This Week in Geek (7-13/01/19)

Buys

I got a copy of the Bug! The Adventures of Forager TPB from DC's Young Animal line. Looks like it's filled with Allred goodness.

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Everyone who told you Bumblebee is E.T. with a robot is right. Set in 1987, it can tap into the Amblin vibe, no problem. The decade that GAVE us the Transformers is actually a pretty good setting for this story, which cleverly casts John Cena as an '80s action hero who becomes comic relief as he loses control of the situation to unlikely heroine Hailee Steinfeld, and the movie has some fun with '80s references and its '80s soundtrack, which has an important and pleasant diagetic function. Bumblebee won't revolutionize genre cinema, but it does refresh the Transformers franchise (which I always skipped before) with real heart, characters you can are about (including a romance that doesn't take the cliched route), and actually recognizable Transformers. The lead robot is a real sweetheart, though some of the content was a little violent for a film that best performed when it staged clumsy robot slapstick. On the whole, a fun time at the movies, at least once Steinfeld meets the kind 'bot that will help her work her issues out in a roundabout way. Hm, kind of makes sense that the director of the origami-like Kubo would get how to make vehicles unfold into robots as well as they do.

Vice attempts to tell the story of Dick Cheney and the Bush presidency with the same kind of insolent comedy tricks Adam McKay used in The Big Short, but at times seemed to be tapping into Michael Moore territory with his use of stock footage. But then a lot of run time is devoted to standard biopic dramatic scenes that seemed designed to show that even monsters love their families, so McKay is juggling too many things for his own good. Either it's a shocking satire about one of recent history's most monstrous characters, covertly yet brazenly responsible for many of the problems we have today, or it's a humanizing character study, but it can't be both. Not in this format. Is the acting good? Generally, yes. Are there clever and funny bits? For sure. Is it giving you useful information about how the world works? Definitely. It just doesn't hang together all that satisfyingly. And if this makes you dread the eventual Trump movies that are sure come down the pike, whether pieces of revisionist or tell-all, look closer. Vice IS about the Trump presidency.

At home: I'm going to say up front that I never watched Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. As a Francophone, we had our own children's programming, and the Canadian channels on the English side had theirs. So I went into the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, without any attached nostalgia. And somehow, every time that tiger puppet was on screen, I wept and wept. I can't even think about it. I just can't. The film draws its profile of that rare thing, a genuinely good person (not to say they're rare, but they're rare in celebrity land), through the characters he plays as well as his own work and words, and I think that's what gives so much poignancy to Daniel the Tiger. And poignant is pretty much the one word review for this. It's a loving tribute, addresses criticisms leveled at the man and his programs but always takes his side (which isn't unwarranted), and shows us all the most culturally relevant clips, but on the whole, it is poignant. It grabs your heart early and with Fred Rogers' sheer earnestness, gently squeezes it and opens you up emotionally. May it inspire you to be your best self.

The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man is a thin documentary about Bill Murray's propensity for party crashing, interviewing a great many beneficiaries of his impromptu generosity of spirit in an effort to explore this (true) urban legend. The documentarist fruitlessly seeks Murray himself, but makes his failures part of his point. He wouldn't have gotten answers from the impish celebrity anyway. What I didn't expect, as a card-carrying improv person, was for the answers to lie IN improv. That was immensely satisfying, and I think I can say with some authority that they fit a certain psychological/philosophical profile I am familiar with. That there are clues to Bill Murray's real-life shenanigans in his film work also made for an interesting discussion, and made me want to revisit his filmography (that has to be a win). Stick around for one last story after the credits; it's well told.

Despite its comedy premise, A Letter to Three Wives is actually a strong and well-observed drama, a study in insecurity, as three women receive a letter from a common acquaintance, telling them she's run off with ONE of their husbands. Before we find out the truth (which isn't the twist/reveal I was expecting), we dive into each of their memories, presenting their relationships at key moments that might reveal that their spouse, indeed, left them to be with the mysterious Addie Ross. At first, I thought the acting was a little old-fashioned and stilted. Once we got into the back story, the more real emotional content was exposed, the less that seemed to be true - perhaps it was a stylistic choice to show marriages lacking spark - and by the final act I was completely invested. I'd even say it was touching, and not entirely from an expected source. While a strong drama about relationship "mind killers" that get into our heads and create doubt, it's not without its humor, in particular thanks to Thelma Ritter's jaded maid; if you loved her in Rear Window, you'll love her here.

I was surprised to find a simple screwball comedy from 1937 was made in full Technicolor, but that's Nothing Sacred! As the genre demands, the film mocks high society through a newspaper editor and his star reporter (Fredric March, on the outs because he was the victim of a hoax and in need of a big scoop) falling for ANOTHER fake news story, this one about Carole Lombard's character misdiagnosed with fatal radium sickness, but willing to go on the wild media ride so she can "win" a trip to New York. Romance ensues, though for one of them, it seems like that love is doomed. Whether it's satirizing New York high society's way of taking an interest in any given sob story, or doing quick patter and slapstick, Nothing Sacred gets the laughs. I howled a number of times. And I also appreciate how it's SHOT for comedy, with amusing staging enlivening scenes that might otherwise have come off as ordinary.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. Terrible title. Three great stars. A potentially creepy story... The idea is that teenage Shirley Temple has this massive crush on Cary Grant's ne'er-do-well playboy artist, to the shock of her older sister, a judge played by Myrna Loy. Romcom rules tell you where this is going, and the creepiness is avoided by Grant's complete disinterest in the teenager, but I don't think most of the developments are predictable. In large part because they're complete nonsense. The twist is right out of the worst sitcoms, and most of the action is directed by an ancillary meddling character who might as well be called Uncle Plot Device. There ARE a couple of real laughs here, but too much dead air for the screwball elements to work, and most of the physical shtick falls flat on its face, much like Grant in a potato sack race. All three leads deserved better, but they make the movie a watchable if forgettable affair (forgettable except the "hoodoo, you do" joke that apparently entered pop culture here, I guess).

1950's Cyrano de Bergerac was the first English-language adaptation of Rostand's famous play put to film, and José Ferrer won an Oscar for his performance in the title role, but I have several problems with it. First off, as a French-speaking person and a big fan of the original work, any translation will feel strange to me, especially if it doesn't try to rhyme. Rostand's does, to a fault, and I think it's part of the experience, creating a stylized world of warrior-poets. I don't just miss the rhyme, but many of the poetic images this version does away with. And once you leave some of the poetry behind, you're left with a script that's entirely too focused on plot mechanics. Director Michael Gordon insists on showing us linking material, explaining plot points, and extending the sword fights. But Cyrano doesn't need to be more plotty, that's not the point. The saving grace is Ferrer himself, a rather hard-nosed Cyrano (sorry), but that's the shield he's chosen to hide his vulnerability. The emotion still works even if the result is a little serious where it doesn't need to be (though the first theater scene does have some amusing staging). The play does shine through despite the deviations. But all in all, it just made me want to watch the 1990 film again, which I consider the high-water mark. And so I did...

I watch the 1990 Cyrano de Bergerac with Gérard Depardieu every so often (and yet have never reviewed it), and still remember the feeling of seeing it in theaters all those years ago. We came out of there effortlessly rhyming. That's how immersive its poetic world is. If it is the superior version, it isn't just because it's the most faithful to the play, but because it does what film does best relative to theater. It allows the actors to speak in a quiet voice, and act in close-up. That means Depardieu can alternate between Cyrano's bombastic, fearless, public persona, and his shy, insecure, sensitive side. Plays put on film and earlier cinema wasn't always able to do this, but it makes all the difference. I cannot watch this production without smiling through the first acts, and bawling through the last. When I watch English renditions of the story, these are the words and line readings I hear in my head to compare. And it's a good-looking picture as well, as lavish as any high-end period piece, with beautiful music (though I was amused to note this time that the scene where he fights a hundred men makes it sound like he's Tim Burton's Batman). I wish everybody could understand French just to get the full effect, but hopefully, the musicality of the language will register with others. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

The Bad Seed was the Hereditary of its day, though more thriller than horror film, or maybe I should call it a straight drama because the acting is so intense yet realistic. Nancy Kelly, reprising a Tony-winning role, is brilliant as a mother who starts to believe her manipulative 8-year-old daughter could be responsible for another child's death, and it goes on from there, with an off-putting performance by Patty McCormack, as well as stand out roles for both Eileen Heckart and Evelyn Varden. You may never hear "Au clair de la lune" without shuddering again. I was all set to give this high marks when the last 10 minutes almost ruined everything. What a spectacular fumble at the 10-yard line (am I doing the sports metaphor correctly?). It could have ended on a somber note, or it could have ended with an arch twist, but it kept going. Its actual finale is a WTF moment the universe of the film does not earn in the least, or a cheap cop-out, but it's a ridiculous concession to the Hays Code. It gets worse. An awkward curtain call ends on a punchline that--what, means we're off the hook for hating/fearing a child? So jarring, but apparently something they did on Broadway to pacify too-emotional audiences. A compromised vision if I ever saw one.

Unofficial Doctor Whos Peter Cushing* and Joanna Lumley star as the Van Helsings in Christopher Lee's last Count Dracula film, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, AKA Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride(s), AKA Plague of Dracula, AKA Draculapocalypse 1973, AKA The Dracula Conspiracy, AKA Secret Services vs. Dracula... well, you get the point - this thing is a little bonkers, a '70s exploitation film with a funky soundtrack, translating Victorian characters into the (then) present day. I was stoked to see Lumley in this as Van Helsing's initially capable granddaughter, but she quickly turns into a screaming damsel in distress, which really isn't the best use of either the character or the actress. Still, Rituals moves along at a good clip, and has the virtue of using some of the less seen vampire weaknesses to dispatch its antagonists. Cushing is, of course, watchable as ever.

I originally dismissed Mission: Impossible III by saying I liked it better as the Alias pilot. Now that 1) my memories of both have dimmed and 2) Mission: Impossible Fallout has sort of closed the loop on Ethan Hunt's marriage relating all the way back to III, it was time for a revisit. At the time, it seemed like the first three films were completely disparate director visions, and we tend to think of Ghost Protocol as the start of a new cycle. But no, the cycle really starts here, and since Michelle Monaghan can do no wrong in my book - something I may have come to after my original viewing - I was much more interested in tracking this story. But while I appreciated it more, it is still the least memorable of ALL the M:I films. The stunt work isn't as iconic or jaw-dropping. The new cast members mostly forgettable (and forgotten, but for Monaghan and Pegg). The light comic touch that's in the later films is clunky, with one particular sequence played as slapstick (as the Rabbit's Foot rolls down the street). Better than I remembered as a story, but relatively speaking, Mission: Impossible "on the cheap" as an action spectacular.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Easy way "The Bad Seed" could have ended, under a different film code: Rhoda goes down to the pond to find that medal, falls in, and her coat gets caught on a nail. There are shots of her struggling in the water, with a close-up of her face and her braids bobbing around, and finally there's a surface shot of the pond with no ripples or signs of anyone moving underwater. Fade to the morning, same shot, but with a police car and an ambulance and very somber-looking Penmarks.

There was a remake of "The Bad Seed" in the 1980s, and if memory serves, they didn't do the cop-out ending. Leroy is played by David Carradine, and (spoilers) Rhoda makes it look like he auto-erotically asphyxiated himself to death. Wait, that wasn't in the movie.

I once tweeted Alison Argrim (Nellie Oleson from "Little House on the Prairie") and told her I was pretty sure Nellie could kick Rhoda Penmark's ass. She LOL'd and told me that she knows Patty McCormack in real life. But ever since then, I've wanted a "Mortal Kombat" game with spoiled monster blonde girls. Rhoda's big move would be taking off her shoe and hitting you in the head with it. Nellie would have freeze vision. And so on.

Siskoid said...

Pretty niche, but I'd play it.

John said...

Now that you've seen The Bad Seed, you might want to track down Mommy, a low-budget thriller written and directed by Max Allan Collins (of Ms. Tree fame) and starring Patty McCormick as a murderous mom. He envisioned it as an unofficial sequel to Bad Seed, imagining what might have transpired if Rhoda had grown up to have a child of her own. It's pretty entertaining as I recall it.

 

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