This Week in Geek (9-15/03/20)


In theaters: You wouldn't think, watching the most recent adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma, that it's director Autumn de Wilde's first feature (after working in music videos for 15 years), because it's so damn good and polished! I mean, the text is already strong, so what she seems to have done is focus on the physical - comic bits of business, expressions, choreography - the best part undoubtedly being the complete embarrassment felt by the servants in the background at being among these high society fops and gossips. Bill Nighy is also a comic highlight, no surprise there, but he's not alone by any means. Leaning into the comedy as it does nevertheless doesn't stifle the story's emotionality, and our middle class hearts still go out to Emma, her best friend/pet project, and the annoying chatterbox Miss Bates. I will admit I sometimes get lost in Austen's stories when there are too many handsome boys with tall hats that I couldn't possibly be expected to tell apart, but I don't care so much here. Emma (period) is just such a delight (period). FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

At home: The Poseidon Adventure is one of the parents of the disaster movie genre (for better or worse), but while there are moments when I wonder how long we're going to go down a darkened corridor, it's still among the most clever and sustainably interesting movies of that type. The film smartly lets us know the cast of characters before tipping the cruise ship upside down (in fact, I think my prior experience with this one was the Mad Magazine parody, The Poopsidedown Adventure), so we have a good sense of who's who and why we should care when they're in danger or die (as per the trope). While the Poseidon becomes a good death trap, that's not the only thing going on. This is really a contest of wills between Gene Hackman's bootstraps preacher, who believes God helps those who help themselves, and Ernest Borgnine's by-the-book policeman - a neat reversal of expectations, which I suppose is thematic - with various other characters having to overcome their fears and trauma during the ordeal. In any case, it's Shelley Winters I find most affecting. One of the things disaster movies like to do is have a big cast of name actors to play with, and they're really perfecting the formula here. I have no doubt it would spawn the approach used in The Love Boat, and I can't help but see this as Love Boat gone wrong even if the chronology is wrong. Did Carol Channing and Charo die in the first moments of the accident?

Beyond the Poseidon Adventure is one of the first movies I remember seeing on TV (at least, without a French dub), and parts of it stuck with me. Looking at it now, I can't shake the feeling that it IS a TV movie, even if it's not. Hours after the first film (but seven years, our time), two groups of scavengers find the ship and go down, find more people in there, get what they came for and head back to the surface not without some trouble. The same but different, right? Unfortunately, Beyond has little sense of jeopardy. Flat, unmotivated lighting is probably the main reason I say it looks like a TV movie. There's fire everywhere, but no one seems to feel, and it has no effect on the air supply. And the terrorist plot to get plutonium out of the ship (this luxury liner was also carrying crates of machine guns) is ludicrous at best, and boring at worst (American cinema is generally terrible at filming firefights). The actors have their moments - Michael Caine, Sally Field, Karl Malden and Slim Pickens are all too good for this script - but despite starting off pretty well, it sinks under the weight of its own contrivances.

Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino's love letter to point of view. His adaptation of Elmore Leonard's story is filled with moments where we are clearly in a certain character's head, a lot of which is achieved through music (producing another memorable Tarantino soundtrack). As they drive around the backways of Los Angeles, they listen to music and we get in their headspace. When we first see Jackie on the airport treadmill, we're with her, steeling herself to go through customs. When Cherry sees her for the first time, we're with him, the music swells and she becomes more and more in focus. And there's the whole bit with the multiple POVs at the mall to tell the complete 360 degree story. And he also gives us OUR point of view (or is it Ray's, in a sense?) by hiding details of the final solution. Tarantino wasn't all that far from Leonard to begin with, his was also a world of stupid criminals who think they're cool, so the adaptation makes sense even if fans seemed to miss the pop culture monologues. Truth is, Jackie Brown is just as good as the previous two films, it's just more upfront about how "uncool" its over-the-hill characters are, the nostalgia's cracks showing, and yet in that acceptance, making them cool again. I particularly love that wistful ending for both Cherry and Jackie, and I mean, Pam Grier and Robert Forster are just amazing in this, top to bottom.

In Born Yesterday, a blowhard industrialist wants to buy himself some congressmen to get a crooked business deal through, but his girlfriend is embarrassing him with the Washington elite so he gets her a tutor to teach her about culture and current affairs. It backfires in a Frank Capra or Aaron Sorkin kind of way, and wins you over in the process. Of course, much of the film's success should be attributed to Judy Holliday whose Billie is initially willfully (or neglectfully) ignorant, but soon becomes interested in what's happening as knowledge breeds ethics. Politically, this is about creating an informed electorate, and how education walks hand in hand with both passion and morality. Billie is very dumb indeed at the start of the story, comically so, and thus goes along with the corruption around her. She can't care because she doesn't grasp any of the implications. There's certainly a lesson for our times in that, filtered through a witty romcom at the center of which Holliday creates an affecting and memorable heroine.

Alec Guinness always had a way with light comedy, and The Card is possibly only remarkable because he's in it. He plays a pauper who, through various scams and happy accidents, climbs up the social and economic ladder, though there are moments where he may have met his match in a dance and piano teacher who has a way with spending his money. It's Great Expectations if Pip were a little more ambitious and less dependent on outrageous luck and mystery patrons. By hook or by crook, "Denry" is self-made (not that it impressed his mother much), becoming a "card" by first finding a business card that gives him his first idea (they have fun with the title). Amusing, but it has a very loose structure, so the different incidents are just set pieces hung up on the same line, and they don't really make for a tight plot. But whatever the film's weaknesses, Guinness is someone you want to watch succeed and so you do, and he does.

The Devil and Daniel Webster (AKA All That Money Can Buy) is a folk tale brought to the silver screen, and consequently (?) its leads seem to think it appropriate to speak with a storybook sonority that our ear recognizes as bad acting. It makes the poor (then rich) farmer and his wife conceptual more than actual. Not the case with the other actors, though Edward Arnold's congressman seems to have one defining trait he keeps mentioning (his dubiously harmless love of alcohol). I give the highest marks to Simone Simon, seductive as a kind of succubus, and Walter Huston as the Devil himself. The Faustian story, in which a God-fearing (but not fearing enough) farmer has a bad day (a bad 5 minutes really) and sells his soul for good fortune is pretty much what you think it will be, but it's saved from its formula by William Dieterle's occasional phantasmagoria and by a legal drama ending in which the Devil argues he's an American citizen, and historical celebrity Daniel Webster argues for an idyllic America to a jury of Revolutionary traitors. It's that fun last shot that took it over the top for me, however.

Agatha Christie, who wrote Witness for the Prosecution as a stage play, might have struggled with the format because it's as a whodunit, it doesn't have very many suspects, so you've probably figured it out as one of your solutions by the time it's revealed. Further, I kind of resent the fact that we're definitely supposed to be "with" the barrister for the defense, who is meant to be very clever, but he's not really going to come up with the solution, and is handed it in the climax. It may be that Christie, or at least Wylder, means for his arrogance to be his undoing in this case, but the fault is treated as comedy so it hardly seems justified to have him suffer for his hubris. That said, it's a highly watchable courtroom drama with a wonderful performance from Charles Laughton as a cardiac attorney sweating through cross-examinations and grand-standing with all the personality that's afforded him. The bit with the shining monocle is iconic. Nothing can break the spell weaved by Laughton, not even the melodramatic finish.

What seems to be the hook in Brubaker, the idea of a new prison warden first going undercover as an inmate to get a real sense of its conditions, is a fabrication in what is otherwise a fictionalized, all names changed, account of warden Tom Murton's experience at a penal farm in Arkansas. Thing is, the undercover mission doesn't feel like the most far-fetched thing in the movie, as corruption is uncovered at all levels. What is especially interesting to me is the stuff we never see in prison movies - the prison board's own corruption, and how business owners have been taking advantage of the inmates to increase their profits. It's all very folksy and local here, but this is very close to what happens with "for profit" prisons run by the public sector, and remains quite relevant. Robert Redford is of course an affable hero, just trying to give the inmates their humanity back but up against systemic problems that are bigger than him (as was the case for Murton). Could have done without the trite ending (which I can't believe happened in the real world), but absorbing until then. And yes, check it out for young(er) Morgan Freeman as a man going crazy in solitary confinement.

If To Be or Not to Be feels so ballsy, it's because it is. It's lighter to be sure, but it's essentially Ernst Lubitsch's The Great Dictator, in which he manages to balance his brand of witty comedy and the Nazi invasion of Poland. Bumbling Nazis at times, but still murderous ones, and Lubitsch makes us smile at jokes about concentration camps and shenanigans with a corpse, while also showing us a devastated, #notajoke, Warsaw. You can definitely see how it inspired Mel Brooks down the line (who would star in a 1983 remake). It couldn't do very well in 1942, released two months after Carole Lombard's death (while on a tour promoting war bonds), but with the benefit of distance, it's become an enjoyable comedy of errors in which a theater troop tries to keep a spy from passing information to the Gestapo by dressing up as Nazis and so forth. It's got a fun Mission Impossible vibe, but where the mission is put in jeopardy by artistic egos and a man's jealousy for his wife's admirers. We perhaps don't get enough of Jack Benny's Hamlet, but it still gives us the title. Appropriately, The Merchant of Venice is also important.

Les demoiselles de Rochefort is the third film in Jacques Demy's "musical" trilogy (after Lola and Les parapluies de Cherbourg) and this one has dancing. It's like Demy added an extra layer of artifice in each subsequent film until he got to a proper "Hollywood" musical. Rochefort, then, is flighty and silly and filled with coincidence, and oh, lets throw some male leads from American cinema in there like Gene Kelly and a French-dubbed George Chakiris (West Side Story)... I kept doing double-takes! Like Cherbourg, the production design is beautifully colorful, and MORE SO THAN Cherbourg, this is where La-La Land's aesthetic really comes from. All the way through, I was like, isn't that riff from in the La-La Land soundtrack?! Wait, did they poach the music directly from this film?! Side-by-side comparison proved it wasn't the case, but Rochefort doesn't just look similar, it has the same basic sound. A lot of fun songs, the clever wordplay actually pretty well represented in the subtitle translation if your French is rusty but your English is not (a lot of extra effort there), and repeating motifs where composer Michel Legrand approaches Sondheim. The one big question mark is just what Demy was thinking with the absolutely macabre connection between this film and the previous ones. Just trying to treat even the darkest event in the same flighty musical way? Maybe. But fans of the entire trilogy may be a little dismayed, or perhaps just bemused in a WTF?! kind of way. Rochefort can't replace Cherbourg in my heart (it's too silly for that), but though everything was sung in the earlier film, it had very few songs per se (just one, really). Rochefort has a LOT of distinct songs, so it's quite enjoyable on that level.

Though its production values sometimes feel like they're on the Ed Wood end of the scale, Spider Baby's lurid story is just bizarre and demented enough to get a recommendation. For me, it isn't so much the inbreds who have a condition that regresses them to a kind of feral and sociopathic childhood - though I do like Sid Haig as the simple brother and Jill Banner as spider-Lolita - it's Lon Chaney Jr. as their de facto guardian and how much he loves them and what the threat of inheritance-happy family members could mean to their psychotic little family unit. He plays it beautifully and makes you kind of care for the three "children". The worst part is probably the over-long "haunted house exploration" bit, but the otherwise hokey introduction that explains the family's strange malady eventually pays off in that horror/Twilight Zone kind of way. Spider Baby is B-movie trash, but it's fun, memorable trash that knows what its roots are and even winks at Chaney's Universal Monster career.

With Blue Steel, Kathryn Bigelow is evidently on the cusp of making Point Break, which yes, is the more iconic film, but Blue Steel is visually, just as dope, if not more so. The story is weaker, perhaps, but still has something to say within the formulaic cop vs. serial killer who infiltrates himself into cop's life subgenre. Jamie Lee Curtis is a rookie New York cop who inadvertently gives a stock trader a boner for guns. She plays her heroine as green as possible without sacrificing too much grit, and Ron Silver makes for an intense and creepy murderer. This is very much about gun fetishization, and even Curtis' officer feels the thrill of what Bigelow, through sound and image, describes as veritable hand cannons. And the film fetishizes weapons as well, starting with great close-up photography of a revolver being loaded. Really, the only thing I didn't like was the wet kissing - I know I sound like 12-year-old - and I certainly don't need the heroine of a film like this to say "I'm scared" before she sleeps with the first guy she can find. Ick. Blue Steel compensates with beautiful, edgy cinematography, and a percussive use of inserts that creates effective action rhythms.

2010's Frozen predates Disney's classic and is a tense little survival picture about three college kids getting trapped on a chair lift overnight and beyond. It's by Hatchet's Adam Green so there are some moments of horror (but not supernatural horror) because Mother Nature is pretty unforgiving of people who don't pay full price to go up her mountain. I can't tell, was Shawn Ashmore cast in this because he played Iceman in the X-Men movies? Whatever the case may be, Frozen presents what could happen if you were in danger of freezing to death and couldn't climb down from your perch. What would you do, and how could you survive the ordeal? Then it throws a few extra dangers (the ski lodge really ought to be sued) for good measure, so I wouldn't call it a procedural. One of those dangers is that the kids aren't particularly smart about it, and some audience members may be thinking of better solutions throughout. But if you are, then I think the film has worked. It means you're invested, you're trying to mentally shift the characters out of danger, the mistakes seem human. A minimal set/location that does the job, with some enjoyable, if slight, ironies. Better than you'd think.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
For Keanu, we're up to John Wick Chapter 2, which I really do consider the best of the three we've gotten so far. I was even more gorgeous than I remembered (I reviewed it HERE). IMDB next lists his participation in the music video for Jerry Cantrell's A Job to Do, but it's really just clips from the movie and no new acting/filming. I don't think that should count.

The joke to make is: What is Emily Blunt doing in something like The Huntsman: Winter's War?! Probably the same thing Charlize Theron is, though she has the excuse of having been in the first Huntsman movie--wait, Jessica Chastain is in this too?! But truth be told, while people like to pan these films, I don't think they're all that bad. They're exciting enough and have a lot of star power whatever their other problems are. In this one, Thor--I mean the Huntsman--goes up against yet another evil queen, sister to the Snow White's villain, basically Ilsa from Frozen who is rules a kingdom where love is forbidden. It starts out as a prequel, but eventually jumps forward to the "present", using clumsy and often badly written narration read by Liam Neeson, randomly (or is it supposed to be a weird Narnia reference?), to get us through tons of back story. It takes 25 minutes to get out of the storybook flashback, which is way too long. The CG creatures are clearly CG, but there's not a whole lot of that, thankfully. I think the story works. Nick Frost returns as one of the Seven Dwarfs. And the Doctor Who audios' Sheridan "Lucie Miller" Smith is an underused stand-out as a lady dwarf who joins the party. A bit of low-rent fantasy fun, structurally flawed, but I wasn't bored.


Tony Laplume said...

I think Jackie Brown becomes more important to Tarantino's catalog the more movies he makes, the more variety he shows in his storytelling. Anyone who sat through the meditative Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will recognize Jackie in it.

Siskoid said...

Good point!

Bradley Walker said...

Actually Mad's parody was called "The Poopsidedown Adventure." Crazy's was "The Upsidedon Adventure."

Siskoid said...

Ah thanks, been a while.


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