This Week in Geek (22-28/04/19)


In theaters: This will be my attempt at a specific spoiler-free review of Avengers: Endgame. I will tell you that one of the things I desperately wanted going in was for Hawkeye to come into his own and be as great as he is in the comics (my favorite Avenger, in fact). And I got what I wanted. My favorite sequence in fact involves Clint, which made up for years of the character being misused in the MCU. Other than that, well, it's gotta be the culmination of 20+ movies, and those who went and did a big, inclusive marathon will feel like they didn't waste their time. I didn't, but the back references and ultimately achieving closure with what was set forward in Phase 1, never lost me. The Russo Brothers strike a good balance between a certain funerary feeling post-Thanos, and the kind of comedy people have been enjoying from this macro-franchise, with some surprising twists along the way (and of course, some not so surprising). The hype had me fearing for another Battle of the Five Armies, but while the fights are big, and yet full of little moments for everyone, they really don't really feel THAT long. In the end, the dreaded bloat IS perhaps felt, as the climax must be followed by plenty of epilogue if Endgame is to really resolve everything. By then, the tears should come (our theater was very sniffy), and the film certainly gives its stars the proper curtain calls. Truth be told, I found this finale extremely poignant from the first scene, and didn't reserve my tears for the final reel (only the outright sobs). THE movie event of our times, and it didn't disappoint. (The FW Network is planning a spoilery reaction podcast, and I'll be on it, so for more, check that out later this week.) FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

At home: While I'm normally intrigued by what biblical side stories got the epic film treatment, The Silver Chalice fails on too many levels to warrant recommendation. It's the movie you think you want to see because it's Paul Newman's first, but he's as much a cardboard cut-out as most characters in the story. In fact, the story of the silversmith who forged the Holy Grail (but not really, he's tasked with making a fancy chalice AROUND the original cup) is the least interesting thing about this, and really doesn't go anywhere. If you jettisoned all that and made it only about Simon the Magician (Jack Palance) and his bid to become the next Messiah using magic tricks, you might have something. The character is extreme enough to justify the film's weirdly abstracted sets and costumes. Unfortunately, the film has to return again and again to Newman's character and his boring problems.

Barabbas tries very hard to be Ben-Hur, following the same structure, with very similar story beats. While it will never have the production values of that film, I think I like Barabbas a little better. Both biblical epics use a side-character briefly intersecting with Jesus' crucifixion, then go on a tour of the Ancient World, but whereas Ben-Hur is a fictional character, Barabbas is directly from the New Testament, the thief whose life is spared on Passover instead of Jesus'. He's not just a witness, he's a participant, and the film explores a possible fate for the man who was saved on the day of the Christ's death. I am very interested in biblical anti-heroes like Barabbas and Judas, and what it may mean to be part of God's plan (for Jesus had to die for the sins of Man) and yet be held in contempt for it. Barabbas becomes a kind of metaphor for how Man is saved by Christ, the first to be, in a sense, and though his heart is hardened against the Christian message by a seeming curse, an inability to die at the hands of Fate (as the trappings of Classical faith lose power, perhaps), leading us to a spiritually ambiguous ending where being resigned to the only faith in town is good enough to earn one's place in Heaven. The movie seems to drive itself into dead ends several times, but it holds on to its central theme well enough, and though it's no blockbuster of a chariot race, the gladiator stuff with Jack Palance as a nasty champion is still good stuff.

Take The Philadelphia Story and turn into a bubbly musical mostly played for laughs, and it still works. That's High So, that's High Soci, that's High Society! The original was an acting showcase, but this one has its own great performances. I don't normally think of Grace Kelly in terms of comedy, but she's hilarious in this. Though it doesn't push on its themes quite as hard as the work it's based on, it's still the story of a perfect socialite needed to break her own mold and daring to be flawed in public, so self-reinvention is at the heart of it, for both the character and the actress. And then there's the relationship between the mother and the younger daughter that's a scream, and perhaps a look at how the elder was raised to become who she is. Crosby and Sinatra glide through the film effortlessly as shades of themselves. Celeste Holm is very sympathetic. Lots of cracking lines, and pleasantly sung songs. One of my favorite bits, however, is Louis Armstrong and his band as a sort of Greek chorus with the ability to guide the events emotionally. Great conceit. So while High Society is a remake, the tone is so different that it doesn't feel like a repetition. I liked both for their own virtues.

Philo Vance is no Thin Man, but I'll probably watch William Powell in anything. The Kennel Murder Case is his fourth Vance movie, an intriguing locked room mystery where everyone is a suspect - the dead man seems to have decided to piss off everyone in his life on the same day, and indeed, it looks like pulled an Orient Express on him - and Powell effortlessly moves from room to room, and suspect to suspect, gathering clues and revising theories. Pleasant enough, though it only really works as a how-done-it, and not a whodunit. See, when everyone could conceivably have a motive, and everyone could have probably pulled off the complicated crime as Vance describes it, then you could film four or more endings, like Clue, and they would all make about as much sense. Underwhelmed by the solution, or let's say that part of the solution, but not a bad way to spend a little over an hour until then. Warning: Fake violence towards dogs.

One Way Passage is tragic romance between the natural pairing of William Powell, as a just recaptured criminal being deported to a death sentence, and Kay Francis, as a woman dying of an unspecified illness. Both secretly. I feel like the image of the broken champagne glasses could have been on the poster, as it tells there story elegantly and efficiently. This could be quite melodramatic and even dour, but the actors have such easy-going screen personae that you'd rather feel their elation at having found each other, rather than focus on the bleak endings that await them. The "one way passage" isn't just a reference to the cruise ship they're on, but you're allowed to hope for them to change their destinies. There's also some levity to be had by a couple of grifters who help our lovers and have their own side-stories. Sometimes these are a little broad, Frank McHugh's drunk shtick especially, but he also got my biggest laugh, so no hard feelings). Pleasant and touching, even at a short 68 minutes.

When we think of Charlie Chaplin, we think of physical comedy, but The Gold Rush is so much more than that, it's also a grand adventure, with snow storms, ruthless killers, enduring friendship, and romance. It's not that there isn't a comic filter placed on top of it, but the adventure elements are at least as well crafted from a cinematic point of view as the comedy. It's a wonderful production with vast snow scapes, frankly acceptable special effects, a house that teeters on the edge of a cliff, and the cartoon threat of your hungry roommate mistaking you for a giant chicken for good measure. The weakest part of the plot is probably the unrequited (or is it?) romance, but only insofar as your liking Georgia goes. But while it may not be a devastating love, I think it rings true. There's the front she puts up for her friends (including a jealous boyfriend), and then there are those moments where she's acting/reacting separate from them. That's where you'll find the real Georgia, and how the finale becomes acceptable.

Sunnyside has Charlie Chaplin's tramp working at a country in the village of Sunnyside (he cooks an egg early on, is this a pun?), and bears some similarities with The Gold Rush - in particular, the idea of sharing quarters with an odious character, unusual cooking methods, and having to fight someone for the girl - but of course, the surroundings are much more mundane. Great opening, but the tramp gets kicked in the butt a little too much, and you start to lose interest after a while. The mid-point features a wonderful little fantasy sequence that I thought would send the 41-minute trifle into new realms of whimsy, but alas, it's not something that sticks around. We're soon back at the inn, where people are mean to Charlie and the slapstick gags are a little more run of the mill. As for the romance, it's quite thin, and relies on a twist at the end just to make it interesting. I don't really buy it. Some fun bits, but it's really more of a sketch (pun intended) of greater works to come.

You could almost believe Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot jumped right out of Mon Oncle and into Trafic, in which the light slapstick figure is a car designer and has all sorts of trouble getting the ridiculous new design out to a car show in Amsterdam. The film is of course an excuse to weave comic sequences about car travel - car trouble, traffic jams, accidents, being stopped by customs, parking, road rage, etc. - which is perhaps why I don't quite like it as much as other Tati films. I famously don't drive, but more than that, Tati's usual reliance on noises means the movie is almost wall to wall car and highway sounds, which tend to annoy me. The subject matter also robs the picture of the nicest part of any Tati film, the contrast of the modern with the quaint and traditional. Though the "camping car" is an echo of that idea, we only really get back to that theme around the hour mark, when people start getting out of their cars. And yet, there are a lot of nice observations, and plenty of amusing physical gags, and if I took off points for the above complaints, I restore them for the gorgeous cinematography. This may be Tati's most beautiful work in terms of framing, color and scope!

Structurally a prototype of sorts for Mullholland Dr., Lost Highway is a recursive neo-noir thriller that many have found frustrating for its lack of answers, but dream logic, magical realism, and psychological resonance put various interpretations well within reach of the open-minded audience. Given the crushing normalcy of Bill Pullman's life at the top of the film, everything else is a noir fantasy fueled by his jealousy, up to and including his identity schism, reverting to a younger self (note how the cars and styles are all over the place) better suited to resolving the fantasy heroically rather than violently. And yet, the fantasy is also real. The cops really are after him, he really does get a message from another time, and so on. But it's psychology manifest. The time loop is only ever himself reflecting on himself, and resolving the psychic trauma of his jealousy, to either lay things to rest, or inflame them further. If the noir elements AREN'T a fantasy, then you can see Bill's transformation as a psychological break made flesh, literally wanting to be someone else, and yet consistently haunted by who you really are. In any case, a torrid dream-like thriller that, like the protagonist's story, doubles back on itself but never circles a conclusion.

Set time machine to American desert country, 1997. Keywords: Neo-noir. Highways. Driving in the middle of nowhere. Strange people. Jealous husbands. Sex in the worst places.

I'm not an Oliver Stone fan, quite the opposite. With U Turn, I find a director that is completely out of control, perhaps not as excessive as in, say, Natural Born Killers, but slapdash and often getting in the way of the story that should be told (not to say the script doesn't have its own problematic excesses). It had potential. Sean Penn's low level criminal Bobby, trapped in a small Arizona town while his car gets fixed, meeting all sorts of crazy characters and getting slapped down by Lady Luck at every turn, initially works as black comedy. Unfortunately, it doesn't know when enough is enough, and becomes as ugly as it is relentless, with a couple of mean twists too many. See, it's never made clear WHY Bobby should suffer all these indignities. It's never earned. There's a sense that had he splashed a little soda on the ground early in the film, respected the land, etc., everything might have worked out, but none of that really connects, just like the half-formed idea of giving every character a totemic animal (is it me or does Oliver Stone hate cats? Maybe that's why I instinctively don't like his work). Everything is just out of reach, a tease not unlike J-Lo's femme fatale's. Is the medium/style the message, then? At times, I can't tell if I should respect this tic-laden monster or just hate it, so I'll come down in the exact middle. It was interesting, but deeply flawed, like a Coen Brothers movie that lost its way in the desert.
Some classic MST3K movies, regardless of comedy commentary... To make The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?, it looks like director/star Ray Dennis "Cash Flagg" Steckler watched an Ed Wood movie and decided to follow the model, except he's far less coherent. There's a 20-minute story in here, but it's supplemented by way too many gratuitous musical numbers and home movie elements. The unduly generically titled Gunslinger has a cool gender-swapping premise, with a female marshal and a female villain, but wastes it with inept plotting, cinematography and acting. If you told me it was a TV pilot, I might find it mostly acceptable. If Deathstalker and The Warriors From Hell (Deathstalker III) were anything like its D&D adventure poster, we might have something. But no, it's really just people with perms running around the woods, an exercise in miscasting. The Beast of Yucca Flats correctly intuits that it can't be trusted about looping dialog, so it's shot without sound, then boringly narrated over or dubbed over people looking away from camera. It INCORRECTLY intuits that Tor Johnson turning into the Hulk after a bomb blast (how can we tell?) is in any way engaging. Incoherent and unwatchable. The Atomic Brain (AKA Monstrosity) is limp, slow, wannabe-tawdry brain-swapping B-movie nonsense that at least has the villains go after each other entertainingly in the end. And I've reviewed Gamera vs. Barugon (the Japanese version without the dumb voice-over) before, of course, but the MST3K stuff is worth it for Tom Servo's crazed kaiju playset ad.

Comics: I was happy to Kickstart a Sally the Sleuth collection, but I really didn't know what to expect. I just tend to help finance everything Bedside Press comes out with, especially in the realm of "comics history preservation". Such projects to date have been reprints of Canadian Whites, but not Sally. This Adolphe Barreaux creation was created to enliven the pages of Spicy Detective, a pulp magazine that dealt in sex and violence. As such, these two-page strips a full of women falling out of the dresses (they tear so easily!), Sally included, and some fairly gruesome material on occasion. But here's the thing. Though Sally almost always ends up in her undies or less, and may be threatened with sexual violence, she's not written as a victim. Despite the "Sleuth/Slut" pun the title seems to be making (and there are a lot of very naughty double-entendres), she's loyal to the Chief of her investigation bureau in love as in business, and is just comfortable with her body, that's all. It makes what could be scuzzy material feel light and positive, if that makes any sense. Later in the volume, the strips lose some of their efficiency as their page count doubles or triples, and the move to color comics removes all the nudity from only somewhat lurid tales drawn by other artists (including one by Wally Wood). It would be true to say I enjoyed the tight stories of the original format better, but on the whole, I liked this delve into a forgotten page of comics history (as detailed in Tim Hanley's foreword).


Anonymous said...

"The Beast of Yucca Flats" makes me laugh harder than almost anything on earth -- Tom Servo's voiceovers for Tor (the lonely goatherd song, the Marlon Brando) elevate some very poor source material into high comedy.

There is a chain of Italian restaurants around here called Carrabba's, and I always wished they'd done a commercial with a hungry Jerusalem crowd shouting "We want Carrabba's! Give us Carrabba's!" and the Roman officials mishearing it. So then the commercial cuts to "This week at Carrabba's" and whatever special they are currently running. At the end of the commercial, they cut back to Jesus on the cross, saying "I should've known they'd want more than loaves and fishes!" and then he makes a "boy was that ever silly of me" face.

I read "The Infinity Gauntlet" when it first came out, and it very much suffered from being a miniseries that was careful to not upset the status quo. The movies are willing to tell a story that not only goes somewhere, but it brings quite a few characters to a proper end of journey, and I have to respect that. Marvel was smart enough to put people on their movies who actually love the medium and want to deliver quality, while DC has been letting Ayn Rand devotee Zack Snyder chart the courses of their heroes; the results speak for themselves.

John said...

Speaking of Sunnyside the movie, have you read Sunnyside by Glen David Gold? It's a historical novel about Charlie Chaplin and the rise of Hollywood, and while I didn't like it as much as Gold's previous novel, Carter Beats the Devil, I did enjoy it quite a lot, and your fellow comics blogger Chris Sims called it "Sunnyside is the single greatest work of fiction ever published in the English language," though he is perhaps a little biased.


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