This Week in Geek (5-11/08/19)

Gifts

I'm tall, and so when oil or sauce splashes out of a pan, I get stains on my shorts. My good friend Shotgun to the rescue with my first ever apron (I don't know how to live!). It's got cats on it. Now we're cookin'!

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: If there was any doubt at all that Fast and Furious was a superhero franchise, then its first spin-off, Hobbs & Shaw, cements it with a super-powered villain, a secret super-villain that promises sequels, an MCU balance of humor, heart and action, name actors in small roles, and a bunch of mid- and end-credit scenes. For my money, "Shobbs" was one of the best FF movies in the canon, with plenty of crazy fights and stunts, teaming up not just Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham - who make great antagonistic partners (split screens at the ready) - but Vanessa Kirby as well who is building up a very nice action movie resume herself after Mission: Impossible Fallout, and some fun surprises along the way. I mean, if this doesn't set up a Hobbs & Locke movie down the line, I'm not sure we're succeeding as a culture. Complete and utter nonsense and so a lot of fun. Can't wait for the next installment of this particular series so we can find out who's the big bad. I bet it's ridiculous. Anyone want to lay some odds?

At home: Despite my hate/hate relationship with Jean-Luc Godard, I keep being drawn to his films' synopses. I generally like meta and conceptual film-making, but have real trouble with his execution of those concepts. Le mépris (Contempt) is the first one I feel capable of giving a positive review to. It's a good-looking film! And not just because Brigitte Bardot is in various states of undress. It's well-composed, the Italian locations are beautiful, and Godard represents the growing distance between Bardot and her husband (Michel Piccoli) architecturally in the frame. Sadly, from a technical stand-point, the sound is all over the place, with many conversations recorded in echo chambers, then smothered in loud score. Same old Jean-Luc. But despite some pretentious philosophical dialog, the performances are very naturalistic, and the leads are well-supported by Jack Palance as a slimy American film producer and iconic director Fritz Lang as himself. The latter two are trying to adapt The Odyssey to the big screen and have come to blows, so Piccoli is brought in for a rewrite, his wife seems to be a sweetener for Palance, and she's not too happy about it. Much of the discussion around The Odyssey relates to the couple, though I absolutely don't buy into the men's misogynistic hot takes about Ulysses and Penelope's relationship. The rift that develops means to mirror the distance between the Greek hero and Ithaca. An anti-filmmaker to the end, the last few minutes are as unforgivable as they are inexplicable, but I still came out of this appreciating the visuals, the ambiguity, the metaphorical grounding, and the satirical look at Hollywood.

Fritz Lang's Woman in the Moon is apparently one of the first "serious" science-fiction movies, and the almost three-hour silent film did indeed make us of rocket scientists and other experts to present a believable journey to the stars from the point of view of the 1920s. They - surprisingly! - got a lot of it right, but once we get to the Moon, it's strictly fantasy. Perhaps not as fanciful as Georges Méliès' Trip to the Moon, but still completely outside the bounds of even what was known at the time. But the voyage is only a relatively small part of the story anyway. The first act is more of a political thriller, foreshadowing the space race that would actually happen, as Lang slowly presents his characters so that we later care what happens to them (not a given in this genre, as many 50s and 60s films prove). That's where the movie is most lively, in the small character details undoubtedly cut in shortened versions of the epic - a man and his mouse, a ring too large for a finger... - moments that have meaning beyond the purely literal. It's really about a man who wants to get as far away as he can from the woman he loves before she marries another, and how he can't actually escape the situation. As the title suggests, the film's more woke than NASA would eventually turn out to be, and Friede (also the name of the rocket) is the best person on the flight, an active and heroic member of the crew (ow, that arm!), and has a lot of agency even though men attempt to control or protect her at every turn. She motivates the action even if she's not technically the protagonist. Woman on the Moon is long, and it gets less and less believable as it progresses, but it's worth watching as Lang's OTHER sci-fi epic.

Dr. Mabuse is a name I'd heard, a pulp villain who would give Moriarty or Fu Manchu a run for their money (he even went up against Sherlock Holmes in the old TV series, didn't he?), but my first exposure to the character has him pretty much working from beyond the quote-unquote grave in Fritz Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, a sequel to another of his films, adapted from the original novel during his silent period. Shades of M, the film has a procedural bent as police try to figure out the complex crimes being committed in Mabuse's name, even though the master criminal has been catatonic since the events of the first film. His creepy terrorism manifesto is in play though, so is someone following his blueprint for anarchy, or is he running the show from a mental institution. Or possibly... both? We also follow an unwilling participant in the crimes trying to make a fresh start with his lady love, and how they have to get out of one of Mabuse's death traps, a pretty cool sequence. Lang once again presents interesting characters in well thought-out situations, and he pleasantly uses a lot of trick photography to simulate mad visions, but also to create effective transitions. With so many plot threads running, he's also his usual unrestrained self, but while you may wonder if it's all necessary, there are moments even in the superfluous romance that you wouldn't want to part with.

In Lilies of the Field, Sidney Poitier is only passing through when he stops for water in a desert town and gets suckered, again and again, into staying so he can build a church for a group of immigrant nuns. Why he lets it happen changes as time goes on, but is mostly stated through performance (one that won Poitier an Oscar) rather than overt dialog. On the face of it, there's  sweet relationship that develops between Poitier's Homer Smith and the nuns, and the story speaks to the power of community, for which the church is a focus. There's also a darker interpretation, where it's a metaphor for American history. Immigrants try to tame the wilderness, rope in the black man (and later, migrant Latinos) into working for them for free, the sanctuary afforded those people by faith, and a certain emancipation by the end as Homer (the traveler, natch) takes possession of the project and declares his freedom. It's harder to like the nuns when we put this filter on the film, but only from an intellectual point of view. The sweetness, humor and community positivism are all real and heartfelt in the literal story you're watching. A smile during, a heady conversation after.

In The Spirit of the Beehive, I was completely taken by the soulful Ana Torrent. In Cría Cuervos, the child actress plays much the same role - a little girl trying to come to terms with death - and although Beehive's director Víctor Erice is more lyrical than Cría Cuervos', Carlos Saura still has his moments. The only decision I question is to have an adult Ana sometimes narrate the story. In a film where so much is left unspoken and unexplained, this device, while not without interest, feels unnecessary. But the world of memory is certainly at the center of this tale, as Ana walks through parts of her past, memories coming alive without warning, as if ghostly apparitions (indeed, she comforts herself by imagining her mother's ghost). She isn't the only dealing with grief - her relationship with her two sisters is often quite sweet - but it's her we want to watch as she takes control of her world, and presumes to decide who lives, dies, and is resurrected. But as with most stolen season stories, the summer must end, and the power of her imagination must eventually be broken. A well-observed drama, with a haunting (and well-used) score.

I am not as enthusiastic about the third season of Dear White People as I was about the first two, and that's because it feels like a transitional piece. In the first half of the season, the leads are putting off what they should be doing as they often listlessly search for themselves, and while that's very much what happens in year 3 of college, it doesn't make for engaging fiction. They even reject the Volume 2 cliffhanger, at least initially, taking the piss out of conspiracy subplots (I agree, I didn't really want them to go that too well-traveled route) and perhaps pushing a bit too much on the meta commentary about "third season blues" on Netflix. It has me wondering if the writers aren't at something of an impasse themselves. Even the fake TV shows are less inspired. After the mid-point, things get more interesting, exploring privilege from various different angles and repositioning a number of characters for a fourth season. Not without its missteps, but still characters I want to follow to those next arcs.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
Continuing with this actor-driven marathon, we finally reach Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, and a star is well and truly born! Reviewed it before in these pages, so I won't go through it again, but it was fun to revisit it in the company of friends who had never seen it. We'll do Bogus Journey next week.

I don't think I'd seen Parenthood since it came out, and had it all twisted up in my mind with the ill-fated TV series headed by Ed Bagley Jr. in the Steve Martin role (and baby Leonardo DiCaprio in the baby Joaquin Phoenix role - crazy), but I'd retained a lot more than I thought I would. Though there's a weaving of many plots exploring what it means to be a parent, across three generations of the Buchmann family, it's really a collection of funny and dramatic vignette, with cracking, memorable lines, and touching characters. This was my first exposure to Dianne Wiest back in the day, and she immediately melted my heart, in no small part because the character has a lot of my own single mom in her. Steve Martin is funny as a nervous wreck who thinks he's screwing up his kids. Rick Moranis is building a robot out of his little girl, but both he and Jason Robards' cold patriarch find ways to be sympathetic. Keanu Reeves plays one of his Ted-like morons, but might be the wisest character in the piece. Director Ron Howard makes this a family affair on his end as well by casting his father, brother and daughter (watch for tiny Dallas in the crowd near the end). Though my particular life path hasn't made me a parent, I completely connected with this movie (most people, even if don't have kids, probably were SOMEONE's kid once). It amused me and it touched me. One of the pillars of the dramedy genre. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

I Love You to Death as the right elements in place to be a strong black comedy about trying to kill your philandering husband, but it doesn't really work. I think the problem is Kevin Kline doing an Italian accent and more or less acting like a cartoon villain (if cartoon villains went around having sex with everyone). I don't much believe River Phoenix as the boy in love with his wife either. Tracy Ullman playing Kline's somewhat naive wife is on another level entirely. She's real, and touching, and the film's moral center. For comedy performances, we have William Hurt and Keanu Reeves as hapless would-be hired killers, and those bits work in a sort of heightened Coen Bros./Elmore Leonard kind of way. Certainly, the plot isn't predictable, and that's to the movie's advantage, but I Love You to Death falls a little flat. Whether that's the difficult character of the husband, or the way things are resolved in the end, or the difficult-to-believe motivations, I'm not sure. In the watchable column, but I feel like it should have succeeded more given what it had to work with.

Tune in Tomorrow... (AKA Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter) is definitely a weird one. Keanu Reeves works in radio in 1940s New Orleans when he falls in love with his aunt (not a blood relation) and dreams of being a writer. He's mentored by a crazy radio play writer played by Peter Falk (really the best thing about this), who soon starts to steal from their taboo relationship for material, and then blurs the line between life and art by effectively WRITING the relationship. Throw in the truly demented idea that Falk's lurid radionovelas are essentially delivery devices for racial slurs about Albanians, and you'd be right in thinking this thing's pretty unpredictable. Alas, its two competing stories feel incomplete, cannibalizing one another for time. The nephew-aunt relationship lacks proper motivation (especially on Aunt Julia's part) and Falk's character, a sort of agent of chaos, takes up too much time (what with his radio plays being rendered as scenes and all) for what is ultimately an enigmatic pay-off. It's certainly original, but perhaps the novel it is drawn for couldn't actually be successfully adapted in under two hours.

From playing after-school special teens and comedy morons to action star in less than two years? Keanu's does it with Point Break, and his career will never be the same again. This is one I watched and reviewed on the blog already, but let me say it's certainly the slickest piece of film-making he's been in as yet. This feels like big time. The year is 1991, five years after his screen debut.

Visits: Had the chance to meet Rolled Spine Podcast regulars Diabolu Frank and Pakita this week, passing through my fair city on their way to more interesting places. Had a great time, breakfast, a bit of comic book/vintage store browsing (Collector Frank found things he couldn't elsewhere) and bonded over not being the terrible people we play on the Internet.

4 comments:

Green Luthor said...

I Love You to Death was actually based on a real incident, the 1983 attempted murder of Anthony Toto of Allentown PA by his wife Frances, an acquaintance of hers, and two cousins they hired after their first attempt to kill him failed. Probably the biggest liberty the movie took? The four were actually charged for trying to kill the husband, rather than him refusing to press charges. (I'm not sure charging someone with attempted murder is the type of thing district attorneys leave up to the victim anyway.) All four would take plea deals wherein they pled guilty in exchange for reduced charges and sentences. Frances was released after four years, and all three of the others were released within five.

But Anthony Toto *did* forgive his wife, and even asked for leniency at her sentencing hearing. After serving her sentence, the couple did reconcile. (As far as I can tell, they're still together. When the movie came out, they did the talk show circuit; as one would expect, a lot of the interviewers weren't the kindest to them. One exception was Joan Rivers, whose treatment was so appreciated that, after her passing in 2014, they broke the media silence they had maintained since 1990 to offer their condolences. So they were still together as of five years ago.)

Crazy as it sounds, I Love You to Death really was based on a true story.

Siskoid said...

Interesting!

And yeah, you don't press charges in a murder case, the state does!

Ryan Blake said...

Fantastic blog entry sir

Siskoid said...

Thanks Ryan, you're too kind, as usual.

 

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