This Week in Geek (5-11/11/18)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: I'll endorse what my neighbor Marty said about Bohemian Rhapsody - slather Queen music all over something, and it's going to be enjoyable no matter what (also looking at you, Highlander!). Like most biopics, it is a thing of parts. Historically relevant moments strung together to form some kind of movie-acceptable narrative. Some you like, some you don't care for, and only the very best bring out a cohesive central theme that makes it, for lack of a better term, literary. There are hints of it here, but they are self-defeating. Mainly, part of the film is about creating one's own identity vs. "passing off", as Freddie rejects his heritage and struggles to pass as white and straight. Is he wrong to do so? Because that's not the film's only concern, it's hard to say, especially given how time is collapsed, ignoring true events to better package the band's story as a movie. Is the legend over history approach part of the overall theme, then? While not very surprising on a plot level as a result, there's still a lot of entertaining razzmatazz on show, with lots of fun visual transitions (the film looks generally gorgeous), plenty of humor to balance the drama, and of course, that music. It's kind of ballsy to reproduce a large chunk of Queen's Live Aid set (I checked, they got the number of Pepsi glasses right), though again, it's a great scene regardless of what comes before and after, taken on its own. And the same is true of the Wayne's World bit with Mike Meyers. Is this a shocking, gritty tell-all? No. Is it a glossy set of tracks filled with energy, comedy and tragedy like one of their albums? Well... yeah!

At home: In The Harpist, the young writer becomes taken with a beautiful, internationally-renowned Irish harp player, and mesmerized, does a bit of stalking as a way of romancing her. There's an almost supernatural feel to the story, with imagery that supports her being some kind of siren or nymph (her introduction in the ocean, the netting, etc.), and often poetic language. And had the film actually indulged in a faerie twist, it would have been the better for it. Instead, it turns into a pretty average thriller, spending much of its good will in its final revelations, courtesy of Stephen McGann, Paul's creepier brother (the McGanns really are the UK's answer to the Baldwins, aren't they?). Speaking of 8th Doctor, the 6th, Colin Baker*, features in a rare (and all too brief) film role as the boy's judgmental father. Directorially, Hansjörg Thurn's film looks like television fare with odd, French New Wave ideas thrown in, and an annoying tendency to fade to black after ever scene.

The spiritual successor of One Million B.C., When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, proves that while gentlemen may prefer blondes, early man rather preferred to throw them off cliffs to appease the sun god. Like Hammer Films' first foray into prehistoric fantasy, this one has dinosaurs side-by-side with cave men, but When Dinos Ruled is far less engaging. They've traded down on almost every aspect except effects, which are at least as good as Harryhausen's. The heroine, played by Playboy playmate Victoria Vetri, doesn't have the same presence Raquel Welch did. There are too many studio-bound scenes. The costuming is sillier. There's more dialog, which makes the performers shout out the same few nonsense words ("AKEETA!") in pretty variable accents considering they're the same tribe. And the action climax is unconvincing. It's too bad because they could have used the sun-moon/man-woman symbolism to pull off a story about a change in gender authority. Instead, the focus is on scantily-clad women falling out of their bikini skins.

Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You is in many ways a precursor to his later It's a Wonderful Life, not just because certain scenes (passing the plate around in court, for example), but because it has the same good-hearted, values before greed, utopian community spirit of that holiday classic. In this one, Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur want to get married, but they may have problems integrating their two families. He's a banker and socialite's son, while her family is a group of loud zany artist types of all sorts (not all blood related). A clash is to be expected. The chaotic comedy is a bit loud at times, I'm afraid, but the film does such a good job of introducing its characters that it does charm quite a bit. Lionel Barrymore as Arthur's free-spirited grandfather is really the MVP of the piece, the one who carries the film's values and immense heart, and so everything will be well that ends well, lessons will be learned, and friendship will triumph over ambition. Along the way, I became quite convinced a kitten would make a good paper weight.

Based on a hit play, Separate Tables presents us with an all-star cast playing miserable characters all staying at the same seaside hotel (most as permanent residents), and we weave in and out of their personal dramas, some of them intersecting, but not all. As the title suggests, they are islands of ones or twos, alone in their situations, and yet living as a community. And that's very true emotionally. What separates them is internal, an inability to properly engage with others, which the play presents variably for each character. The way their anxieties manifest is especially varied and well-observed, and though Deborah Kerr is an obvious stand-out on that score, Burt Lancaster's own particular malaise is to me the most relatable and best presented. Directorially, we often have characters with their backs to us, as if to create that same distance between us and the hotel guests and staff. At first, I thought it was an interesting acting showcase, no more, but as the crisis blossomed, I found the drama more poignant for knowing the characters so well. The grace note at the very end is beautiful, and one should hope, an invitation to sit at one another's table. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Arguably the first big anti-war war movie, 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front is still an effective WWI epic today even if we've since had a dozens and dozens examples of the genre. Showing the German side with no real attempts at Europeanized accents has two effects. One is that universalizes war - these could be our boys, anyone's boys - the other is that their side was historically doomed to fail, propaganda's triumphalism need not apply. Through its gritty realism, it achieves several memorable moments worth the wait, like the well-produced battles, the tale of the cursed boots, the protagonist spending the night in a fox hole with a wounded Frenchman (up until then, the enemy had been a backlit and faceless horde), and that gut punch of an ending. Having been made in the pre-Code days means it has an extra edge too. There are two that personally prevent me from giving it the highest of ratings though. One is that it has sound problems; the volume is rather low and there's a lot of hissing on the track, even in the restored version (which is visually impeccable). The other is lead actor Lew Ayres, whose theatrical style (and dialog that sounds written, probably pulled verbatim from the book) is at odds with the film's bleak realism. But even so, I can respect the achievement.

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