This Week in Geek (19-25/11/18)


My interest in Golden Age comics made me help fund a Sally the Sleuth collection, and I just got my copy.


In theaters: As a heist movie, Widows takes its time setting up its characters and stakes, and comes out the better for it. There's enough proceduralism to make the crime crystal-clear, but the focus is really on the characters, not just the Widows, but the villains as well, and as a result, it's extremely emotional. It helps with the verisimilitude that Steve McQueen sets this in the world of racially-charged American politics, and pulls no punches on that account. There's a surprising ambivalence there - as there is in the husband-wife relationships - and I mean that in the best possible way. There's a complexity to the situations that asks us to think and feel with more nuance than we're used to in films of this genre. Widows looks great, its awesome cast is well-used, but what strikes me now, the more I think about it, is how it cleverly uses the heist's tropes as a metaphor for grief. The financial surprises, burying your head in work or vice, trying to give someone a legacy, the anxieties of replacing them (as a parent, perhaps), and ultimately, burying ghosts. Thing that at first seemed cliché take on new meaning in the film's specific context.

At home: The Day They Robbed the Bank of England is a tight little heist movie set in 1901 with a good moral twist on the genre, as the would-be thieves are working towards Ireland's liberation and have varying loyalties to the cause and to their own self-interest. Much of the film is spent on the recon part of the crime - figuring out how to breach the impregnable Bank of England - and that's handled like a spy thriller, with Peter O'Toole as the head of security whose weaknesses can be exploited, although he just may be able to foil Aldo Ray's plan. Where I find the film less that "tight and little" is the love interest subplot that almost motivates the action here and there, really doesn't when you think about it. I found these scenes to be a distraction, where politics and human nature were more than enough to push the story along, create divides, etc. But on the whole, it's not MUCH of a distraction.

In While the City Sleeps, Fritz Lang introduces a violent serial killer, but the focus is actually on newsmen trying to scoop one another on the killer's identity and arrest so they can get a big job in their media empire. Internal politics are more important than detective work, and I couldn't always decide if it was an interesting way to tackle a crime picture, or a frustrating one. Lang's protagonist is as broken as any in noir fiction, perhaps more than most, often drunk and using his girlfriend as bait to catch the killer. Lang is a daring director, that's no surprise, and he has edge. I just wish it didn't feel like the newspaper office was next door to Don Draper's. This is a very sexist film, not just because the killer is targeting young women - bosses getting fresh, the way Nancy is treated, how all the others are cheaters, etc. - and when the script decides the killer was inspired by EC's violent crime comics, well... Let's just say I hate this thing's politics and leave it at that.

Home Before Dark is a complex and mature look at mental illness, I was going to say for its day, but no, even now. It perhaps plays even better because we know a lot more about it. Jean Simmons puts in a rich performance as Charlotte, a woman who returns home after an extended stay in a mental institution, to a husband and family who no longer trust her or possibly even love her. There's no question she had a breakdown, but it's essentially impossible to reassert control over her life with everyone gaslighting her or treating her like an invalid or worse, the family's shameful secret. The film is clever. She's in almost every scene, so her building paranoia seems warranted and the other characters slightly unknowable. But Charlotte hasn't been magically cured, and the film understands that mental illness is much more complicated than that, even if the people around her don't. And the more we find out, the more this basic misunderstanding is shown to have made the situation worse. The source of the breakdown is exposed layer by layer, and it's no simple thing. One of the best portraits of mental health issues I've seen on screen, and they managed it in 1958 when I'm pretty sure audiences weren't ready for it.

Secrets & Lies is a riveting drama that doesn't feel half as long as it really is, filled with great actors (most of whom are probably more recognizable now than they were then), featuring a heady mix of humor and tearjerking... and all the more impressive when you consider that director Mike Leigh works without a script. I think this kind of process is entirely fascinating. Actors are told only what their characters would know, and left to craft those characters as they see fit. Then they're thrown together in scenes to improvise. In a film about family secrets, this allows for raw reactions to embedded revelations. It's a high-wire act, and it seems almost impossible that Leigh and his cast manage to walk it so ably. In addition to the main thread of an adopted woman seeking out her birth mother and in the process finding out she's actually of mixed race, we also have the mother's brother reconnecting with her after some family strife, his growing estrangement to his wife, and hers to her other daughter. It's all about reconnecting, and having to break down walls to do so, and it all feels very real and unvarnished. Great stuff. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Shōhei Imamura's Profound Desires of the Gods is a gorgeous-looking film, even if some audiences will find the subject matter a little hard to take. A three-hour epic about a cursed inbred family, where brothers and sisters (one of whom is mentally disabled) are always trying to get into each other's pants, is not for everyone. The film is really about the interchangeability of animals, people, and gods. As an engineer comes to the island to transform it into a profitable venue - or will it transform HIM? - the theme becomes manifest. Like the brother and sister gods of the local mythology, he is bound to remake the world, but could also get other gods angry. Throughout, people may be gods, or they may be animals, and so on. The perspective shifts, just what's real, surreal and supernatural does. In the end, it's also a story about the modern world crashing into an older one, and one cycle ending in destruction and rebirth. But the new world may not be as fluid as the previous one was, which seems a shame. Imamura's eulogy for that world?

In Floating Weeds, Yasujirō Ozu creates simple tableaux, as if painting in still life, and then populates those images with humanity. His choice of locations and characters seems perfect for the story he wants to tackle and there's a lot of delicious subtlety in his direction throughout - a feast for film critics. Set in a seaside town, a port where characters may arrive, depart, get delayed or stranded, the film tells the story of a traveling actor who visits his illegitimate son who thinks of him as an uncle. This sparks the jealousy of his mistress, who sics a young actress on the boy, but she doesn't need to act for long. Everyone's an actor in life as well as profession, and Ozu's posited everything as a kind of stage, empty spaces until his characters make their entrances. The old man is criticized for his old-fashioned acting, and in life, we'll see how his old-fashioned thinking - Japanese tradition - no longer applies to post-war Japan. It's full of small touches like that, in the script, the cinematography, and the staging, and lest I make it sound like a dry master class in film-making, let me also say that the slowly-unfolding drama comes to a poignant and touching end.

You get two interregnum Doctors for the price of one in Withnail and I - Paul McGann* and Richard E. Grant - a somewhat meandering fiction based on the author's diary from his days as a struggling actor in late 60s England. If the Doctor Who angle interests you, the two leads are really playing to type. McGann is a manic soul, seeing monsters under ever dirty dish, a nervous, neurotic poet. Grant is his callous, self-serving, vain, venal room mate, a real misery. Both are powerful presences and if the plot, which eventually takes them on a road trip to the country ("a holiday by accident") where they can be even more miserable, is thin, the acting is not. I have to say I care much less when they're NOT on that trip, though. Among the other eccentrics in the film, Richard Griffiths has the largest and most important role, as Withnail's gay uncle whose advances McGann's character must fight off. Though the latter protests that he is not gay, there's still a certain sexual ambivalence exuding from the film that makes the central relationship ambiguous, and that's interesting. I'm also enamored of the many Hamlet references because Hamletesque inaction is certainly part of the film's themes, and the two characters are more like two facets of the Dane than the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern comic double act. And yet, they're that too. Deeper than it at first seems.
MST3K: The Return has released a holiday "Gauntlet", so let's talk about that 6-pack, regardless of comedy commentary... The E.T. rip-off Mac and Me, a popular object of derision, is probably not the representation disabled movie fans were looking for (or the extended commercial McDonald's or Coco-Cola wanted), but I gotta admit, it's a pretty great piece of cult kitsch. Atlantic Rim is exactly what it sounds like, with extra celery salt on the rim, going by the drunk mech pilot that would be the worst character if not for the over-the-top eyepatch villain. Roger Corman's answer to The Abyss, Lords of the Deep just makes me feel bad for Priscilla Barnes who apparently forgot to get a proper agent after Three's Company. If it weren't otherwise inept, there might be an interesting puzzle movie in The Day Time Ended, but it lives up to its title in that nothing really seems to happen, until it turns into a randomized special effects reel. Part disaster movie, part heist, part Jaws rip-off, Lee Majors' piranha adventure, Killer Fish, left an impression when I saw it on TV as a kid; today, I still think it has bite (I'm sorry, I'm so sorry). After riffing off Ator 2 in 1991, it took MST3K 27 years to find the original, Ator the Fighting Eagle, and that's where the Italian franchise's money was all spent - a mildly amusing bunch of DnD random encounters.



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