This Week in Geek (20-27/06/20)

Buys

Also part of my bid to add more Jack Kirby collections to my shelf, I got the Simon and Kirby Superheroes (with rarer 1950s material like Fighting American, the Stuntman and Captain 3-D). Man, it's heavier than I thought it would be. Get me a lectern!

"Accomplishments"

At home: At the start of The Meg, I asked myself "who is this Rainn Wilson wannabe?" and it turned out to be Rainn Wilson. Did not foreshadow a good result - and indeed the lame-brain humor is the worst part of the flick - but while the movie is never completely all-in with anything it does, it's still relatively fun. It could have been more ambitious, as I do like its initial SF premise. The idea of a second bottom to the ocean's deepest trenches is well executed, but of course, it's all got to be in service of a creature feature - essentially one of those Sharknado-type movies with an actual budget and recognizable stars - so we quickly leave the intriguing premise behind to watch a large cast get whittled down until it's Jason Statham vs. Giant Shark, and that's exactly what you paid for. I do like that other characters get to be heroic, even share in the action (I like Li Bingbing in this, though she's obviously there so China can foot part of the bill), but again, eventually, everybody but Statham is a damsel in distress. So what I really need from the movie then is to be ridiculously over the top, and it definitely has those moments and several memorable images. I, for one, was satisfied with that aspect of it, even if The Meg never really escapes its DNA. At least it leans into the tropes. Another film might have just focused on the initial rescue mission, or just the hunt for the prehistoric fish, or just the beach attack, but The Meg does it all, stealing liberally from every other shark movie, but giving it its own effects-heavy spin. And that's fine. Set brain to off and take the dive.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a beautiful anti-authoritarian film that's a complete opposite to Chariots of Fire, which I'd just recently bailed out of after 20-30 minutes. Instead of posh college boys with high ideals running to sweeping music in beautified cinematography, this 1962 film takes us to a reform school, its headmaster's ambition, to have one of his boys win in a cross-country race against a local private school, and Tom Courtenay's rebellious new pupil/inmate Colin Smith might be the key. For all his rebellious talk though, he might fall under the spell of the privilege heaped upon him because of his athletic ability (a form of indoctrination), but running ahead of the pack - and this is where the poetic title comes in - gives one a lot of time to think, reflect and analyze. On practice runs, flashbacks show us Smith's working class family life, and how he got sent to reform school, sequences that evoked Truffaut's 400 Blows, and ultimately, Smith stands indomitable, not buying what you're sellin' guv'nor... A massive F U to the establishment, great stuff.

Vertov should be spoken of in the same breath as Eisenstein as fat as I'm concerned, on the basis of Man with a Movie Camera alone, and so should Svilova (the Woman with Movie Editing Machine). What an amazing achievement this film is. Ostensibly documentary, the film parses through what I imagine is tons of footage to present an amalgamated "day in the life" of a Soviet town, waking up, going about the business of life, the editing contrasting birth and death, work and fun, cleanliness and dirtiness, arts and sports, at a percussive rhythm accentuated by the current print's soundtrack, which is just about the best and most appropriate score for a silent film I've ever experienced. For all the cinema vérité on show, Vlatov isn't afraid to use special effects, whether split screens or over/under-cranking the camera or superimpositions or stop-motion. And if that's all he did, it would still be a masterclass in film making. But it's not all he does. The movie is also its own making of, and part of the action is the film maker himself, capturing the footage you're seeing while another camera films him. The film stops on a frame, and we're with the editor, she's making her own choices, the movie resumes. We're its audience, but there's also a theater audience in the film watching the film we're watching. And it all builds to a crescendo, not - as you think it will - the town going to sleep, circle complete - but a fracas of images as the film maker's eye darts from one to another, wanting to take it all in, fascinated by life. Just wonderful.

Though Pietro Germi's Seduced and Abandoned is about serious things (an underaged girl is raped and impregnated by her sister's fiancé in the first reel, true whether she "gave in" or not), it nevertheless manages to be an absurdist family comedy of the highest order. Absurdist and satirical, springing from Germi's criticism of a law then on the books that one could get away from criminal charges against a woman by marrying her. But Germi takes his time getting to that plot point, for the most part interested in attacking the social order that would vilely shame the victim (and make no mistake, folks, this is THE movie about slut-shaming par excellence), with even the guy not wanting to marry her, jail or not, because she's damaged goods (which he damaged), and the patriarch (who keeps his daughters under lock and key, just coming short of chastity belts) desperate not to have his family name blemished to the point of trying to run a massive con on the town to hide these events. And it's FUNNY because the film is most definitely punching up. The fools and hypocrites are sent up, there are funny side-characters in the justice system, there's an amusing subplot about the spurned daughter being matched to a destitute, suicidal aristocrat (which was right out of Jane Austen), and you're never not with poor abused Agnese who once dreamt of ending up with this older boy. I think the way a certain ring is forced on a certain finger is just about THE image of the tragi-comedy.

The Search is worthy by its subject matter, dealing with all the war orphans and displaced children left in post-WWII Germany, many from concentration camps. There is an element of historical proceduralism that illuminates the audience on what was done with them, or for then, and uses an international cast to fully represent the Tower of Babel this created (no bad accents here except where characters are using their off-language). The narration is rather artless and intrusive, but it goes away once we get into the second act. This is background to a Czech woman looking all over the country for the young son she was separated from, and the traumatized, initially non-verbal boy's story itself, running from the American reintegration camp, being befriended by a G.I. (he and Montgomery Clift forge a very cute relationship), and various near misses that keep parent and child apart (wherein lies the tension, and I think we can forgive whatever melodramatic turns are in store for them). Unfortunately, the available copy of this film has weird sound problems, warbling on the background sound track which I personally recognize as what happens when you do a noise reduction pass that includes a a sound you don't want to actually eliminate. Was the copy that aired on TCM just bad, or was the digital transfer a wreck? I don't know, but viewer beware, it really was quite distracting.

Odds Against Tomorrow concerns a relatively simple heist, but is more concerned with its three characters' descent into the desperation needed to commit to it, in particular Harry Belafonte's gambling addict and Robert Ryan's racist unemployed veteran. Neither feels this job is as easy as their retired cop friend would have it, and both have misgivings (for Ryan, it's working with a black man), but their lives keeps delivering hard knocks in terms of money and pride, which pushes them to say yes. And of course, like most heist movies, it's gonna go wrong, and despite so well thought-out procedural elements, it goes amazingly wrong. Some red herrings - or at least problems that don't pay off but that you can imagine would have down the line - but when it comes right down to it, it wouldn't have been nearly as bad if Ryan hadn't been a racist pig. This same year (1959), Belafonte's production company also released The World, The Flesh and the Devil, which was also about race relations, wrapped in genre. And Odds Against Tomorrow is apocalyptic in its own way, even if that means its last line is a little on the nose. Heist or no, the film stands as a deft character study with a cool jazz soundtrack.

A biopic about Barbara Graham, a woman put on death row for her alleged involvement of old widow during a robbery gone wrong, I Want to Live! stars Susan Hayward in the lead role, and she gives an excellent performance, well supported by director Robert Wise at what might be the height of his powers. He's not content to simply present the facts of the case, but adds a lot of interesting visuals, editing, ambiguity, and most of all, I think, real empathy for the character. You can almost forget the film is based on well-researched true events. Wise does a lot of juggling, starting as a jazzy Noir and ending up, in the third act, with a death row procedural that, three years after the events depicted, must have been fairly shocking to audiences. Now, the facts of the case forgotten, it still works as a story about the failings of the justice system, the role of the media in creating public opinion (both ways), and well, the death penalty given how systemically prejudicial the whole thing can be. As I've often said, I'm not much for biopics or "true events", but Wise and Hayward (and time) make me forget it is one.

Before he made Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray plunged head-first into the disaffected youth genre with his freshman effort, They Live by Night, the story of really naive teens who run off together, he (Farley Granger) just broken out of prison by a gang of toughs and on the run for crimes he took part in, she (Cathy O'Donnell) a bored girl next door who falls in like with him. They don't really know anything, including the fact they have no hope of settling down. It's quite edgy and forward-thinking at times, with helicopter shots lending some frantic energy to the escape scenes and the inferred sex and violence. And bold in that it never shows you any of the crimes, always cutting to the aftermath and to the film's real focus - the relationship. At the same time, I found it unbearably old-fashioned and syrupy at times, the Hollywood score in particular, and the mannered line delivery in those breathless romantic scenes. It's like Ray was reaching for a more realistic piece of cinema, but couldn't see his way out of an older, more theatrical way of doing things. And I hate every character's name/nickname with a passion I didn't know I had inside myself.

Ann Sheridan gets all the best lines in They Drive by Night, a movie about the trucking world as it was in 1940, and if it had been more bantery like that all the way through, I would have loved the movie. As is, it's got a topic, but not a clear story it wants to tell. Two brothers (including pre-stardom Humphrey Bogart) drive a truck, are trying to pay it off, are part of a community of drivers, have ups and down, and one of them finds love, but there's also Ida Lupino playing the femme fatale spoiler, and while she's good as this tiny, angular blade of a dame, she seems to belong in another movie. So it all comes across as this happens and then this happens and then this happens... abandoning one road after another and after its flirtation with Noir, ending up in a cute - yes, I'll admit that - but tonally askew ending. I was engaged all the way through, but couldn't tell if I was watching a drama, a comedy, a romance, a thriller, or a melodrama, as if the movie had been made by six different writers and directors handing their work over to the next person like some exquisite corpse. The world would wait another 17 years for the Brits to make a more focused truck driver opus, Hell Riders.

I like the contrast between Barbara Stanwyck and Marilyn Munroe in Clash by Night, and it's all about the women, this one, as the men do not deserve them in the least, but I guess prospects are poor in this small fishing town. Stanwyck is disappointed and bitter, and she marries out of convenience more than anything. Though she wants to be swept off her feet and, I'll say it, dominated, she ends up with a fairly timid husband, at least until he finds out about her inevitable affair and blows up. Meanwhile, Munroe plays a more naive, younger woman in a toxic relationship with a violent a-hole, but somehow comes off as more liberated, giving as good as she gets. In the world of the film (and the play it adapts), this might be construed as a good match. All in all, it makes for a gritty relationship drama, but it's still an artifact of its time, where women are more or less happy to be dominated and family is a value that triumphs over others. For all its texture and psychology, its subordination to '50s values means it ends rather abruptly, as if watching any more would put the lie to the resolution. Stanwyck's character can never be happy and it's a pipe dream that choosing EITHER man will lead to that. We turn away before we have to learn that essential truth. Pretty great dialog, and the acting is of course impeccable.

A post-war romcom that manages to be a lot of fun, I Was a Male War Bride (I keep wanting to write/read/say I Was a Mail Order Bride, but that's a whole other thing) matches spirited no-nonsense Ann Sheridan with a very grumbly, supposedly French (haha) Cary Grant soon to pull out of Occupied Germany. They have a history that sells the idea that these two could get together despite the bickering, and most of the movie is about their last mission together. Your basic romcom situation where the characters hate each other, she him because he's been handsy in the past, him her because she's a bit of a jinx and he keeps being humiliated through some comic consequence or other. It's fun, and it doesn't stop once they get married and U.S. Army bureaucracy creates all sorts of absurd complications because the system was just never designed for service WOMEN. Maybe she SHOULD have mail-ordered him after all. Grant plays the punching bag admirably, and Sheridan is (and has) a lot of fun too.

The title character of The Man Who Came to Dinner, a celebrity critic/broadcast personality who slips and falls on a small-town doorstep and ends up staying over though the holidays, is so obnoxious and irritating that I can't possibly get behind this movie. I'm not necessarily blaming Monty Woolley, but I do wonder if a more charming actor could have salvaged it. On the page as on screen though, there's very little to redeem this selfish, shouting boor who manipulates and browbeats anyone who doesn't give in immediately to his unreasonable demands. I get that it's a caustic comedy about such a person, but the play's writer (who based it on someone real) is much too invested in attacking his target than in giving the character humanity. There was an opportunity with the zany aunt, but an egregiously absurd twist killed any hope. The movie gets worse, not better, when his entourage come calling, wasting Ann Sheridan on an actress fatale with high airs, and the already irritating Jimmy Durante shouting up a storm. It's a little hard to get into the romance subplot between Bette Davis and white-bread Richard Travis, honestly, because I don't even buy that "all is lost" when they say it is. Keep off your Christmas lists.

If you liked The Great, you'll like Queen Christina, about a similar forward-looking female monarch, this one set in 17th-Century Sweden. History conforms to Hollywood norms, of course, with an almost completely fictional romance (though there were rumors) and a completely invented ending. The romance with the Spanish ambassador kind of replaces her historical conversion to Catholicism (which he did help facilitate), but as this is not a story most audiences are likely to know (taught/filmed history is skewed to English-speaking countries), it's easy to ignore the liberties taken and just wonder, did this happen? One detail that is true is that Christina adopted male dress (we can make certain assumptions), and had to fight her father's ghost as his regime continued to support the war he died in when she was a child. Bringing peace and enlightenment to her people proved difficult because male courtiers ran the show. I like Greta Garbo a lot in this. She is entirely believable as a powerful, savvy queen. Believing she could pass as a boy like we're in an Elizabethan comedy however, not so much. Shakespeare is not invoked, but Molière is, and theater is an interest that would animate Christina's life beyond the time frame of the film. I kind of wish Garbo had done a sequel just to watch her put on shows and spar with five different popes.

The Swimmer is an interesting experiment that reminds me of Tom Hardy's much later Locke, but switch the car out for a series of pools. Burt Lancaster's Ned Merrill decides to get to his house by crashing every pool on the way, across a posh valley community. Sometimes he's treated as a long-absent friend, sometimes as a pariah, but everyone knows everyone, and through these encounters on the "river", we start to get a sense of what is going on. It's not exactly true to say we discover his story, but it does expose his character, and where he is in the present time. I don't think it's a spoiler to say it's the tale of a mental breakdown, because Lancaster's vacant smile telegraphs it very early on. Supporting by beautiful cinematography, this is a side-eyed take on the dark voyage into the soul, deconstructing a man one pool at a time, each one representing a memory but also a different malaise, on the way to self-destruction. Water often symbolically washes away the sins, but Ned actually gets dirtier as we go. Also, Ned hits on a young Joan Rivers!

I'd seen Joe E. Brown in movies, but You Said a Mouthful was my first Joe E. Brown vehicle. I was essentially here for early-career Ginger Rogers, and she's not the best used as a comedy romantic interest putting on a high nasally voice. But then everyone is a caricature in this, it's just that brand of comedy. Brown is the office nerd and pushover who invents a new kind of swimsuit, gets an inheritance, but not really, mostly just an adopted son, and winds up being mistaken for a champion swimmer, forcing him to swim the channel between Catalina Island and the West Coast to win the heart of one Ms. Rogers. It's all connects, I guess, but for a while it feels like a latter-day Simpsons episode where we keep jumping from one situation to another. Once we're on the Island, things get better and the race itself has a lot of fun, old-fashioned gags, and some pleasant stunt work. Of course, everyone being a caricature extends to little Farina as the adopted son, which means his portrayal is borderline racist (he's a useful character in the story and more level-headed that Brown's, but we're deep in "magic negro" territory with this one). An artifact of its time, You Said a Mouthful is still a mildly amusing puff piece.

The main reason to watch 1936's San Francisco is for the earthquake scenes at the end, and indeed the effects are excellent, and the tragedy poignant. What leads up to it makes it seem like God treated the city like he did Sodom or Gomorrah, with obstinate sin and bitterness in Clarke Gable's character more or less sparking the event, while Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy, his better angels, fail to make him see the light. It's mostly frustrating to watch MacDonald treated as an object of desire whose talents must be subordinate to her reciprocating the "love" her admirers/employers say they feel for her, though I do enjoy her operatic style of singing more here than in musical comedies where I just can't understand a word of the vocals. In this case, it adds to the religious element that she sings in a choir and through the last sequences as God appears to rebuild San Francisco into something that ISN'T a den of sin and decadence. I guess he'll get around to Las Vegas eventually.

Koreyoshi Kurahara's The Warped Ones goes for broke in terms of presenting unlikable characters, specifically the irredeemable delinquent (criminal is really word) Akira who, with every breath, repudiates proper Japanese society (and his friends aren't a great bunch either). One character calls him the modern man, and it's a believable statement for Japan, which by 1960 had a generation of war orphans living in a disillusioned, rudderless, occupied country. Akira's obsession with jazz, an American form, takes things into the symbolic, and his violation of a young woman (and subsequent attempts to dishonor her and her fiancé who had engineered his last juvenile incarceration) essentially makes him an American avatar doing the same to Japan, corrupting its values and shaming its defeated people. The scene with Akira and a black former G.I., taking a ride in a sports car and going swimming perhaps exemplifies America's deafness to people's suffering overseas, even when they are responsible. That's perhaps the only time Akira is at all sympathetic, otherwise portrayed as an amoral animal, grimacing and moving like an ape (which has disturbing racist undertones I can't quite decode), actively LOOKING to do wrong so he can stick it to the Man. Along the way, he's started to think EVERYONE is the Man, is the problem. Dangerous and disturbing, even the camera work looks like daring guerilla stuff.

Roman Polanski's directorial debut is the minimalistic Polish film Knife in the Water, which feels like a thriller, but is really more of a relationship drama, in which a married couple picks up a young hitchhiker who ends up being invited on their one-day sailing trip on a lake. What unfolds is a dangerous dick-measuring context, in which you're never sure whether you should be more wary of the older man or the younger man. After all, bringing a young transient with a knife about your small boat is a classic recipe for disaster, but why did the overbearing husband invite him aboard in the first place? The wife seems underwritten in comparison, but once the two men are symbolically emasculated through a kind of mutually-assured destruction of ego, she takes her place in the drama, and the title's knife, which was literal, but could also have represented the sharp-angled craft, becomes the emotional one she's able to twist in her husband's wound. I very much like that ambiguous ending, which speaks to his new impotence. The available print is missing a lot of subtitles though. Like, I'm okay with not getting every little nautical order given, but I sometimes felt like I was missing something more relevant (the kid's poem, for example). What's up with that, translators?

Black Orpheus is not a direct translation of the Orpheus myth to modern-day Brazil, but rather lets itself be inspired by its details, and unless I'm very much mistaken, mixes in elements of the similar "rescue from Hades" myth of Demeter and Persephone, and from them also stems the cyclical nature of day/night and death/rebirth that intersects with this retold story. Though set in the favelas overlooking Rio, Camus' roving, often documentary-style, is looking for Greco-Roman imagery, finding it in a building her, a clutch of chorus-like faces in a window there. And sometimes, he loses himself in the Bacchanal, though one can hardly deny the music and visuals are lush and beautiful. A new Orpheus and Eurydice meet, turning their lives upside down, and things get strangely hallucinatory during Carnival when the figure of death shows up. If you know the myth, you know it's a tragedy, but the movie still got an audible gasp from me at a certain point (and I don't remember the last time that happened). But it's the coda that really got to me with its promised rebirth, just a wonderful ending that, like the film ultimately, revels in life and not in death.

The National Theatre Live's 2019 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream had laughing so hard during Bottom's play that I have to give it full marks. This immersive entertainment doesn't take Shakespeare's text as sacred, but I think that's for the good. Actors are able to interject anachronistic phrases in reaction to the Bard's actual dialog, and pop songs might come over the P.A. at any time, but the biggest change is to switch the Titania and Oberon parts, which makes the play quite a bit gayer, but also plays to Oliver Chris' strengths more than if he'd played Oberon, erm, straight. It does make Gwendoline Christie's Titania a witchier character, but perhaps this story about a magic roofie is more forgivable (as Puck asks of us) if it's a woman doing it to a man. The play also makes something of Theseus and Hippolyta's subplot (a bit of a "who cares?" proposition in most stagings), totally leaning into the fact the Big T stole himself an Amazon Queen in a military action. The famous Night will also have an effect on them, and the text is well directed to attain this effect. But of course, the play only works if the rude mechanicals are funny, and they are. Hammed Animashaun was the best part of Barber Shop Chronicles, and he's great here, and I love how much Theseus is on board with the bad play, and how it echoes back to the Oberon/Bottom relationship in this version. This is a full entertainment, with the fairies doing acrobatics and ribbon work and singing, actors going down into the crowd and improvising little bits... It's just joyously FUN. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Role-playing: Played in our biweekly Star Trek Adventures game. Basically treating the guest-starring obnoxious scientist as a punching bag - if my people person Bolian who still keeps in touch with the Nausicaan who once broke his back can't stand him, you know he's a jerk - a shared joke that made us chuckle quite a bit as the plot continued to deepen. Here we thought the Gamma Quadrant planet below would be its own story, but it most definitely ties into the aliens that transported our ship to the back end of the galaxy. The aliens are pretty weird - and I don't trust them one bit no matter how beatific their image of themselves is - and definitely intriguing; not just humans with stuff stuck to their faces. Fun session and definitely better "SF" than the similarly-themed Voyager...

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