This Week in Geek (31/12/18-06/01/19)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: The Favourite has such sparkling wit, it's one of the funniest black comedies I think I've seen. Set in the court of the perpetually sick, quite overwhelmed Queen Anne, it chronicles a battle of wills between the Queen's principal adviser who controls the kingdom by infantilizing Anne, and a possible new favorite who is just as ruthless, but perhaps not as wise. Olivia Coleman is of course terrific as Anne - I can't ever not feel for her - but Rachel Weitz and Emma Stone are also great (there isn't a wrong note from ANY of the actors, I don't think). This is a story about powerful women vying for supremacy, and Stone's Abigail may discover that there's really no rest for the wicked. Even once she thinks she's won, sustaining that victory may be more work than it's worth, especially once one ultimately realizes what that "victory" means. We're left on a shot that says everything and puts her character in her proper place. While Yorgos Lanthimos creates a beautiful desaturated world for his "ugly" comedy, I do question some moments of direction - the fish-eye lens, the anachronistic dance moves even if the likely anachronistic vulgar language didn't bother me - but on the whole, a near-perfect piece in part about how cruelty begets cruelty. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

At home: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a great little western anthology film that offers six Coen Brothers-penned stories, with the funniest up front, but heading towards darker fare after that. I love the conceit that we're reading a book of short stories, and seeing its color plates, first page, and last lines really adds to the magic. When will see that image? What does it mean? Oh, nice take on the twist we just saw. And so on. It's a play on adaptation, which the Coens have always been playful about. As for the stories, there's a great variety here, but they do hang well together on account of the Coens' propensity for "best laid plans" stories, and even the most depressing story has black comedy to it. We get stories of gunfighters, outlaws, entertainers, prospectors, homesteaders, and stagecoach passengers. The stories evoke Ford, Leone, and the early singing cowboy films, but I'm pretty sure there's a deep cut homage to Spirit of the Beehive in there. And while some stories are straight comedies or tragedies set in the West, others go the route some of the great westerns have, commenting on the raping of the land, or America's murder of culture, and there's even one in there that treats going West as a drive into Hell. I'm not going to try and rank these tales. I can't seem to play favorites; for all that variety, I see them as a whole, with favorite bits peppered throughout.

In Adult Life Skills, Jodie Whitaker* plays a woman in full-on arrested development after her twin brother dies, letting herself rot, one might say, trying to sustain a connection to her departed other self. Her sole outlet is making Gondry-esque videos about her thumbs (twins, obviously), existentialists, flying into space. Quite frankly, I'd watch the hell out of that YouTube channel if it existed. Meanwhile, her mother is desperately trying to kick her out of her shed and get her life in order, her more supportive grandmother completing the frequently amusing family dynamic. But it's a much bigger cast than that - friends, love (dis)interests, and a peculiar young boy who takes Anna as a sort of role model. As sad indie comedies go, it perhaps has too much going on (is everything thematically consistent, or are there details thrown in just because they're different or interesting?), but it mostly charms. Whitaker shows the same unselfconscious attitude she does in her turn as Doctor Who (was this perhaps instrumental in her getting the job?), and she's very well supported by everyone around her, kid included.

I'm a sucker for the Myrna Loy-William Powell pairing, so even if Double Wedding isn't one of their best, it still holds a lot of charm for me. Why isn't it though? It comes down to two things. One is that the title spoils the ending, so the unpredictable becomes entirely predictable, and you're just waiting for it to happen. Boo. The other is that Loy is asked to play such a serious, rigid, controlling woman that it stifles her natural chemistry with Powell. The usual twinkle is missing. And even so, there's a lot of witty repartee as she tries to disentangle Powell's bohemian character from her sister's life. Some amusement is also to be derived from the terrible amateur private eye she uses to get the skinny on what's happening in the eccentric's trailer home. And some screwball slapstick obviously meant to evoke their relationship in The Thin Man. A bit of fluff, really, but not a bad way to spend 90 minutes.

The Mad Miss Manton is a fun little Barbara Stanwyck vehicle in which she plays a socialite who keeps stumbling on dead bodies and since the police are kind of idiots, swears she and her group of gals can solve the mystery before they can. A gritty procedural, this isn't. Expect nocturne investigations in evening wear, coppers pulling faces and doing shtick, and a romance with Henry Fonda's calumnious newspaper editor. But the mystery has some good twists and turns, even if it took me a while to figure out who was who. Getting to know the particulars through gossip second-hand is perhaps not the best way to lay out the stakes. It's a go with the flow and don't ask too many questions type of affair, mostly worth it for the cracking dialog. I especially enjoyed the socialites working together, as if this were just another book club night. They were quickly drawn but distinctive enough to please. I'm certainly becoming a Stanwyck fan.

Sophia Loren plays the widowed mother of a 13-year-old in war-torn Italy in Two Women (La Ciociara), a story that promises tragedy, but keeps it at bay for most of its length, building tension even as it delivers light comedy and romance. Not that anything is romanticized. This is definitely in the realism camp, acting as a slice of life about people caught up in Mussolini's losing war who really have no interest in it, but worried their lives could be destroyed by it at any time, and thus interrupted by moments of violence and danger. The posters all try to spoil the climax, but I won't except to say the English title is a darkly ironic choice. Loren, at the height of her powers, is magnetic in this. I found it a little hard to read the subtitles because it meant tearing myself away from her face. That said, the subs are just HORRENDOUS, full of mistakes, bad timing, and garbled syntax. Not enough to make it unwatchable, but they do provide irritations at regular intervals.

There are a lot of fun bits in The Awful Truth, a screwball comedy in which Cary Grant and Irene Dunne get divorced for no good reason - well, mistrust and jealousy - and immediately regret it, though they can't really admit to that. This is apparently where a reluctant Grant created his well-known onscreen persona and you really can't tell it's his first attempt at the comic suave jerk. His performance seems effortless. Dunne is more than his equal, really in her element with improvised shtick and slightly mad reactions. Stealing every scene however is Mr. Smith, a very cute and highly trained canine actor (the cat's not bad either, but has a much smaller role). Now, I wouldn't call Irene Dunne sexy on any given day of the week, but that last scene between them manages to be pretty steamy. And romantic. And funny. And clever. Ends on a great note, no dog required.

Twentieth Century is one of the films credited as starting the screwball comedy genre, but I don't think it's one of the greats. It's too shouty for that, and it's rather difficult to sympathize with the leads, both of whom are fiercely over-the-top drama queens. But are they funny if not exactly endearing? The answer is yes. John Barrymore especially. His Broadway theater producer is more an "Actorre" than his protege/ex-girlfriend/prima donna Carole Lombard, tough she tries to give as good as she gets (I find it very amusing that characters keep telling each other to "stop acting" at various points). Barrymore is quite simply a scenery-chewing lunatic in this (someone mentioned Gene Wilder... yes, this only a step away from Young Frankenstein) and that's the #1 reason to watch this. It's certainly not because you hope those crazy kids are gonna get back together. They might deserve each other, but their relationship is completely toxic.

In 1932's breezy caper about gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, they have John Barrymore playing opposite his own brother Lionel as the detective inspector, and I don't know if that's supposed to be a meta joke or what. They look alike, naturally, and then there's this whole bit where Lupin frames Guerchard for BEING Lupin, so I'm thinking maybe it is. Nice cat and mouse game throughout, with Lupin dominating, of course, but the inspector still getting too close to victory for comfort. The material is supported by a comic touch, plenty of wit, and a pre-code (ooh-la-la!) romance with a Russian countess who may not be what she seems, making for an overall entertaining package. If I have a complaint, it's that this is more or less an end of career Lupin story, and we jump into it in medias res. The relationships are quickly established, but it still feels cursory. Had we boarded earlier in the time line, MGM might have been able to make a short series with Barrymores. It was a different time...

Die Hard helped kill the 80s action film, the one where the hero is an unbeatable hulk, usually Arnold or Sylvester. The paradigm shifted to more human, more vulnerable action stars like Bruce Willis' John McClane, guys you could believe would get HURT. The man responsible, director John McTiernan nevertheless says goodbye to the era with some fondness in Last Action Hero, a loving spoof of 80s action cinema. Schwarzenegger had some massive hits in the years following (he's hard to kill), but in 1993, people were maybe getting sick of his brand, so the film didn't do well (and his fans would have grumbled at the self-parody). It's aged rather well out of its historical context, probably because it's easier to tickle our nostalgia now than it was in the waning years of the genre. It is a LOT of fun. McTiernan opens with gorgeous action cinematography that wouldn't look out of place in Hong Kong cinema. The action sequences aren't any more ridiculous than Fast and Furious fare - give or take jokes about genre tropes - and are still up to snuff. Arnold's character is as cool as he is corny. The "action movie" universe quite amusing. The magic ticket fantasy Amblin-esque (so watch for the Spielberg call-back). The cameos a lot of fun too. I wasn't expecting such a fun ride (my memories of it were dim indeed), but yeah, put me in the convinced column.

Sometimes it feels like an epic is acting like an epic because it knows it's an epic. Ben-Hur is such an epic. Sure, it's got scope and spectacle, but at times, especially in the first part, it feels like it's just giving us a tour o What We Know(TM) of the Roman Empire circa in the early ADs. Downtrodden provinces, galleys, arena events, and Christ on a cross. Somehow, our hero participates in it all, like a Forrest Gump of Antiquity, through circumstances worthy of a Dickens novel. I question its length if not its ambitions. Certainly, the famous chariot race is an impressive, well-choreographed action sequence, and not only "for its time" - one of the best in all of cinema. The idea of telling a story in the shadow of Jesus' works is an interesting one too. Ben-Hur is pushed to hatred and revenge impulse by the Romans, but starts out as a good man with peace in his heart (he's the one charioteer who doesn't whip his horses). So his final examination isn't a hard redemption so much as a rescue of his soul. That may be what the film is saying about Christ's death for humanity's sins.

With Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick (ironically?) bends his will to the studio, and comes up with his most mainstream, some would say compromised, effort - a big sword & sandals epic with a veritable cast of thousands. Less daring, then? It's less experimental for sure, though the restored version does include some fierce violence and an amazing scene where Laurence Olivier threatens Tony Curtis with his bisexuality, all cut from 1960's theatrical version, of course. Whether because of studio interference or not, Spartacus may also be Kubrick's most emotionally engaging picture, with Kirk Douglas in the title role and Jean Simmons as his wife a well-matched pair of defiant slaves who put everything on the line, at all times, to assert their freedom. As the action tips from slave revolt to Roman politics and back again, Kurbrick shows his hand more. The editing is great, and the story feels very Shakespearean in those sections. If I rate it more highly than Ben-Hur, it is in part because it's a more focused story. We see how freedom becomes viral, is put down, but survives, and the film bitterly notes how long it'll take to run its course. I'm well impressed.

Allllll aboard for the final leg of our Train-a-Thon!

Galaxy Express 999 is a weird one. A condensed retelling of a television series that's really part of the Captain Harlock (Albator) universe, it structurally suffers from being a picaresque. In other words, you can sort of tell it was written as a serial, though one where no piece is irrelevant to the narrative. It's the Albator stuff that detracts from the whole, however. As a fan from way back - perk of being French-Canadian - there's actually a fun reveal about the origins of the Arcadia and all that, but I don't know what non-fans will make of some of these sequences. And while the Albator characters play a part, the story/setting is pretty far removed from the space corsair vs. plant women plot of the more iconic series. Instead, we have an orphan boarding a space train so he can get to the planet that sells robot bodies so he can take revenge for his mother's death at the hands of Count Mecha, a mechanized villain who jumps around in his Time Castle. There's really no limit on creator Matsumoto's imagination on this project, and director Rintaro brings it to life with often incredible "cinematography".

I'd seen Doctor Zhivago on television when I was a kid, as it was my mother's favorite film. Looking at it, in every way that counts as if for the first time, I'm taken by how important this was to my parents. My mom did end up marrying a mustached doctor who kind of looked like Omar Sharif. She had Julie Christie's hair style back then, and my dad used to whistle Lara's Theme all the time. It's a film romance that left a mark. I might even be the result. The story, told in the shadow of the Bolshevik revolution (indeed, Zhivago's role as mostly observer/pawn reveals his role in the original novel as a point of view character to talk ABOUT that part of history), is that of a doomed romance, circumstances and events preventing the leads from ever being together for long. The striking cold imagery - the iced houses, the pane of ice on the train, etc. - are at the heart of the film's themes. Cold Russia, cruel and distant love, and a barren philosophy (Lenin's communism) that replaces the personal with the State. I was wondering how a romance set around the birth of the Soviet Union was made and became a hit at the height of the Cold War. Well, by showing the worst side of the Revolution, and the protagonists as its victims, it served as an indictment of everything the West was told to fear. The focus on romance hid Pasternak's more blatant propaganda. Not to say the country's political turmoil didn't cause these very problems or adversely affect its national psyche, but there's definitely an agenda at play. I don't think it's one that registered with my mom though.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've never seen any orignal Lupin, but my Philistine tastes run happily towards Lupin the Third. You might enjoy "Castle of Cagliostro"; I hear it was based on an original Lupin story.

Of course, if you review it, I'll have an opportunity to comment and add my fascinating thoughts, so consider that a warning.

Siskoid said...

If TCM plays either, I will watch. That's where I get most of my movie consumption from these days (I think it shows).

Anonymous said...

It's an early Miyazaki. Here's a clip:

https://vimeo.com/39790868

Siskoid said...

Ohhhh that one! Ok.

 

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