This Week in Geek (7-13/06/20)

Buys

Wanted to build up my Jack Kirby library a bit and bought TwoMorrow's Dingbat Love, a nice hardcover collection of never-seen 1970s Kirby projects. Two unused Dingbats of Danger Street tales , True-Life Divorce, the abandoned newsstand magazine that was too hot for its and Soul Love, the unseen ’70s romance book.

"Accomplishments"

At home: I possibly laughed at Wayne's World back when it was new, but I can't be sure. Today, I can appreciate it and it definitely has a place in popular culture that goes beyond the sketches that spawned it, but I'm not particularly moved by comedies that star broad cartoon characters in what is ostensibly the real world (there is a LOT of irritating mugging at the camera). I'll give the movie its due, however. The trick of making these two juvenile local cable access hosts have access to the camera, going meta, etc. is a great touch, and while the movie's always aiming to get to places where Wayne and Garth can say their famous lines from SNL, it appears the sketch series was a lot deeper than most. You realize there are a LOT of catch phrases to get through and no need to repeat them. That's rare for an SNL movie. And of course, it's full of iconic moments like the Bohemian Rhapsody sing-along, Wayne speaking Cantonese, the guitar store that won't let you play Stairway to Heaven, the soft-spoken Alice Cooper, the product placement, and the multiple endings, as well many good, cracking lines and movie/TV spoofs. Now if only the two leads didn't look like sketch comedians in bad wigs, making faces at the audience. That said, the least believable thing in the movie is that anyone thinks Tia Carrere's act is at all metal. But she does seem to be having a lot of fun, and I do like her in this.

Obviously Wayne's World 2 has to hit some of the same notes as the first film, and it wouldn't be Wayne's World without the same catch phrases, but somewhat surprisingly, it does enough of a remix to stand out and doesn't go for the same exact jokes. I would, in fact, say it's on par with the original in everything but how iconic it's become (well, how could it?). Now, "let's put on a show" is one of the most trite and overdone movie plots possible, but I think that's part of the joke. Replacing Rob Lowe with Christopher Walken is a definite improvement, and happily, Wayne and Cassandra are still together (though Wayne's ugly jealousy still comes between them). On this second go, they've managed to corral more guest stars to enliven random scenes - though I have little use for Garth's film noir subplot with a fatale Kim Basinger seeing as it doesn't really resolve - and with their TV and history spoofs, show a deft understanding of pop culture that doesn't age as badly as Scary Movie etc. Less outright mugging too. But like WW1, WW2 never managed to make me laugh out loud (hm, maybe I should use those abbreviations).

I've seen many small SF/horror movies lately that are clear tributes to The Twilight Zone, but The Vast of Night really wears it on its sleeve, with a more overt reference right up top. Indeed, we often return to the odd free-standing cathode-tube screen over the course of the movie, and sometimes even go to a black frame, turning the film into radio. Perhaps an evocation of Orson Wells' War of the Worlds broadcast? This is, after all, a UFO story as seen through the eyes and ears of a radio disc jockey and a telephone operator in a sleepy 1950s town. A triumph of style over substance, there's a lot to admire in terms of recreating an era, letting the camera glide around town to create a clear geography, and letting the story play out as a kind of radio play. Think, if you can, of a mix between Signs and Pontypool. Unfortunately, it's not as clever or original as Pontypool, and I feel we're heading for an inescapable conclusion and not much of a twist at all. As a movie, it looks cool and takes chances. Its characters are good, especially Sierra McCormick who is quite convincing as a period teen. As a plot, it's rather generic, and the audience if forever ahead of the characters.

When Donald Pleasence is your doctor, you know you're in a horror movie. The Devil Within Her AKA I Don't Want to Be Born AKA Shirley's Baby AKA Son of Satan doesn't waste any time taking the visceral aspect of Rosemary's Baby up a notch with Joan Collins giving birth immediately and the baby tasting her blood in the opening minutes. So Rosemary? Or The Exorcist? It actually came out before The Omen, but it's like that too. Whichever film it seems like, it's really more like Child's Play, with a frankly ridiculous killer baby offing the people it doesn't like (and it doesn't like anyone). And that ridiculousness is what makes the movie fun despite the unconvincing metaphysical plot mechanics (I think they missed a trick being unambiguous about Hercules' threat - it could have been a warning) and obvious padding (a sex scene here, walking around town there, go on too long). A bright, colorful British horror flick that taps directly into the tropes of its era, with some recognizable stars and crazy violence. It's not gonna win any awards, but it's a fair 90 minutes' entertainment. Also, a score by Ron Grainer, composer of the Doctor Who theme tune.

Does Georges Franju have a thing for masks? Maybe it's just that I've only seen Eyes Without a Face and, now, Judex, but there's definitely a cinematic interest there. And indeed, his Judex never really takes off the metaphorical mask and remains a figure of mystery, a vigilante without an origin or a stated motivation. But we recognize the pulp tropes. He's kind of the French answer to the Shadow. Adapted from Feuillade's 1916 serial, the film never really escapes its origins (and as a loving tribute, is probably not meant to), so the plot is rather convoluted, with the hero's helpers coming out of nowhere deep into the movie, and reversals and twists coming hard and fast, some of them hardly believable. If Judex himself remains unapproachable, the villains are better backgrounded, and Francine Bergé is particularly cool as a ruthless, well, Catwoman. She's the one to watch. Judex is a slick and stylish retro-pulp adventure that's a lot of fun in part because you never really know where it's going, and at the very least, makes you want to discover the longer silent original.

Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravatt follow The Flame and the Arrow up with The Crimson Pirate, a fun adventure romp at the top of which Lancaster tells us to believe only half of what we see. And he's right. Half of this swashbuckling movie is really a Looney-Tunes cartoon, where people take the full brunt of broadsides cannon balls and walk away with black smudges on their faces, and yet a few minutes later a single shot outright kills over a dozen men. It's a precarious balance, but if Lancaster and Cravatt have proven anything, it's that they're very good acrobats. That tightrope is nothing to them. Lancaster plays the eponymous pirate, a rather progressive fellow whose ploys may be a little too clever for his men (who lose faith because they can't play the long game), and who embraces what I can only call steampunk technology, at the behest of a scientist friend. In other words, this is a pirate movie that has a lot of fun and provides sequences you won't have seen a half dozen times. Not to say it doesn't lean into the usual tropes. As ever, we're told the pirate has nefarious C.V., but when he falls in love with a woman, he's gonna turn into Empire-Strikes-Back Han Solo. Shame about Eva Bartok's robotic performance then.

It seems almost unbelievable that The Connection was made in 1961, but entirely believable that it was denied a license by the censors. Obviously, the subject matter is fairly bold. We spend almost two hours with a roomful of heroin junkies, most of them jazz musicians who create a kind of score as the camera moves around. Formally, it is a faux-documentary, in which the film maker appears to get too involved, and eventually leaves the film in the hands of his cameraman to finish (a classic distancing device à la Jonathan Swift is used at the beginning to make you believe in its legitimacy), but it often feels a touch too scripted to be real... and yet the junkies could be "performing" for the camera and are often accused of that by the frustrated documentarist. And it's the little touches I find most convincing and surprising - hearing a man pee in a toilet behind a door, the word "shit"... Not what you expect from 1961 cinema. Truth is, The Connection is based on a play (theater being miles ahead of movies at this time, though the play was about staging a play, just as this is about making a movie, clever) and you might recognize an actor or two (the cameraman is Roscoe Lee Browne first movie role, for example), and of course, the end credits reveal all. Beyond the conceit, Shirley Clarke's film takes a non-judgmental look at addiction, while also imposing a judgmental look at the film's own voyeurism. It feels true even if it is staged. The "American New Wave" would have to wait a few more years, maybe because the film wasn't widely seen.

Anthony Mann's 5th western with James Stewart, The Far Country, continues his exploration of the lone wolf gunslinger archetype as a selfish bastard - a repudiation of more simple western heroes like the Lone Ranger - this time taking Stewart and his sidekick to Alaska and then the Yukon. What's interesting about Mann's westerns is that while embracing the basic tropes of the Old West (the Old North?), he also gives them a gritty realism. The hero is only out for himself, the lawlessness is in the service of economic pursuits, the wrong people die bloody deaths, and the landscape is by turns muddy and majestic (here, we have Jasper Alberta subbing for the Yukon and it's terrific). Mann's westerns are messy and dirty and prefigure the revisionist westerns of the modern era. In The Far Country, Jimmy Stewart (who, face it, I would probably watch in virtually anything anyway) is particularly good at avoiding heroics, even though the plot keeps trying to drag him into that position again and again. In the end, I'm not sure he's anything better than an anti-hero, as revenge isn't particularly altruistic, though you can see the moment his self-serving nature is momentarily shaken. And he's only one of several interesting, even memorable, characters.

I think The Travels of Jamie McPheeters is only really known today as Kurt Russell's first big job, as a child actor playing the title character in a TV series that struggled to find an audience and was cancelled after a single season. A year later, MGM expanded the final episode into Guns of Diablo, a stand-alone movie that could be sold to the European market. Make no mistake, despite having added some slightly (very slightly) more adult content and presenting it in color, this adventure is quite televisual. The choice of lens, the almost empty frontier town, the plot cribbed from western tropes, the way we get into an extended flashback to give context for the past event that has come back to haunt Charles Bronson's character... None of it is very fresh, but it does flow well enough, with little Kurt doing well with his subplot about a sick old man who will become important to his ultimate destiny. The fact they recast the dad should give you clues as to what the new filmed material was all about. The reason to see this is in part because it is a curiosity, but I'd say, for the actors. 12-year-old Kurt Russell in only his second movie role (TV reprise though it may be), Bronson a movie star in a TV production, and though I see no reason for giving her latin make-up, Susan Oliver (Vina in Star Trek's The Cage) is always a welcome presence.

Meet Me in St. Louis is one the best regarded Judy Garland pictures, but it doesn't do it for me. Sally Benson's book is one of those turn-of-the-century family memoirs, more interested in incident than it is in plot, less Little Women than Life with Father or Cheaper by the Dozen, especially considering the father here, a character more or less in charge of doling out levity and heart to the proceedings. Obviously, Garland is good, but she's saddled with a distracting hairdo, somewhere between helmet and mullet, and who really cares about the girls' boyfriends, who all kind of look the same and don't come close to deserving such sprightly ladies (Judy's beau is particularly white bread and the movie doesn't even care to show his marriage proposal). As a musical, I'm afraid I can't remember a single song other than the ones I knew were already in it - the theme song of course, that trolley song Jan Hooks and Nora Dunn used to sing all the time on SNL, and the iconic Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas which has since passed into the Christmas canon - even when I look at a song list. Speaking of Christmas, it's certainly the best sequence in the movie. That song, a lot of tears (bless you, Mary Astor), and nice moments at the dance and at home. I wish the rest of the film could resonate so well with me.

There's a Graduate vibe to The Clock, a non-musical romance starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker. He's a lonely soldier on leave in New York for two days. He meets the girls of his dreams. They spend the day together and don't want it to end (the milk delivery stuff is excellent), finding excuses to keep it going, and it could be devastating if they lose each in such a big city. It's when the decided they should get married to keep it going forever that they actually do lose each other, wasting what little time they have running after paperwork and judges as that eponymous clocks ticks away. And it's all such a rush, the flip side of the proverbial "whirlwind", that it loses the gentle, awkward romance of previous moments. The story allows us to stay in that final moment at the back of the bus in The Graduate for a while. Have they made a mistake? And then lo and behold, they snatch romance from the jaws of disappointing reality, bounce back, and make me wish the movie was a little more aware of history - it came out in 1945, the war should have been cancelled at the most heart-wrenching moment! And yet, I like the hopeful coda we get instead.

Though The Harvey Girls were real - wholesome waitresses sent to work in railway line restaurants across the U.S., including the Old West - their "civilizing influence" on that part of the world is probably more myth than reality. But what a great premise for a bright, sparkly period musical! Judy Garland is without question the star, and it's her across-the-tracks romance that's of interest (and her rivalry with a hardened showgirl played by Angela Lansbury), but the film does make this a bit of an ensemble piece, with other Harvey Girls getting romantic subplots (including Cyd Charisse before she was a headliner). I won't claim to be very interested in the secondary girls or their numbers, but many of the smaller parts in the film are memorable and fun. Most interestingly, the villains are more dangerous than you'd expect from a fluffy musical with amusing song and dance numbers (let's learn that new-fangled dance, the waltz!). But yeah, that crooked judge is right out of an Anthony Mann movie. The Harvey Girls works as a western, as a musical, and as a romance. Good fun.

The fact that Summer Stock was Judy Garland's last MGM musical belies the behind the scenes drama, and audiences who know her history might shake their heads a little sadly during the iconic "Get Happy" final number, shot months later so she could lose entirely too much weight to fit into the costume. And it's perhaps not helping keep the movie reality from crossing into our own when Gene Kelly's character proves to be a harsh taskmaster to his co-stars in the show within the show, y'know? But leaving all of the back stage stuff behind, Summer Stock is a very fun movie that no doubt helped cement Garland's status as a gay icon. She's a farmer in overalls and a boyish cut, dating an obvious beard for the previous four years, finding excuses not to seal the deal so she can sing her head off on a tractor. Then the show folk turn up to use her barn as a stage and she gets caught up in it, quite against her will, exposing that side of herself and making kissy face with Kelly. That's if Phil Silvers can keep from destroying the farm with his slapstick. Slave driver or not, Kelly plays a truly nice person - you can tell early on because he clears the dishes without being asked - and who can resist his newspaper dance? It's a highlight in a movie filled with fun numbers - Dig-Dig-Dig, Happy Harvest, You Wonderful You... - and I can ultimately forgive it its final silly romance switcheroo.

The Glenn Miller Story is not a collaboration you'd expect from James Stewart and Anthony Mann. It's really rather saccharine. Folksy and square is obviously one of the personas Stewart most easily adopts, but the fact a director of gritty westerns would make this... well, it certainly speaks to Miller and his wife being like this for real. I do wish he'd done more flourishes like the filters on the Louis Armstrong performance, because otherwise it's kind of your standard biopic. This happens and this happens and this happens. The music is good, obviously, even if it takes an hour for Miller to "find his sound" and churn out the hits that are still recognizable standards 80 years later (crazy!), and it's fun to get origins for the songs, fitting the biographical data, even if they ARE largely made up whole cloth. The movie is, first and foremost, a romance, and everything gets bundled into the Glenn-Helen relationship, ups, downs, songs, everything. And perhaps that's how I can forgive the "what happened there?" climax, it really ends on Helen's touching reaction.

Why the heck is Myrna Loy's name under the line when she's the main character of the 1933 version of When Women Meet? Not to say Ann Harding doesn't do a good job, and indeed, their chemistry, whether it's friendship or tension, makes their boring turns in The Animal Kingdom even more mystifying. The story, based on a 1932 play (and you do feel that), has Loy play a novelist in love with her married publisher, and her obnoxious spurned suitor (Robert Montgomery who I always find rather doofy as a romantic lead, so this works well) introducing her to the wife (Harding) under false pretenses to stir the pot. It's a lot more adult than you'd expect, and  I don't mean just in a pre-Code way. The ladies have a hypothetical conversation they could never have if they knew each other's identity, and remain honest - intellectually and emotionally - even once they've connected the dots. Better, the movie does not go for a facile Hollywood ending, not even for Montgomery's character. While the core of the story is a drama, there are many light moments, and the comedy MVP of the piece has to be Alice Brady who had me giggling a lot with her portrayal of the slow-to-the-station best friend. Yes, it's all rather talky, but it's damn good talk. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

7 Women looks to be sold as a female version of The Magnificent Seven (it's the only reason to explain the need for seven women, as they're not all useful to the plot), but to both its credit and detriment, it's very different from that. It has the feel of a western, and the second half, with the ladies' mission being invaded by Mongol brigands in 1930s' Northern China, is right out of the Seven Samurai playbook, but the ladies are more victims than they are heroines. Except Anne Bancroft's (awesome) rootin-tootin, hard-drinking'n'smoking doctor, whose solutions are still not action-based. So it's not John Ford's last action spectacular. That's fine. It's another kind of story. One that's retrograde on the racial sensitivity side of things (though I've seen much worse), yet rather progressive in other ways. You could make the case Bancroft plays an LGBTQ+ character, which makes her sacrifices more potent, but the mission's headmistress is definitely gay (and repressed, she becomes the most likely to crack). Then you have a 50-year-old pregnant lady and a vibe that questions Christian values and attitudes. While I like it, especially for its unusual features, the plotting is a bit of a mess. Plenty of incidents - the doctor's arrival and integration, the moral and sexual tug of war for the nymph of the mission, the cholera epidemic, the concerns about the pregnancy, the henpecked husband finding his courage, and the Mongols - but they don't really feel like a single story with a point to it. Maybe a bit more epilogue would have given it one, but we bail on shock, not emotional resolution.

The National Theatre Live presentation of The Madness of George III is of interest to Doctor Who fans not just because writer-actor Mark Gatiss plays the lead roll - balancing the comedy and tragedy of the king's deterioration quite well, and putting a lot of energy into the part - but also has Louise Jameson (Leela) as one of the doctors. This is in fact an adaptation that - and I don't know this for sure - fits the 50/50 movement's parameters, with as many women on stage as men, even if they're playing male characters (there are only two actual female characters in the play). Does that bother anyone? Not me. I've seen enough university productions with off-balanced casts (and professors unwilling to find plays with the proper gender distribution) for that to phase me, but in a slice of history, you can't change the characters' genders so there you have it. Still works. But while this is well acted, and there's some fun to be had with the state of 18th-Century medicine and winks at the contemporary world, I do wonder what the point of dramatizing these events is. It's not about George III's ultimate descent into madness, though I guess that's where the secret coup against him started. King goes mad, gets temporarily better, and we're out before there's a proper resolution, in a way.
Some classic MST3K movies, regardless of comedy commentary... Stranded in Space (AKA The Stranger) is TV pilot that might have done better to have TOS' Zefram Cochrane crash-land in another dimension rather than an unbelievable Orwellian counter-Earth on the other side of the sun; plays like an over-long Star Trek episode, but without any characters to latch onto. Daddy-O (AKA Downbeat, why DO bad movies have alternate titles? never mind, answered my own question) may be a crazy addition to you complete John Williams movie marathon, but is otherwise as convoluted and aimless greaser crime bop, with bad acting and worse dubbing. Next on the MST3K schedule was Gamera vs. Gyaos, which I watched and reviewed unironically - not that the Gamera sequels need help being bad, but this makes me realize just how much more terrible they with English dubs. The Amazing Colossal Man's writer: I've got a premise (did Stan Lee see this movie and come up with the Hulk?) so let's make a movie to explain the hell out of it again and again. It trudges along until the colossus eventually gets up and attacks Las Vegas, by which point all the infodumps feel remarkably pointless. The bit about the one-cell heart really got me though, no MST3K robots required. Roger Corman's It Conquered the World is defeated by its silly tree-stump monster, but once you got past the scientific info-dumps, it had a lot going for it - Peter Graves (and that speech!), Lee Van Cleef, and Beverly Garland actually all badass and stuff.

Role-playing: I gamed twice this week. One you'll hear about soon enough if you're a fan of my podcasting endeavors. The other was the biweekly Star Trek Adventures game I play in as a Bolian security officer. The ship has just been sent to the back end of the Gamma Quadrant, in an era when we've never heard of the Bajoran Wormhole. We've got 300 refugees on our hands who we call the Robinsons, not enough space, the captain's out sick, we've lost 75 minutes of time when an alien brainwave was superimposed on our own, and... well when are we going to find the time to visit that enticing planet below?! It's hard to know just where to put our energies. Because the captain's out, my character has been promoted to Chief of Security (the NPC chief has become XO to our PC XO's acting captain), but I keep reminding everyone it's just a field promotion. I mean, the captain's got to get better, right? RIGHT?!

1 comments:

John said...

There's a good history of Fred Harvey and his hospitality empire called Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West by Stephen Fried. Worth a read if The Harvey Girls sparked any interest in the real history that inspired it.

 

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