This Week in Geek (14-20/10/19)


Bought myself the Doctor Who Season 11 DVD and Here Comes the Wolves, the new Rheostatics album.


In theaters: I liked the Downton Abbey TV series well enough, coming to it as a fan of Gosford Park and Julian Fellowes' interest in the upstairs/downstairs dynamic of those great old houses (with the downstairs always the most interesting, honestly). Television shows going to movies has always been a risky proposition. Not financially, perhaps, as they come with their own fan base, but the big question for me is: Did this need the Silver Screen treatment? And honestly, no. It felt to be, in terms or writing and direction, like a reunion special meant for television, that distributors decided to put in theaters for the cash grab. Even the premise of the King and Queen visiting Downton isn't as lavish an affair as one might think. If you liked the show, it's a good continuation, if blatantly royalist through Tom Branson, the leopard-who-changed-his-spots suddenly the hero of the piece (the theme of belonging is central to most of the subplots). The servants get a fun runaround fighting the royal servants crashing their household, and the scenes with Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton (plus, guest-star Imelda Staunton) sparkle with their usual, savage wit. I have it on good authority that it works for people who never watched the show, though it juggles so many characters, it feels like a big quilt of subplots, not all of which are going to resonate with new audiences. But as a light comedy, people tittered a lot during the screening, so it's a pleasant enough experience for what it is. But it's not exactly a FILM.

At home: Hammer Studios' Dracula A.D. 1972 was a nice surprise, actually. I was afraid it would do fish out of water comedy when it brought Dracula forward, but not all. Rather, it uses its modern context to provide clever twists on the old tropes (running water, for example) and sets the Van Helsing vs. Drac action to fun funk music. It actually starts us off in the past, where the Lord of the Vampires meets his final, memorable end, before beautifully transitioning to the (then) present day, trading Victorian corruption for post-hippie decadence. Christopher Lee is used sparingly in favor of flunky super-pimp Christopher Neame, but his presence in every scene he IS in shows why he's the best of all the movie Draculas. Peter Cushing is of course excellent as Van Helsing's grandson, intent on saving his own daughter - played by Stephanie Beacham - from Drac's vengeful fangs. The update feels completely natural and not gimmicky, which is a small triumph for this subgenre.

The Visitor starts and ends like Jodorowsky made The Omen. In the middle, it's more like The Exorcist meets The Birds (indeed, its bird attack sequences are the best I've seen). It stars the likes of Lance Henriksen, Glenn Ford, Shelley Winters, John Huston, and Sam Peckinpah (what a crazy cast). The little devil girl is easy to hate and a real monster - I've never felt so menaced by a gymnastics routine, and there's no better action skating in the cinematic canon. This thing is Nutty, with a capital N, and I'm giving it higher than normal marks for sheer ballsiness and, despite the DNA I seem to give it, originality. But is it actually good? I say yes. It translates the battle between God and Satan into a near-Lovecraftian myth, with aliens and mute ants (their wacky pronunciation, not mine), and sends us into metaphysical territory before we're through. I quite like the coda, which is a completely different way to bring this kind of material to a close. My only complaint is the funky '70s score that feels inappropriate to the story. But this is definitely one that has to be seen to be believed, so you should endeavor to see it and thank me (or curse me) later. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Nosferatu be damned, every other Murnau film I've seen, like Sunrise, and now Faust, I've liked better! His adaptation of Goethe's master work (which did exist as a folk tale before then) is nothing short of epic, and from the start, the visuals are spectacular and don't let up. Using double exposure, vast miniature sets, and all sorts of other camera trickery (I can't figure it all out, like the contract writing itself, wow), Murnau creates the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a giant Mephisto sending a plague down to Faust's town, unseasonable snow storms, heaven and hell... there's no stopping him from bringing his vision to life. There's a slight dip in the middle when the Devil seems to fall for a witch (that tracks) and he has to arrange for Faust to get the girl as per their deal for his soul, but perhaps the levity helps make the bleak climax more shocking, though the story is really about forgiveness in the end and not so bleak after all. Emil Jannings makes a fearsome, monstrous devil, so it's perhaps prophetic that he would go on to be a high-profile Nazi. If that gives you an extra chill watching Faust, it may be for the good.

After four Resident Evil movies, I suddenly GET IT. These are the Millennium's equivalent of the Saturday matinée serial. The structure is simple: We go from threat to solution to threat to solution, over and over, up to and including the cliffhanger endings of each film, never stopping for long to get to know the characters. Somebody could chop up the entire saga, put a bit of vintage production on top, and show it in installments. For example, Extinction had ended on a crazy cliffhanger, and resolves it in Afterlife's first sequence, then we're off on the next adventure. Threat-resolve, threat-resolve, until the end (and we end on threat, resolve to come in Part 5). So in this one, Alice and Claire join a group of survivors trapped in a Los Angeles prison, including pre-Captain Cold Wentworth Miller (type-cast as a dude trapped in a prison), get involved in ridiculous stunt and fight gags that had me laughing out loud (it's a win), and trying to find the Promised Land free of infection. Embracing its place as B-movie trash, it apes The Matrix more than 10 years on, with the villain channeling Agent Smith, and bullet time effects. Why not? Set brain to crazy mode and enjoy.

For Lars von Trier, The House That Jack Built is pretty straightforward, and doesn't reward the audience in the same way his dark masterpieces (Antichrist and Melancholia) did. Or at least not THIS member of the audience. The film is a collection of vignettes as confessed by a serial killer (creepy Matt Dillon, but to what confessor, I won't say). They all inspire dread, though they are also laced with black comedy, and enough storytelling verve (the Bob Dylan video-like interstitials, for example) to keep you interested despite the unconventional structure. The third act reveal twist sends us into something that I find more silly than bold, I'm afraid. Where we mostly recognize von Trier is in his discussion of destruction/killing as art, which inhabits and enlightens the protagonist, but also the film maker (there's even a shot of Melancholia hidden in there). Only a director with his reputation could discuss the destructive power of art, or the artistic power of destruction, with a psychotic killer as his avatar. It's well made, I don't dislike it at all, but it didn't make me apprehensive the way his other works have.

The Dead Don't Die is Jim Jarmusch's star-studded follow-up to Only Lovers Left Alive, trading the vampires' elegance and urban landscapes for a zombie obviousness and a rural setting. But it's still about the undead as a metaphor for societal decay, and in this case, an amusing if slow-paced (amusing BECAUSE it is slow-paced?) comedy set in Trump's America. This thing is insane in more ways than one, but it's biggest sin is being too on-the-nose. When zombies moan about wi-fi and Xanax, I think it's already too clear what Jarmusch is saying without Tom Waits' survivalist explaining it in voice-over. If the basic message is evident and on the order of the grumpy old man shaking his fist at a politically apathetic population, there are other layers of meaning too. It was actually fun to try and discern how each character represented a different reaction to the film's metaphor for climate change. One throws blame at immigrants but never understands the situation. Another believes all the government's lies and eventually joins the throng. Some recognize the narrative and see all the signs, but are impotent to do anything about it except say we're doomed and moving on. And then there's Tilda Swinton's outrageous, absurd foreigner, who can just leave and wipe her hands of the whole thing, as many of us outside the States frequently do (until it happens to us). A pointed message that borders of the lecture may make you think there's no food for thought here, but there's quite a lot happening when you start talking about it. It's the kind of comedy I like, and there are a lot of fun details in the background as well, Plus, it's got a cool theme song.

With The Fog, John Carpenter tries to make a film entirely different from Halloween, but would eventually regret it and add more slasher material because he felt his ghost story didn't work. He also added a prologue in which an old fishermen tells a campfire tale that efficiently explains the backstory of the pirate revenants, setting us up for what's to come. That prologue is exactly what makes the movie work. What are ghost stories? He tells us one, but he's not alone. Adrienne Barbeau is telling her own ghost story on the radio. Hal Holbrook's priest has his own piece of the story to tell. It gives the entire affair that campfire atmosphere. And I mean, how fun is it to cast the mother-daughter team of Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis (even if they don't have scenes together?), the leads of the two prototypical slasher films. For many of the characters, the events of that night remain mysterious, and the film treats it as a mystery for the most part. We know more as we get to see that cool ending, but the monsters are still only half-seen. The big glowing cloud isn't entirely visceral as a horror effect (it looks too much like a smoke machine gone haywire), but I do like the idea. Nice score too (obviously).

I'm not alone thinking Raymond Chandler plots are unfathomable, right? But that's hardly ever the point, at least in movie form. Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye reimagines Philip Marlowe as... well, as Elliott Gould, and basically as the midpoint between Bogart and the Dude in The Big Lebowski. Gould plays the private eye as a man who just rolled out of bed (in fact, he literally does at the start of the film, and when it happens again later, I was half expecting the entire adventure to have been a noir dream), mumbling and stumbling through life as bad stuff happens around him. Who would Marlowe be in the decadent 1970s? He's lost his edge. He's a loser because he can't navigate the corruption all around him. And yet, he's a cool cat, in a live ad let live kind of way. Befuddled, but not judgmental. And calling him a cat is just. The film is filled with barking dogs, and correspondingly, violent characters. He's the only one who owns a cat, and indeed, a lost cat who likes discontinued cat food, a perfect avatar for this sleepy relic from another time. People might bristle at the fact this isn't THEIR Philip Marlowe, but I think the unusual take is exactly why I'd recommend it.

Before The Last Action Hero there was... The Purple Rose of Cairo. This charming piece of magical realism has a movie hero come out of the screen and into Depression-era New Jersey for the love of a woman. But where another film might make him surprised there's another world out there, it rather takes what today we'd call the Pixar approach, with movie characters having feelings and knowing full well they are enacting the same story hundreds of times for an audience. There's actually a lot of world-building here. Amusingly, it's really happening. The characters on screen are incensed, the audiences bored, the media interested, and even the actor who gave him life is worried for his career and comes to town. Ultimately, this is a film about escapism where Mia Farrow needs to escape her dreary life, but it's the character on screen who literally escapes and makes her world more interesting. We've all experienced this kind of osmosis between the real world and the movie world in our imaginations. And though a picture may fascinate, there's soon another to take us on new journey - being a movie fan never gets stale - as attests the wonderful final shot of the film.

The Marx Brothers are at it again in Animal Crackers, which I wouldn't call their finest effort, but I can't fault them for experimenting with the format. I mean, they were really making it up as they went along. This is an early talky and only their second feature. Groucho walks to camera as other characters freeze to record prosaic asides (it's a parody of Eugene O'Neil it seems, but lost on me), but it's more odd than funny. Chico's piano playing isn't as well filmed as other instances (I NEED TO SEE HIS FINGER HIT THOSE HIGH NOTES DAMMIT) and goes on a bit long. The plot is a confusing trifle about a stolen painting, but I'll never hold a Marx Bros. movie in contempt for its plot. That said, there are parts that are better than the whole. Groucho's pun-filled dialog has a lot to recommend it. The card chaotic card game has its moments before the ladies quit on it. Harpo's harp number is less of a plug-in than usual and supports the love story. There's also a gag about Groucho being confused about his character's name that I swear seems to spring out of another actor flubbing a line and Groucho just keeps going and improvises around it. Can't prove it, of course, but that's what it looks like (a feature, not a flaw).

What if King Kong went on starring in more Toho films after King Kong vs. Godzilla? Well, he did. King Kong Escapes is a fun, goofy Toho-Rankin/Bass co-production loosely based on the latter's animated show, featuring what is essentially King Kong's version of MechaGodzilla (6 years before the more famous robot would be introduced!), a villain called Dr. Who (!!! - but he's essentially based on Dr. No), the brave crew of a submarine (been watching Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea?), plus Gorosaurus (who get into Destroy All Monsters) to get into an early fight, and lots of cool models that put me in mind of Thunderbirds. There's at least one sequence in here that seems to have inspired action in Skull Island, and though Kong as a suit isn't as successful as more saurian monsters, his wet eyes do provoke sympathy, I've got to admit. It's kind of too bad Toho lost the license because Ishirō Honda could have put him into more of his crazy kaiju films. Definitely extra points for going all out, but don't expect a sensible plot.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
The Cider House Rules is an effective, if at times obvious, drama that is essentially a father-son story, even if Toby Maguire's Homer Wells is an orphan. He was never adopted, and the doctor who runs the orphanage, warmly played by Michael Caine, is basically his father. Indeed, the coming of age story must show Homer leave the "family" home, try to find himself in the world, even as his "father" schemes to bring him back and get into the "family business". A woman (Charlize Theron) keeps him away for a while, but fate will take its course. Or rather, choice. What the tourist pamphlets don't tell you is that this period piece is really about abortion and makes a case for pro-choice, and so choice is a powerful theme across the entire story. The title refers to rules posted in a cider house where Homer works for more than a year, and the point is made that they were written by people who didn't live in the house and who didn't know what they were talking about. This relates back to abortion laws in a very obvious way. If the film has an overriding feeling, it is empathy. It asks us not to presume knowing what's best for the women who seek an abortion, and not to judge them. And if people have trouble with the Mr. Rose subplot, it asks us to forgive him too. You may not feel sympathy for him, but the film does, because its empathy, like Caine's character's, is without limit. There's something beautiful in that.

Quarterback Keanu Reeves is one of the few non-cartoon characters in the football comedy The Replacements, and he looks like he doesn't want to be there. Coach Gene Hackman at least seems to be having a good time even if it's a bit of a phone-in. Head cheerleader Brooke Langton is given some quirks, but she's a pretty bog-standard love interest. Most of the rest of the cast are comedic caricatures, the least successful of which is Jon Favreau's rage monster; the most, Rhys Ifans' Welsh footballer (he may be THE reason for seeing the flick). Orlando Jones has some charm too, as do the strippers who replace the cheerleaders during a strike. So this is an underdog movie with all the clichés you'd expect, though there are some good bits of sports action beyond the first act which scared me into thinking it was all gonna be glossy B-roll. Keanu gets a good speech, Hackman a couple of good lines. The plot isn't always logical and certainly isn't on solid footing when it comes to union action, either ethically or logistically. But it's the direction that really sinks the picture. It's not always good at choreographing the action in a way that makes sense to the audience, and worse, it treats its subplots the same way. Its greatest sin, however, is that it is over-soundtracked. Wall-to-wall hits from the '90s muffle the dialog and are often either too on the nose, or just wrong for the scene. Madden and Summerall add to the noise by playing Statler and Waldorf to the action.


Tony Laplume said...

I imagine the appeal of making a Downton Abbey movie was that it was already fairly cinematic to begin with, one of the early prestige TV shows of the modern era. I never watched it, didn't appeal to me (Gosford Park is good enough, or Miss Julie, thank you), but clearly there was considerable appeal to the whole thing. At least they waited to take it to the big screen. I guess the real point was to find out whether it really was cinematic enough, or just seemed like it. Viewers who never saw the show will probably have the best sense of its individual worth. The same would be true of a Game of Thrones flick, for instance.

Brendoon said...

And of course, ARTHUR DENT was the king in Downton. No mention of his sandwich recipe. That man DOES live an interesting life.


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