This Week in Geek (25/02-03/03/19)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: I suppose we're going to get a lot of material that feels cousin to A Star Is Born now, but we could do a lot worse than Fighting with My Family, the true-ish story of Saraya "Paige" Knight, a small English girl from a hilarious wrestling family who went pro in the WWE. Sure, in some ways, it's a two-hour ad for the latter organization, but with The (original) Office's Stephen Merchant at the helm, the biopic is also one of those small quirky British comedies. That might even make it a bit of a Frankenstein's Monster, the stuff in L.A. a kind of bombastic, aspirational, sports movie. The stuff in Norwich - and we don't lose sight of the disappointed brother who didn't get picked, that's nice - a much more inspired, witty and zesty family comedy. But while Merchant can't help but inject his brand of amusing discomfort in some scenes, his film really wears its heart and passion on its sleeve, with no small assist from the terrifically engaging performances from the four family members. Florence Pugh is a real star and Nick Frost is hilarious, but Headey and Lowden bring it too. Wrestling fans will no doubt spot all the WWE cameos better than I, though might be disappointed that the timeline is collapsed into movie format. Non-wrestling fans won't get any of that - it was all new to me, though I think I did recognize that Dwayne Johnson guy (he did other things, right?) - but will still find the movie fun, funny and heartwarming. For once, I didn't mind the real people showing up in the credits. They actually ARE hilarious!

At home: Sometimes you feel like watching awkward Mark Duplass in awkward situations with other awkward characters. He's done this (as actor or director) for awkward comedy, awkward science fiction, awkward horror... Paddleton leans heavily into awkward drama. In this two-hander, he plays a man dying of cancer, and Ray Romano is his socially awkward neighbor and best friend forced to accompany him on his final days. Duplass' character creates the situation, but it's really about Romano's, having to deal with upcoming loss, and fighting a tug of war about how to best support him. Either way, a lot of this hits close to home, as it might anyone of a certain age (you will have either lost someone or gotten your own health scares). Some will find it aimless at times, like a lot of the two friends' conversations, but it delivers at the end without forcing the issue. It's too realistic and understated to manipulate its audience into pre-ordered feels. It's just something that happens, and like real life, it's more awkward than it is epic or transcendent. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

In Please Stand By, Dakota Fanning plays someone on the autism spectrum (on the Asperger's end) who runs away from her group home to deliver her massive Star Trek script to Paramount as part of a contest. The portrayal is fairly strong, though it can be inconsistent, especially in regards to anxiety triggers. But for the most part, we want Fanning's Wendy to succeed and be safe, and that's involving enough though you do feel the hand of the scriptwriter on the controls, causing melodramatic twists to keep her in danger, or just short of her goal. Or the opposite, as with the intervention of Patton Oswalt's Trekkie cop. But accepting we are in movie land, in an unusual but still formulaic road trip movie, Please Stand By works. It's sweet and pulls at the heart strings. Trek fans may feel a little more poignancy in Wendy's obsession, and I like that they don't hammer too hard on her kinship with Spock, surely an early (albeit accidental) example of a neuro-atypical character.

Though it shared vague plot points with To Have and Have Not, Michael Curtiz's adaptation of the same Hemingway material, The Breaking Point, is an entirely different film. The first was a star-studded, patriotic, witty Hollywood movie. The Breaking Point is a hard-edged, down and dirty, class struggle where poverty is the real antagonist. John Garfield has a face that makes everyone want to cheat him, apparently, and he's pushed to the limit by money problems as the film asks whether poverty could make criminals of us all. There's also a love triangle, of sorts, that may feel unnecessary, but it does track Garfield's moral compass. We don't know what he's really thinking when it comes to taking criminals on board his boat, but we can extrapolate it from his relationship with his potential mistress. Eventually, push comes to shove, but there's a chance for a happy ending. Except Curtiz has one last gut punch to throw at us, bringing the class struggle element into sharp (but subtle) focus at the very end. Garfield's character may feel like he's run out of good options, but he did have options. Not everyone in the film is so lucky.

1974's Munich in Rainer Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a racist world where its two protagonists, a lonely older German woman and a younger Moroccan immigrant nicknamed Ali, face near constant prejudice for their unorthodox relationship... and it's entirely depressing that this could have been made today, in almost any Western country, and we wouldn't have thought it out of place. It is especially well-observed in the way racist (and ageist) attitudes crop up in the two leads as well, once the honeymoon stage is over. And do we, the audience, ascribe Ali any sinister motives for apparently falling for an older woman? Or if not sinister, at least pragmatical? Ali isn't an eloquent character - his German is clumsy - which makes him a figure of mystery and poignancy. The human drama is quite strong, but of course, it's Fassbinder. His mastery of color and composition also makes this a great film to look at.

Visually, Orson Welles' Othello is a triumph. The lighting, the angles, the blocking, the editing, they're all pushing the play's anxious atmosphere. Every shot a marvel, and though Welles blacks up, it's not as egregious as some performances would have it (still an annoyance to modern eyes, one that mars every adaptation past a certain point back in history). It's too bad it has sound problems, like out of sync dialog. But if I don't rate it as a great Shakespeare adaptation, it's that at 93 minutes, it's running through plot points a little too quickly. If I didn't know the play, I'd be hard pressed to figure out what Roderigo's role was all about, for example. It slows down in the final act, thankfully, finally letting the performances breathe a little. Film is a  visual medium, I get it, but when film makers push the visuals to the detriment of the text, I think they've missed the boat when it comes to Shakespeare.

The Taming of the Shrew is also a problematic play to stage in the modern era, and with Zeffirelli at the helm of the 1967 Burton-Taylor spectacular, you can expect a lavish production full of recognizable actors, but he also prefers visuals and action over text. His Romeo and Juliet is a great film, but his Hamlet, while entertaining, butchers the play. He plays a little fast and loose with the material here, but not too much. Perhaps not enough. I find that the success of Shrew is largely decided on the last scene, and whether or not it can sell Kate's turn to obedience and that incredibly patriarchal speech. Zeffirelli fumbles it. I'm left wondering if she means it, or if not, what subtext motivates it. Elizabeth Taylor plays the role as if she were taken with Burton's boorish Petruchio, and just doesn't want to show it. If marriage robs both of undue pride, then fine, but it's not clear this happens. We're left with the simple idea that if wives please their husbands, then husbands won't make their lives a living hell. Otherwise, Taylor does a lot of shouting and moaning (in the style of a lot of 60s comedies), and Burton doesn't really redeem fortune-hunting Petruchio in our eyes. The film isn't unpleasant to look at and there's plenty of energy, color and slapstick, but it isn't quite able to rise above its usual problems.

Steve Martin's Roxanne is not Cyrano de Bergerac. It can't be. It's a charming romcom with lots of background gags you'll come to appreciate more on subsequent viewings, and for fans of Rostand's play, it's actually pretty clever in the way it winks at it (the whole astronomy thing, for example). Not being in rhyme, it needs must lose a couple of key scenes that are, to me, crucial to one's enjoyment of Cyrano. The first is the improvised ballad, and the other is Christian throwing nose puns at Cyrano. The latter they might have salvaged, but Rick Rossovich's Chris isn't nearly as clever as his theatrical homologue. In fact, he's a big doofus, and responsible for some laughs. If Roxanne is sweet and amusing, it's still a romcom, with a romcom ending. A more noble Chris could have died fighting a fire, Roxanne could have stayed in town in his memory, she could have discovered the real voice in the night was Charlie on the day he himself dies fighting a fire. And I think the film builds enough good will for audiences to accept it - there wouldn't have been a dry eye in the house. They pushed the comedy instead, and that's fine. It's still sweet, amusing, and somewhat romantic. It just can't be Cyrano de Bergerac.

In the generically-titled Manhattan Melodrama, Myrna Loy is at the center of a love triangle with her two most famous leading men - Clark Gable, who I generally have no use for, and William Powell (BEST!) - two orphans who grew up together after a boat accident took their parents. Following their natures, one of them became the a district attorney and the straightest of arrows, the other a hoodlum always involved in some racket or other. It never hurt their friendship. To say that it is tested in this story would be incorrect. The dilemmas are elsewhere, and even though on the page they might rise to the status of melodrama, in a Dickens sort of way, the film lacks focus. When we're with Gable, it feels like a film noir. When we're with Powell, it's a breezy and witty comedy. Nothing much comes from either as we head into courtroom and political drama instead. I kind of like the idea that Loy's character would have problems with each man's very nature, opposites though they are, but the script doesn't really carry through on its promises. I'm not sure they knew what kind of film they were making, and in the end, it's rather like the boxing match within the film, it leaves one unsatisfied.

One of Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot comedies, Mon oncle (My Uncle) contrasts his character's simple but messy Old World living, and his sister's life in the suburbs, in a crazy modern house. Hulot, France's answer to Chaplin's tramp or England's Mister Bean, is definitely a creature of the former. In those sections, we find charm, amusing character vignettes, and nostalgic slice of life film making. The corner café music is going to run in your head for hours after, fair warning. In the futuristic world of the house (and the brother-in-law's plastic factory), we find satire. It's all automated living, malfunctioning contraptions, and style over function despite the Spartan functionality. The score is replaced by ticking, static and steam pipes. No wonder the nephew in the story escapes this present-day future for the more chaotic pleasures of the present-day past. But what a set! The story structure is very loose, mostly something to hang light gags on, and it kind of just ends. It's more of a free-flowing editorial on modern living, a humorist's billet that looks sharp, but isn't overly concerned with narrative.

I didn't expect a 1950s western to be as dark and dirty as The Naked Spur is, but it's essentially The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with the gold mine replaced with a wanted man. Jimmy Stewart's bounty hunter is a broken and anguished man who's lost his way trying to reclaim his life, ostensibly by getting the bounty on Robert Ryan's manipulative outlaw. Things get complicated early on when Stewart needs help from an old prospector (Millard Mitchell), and even more complicated when a dishonorably discharged soldier (Ralph Meeker) shows up and lends a hand, hoping for a piece of the pie. Oh, and then there's Janet Leigh as a woman who believes the outlaw is innocent. And that's it. No other actors have lines, even the most modest human settlement is absent. In the Wilderness, Man is allowed to revert to his bestial nature. This very compact five-hander provides plenty of conflict, and opportunities for Ryan to exploit. In the end, I wish Leigh's character were a little more than a symbol, but everything she does is for one man or another, and the engine for a moral twist that fits a fable better than the grotty realism built up to that point.

In 2035 France, the corporation is king and the starving population is forced to submit to pharmaceutical trials to survive. Those trials support, among other things, televised gladiatorial combat, cage matches in which no limits are put on doping. The eponymous Ares is one such fighter, past his prime, who will now be forced to get back in the ring to save his sister unjustly arrested for terrorism, while keeping an eye on her daughters. I was surprised at how well this holds up for an indie dystopian thriller. The plot isn't exactly novel, but the premise isn't as harebrained as some of these things', and has maybe one or two memorable characters along the way. The fights are short, but brutal. The vision bleak, but revolution possible. And I'm a sucker for near futures that don't take place in Los Angeles, New York, or London. So on the whole, while Ares won't revolutionize (ha!) cinema, it's a surprisingly watchable entry in the dystopian sf and fight movie genres.

In a shadowy world between The Nightmare Before Christmas and Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride is a sweet but macabre fairy tale about an awkward young man who accidentally marries an undead girl. Laika's stop-motion animation is filled with zombie and skeleton gags, and an all-star cast lends voices to the proceedings (Christopher Lee as the priest is particularly inspired). Of course, by 2005, we're already well used to Burton's faux-Edgar Allan Poe aesthetic, so there's little here that surprises the senses. Danny Elfman's music even seems to edge towards cues written for The Nightmare Before Christmas. But as a story, it has its charms. The Russian folk tale it dramatizes is unusual, you don't ultimately feel like either of the romantic leads mistreat one another (a very soft-edged triangle there), and the ending is rather beautiful.

Joanna Lumley plays Mrs. Everglot in Corpse Bride, which brings my Films That Star the Doctors project to a close. (It also has Richard E. Grant as the villain, but the ubiquitous actor showed up three times in all!) Now I have to think of something else to guide my "random movie watching"...

Books: Huit mois à Ottawa (Eight Months in Ottawa) is my friend Justin Guitard's newest quick-read (under 70 pages), a collection of true stories about his first year of university in Ottawa. It was a year of comic (or at least comically-told, I don't think he was laughing too hard at the time) incidents, many of which seemed designed to take him out of his clothes. Like, six out of eight, and you could make a case for the other two. Aimed at the young adult market, I don't know if teenagers are going to feel particularly comforted about the idea of going to study far from home, though they may take it as a series of cautionary tales. At the very least, the lesson one might take is that hardships eventually become stories, things you can laugh at. Those crazy eight months are entertaining in retrospect (or to those of us who didn't live through them) and lessons learned early come back later, building its inside jokes with the reader along the way.

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