This Week in Geek (19-25/08/19)

Buys

Got About Time vol.9, covering in more depth than ever needed NuWho's fourth series (plus specials), which makes me realize I never finished vol.8. Annnnd What We Left Behind, the long-awaited DS9 documentary, on DVD.

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: All I knew going in was that Blinded by the Light was some kind of Bruce Springsteen jukebox musical, so I was confused that the movie would start with a Pet Shop Boys track. Well, you gotta give our hero Javed time to discover the Boss, and then it becomes the soundtrack of his life. Taking place in 1987, in Thatcher's fascist-leaning Britain (oh how we've grown), its musical landscape pre-Bruce (from Javed's point of view, I mean) is pitch perfect. I didn't grow up in Britain, but I was in high school at the same time as these characters, and it was synthland. Though there are a couple of musical numbers - played as real, Javed keeping his outsider status by not having everyone joining in, though some might, and there are some fun tributes to 1980s videos too - I wouldn't call this a proper musical. Rather, it's a coming of age movie where music inspires a kid to follow his dreams and escape his dreary industrial town and throw off the shackles of a strict family life. Well-trodden ground, right? Is this the same old formula? Well, yes and no. First, it's helped along by a diversity voice, as Javed and his family are Pakistani. Set at a time when the UK has, for the first time, a large teenage population of UK-born second-generation immigrants allows us a peek into what amounts to a youth subculture, and the cultural differences between parents and children are well defined. There are times when Javed's love of Springsteen goes overboard, and the movie becomes Bruce this and Bruce that, but I feel like that's exactly what it is to be a teenager and having discovered something you love (whether that's music or something else). The teenage obsessive without snobbery, just sincere and over-earnest (and it's contrasted with other characters), feels real to me. And whether it's that sincere passion, or the father-son stuff, or the scenes with the parents alone because that's a side worth understanding... it got to me. And it got my cohorts in the theater. Not a dry eye in the house. By turns silly, and funny, and tragic, and upsetting, and touching, and of course filled with great tracks (Springsteen and not), Blinded by the Light is a movie that asks you to leave your cynicism at the door and remember a time when you could totally, genuinely, unabashedly love something and be a nerd about it and not care.

At home: Funny Face is like the only Audrey Hepburn musical not to dub another singing voice on top of her performance, but it's perfectly fine! Come on, later movies! It's also her FIRST musical, beating My Fair Lady to a Pygmalion story by seven years. Of course, it's the silly trope where she's supposed to be less-than-beautiful until she gets a make-over, but it sort of works because she plays it as an intellectual philosophy student who doesn't care about such things until she meets Fred Astaire's witty fashion photographer, so the transformation is more psychological than physical. And besides, it's just supposed to be a silly romcom with fun musical numbers. On that score, it delivers. From the ridiculous opening number "Think Pink!" to the amusing three-hander "Bonjour, Paris!" (with Kay Thompson) to Astaire's matador dance to Hepburn's iconic beatnik jazz number, there's lots to enjoy. And though it ends on a race-to-the-airport cliché, the romance concludes on a satisfying note in one of the most idyllic spots ever filmed.

Paris When It Sizzles is a little known and under-appreciated Audrey Hepburn comedy in which she plays typist and muse to William Holden's playboy screenwriter who must come up with a script in less than two days, but is more concerned with seducing her. It's a send-up of movies in general, of movies of this era in particular, and of Hepburn's own films on occasion, filled with meta-text that's especially fun for cinephiles. Holden is surprisingly funny as a complete narcissist, and since more than half the action is watching his movie unfold in flash-sideways, it's fun to hear his "voice" in every character's mouth, spewing his opinions about the story and about themselves. We get a sense early on that his formula is also that of the movie we're watching, and there's a certain joy in that back-and-forth, though the second act sometimes forgets itself, lampooning various movie genres and being silly for silliness' sake. But ultimately, it's a movie that knows it's a movie and has fun playing around with conventions, calling out cameos that then happen, and doubling back to call itself out when it deserves to be. And the chemistry between the romantic leads works too.

If 1933's Footlight Parade is a musical, it really makes you wait for it, only dribbling out a short number somewhere in the middle and showing some rehearsal shenanigans for the length of two acts. But as a fast-talking comedy about James Cagney going mad trying to put on a dozen shows simultaneously so theater can stay afloat in the wake of talky moving pictures' popularity (and cost efficiency), with a couple of romantic subplots thrown in, it's pretty fun. The main cast - Cagney, Blondell, Keeler and Powell - are well supported by amusing eccentrics like the easily-convinced boss, and the movie's MVP, the miserable, pessimistic dance choreographer. It coasts on its frenetic energy and then the third act hits. Three, back-to-back, and totally impossible musical numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley, one of which must surely be the best water-based musical number of all time. I can't even. And for pre-Code enthusiasts (of whose number I count myself) will be keen on the sheer amount of innuendo throughout (including in the musical numbers, though the word innuendo is perhaps too soft for it).

I basically watched 47 Meters Down to convince myself not to spend money on the sequel (which turns out has nothing to do with the first one except they're both underwater survival flicks with shark jump scares, so I might not have bothered). Mission accomplished, though it provides a fair distraction. It's just not much of a story, is all. There's only one character with much of a background, and that's Mandy Moore, the "most boring" of two sisters who is goaded into getting in a cage and dropped into a feeding frenzy with her adventurous sibling, despite her (well-rendered) panic attacks. There's no much of an arc, even for her, and I feel like the movie really needed more of an epilogue to bring us back from its third act, which jerks us around like it's a shark that has us by the leg. All the other characters are pure vanilla, with nothing to bring but their function in the situation, even Matthew Modine who, as the dodgy boat captain, isn't much more than an exposition machine. And the sharks are just kind of there, sometimes aggressive killers, sometimes completely absent, as the script demands. Interesting problem, but because the film doesn't play fair with the audience, I can't really recommend it to anyone but the most ardent fans of the subgenre.

Mister Roberts isn't as edgy, but it feels a lot like the Navy version of M*A*S*H, with its P.A. announcements, enlisted personnel filling the boring waiting periods with shenanigans, and in Henry Fonda's title character, someone who writes weekly letters to get transferred away (shades of Klinger's Section 8 schemes). Mr. Roberts' problem is that he wants to see action, but he's trapped on a supply ship run by an unreasonable James Cagney and a crew that grows more and more frustrated as the war goes on. There's light comedy throughout and the film makes use of a wide cast, though the only real support players are the wonderful William Powell, at the end of his career, and Jack Lemon, at the start of his (and yet he feels fully-formed as a performer). It's almost like a passing of the torch. So a very watchable film, with real heart, but quite decompressed. Every scene goes on a bit too long or has a little too much air in it, so where it would be a cracker at 90-100 minutes, it feels overlong at 123. But in a way, that reproduces the sailors' experience, doesn't it?

In The African Queen, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn go down an African river to escape WWI German troops, but also - and I never think this self-imposed mission is ever justified - sink a German boat patrolling the lake down-river. It's an adventure film, so a bit of a picaresque - never my favorite story structure (it's just one damn thing after another), but we're really watching this unlikely couple fall in love, so it didn't bother me too much. Bogart is symbolically associated with the wilderness, imitating animals even when he doesn't mean to, while Hepburn is a prim minister's sister and serves as catalyst for his spiritual betterment. But his wildness changes her too, unfetters her. We really are watching an osmosis of sorts, the evolution of a relationship in a pressure cooker (at this is a steam ship, after all). There's certainly something more going on under the surface and I like that, and my expectations were nicely confounded by the two leads not exactly playing to type. And it ends on a wonderfully romantic moment as well.

A Fistful of Dynamite (AKA, ridiculously, Duck, You Sucker) is, on the surface of it, Sergio Leone's take on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - even Morricone's score seems inspired by it - but it's also a great master confidently playing around with tropes and defying expectations. As the weird score suggests - Morricone uses electronic sounds and silly voices in it - this is a (black) comedy dressed up as an action epic set with tragic leanings. It's just so much fun watching Rod Steiger's bestial Mexican bandit never get what he wants. He and James Coburn's dynamite-happy Irish terrorist are terrific, starting almost as parodies, and gaining more and more humanity as the film progresses. And above all, this is a very visual film. Leone loves extreme close-ups, and lingering on looks for longer than anyone might expect. It makes for a long film, but a lush and beautiful one. And man, all those explosions! My only complaint is that some of the accents made certain lines hard to decipher. When discussing Leone's oeuvre, this one should come up a lot more.

Just getting into Buster Keaton, but I can see why people think he is more technically proficient than Chaplin, but lacks his humanity. It's his lack of facial expressions, probably. But yes, in terms of film-making, Keaton is really very precise. Case in point, 1926's Battling Butler (that's the same year, in which he plays a rich bachelor who falls in love while on a "camping" trip, but gets mistaken for his namesake, a violent boxer. Shenanigans ensue. I've read people think of this as a mid-tier effort, but I quite like it. It's not gag-heavy, but it makes up for it with a good story that has a couple twists and isn't reliant on some kind of tangential set piece to pad things out, as is so often the case in silent comedies. And if Keaton isn't very expressive, he's very well supported by the sweet Sally O'Neil and the film's true MVP, Snitz Edwards as another "battling butler" (no caps, though I realize he's more appropriately credited as a "valet"). A fun romcom that doesn't always go the way you think. Happily so!

Getting into trouble trying to impress a girl seems to be THE standard Buster Keaton plot, and so it is with The Cameraman. He plays an unassuming photographer who gets into the news reel game to impress a secretary at just such a business. When he's doing the inept but heroic cameraman shtick, it works. The second act, an extended date with his beloved, while not without its charms, doesn't interest me as much. It's really just a sequence of events that show how absolutely inconsiderate and rude people are in the big city, to the point where the setting irritates me and I can't enjoy the comedy. I would have personally excised the gurning cop, and trained monkey stuff has never been my cup of tea. I was all set to call this one over-rated when the well-directed third act kicked in, filled with action and various twists (and yes, strong monkey acting, I admit it). Though I was impatient with the middle there, the movie left me in a good mood.

It's kind of fun that Spite Marriage doesn't feel like silent cinema because it has matched sound effects, though they do tend to get a little broad as time goes on. I'm not a big fan of this one. On the one hand, we don't really want Keaton to end up with his dame du jour, a spoiled actress who is thoroughly mean to him (going so far as to marry him as a jealousy trap for her actual, cheating, boyfriend, as the title implies). Second, it feels like one of those comedy vehicles that changes tack (that's a pun, you'll see) in every act to open the door to whatever shtick set piece the director or actor has devised. First, Keaton sneaks into a play where he ruins the show, then there's the marriage of convenience, and finally, some stuff on a boat that more or less resolves things the same way The Cameraman did the previous year. Now, each of these sections has something to offer. The theater stuff the funniest; the boat stuff the most heroic (and full props to Dorothy Sebastian for doing a lot of the physical stuff). But I was often left wondering what such and such a piece was doing in the story. (And I still find it off-putting when the North is portrayed as the heavies in a Civil War scenario, which the play within the movie is needlessly about; that's the second Keaton movie I've seen to pull that move.)

Sherlock Jr. is, to my mind, Buster Keaton's masterpiece. It has to be. It is inventive, and clever, and delightfully meta, and a love letter to cinema and the power of imagination, and a keen adventure, and a sweet romance, and there isn't one moment that isn't entertaining as all get-out. And best of all, it's a tight story, everything connects. I wonder what was in the reel's worth of footage Keaton took out after a test audience's lukewarm reception, but perhaps its economy is part of the joy. In this one, Buster is a lowly projectionist who is framed for a theft he didn't commit that puts his relationship with his fiancée in jeopardy. That night, he falls asleep in the projection booth and has an out-of-body - and into-movie - experience where he finds himself on the screen, and later the detective hero of a dastardly mystery. This is a film that would not be possible with anyone BUT Keaton. It requires his incredible - I want to say, superhuman - precision. Never mind the cool bit with the editing, I don't know how he did all that with the pool table! So yes, this one sold me on Keaton's genius, and I know see all his other work in a brighter light because of it. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

It takes a while for Seven Chances to pick up speed - there's an awful lot of set-up to get through first in Buster Keaton's inheritance comedy - but once it gets going, watch out! Keaton's character stands to inherit a fortune if he marries by 7 PM that night (for [REASONS]). Good thing he has a sweetheart who loves him. Well, his awkward proposal doesn't quite charm and he's off trying to find Mrs. Perfect SOMEwhere, ANYwhere (way more than seven chances, by the way). Or at least that's what his lawyers want him to do. While the romantic misunderstanding is laced with sweetness, it's not until the third act at the film goes from ok to awesome, as Keaton stages another of his amazing chase sequences, racing against a horde of brides, dangerous rockfalls, and whatever other vehicular problems he cared to design for the film. It's a long and stupendous sequence that saves the film from its more mundane early acts. Shame about the black-faced characters, but the ending triumphs even over that. (Still, my usual warning is in effect.)

In Steamboat Bill Jr., Buster Keaton plays the over-educated (read: wimpy) son of a gruff riverboat captain who wants him to man up during a river war with a more modern boat threatening to drive the little guy out of business. Complication: Junior falls for the daughter of his father's rival. Sometimes, Keaton seems to be more interested in crafting a good comedy story or situation rather than something to hang slapstick sequences on, and I don't necessarily mind that. The first couple acts tell a universal father-son story, and there's a Romeo and Juliet feel to the romance, but here, I do admit it needs more physical humor (well he didn't entirely direct it). In any case, Keaton always seems to reserve the best for the third act, and there he stages an eye-popping hurricane sequence that is probably very nearly as dangerous for him as it looks. Lots of destruction. Lots of stunts. And it's going to resolve both the romance and the father-son troubles very neatly indeed. Another good bit of fun, worth sticking with.

Ingmar Bergman's only horror film is Hour of the Wolf, and it's - no surprise - an ambiguous one. Is the artist haunted by horrific visions he feels compelled to paint actually under threat from demons? Or is he at crossroads in his work and life where his personal demons are keeping him awake? Is his wife sharing in the hallucination, or is she proof it is really happening? And so are the vampiric people in the castle merely creepy eccentrics, or are they tempting and humiliating shadows, or all in his/their mind? Can we even trust the artist's diary, and its shocking violence? Or does he talk about his feelings in images, as an artist might and none of it is to be taken at face value? This creates a rich, atmospheric piece which is really about the artist (whose work is never shown because it could never equal what is said of it, good choice) choosing between his art-fueling angst and real life, as represented by his very practical wife. And yet, she's in many ways the main character, playing detective as to what is happening to her husband and feeling him slip away, desperate to understand him, to know a certain osmosis with him. Bergman so often dramatizes one's existentialist inability to truly know the other, so it's difficult to think of her as sharing an illusion with her husband, and so the monsters must be real... Levels and levels and levels...

Moving right along through my as-yet unwatched Second Doctor Who DVDs is The Moonbase, an adventure that cements the Cybermen's presence in the Doctor's Rogues' Gallery. The two missing episodes have now been animated and they look a lot better than other animation efforts, much smoother. Other extras include a pretty standard making of documentary and a photo gallery, and of course some fine commentary from people assembled by Toby Hadoke, whose crusade to talk to everybody ever connected with Who is proving important to how well these come off. Of special note are random interviews, both new and archived, layered onto the animated episodes, including chats with writer Kit Pedler's daughters, and some old sound from producer Innes Lloyd. If you're interested in the specific reviews, you'll have to go back to 2012: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 (1 and 3 have been slightly updated to quickly cover the new animation.

Two episodes are likewise missing from The Ice Warriors, but I don't think the animation is as successful, the characters moving too much like paper dolls. I do appreciate the difficulties, of course, and there's a DVD extra that discusses them. The animation team also rendered a vintage promo we have the sound for, in which the characters explain their place in the plot on the next... Doctor Whooo. I didn't even know they made those! Is it a one-off? Also on the DVD is an adequate making of (once again the commentary track is where it's at - as with Power of the Daleks, there's an insightful section devoted to Troughton's son and biographer, Michael - but the people assembled in the studio misremember things or have wrong-headed opinions about climate change, sadly), and a dryer, but still useful subtitle trivia track. Plus, Deborah Watling and Frazer Hines' intro to the VHS version, with the quick 15-minute reconstruction of episodes 2 and 3 that was included on that release; a photo gallery, of course; the oft-seen Design-a-Monster bits from Blue Peter that aired during this time; and some more of Frazer Hines' anecdotes from working on the show (fun stuff I hadn't heard before). Here again, I reviewed each episode separately long ago (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6).

Used to be, the only extant episode of The Enemy of the World - in which Patrick Troughton played a dual role in an atypical Bondian story smack dab in the middle of the so-called "Monster Season" - was episode 3. Not a bad episode to have, as it had a wonderful one-off performance of Griff the Pessimistic Cook, and that could be found on the Lost in Time DVD set. In 2013, the BBC recovered the entire serial from a station in Nigeria. The WHOLE thing. I'm sure fans would rather have had Fury from the Deep (although be careful what you ask for, you never know), but it's still amazing to get to see "new" classic Who at this point in time. The Enemy of the World has a bonkers plot that gets worse and worse as time goes on, but also some terrific effects we could never see before, and of course, the restored Troughton performance, which is precious in and of itself. Perhaps that's why BBC World decided to release it without any extras whatsoever. That thrill should be enough. Unfortunate, because as this is the first one Barry Letts directed, and he'll become producer of the Pertwee era, which LOOKS A LOT LIKE THIS, I feel like there was a story to tell there. Guide books will have to do, I guess. I've tweaked my reviews for the occasion: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.

The Web of Fear, which followed directly on, is given the same treatment. Again a shame because this is the most complete Yeti story we have, so an extra on the furry robots should have been a given, and the first appearance of one Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, so Nicholas Courtney deserved some love too. Speaking of the Brig's first appearance (before he was promoted to Brigadier), his very first episode is the only one still missing from The Web of Fear. Sadness! Because he's really great in the episodes recovered in Nigeria. So heroic. The missing episode is covered by a full-length reconstruction at least. You know, the Great Intelligence has returned in the new series, but we never got New Yeti proper, despite some cool designs leaking onto the Internet at the height of the show's popularity. Anyway, if you'd like an episode-by-episode review, here are handy links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
Gus Van Sant's follow-up to My Own Private Idaho was Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which was similarly imbued with LGBTQ+ themes and experimentalism, not to mention several of its stars (Keanu, River, Udo) appearing in small parts or cameos. In fact, there are TONS of big names in bit parts and cameos in this, to the point of absurdity. So it's really too bad the film doesn't really work. On paper, I should be all over this. Uma Thurman plays a girl born with giant thumbs and wanderlust that make her the world's greatest hitchhiker. She perhaps finds a home on a ranch run by lesbian terrorists called the Cowgirls who take care of almost extinct whooping crane. The theme of extinction/creating a new world order, for good or ill, seems central, as perhaps a metaphor for upending gender norms (and sexual orientation/identity), but it's not always clear. The main problem is really the acting. Most of the characters seem disconnected from what they're saying, as if reading straight from the novel, perhaps for the first time. From the great prose that makes up the occasional narration, I'd say Tom Robbins' book is a lot more fun than the movie adaptation turns out to be. Pushed too far into philosophical fable territory, it lacks the humanity to make me care.

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