This Week in Geek (23-29/09/19)


In theaters: Despite feeling like an introspective space drama, Ad Astra is really action-packed and works as an adventure movie in a future very well-derived from the space programs we have now. If there are plans for it, they're in this movie and they feel like exactly what would happen (and how it would LOOK) if we keep investing in space. The realism is perhaps the film's greatest strength, taking its cue from 2001's second act and actively showing us the future, making it look brilliant, and using real physics to complement the experience (the way sound works is especially well done). It's also a father-son story writ large, about a deadbeat dad who left his family and never looked back, and a son who's had to live in his father's shadow and has only nominally learned to deal with it by ignoring it rather than facing it. The entire journey, across an impossible distance, is a therapy session (which sometimes dovetails into narration, a cinema sin when it's all pretty obvious) in a world where space travelers are constantly required to keep in chill. Mental health, one of this century's big concerns, has its fingerprints all over this. And then you can also look at it from orbit and see that questions of isolation and interconnectivity are really broader human issues, and that human pettiness is at odds with human reality in the grander scheme, the need to reconnect with a father really the need to connect with people as a whole, as opposed to seeking something else, something necessarily better to our misanthropic idea of humanity, out there. In the film, that's the cosmos, but in our world, it may be fiction, or hobbies, or materialism, or whatever. Ad Astra is pretty thought-provoking for what is on the surface of it an exciting space adventure. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

At home: Who ever imagined a submarine movie would start in space? That's Ice Station Zebra, a Cold War epic that is... well, take your pick of the available puns... dead in the water? Sunk before it starts? Glacially paced? I normally like procedurals, but in this case, there's so much dead air, I kind of lose track of what's happening in between people looking at gauges. Even the Arctic adventure it eventually becomes is padded beyond endurance. What a shame. All the set pieces are there - sabotage under the sea, a dangerous trek under the ice, a tense parlay with the Soviets - and Patrick McGoohan as a spy (you are Number 6!), but at two and a half hours, it doesn't build up tension so much as diffuse it with its slow burn approach. So we're left with beautiful submarine shots, because everything that's outside the sub, real or models, is gorgeous. The jets aren't bad either. The ice plain was never going to look real, but it's expansive. And the satellite stuff? Well, we can't have everything (in this case, physics). A lot of money on the screen, and it might even be exciting if you cut 30-45 minutes out of it.

Moby Dick in the Cold War, The Bedford Incident reunited Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier in a tense naval procedural in which an American ship captain hunts a Soviet submarine off the coast of Greenland. Hate to compare it to Ice Station Zebra, but I will. THIS is how you do it. It's fast. It's suspenseful. The story is simple but the characters are complex. And there's no easy ending (which didn't bother me in Zebra, but I know a lot of people hated it). Widmark is our Ahab, a war hawk and strict disciplinarian who is running his crew ragged. It's a rich performance, frequently sympathetic, justified in every word and action, whether you agree with it or not. Poitier is our Ishmael, a journalist who acts as moral observer, and might even be able to keep the captain honest. The two leads resurrect the tense chemistry they created in No Way Out without actually harking back to it. And though less than 100 minutes, I still learned a lot about daily life aboard a patrol ship during this era. No fat on this uncompromising thriller.

Following the success of In the Heat of the Night, they went to franchise with They Call Me Mister Tibbs! which... well, which could have been about ANY homicide detective, it just happens to be Virgil Tibbs. It just feels like they pulled some old script from the slush pile, changed the name of the protagonist, and voila. In this alternate universe, Tibbs lives in San Francisco instead of Philly, and he has a family, which he specifically didn't in the previous film. Nor does TCMMT feel anything like ITHOTN. With its lurid murder (pretty much the only interesting piece of direction) at the beginning and funky Quincy Jones score, it feels more of a piece with the blaxploitation genre that was starting to happen, but without the racial stuff - which again is a deviation from the original film. As a murder mystery, it's a lot of red herrings before coming back to the pretty obvious solution, there's a rather uneventful but extended foot chase, and family stuff acting as padding that never really comes together with the rest of the story. Had this been made without Sidney Poitier, Martin Landau and scummy Anthony Zerbe, it would be a very forgettable film indeed. The actors, Poitier especially, make it rise just above that level, even in scenes that could easily be jettisoned like Tibbs disciplining his kid. What a disappointment.

1934's The Man Who Knew Too Much is very much in the mold of Hitchcock's British work, which is to say there's a strain of absurdist comedy running through the suspense story (as in The Lady Vanishes) and is compact to the point of feeling a little disjointed at times (like Sabotage or The 39 Steps). This is a mad tale that includes nefarious dentists and church ladies, a ridiculous chair fight, and an extended shoot-out between the vague foreign agents, the police, and maybe a skeet shooter or two. Hitchcock would remake The Man Who Knew Too Much more than 20 years after this original attempt, and do it better, with more money, especially the Albert Concert Hall scene which here doesn't quite create the same tension, though it does make the orchestra seem like co-conspirators in an assassination. What it has going for it the 1956 version doesn't is Peter Lorre as the head villain. Some worthwhile moments, but all in all, Hitch's own remake is the better version.

Based on a Pulitzer-winning play, State of the Union seems a perfect story for Frank Capra to adapt - an idealist's values are tested when he runs for president. Sounds right up his alley. Despite Capra's moral utopianism, the script bathes in realpolitik and is beautifully written. And though Spencer Tracy gives his dependable best, and Angela Lansbury is great as a cold political operative/media empress, this is really Katharine Hepburn's show. Wow. She plays the candidate's wife, estranged at the outset (Adultery She Wrote, if you know what I mean), but still in love with her husband. A savvy political mind herself, and her husband's conscience. By turns funny, romantic, and touching, you feel every emotion with her. Politically, this is a progressive story that's still relevant today, using a love triangle to dramatize the conflict between honesty and corruption, the stakes of which are the heart and soul of America. I'm afraid we don't live in Capra's world, but it's nice to think we might one day.

Top Hat is basically what would happen if you put Astaire and Rogers' previous film, The Gay Divorcee, into the blender. The plot is a little simpler, but essentially the same kind of extended mistaken identity hijinks, several of the same supporting players, like Erik Rhodes again playing a gay-coded foreigner, and Edward Everett Horton as the nervous sidekick. Those who weren't in The Gay Divorcee appear in the next one over, Swing Time, throwing an air of over-familiarity over the whole thing, depending on the order you saw them in. That said, it's got great songs ("Cheek to Cheek" being the most memorable), great dance numbers (they really are in sync, those two, and the way they get there is a beautiful manifestation of how their instant relationship forms), and amusing comedy bits. Helen Broderick as Horton's wife is quite funny, actually, and was probably my favorite character in the piece. This was a big hit at the time, and it may be THE iconic Astaire and Rogers picture, even if all of them are fairly similar.

Mike Nichols' Carnal Knowledge was originally written as a play, and that's rather obvious. Small cast (an impressive one), mostly people talking, character exploration, gotcha. We follow two college roommates over the span of 25 years (I found this less readily apparent than the film wants me to, however - I would have believed less than 5), focusing on their sexual adventures. An early scene posits that people change based on who they are interacting with, but I'm not entirely sure the rest of the film agrees, or else Art Garfunkel's character melts into whatever relationship he's in, while Jack Nicholson's bucks the trend and rebels against that notion. Or maybe I'm not looking at it correctly, and the idea is better manifest in the way the two friends interact, with frank and coarse talk, as opposed to what they say and do in their relationships. Which one is the act? Garfunkel's Sandy is vulnerable with his ladies, and is only playing the part of a bro, agreeing with whatever is being said at the time. Nicholson's Jonathan is the reverse, playing games with women to get sex, but ultimately, a navel-gazing--no, a penis-gazing narcissist who is only ever about satisfying his libido. The men in this are pretty unlikable at any rate, and the richer, deeper, more effective, and better played characters are the women - Candice Bergen, Ann-Margaret, even Rita Moreno and Carol Kane in their smaller roles. But the movie, like its subjects, keeps abandoning them and returning to the central dicks.

Sometimes you watch a movie and you feel like they could break out into song at almost any moment. Waitress is like that, and I can totally see both why and how to was eventually turned into a Broadway musical. Giving me vibes of Like Water for Chocolate at the start (I want to try all those pies), it's about Jenna (Keri Russell), a woman who feels trapped. Trapped in her small town, abusive marriage, unwelcome pregnancy, and the perceived limits of her role (cue: the title). I could never shake the feeling that it looked like a TV production (in part because it was populated with actors best known for their television work), but the story and themes were definitely those of a feature film. Paradox is baked into this. It's obviously a narrative about a woman coming into her power and throwing off the shackles of the patriarchy, but it's also about contentment, about being happy ENOUGH and leaving it at that. Ambition, even feminist ambition, isn't to be measured with a standardized stick. Men don't come off very well in this, but it's because none are romanticized traditionally. The pregnancy that traps Jenna also gives her the power of motherhood. It's deceptively complex. It doesn't always work - the coda goes on too long, for example, and Andy Griffith's character would be a plot device if he weren't imbued with cranky charm - but it has some great moments, both funny and touching (my favorite is the look of shock scene). Everything points to writer-director-co-star Adrienne Shelly having had a promising career fine-tuning her voice, which makes her loss before the film even came out that much sadder.

Paul Bartel's Eating Raoul is a very weird comedy, and I'm giving it full marks for being a consistent surprise in terms of both plot and tone. Bartel himself and cult actress Mary Woronov play a repressed couple trapped in a world of perverts, their building bustling with swingers, and every male character sexually harassing Woronov in due course. They dream of owning a restaurant, and quite by accident, they start a murder spree, which quickly becomes a revenue stream. Bartel shows us a world of moral ambivalence where everyone, good and bad, is essentially a sociopath, with a lack of mean-spiritedness from the leads the only reason this isn't a wretched experience. Instead, it's absurd and amusing. Also notable is the introduction of Robert Beltran as Raoul, a sexy, confident thief who crosses paths with the couple and becomes a big part of their lives. Looking at this, I'm even more sorry he was saddled with the going-nowhere character of Chakotay on Star Trek: Voyager. He's got a lot more going on here.

Private Parts was Paul Bartel's first feature, and though billed as a cock-eyed comedy, it's much more of a horror-thriller (equally cock-eyed). Like Eating Raoul, this is set in a world of sexual perversion, and much more subversive than the similar Psycho. In this one, Ayn Ruymen is Cheryl, an teenage girl who runs away from home to stay at her older aunt's creepy hotel, but there are (cough, cough) private parts of the hotel from which a voyeuristic photographer takes an interest. Of mild interest until Bartel creates a mix of disturbia and absurdist humor in the peeping tom's fetishistic behavior. I'm not entirely certain he sells the twist ending very well, but you can be sure you'll see things you haven't before. From the two films of his I've seen, Bartel's recurring theme opposes extreme Kink and pious Prudishness, with neither coming off as normal. Given the subject matter and the fact the protagonist is meant to be underage, you may well need a good scrub after this one, but it's more fascinating than it is objectionable.

I hate hotels. Especially if I'm going to stay in one alone. Chantal Akerman gets it. There's something lonely, sad, and a little creepy about hotels. A clear precursor to her News from Home, Hotel Monterey could almost be called a collection of stills, as might be found in a photography book, with the same kind of eye for the interesting shot, if not for the fleeting movement of an elevator door, of a blinking light, or eventually of the camera itself, finally impatient with hotel life and looking for a story perhaps, or for escape to the outside. Like I said, Chantal Akerman gets it. Or perhaps I'm the one imposing the narrative, the film a reflection of my own psyche. That's her trick. Hotel Monterey goes even further than her other "still lives" in that is has no sound whatsoever. We really are looking at picture as if they were paintings of light and shadow, the dingy hotel (what is up with there being no light in the elevator?!) providing the latter, and thus some mystery, in spades.

Mysterious Object at Noon is an experimental film out of Thailand that mixes documentary with fiction by tapping into the culture's story-telling tradition, but goes a step beyond, playing with form, but having different people start, continue and end the story. The director mixes dramatizations of the story, interviews with the story-tellers, behind the scenes moments, and straight documentary showing how people live, and he leaves it to the audience to link all the material into the story being told, and we sometimes do. But it's an experiment that's allowed to fail, not necessarily sculpted into a proper shape. Quite honestly, it's a rough experience, made with poor equipment, more interesting in concept than in execution. But there IS something to it. The story told is less interesting than the people who tell it. I kept going back to just what makes any given person add what they did to the evolving story. Young or old, working alone or as a group, in person or on an answering machine, they are a varied lot, telling a genre-bending story that ultimately makes little sense. But trying to divine their perspectives through the act of story-telling, THAT'S rather interesting.

Still trying to clear my shelf of Doctor Who DVDs I haven't "flipped". Up next was The Mind of Evil, a serial that, until this release, only survived in black and white. Consequently, it wasn't shown as much and I didn't remember it very clearly. It's nice to still be surprised by classic Doctor Who. It kind of shifts gears to get to 6 parts, but has nice production values and a quick pace. My full reviews for episodes one, two, three, four, five, six. As for the extras, we have the benefit them having been made in 2013 when they obviously thought it was going to be released in black and white (as evidenced by the footage in the making of), before they delayed it because of discoveries that would lead to its color recovery. I say benefit because it can include participants that have since passed away, both in that making of (Nicholas Courtney) and the commentary track (which includes Barry Letts, and now we can with sad brow say, Terrence Dicks). Both are great, though of all the production problems, the one I most want to hear MORE about is the thing about the original costume person being sent to jail. What?! There's also a Now and Then feature revisiting the locations, the usual trivia track and photo gallery, and among the PDF materials (which is usually limited to the Radio Times listing, though if you're lucky, you get a Doctor Who Annual), all the art for a Kellogg's Sugar Smacks promotion. Finally, there's a half-hour period documentary spending 24 days inside BBC Television Center showing how TV programs are made. Doctor Who is among them, though all the pieces we see are really from The Claws of Axos, which is the next serial over. Still, a fun little featurette, where you can also glimpse a young Helen Mirren before she was a star.

The Claws of Axos released a Special Edition, like many early DVD releases, and I snatched it up because I'm a bit of a sucker for this stuff. Claws is a psychadelic trip with an unusual monster, but about middling in terms of story, but I think I like it better with every new viewing. My reviews tell the tale about episodes one, two, three, four. As for the extras, you get everything that was on the original 2005 release: The commentary track, trivia track, photo gallery, deleted scenes/outtakes (with optional trivia text explaining what goes wrong in each), a featurette on director Michael Ferguson's maverick work on the serial, a Now and Then featurette revisiting the locations, and the long Easter Egg about line conversion that would seem too technical, but is actually kind of amusing, especially in the context of the Axons. What's been added? Well, a making of, for one thing, which was a gross omission on the original release. Toby Hadoke also meets John Levene (Benton) in a charming interview featurette, trying to figure out if he's really that "out there" or putting on an act. Plus, the earliest surviving Doctor Who studio recording, complete with studio chatter, recording breaks, etc. accounting for 73 minutes of footage that show just how episodes are put together in studio (this is basically where all the outtakes come from, but here in context). Doctor Who fans: We're completists!!!

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
Finally! my two stars share the screen! Behold...

The Devil's Advocate is pretty trashy - Keanu and Charlize twanging up some pretty bad Southern accents, spontaneous nudity, '90s CG morphs, and Al Pacino in full "Hoo-Haa" mode chewing the scenery something fierce - but there's something tha feels relevant in its morality play about Satanic lawyers taking over the world. I mean, they have a millionaire real estate developer who gets away with murder and who lives in Trump Tower (that gold room is unmistakable). Relevant, or prescient? It could have worked without the supernatural element, as a legal drama where a young defense lawyer puts his soul at risk to win an ugly case. And once he introduces that poison into his life, it effectively destroys his marriage. It is a tragedy born of hubris. Once the horror show begins, it all becomes almost too obvious, and the film is pretty indulgent about letting Pacino have his fun and leaving absolutely none of it on the cutting room floor. The climax is exposition-heavy and the final twist a bit of a jerk-around, but the twist on the twist is fun. I remember seeing this in theaters at the time and finding it mildly disturbing in its presentation of evil, especially its effect on Theron's character, and that all still works reasonably well. Wall Street for genre fans.

KEANU'S NOT OUT OF ORDER, YOU'RE OUT OF ORDER! I wasn't expecting much from Between Two Ferns: The Movie, so I can't exactly say I'm disappointed. Essentially a broad mockumentary about Zach Galifianakis' awkward YouTube interview show, taking us behind the scenes to create a cast of characters around him, before pulling a stupid sitcom plot like having to tape 10 videos in two weeks or else X doesn't happen. The main problem is that Zach is a caricature of a jerk and a moron (all characters are in fact morons, some of them are also jerks), and necessary attempts at heart don't really work when you're pushing that brand of comedy. In fact, Ferns realizes the normal heart-related clichés are trite and plays them as parody, which does the film no favors. Truth be told, this is very rarely funny, and then only really in the Between Two Ferns segments, and even those tend towards the "celebrity sits there unresponsive" mold. There are better ones towards the end, but even so, you get more bang for your time by watching the actual show on YouTube. I guess this will remain on lists of films to marathon for fans of the various actors put through the wringer, including Keanu Reeves, a lot of MCU stars, John Cho, Peter Dinklage, Tiffany Haddish, Bruce Willis and others. (One big misstep is having a couple of Parks & Recs stars on, which puts the mockumentary humor of the movie to shame.)
Role-playing: BarD&D Season 2, episode 4... I don't think I've ever done this before, not in a proper Dungeons & Dragons game. I've run dungeons aplenty, but never fulfilled the other part of the game's promise: Dragons. I guess I never run campaigns that go high-level enough that I think dragons are an approriate threat, which is stupid because Bilbo wasn't high-level when he met Smaug. There are ways to meet a dragon that don't involve fighting it to hit point attrition. Our bards are just 5th level, but it was time to get over my apparent hang-up. The dragon was properly threatening and mysterious, and it's bound to be a recurring character. The players actually got through my prep pretty fast and are now making decisions based on the culture they are living in (the tenets of Buddhism, principally), which really does make the last couple games' exposition-heavy material pay off!
Set list - Moondance (Van Morrison), Another Brick in the Wall (Pink Floyd)


Bradley Walker said...

Now that you've seen "State of the Union," how about Spence's other political movies, "The Last Hurrah" and "Keeper of the Flame"?


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