This Week in Geek (17-23/05/20)


At home: Clearly, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is pitched at a younger audience than the one I belong to (poo and fart jokes, silly dances), even in terms of nostalgia (the children's cartoon started airing in 2000). I won't deny there's a sense of fun to this Junior Tomb Raider/Indiana Jones affair, one that grows more infectious, I think, as it moves along - it's definitely cute - but on a plotting level, it leaves a lot to be desired. It seems to waste our time with a silly fish out of water story as teenage Dora leaves the jungle to go to high school, until she and all the kids we've been introduced to fall into a massive plot hole so the movie can get to brass -uhm, gold - tacks and go on an adventure to find the Peruvian equivalent of El Dorado. I mean, if all the villains really needed was the map in her backpack, which did they kidnap four kids and bring them to the jungle at all? (Dora, I can understand, perhaps as a hostage, but the rest?) There are some amusing riffs on the way the cartoon is set up, and indeed, the acting is kind of cartoony. Yes, the characters are in high school, but they're really playing it as younger junior high students, and I think that's who the movie is for. 6th or 7th-graders will recognize what they might think of as their future selves. They don't go full cartoon exactly (the map and the backpack aren't characters except in Dora's imagination), but still bring in the monkey and the masked fox, and these to me are the weakest elements, not least of which because the CG is so badly integrated into the live action (their celebrity voices seem wasted). But you know what? It did draw some laughs out of me (Nicholas Coombe's reactions particularly), and no matter her childish dorkiness, Isabela Merced's Dora was never less than engaging a screen presence (is it me, or is she the Latin-American Jenna Coleman?).

I probably didn't need to rewatch Air Force One to give it a review, even though I hadn't seen it since its 1997 release in theaters - Die Hard on a plane, right? But sometimes, you want to watch something dumb. It's also interesting to look at older "patriotic" films (the 90s gave us TWO WHOLE blockbusters in which the president of the USA is a combat pilot) in the context of more recent history. Right away, President Harrison Ford is selling us on the idea of ethical American interventionism, hand in hand with the Russian president, and I'm whaaaaaaa?! Maybe they had it coming. The success of these Die Hard wannabes often lies in using the chosen environment well, and there's a definite sense of geography to the plane, which gives the film some legitmacy (in a way that the realpolitik does not - Ford is more believable as an action hero than a politician) and allows for a couple of crazy mid-air sequences. For most of the runtime it's just machine guns blazing though, which is much less interesting. Air Force One is a check-your-brain-at-the-door entertainment, formulaic (throw Ford's Jack Ryan movies into the pot for the full recipe), but not without its charms, though also, questionable motivations (we never find out what the traitor's deal is, and they make too much hay out of the VP not wanting to be president for a day).

Arrakis. Dune. Desert planet... No wait, that's not the right sandworm movie! Instead I watched Tremors, surely unshakable as a true classic of the creature feature genre. We should, in my opinion, be beyond "cult" on this one. The practical effects still stand up - the monsters look really cool in and out of the sand - and the plot is a great mix of Jaws (on land) and the sort of "trapped in a closed environment" monster plot, the twist being that environment seems fairly large, but the desert valley is nevertheless closed. Nice cast too. We've got losers who get to shine in a desperate situation in Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward. We've got intense survivalists proved right in Michael Gross and Reba McEntire. Bibi Besch turns up to be attacked in a very dramatic way. The graboids get more and more clever, and our heroes have to actually use their wits to defeat them as the situation keeps changing for the worse (the mark of a strong movie in the genre). And all the while, Tremors never forgets to have fun with its characters and premise. Spawned a lot of sequels and a TV series... do I dare?

In the category WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST WATCH?!, we have Mock Up on Mu, in which L. Ron Hubbard, Father of Scientology, is alive and well on Mu (as in Moo, as in on the Moon) in 2019 and sending his agent, a brainwashed Marjorie Cameron (founder of the New Age movement) to Earth to manipulate military contractor Lockheed Martin and her old lover, rocket engineer and Thelemite occultist Jack Parsons, into building a secret weapon that can be used against us. These are all real people, but filtered through the sci-fi magic of their messaging and conspiracy theories about them. Craig Baldwin's trick was to tell the story mostly through stock footage sourced from old movies, tv and education/industrial films. His few actors will sometimes become the real thing, or people in some piece of footage, then turn back, and to integrate them into the style, he's degraded their footage and dubbed new dialog over their lip movements (to the point where you wonder if they're not also file footage). The editing is impressionistic rather than literal. If you see a rocket lift up, you understand that the spaceship of the story is doing the same, without them matching, and so on. It also means the actors deliver a lot of narration, and the film is sort of faux-didactic in the way it presents its wild ideas. And yet, I dug the experiment and even got invested in the story of this "secret war" that might have felt at home in Grant Morrison's The Invisibles, or Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus trilogy.

My Winnipeg is somewhere between documentary and poetry, a wondrous film essay about the Winnipeg that is, that might be, that should be, a center whose gravity prevents escape, a dreamland and a secret history, and through Guy Maddin's supposed (but staged) reenactment experiment, a touching meditation on the ties that bind us to our history, confusing City with Mother, and expressing a complicated relationship with both, in a poetic language that repeats and chugs along, train-like, which is very appropriate for Winnipeg, for Manitoba, for Canada really. And while there are things here that are surely bogus (some more overtly than others), it had me thinking that yeah, every place has its legends, its weird events that sound unbelievable but did happen, its own special character somehow informing its citizens', and though Maddin can only ever do this once, because he only comes from ONE place, the movie makes you crave a similar treatment for YOUR hometown. And that's the universality hidden in My Winnipeg, how it makes you feel about YOUR home (whether you stayed there or escaped), despite being incredibly specific. And perhaps, there's a little bit of Winnipeg in every town. I've been there, once, but it's not the city I recognized so much as myself. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

An early Ingrid Bergman film, Intermezzo might make an intriguing double-feature with her and Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata in which she plays an older pianist. Here, she's at the start of her career, for a while at least burying her own ambitions to accompany (musically and romantically) an older violinist. Gösta Ekman isn't just an older man, he also looks like he stepped out of a silent film, which may or may not have been done on purpose, but it works for the film. While this plot is truthful - the danger of dating a younger, let's say unfinished, person is that their ambitions will eventually call them away - my favorite element is the father-daughter relationship between Ekman and little Britt Hagman (Ann-Marie). She's very good, and I like this look into a musical family. Therein lies the tragedy of the unfaithful man, more so than with the long-suffering wife who is relatively speaking uninteresting in this drama, as his interests shift to the beautiful piano teacher rather than his adorable little girl, and then leaves the family. The finale teeters on the edge of wet melodrama, but I felt my heart thumping loudly during those scenes, so I guess it did its work!

There's a lot of experimentation in Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player, not least of which is a certain denial of genre, throwing noir, melodrama, romance, and strange comedy beats all into the same pot, but never really accepting the tropes that come with them. And that's quite beyond the elements of style, like the porthole mattes, cutaways to punchlines, and such. In the final analysis, the most subversive thing about the film is its dismantling of the movie alpha male. Aznavour's character may get in bed with at least three French beauties, but they have to make the first move. He's shy, is said to "respect women", and when he finds success, he's wracked by insecurity. His weakness - whether taken as a negative or a positive (because in crime pictures, which this makes a claim to be, caring about others is weakness, being glib is strength) - is what drives the tragedies. So shy, yes, but also in self-imposed isolation, believing he deserves neither love nor success. Which is all quite anathema to the macho hero of movies of the era (and for a long time yet).

It might be true to say I respect Robert Altman's bizarre comedy, Brewster McCloud, more than I actually enjoy it. I understand that it takes its cue from the notion of man flying and thus disrupting the natural order. It's the myth of Icarus as anti-establishment Nixon-era movie. Should man be able to fly? Or rather, be allowed to? The title character means to, but like all the other characters in the film, failure awaits. In his case, he seems to have been chosen, and has the protection of, a guardian angel, but forces around him (including Shelley Duvall in her introductory role) are intent on making him fall from grace and be denied transcendence. Those who stand in his way are seemingly killed by birds, but the police subplot (which stars a detective called Shaft a year before Richard Roundtree would incarnate the indelible character), which ends on a tedious car chase, is a kind of dead end itself. But overreaching and failure are the themes, from the MGM lion to the carnival end credits sequence, and I think I'm allowed to ask whether the film itself overreached and fails. I think in this case, there's just too much going on, and Altman's interest in collage overwhelms the picture. We have the plot and subplots and messaging, but also intruding radio broadcasts AND cut-aways to René Auberjonois as an ornithology professor slowly turning into a bird to comment on the action. It's noisy, it's crazy, and you're not entirely sure there's a plot to hang the ideas on. Like I said, I do respect it for what it's trying to do more than enjoy it for what it actually does.

I'm interested in realities and contexts I know nothing about, even if a lot of the details are going to go over my head. Such is the case with Ashes and Diamonds, set in Poland during Germany's withdrawal and a Communist regime starting to move in. The politics and history are somewhat out of my reach, but it's Poland at a crossroads, about to choose its destiny. A mirror to that is the main character Maciek, a freedom fighter who can choose further violence, or love/peace. A choice between ashes and diamonds. Or perhaps he has little say in the matter, which doesn't bode well for Poland. Either way, while there are a lot of conveniences to expose his guilt and create a moral context for his choice (why does he keep stumbling on victims of his war crimes?), his reactions are quite correct, and on the whole, the acting is strong enough to ignore the melodramatic tropes. What I mostly admire about the film, though, is it cinematography and richness of detail. There are all sorts of moments, big and small, that I don't feel I've seen before, and which can only come from astute observation/experience (whether by the director or the source novel's writer).

A lot of people are down on Jimmy Stewart for his dancing and singing in Born to Dance, but no one has anything to say about Eleanor Powell's acting, so what gives? Powell has a great smile, but she wears it for every occasion is what I'm saying. And also, who cares about either lead's weaknesses when they are both such sympathetic screen presences? In the 1930s fluff musicals category, I really enjoyed this one. It doesn't skimp on the song and dance numbers (very tall and gangly dance numbers), but also leans heavily on the comedy, practically everyone, even the day players (the cop conductor, for example), rendering up a fun performance. Stewart is no great singer or dancer, but he gets around - think Ryan Gosling in La La Land - while Powell's singing voice is dubbed for some reason. Maybe they thought Stewart's voice was too distinctive to fake. There are some flaws, like Buddy Ebsen's sailor getting a job in the show without a by-your-leave while Powell's own place on the stage requires a lot of plot mechanics, there's a mistake with some crucial time pieces, and while the final number is a big show-stopper, it's probably the least memorable song. Speaking of which, the movie introduces I've Got You Under My Skin and Easy to Love to the canon, and a lot of less classic, but very amusing numbers like Rolling Home and Love Me, Love My Pekinese. At times, it's a little like Cole Porter is doing Gilbert and Sullivan, which works given the nautical theme. Much fun.

The whole reason for watching Sylvia Scarlett is Katharine Hepburn, full stop. She juggles her role as a girl who disguises herself as a boy to keep her father out of trouble admirably, making Sylvia rough around the edges when she tries to become a girl again, and differentiating modes of speech quite well too. If you want to see Hepburn do fast-talkin' street noir talk, then this is the movie for you. And of course, it reads as LGBTQ+ adjacent content today, with some delightful moments of gender reversal. And for once, people can immediately tell the two genders are the same person, so we're not in Shakespeare territory despite the cross-dressing. We are, however, in deep melodrama, and I do wish the plot were stronger, or at least more filmic. In the original novel, maybe this all worked, but in the tighter package of a movie, it just feels like it's perpetually abandoning its train of thought for a new one. Sylvia saves her father from debtors, becomes part of a team of con men (enter Cary Grant with a bad accent), then they all become show folk, and then the romance plot happens... It's a convoluted affair that doesn't really have a unifying theme, just a unifying character. And it's that character and her actress we remember in the end.

In Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie was interested in youth; in Quality Street, he proved equally interested in maturity. The play was adapted for the big screen twice, the second in 1937 starring Katharine Hepburn as a schoolmarm and spinster (oh God no, not THIRTY!!!!) Phoebe Throssel whose clueless beau (Franchot Tone) enlisted in the army and was gone for ten years leaving her without prospects. When he returns, he's just as clueless, and then through a series of misunderstandings, he seems to become more interested in Phoebe's young niece Livy who is just an identity Phoebe invented and is just her dressing and acting younger, putting social attitudes towards age to the test. It goes where you think it will and doesn't, and there's good fun to be had with the street wags who are just as interested in the mysterious niece as the boys from the army are. I had a few chuckles - though perhaps not at Eric Blore's expressive mugging, sorry Blore fans, I don't think I get the attraction.

1952's Pat and Mike showcases a lot of why I think Katharine Hepburn is great. At 45, she's paired with a boyfriend played by an actor 20 years her junior, and it's not a plot point. At 45, she's athletic as all get-out, knocking golf balls onto the green at furious speed, playing a good game of tennis, and get this, beating up young Charles Bronson not once, but twice! There may be movie magic here and there, but most of it is done in-camera. And of course, it's Katharine Hepburn paired up with Spencer Tracy (sorry 25-year old boyfriend), which is one of the most natural Hollywood pairings (they'd already been together in real life for 11 years). Hepburn plays Pat, a natural athlete whose game falls to pieces when her domineering boyfriend is around (I especially love the nightmare tennis match), and you'd think Tracy's Mike the sports agent would be more of the same, but his business and love philosophies aren't necessarily aligned. Similarly, Pat gives a young boxer advice she really ought to follow herself. People are complicated. While some won't be all too interested in long-ish golf and tennis sequences, I fell under the movie's charms and had a number of genuine laughs.

Errol Flynn's last swashbuckling film, Adventures of Don Juan, shows how you craft a Code-approved movie about history's greatest lover - you put him at the end of his career, like Flynn more seasoned, mature, and perhaps even world-weary, ready to give it all up for the RIGHT woman. You lean into the sword-fighting instead. And it's enough to show he COULD bed almost any woman he wanted to (or actually, that any woman could bed HIM, as he's a paragon of consent - for Don Juan to work as a romantic hero, he must never manipulate, but always mean what he says), so you need not show or even imply he has, at least not within the confines of the movie. So it's a grand old romp in blazing Technicolor, with lots of humor, and daring, and charm. Once the plot asserts itself, it puts Don Juan in a classic star-crossed type situation, and embroils him in political shenanigans in the Court of Spain, saving his home country's queen from a nefarious mustache twirler. An ahistorical romance and adventure combo that's great for digging into the popcorn (or should I suggest tapas?).

Edward G. Robinson originated the character of the 20s and 30s mobster, so he's well within his rights to send the archetype up in mob comedies like A Slight Case of Murder, an amusing if not laugh-out-loud farce about a bootlegger who decides to go legit with his brewery after Prohibition, and soon faces bankruptcy. The humor derives from all the characters doing their best to act legitimate despite sounding like two-bit hoods, all their reflexes the wrong ones for this kind of life. I find it's a bit scattershot, jumping in time, and adding complications (and an orphan boy?) with little set-up, but then things rather pleasantly come together in the third act when Robinson's Marko has to resolve everything during a big party at the house he's about to lose. Dead bodies in the closet, his daughter's beau's become a policeman, the creditors are at the door, and there's a killer lurking outside... can he pull off one last scheme? A bit of nonsense, frankly, but kind of clever towards the end.

I always get a thrill from hearing the words Arkham and Miskatonic University in Re-Animator, because it is so overtly, joyfully Lovecraft, and it wouldn't be a surprise every time except that Re-Animator really isn't a typical Lovecraft story. Not that he couldn't write mad scientist or zombie stories (as evidently, he did), but it's not the kind of thing he's best known for. Director Stuart Gordon presents a loose adaptation set in the modern day, of course, and brings to it black comedy and lurid exploitation tropes that lead to truly demented and depraved sequences - in particular everything with Dr. Hill's rapey head - and a chaotic climax of monstrous gore that still holds up (where the re-animated cat is perhaps thankfully an obvious animatronic). The movie made Jeffrey Combs an immediate genre star (his next film with Gordon happily made sure he wasn't typecast as dweeby creeps), and features an effective performance by Barbara Crampton as kind of the prototypical 80s "It" girl. Lots of nice touches, from the set dressing to the wicked one-liners to the clever editing. Re-Animator remains a perennial favorite (and yes, that's a kind of a re-animation joke).

A year after Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon reunited with several of his stars for a second Lovecraft adaptation, From Beyond, and this one is very much more in the archetypal Lovecraftian mold. Scientists have opened a gateway to another dimension, which they perceive thanks to enlarged pineal glands, and it drives them crazy (losing massive amounts of Sanity points, if this were a game of Call of Cthulhu). The creature effects in this are bizarre and disgusting and totally the kind of indescribable stuff you would find in a proper Lovecraft story, indelible images of squishy, twisted gore heaped upon Gordon's apparently trademark exploitative psycho-sexual sequences. Scream Queen Barbara Crompton here plays an unscrupulous psychologist (and closet dominatrix) who means to "cure" Scream King Jeffrey Combs of his madness by having him face and relive the experiment that cost his partner his head and him his mind. Add Scream Jack Ken Foree to the mix as a fun policeman type overseeing the whole thing. From Beyond is insane, and when you think it's over, there's another full act of terror waiting for you. Like Re-Animator, it's too much weird fun to really be scary, though the asylum stuff does offer a real-world chill beyond the story's supernatural trappings.

The third and last of Stuart Gordon's Lovecraft adaptations (accepted that Castle Freak is only inspired by ol' H.P.), Dagon comes a dozen years too late. Had this adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth been made earlier, it might have starred Jeffrey Combs instead of look-alike (but talent-unalike) Ezra Godden, and could have brought to bear some of the crazy creature effects Gordon was then known for. The practical effects are relatively tame compared to earlier, better works, and when it switches to CG, ugh, let's not even mention it. But as is, I think Dagon has a strong start and finish. The small nautical disaster is very well staged, and the ending has a touch of bizarre despair I expect from a Lovecraftian tale. The middle, however, is just a lot of shambling zombo-Deep Ones, and exposition delivered by Francisco Rabal in one of his last screen roles, not at all well-served (or well-serving) because his accent is impenetrable (closed captioning to the rescue, but still). Truthfully, and I know these things never REALLY scare me, the only fright I had was when the girlfriend through Godden's laptop into the ocean because he didn't know how to switch off and enjoy his vacation. I saw my life flash before my eyes. The evil mermaid stuff just isn't remotely on the same level.

Of all the BBC Shakespeares, The Tempest probably looks the least stage-bound even if it is, like the rest of the collection, quite studio-bound. There's a huge rain storm on film with vertiginous camera work, then expansive island sets and special effects (mostly Ariel and other sprites disappearing or hanging out all invisible like). It could never be done that way on a stage. That said, it's a little dry. Nothing against the performances, which are generally strong, but the staging doesn't really elevate the play to any particular heights. Caliban as a hairy Neanderthal even seems to go against the text, frankly. In Shakespeare's canon, the experimentalism of this play may be in its unstageability (even though it was apparently a hit in its day, just as it commonly is now the last of his plays to be part of popular culture). So is The Tempest a big special effects number and absent these (as the screen will perhaps ask more than the stage in those terms), is it a lesser work? Well I think a more theatrical staging does expose it as commentary ON theater. In the way that several plays (including Hamlet) are about the Actor, this one is more about the Writer-Director. Prospero literally stages these events and manipulates his daughter and her romantic interest so that they not only fall in love (which comes easily), but dramatically EARN that love. He makes apologies very similar to Puck's at the end of Midsummer Night's Dream, and in his epilogue, shows humility to the audience, breaking character to turn chorus. Hamlet wrote himself, but Prospero, so in love with books, writes everyone else. His tyranny is that of the writer-director. Perhaps The Tempest can only successfully be done in two ways: with full-on movie magic (Julie Taymor's with Helen Mirren as Prospera, or Prospero's Books by Peter Greenaway with John Gielgud in the role) or on a stage with only the artifice that allows. The BBC version is in a kind of netherland between the two and doesn't quite achieve what the Bard designed it to.

National Theatre Live's presentation of A Streetcar Named Desire plays out on a continually spinning stage that I suppose is meant to put you in Blanche's headspace, but I have difficulty imagining it was pleasant for the actors (who must have been off-balance even when they stepped off) or the live audience. On screen, the sets and characters kept drifting and though Stanley and Stella's apartment has no walls, it seemed impossible to film without various beams getting in the way of faces. Ignoring that particular design choice, this is really about Gillian Anderson giving a powerhouse performance as that avatar of the Decaying South, Blanch DuBois, a drama queen fueled by tragedy and alcohol, whose secrets come back to haunt and destroy her. I will admit it is impossible to forget the 1951 film classic when watching ANY performance of Streetcar, but live on stage, there are moments that feel more violent and visceral for playing out without the safety net of movie magic. Nevertheless, one tends to compare, and rarely in the positive. Ben Foster's Stanley has his moments, but isn't a sexual threat until suddenly he is, and Vanessa Kirby's Southern accent is all over the place. I want to give props to Corey Johnson, who is excellent as Mitch, I thought. An American working in the UK, he's a recognizable face from innumerable British productions that need to supplement their cast with legitimate accents, but he's rarely gotten such a strong role. He and Anderson are unimpeachable.

Role-playing: Victoria Day couldn't pass without our doing at least a bit of Victorian role-playing, not a full-blown session of Rippers, but a chance to spark off some continuing subplots. That's key to immersion in mission-based (as opposed to picaresque) campaigns. Stories set in motion including the estranged husband of one of our players snooping around inspired by Doyle's detective stories to find his wife escaped from the asylum he stuffed her in; our inventor meeting and impressing Jules Verne; Birdie the thief getting approached by an old member of her gang to case a rich man's house (and almost getting caught); and the two "foreigners", Noriko and Violet, saving a young Polynesian sailor from bullies and befriending him in a riverfront dive above which they're forced to room.  A lot of continuing NPCs are introduced, and though I've got some idea of how these stories might evolve, it's up to the players of the Amazon Lodge to forge these side-destinies in whatever way they care to.


Radagast said...

For a well - produced stage Tempest, see the Stratford Festival one from 2018 with Martha Henry in the lead. It's free on their YouTube channel for about another week.

Ryan Blake said...

Re: Tremors DARE! sir DARE!

Siskoid said...

Behind the joke is a reality: While they dropped all the Tremors on American Netflix, they only added the first on Canadian Netflix!


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