This Week in Geek (8-14/07/19)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: There's a lot to unpack in Ari Aster's Midsommar, but let me start with its central metaphor. Florence Pugh's character loses her family in the prologue, and in visiting a Swedish friend's commune, is embraced in a way her own "support group" cannot approach. The pagan festival, extreme though it is, offers catharsis, unconditional empathy, apparently magical understanding, and a shedding of a "false family" that is proving toxic to her. In the ashes of the past, she will be reborn. Flowers blooming is a major motif. It's a long film, but it was so absorbing, it didn't feel like it. The boys who begrudgingly drag Pugh on this trip are all anthropology students, so it's perhaps natural that so much of it unfolds as a kind of documentary on this specific cult's rituals and traditions. My friend Isabel wondered if the character types were meant to mirror tourist attitudes - one an "ugly American" who pisses on what's sacred, another seeing cultures as something to be studied rather than experienced, a third traveling so he can bed girls from different countries - and I like that. It leaves Pugh as the traveler who is changed by her experience, not a "tourist". The film is beautiful to look at too, and in the way it presented mysticism reminded me of Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain - the colors, the angles, the symmetry. Disturbing more than it is scary, Midsommar is also plenty funny, and not just in a nervous laughter kind of way. The village's odd practices create a pleasant fish out of water scenario for both the characters and the audience, even after there's been some gory violence (there's not a lot of it, but a couple people did walk out when it started, so it's gruesome). This is the second Florence Pugh movie to come out this year, and I have to end by saying I'm quite taken with her. Would seek out more of her performances based on the last two.

John Denver's "Country Roads" has been used in many films - we remember the 2017 trifecta of Logan Lucky, Kingsman 2, and Alien: Covenant - but its best use by far is in Studio Ghibli's Whisper of the Heart. The Japanese version stays with you (and "Concrete Roads" isn't bad either). This is a very down-to-earth anime from Ghibli, about a middle school romance between a bookish girl and the violin maker who seems to take out all the same library books she does. It's very sweet and innocent, and in that way fulfills the promise of the fairy tale made by the poster. That and the hilarious fat cat that leads Shizuku to her fate. I'd loved The Cat Returns which is a semi-sequel to this film, but that's total fantasy. The Cat Returns is really a story Shizuku might have written. The films make for fun companion pieces more than prequel-sequel. Whisper of the Heart may be romantic in a juvenile way, but its aspirations are greater. It's about developing a passion for art, something that shines through in the craft of the film itself. Almost every scene takes place in every day Tokyo streets and living quarters, but there's always something to look at. It's common for the animation to be praised, but I really want to highlight the background paintings, stills though they may be. There is a LOT of detail on show, composed like film, but messy like life.

At home: The original 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers may be the prototypical Red Scare sci-fi/horror film, but it's nowhere near and dear to me as the 1978 remake is. We could argue the latter was a more universal story of urban isolation, and that the kind of manufactured paranoia about Communism really doesn't touch us anymore. But it's more than that. The suit-ordered frame tale saps a lot of its power, kills the mystery and removes any kind of existential terror the ending might have otherwise provided. And for a paranoid thriller, it's not all that paranoid, as we don't adequately get to know the people who get replaced by pod people, nor do they seem all that different when they are. Other alien infiltration films of the era (Village of the Damned, for example) provide more chills. You know, sometimes I think about this premise and wonder if it can't be upended. Are we running from the homogenized Commies (which is propagandist fiction), or from the witch hunt mob that wants you to be like them, white and American? There's more than one color of sheep. But the fact the hero is called McCarthy (wow) tells us everything we need to know about the film's intent on that score. I respect it for its place in movie history, but it hardly rises above its '50s B-movie roots.

1945's Vacation from Marriage (also known as Perfect Strangers) is kind of a public service announcement, in a way. By presenting a married couple who are changed by their experiences in the Royal Navy during World War II, it is sort of a comforting manual for people coming back from the war with similar feelings. I say comforting because the timid, boring couple played by Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr is changed for the better by their war experience. That may not always be the case, but they didn't grow apart so much as parallel to one another. And we see them change from dull but dependable, to decisive and adventurous people through the film, the anxiety over their reunion years later kept for the third act. The audience is in the know, so it kind of plays like an ironic comedy, but their expectations may well destroy their marriage anyway. Topical upon release, I don't think it's necessarily lost its relevance, and not just because people still go to war (here, the result is a bit of a romantic fantasy), but because people naturally change over time, and the message of the film is less about how the Wilsons changed so much as how they never properly communicated who they were in the first place.

For some reason, I thought Hitchcock had remade Sabotage as Saboteur, but no, they have nothing to do with one another. Saboteur was one of his "falsely accused man" stories, while Sabotage really follows the actual saboteur, the clueless people in his life, and the copper trying to stop him. The year is 1936, so this isn't right off the heels of Hitchcock's silent films, and yet it feels like a bridge between silent and sound. What he learned in one medium - in particular the use of silence - is used to create tension and mystery in the other. Worth watching on the basis of technique alone. There are a number of interesting supporting characters, another Hitchcock staple, like the pet store man, to enliven things up. What drags the film down somewhat is John Loder's detective. What an absolute ass. He thinks he's the hero of this story, but he's too much of a jerk for that. No, the real draw is Sylvia Sidney as the saboteur's young wife. It's all on her.

Pickup on South Street is a nasty little Noir in which a pickpocket lifts the wrong wallet, gets a hold of film being passed along to Commie spies, and a heap of trouble along with it, as police and Reds alike converge on him. There's honor among crooks in this, but no good guys. Even the cops are iffy. But the film is populated by interesting and distinctive characters that you get to care for them anyway. Chief among these is Thelma Ritter who's shtick is being great in movies, but I don't think I've seen her THIS great. Jean Peters is hot as hell, even if we can hardly believe any of her romantic entanglements - the time frame is too quick for any of these feelings to develop, but then again, she's really into toxic relationships. And I guess it works because there's no character more toxic than our "hero", Richard Widmark's slick but brutish thief. Lots of suspense. Cracking dialog. Shocks and surprises. Strong but unobtrusive Noir cinematography. And in a lean 80-minute package too. Recommended. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Every time Imitation of Life (1959) has something interesting to say, it turns its head and forces us to watch the trite melodrama of Lana Turner's character trying to make it big (or bigger) on Broadway and her love affairs. It's a real shame. The only thing of any real interest here is Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), a fair-skinned African-American girl who can "pass" as white resenting her mother played by Juanita Moore. When Sarah Jane is a little girl (as the movie spans more than a decade of soap opera), we get glimpses of this, but then the false-sounding Lana drama takes over every time. I do wish the film would do more with the friendship between Turner and Moore's two mothers, but there's something more than off-putting about Moore's character happily acting like a servant to the family and calling the woman who is ostensibly her best friend "Miss Laura". I mean, the movie knows it's at least in part about race relations and racial identity, but look at that poster or how far down Juanita Moore is in the credits. There's about a half-hour of intriguing, progressive content, but the rest is quite dated. Sappy to a fault, I felt like it was trying to wring tears from me through the last act, but it felt so scripted and overwrought that I actually shouted at the screen in frustration a couple times.

Humphrey Bogart is as good as ever in Dead Reckoning, playing opposite lispy Lauren Bacall lookalike Lizabeth Scott, but the convoluted plot really takes its time coming to the point, wasting time on plot points that never really make sense. Par for the course in Noir stories? Sometimes. But where the villains don't mind killing off side characters, they'd rather knock Bogey out and put him back in his hotel room so he can keep putting his knows where he shouldn't. And then there's the Noir conceit of starting the story in medias res so the hero can lay down some colorful voice-over, but though the monologuing is good, they never do anything with the priest Bogey confesses to. Lovely last image, but it's unearned. On the one hand, it feels like Bogey is a paratrooper for no other reason than to justify that shot, and on the other, it doesn't make sense to superimpose it on a character who WASN'T a paratrooper. Watchable, but its Noir tropes don't really come together very well.

1943's Sahara plays like a survival/adventure movie more than a war movie for the first half, as dependable leader Humphrey Bogart tries to get his tank crew threw the desert, meeting other lost souls along and being very ethical indeed despite waning rations. The stand-out is most definitely Rex Ingram as the Sudanese soldier Tambul (who director Zoltan Korda had previously cast as the genie in The Thief of Bagdad), but J. Carrol Naish as the Italian POW and Louis Mercier as Frenchie also evoke a lot of sympathy. The Germans in this, however, are total assholes. Always interesting to watch a MID-World War II movie and see just what public opinion was about this side or that. The Nazis are clear villains, racist and treacherous where the Americans and British are painted as noble and humane. Italy seems to be forgiven, perhaps on behalf of Italian-Americans. In the third act, the war stuff really kicks in with a huge, protracted standoff, where the heroes get to be bold, clever, and in a position to sacrifice their lives for their brothers. A well-made desert warfare movie.

Broadway Melody of 1940 is my first of that series - I could never get into the generic titles these musicals sport - and it's because Fred Astaire is in it, obviously. The thin plot has Fred being discovered by a Broadway mogul, but he thinks the man is a bill collector so he gives him his partner's name, thus denying himself the chance to be a star and a show with his current crush played by Eleanor Powell. Ooops! To his credit, even after he finds out, he is never less that supportive of his partner (George Murphy), and I think their friendship is a highlight of the film. But it does mean it takes an awful long time before we get to see Astaire dance with Powell! Once they do, there's a lot of magic there, including a couple of the best dance numbers of their type put to screen (if you like marathon tapping anyway), but the movie often takes a break to showcase some novelty act - juggling, comedy, etc. - which I think must be part of the Broadway Melody format. I'm not that keen on movies acting like variety shows, even fluff musicals.

Glenn Ford is as always perfectly cast as the dad trying his best in Ransom!, a movie that unfolds like a procedural about a kidnapping and how the family, police, media and community react to it, and that could be a single-set play. It doesn't just show and explain what would happen, but discusses the ramifications of giving in and paying a ransom, and those of not doing so. Ford's solution is unusual but clever, and while he's always good in the film, his broadcast message to the kidnapper is a real stand-out. I've recently discovered Ford really elevates what could be so-so movies for me. He's well supported, mind you. Leslie Nielsen is the knowledgeable reporter embedded in the home. Juano Hernandez is a strong presence as Ford's butler. And Donna Reed gives a high-strung performance as the mother, though the stupid 1950s trope of giving women tranquilizers cut they can't take the pressure rears its ugly heads and robs us of her for most of the film. Boo. Juanita Moore also putters around in the background, wasted. They make it Ford's story, and on that count, it delivers.

Cold Turkey has a really fun premise - a tobacco company offers 25 million dollars to the town that can stop smoking for 30 days, with no expectation it could ever happen, until one pastor organizes things in a desperate town... The results are variable. As a satire, I really like it. When it attempts other types of comedy, not so much. The performances are often broad, and the physical comedy loud and obnoxious. But yeah, as a satire of American culture, it doesn't so much take aim as lob a grenade in its general direction, so it'll hit targets you want it to hit. I especially liked the Libertarians' hypocrisy, myself. It's a little weird to see a town so addicted to cigarettes because smoking has gone down quite a lot since 1971 (at least, in the circles I navigate), but while a noble idea to quit this vice, the ensuing media circus opens the town up to other vices, to greed, even to fascism. You don't know whether to cheer on Dick Van Dyke and his town, or Bob Newhart's tobacco executive. Cold Turkey's opinion is that people are terrible and its cynical humor grew on me. Brilliant final shot clinched it. I could have done with more Road Runner/Coyote back and forth between the principals, and less shouting, but I'm generally glad to have seen this oddball movie.

Let's Make Love is a flighty thing, one whose comedy never makes good on the promise of its absolutely loopy prologue, and you're never really going to make me care that he top 1% can't find true love because the money gets in the way. That said, this is all about Marilyn Munroe singing and dancing in the sexiest possible musical numbers, and being gorgeous, innocent and wise besides. I love her in this. Yves Montand is variable as the billionaire playboy trying desperately to pass off as a poor actor so he can get Munroe's attention, funny at times, but the film's fear of making unsympathetic (he is, after all, using his money to trick himself into a girl's pants) often flattens him out. He's too nice and serene to be funny. Fun idea to make him pay for theatrical mentors that are Hollywood stars playing themselves, but the low point must be Milton Berle teaching him comedy. Maybe it's of its time, but I can't imagine anyone thinking Uncle Milton would put this obnoxiously unfunny performance on his reel. But Marilyn! Wow!

So... The Seven Year Itch... Does anyone actually think this stuff happened? Tom Ewell is a shlub with too vivid an imagination (same as his kid), a real Walter Mitty type, so no, I don't believe ANYTHING after he crosses paths with a beautiful girl in the stairwell happens as shown, or at all. The principal clues are: Marilyn Munroe's character never gets a name, Ewell talks to himself constantly as if we were hearing his inner voice, Marilyn Munroe herself is REFERENCED... This is all one big fantasy built on the clues that have gone before (damn that Vegan waitress putting nudism in his head), and "The Girl" is merely a composite of the girl in the stairwell, a girl in a commercial, another in a saucy picture in a magazine, and movie star Marilyn Munroe. It's a fantasy in which both his dreams and his worst nightmare about infidelity appear to come true, and it's ridiculous on both ends, self-serving and anxious, and full of crazy coincidences that only really work if it takes place in his mind. If you remove that notion, you'd be right to find it sexist, with an underwritten heroine in service of a plot that barely redeems Ewell's nervous character. But I think Billy Wilder is too clever to leave it at that. I think this inception theory has to be right. Beyond that, there are some scenes that lack pacing (the first "date" for example), but I chuckled quite a lot too. Ewell is great at physical comedy, Marilyn has her bubble head shtick down pat, and those cutaways (fantasies within the fantasies) are hilarious. Better than its reputation, the more I think about it, the more I like it.

Laura is more mystery than Noir, though it is definitely rooted in the latter genre, with its deadpan, hard-nosed detective (played by Dana Andrews) and Gene Tierney as the specter of a femme fatale (alluring, but could she be guilty of something). Violence is implied, but brutal in its descriptions. Psychological warfare seems to be Andrews' best weapon. If I think of it as a mystery first, it's that it is well focused on an investigation, and if you're paying attention, you can probably figure out who did it (I mean, I did, and I'm not a whiz at that sort of thing). Noir is often convoluted and you lose the plot. Not to say Laura isn't, but the mystery is always clear the way it's put together. The twist in this one is that the detective falls in love with the murder victim, basically from descriptions of her. There's an angelic side to her he is drawn to, but that may turn sour the more he finds out. Commentary on idealized male projection through the Noir lens. And look! Vincent Price is in this as a dashing romantic lead! Great presence in a role we would now find atypical for him.

Satyajit Ray's debut directorial effort, Pather Panchali, is all the more remarkable for having been made by a director and camera operator that had never picked up a camera, with a cast of non-actors (indeed the central family is a real family, but for the older version of the daughter), and you can't tell. Beautiful photography, sensitive direction, a fresh reality that borders on documentary... The 1955 film focuses on a poor family in an equally poor village in the Bengal region of India, but this is really a mother's story, and her struggles with trouble-making children, a lazy husband, a mooching ancient aunt, a decaying house, and the specter of tragedy on the horizon. As we get to know the family, we also discover that part of the world. Ray gives no indication that he ever meant Western audiences to see this, so traditions are not explained, just shown with the assurance that the public will understand. It gives it an anthropological bent from our perspective, and an immersive feeling. Pather Panchali means Song of the Little Road - small human moments exalted to cinematic greatness - and it's a slow road too, less narrative (read: plot) and more portrait. When Ray gets to the end, I felt like he did so definitively, then added an epilogue, which gave us an even better ending. Then another epilogue that I didn't need, but it sets up sequels in which Apu, the boy, grows up and stars. Call me intrigued.

Lucky Night is pointless fluff, but when it comes to Myrna Loy, I don't really care. She's a delight. Robert Taylor's easy charm makes his bohemian gambler is a good match to her heiress who wants to make it on her own. The first act does everything to signal a fun '30s comedy, with Loy acting as a surprise lucky charm to Taylor, and off they go, whisking each other off their feet with smart patter and crazy situations. After that though, the film turns into a mild drama that contrasts domesticity and adventure, and how to reconcile the two - i.e. what got you into the relationship in the first place vs. what it's become. That's no terrible ambition for a film, but I don't think we buy Loy's switch from heiress to working woman living with little means to penny-pinching housewife. I was singing Pulp's Common People almost all the way through, and then comes a resolution that's all too pat. Lucky Night is fun for a while, and here and there after that, but it doesn't know what it's trying to say, if anything, so it mostly coasts on the talents and charm of its two leads.

An indie film from New Zealand, Chronesthesia (also distributed as Love and Time Travel) was written, directed, edited by Hayden J. Weal, who plays the lead in the film, a guy who starts getting messages from the future while he sleeps, apparently from himself. Following the clues puts him at the center of the Web of Fate and makes him not only connect with people like never before, but create connections between others. It's a low key picture about the kinds of good deeds a person might do if they had time travel/precognition powers. It also features a sweet romance, a sweet friendship, a credible depiction of mental illness, and a wonderful use of Wellington and the surrounding region as an evocative, beautiful place. A lot of unknowns - Weal's greatest claim to fame is being a double on the Hobbit movies - but they do a good job. Watch for Wilderpeople/Deadpool star Julian Dennison in a small role though. A lovely surprise all around.

Set time machine to post-2000 Wellington. Keywords: Strange romance. An underpowered bully. A road trip. Cohen Holloway.

Taika Waititi's first feature, Eagle vs Shark, doesn't quite work for me, and to my surprise, that's down to Jemaine Clement's character. This is a romcom about two extremely awkward people, meant to make you cringe. Loren Horsley's shy girl sort of blossoms once she's in a relationship, but it's hard to accept her devotion to Clements' jackass. I've known people like him, and there's possibly something poignant about this man-child who lies to prop himself up and is a constant disappointment to his family (and himself). I only say possibly, because we don't see enough vulnerability or heart from him. This is a relationship that can only be maintained by her. And perhaps that's true to life, though his extremes veer on caricature for me. Mind, there was a lot of truth in the film. Meeting someone's family and bonding with them more than you do your significant other? Been there, done that. The not-really-funny, not-really-well-done, not-really-interesting stuff normal people take part in also felt quite real. So I'm giving it a middling score, but a high middling, if that makes any sense. I suppose I like Clement so much, I was disappointed by his single note. Horsley, however, is pretty wonderful. And Waititi is just stretching his legs, getting ready for better things.

Books: Daniel O'Mahony's first Doctor Who novel (first novel entirely) is Falls the Shadow, in the New Adventures line, and it has intriguing origins. He apparently based it on the rumors that were circulating in the 80s about the serial Ghost Light, and I was going to say it feels like a mangling of Ghost Light in premise if not result. There's a weird house that reminded me of House of Leaves. There's something buried beneath it (but that part of it falls really short). And the story is very literary in approach, but I would say it manages to be at once more straightforward and more opaque than Ghost Light. O'Mahony is a master stylist, and he produces a lot of great prose even if his themes don't always shine through and his Doctor is a big of a wet firecracker, not quite able to resolve the problem of reality crashing in on itself. Some nice meta moments, but the villains' glee at being in a Doctor Who story is eventually smothered by their sadism. I'm reminded of the controversial The Man in a Velvet Mask, O'Mahoney's First Doctor adventure which I (also controversially) liked a lot. It also had a metaphysical, underside of the universe, element, and an interest in sadism. The former is way more interesting than the latter, but it takes too long to get there. The writer was reportedly asked to cut 100 pages and a lot of the more extreme violence, but he could have cut more. Still a good read on style alone, and on the metaphysical consequences of time travel, but it wastes a lot of time on side characters, hallucinatory descriptions, and torture porn.

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