This Week in Geek (21-27/01/19)


In theaters: Glass is, I think, of a piece with Unbreakable and Split, and I liked it fine as the end of a trilogy. It's not perfect - some of the dialog is odd, it kind of goes on after another movie would have ended, and some will bristle at the corruption of heroic stories' usual triumphalism - but I still think critics have been entirely too mean with it. I don't know what they're expecting from M. Night Shyamalan, frankly. He can be brilliant visually and in short bursts, but his plots have always been wonky. If you've come to this thing to see James McAvoy having a grand old time playing 24 characters, or Mr. Glass thinking several steps ahead of everyone, or the cast of Unbreakable returning, then I can't see you being too disappointed. It's interesting that when Unbreakable's grounded (even hidden) vision of superhero stories came out, it was kind of in line with what was being doing at the time - studios just didn't believe people would buy into the crazy comic book stuff - but Glass, made almost 20 years later, feels like a tonal twist on what's become a blockbuster formula. Now that we know what a superhero movie looks like, we can have movies like this and Brightburn. Except we already did, 19 years ago, it's all coming back full circle.

At home: According to Alfonso Cuarón, Roma is 90% pulled from his memories, so presumably, he's one of the kids in the film, probably the youngest boy who has the closest relationship to Cleo, the family's maid and nanny who is the subject of the film. The black and white cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, and Cuarón favors wide shots and slow pans that, when combined to the lack of score, presents events without judgement, emotional ambiguities abound. How are we supposed to feel about Cleo and her role in the family? Obviously, the film is meant as a love letter to someone real, but I think also an examination of something darker about the child/family-nanny dynamic in a context where it's understood Mexico is as racially divided as the U.S. is, and Cleo is a member of the underclass. I think it's extremely poignant that the family has a dog no white person really interacts with, matching their obliviousness to Cleo's drama as opposed to their own. The switch between "we love you" and "fetch me this" is automatic and thoughtless. It's the servant as echo of slavery, and holding the role of "beloved pet". Dogs are everywhere in Mexico - a common remark - and Cuarón somehow uses this over and over to create this effect. Despite the slow and stark presentation, he nevertheless pulls some directorial tricks, mostly to create portentous heralds, bad omens, of tragedies to come, and yet can just let scenes play out in single shots - I'm thinking of a couple of harrowing ones specifically - using a lot of non-actors (including the lead) without any of the awkwardness that sometimes entails. This is one of those films that has so much to unpack, it could become a standard essay topic in film history classes. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

I think I liked The Quick and the Dead when I first saw it fresh from the video store, but I probably like it a lot more now that I have a handle on Sam Raimi's filmography. You could almost say it takes place in the same universe as the Evil Dead stuff - the invulnerable Native almost gets you through the gates of the supernatural - and stylistically, the zooms and pans creates an energetic western revenge story with a sports movie twist. A big, memorable cast of characters (and actors, a lot of names in this) converges on a lawless town to take part in a dueling contest filled with high-octane action and natural tension created by several heroes taking part (will they have to meet each other in combat?). A great, atypical role for Sharon Stone, well supported by the likes of Russell Crowe, Leonardo diCaprio, Gene Hackman and others. Great fun. I feel like Raimi fans don't talk about it enough.

A very early picture for Jim Jarmusch, Stranger Than Paradise tracks a teenage Hungarian immigrant, her New York-based cousin and his hapless friend in an immigrant story/road movie hybrid that defies convention to make a statement about its characters, and people like them. See, it doesn't matter where they are - New York, Cleveland, Florida - these three never find anything to do. Every place is the same, helped along by unglamorous locations and, in this case, drab black and white. Their lack of imagination makes it impossible for them to do anything new, regardless of their location, even though they feel restless where they are. Their whole lives are TV dinners. The guys even look like one another. It seems the best they can ever do is go back to where they started, and such returns enliven the third act. And perhaps this is also a statement on immigration, a kind of blank homesickness married to the boredom of not knowing anyone in a new place. Tourists have fun, immigrants have to get down to the mechanics of settling and making a living. It's a comedy, but a satirical one, letting the audience choose if they want to mock the characters low ambitions and idleness, or if they'd rather not, given their own predilections.

Marriage Italian Style entirely belongs to Sophia Loren. Sorry, Marcello Mastroianni. He plays a successful businessman who becomes enamored of her, a prostitute, in post-war Italy. Head over heels about him, she soon becomes a kept woman, always frustrated with a relationship that can never go anywhere because she's property, and property that's to be ashamed of. In the first part of the film, as their love affair is revealed through flashbacks, it becomes impossible to side with him, and in a way, with her. She deserves better, and we resent her love for him. But there are twists coming, and Loren's Filume may have other reasons for securing his commitment. We're led to believe she's a romantic, but she may be much more practical a character. But the twists keep coming, emotional ones, that create a pleasant ambiguity. You're thinking a certain way one minute, completely differently the next. What's real and what's a lie? Personally, and this is going to be a spoiler, avert your eyes, I think they're all his. But you could read half a dozen other meanings in that final scene alone.

What happens to soldiers tuned for war when it's peace time? From Here to Eternity, set in the weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor, shows them drinking, womanizing, and fighting, the tension they feel not so much because of some precognitive dread, but because of bad leadership. Their captain is also in shenanigans mode. In a way, this is a precursor to other war films on the margins of war itself, films like M*A*S*H and Jarhead. But there's frankly too much happening - the curse of adapting a novel - giving short shrift in particular to the female characters and their romances with key soldiers. Deborah Kerr is more hard-edged than I've ever seen her, even unrecognizable at times, and I believe this might have been one of her greatest performances if the film didn't forget about her for the length of a bible. Donna Reed is in the same boat. In the end, I know what the film's theme is - a soldier's listlessness when the role's ambitions are impossible to fulfill or corrupted to other goals - but I'm not entirely sure what it's trying to say about that. It either needed to be pruned or extended; I'm not sure which.

Royal Flash is a comedic take on the Prisoner of Zenda formula, starring Malcolm McDowell as a venal 19th-Century soldier who more or less trips into both fortune and danger, with the Zenda plot (he's the lookalike forced to replace a prince) taking of only a third of the way in. McDowell is clearly having fun, and while there's a lot of easy sex jokes and slapstick, the comic vignettes are done with enough energy to entertain. And there's a pretty good swashbuckler vibe going as well, with many sword fights and other action bits. The fact the film is based on the Harry Flashman series of novels is perhaps why there seem to be so many incidents included in the one picture. It's a manic film, but it has its pleasures. (Blink and you'll miss it nameless role for one-shot Doctor Who Richard Hurndall*.)

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker has a great title which it can't possibly live up to. That said, it may be worth watching because it is such a bizarre piece of cult cinema. It seems that after making a career of sitcoms and beach movies, director William Asher decided it was a good lateral move to do a crazy slasher/incest flick that looks and sounds like a TV movie, but for the content, where Susan Tyrrell gives a demented performance as the Aunt May who won't let her nephew move away even if it means killing the whole town, in competition with Bo Svenson for who will chew the most scenery - he's a bad (and insanely homophobic) cop on the edge, practically crashing in from another movie. Variable performances abound, including a pretty ropy one from pre-Newhart Julia Duffy as the girlfriend. Between the murderous mayhem, the suggestions of incest and the cop's rampant homophobia, it's a very ugly story. Worth watching, warts and all, if you're into that kind of thing, but you've been warned.

There's a strong bird motif set up early in The Blue Angel - birds in a cage stop singing and die, and all that - but the twist is that Marlene Dietrich's burlesque singer isn't the bird in question. Rather, it's the stuffy moralistic professor who falls for her. As we track his degradation and loss of dignity, he will be forced to play the chicken for the cabaret players as well. Dietrich's character is mercurial and cruel, and perhaps a little unknowable. We're squarely with Emil Jannings' Professor Rath, but he's not necessarily sympathetic. Only in the way that fools are. What's the message? That show folk are a dangerous lot? That the women you are warned away from really are a menace to morals, enlightenment and the Patriarchy? Or should we go deeper to see Rath's foolishness for what it is - hubris. The Blue Angel is a tragedy in the classical sense where one man's self-importance, perhaps his notion that he can "save" the woman he loves, or that he can resist the corruptive influence of the world she lives in, is what draws him into the abyss. You can tell this is an early sound film because it tries to use sound to it advantage. I don't think the musical numbers are well served by the recording technology of the day, but the demented bird cries of the climax are well worth it.

Watched entirely out of nostalgia, The Strongest Man in the World is the third of a series of Disney live action films starring young Kurt Russell as Dexter Riley, a science student at an unprestigious college who invariably gets super-powers from some experiment or other. As a kid, I saw all three, but never really clued in to the fact that they were all about the same character. I have a vague memory of thinking, hey, it's that movie again, only to be surprised by whatever new power he got that time. Weird. Looking at it out of context now, you can certainly tell you're meant to be enjoying long-running gags and ooh, they brought back Caesar Romero and such, but it's not like it's hard to catch up. While there are some fun super-strength gags, Disney's live action fare in this era isn't anything to write home about. Their 70s stuff looked like 60s sitcoms, with that flat light and colorful look, and Russell is just about the only character that isn't a broad comic caricature. There are a lot of very stupid characters mugging at the camera in these things. And if it's Kurt Russell you want, he's absent from the second act in favor of people we don't much care about, and a sequence that's mildly offensive to Chinese Americans. So not a great showing for the last Dexter Riley story, which doesn't mean I wouldn't want the first two again given the chance, or wouldn't love today's Kurt Russell returning to the role.
Role-playing: BARD&D Episode 6 - I've now played a version of At the Spottle Parlour (Dungeon Magazine #12) at least three times now, but I love the conceit and the annoying NPCs so much, I kind of have to run all my groups through it. Of course this time, there's a bardic twist, with the Las Vegas notion that high rollers might like to gamble with on-stage celebrities and so the deal is that the bards MUST gamble with their performance fees (another example of Wisdom 5 Black Philip's managerial skills). It's always a bit easy to get bogged down in the dice game, which can be tedious, but there's a big fight at the end. The player almost got massacred by not catching the clues that would have allowed them to activate a magic statue, but they got away WITH the statue at the end, and rose to level 5 in time for next week's finale.
Set list - The Gambler (Kenny Rogers), Viva Las Vegas (Elvis Presley), Star Trek fight music, Roll the Dice (Steve Harley), Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso (with melodica), Liar (Queen)


Mike W. said...

I've read a few of the Flashman books; they're a lot of fun, but I didn't know there was a movie version. I can definitely see Malcolm MacDowell as Harry, though :)

Siskoid said...

I haven't seen the books, but apparently, they downplay his vices in the movie, so he must be quite the character!


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