This Week in Geek (5-11/01/20)

Buys

The Girls from oHOTmu OR NOT? took their cue from my repeatedly saying I didn't need more coaster to mean they had to buy me coasters. At least they're Marvel Comics coasters, so they can thematically sit their drinks on them horrifically close to my open comics while we podcast.

"Accomplishments"

At home: Already about killer security robots in the mall from Commando, I knew Chopping Mall was REALLY something special when Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov gratuitously appeared as their characters from Eating Raoul in the first scene. A good horror B-movie can't just be about its plot, because the acting and production values will more often than not bring it down. It has to be funny, or quirky, or strange. Chopping Mall delivers in that respect, with its Short Circuit robots that are essentially Daleks who think they're Robocop (and are programmed with slasher film rules), and its cast of 20-somethings playing jerky or awkward teenagers who have an illicit party in a department store when the killbots malfunction and attack. You get the genre's exploitative sex and violence, of course, but also fun gags and characters in a Die Hard situation, trying to survive using what's available behind store front windows. You can see why the Sherman Oaks Galleria was used in many films of the era because it gives the flick a definite sense of place. This is one silly B-movie that actually has pretty good production values for what it is. The acting, well, that's all over the place. Bottom line: While it doesn't capture the feeling of dread I personally feel when in a shopping mall, it's just fun and wild and makes good use of its setting. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss are in marriage counseling and are sent to a house in the country to work out their troubles and come back rejuvenated in The One I Love, a well-played and written drama and turns to science-fiction spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler. I guess I think it's better to get into this one with no preconceptions, as you can never really tell where this is going, except maybe at the very end, which seemed pretty obvious. But an intriguing ride until then. The performances were a little cutesy at times, but I think it was justified. A worthwhile little indie in the style of the Twilight Zone that may well give couples food for thought and discussion.

The Major and the Minor has quite the dangerous premise. To get on a train at half-price because she's struggling financially, Ginger Rogers dresses up as a 12-year-old, where she's chased by a conductor into the cabin of a military officer (Ray Miland) who takes pity on her. Others may be suspicious, but never him, and the movie is pretty adept at making sure there's no real Lolita situation despite her attraction to him. So it's on Ginger to carry much of the comedy, and as I've stated before, I think she can be very funny. Having to stay a few days at a military academy waiting for a drive as all the teenage boys try to swoop in and kiss the new girl is about as good as it gets in that department. Since it's teens doing it, the material feels less dated, though of course, grown men act like this in movies from this period. It all makes for a sweet romcom with a screwball premise and a lot of fun dialog, and it's a chance for Rogers to show a certain range. I was afraid it would feel icky, but it was too charming for that.

I've never seen William Inge's Bus Stop, and after seeing the 1956 film, I still haven't. While Marilyn Munroe is good in it (she never had to prove it to me, I've always found her affecting), turning the play into a Marilyn vehicle comes at too much of a cost. The eponymous bus stop is NOT where most of the action takes place, and instead we see the "courtship" of showgirl Cherie and naive (insane) cowboy Bo (Don Murray) without comparison or contrast with the play's two other couples. So I don't know what Bus Stop is really about because this third paints an incomplete picture. And it's a picture that looks terrible to modern eyes. I'm not kidding about Bo being insane. He has never seen a woman in his life, and when he decides he needs one, he literally ropes her like a steer and will not hear her when she says she doesn't want to marry him. It's a kidnapping. And though this insufferable man-child is eventually forced away from Cherie by other characters, it still wants to be a romance and end like romances do. We get a sense of a woman brow-beaten and broken, but the movie doesn't make that point. Nor does it sell this couple as a viable one. I'm still happy to watch Marilyn in everything she's in, but the sexual politics of this one are hard to swallow.

Harry and Tonto is rather plotless, but it's so damn full of humanity, it made my chest hurt! Harry is an older man played by Art Carney who's home is demolished by the forces of progress, so he starts on a journey that will take him West with his cat Tonto. The name is apt because Tonto is, apparently accidentally, his "Indian guide" as well as his stand-in. Everywhere Harry goes, the cat is a problem, but so is Harry. Like the cat, he's open and friendly, and perhaps too independent for his own good, and his ambitions are simple. This is a film about growing old, losing friends with grace, but also making them with an open hand and an open mind, as Harry travels through a changing mid-70s America filled with new (and New Age) ideas, liberated mores, and a wistful thought or two about the past. Rather than make it sad - despite its sad moments - the film makes aging an opportunity for renewal and liberation. Bonus points for an adorable cat. Where's HIS Oscar, Mr. Carney?

I've probably seen too many Guy Ritchie wannabe British crime pictures to fully enjoy Layer Cake, but Matthew Vaughn's 2004 effort isn't as clever as Lock Stock, Snatch, Trainspotting, etc. Starts off well, with Daniel Craig as a drug dealer with very specific rules, forced to break them all before the movie is done of course, and immersing us in that world and explaining it goes down quite smoothly. Vaughn is not as good as keeping us in the loop as the plot gets more and more convoluted and some subplots start to drift away. Some cool camera tricks and effects, because that's part of this subgenre's style, but not enough to consistently be fun. Great musical cues, but I'd be hard-pressed to tell you when they come up exactly in the story, which means it's not necessarily well used. Bu it's still a fun enough crime picture with plenty of reversals, a very strong cast, and a satisfying-ish ending. You won't be bored, but it won't necessarily stick in your memory later.

1929's Seven Keys to Baldpate is a very early talky, but the play had already been put to film before (and would again, several times). I was hoping for a delightful mystery comedy, but while it was perfectly fine, I was not "delighted". The premise had promise (ooh, that sounds weird), with a novelist betting he could write a book in 24 hours if only he had peace and quiet, but the empty inn where he sets his typewriter is soon beset by a large cast of characters who wouldn't feel out of place in one of his melodramatic potboilers. A couple of twists come to mind, and you'll probably be right in your guess work. Not unclever, but I wasn't shocked or anything. The groundwork for the final revelations was perhaps too well laid into the early scenes. But it might still have worked if the convoluted mystery hadn't become a confusing sequence of shouting matches. It's comedy, I suppose, but more madcap than actually amusing. And when you lose the plot, you sort of lose interest. Then you're just waiting for around for the resolution. Maybe I should have picked a version with actors I know, it might have stimulated my interest a little more.

How far would you go for love or money? Criss Cross is a noir tragedy that has this question in mind, starring Burt Lancaster as a shlub who gets in way over his head when he means to betray the armored car company he works for so he can be with his fatale ex-wife. We start in the middle of things and the mystery of the situation is told through an anxious flashback before the action picks up from an even more anxious present again. Though Lancaster is of course quite good, and Robert Siodmak's direction is full of subtle and interesting tricks, what makes it come alive is that attention has been paid to every character, down to the bit parts. The bartender who will hold it against you if he gets raided. Alan "Alfred" Napier as the master planner who only allows himself a drink once the work is done. The goon who talks in nervous tics. The creepy man in the hospital who may or may not be there to kill our man. And more besides. In terms of story, Criss Cross takes absolutely no prisoners, except maybe its audience.

Brute Force is a prison drama that opposes the will of two men. Burt Lancaster is a sympathetic convict who plans an escape for unselfish reasons, and Hume Cronyn is the manipulative and sadistic captain of the guard who means to stop him and get himself minted as new warden. Lancaster is of course equal to the task, but it's Cronyn who's the real revelation here, coming off as creepy and dangerous despite the fact that physically, he could have played Whit Bissell's part (a timid accountant who convicted of embezzlement). Though prison life is hard, and the convicts aren't above killing one another in there, the movie paints an unusually sympathetic portrait of the inmates. Almost everyone on the side of things has a backstory that excuses or softens their conviction (it's unfortunate that Lancaster's is so melodramatic and sappy), or else is a force for social good in the prison environment. Not that anyone but Cronyn (and the unreasonable Governor's office) is a villain, the other prison personnel don't have his harsh vision and make a case for more positive correctional methods. Ultimately, I don't think the movie pardons anyone for past crimes even if it glosses over them for the sake of the drama, so when it counts, it refuses to compromise.

The great Jean-Pierre Melville's first feature was Le silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea), based on a book published at no small perild during World War II in occupied France. It tells an unusual story of resistance as an older gentleman and his niece are forced to take a German officer as a boarder. They decide they will simply not acknowledge him and never speak a word in his presence. The Francophile German is quite talkative however, and his head in the clouds, believes the result of the war will be beneficial for France as much as Germany, so it's right that this often plays as a ghost story, because he's a relic in his romantic notions and divorced from the tangible world of Nazi atrocity. We understand the French characters through the uncle's narration, pulled directly from the book's precise and elegant prose, and though Howard Vernon's Werner is magnetic and memorable as a kind of blind man who thinks he is good despite his complicity with evil, a lot of the more subtle acting is on the shoulders of Nicole Stéphane and Jean-Marie Robain. We feel their fear, their resolve, their growing sympathy for the insidious intruder over the months, and thus their moral and patriotic dilemma. As a lesson in resistance that still works today, it's about not engaging with false premises, which modern society has completely failed to do. A great piece of spare Spartan cinema.

Though Bitter Victory features a mission to capture enemy plans from a German stronghold in Libya during World War II, it happens rather early in the film. The film is instead interested in the two officers leading the company through the desert afterward, a contrast in courage and cowardice, and thus an exploration of what those mean in the extreme conditions known collectively as war. Complicating matters is the fact that they both love the same woman, one her husband, the other her lover, which creates personal stakes for either survival. And it all takes place in the empty Libyan desert (a great use of the available locations), with stark photography creating a wasteland where this struggle can take place, away from society, from prying eyes, from the woman they love. Whoever makes it out certainly can decide what story they will tell. And though the cowardly man can certainly puff himself up in public, there will always be one person who knows the truth, and that's himself, which is well captured in the final scene. Richard Burton is excellent as a philosopher-soldier, but Curd Jürgens has more subtle beats to play as the truly tragic character here. And hey, always fun to see Christopher Lee where he's neither a monster nor a monster hunter.

Claudia Weill's Girlfriends (1978) is a sweet and simple slice of life dramady the current indie scene owes a lot to. I've seen people tie it to the mumblecore movement and to Lena Dunham's Girls, and I don't think they're wrong, and since it takes place in the New York art world, you can easily throw in Gerwig and Baumbach as film makers who were influenced by this largely female-made film. It's the story of a a young photographer (played by the eminently watchable Melanie Mayron) who loses her best friend and room mate to marriage, and struggles with loneliness and her own growing independence. It's all very mundane, but psychologically rich, whether it's the way her conversations with a new boyfriend are complete nonsense, which can be opposed to the silent chemistry she had with her friend Ann, or the moment she decides not to live in boxes anymore, or that final shot where friendship is necessarily interrupted even though she's found an acceptable middle ground. The most important moment to me is when Mayron gets a picture accepted in a magazine, but seeing it has been cropped, says it's not her picture anymore. This is a life cropped without her consent, and there's something missing from the image. It's about her re-framing that life so that she can own it again. Deceptively complex.

The big names in the 1949 adaptation of Little Women are Vivian Leigh as Meg and Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, but the former's story isn't explored very well, and the latter is too old for the character to be as absurd as she could be, making Beth the youngest (Margaret O'Brien was actually 12 to Taylor's 17). June Allyson's Jo is really where it's at. She's quite funny in the role, but touching when she needs to be, and more disinterested in boys than even our latest Jo, Saoirse Ronan (so I feel the book's betrayal of the character even more keenly). Too bad Peter Lawford is so uninteresting a Laurie then. I find the film a little toothless at times (no book burning, no ice breaking, Beth never seems all that sick, no real dilemma for Amy), but the heartwarming bits are there, with the girls being moral and having fun. This first color version makes its world look like it came out of a storybook, and that makes it a fine Christmas or Christmas-adjacent movie.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
I quite liked Maggie's Plan by Rebecca Miller, but I'd never heard of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, an adaptation of her own novel. A great cast inhabits this drama about a publisher's wife who plays it close to the vest, but will reveal, to us the audience, who she is and who she used to be. Robin Wright plays the current-day Pippa, and Blake Lively Pippa as a teenager and young adult, and both are good, though of course, it's on Wright to play all the complexity of a woman who used to be that girl, and who today is teetering on the edge of marital and nervous collapse. It's about transitioning between selves, but never being able to escape the PREVIOUS self. The script is psychologically sound, and the characters intriguing, among them Winona Ryder as a complete wreck (Pippa's future if she's not careful), Alan Arkin as Pippa's older and ever more distant husband, Julianne Moore as her aunt's dangerous girlfriend, the always impeccable Zoe Kazan as a daughter angry her mother wears a mask, and Keanu Reeves as a neighbor's broken son, speaking with a subtle shaking in his voice. Miller also has some fun with transitions and moments of pure fantasy, which makes for a visually attractive film as well.

As for Charlize, her next credit is her 5-episode commitment to Arrested Development's third season (2005) as a love interest for Michael with a secret nature. Since this is a movie-watching project, I won't be revisiting the show, though it's worth noting that chronologically, she hadn't done comedy since, oof, Waking Up in Reno (2002), and little besides. I don't think there's enough comedy going forward either. But moving on...

Tommy Lee Jones is a former military police investigator looking for his missing son, freshly returned from Iraq, with the help of Charlize Theron's police detective in Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah, based on true events though all the numbers have been filed off. As a mystery, it keeps making you think it's one of those uncovered conspiracy numbers, but the truth is less satisfying, though possibly more thought-provoking. The investigation beats are strong no matter what you think of the solution, and the setting - a town whose economy is basically the local military base - is an interesting one. I like a movie with a real sense of place. This is a film with a lot of grit, by which I mean that it's rich in detail, both physical and psychological, detail that makes it feel real as opposed to written. At the heart of the picture is an exploration of what it means to be a soldier, and though there's of course anti-war sentiment a-plenty, I don't think it's anti-military. Through Jones' character especially, we see a deep empathy for those young men and women who are sent off into the Valley. It's just that the sacrifice they make may be more than what we usually think of as a sacrifice. With some great acting on show as well, Elah rises above the typical "true events" fare.

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