keeping with the cursed idol of a god who, I imagine, is angry the leads have abandoned their heritage. I do love the music that was later composed for the presentation; it is extremely pretty.

An American in Paris sets the bar very high when it comes to dance numbers (it inspired, for example, the end sequence of La-La Land which is a fraction as bold) - Gene Kelly always looking for the next challenge in terms of physicality - and the film's exuberance excuses a lot of its excesses. It is a very indulgent film when I reflect on things like Oscar Levant's big concert or how the final number occasionally loses the plot. While filled with watchable actors and fun numbers, I'm not that engrossed by the very simple love story it tells, especially with how thin the psychology is. Kelly is prideful, in love, heartbroken, but there are no real clues as to why he falls for Leslie Caron's character, and though she's a great dancer, giving her absolutely no songs to sing cripples her claim at some kind of interiority. So a grand entertainment on the basis of spectacle, but it's no Singin' in the Rain, or even It's Always Fair Weather, in my book. Those films had more to say.

Ernest Borgnine creates his public persona for years to come in Marty, the film that made him a lovable lug and earned him an Oscar. His lonely, 34-year-old, butcher and Betsy Blair's reserved 29-year-old school teacher gave voice to the malaise of being one of the undesirables of the dating scene. Following the characters for only the span of a weekend, the film isn't just about the mechanics of the romance genre played with unlikely leads, it also delves into much more complex territory, like the unwarranted and yet very real shame of being seen with someone others consider undesirable, and juggling family expectations and platonic jealousy. And it's not a case of the leads being charming after all in an ugly duckling kind of way. Marty's conversations are full of boring repetition and expose his nervousness, while Clara says little and shows little. They're both nice people, and you feel for them, but they're never revealed to have "movie wit". No matter the ending (and there's cause to wonder where it's going), the pain of rejection is at the center of the film. Marty and Clara are sunburnt by it, Marty's best friend is in denial about it, his mother fears it, and his aunt feels it from her own son. A lovely little love/family story that's truthful while also allowing itself to be romantic.

I've never read the stories in Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man, but the 1969 movie adaptation isn't exactly selling it. Indeed, the most interesting thing in the film is how it further develops the framing tale about a tattooed man ("NEVER CALL THEM TATTOOS, THEY'RE SKIN ILLUSTRATIONS!") whose body art gives a younger drifter visions of the short story collections tales, but also makes him obsessed with the artist who drew them. The sort of supernatural thriller this creates is a lot more interesting than the three stories haphazardly chosen to be adapted. There's something initially interesting about the first one, because the same actors are also playing the story's parts and it involves a holodeck-type technology that creates a worlds-within-worlds feeling, but it's not something that's maintained throughout. We're left wondering WHY these particular stories were painted on the illustrated man, why they haunt the young drifter, and what they teach him or us about, well, anything. If you squint, you almost see it, but the result is disjointed. It's too bad, because there's some nice image-making here and there, but not enough for a recommendation.

Boris Karloff is great fun introducing the three stories that make up Mario Bava's Black Sabbath - and hey, look, he plays a monstrous role in one of them! That's the longest of the stories, a Russian take on vampires, and unfortunately the one I care least about. The first two stories have a strong Giallo look, first of all, and are worth seeing if only for the lurid cinematography. But I also like how their horrors are grounded in the every day. A leaking faucet. A pesky fly. Menacing phone calls. Both are about young women terrified out of their wits in their apartments. They're visceral. What does a period piece about vampires have in common with them? Well, there are still terrified young women, and the lighting cues occasionally correspond to the Giallo style, but it still feels out of place. Every story has a fun twist ending though, and each one works as a metaphor, whether that's guilt, post-relationship anxiety, or toxic family connections.

In Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy, the impeccable Ingrid Bergman and so-British George Sanders are a couple on the last leg of their marriage, visiting Naples because of an inheritance. In the pressure cooker of the trip, their loveless arrangement starts to collapse further, providing us with a textured and well-observed portrait. He deals with it by being remote, casually cruel and using his masculine privilege to open up his options. She deals with it by putting the responsibility on herself, of course. She's a romantic - which he chastises her for - and in a romantic Italian setting, it's hard to avoid thinking about what one is missing, and where it all went wrong. Rossellini uses the setting to great advantage, a ruined marriage among the ruins of the Roman empire, where every location tells a story that speaks to Bergman's character, tells her about human nature, reminds her of loss, makes her yearn for the eternal. I don't know that I believe the ending, but in the short term, it works psychologically. And given how everything else in this quiet little picture is so well-judged, I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Fillini's 8½ is certainly a masterpiece of image-making, as the director dramatizes his avatar's dreams, both sleeping and waking, or alternatively, explores how a film director essentially dreams in movie terms, i.e. are the dreams dramatized by Fellini or by the character of Guido? And is there a difference in this case? The director as control freak is constantly restructuring reality, memory, and the people around him, and so the film takes on a surreal quality. And what happens when that director runs out of inspiration, is filled with doubt and anxiety? The surrealism becomes more nightmarish, but is no less an active restructuring. I'm not sure I need to know how much semi-autobiographical mea culpa is in 8½, but Fellini has a LOT to say about the creative process, the relationship between creator and creation, the creator as borrower/thief, and on what I (via Dune) call the mindkiller. There's so much to unpack, I can see film buffs returning to this one again and again.

With Stage Fright, Alfred Hitchcock has a few fleeting moments worthy of the "Master of Suspense", mostly towards the end, but for the most part, this is a detective story where the heroes try different ploys to get an alleged murderess to confess, and the eventual twist isn't set up as well as I'd have liked, because I sort of had to backtrack to see if it was justified (it was, but I feel like my chain was jerked). There is certainly some fun to be had in the idea of an aspiring actress playing a role to get close to an established one who is also playing a role to get out of murder charges, and Hitchcock has a few funny bits along the way (I loved the shooting gallery lady, for example). But overall, a minor film in the director's filmography, and I don't know about you, but watching Marlene Dietrich in this, I couldn't get Madeline Kahn's Lili Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles out of my mind. Obviously, her song "The Laziest Gal In Town" was a big inspiration for "I'm Tired". Worth it just to make the movie connection.

Cliffhanger is one of the more successful Die Hard imitators ("Die Hard on a Mountain"), with a good heroic cast - Sylvester Stallone, Michael Rooker (is this the original Guardians movie?) and Janine Turner - giving terrorist-thieves a bad time in the Rockies after a hare-brained heist goes wrong. Great use of the location and strong stunt work, and though the film itself is derivative (it also steals from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for some reason), it also seems fairly influential. In addition to the parodies that made the first sequence part of pop culture, I dare say the Mission: Impossible franchise poached a couple of sequences from it, as did Peter Jackson over the years. It's one real weakness, for me, was the villains. They are almost impossibly stupid, impatiently shooting at people for no reason but to make the movie last longer. If they'd only shown some restraint early on, I'm pretty sure they would have gotten away with the money and their lives. And that means John Lithgow's character is criminally underwritten, just a vaguely European psychopath, with nowhere near the standing of Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber. Truth in advertising: Why doesn't this end on an actual cliffhanger?
Some classic MST3K movies, regardless of comedy commentary... There's some procedural imagination in Rocketship X-M's 1950 ideas about space flight, but it wastes its one female protagonist by repeatedly telling her she should be barefoot and pregnant (it's also preachy about other things). It looks like The Hellcats was made by filming wild biker parties and convincing someone there was a coherent plot holding it together, but it just comes out as a piss-poor delivery system for forgettable pop tunes. You wouldn't think a movie called King Dinosaur would be about astronauts going to an alien planet that looks like the backs of California with the odd giant animal and wrong lesson taught, but it is; the dinosaurs are reptiles cruelly made to fight for 1950s crowds' entertainment. Godzilla vs. Megalon should rightly be called Megalon vs. Jet Jaguar, an Ultraman wannabe who gets most of the action so he can get a franchise, with Godzilla as back-up (while Megalon gets help from Gigan); final tag team fight is camp but worth it, meanwhile the humans have a lot of pointless car chases. I already reviewed Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster as Ebirah, Horror of the Deep HERE, and I never really think the King of Monsters deserves the MST3K treatment, but those terrible, unnecessarily dumbed-down English dubs sure do. Cave Dwellers (terrible name considering the content) AKA The Blade Master AKA Ator the Invincible AKA Ator 2 is an Italian Conan rip-off where... people... talk... very... slowwwwwwwly, and that about sums it up.

2 comments:

Mike W. said...

I'd never heard of the C64 Mini, so I had to look it up; that is a small-ass computer! Looks like some pretty cool games for it too ... Temple of Apshai (one of my favourites) and the various Epyx Summer/Olympic/World Games (I broke so many joysticks playing those), among others. Did you ever play Defenders of the Crown? I had (have?) it on 5.25" floppy; it was a pretty cool game (with cutting edge graphics, for the time) but I don't think I ever actually "finished" it.

I still have my original C64 somewhere; I loved it back in the day. Looking forward to some retro game posts.

Siskoid said...

I don't think I remember Defenders of the Crown. You can write Basic on it, so it has all the computer capacity of the original machine (+memory, which the original didn't), but that's not a working keyboard, just a cute retro-shell for the mini-console.

 

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