This Week in Geek (26/08-01/09/19)

Buys

I participated in a livestream session from the boys at the Longbox Crusade family of podcasts and quite by accident wound up winning a raffle: two Arkham games for the PS3 (can I borrow someone's console?) and a complete collection of Batman '89 trading cards. Thanks guys!

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Ready or Not, the slasher film based on the school yard game of Hide & Seek, is fun black comedy that takes a shot at the filthy rich, presents them as having made deals with the devil, and of course lacking in empathy as they go through a mad ritual that puts our heroine, played by Samara Weaving, in their crosshairs after she marries into the family. Not entirely unpredictable - you can easily see some of the gags coming, and it would definitely be more thrilling if you saw it without knowing what you were watching - the flick wins you over with its deadpan deliveries and the basic fact that even to the characters, this set-up is absurd. The events are thriller-horror. The reactions are comedy. And it's refreshing to see that not everyone in the family is into it, though these may only be gradations of monstrosity rather than a case of white hats among the black hats. Weaving is quite effective whether in love, in fear for her life, or angry as hell, and well-supported by the other performers (including Canada's own Mark O'Brien who I'd love to see more of on the silver screen, thanks). This one is for anyone who's seen their relationship threatened or destroyed by their significant other's family, the tug of blood sometimes too strong for the pull of love. We've all been there, right? (Body count may vary.)

At home: Hiroshi Teshigahara's first feature, Pitfall, explores what it means to work in a mining town by way of an existential and supernatural crime drama. Blasting us with documentary footage of mining accidents early on, he reminds us that the business is rife with tragedy. As we follow a migrant miner as his young son enter an empty town, we recognize that communities sprouting around mines eventually become ghost towns when the ore runs out, and Teshigahara will play on that pun and fill the streets with ghosts in due course, implying a horrific fate for the dead. When the action moves to the almost procedural investigation of our miner's death - and the odd plot point about a doppelganger who may have been the real victim - I was at first displeased with the shift, but it's all part of the theme. This is, above all, a portrait of poverty and powerlessness, where evil or at least amoral forces act on the characters, pits them against one another, scrabbling in the mud for scraps (like terrible, unsafe mining jobs) to survive. And even that may be beyond them. Despite the supernatural elements, and the director's occasional, inspired, lyrical image superimpositions, this is as savage a piece of social naturalism as you'll find. Bleak, and yet, the absurdity of life does make it a wry and very, very black comedy as well.

Shōhei Imamura's Pigs and Battleships is a piece of social naturalism, but perhaps one with a bit of hope at the end. But don't expect too much of it, seeing as, despite some loopy set pieces you might call comedy, this is essentially a tragedy (and a fairly violent one). The film is set in a port town often crashed by American service men who kind of sustain the economy, one that's also in a stranglehold from low-level, small-town yakuza. Can Kinta and Haruko escape their hardscrabble lives? Do they even have the maturity to go through with it? How far can they be pushed before they break? It's really not your usual gangster movie, closer to the "stupid criminals" genre popularized by Elmore Leonard or the Coen Bros. My only other Imamura film having been Profound Desires of the Gods, I was expecting something much more lyrical and elliptical, but it feels more like a raw portrait of Japan in the era. Some strong photography, but Imamura keeps the maverick shots to a minimum, which probably makes the harrowing sequence of Haruko's "date" with the U.S. service men more shocking. This one's more than a little bleak, and not what I expected of a former Ozu collaborator, but definitely worthy of attention.

Before the war, back when Yasujirō Ozu was still making silent comedies, he won acclaim with I Was Born, But…, and to my surprise, it really does feel like a comedy all the way through (unlike, say, Passing Fancy, which straddles the line more tightly and which I affect more). A family moves to a new town, and we watch its two young boys get up to all sorts of shenanigans, mostly trying to avoid school because of bullies and easy humiliations, though within a few days, they've turned things around, cuz kids are fickle. If there's drama, it's when the boys realize their father is just a wage slave, trying to ingratiate himself to the boss and other co-workers and so on, the pulling of a veil that makes him weaker and less respectable in their eyes. Ozu prefigures this with other disappointments, as the boys' "kid logic" fails them repeatedly and shows them to be just games no matter what idea they convinced themselves of. But if their dad is any indication, they may be playing games and lying to themselves their entire lives. Comedy or drama, it's a child's eye view, well-observed and treated by Ozu. The kids are memorable and distinctive, their adventures perfectly amusing, and the parents are poignant too (you can't be unphased by the scene where they watch the boys sleep).

Joel McCrea plays a movie director who wants to move away from light comedies and make serious pictures about the human condition in Sullivan's Travels, a movie that seems to sell itself on the presence of Veronica Lake, judging from all the posters, though I personally think she's surplus to requirements. The love story is really the least interesting thing about this, and I find that I stopped caring whenever she was on screen. That said, there's lots to appreciate in this flick. It really does start out as a comedy, and a broad one at that, with cartoon gags and pratfalls, as if Sullivan were trying to escape the world of his films. The first two acts are really Pulp's Common People: The Movie, as Sullivan tries to pass off as a tramp so he can learn about real misery, but his privilege gets in the way. Even as he nears his goal, and the comedy tropes evaporate, he still has cards he can play, so he can't ever know what hardship is truly about. He can only ever slum it. Even when the movie gets dark, privilege will find a way. Now, I saw the ending coming because I immediately spotted the flaw in the character's premise, but it's a lesson he had to learn for himself. It's a self-serving one, and if director Preston Sturges wasn't mocking his hero's quest all the way through, it might almost come off as condescending. But the fact is, he keeps our interest with comedy patter, gags, shocks, and the kind of drama Sullivan wants to make, all the way to the end.

1943's The More the Merrier has some fun with the war-time housing shortage by having Jean Arthur pick up a couple of roommates, quite against her will, and letting the laughs and romance dominate her small apartment. She had a spare room, wanted to do the patriotic thing, but was expecting to share the space with another girl. Charles Coburn plays an eccentric old millionaire who needs a place to stay, and he benignly get what he wants, then impishly sublets half his room to Joel McCrae and - the imp! - remorselessly plays Cupid for the rest of the film. It gets a little steamy, the period's censors might say scandalous, but director George Stevens apparently kept it all within the bounds of decency. As a sexy romance, it works BECAUSE they can't go too far. As a comedy, it works, despite a couple of moments of broad physical humor contrasting with the film's normal subtlety, largely because of Jean Arthur. She's terrific in this, playing off the juvenile men who invade her space and later her life. Her sliding double ALONE is worth the price of admission.

Usually romcoms END with a madcap rush to the wedding chapel. The Palm Beach Story STARTS there then jumps ahead a few years to the make-or-break portion of the marriage. The superlative Claudette Colbert decides she has to leave her husband (Joel McCrea), whose ego is easily bruised, because she's a drain on his finances and the reason they can't make ends meet. She sets off on a journey, he'll try to follow, and hopefully they'll fall back in love by the end. Part of the absurdity is that every millionaire she meets wants to give her money (and there are a lot of them), like it's her superpower, and the first act is a bit haphazard in terms of plot before we get to the heart of it. The two leads are really the only two normal people in the piece. They're surrounded by comedy characters, some of which you'll find funny, others not (I think the movie is entirely too convinced Toto the Lothario from a vague country is hilarious, but he's not), and the quick 40s comedy patter is off the charts. Harmless fun, and that ridiculous ending had me slapping my knee until it bruised, with a loud "sure, why not!".

1932's The Most Dangerous Game suffers from being too well-known. Not the RKO movie, perhaps, but the short story it's adapting. Or maybe not even that, but the fact the title has entered the English idiom so we KNOW the big twist the first half of the movie is building to. The most dangerous game is man, and Great While Hunter Joel McCrae is going to become the hunted on a mysterious island own by a pulp/gothic supervillain called Count Zaroff (an effective Leslie Banks), and Fay Wray's gonna scream her head off as the romantic interest/damsel in distress. At 63 minutes, the film is efficient, yes, but doesn't allow anything but the island environment to be explored with the kind of depth necessary to make the adaptation to rise above its simple plot and moral. McCrea's character seems unphased about all his bestest friends dying in a shipwreck. Zaroff doesn't act true to his strange ethos by hunting a drunk man. It's all so thin. The race through the jungle, at least, is well realized, and Zaroff's final demise has a macabre viciousness to it at least. But without more emotional context for what happens, that violent last act doesn't grab me as much as it should.

Marathon Man starts out as two movies. One is a drama starring Dustin Hoffman as an anxious graduate student possibly looking to exonerate his dead father of crimes he didn't commit, finding love in the big city, etc. The other is a spy thriller in which jet-setting Roy Scheider hunts Nazis and tries to fend off assassination attempts. When the two crash together, Hoffman becomes the common man thrust into circumstances out of his control. Unfortunately, this convoluted - and sometimes contrived - plot really doesn't work. Much of the time, I was wondering what the heck was happening and why. Before Hoffman gets entangled in the story, everyone knows what's happening so they don't tell the audience. Afterwards, we know just about as much as he does, which isn't much. Quick bursts of information come late and don't really smooth over the cracks, and we spend too much time on his real-world problems to see them sidelined in this way. There are suggestions that it all ties together somehow, but no satisfactory closure (perhaps unless we read the book). Tonally, it aims for 70s malaise cinema, but also includes cartoonish comedy sequences. It's like watching a bunch of good set pieces from different movies. There are some great moments of suspense - the two confrontations between Hoffman and Olivier, for example, and the Nazi thugs trying to get into Hoffman's bathroom - and some gorgeous cinematography, but the messy story-telling did this one in for me.

It's its procedural feel that ties Straight Time together, whether it's showing how parole works, or the ins and outs of pulling off simple robberies. It all feels very real, in no small part thanks to the naturalistic acting, but generally things happen the way they might, without movie formula barging in (like, where's the big police chase you'd expect after the Hoffman's character goes on the run?). It is, after all, based on a real ex-con's experiences (Edward Bunker's), so it's bound to reality more than most crime pictures. Of course, it also means the structure is as two-toned as an old car. In the first half, when Dembo is trying to legitimately follow the rules of his parole, is more engaging, I felt, than the crime wave that followed when he gave up out of sheer frustration. There, the film painted a sympathetic picture of the man, and without over-egging the pudding, showed how the system was sort of cheering for him to fail. The second half has naturalism trump all, and say the jaded parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh) was right about Dembo all along (is that said, or is that correct?). It features various crimes, so has less direction, though the last act is pretty terrific, and though Theresa Russell plays a love interest that's difficult to read, she's also part of this realistic world and feels like a real person. Of the great cast (which also includes Kathy Bates' first screen role), she most caught my eye. Speaking of cinema history, former burglar Edward Bunker is in this too, and will become a recognizable if infrequently-used character actor in movies like Runaway Train, Tango & Cash, and not coincidentally Reservoir Dogs (as Mr. Blue), which was apparently influenced by Straight Time.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha is much too didactic to be a great film, but I did find it interesting. I think your mileage will vary based on how familiar you are with Buddhism (sweet spot may be "just enough to get the stuff that's not explained, but no more"). I, for one, know the basics, but had no knowledge of the history/myth of the Buddha. Told as a continuing story at various points during the film, it proved to be one of the highlights and I could have done with more. Keanu Reeves plays Prince Siddharta who will become the Buddha, which plays to his screen persona, but is also an unfortunate instance of blacking up for a part (Indian is NOT part of his mixed heritage). The main story has Tibetan monks trying to find their reincarnated teacher, a quest that brings them to America where a little boy might be a candidate. The boy's parents, played by Bridget Fonda and Chris Isaak give mumbly, unemotive performances, and I don't think we ever care for their problems. Much more affecting are the monks (including a number of real monks in those roles), and when I am touched, it's because of those characters. In the end, Little Buddha fails to strike the balance that leads to enlightenment. It over explains one thing, and under explains another. It sets up characters it then sidelines as if forced by the rules of a biopic (which it isn't). It teaches about Buddhism, which is fine, but the frame tale isn't strong enough to make it work as a film. And it's name stars are just okay, while non-actors steal the show.

Speed is probably the best Die Hard clone ever made. The high-concept idea for a hostage trap is fresh and they get a lot of mileage (heh) out of it. The problems to make it the worst situation ever, and our heroes are clever and daring in their solutions. So while I do like the elevator prologue that sets most of the characters up, the last act train ride is surplus to requirements. It feels like the true climax is Jack and Annie finally escaping the bus, and the rest is merely a plot necessity, except the best is all behind us. And still, all the actors are great in this. It was a star-making role for Sandra Bullock who immediately captures out attention. Keanu Reeves is as cocky here as he was in Point Break but more pleasant. Jeff Daniels makes me wish he'd done more action flicks, and Joe Morton plays a police captain that ISN'T an obstructionist (which is fresh in and of itself!). And of course, there's Dennis Hopper being Dennis Hopper and it's highly entertaining, man! As for director Jan de Bont, he builds the tension very well and even gives the film a visual beauty that could be cousin to Bigelow, Besson or Hong Kong. De Bont was always a better cinematographer than director (he filmed Die Hard, not coincidentally), but here everything falls into place to create a literal thrill ride. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

And we've done it! 1995... Charlize's career begins and I'll start alternating between her and Keanu so we get to their first film pairing at exactly the right point! Exciting! Even though Ms. Theron's first role is a tiny one. To wit:

I did not feel like I needed to watch any other movie in the franchise before checking out Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest, in part because their things are barely connected - kids in the Midwest worship a Stephen King demon that kills adults on their behalf, that's all we need to know - and mostly because I'm only in it to catch a shot of Charlize Theron in her first screen role. There are three such shots, and no spoken lines. She's one of the villain's followers, appearing one of nowhere as a close-up in church, then vaguely running for her life in the finale. Inauspicious beginnings. But while we're here, we might as well talk about the movie itself. As a horror flick, I will admit it had a few good gags and kept my interest, though it's not anything I would call "good". I guess my main gripe is that the evil kid high priest Eli is played as the smart-mouth kid on a Saturday afternoon sitcom. The video look of the movie and the older teen lead playing basketball and getting himself a girlfriend subplots sure doesn't help, nor does the hand-waving concerning his business works as the dad tries to sell Eli's magic corn. I dunno, maybe making it look like kiddie entertainment is subversive, in a way. I just don't think they did it on purpose.

As the purest examples of cyberpunk put to screen, I really want Johnny Mnemonic to be better, but no, I can't even watch it with nostalgia glasses on. I guess one of the problems with cyberpunk is that it's immediately dated - computer culture has grown in ways that were not exactly expected, never mind the hardware - but calling it a retro-future 2021 is more than ok. Like Blade Runner, it has inklings of film noir, but only inklings. A classic car here, a costume there, but it doesn't really stick to any aesthetic. Or if it does, it's the dystopian trope of making stuff out of garbage, which just makes the movie look cheap. As an action movie, it's ropy as hell. The actors look so uncomfortable with guns in their hands, it looks like they're kids play-acting, and the physical fights are done with fast cuts, or they're not and look terrible. Dina Meyer is probably the least convincing, especially once she randomly abandons her costume to look like the girl next door. Dolph Lundgren's character comes close to greatness as a sort of cyber-priest assassin, but he's no better served by the haphazard direction and lamentable script. Really, much of my boredom comes from the lackluster dialog, but none of the actors except Lundgren seem interested in delivering it, least of all Keanu. And then there are the 90s computer graphics. While I'm normally very forgiving of this kind of thing - we have to put technique in the context of its time - the voyages through the Internet are just ugly and messy. It makes the climax irritating and hard to understand, so it's a failure on that count as well. Sorry Johnny, but I need to dump this particular memory packet.
Role-playing: BarD&D is back up and running and the band is heading for the Forgotten Realms' equivalent of Tibet. You can see how watching Little Buddha might have been helpful this week. I hope I didn't overdo it with local color, but I did want this trip through the East to feel culturally distinctive and, excuse the word, alien to the Player Characters. There is some borrowing from Lost Horizon, to be sure (players trying to guess the movie led to the best inside joke and a fantasy fight sequence between Mongols and Shaolin monks in the style of West Side Story). And it was always going to be a lot of set-up because everything that's gonna happen in the next 10 sessions or so really starts here. I wanted a large canvas for "season 2", as opposed to a string of short stories. I think it went well.
Set list - Wipe Out (The Ventures), V'la l'bon vent (Lizzy Hoyt), Kung Fu Fighting (Carl Douglas), Fly (Anu), You Need to Calm Down (Taylor Swift), I Want to Break Free (Queen), Yakety Sax (Boots Randolph), Nepalese traditional instrumental

2 comments:

Ryan Blake said...

Grand stuff

John said...

"The first two acts are really Pulp's Common People: The Movie"

Great description.

 

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