This Week in Geek (9-15/09/19)


In theaters: I don't necessarily know if It Chapter Two is a good horror film or not, but I thought it made for a fine black comedy, in no large part thanks to the talents of Bill Hader and James Ransone, and perhaps accidentally, because of the monsters - I just find them silly rather than scary. But calling it a comedy shouldn't sound like a dig, as I was entertained, and it didn't feel like an almost-three-hour movie. This, despite redundant scenes (each character needs the get the same phone call, each character has to find an artifact and face Pennywise alone, not to mention flashbacks from the first film to catch us up). There's a recurring gag about bad endings (and a character who, because this story is unresolved, has a problem with endings), and you're wondering if it's a poke at Stephen King, at the TV mini-series, or if it's supposed to deflate (ha, a balloon joke) this film's, but the latter was fine. I found the kids to be much more interesting characters, because the adults are really just playing the straightest line to their future selves with no real surprises, but that's the point. It is about childhood trauma we forget and yet has necessarily shaped us. Chapter One had a little more going on, but this extreme group therapy pleased this non-King fan sufficiently.

At home: I'm not a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe, but if you're going to put Vincent Price in straight adaptations of his stories, I'm bound to watch and like them. (Fall of the) House of Usher is the first Roger Corman/Price/Poe collaboration (the latter, say it with me, from beyonnnnd the gravvvve) and while a little quiet (in respect to Rodrick Usher's sensitivities), it's a beautiful production half-way between Val Lewton and Hammer Studios, the shiny blue figure of Winthrop popping out against the dark reds of the Usher House like a beacon of light, and the more lurid elements kept for the end. Myrna Fahey seems to have been cast because she's a dead ringer for Elizabeth Taylor, at a distance. As with Bucket of Blood, Corman shows he knows his art, and Usher's paintings are gorgeous and perfect for his character, as opposed to the kind of boring portraits you always see in movies. But ultimately, this is Vincent Price's show, delivering Poe's lines with that voice of his, and giving a serious performance worthy of the literary work.

I'm a sucker for time travel movies anyway, but Time Trap is actually pretty good for a the kind of cheaply-made SF that ends up on Netflix. A cast of characters are investigating a system of caves where time doesn't flow at the normal rate, and at first, it plays like a horror film. We've got disposable teens in a dark environment, they might start dropping like flies at any moment, even some knowing nods at Blair Witch Project. And they're initially a little slow to catch up to the audience in terms of understanding and accepting what's going on. And then things start to get loopy and it turns into well-produced science-fiction, and it's no longer going where you think it's going. It's never going to win prizes for dialog or acting, but it leans into its premise 100%, which I was expecting. I may even be designed that way, so as to create cheap cop-out expectations and then subvert them. After all, you're pretty convinced it's just a stupid slasher film dressed up as time travel until things get more interesting.

Decades before lampooning Hitler in The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin was taking potshots at the Kaiser in Shoulder Arms, and winning World War I practically by himself while at it. In this early (1918) not-so-short (45 minutes), the Tramp enlists at the tail end of the Great War and experiences vignettes of trench war that feel like sanitized tall tales soldiers might recount at the kitchen table upon their return, and at no point does it become a case of War Is Hell. And that's fine, especially in light of the loopy ending. If there's a loose narrative here, it's that of the Tramp progressively becoming more heroic and jaded, and eventually getting into shenanigans that take him into the Kaiser's proximity, and into the arms of a French girl. Amusing enough, though not as sharp as later films. The Great Dictator will be grand satire. Shoulder Arms is mostly about kicking diminutive Germans in the arse. It was apparently Chaplin's first big hit. TOPICAL!

When I watch A Dog's Life, I'm constantly reminded of The Kid. Chaplin's inner city seems to me a coherent universe between those two films. A seminal Tramp film, he just can't catch a break even though he wants to find work and love, he's no slacker. His life is juxtaposed with a stray dog's, and eventually the two become companions. Good dog acting too. My nerd glands were activated by the dance hall being called the Green Lantern, and of course that's where Charlie's going to meet a girl that's in her way just as down on her luck as he is, if perhaps not pursued by policemen quite as often. This element is rather adult in its implications, but continues the theme of a "dog's life". And for dog lovers out there who think the expression shouldn't be negative, well it isn't entirely. A sweet ending reminds us that every dog will have his day (wait, is that one negative too? If it is, reverse it. There's good in the world too, is what I'm saying).

Chaplin's last film of the silent era (but not silent film) is The Circus, and though I know it was a production fraught with problems, and Chaplin's personal life was going down the drain, it really doesn't show. It is as mad, amusing, and gentle as any of his classics. The Tramp accidentally joins a circus is the "plot", the setting being used for a lot of fun bits, but also impressive wire work. The actors seem to be doing all of the daredevil stuff for real, though there may be some trickery and I can't see it. Giving Charlie a big, fat security wire when he has to do the high-wire act is perhaps an act of genius, because it makes you expect that thick a rope on any performance up high, hiding actual wires not just from your eyes, but from your mind. Then again, Chaplin also puts himself in a lion's cage to get laughs, so this is some maverick Jackie Chan kind of stuff. Interestingly, the love story doesn't end the way these things normally do.

The Freshman was my first Harold Lloyd picture and I am totally on board with his brand of comedy. He may run a somewhat distant third to Chaplin and Keaton's maverick silent cinema, but there's just as much craft on show. In this one, Lloyd is a naive college freshman whose classmates are consistently putting on, making him think he's popular while actually laughing behind his back. Lloyd is the everyman, nervous and eager to please, and so easily duped, and yet his spirit triumphs and we can be hopeful that good will triumph over bullying. Jobyna Ralston is engaging as the doe-eyed woman who understands him best. It's a gentler type of comedy, character-driven and though Lloyd takes his spills (especially in the football-related stuff), it's less reliant on physical prowess than better-known silent comedies. In fact, I think it would have worked almost as well as a talky. Only almost, because I would have missed the frankly witty interstitial cards. If The Freshman is indicative of his output's quality, I'm going to be seeking more of Lloyd's movies. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

A fourth wall-breaking Groucho becomes university president and tries to fix its football team in Horse Feathers, and of course he's gonna need the help of the rest of those agents of chaos, the Marx Brothers. As can be expected, it's total lunacy, with the occasional musical interlude to showcase the Brothers' various talents (sadly, the sound on Harpo's leaves something to be desired, but the film isn't in the best of shape). There were moments where the onscreen confusion made it hard to track, others were my knee got some good, hearty slaps, and I was mostly amused. I don't know if it's been too long since I've watched a Marx Bros. flick, but Harpo seemed more insane than usual. Chico gets some good bits in. Groucho's "I'm Against It" is a fun song. Zeppo is definitely in it. The plot's actually a bit more straightforward than many later efforts, but I was afraid it wouldn't actually have crazy football shtick when the big game started with stock footage. I needn't have worried. What Harold Lloyd's character did accidentally in The Freshman, the Brothers do on purpose here and more besides.

I haven't loved every Astaire and Rogers musical I've seen, even if they are lauded as the greatest singing-dancing duo in film history, but they really do it for me in Roberta. Not only do they make it seem easy, but they make it look FUN. They're only one of two romance plots going in this one, and the B-plot at that, kind of like servants in a Molière comedy (and why not make the reference since this takes place in Paris?). Even as they pick up where they once left off, they play wise cupids football lunkhead Randolph Scott and quietly vulnerable fashion designer Irene Dunne whose story is more complicated (and triangular). Dunne is in charge of the emotional resonance of the picture, has the voice of an angel, and unfortunately, the French of an American tourist. In fact, a lot of characters are saddled with variable accents in this, pretty common for Hollywood, but I gotta defer to my pet peeve when I can't understand a single word you're saying. I'm here for the song and dance anyway.

Passage to Marseille is a patriotic war movie with lots of Casablanca alumni (Michael Curtiz, Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet, to name the most famous) about a secret French Air Force making bombing runs on German-held territory. But despite it's explosive opening and intriguing premise, it's more about how this particular group of Frenchmen came together, and so begins a series of flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, as characters tell other characters how other characters told them their stories and those of other characters. The structure is a mess, even if Curtiz keeps it all straight, but it means the film changes tack a number of times and isn't about anything except patriotically giving your life for your country (so enlist, young men!). Performances are good, and it does have a great and savage plane vs. boat sequence towards the end, but everything else feels unfinished. There's not enough of the secret bomber story, not enough of the romance, not enough of the prison escape... Like it doesn't know what it's meant to be, except propaganda.

Thought lost until a few years ago, 1960's Private Property is an indie classic, well ahead of its time, about two drifters who stalk a married woman to her home, hoping to seduce her and get their way with her. Camera angles and music are designed to support that uneasiness you just felt reading the plot synopsis. There is an unusual tension builder in the film that I quite appreciate. Though we mainly follow the two creeps, we ARE shown the woman's home life, which paints a picture: She's obviously in love with her husband, but he's so often distracted by his business that she feels neglected and bored. And we're going "noooo, dude! You're pushing her ever closer to falling for the creep's trap!" When things come to a head, what should be scored with romantic music in a normal film, is given pulse-pounding suspense beats. Otherwise, we might be tricked into thinking the plan's off, the creep has actually fallen for her. And maybe we still do. It's part of the film's power that you feel like you need a shower afterward.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
Musical biopics always seem to follow the same basic formula, but what if you were writing for a fictional band? That Thing You Do! is Tom Hanks' attempt to do just that (he writes, directs, composes some songs, and of course plays a supporting role in it), and no, he can't totally avoid the formula, but I was most impressed when he did. The trick here is that under the guise of playing things as a tribute to Beatlemania, the film is really about one-hit wonders. How the band is exploited for that one hit, and how the record company really doesn't care if that's all it squeezes out of it. So we can mostly avoid the middle section where everyone's on drugs or whatever. And Charlize Theron is in here as a girl fighting tradition by not being all that impressed with her boyfriend's musical success. Not sure about the ending, where it seems our protagonist didn't take his idol's advice, but it's one of Hanks' rare missteps. I do like how he suggests the cross-country tour, and he is plainly having FUN directing this thing. Nice energy - I watched the extended cut and it flew by - and he does things like flirt with his wife on camera, and casts Bryan Cranston as Buzz Aldrin, which he'll do again as producer of From the Earth to the Moon in a couple years.

I saw Chain Reaction in theaters back in 1996, and all I remembered was the leading man (it's Keanu, but I think in my memory it was Johnny Depp - I must have conflated the movie with Nick of Time) escaping a giant explosion on a motorcycle. So maybe not the most memorable action thriller. Watching it again more than 20 years later, I thought it was pretty good, actually! Oh sure, the 90s frame job conspiracy plot is mostly be the numbers and as with most action films, you can drive vehicles through the plot holes, but the director of The Fugitive is eminently qualified to direct a cross-country chase, and does so well. The action and tension work. The energy crisis premise is still relevant. Morgan Freeman plays a more ambiguous figure than these films normally get (normally, it'd all be more like Brian Cox's character). The FBI characters aren't doofuses and are worth cheering on. Rachel Weisz's acting is almost too good for this movie. And Keanu is engaging as a machinist who actually uses his skill set to good effect throughout (if your action hero isn't going to be a cop, make the difference count). And bonus points for staging a lot of the action in wintry conditions - we never get enough of that and I feel underrepresented as a citizen of northern climes.

Hollywood Confidential is very obviously a failed TV pilot, which would probably have been called L.A. Confidential, as it's the name of the private investigation company, catering to the rich an influential, and would be more in line with its creator's more successful creation, Miami Vice, in terms of naming scheme. Repackaged as a TV movie, it probably had to change its name because of a certain, award-winning movie that came out the same year, so now it sounds like a tell-all, behind-the-scenes entertainment exposé kind of show. That's the least of its problems. With its crossfade-happy direction, blaring music, and TV plot structure (A plot and B plot and C plot, all unconnected), it spends entirely too much time on character-building flashbacks that amount to nothing, and crashes to a logistically ridiculous conclusion. Edward James Olmos and Charlize Theron are way too good for this, and imagine a world in which this was picked up and lasted a few years, turning Theron into a TV star rather than a movie star. Where would we be now? But it's of interest to see what these actors were up to in the mid-90s, and Thomas Jane as well.

Between the title and the poster, you'd be forgiven for thinking Feeling Minnesota was a romcom. In reality, it's a NeoNoir that seems to want to capitalize on Fargo's success, except that Fargo came out only four months before. It's no Coen Bros. picture, that's for sure, and as a romance, its credibility hinges on "reading between the lines", according to the script. That's as maybe. Cameron Diaz's femme fatale is so desperate to get out of her crappy life, it's hard fort he audience to trust her, much less the various men who are in love with her. Thankfully, the performances support it. Keanu's hapless screen persona means he's believable as someone easily manipulated. Vincent D'Onofrio is unhinged in a way that presages his Kingpin. Not quite the career-ender it seems to have been for writer-director Steven Baigelman, what we have here is an okay entry in the stupid criminals genre, with some twists you won't see coming, and others you most definitely will. Leave your expectations at the door - they really didn't know how to sell this toxic rom-trag - and it's perfectly fine.


jim kosmicki said...

"The Sins of Harold Diddlebock" - also in a version called "Mad Wednesday" is a Preston Sturges directed movie starring Lloyd at the end of his career which is an unofficial sequel to "The Freshman." So it sort of hits the what-if-The-Freshman-was-a-talkie concept you reference.

Try "Speedy" next - I believe that what his final silent film, made right as Hollywood was transitioning to sound, and is almost as good as "The Freshman."

Siskoid said...

Thanks, I plan to. I just take them as they come on TCM.


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