This Week in Geek (3-09/12/18)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: If you've seen Rocky IV, you really do know where Creed II is going. Even if you haven't, I think its plot points are pretty familiar. That you expect certain things to happen doesn't mean it's boring though. I think this may be the first boxing movie I've ever seen in a theater, so I don't know if that's why the fighting sequences felt so visceral, but I was wincing all the way through them. As with the first Creed, it did a good job of making me understand the strategies involved so that it was more than a simple punch-up. Where the film forges its own way is in the personal stories. Creed is not Rocky, he's a very different fighter, and his story must be different. I especially liked how making his partner Bianca a singer actually pays off in the boxing story, and of course, Stallone continues to make Rocky a lovable lug in his old age. The big surprise is the Dragos, a toxic relationship that manages to draw the audience's sympathy and feel truthful. Something of a far cry from the robotic monster of the original film.

At home: I saw The Krays back in 1990, but I'll be damned if I retain anything but the vaguest of memories. So Legend is the better biopic for London's famous gangster bruvvers. But it's still a biopic, with everything that entails, by which I mean it goes from anecdote to anecdote, event to event, and doesn't really gel into something that takes us beyond the presentational. We've seen the Rise and Fall of the Gangster many times, narrated by some character (a strange choice in this case), and Legend doesn't really bring anything new to the genre. The real reason to watch it is Tom Hardy's double performance as the Krays, so distinct you often forget you're watching the same actor in both roles. The brothers' relationship is at the core of the film, and there's almost an attempt to pit them has two halves of the same person, but not really. The conflict being so internal, it sidelines Christopher Eccleston*'s copper for much of the film, to the point where maybe the police needn't have been proper characters.

Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore reminded me of Clerks - a cheaply-made indie film where characters in the service industry (in this case, working at a movie theater) have conversations intercut with vignettes about how terrible the customers can be. Except female-driven and about something more than Star Wars jokes. We're thrown in the deep end with a pretty raw scene where the title character loses her virginity, leading to an exploration of her friends' first times, as she's set on the path of sexual discovery. Lisa Gerstein is convincing in the lead, though much of the cast has variable acting talent. But the film's takes on love and sex are well-observed and truthful. Director Sarah Jacobson sometimes goes into flights of stylish fancy, but they don't all work, at least not on first viewing, but the way that opening contrast is set up is as good as it gets. The hilarious end credits are worth +½ a star all by themselves.

An early short film by Sarah Jacobson, I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, makes for a very rough, budgetless, 27-minute black comedy, as her protagonist (Kristin Calabrese) goes around killing misogynists in a variety of ways. An assembly of vignettes that illustrate different behavior rather than a straightforward plot, but it's all driving towards a mission statement that has some strong lines, but is also a bit on the nose. I didn't really need to serial killer's origin story as it's not very original. But then, that may be the point. It's even delivered matter-of-factly. You know, I wish I could tell you that Jacobson was a name to watch out for, as her raw, angry voice is one we still need to hear. But she produced very few films and died of cancer at the young age of 33. More's the pity. I would have kept up with her career.

If The Loved One isn't the inspiration for the Coen Brothers' Hail, Caesar!, I'll eat my hat. Well, I don't wear a hat, but I'll eat SOMEthing. It starts as the same sort of spoof on Hollywood politics - up to and including the western star cast in a British drawing room drama - and features a lot of celebrities from its day, often in atypical roles. Once a key character dies, it becomes about his hapless nephew organizing his funeral, and then falling for a pure but fanatical embalmer, but it's still the same world of Hollywood flash. That funeral home is INSANE and couldn't exist anywhere else. This weird, satirical comedy uses its title to mean both the dead relative and the embalmer trapped in a love triangle, and in a roundabout way, is a story about the loss of innocence, a death that is planned for, weddings performed in parallel to funerals. Fun performances abound, though this is definitely more about ideas than it is characters. It's difficult to latch onto any of the leads.

I really like the Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy film pairing. It's antagonistic, but wise and playful too. In Adam's Rib, they play a married couple, lawyers both, who get involved in the same case - one on each side - and put their marriage at risk in the process. It also features David Wayne as the smart-ass neighbor I want to slap real hard. Anyway, while the stars have a lot of charm and a believable relationship, I don't know if I entirely believe the court case. Hepburn's defense attorney tries to make it about equal rights for women, but I'm not sure she's helping her client with that line of reasoning. The film has a certain edge because the 1950s had terrible sexual politics (not between the leads, but between the clients), which I see as a feature, not a bug, but its feminist agenda is better sold by Hepburn and Tracy's honesty-in-conflict than it is by the odd legal arguments.

Le dernier métro (The Last Metro) is one of the reddest movies I've ever seen. François Truffaut is either decorating his Occupied France with Nazi colors, or means to evoke passion, or tragedy. With Catherine Deneuve in the lead role - an actress hiding her Jewish playwright husband in the basement of their theater - makes us believe in a possible affair with the new actor on her stage, played by Gérard Depardieu, but none of the relationships are so cut and dried. There's a complexity there that definitely dips into ambiguity, and Truffaut uses the content of the plays presented to make us believe in emotional content that may not be true. Beyond the relationship drama, the film is also quite truthful about life in the theater, and goes further by showing us theater under Nazi control - censorship, power outages, Gestapo searches, and a time when theater was incredibly popular as a refuge from the anxieties of occupation and war. And of course, it is a literal refuge for one man.

Les Mistons (best translation: The Brats) is an early Truffaut short, a memory built on pre-teen nostalgia, narrated in Wonder Years style, about how the narrator and his friends, as boys, hounded a pretty, older girl, approaching but never really grasping their own sexual awakening through her. Early or not, the piece is visually interesting, and features the same kind of emotional complexity he'll become famous for. The language is beautiful too, even if it loses something in translation (at least, in the English subtitles). The narrator obviously writes about Bernadette through the fog of memory, and the camera follows his lead, at times finding sensually-charged angles, the impressions she would have left on his young mind, and if this is definitely a story with a beginning, middle and end, it feels unresolved, as any thought about one's childhood might be, except in the processing and telling of it.

Alexander Nevsky may be about a 13th-Century Russian prince fighting an army of German Teutonic knights, but given that Eisenstein made in 1938, there's little doubt it's meant to be about Nazi forces amassing on the Soviets' Western border, and indeed serves as a patriotic call to arms in which the title character is not just defeated the Vikings and plans to stick it to the Mongols once he's done with the Germans, but also frequently leads his people into songs about Mother Russia. In this, and in many long, silent sequences, we recognize the film maker's roots in silent cinema, and where there's dialog, the pace is rather slow. This is quite the piece of propaganda, and Nevsky is a two-dimensional character because of it. More interesting are some of the soldiers who follow him - the blacksmith, the two rivals for a girl's affections - and through these we get an emotional context and a bit of heart. Unfortunately, everything takes too long in this film, and it's frequently tedious because of it. It seems to take forever for Nevsky to get involved, the battle is seemingly endless (and the cranked camera doesn't do the action any favors even if the shows are well composed and feature hundreds of extras), and there's a very long epilogue too. Still memorable, mainly because of some shockingly violent (albeit brief) moments.

In The Bishop's Wife, Cary Grant plays an angel sent to give guidance to a stuffy bishop played by David Niven, struggling with the financing of a new cathedral and a morose marriage (to a touching Loretta Young). I know they didn't, but you could swear they cast this film by putting women in a room with Grant and seeing if their hearts naturally went a-flutter. There's a lot of chemistry on screen, and yet, to call him a romantic lead in this would be a half-truth. The characters don't so much fall in love as fall into friendship, and there's a real sweetness to that. The dialog is witty and funny. The supporting characters well drawn and bring their own style of humor to their scenes. The effects - a mix of magician stagecraft, animation, and skilled doubles - look quite good. It felt a bit slow at first, but it was soon charming the pants off me. As a Christmas movie, it would make a great double feature follow-up to It's a Wonderful Life.

Now allllll aboard! The Train-o-thon is leaving the station...

I was worried about Shanghai Express' structure. In Act 1 we meet the characters, most prominently a pair of disreputable women. In Act 2, the train is stopped, but the action plot kicks in... and then kicks out. What does that leave for the third act? Resolving the tragic love story that was at the heart of the film all along. Somehow, it works, mostly thanks to one of Marlene Dietrich's better performances (her lover is a little dull, however), and some beautiful cinematography (the shot of Dietrich trembling in the dark is justly famous). The film achieves some exoticism early on, even if its China has an unusually large cast of white characters. No surprise to me, while there's no doubt whose vehicle this is, it made me want to explore Anna May Wong's filmography - I'm aboard and I'm showing my ticket to the conductor.

Cinema's love affair with trains starts with the Lumière Brothers' The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, a 50-second documentary that's as simple as it gets. A train arrives, people get off it. Simple slice of life. The end. And yet, you can see how they were already thinking of film as a visual medium, and the shot, though static, is composed. A lot of it is a demonstration in perspective and movement. Watching it several times, you might find it interesting to see passengers look at the camera with suspicion, or affect the railway employee who hurries along without breaking into a run. Almost 10 years after La Ciotat, Thomas Edison produced another train movie that would enter the history books - The Great Train Robbery. What strikes me about this short is how violent it is. It's a good thing the dummy that gets thrown off the train is so unconvincing, because its murder seconds before is shocking. The famous shot of the outlaw firing into the audience (a separate reel that could have been show before or after the picture, according to projectionist instructions) is a good meta moment by itself, but pretty much disconnected from the narrative itself. It's a trick, a gimmick, a 2-second short film that doesn't really fit the rest.

Sometimes, you can almost see the Kurosawa script behind Runaway Train (here you may exclaim "WTF?!" in safety, you're among friends). The theme of Man's will triumphing over nature and adversity, the claustrophobic scenes in the locomotive, the questions about the meaning of escape and freedom, the final "victory"... all might seem at home in a Kurosawa film. But this is also a high-octane, 1980s thrill ride about a prison escape gone wrong when two hardened criminals (John Voight and Eric Roberts) jump the wrong train, which immediately becomes an unlikely runaway. I can't say anyone is likeable in this, but Voight achieves a kind of nobility and there's a vulnerability behind Roberts' motormouth - not sure what to think of Rebecca De Mornay's supporting character, as it's not played very well. But though it sort of forgets about the railway employees trying to avert disaster by the end, Runaway Train does work as an exciting one-crazy-thing-after-another action disaster flick, touching on bigger themes though it didn't need to.

The Bullet Train is a Japanese procedural that treats the premise of a bomb on a train much the same way the original Gojira treated the giant monster concept. In other words, there are a lot of scenes of people taking meetings and discussing what to do. Really a disaster/crime hybrid, the focus quickly turns to the terrorists and their keeping one step ahead of the authorities as the train becomes a runaway, unable to slow down lest the bomb explode (Speed fans, this is your origin story). So there isn't a WHOLE lot of train action, but enough to earn its title. Be wary of the American edit, which does away with the criminals' back story and removes their motivations from the narrative. That's the one I saw, and I had to turn to Wikipedia to get the low-down. From the slow first act, you don't expect it to become such a tense thrill ride in the third, but it totally does, so don't get off this particular train too early.

In The Train, Burt Lancaster is a rail yard worker in Occupied France as well as a somewhat unwilling Resistance fighter. Then the Nazis try to steal the art out of Paris' museums and he's roped into what can only be described as a Mission: Impossible scenario, and an incredibly suspenseful and exciting one at that! Big budget thrills thanks to explosive action, but also, a great villain who keeps making things hard on our hero's dwindling team because he's as smart as they come. And when it's all said and done, there's more to this than a simple series of well-produced action beats. It dares as the question: Was it worth it? Is France's cultural heritage worth the lives lost? Not with big speeches (except a dramatically ironic one), but with images. What can we accept as a loss in war? Evidently, lives are worth less than territory, than political power, than landmarks, than identity... That's a historical truth, but is it a moral one? FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

The Narrow Margin starts out with stock noir characters and at an efficient 72 minutes, doesn't allow them to stray very far off type, but there are a couple twists on the premise of a copper keeping a witness alive during a long train ride that make it worth one's while. But more than that, director Richard Fleischer crafts a surprisingly modern-looking film, not at all what you'd expect in 1952, with a more than usually claustrophobic train, and a dynamic, often hand-held camera that keeps us tight in the action. Most older train movies obviously take out walls so they can shoot the story comfortably, and so they look comfortable. Definitely not the case here, and it raises the tension considerably. It helps that the villains are a good match for the protagonist, and that the cat and mouse game is filled with the believable obstacles stemming from the well-realized environment.

The first two seasons of Penn and Teller: Fool Us are one Netflix, and I was looking for a short episode of trash TV to cover lunch time and not stop my work momentum. I did not expect a magic talent show to be so addictive. Two seasons later, let me report in. Now obviously, I've always like Penn and Teller's trick-busting act (and they perform one bit per episode). As judges for a talent competition, I like them too. They are overwhelmingly supportive of every magician they see, and since there's no limit to who gets invited to open for their show (the rules state they must not figure out how the trick was done and that's it), it's not "competitive" per se. I'm not a big fan of Jonathan Ross as a host of anything, but here he makes a good foil for the magicians, a good patsy, as they say. After some fair few episodes, you start to get a sense of how some of the tricks were done even if Penn talks in code and riddles to get the participants to agree he and Teller figured it out (to Ross' amusing dismay), either because you figure out the code or else start to know what you should look for in the performance. Fun stuff, even if certain tricks seem to recur in different forms after a while.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Alexander Nevsky" is just a remake of "Pretty in Pink". (Or rather, "Pretty in Pink" is a remake of the two Russian guys pining for the same woman.)

And for the record, Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" is just a remake of "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey".

Siskoid said...

Every time I see that runaway baby carriage, I think, yeah Eisenstein didn't invent nothin'. He basically just copied the greats like Brazil, The Bishop's Wife (natch), The Untouchable, and Revenge of the Sith.

LondonKds said...

If you want to do a fake Cockney accent, it's "bruvvers", not "brovers".

You could get a great tense anti-Nazi comedy thriller out of the story of the Belgian Ghost Train.

 

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