This Week in Geek (24-30/05/20)

"Accomplishments"

At home: Obviously, The Great is The Favourite as a TV series, but also a spoof of a lot of shows about the aristocracy (The Borgias, The Crown, and so on), playing fast and loose with the historical material about Catherine the Great's rise to power, and indulging in anachronistic foul language and diversity casting. Obviously, there's some interest right now for vain morons in power, but I don't think the show overplays its hand in that regard (and yet manages to hit some beats that speak to the present day, which it couldn't have known about during production - that's having your finger on the pulse). It's caustically funny, but the danger in court is real, so the drama works better than the comedy (which makes a few missteps). Not going to lie, I found the first episode a little hard to watch. Before Catherine "gets Russia", it feels like this decadent court is heaping humiliations upon her without giving her recourse, and Emperor Peter is particularly unbearable. Did I want to watch 10 whole episodes of this? Well, by the third, I was merrily chugging through it, rooting for Elle Fanning's Catherine and her crusade to drag Russia into modernity. I like this cast very much, but Fanning is particularly good in the lead, whether idealistic, innocent, hurt, defiant, calculated, or passionate. Advertised as a mini-series, it does leave room for additional seasons, and I hope they go for it.

Honey Boy is the movie Shia LaBeouf wrote in recovery, and it is essentially the story of how and why it was written, eating its own tail by the end. It's therapy put to film, with LaBeouf even playing his own abusive father. The names have been changed to allow fiction to creep in (if it has), but it is essentially autobiographical. Or biographical. Because while we do follow the child actor and ask whether a 12-year-old can handle that profession and the fame that comes with it, we are equally in the father's headspace, and must ask whether a parent can handle managing a child in that business (not that it's a key component, as there are many people not cut out for parenting even kids who just do normal things like go to school and play video games). What LaBeouf has put into this is deep empathy. Called it like he saw it, but also tried to explain it from the other side. The abusive parent is not off the hook for his behavior, but nor is he a monster. Though it has some directorial flourishes, Honey Boy mostly raw realism, and has the biopic's way of showing moments that do not necessarily resolve or "pay off". Much of the appeal comes from knowing its genesis, but even if you didn't know anything about it, I think it works as a difficult father-son story set in the not-very-well-known world of children's screen acting.

The sharp, restored print of 1927's Wings, with motor, gunfire, and bombing sounds inserted into the score, feels a lot more modern than it otherwise might, but then again, I tend to give extra points to movies when I can't quite understand how they were made. And Wings is like that. It's not just the spectacular immersive biplane action (an obvious influence on the way dogfights were presented in Star Wars), it's things like the camera pushing in over several tables in at the Folies Bergères. It just looks like it could have been made today, and the actors are just gleefully doing a throwback to the silent era. Clara Bow, whose character I wish we'd seen as much as the billing promised, is part of that. Her acting style seems so natural and modern, and within moments, you're spinning out of control into her glittering wet eyes. Hey, at least she gets to see some WWI action and doesn't just leave it to the boys, romantic rivals who get to become comrades and more through adversity. Did the actors go up in the planes? Where were the cameras set? Is it all process shots and I can't tell? I don't really want to know. Let it keep its magic. Incredible action and effects. sprawling war reenactments, romance, comedy, tragedy... This is the complete package. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

The writing team behind The Net also later gave us Catwoman and Terminators 3 and Salvation, so you know Sandra Bullock is in good hands as a software debugger in the screechy modem (pronounced MAW-dm, apparently) days of the mid-to-late-90s. This techno-conspiracy-thriller should have just gone for it and gone as crazy as Hackers, because as is, it's too grounded in reality for us to accept much of the stupid computer stuff that happens. But surprisingly, it's not the computer shenanigans that are most annoying, it's everything else. Sandra sort of, kind of, not really, comes across an evil hacking scheme, and suddenly, the hacker group is deploying way too many resources to retrieve the floppy their data is on and kill anyone who might have seen it (despite the fact that they take credit for all sorts of things any time the TV is on), including sending assassins after her. And these killers are incredibly bad at their jobs! Sandra's character isn't particularly tough nor smart, but she keeps escaping through convenient plot holes or simply because the main hit man wants to bang her first. This is a movie that tends to contradict itself from moment to moment. "Can you do the debugging in time for the weekend? And also: Wanna go out tonight despite the deadline I just gave you?" "No I can't, I gotta get up early tomorrow cuz I'm going on vacation." So, what about that deadline? Just a taste. Here's another: "You should have let that purse snatcher go, there was nothing in there worth running after." 2 minutes later: "What am I gonna do without my passport and other I.D.?" By the time Sandra gets to do anything cool (and she does), we're so annoyed with the fact she mutters everything she thinks so the audience will GET IT, that it hardly matters. The Net is almost amusing for its retro computer trappings, but it's so tedious as an action thriller, it's impossible to recommend it even as 90s cheese.

You know, if you inherit something in a horror movie, you're pretty much doomed. I guess the trick is knowing you're in a horror movie. In Stuart Gordon's Castle Freak, his regular actors Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton are a married couple on the rocks, with a blind teenage daughter, and Combs inherits an Italian castle. Except... there's a rapey psychotic monster chained up in the basement. Vaguely inspired by Lovecraft's The Outsider, it's not really part of Gordon's Lovecraft work, and while at times sick and demented, doesn't reach the bizarre, gross-out heights of previous films in that cycle. It still makes great use of its location, and can lay claim to some depth. Given the back story of both the family and the monster, this horror tale is really about how trauma comes back to haunt you, and asks whether one can even be free of survivor's guilt, or exorcise its attendant demons. With that ridiculous title, it's easy to dismiss the film as direct-to-video hackery, but it's got stuff bubbling under the surface (or scrabbling in the basement, if you prefer) that gives it an edge over the usual DTV material.

Dolls proves Stuart Gordon didn't HAVE to go all rapey and over-the-top gory to craft a good chiller, and having putt a little girl (who's quite effective) at the center of it provided a good opportunity to keep things on the less lurid side of things. Anyway, creepy dolls creep people out, and sometimes, that's all you need. A sudden storm, lost travelers running to an old house for refuge, a toymaker, and that night, weird things start to happen, especially to the adult jerks who for the most part deserve their fates. There's a kind of EC Comics (and this Tales from the Crypt etc.) vibe coming off this tale, and some fun stop-motion effects to make the title monsters come alive. Ultimately, it comes down to calibrating just who gets it, and in what order, and I think that's very well done, with a lot of clever touches. It's really not a case of everyone getting it the same way like a second-rate slasher movie. From the giant teddy bear on, a whole lot of fun.

If Mad Monster Party? isn't the direct ancestor of The Nightmare Before Christmas, I'll eat my Victorian cape. I don't know why I've never heard of this Rankin-Bass full-length feature, but I found it entirely delightful despite some pacing problems (padding and sometimes slow action) and unremarkable songs. Dr. Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) wants to retire and assembles all the classic monsters to his castle to announce he's leaving it to his timid nephew (who looks like Ron Howard, but which Allen Swift voices - he's essentially a one-man-cast - as Jimmy Stewart). Tons of monster gags, both visual and verbal, ensue as the monsters decide to take matters into their own claws and not let this travesty happen. Co-written by Harvey Kurtzman with character designs by Jack Davis, this thing has Mad Magazine's fingerprints all over it (though the "Mad" in the title is unofficial branding). There are a lot of sets, a lot of characters, a lot of effects, Phyllis Diller, a sexy puppet, and some great lighting to boot. Had it been shorter, it might have become a better-known holiday classic like Rudolph, and the Internet would still be abuzz with discussions on the ramifications of that ending.

The Grandmother is an early David Lynch short that combines his brand of dark surrealism with Terry Gilliam-like animated sequences to create at once a dream and a nightmare of childhood. Lynch's films can't always be understood except unconsciously, and I think that's the case here. On the surface of it, this is a very arty and weird film with people growing from seed pods, but it's really kind of a universal story. How many kids have secretly (or overtly) wished they could go live with their grandmothers, a woman who more than likely spoiled them where the parental units only dish out discipline and shame? In the case of little Mike here, he feels abused, shamed and dismissed by parents who can only bark out his name (the only dialog in the piece), and so he grows his own more loving surrogate parent. It's child logic in the same that when you're young, everyone else seems to come out of nowhere, full grown. And yet, there's a danger with growing them too old, and the boy will have to face up to the fact that what comes from the earth, must return to the earth...

I'm not sure what to think of the Grey Gardens documentary. I understand it to be culturally significant, and if I knew my doc history (I really don't), I might see a new style of documentary emerge (is it?) that is voyeuristic and lets the subjects expose themselves. But taken out of the greater context and just watching it now, it's the voyeurism I take exception with. Though the film makers are arguably loving in their handling of the material, the simple idea of putting cameras on a couple of lonely, eccentric women whose lives are a portrait of what isolation can do to a person as the capacity to take care of oneself becomes compromised, appears cruel, or at least forces the audience to become cruel. The connection to the Kennedys - the Beales being the aunt and cousin of Jackie O. - makes me think a lot of people probably watched this at the time altogether gleefully, or shaking their heads in faux-sympathy. It's part of the film's point, its camera often finding those old pictures and paintings of more opulent times, but mostly, I felt sorry for these ladies who were half-performing for the camera, its eye triggering artistic ambitions of yore. But it's also 90 minutes of people cross-talking and shouting at each other. I rather like a review I read that imagines them as ghosts, trapped together, haunting an abandoned house, but it's not enough to make me like the film.

It's odd to think that typewriters are an artifact of the past, but they are despite what many talking heads seem to think in California Typewriter, a documentary that speaks to the people who love them, collect then, use them, repair them, turn them into art. A little repair shop on the verge of going out of business is used as connective tissue for many of the stories told, and the nostalgia sometimes crosses into delusion, but there's no voice-over to tell us what the documentarian actually thinks. Only loving pans over vintage machines suggests he's on their side. The history of the typewriter is casually interesting, and many of the people interviewed in the film (some well-known like Tom Hanks, John Mayer and Sam Shepard, but the film seems to hate computer-written text so much, it refuses to chyron their names under their faces) have insights on how using a typewriter engages the creative mind differently than a computer keyboard does. I think I'd be happier with it if it were 45 minutes to an hour. I feel like it made its point well before the 103-minute mark, and as most of the "characters" seem to have something to sell (a book, an app, artwork, etc.), it sort of becomes a platform for selling typewriters and typewriter-related items after a while. - Review written on a laptop. Nevertheless, no bias is intended nor should be perceived.

Hollywood hasn't managed to produce a good Robin Hood movie in decades, so maybe they should take a page from The Flame and the Arrow, a Robin Hood Remix movie that provides a lot of swashbuckling charm and action without having to retread the tired old beats. After all, is stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, and fighting fascism, really out of style? No. And you can pretty much set such a story in an period, place, or genre. In this case, it's Northern Italy under a crushing regime. Burt Lancaster gives a fun and athletic performance as Dardo Bartoli, a single dad, mountain man, archer and surprising acrobat, doing most of his own stunts and incredible tumbling (to the point where you believe it's him in the sequences where it isn't - or maybe it IS him), with the equally acrobatic Nick Cravat lending support as his mute sidekick. You'll recognize some basic beats from Robin Hood, but there's enough reinvention that you can't call out where it's going next. I sometimes feel like the swashbuckling genre is trapped in certain specific stories and characters (The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood and Zorro especially), but The Flame and the Arrow shows you can apply the same required tropes without generating over-familiarity.

The  natural double feature partner to Annie Get Your Gun, 1953's Calamity Jane has a similar heroine, terribly racist attitude towards Native Americans (though it's more name-calling than caricature, since the Sioux are in the background attacking white folk, presumably to get them to pipe down with the singing), and Howard Keel's fragile ego on gender norm patrol. While its songs aren't as strong - "I Can Do Without You" is still a highlight and I love the callbacks in the epilogue - Keel (as an odd clean-shaven Wild Bill Hickock) isn't as much of a misogynist, and Doris Day is irrepressibly charming in the lead role. Which makes me think I like it better. Where Annie Get Your Gun was a bit feminist, Calamity Jane goes the extra mile being both feminist and LGBTQ-adjacent, with the romcom structure convincing no one ("Secret Love" is the climax's song, okay?!) that it isn't going on. There's a lot of cross-dressing, Calamity thinking her room mate is the purtiest thing she's ever seen, and ultimately, if we 'ship the ladies in these things, it's because the men are macho fools who don't deserve them, but just happen to be there to fulfill the Hollywood ending requirements.

Richard Stanley's Dust Devil seems to sell itself as a horror western, and it definitely has those trappings, but it takes place in modern-day Namibia, and that gives it a fresh coat of, umh, dust. But I mean that in a good way. With its dreamy dissolves and yellow grading (at least in The Final Cut), it reminds me most of Razorback, but its monster is stranger. A desert spirit that feeds on the hopeless, walking a country that's being reclaimed by the desert (the location used for the finale is amazing) and still reeling from a war. Stanley has taken a page from local lore to give us something we're not used to, and we have new rules to learn. The drama is carried by the twin efforts of Zakes Mokae as the cop tracking the supernatural serial killer and Chelsea Field as the devil's next victim, both exuding what the creature feeds on. Dust Devil is a mood piece, a portrait of a place lost in time, where the magical and the mundane intermingle... there's nothing quite like it, and I wish there were more (good) movies about monsters from folklore other than the over-used European classics.

With Henry VIII, I finish the BBC's Complete Shakespeare boxed set, and my experience of the Bard's entire canon in the set's presumed order of writing. I find this a fascinating play for several reasons. First, telling the story of Elizabeth I's father seems a dangerous enterprise - this is the "closest" of the Histories - even though the Queen had been dead about a decade. You can still discern the writer's juggling, keeping Henry at a distance, an ambiguous figure who sometimes is manipulated, sometimes in the wrong, sometimes in the right, but one whose thoughts we are never truly privy to. Second, as a piece of patriotism, it feels a lot like Henry V, trading foreign affairs for domestic, and canonizing not the king so much as the people who fall in his terrible wake (except for the villain who does, and yet). Because third, this is very much a story about endings, and so not coincidentally Shakespeare's last play. While like many Histories, the structure jumps around to the important bits and can seem loose in terms of plot, it always becomes laser-focused when a character realizes they are about to fall, and crystallizes in a kind of nobility and fatedness. Is this how Shakespeare saw his own remove from the Globe, or wished himself to be? His late-life interest in the trappings of fame and attendant flattery, and exile as a consequence or remedy, is well supported by beautiful language. And as a television production, this is one of the very few in the series that makes use of film and locations, giving a certain extra gloss to a well-acted adaptation that includes many recognizable faces. Henry VIII is not one of the best-known plays (it was a complete mystery to me), but I don't feel like the boxed set ended on a disappointment. Rather, it kept my keen interest throughout.

At the crossroads of the original House of Cards and The Thick of It is the National Theatre Live's presentation of This House, an amazing fun political drama-comedy based on what must surely be one of the most chaotic parliamentary terms in Commonwealth history, with the Labour Party holding on to power despite forming a minority government. If you're not a poli sci major, don't worry, the play explains it all, exposes some of the absurd traditions of the British House of Commons, and manages to take one crazy headline after another from the mid-70s and turn into a clear and understandable narrative with a large cast of characters. In addition, it's very funny, but also has some heart, and it's staged in an fun and interesting way, with the audience essentially playing the role of the back benchers, and the House Speaker calling out entrances. Produced in 2013, the play is of course able to comment on the more polarized politics of the modern era, and in a way is a nostalgic goodbye to a more collaborative process that may or may not ever have viably existed. It's only become more relevant since, unfortunately, but it's truth bombs still go off efficiently - no damp squibs here.

Role-playing: Took three 2-hour sessions, but the "pilot" of our Star Trek Adventures series ended with the cliffhanger/premise we all knew had to happen (because we signed up for it) - the USS Beckett has been sent deep into the Gamma Quadrant, behind what will soon become "enemy lines" as the Dominion War starts up back home. Not that we know this. It only really took this long because we're learning the rules, as the third session was a lot quicker and more eventful. I think we got the hang of it and play is thus more rapid. My Bolian security officer did some heroic stuff - resisted an Orion saboteur, set up a force field around a transporter pad to get as many people off a volcano planet as the base turned to sludge around us, etc., but I have to learn to write things down as they occur to me in terms of cool dialog, because I know I missed an opportunity to introduce a particular linguistic quirk I want to give the Bolians, namely badly translating colorful French/French-Canadian expressions into English and saying they're culturally relevant to Bolian culture (which we know next to nothing about). For example, this week Skoid "drew worms out of the spy's nose", but I didn't say so, cuz I forgot by the time it was my turn. I may have underestimated what players have to juggle - my GM brain thought you were all such simple beings. Anyway, now the Beckett has 300+ extra people, we're gonna have to bunk up and GM Ryan insists THIS ISN'T VOYAGER. Or at least, it's Voyager done right. If you'll excuse me, I've got to Ikea some bunks.

1 comments:

Ryan Blake said...

There are 2 T's in Beckett ;)

I should really have said "I pray it doesn't turn into Voyager oh God oh god I hope I don't reveal I'm a hack and this turns into Voyager oh god." Brevity.

 

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