This Week in Geek (15-21/04/19)


At home: After Janelle Monáe's Dirty Computer, it's Childish Gambino's turn to make a short movie that uses his songs as part of the narrative. Guava Island stars Donald Glover and Rihanna as a young couple living on a fictional Caribbean island with a single export. She dreams of leaving, he loves it too much ever to do so. Unfortunately, I don't think that conflict is explored enough, even if I like what the film has to say about capitalism stifling culture, putting the song This Is America into a more universal context, the foundation of the movie's themes. I wish it could have done both, and that they'd realized what they had and decided to make a full feature that could. As is, there are still many things to like - the animated opening that builds the world, the re-choreographed songs (no repeated footage from videos), the general easy-going tone, and surprises along the way. As to whether the character of Deni is self-aggrandizement for Glover, I don't know. On paper, yes, he's a little too Christ-like, but though he sings the same songs, he's not Glover. Whether the distance afforded by fiction is enough for you not to see this as vanity, is up to you.

Billed as the happiest musical ever made, Easter Parade features an early dance number in a toy store that's guaranteed to make you smile, so maybe the hype is true! Otherwise, it has the same slim plot most Fred Astaire movies do. He walks down the street, trains a new dance partner (Judy Garland), is romantically standoffish, and wants to get married by the time we get to the last scene (not all characters necessarily arc, so it may leave you hungry for scenes that never were). It's all just an excuse to do song and dance numbers. Irving Berlin's songs are often silly and dependent on rhymes, but like Astaire's feet, they're light and fluffy (my favorite is the one with the hobos). The reason to watch this one, however, is the attention given to the bit parts. Every character in the service industry is given a little comedy to play, like they find this whole romantic musical foolish. The highlight is the restaurant waiter François and his incredible salad. One of the great random scenes in all of cinema.

Sweet Smell of Success has a Glengary vibe to it, with press agent Tony Curtis desperately hustling to get some of his acts in a newspaper, and having to compromise himself entirely to do so, at the whims of columnist Burt Lancaster, who plays the part with a dangerous edge. As good as Curtis can be, Lancaster is a terrifying presence in the picture, looming over New York City like he owns it. Because in this world, he does. Or how about that shot where his eyes seem to glow with the flames of hell itself? It's a world filled with oppressive darkness and shadow, where light can be malevolent or freeing. Traps abound. We're thrown in the deep end, running alongside to catch up and understand this business and the people who conduct it, or are destroyed by it. It's mean and relentless. The film's best feature, however, is its cracking dialog, every turn of phrase a gem. It's one of those movies you want to endlessly quote from, and the banter is so quick, you'll need to revisit it before you catch everything you'll need to be cool on the nasty side of Broadway.

From the title, I thought Morituri would be a gladiator flick. Nope, it's a World War II movie. Marlon Brando stars as a German draft dodger/millionaire sent on a mission against his will by the British lest he be sent home, tasked with preventing precious cargo from sinking when the ship's captain (Yul Brynner) scuttles the boat before it falls into enemy hands, by posing as an S.S. officer. Almost immediately, things start to go wrong, as in the best "suicide mission" scenarios, and Brando's character has to use his charm and wits to manipulate the situation. It's a pretty good nail biter, and well realized on the production side of things. But what puts this movie over the top is that there isn't just one kind of German. It's not a case of Nazis being Nazis. Not everyone agrees with Hitler, or the war, and the web of motivations given to characters who might be allies if they just stopped working at cross-purposes, is very well constructed. No stock characters, it's all much more believable than that, and so you're never sure where it's heading.

The granddaddy of intersecting storylines, Grand Hotel has a couple of cute side-stories, but is mostly about five characters whose lives are about to collide. It's the original El Royale! Now, I'm not a big Greta Garbo fan. In fact, her over-dramatic acting better suited to the silent era can be grating, even if it is perhaps justified in this role, that of diva ballerina clearly struggling with bipolar disorder. But if you're also going to have the Barrymore brothers as well, then all is forgiven. They can always be counted on to bring wit, humor, romance and pathos, according to their particular talents. Then there's a young Joan Crawford who puts Garbo to shame because her acting style feels so damn natural and spontaneous. I think I should investigate her career more, I've been entirely too dismissive of her. As tangled webs go, the stories are easy to follow, and they don't go where you think they will. I smiled some, but cried some too, which surprised me, and I like to be surprised.

Jewel Robbery is a short puff piece, but if you're going to put William Powell in a pre-Code heist movie, I'm there for it no matter how slim. He stars as a suave and witty gentleman thief who robs a jewelry store and decides to also steal the heart of a bored baroness who is among the establishment's patrons. It's all very flighty, where crime and adultery are a lark not to be taken seriously. I suppose the biggest pressure on your suspension of disbelief is the role reefer plays in the movie (like I said, it's pre-Code), in particular how no one can tell it's not cigarette smoke because cinema is an odorless medium. It's all very naughty, with sly sex jokes thrown in for good measure (I burst out laughing at one point), though admittedly, and with all due respect to Kay Francis, Jewel Robbery only really gets going when Powell shows up. She's the protagonist, but he's the story engine. But then, she might surprise you too. Silly transgressive fun.

I've read a few Father Brown stories in my day, but the 1954 adaptation of his first, retitled The Detective in the U.K. is more entertaining than I remember them being. Alec Guinness is super charming in the role of the detective priest who is as concerned with recovering a stolen artifact as he is with saving the soul of the gentleman thief (Peter Finch) who did it. Father Brown keeps surprising at every turn, and updated to the film's era, he seems a much more urban figure than in Chesterton's tales. "The Blue Cross" extended to feature length, there are some incidents that could be jettisoned, but frankly, it's all so much quirky fun that I probably wouldn't cut a whole lot out of it. When it introduces characters, it means to give them something to do, and usually not the thing you expect them to. The mystery is enlivened by all sorts of jokes, but also by Father Brown's unusual motivation, not to catch and punish the criminal, but to reform him. His humanism trumps his fidelity to the Catholic Church. Makes me wish Guinness had starred in a NUMBER of these. FAVORITE OF THE MONTH

Brother Future is a TV movie (which can be found on YouTube, where these things survive) about a hip black teenager who'd rather hustle on the street than attend class, mysteriously sent back in time to the pre-Civil War American South where - the movie doesn't waste ANY time - he's captured and sold into slavery. Though it seems to want to do a Fresh Prince of the Plantation riff, it happily doesn't, and instead, Brother Future becomes 1) a history lesson couched in fantasy, with Carl Lumbly playing real-life revolutionary Denmark Vesey; and 2) a character arc for T.J. (Phill Lewis) to learn humility, and the value of education. A little sappy at times, sure, but the story is heartfelt and within television standards, it still manages to show slavery in the harsh light it deserves. The time travel narrative in service of the history lesson is better suited to the television SERIES, it's true, but T.J. is enough of a character to hang a beginning, middle and end on him.

Set time machine to 19th-Century American South. Keywords: Slavery. Sanitized language. A cotton plantation.

Gone With the Wind... Timeless classic, or overrated bloat? For me, the latter. While it certainly has some nice bits of cinematography, and the second act certainly delivers cast-of-thousands-type spectacle, it can't possibly be "timeless" as it is so dated (the racist caricatures, in particular). While I can certainly accept a Civil War story told through the point of view of Southerners (the Yanks as odious villains), the film has no moral compass whatsoever, and that's bothersome. The South is presented as an idyllic paradise where slaves (the word is almost never used) are quite happy with their fates, and the merest hardships send the privileged whites to the top of the hill to shake their fists at God. Scarlett O'Hara, a selfish spoiled brat, only gets what she deserves, but we're supposed to empathize with her loss of privilege? It's undone soon enough anyway, and she never, ever learns her lesson. The film even ends on the wrong note. You might just salvage it if you turned it off after Rhett Butler's famous line, the one that echoes my feelings about the movie, you know the one I mean. Speaking of Butler, it's just Clark Gable playing the character the same way he does every character. He's a violent cad, no more sympathetic than Scarlett is. Who cares if these two get or stay together? They're just the most awful people and a poor lesson in consent. In the third act, the melodrama REALLY kicks in, and I started rolling my eyes at the fast pace of tragedies to befall the family. Novels are novels, and movies are movies. To try and adapt too much of one, make the other a rambling overdone mess. And I haven't even mentioned the terrible accents, arch acting, overcooked score (London Bridge Is Falling Down? Really?!) or clunky exposition. If this film (and novel, I guess) had more self-awareness, I might have given it a pass. As such, it thinks it's a great romance, but isn't, and gives a propagandist's sanitized view of the Old South that's proven problematic even in the 21st Century.
Some classic MST3K movies, regardless of comedy commentary... I've already reviewed Gamera, but the MST3K overlay only highlighted the terribly juvenile stuff with the kid. Everything is lost in translation with The Day the Earth Froze (Sampo!), as often happens with myths put to film then badly dubbed in English (except the word Sampo!). Couldn't wait for it to Finnish. The Gremlins rip-off Hobgoblins has some crazy moments thanks to the idea the creatures broadcast (mostly horny) fantasies into their victims' minds, but a lot of padding and almost no serviceable acting. When you see a puppeteer's hand, take a shot! The Beatniks sorely lacks in beatniks. What it does have is a Sinatra sound-alike getting fast-tracked from discovery to cutting a record in 48 hours, and his no-good gang (including an over-the-top psycho) getting in the way of his dreams. Not without its camp pleasures, but it's not good either. The Ed Wood boxed set seems to agree with most people that Wood's golden period ends with Plan 9 from Outer Space, but a year later, he made The Sinister Urge, a hapless crime picture set in the sorry-can't-show-it world of pornography, and I think it should be considered an essential part of his canon. It feels so autobiographical, with its disappointed film maker turning to the world of smut, bit of drag, etc. (plus, Ed Wood himself in a gratuitous fist fight!). Bride of the Monster is still Ed Wood's most watchable flick, the MST3K track takes away its camp sense of grandeur by mocking Lugosi at his most grandiose, but it's still a good riff.


Anonymous said...

We had a Sampo brand TV (from Taiwan) when I was a kid. I was just the sort of nerd who realized there was a Finnish lore joke to be made ... but whom could I possibly make it to? The trials and tribulations of a young Anonymous.


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