This Week in Geek (3-09/05/20)

Buys

I got a copy of Zklonk! Zok! Zowie!, the book of essays on Batman '66's first season, on account of my friend and podcast network partner Chris Franklin having a piece in it. Fits in with my Outside In collection, as the approach is fairly similar.

"Accomplishments"

At home: Amazon Prime's Hunters is a rather entertaining program, but tonally, it's all over the place. For instance, it has exploitation movie graphics and satirical period commercials, but otherwise doesn't try for a period look. It takes place in 1977, something they really, really, really push, but the comics lore the kids spout is severely informed by which superheroes are of interest today, not back then (sorry, but there lies my expertise). The comics element is important, because this really is a comic book tv show, using the tropes, twists and villainy of comics, but then there's the portrayal of Nazi death camps, sometimes showing things that likely happened, and others that are so extreme, they likely did not. Project Paperclip was real, and sometimes you think, yeah, the rise of fascism is certain countries could probably link back to that, and there WERE Nazi hunters, if not these, so the blurring of the line could be problematic, especially as it pertains to the Holocaust. Now, give or take one of the comic book twists towards the end, which I find rather iffy, I can parse all of that fine, sit down and have fun. The characters are interesting and the ethics of their "hunt" are explored throughout even though the Nazis are villains easy to hate (and indeed, they are so terrible, it keeps the tension up - don't expect the entire cast to make it through the show). I do recommend it, and if you need the proper headspace to appreciate its outrageousness, think Inglourious Basterds, it might help.

The spy comedy is probably my favorite movie genre hybrid, and in the past I've given a lot of passes to such films which others have considered no better than middling. My Spy is not one of them. It's just too ordinary for that, and it doesn't help that most of the best bits were in a trailer that ran for more than a year as the movie was pushed back and back before dropping on Amazon Prime first. The story of a superspy who lacks subtlety getting owned by the little girl he's guarding (more or less) holds few surprises in terms of plot or character - it's a very basic romcom set up with explosions in the background. Dave Bautista might as well be Drax in the way he interacts with people, but Kristen Schaal is in this and makes it more watchable for me, as do some of the musical cues. They don't really do enough with Ken Jeong as director of this comedy version of the CIA, but I'm glad he's here too. What can I say? It's the kind of movie you've seen many times, and despite the remix, it just never escapes its genre tropes nor does anything particularly interesting or witty with them. To even enjoy it on a superficial level - which I did - you have to check your brain at the door and accept the characters are silly and don't really know anything about real spycraft.

I will not deny that Cocoon offers some indelible movie moments and images, but that's part of its problem. Yes, it's memorable, but doesn't offer a whole lot more on subsequent viewings, even when those viewings are decades apart. I suppose my problem with it is that its pacing is made sluggish by the way it divides its attention between the intriguing alien plot and what turns out to be the A-plot, seniors getting surprising rejuvenation from illicit bathing in the aliens' pool. The need to pay off THAT plot means the film turgidly flounders between what feels like the climax, and the E.T.-style ending, AND that the characters who, more than guilty of trespassing but of actually causing the death of two people, are actually rewarded for their actions. These are some really nice aliens, boy. And I get it, the seniors are at the center of the story, all played by veteran actors who do an excellent job, but the new-found youth causes the otherwise good orchestral score to go into terrible 80s synth to cover montages that basically say "haha, it's funny cuz they're old, see?". Either the film is a comedy about the fountain of youth, or a Spielbergian sci-fi story, but the way it juggles the two, more or less putting them at equal footing, doesn't work for me. And despite some good performances from all involved (except Planet of the Apes' Linda Harrison as the kid's mom, who really detracts from my emotional involvement at the end because she's so wooden), I can't help but be disappointed in a way I admittedly wasn't in 1985 when I saw it age 14.

Fellini is a hard ask for me, even though I've generaly liked the movies I've entirely sat through (but I know I've bailed on them in the past). It's plain to see Juliet of the Spirits is a very influential film, and I do see its fingerprints all over Argento, Lynch and Jodorowsky, but that doesn't mean it's easy to watch. It looks gorgeous, with vibrant colors (sometimes leaning into Giallo) and deep shadows (watch how unknowable men's faces are shot as blanks), and I do appreciate its story. Fellini muse Giulietta Masina is a vain but nice woman who believes her husband is cheating on her, and she seeks the help of various spirit guides to help her through the situation. These may be real or surreal visions, and even jobbers like the private detectives have philosophy to share. As the voices reach a crescendo, Giulietta (it's a little weird to think the character has the actress' name when she happens to be the director's wife) will complete her journey of self-realization and emancipation and come out the happier. I think her relationship with her judgmental mother is key - this is a woman who has defined her existence by what others think of her, and the "spirits" whether you think them real or hallucinatory, are just more people through which she is defined. I do quite like the idea of crowding Giulietta with voices in this context. But it also means the film is crowded, confusing and loud, a kind of pop-mystical picaresque to hear what various, and excuse me, strange people have to say about her situation. Masina is great, the movie is a bit indulgent though.

I don't know if there's another Noir that has more individual tragedies than Jules Dassin's Night and the City. If only Richard Widmark's character knew his place, right?! Well, Widmark himself's place is in material like this. He just has that face. That face you want to slap, and yet want to watch. In other words, you want him to succeed, but can totally understand why everyone hates him. That's a unique talent intrinsic to the success of this film. He plays a club promoter in variably-accented London, essentially a con man for hire, with lofty ambitions and a complete incapacity to feel contented. That's his fatal flaw. His greatest strength is how quickly he thinks on his feet and turns defeat into victory at every reversal, except that his whole premise is wrong, and he can't escape a terrible fate, only drag others down with him. At first I wasn't too sure Gene Tierney's character really required that much attention (the producer was doing her a solid by sending her off to England to get away from personal drama and her role got expanded to justify it), but I suppose she does deliver the moral, she's the path not taken Widmark's grifter just couldn't see properly through the gauze of money and fame.

I know Across the Pacific refers to Japan, which loomed large even before Pearl Harbor when John Huston made the movie though it was released after, but starting their journey in Halifax, the characters never even got to dip a single toe in the Pacific. I want my money back! Or I might have made the same joke because there's so much here that's out of Casablanca (Rick and Sam, the trenchcoat, Bogey as the American askew of the war but secretly fighting it, a passionate romance...), but Pacific got there first by a few months. Don't worry, Bogart will play it again Sam in a third film, To Have and Have Not. But all jokes aside, Across the Pacific is an entertaining spy thriller that's borders on ahistory, suggesting a different attempt to start a Nippo-American war. If we do compare it to Casablanca, it's less romantic (Mary Astor is hard to get a handle on as a romantic partner, more snappy romcom than the lens-devouring Ingrid Bergman) and has more action (the model vehicles are silly, but thankfully rare). I do find it interesting that despite its period racism (the accents, awful comments about "Orientals", etc.) there is still at least on character who admires Japanese culture, and though Sydney Greenstreet's Bond villain is a bad dude, he still makes a good case for the country's values. So it's interesting that, just before the war with Japan (from the perspective of the production), they made a film that instructs American audiences on the subject in a non-propagandist way. Or as non-propagandist as Hollywood could get in a popcorn movie like this, since there's really no getting away from the casual racism and sexism.

The Strawberry Blonde is a fun enough comedy-romance about the one that got away and figuring out that ideal is all in your head, and you've got it better at home. Told mostly in flashback to explain why James Cagney's hot-blooded dentist wants revenge on a patient, it presents two friends and the two ladies they court, but it's the back end of the frame tale that makes me like the movie, where Cagney finds a kind of emancipation. If I'm less enamored of the meat of the story, it's that Olivia de Havilland's would-be suffragette and Rita Hayworth's manipulative gold digger are both, different as they are, worthy of much better men. We're meant to think that of Jack Carson's braying Hugo, but Cagney isn't any better. Both are man-children who need mothers as much as wives, period sexists (it's set at the turn of the century when spaghetti was exotic) who see women as more or less interchangeable wigs and get into fights at the drop of a hat. That's just the kind of hairpins they are, but it makes me wish both ladies had better prospects. I love the sing-along at the end, but also... isn't that Cagney's song with the OTHER girl rather than with his wife?! Well, let no good song go to waste.

In the world we live in today, Targets is sure to be triggering for a lot of people, and I staved off watching it a couple of weeks ago because I didn't want to review it within a stone's throw of a rogue shooter incident here in Atlantic Canada. But then, is there ever a good time for it these days? The portrait of a lone gunman, Targets doesn't really give you insight in the why, because no explanations make sense for this kind of action. Such killers are simply among us, and nowhere is safe. Peter Bogdanovich was allowed to make this thing (in fact, "anything he wanted") on Roger Corman's thin dime so long as he used up the two days Boris Karloff owed the production company. So Targets becomes a study in what constitutes horror. In an older model, there's the Universal monsters and Gothic chills represented by Karloff's aging actor Orlok (it's extra meta, with Bogdanovich playing his director); the newer model is the real-world terrors of serial killing and bell-tower snipers. One world is shot like a Hammer Horror, the other very naturalistically, in cinema verité, and there's a certain ticking clock in knowing the two must eventually collide... but with what results? Ultimately, why does artifice still scare when there are real monsters in the world? Good stuff that has only become more relevant with time.

The World, The Flesh and the Devil is a surprise for 1959, well ahead of its time in terms of theme and even premise - a postapocalyptic film that prefigures everything from much of 70s sci-fi to 28 Days Later to Last Man on Earth - and does so intelligently in an era where science-fiction was usually the purview of B-movies and radioactive giants. The empty urban vistas of the film are impressive in and of themselves, and Harry Belafonte a great presence, but what's most intriguing is how the story happens in the shadow of the racial divide in America. They may be the only people on Earth, but Belanfonte's Ralph has it ingrained in him that he can't be with a white woman, no matter how sweet they are as a potential couple. Things get even more complicated when a second man, this one white, is found alive, and the trio is on the cusp of recreating the unjust world that was just destroyed. Can life have a fresh start without bringing that old baggage along? At some point, the film becomes more allegorical, but I don't care, especially if it's going to do such interesting things with sound (that last, echoing sequence, and the use of Belafonte singing), and give me well thought-out procedural elements too.

In 1943, Britain made Germany believe they were attacking Greece and Sardinia to draw forces away from their real target, Sicily, by way of a dead soldier carrying false orders. The Man Who Never Was tells that story in a precise procedural, and to head the cast, director Ronald Neame got the king of precision, Clifton Webb. We watch as the plan is devised, carried out, verified for efficacy, and then has to be maintained as Germany does its own verification, providing us with very neat bits of real-world spycraft. Artistic license is taken with some elements, the counter-espionage third act in particular, but they heighten the drama without taking away from the actual achievement. I had some misgivings at first about Gloria Grahame's character, which seemed to be there to inject a bit of romance (with Doctor Who's William Russell, so bonus points from my marginal perspective), but it pays off rather beautifully, if conveniently, in the end, making the deceased hero a kind of "Unknown Soldier" who might stand in for many men lost in the war. I'm intrigued by that interchangeability and what it has to say about the cannon fodder on the front lines.

With Michael Crichton, you often have to ignore the plot contrivances that threaten to euthanize your willing suspension of disbelief. That's as true of Coma, a medical thriller he directed himself, as it is of Jurassic Park, but for me, the problem wasn't that. We're used to people not going to the police when they should in movies like this, and it works in the sense that everybody is gaslighting Geneviève Bujold's character, so she's unlikely to think the police will help without some serious back up. No, my problem with it is that the mystery's solution is sign-posted around the 25-minute mark, and from then on I'm way ahead of the game and just waiting to see how it all plays out. Still a couple twists after that, and some good tension, though I was much more interested in the medical investigations of the first half, than the thriller stuff of the back end, which amounts to a heck of a lot of skulking around hospital corridors and air ducts. Coma has big stars - Michael Douglas and Richard Widmark among them, as well as early bit parts for Ed Harris and Tom Selleck - but ultimately looks like a television medical drama. If not for the memorable shot of comatose patients hanging from wires in a warehouse, the non-salary budget would be near unnoticeable.

Nicol Williamson is pretty perfect as a timid low-level intelligence operative in The Human Factor, a spy thriller grounded in the realism of low stakes. He's a desk jockey with a wife and a kid, and just about the last person you expect to be a double-agent. Maybe the leak is coming from his office partner played by Derek Jacobi? Maybe he's being played by one of the higher-ups like Richard Attenborough's initially slimy internal security man, or Robert Morley's ruthless doctor. Or could it be his South African wife, played by Iman, whose difficulty with representing emotion might just create a more ambiguous performance, I don't know. All will be revealed, and there's good paranoid feel to the picture, except somewhere in the middle when we're forced into an extended flashback of Williamson's time in South Africa, which slows the picture down to a crawl and shows us things we already knew or inferred from the contemporary context and action. Nevertheless, it's the kind of Cold War story we hardly ever see, looking at the smaller cogs in the intelligence machine, as cinema is more often interested in high stakes or fanciful action.

Executive Action is a strange film of ideas rather than characters, a piece of potential history grounded in real history, showing how a conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy might have been planned, executed, and covered up. It's a procedural for a what if scenario, and though Burt Lancaster gives an actual performance as one of the chief conspirators, looking bed-ragged from stress (or remorse?) by the end, everyone is just a "type". There's no one to really latch onto EXCEPT the real people of the story, as there's plenty of file footage of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald woven through the picture. Though a fabrication, the movie strongly makes the point that though this didn't happen exactly, something DID, MUST HAVE, happened that's different from the official story. It's basically a heist, retroactively imagined from the results, well executed but not without its hiccups, just as the movie tropes would have it. The movie tells the story of the assassination, and highlights its discrepancies and strange coincidences, so as to at least make you ask questions. Rather fascinating, if a little remote as a piece of film.

Neil Simon seems to return to the well with The Goodbye Girl, as it's essentially another take on The Odd Couple, but despite the familiar set-up, he's telling a different story. Well grounded in New York's theatrical scene, its characters are at the mercy of success and failure on the stage, and that's caused Marsha Mason's Paula, a single mom prone to falling for actors, to have become used to (and yet, not used to) having the rug pulled from under her when those actors go on the road, cheat, or leave permanently, when their fortunes change. Enter Richard Dreyfuss' Elliot, an actor (wouldn't you know it) subletting the previous boyfriend's part of the apartment, and he's as neurotic as she is. Sparks fly, the wrong kind at first, but if romance eventually blossoms, will his theatrical fate throw HER and her daughter for a loop, AGAIN? Those are the stakes, and all three actors - because the little girl, Quinn Cummings (Lucy), is excellent as the glue that holds the living arrangement together - do a good job with Simon's trademark witty banter and slightly off-the-wall characters. There's also an amusing lampoon of off-Broadway Shakespeare and some legitimately romantic moments (the likes of which Oscar and Felix never had).

Cookie is a cute, bubblegum 80s mafia comedy signed Susan Seidelman (Suddenly Susan) with at least some script work by Nora Ephron, though I'm not sure I can tell. Emily Lloyd plays the title character, a delinquent Madonna fashion victim and illegitimate child of low-rent mobster Dominick Capisco (Peter Falk - always worth the price of admission), and who gets to work for him when he gets out of a 12-year prison sentence. She doesn't look it, but she may well be the brains of the operation. See, Capisco claims he want out of the game just as much as Cookie wants in, but doing so on his own terms is going to be difficult. The world has moved on without him and he'll need to consolidate respect before he can make any kind of move, even retirement. What follows is a snarky, but not laugh-out-loud comedy with a convoluted but satisfying con game. Something to put in a double feature with I Married the Mob.

I admired Takeshi Kitano's bleak, brutal freshman effort, Violent Cop, but Fireworks (AKA Hana-Bi - hey, I own that tabletop game!) is of another caliber entirely. There are still cops and yakuza and shocking spurts of violence, and Kitano again stars as a mostly silent figure (there's in fact very little talking in the film). But this is much more than a crime story, and there's so much to unpack, its secrets can't all be unlocked with a single viewing. Kitano plays a detective who quits the force after a PTSD-inducing incident, although he was well on his way after just lost a child and with a wife dying of cancer. The incident makes the story fork into a twin narrative that sees him trying to get out from under the thumb of a yakuza loan shark and taking his wife on one last vacation, and the life of another cop involved, who has lost the use of his legs and begins painting surreal images that in some way inform or mirror the other thread's action ad mood. Kitano is a... quintuple threat here, since these are all his paintings. The intrigue comes as much from deciphering how these images relate as it does from wondering just what Kitano's character is up to. Throughout, there is a disappointment motif that's turned to a sort of resigned joy. The fireworks canister that fizzles out, then works is emblematic of the idea, but is woven straight through, in small things like a camera misfiring (followed by laughter at the absurdity of the moment), and more important things like the yakuza not being satisfied with their payment after all (and Kitano's ensuing reaction). He is playing it like a man who has nothing more to lose, and that gives him strength. Kayoko Kishimoto, playing his wife, is incredibly touching, and in the simplest way, never playing "sick" or "dying", except as a kind of nostalgia for life. And if you have questions about the final, bleak but beautiful final sequence, don't bail out of the credits - a final shot at end might just confirm your suspicions. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

The Passionate Plumber is a Buster Keaton talkie where he is paired up with Jimmy Durante - perhaps they thought they'd need someone known for verbal comedy to balance Keaton's physical brand - who I find to be a dated performer. His character tells manufactured jokes then slaps his knee or stomps his foot to indicate "laugh here". It's terribly annoying. The movie's plot, such as it is, takes place in Paris (cue variable accents to the point, at first, where I thought it would play as a silent film after all), and has a literal-minded plumber cross paths again and again with a rich girl whose boyfriend is two-timing her with his "wife", keeps being taken for the other boyfriend, and so on. While the pace is a little turgid, there are enough misunderstandings to keep one's interest, but it's a different kind of comedy than what we're used to from the silent cinema star. There's some slapstick, but nothing too memorable. Sadly, there's a lot of shouting and screaming to amp up the zaniness, and ultimately that's what sinks the picture. Durante, for his part, is totally surplus to requirements.

Made back to back with the equally tepid Passionate Plumber, Speak Easily also stars Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante, and makes me realize just how much sound changed the game. I say that because Keaton plays a different character in this - a verbose college professor who believes he inherited a fortune and finally decides to go out and live life - and it's not that he couldn't have played this in a silent film, but that using voice and language removes a certain ambiguity that allowed audiences to project something on the silent character. It's more defined, and so Keaton's natural sympathy is under threat, we can better choose to like or dislike him. I dunno. He still plays a literal-minded cluck and gets involved in a variety show on Broadway, but by then, I' admit I've stopped caring. I do enjoy this one for the verbal legerdemain, which proves Keaton can do other things (I've chosen to like the character), but even when it ends in the kind of chaos you usually got from his great silent films, it's still pretty ordinary. I mean, can you really ruin a show when that show is by all accounts already terrible?

National Theatre Live's 2018 production of Antony and Cleopatra, with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in the title roles is a lively, often funny, but of course epically tragic, staging of Shakespeare's play. The modern dress wasn't universally acceptable by my watch-mates, but I think it works for the portrait of a power couple as we understand the concept today, especially when Cleopatra is going to be wearing Beyonce's wardrobe. Two massive egos in love, the man's fragile, the woman's thus dominant. Shakespeare's Cleopatra of course comes off as a thunderous drama queen, but she won't be told no. She actively tries to force the world in her image - see the scene where she tries to change a piece of bad news into a good one, or the several scenes really - and her power really is that of a god. The Bard allows her will to influence the action, and so Antony will screw up an important battle by following her rather than his strategy, and in the final act, she is so convinced of her death, her kisses are lethal. The best part of the play for me will always be Antony's botched suicide and her memorable, successful one - images of weakness and strength that, in each character, correspond to their tragic flaw, ironic though it seem to say that of "strength". The captured performance isn't without its line fluffs (it's mutineer, not muniteer, man), but Fiennes and Okenodo are never short of amazing.

Role-playing: Second chargen session for Savage Worlds Rippers has yielded the following characters for our so-called Amazon (all-female) Lodge... A Roma curse-spitter and werewolf hunter with a feline familiar and a noticeable but tasteful scar. A pit fighter who was too quick to get rippertech implants and was mangled in the botched operation, become a superstrong, musclebound, rage-filled brute (a literal combat monster, which I know is totally opposite to what Cloe usually plays - she's one of the few in the group with role-playing experience - so it'll be interesting to see where she takes it. An artful dodger type, a thief right out of Dickens, with a penchant for kleptomania and a melodramatic secret history that's yet to be revealed. And an aristocratic gadgeteer who has managed to build an invisibility suit (I only assume it's a suit, could be a chemical) and a blaster weapon, intent on avenging her tutor, drained dry by a vampire. We're going to play a session very soon. Wish me luck, I don't think I've ever handled 7 players at once, much less GMed exclusively over the Internet.

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