This Week in Geek (19-25/07/20)

Category: Geekly Roundup
Last article published: 26 July 2020
This is the 710th post under this label

This Week in Geek has been a feature of the blog since the very beginning, though it took a couple months before turning into proper capsule reviews of, well, mostly movies, as if watching stuff really was an "Accomplishment". And like clockwork, here it is again...

"Accomplishments"

At home: Though released in 2011, and based on a manga from the '80s, From Up on Poppy Hill has the same concerns as films made in the era picture (early '60s Japan). The B-plot about saving a school club house (we never had anything so cool) is, like the films of Ozu and other film makers who worked in the '50s and '60s, about the friction between traditional Japanese values and post-war modernity. The A-plot, a sweet teenage romance that could be thrown into chaos and heartbreak by a surprise connection between the two kids explores the fact that the country now has two generations of war orphans. And even the animation and designs are a little old school compared to some of Ghibli's other straight dramas. But it fits. Old school, but not cheap. It's quite lovely, in fact, and you spend the first half salivating for all the anime food Umi prepares, and being enchanted by the easy relationships created between school mates or boarders. The idyllic Yokohama presented here is a nice place to spend 90 minutes. The best thing about the film is its soundtrack, which is just great.

Director Kazuo Ikehiro gives the Zatoichi movies a shot in the arm with Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, trading its zen pastoral cinematography for dynamic experimental shots, shocking edits, and a lot more color. 1964's crop of four movies (man, they were cranking these out at a furious rate, weren't they?) is the first to show a gory blood spurt (right at camera) and is generally more violent. You know you're in for something different from the opening, which has Ichi fighting in a black abstract space that represents his blindness, the kind of opening we'd get used to seeing in kung fu films of the next decade. Ikehiro has men run over his camera, overlaps images, and flash pans from scene to scene, among other tricks. This may signal a more grindhouse style for the franchise, but as long as Katsu is in the role, it all still feels of a piece. The plot is also a departure from the now tired "fugitive from the yakuza" stories, as tax money goes missing and Ichi is blamed for it. The stakes feel less personal, and I failed to get as invested in the other characters, but it did also lead to different kinds of action scenes, so I'd say this is still a good direction for the franchise.

To make sure the new direction takes, Kazuo Ikehiro does two Zatoichi movies in a row, and the second, Zatoichi's Flashing Blade, is I think the better film. In fact, it may be the best in the series since the first. Ikehiro still brings a lot of color and dynamic camera work, but he lays off the experimental tricks and instead concentrates on crafting impressive and unusual fight scenes. The story also feels more personal for Ichi, which I thought was lacking in Chest of Gold, and easier to follow despite being as convoluted as any of them. We have Ichi getting shot early and being saved by a secret benefactor who he tracks down to repay his debt, not knowing his would-be assassin has an intimate connection to the helpful family. The setting includes a disputed river ford, and a fireworks festival, which adds a lot of color and texture to the piece. Great stuff, with at atmospheric final fight in the dark as the sky explodes. My only complaint is that the script sometimes plays Ichi's senses as superhuman, and sometimes he's quite blind and talking to the air after people have left the room, which only distracted me into wondering (pointlessly) if he's putting on an act in the latter case.

It's hard to watch Fight, Zatoichi, Fight and not recognize the inspiration for Lone Wolf and Cub - though I don't remember Lone Wolf ever breastfeeding Cub - but I can't imagine it wasn't. (The other Zatoichi-Lone Wolf connection, of course, is that Zatoichi star Shintaro Katsu was producer on the first three Lone Wolf and Cub films, and director Kenji Misumi directed three of them.) Speaking of Misumi, he made the first Zatoichi film, but here, despite some blazingly beautiful vistas, he's nevertheless working within the mold set by Ikehiro in the previous two movies. A strong one-off premise - Ichi trying to deliver a baby to its father after the mother takes a blade made for him - and interesting and violent action, as opposed to the more lyrical approach of the original Tale. The torch fight is especially good, and the whole narrative is essentially a series of pleasant "how's he going to get out of this one?" set pieces. And for all that, it's also a touching story, with Ichi getting a sense of what he's missing in his drifter's life. Imagining himself a father makes a nice change from the usual doomed romance.

If Adventures of Zatoichi sounds like a generic title this far into the series, it is nonetheless apt. It might also have been called Zatoichi's Greatest Hits. Still, I'm impressed that all the little plots do tie into each other. Ichi must help a girl who's brother has been exiled, another who's father has disappeared, the over-taxed town folk, an old drunk who reminds him of his father (an element of his past haunting him is definitely a Zatoichi trope), a dueling samurai who wants to test himself against him, and it culminates in a big fight against a corrupt yakuza boss. And all Ichi wanted to do was attend New Year's celebrations. Well, a lot of people won't live to see the New Year. It's not the most memorable of the series, but it creates a lot of easily identifiable characters (including the two kids, the samurai who DOESN'T want to fight - wish they'd actually done something with him - etc.) and I'm all for Miwa Takada again, even in a different role, as she's always a touching presence on screen. It's not a bad looking picture either, even if it isn't as flashy as others.

King Vidor's The Crowd is a silent classic about an ordinary man in the big city, and like a lot of ordinary men, he has the ambition to not be so ordinary. Perhaps like many, he thinks the American Dream is owed him, but he's lacking either the will, the talent, or the connections to make it happen. That Vidor keeps this so light and breezy through most of the run time despite its lead heading for self-made tragedy is a triumph. The other triumph is just how inventive Vidor is with the camera. It's extremely mobile on location, and he uses special effects to achieve some impressive shots. He also understands his theme, with "the crowd" being used a number of ways in the film, as John tries to stand out from it. And yet another triumph is that you care what happens even though John isn't a good person, worker, husband or father. His wife Mary is a bloody saint! Audiences in the Roaring 20s rejected this, but Vidor seems prescient in his depiction of the struggles of the common man during the coming Great Depression. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

There's only so much of Errol Flynn's roguish charm one can take if that's his only redeeming quality, and Silver River pushes that limit. He seems to have been a good Union officer, but his unjust discharge turns him into a ruthless, selfish tycoon, the kind people might have admired when the film was made, but justifiably hate today. He starts his business empire by stealing another man's livelihood and goes on from there. I was watching for Ann Sheridan, and when she's trading barbs with Flynn, I liked her and the movie had my attention. Once she warms to him, she effectively becomes a non-character, more of a moral compass in human form, as the film becomes a lesson in ethics that, for all its big speeches, doesn't really make Flynn pay for what he's done. And in that moral fable, Flynn also loses all semblance of a consistent character. Started off well, but I think the rogue character works better as an underdog. As soon as he's on top, he's just a bully, and no longer deserves to be played as a "hero" OR get Ann Sheridan's attentions.

Something I might call British Neo-Realism, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a film I respect more than like. It's the era of the "angry young man" narrative, and as a Baby Buster (I don't like being lumped in with GenXers, naturally), I totally get the want and need to question authority. But then, what are you doing instead? Young Albert Finney is excellent as Arthur, our chief angry young man, but Arthur rejects societal norms in the most obnoxious and useless way. He parties, he fools around, he plays dangerous pranks... And I get that this is a portrait of a generation, but it lacked one of two things to make me want to get invested in it. Either I need to understand the system he's rebelling against - he just seems to be doing it because he's a jerk, frankly - either the protagonist makes a point or rights a wrong (even if just by example) - but being a sociopath is not the same as questioning or rebelling against the status quo. As a portrait of disgruntled youth and blue collar Britain, it's fine. Well written, well shot, well acted. I just couldn't get a handle on why I should care.

At the end of the '50s and start of the 60s, Tony Richardson was in the business of producing "young angry man" movies (some he wrote like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, some he also directed like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner). In between those two films, he adapted the play A Taste of Honey, which at first feels like it's going to be a "young angry woman" film, but though Rita Tushingham's Jo is quite angry at the world at the beginning, she's quick to soften when, well when she gets a "taste of honey". A character study more than it is a plot, the film is slice of life, but the lives are those of people likely never seen in movies at the time. Single mothers, a mixed race romance, a gay man (there may even be call to see Jo as a trans man in a world that can't put a name to it). There's also the suggestion that Jo's father had Down Syndrome. Contemporary cinema has barely caught up with this small 1961 feature. What I am most taken with is its farewell scenes. Jo only gets a taste of the good life, and so these relationships are necessarily brief "stolen seasons" in between living with her deficient mother (nonetheless played affectingly by Dora Ryan). The farewell on the moving bridge and the final goodbye in among sparklers lighting a dirty slum are beautiful poetic moments. In the middle of its grimy realism is a real romanticism. At first, I was a little unsure of its open-ended ending, as if the film had just stopped with nary a resolution, but after having slept on it, I appreciate the film more and find its images have stayed with me.

Rita Tushingham and Peter Finch explore what it means to be in a May-December romance in Girl with Green Eyes, and the action is very much her growing realization that their experience gap is a problem. That's in part the green of her eyes. On a surface level, she's a young Irish girl, raised as a strict catholic and he's an atheistic English writer, so the experience gap isn't just age-based. It's more universal than that. And so the green is also the color of envy and jealousy, so while he doesn't cheat on her, she still feels jealous of where he is in his life and that she can't quite be his partner. She's definitely the focus of the film, but I can also understand where Finch's character is coming from. He's too old and pragmatic to play games, so her naive manipulations don't make a dent, and he has a speech early on (that unfortunately the film insists on rehashing at the end in case we weren't paying attention) about the impermanence of any relationship and of the self (they're interrelated). Finally understanding that helps her get over that, as obviously, a young person is in a state of flux already. Very weird how they cut off her narration at the end though.

Myrna Loy as a blonde is just weird to me. I can really believe she was a last-minute replacement on Consolation Marriage, which already had a brunette star in Irene Dunne (and Hollywood won't trust audiences to tell the difference between two thin brunettes so), as Loy feels quite "written" and stagey too. A couple years later, she would have played the Dunne role and brought character and energy to it. As the other end of a romantic triangle, she needs to be a lesser choice. And that's what I find disappointing. The premise, especially if they don't want to make it a comedy, is rife for psychological complexity - two people who were jilted by the loves of their lives for "status marriages" get into a platonic marriage arrangement themselves, but then the other two come back after their marriages have crashed and burned as spoilers for the relationship you're following. But if it's clear the spoilers are inferior matches, the movie's just TELLING you the leads are in love with them, but you can't really see it. It's a non-dilemma. So it's okay, just not very satisfying.

A little boy and a horse are stranded on a desert island in The Black Stallion, and that first hour is just beautiful. Director Carroll Ballard, possibly filtered through his experience in nature documentaries, just lets the story unfold with almost no words. Percussive and sweeping music, well-shot environments, and the developing relationship between the boy and the stallion. It's touching and it's great. And then they get rescued and sent back to late '40s America. Now, what I'm gonna say will be as true of the book as the film, but I find very little joy in the second half of the story. First, while I could tap into the adventure on the deserted island, the pair in the civilized world makes it harder to forgive the children book logic of some of the scenes. The under-utilized Terry Garr, for example, is a mom who has her son disappear for more than a day and night without a reaction. But what really bugs me is that the story doesn't know what to do with them except the obvious and boring: Turning the kid into a jockey, and the stallion into a race horse. It's a last minute sports movie and I felt sad that the stallion's need to run didn't feel like a moment of freedom, but one of servility.

As a fan of Stephen Sondheim, I kind of insist on seeing whatever musical he's contributed to, even if it's always a little strange when he didn't also write the music. That's the case for Gypsy, the musical biopic about 1930s burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee and her fearsome stage mother, which is sunk, I think, largely because there are no strong singers in the show. Not Rosalind Russell, not Natalie Wood, even the singing kids are just okay. They evidently cast for acting talent or screen charisma, and even if it's all quite "musical" in terms of sets, it grounds the story in some kind of reality. Wood is affecting as the non-favorite daughter who dreams as big as her mother but is never given a shot, and Russell gets the lion's share of the humor, but remains a tragic figure, a showbiz addict who abuses her kids into being her proxies, then resents them when they attain success. Karl Malden is good as the mom's long-suffering boyfriend. It has things to say, but it's still a showbiz biopic, with a biopic structure, and basically requires an audience that wants to watch little kids perform batton-twirling, then later grow into young women who do (very demure) strip-teases. In a way, the fact that it's about an act that doesn't work means a lot of its sequences are under-par on purpose. At almost two and a half hours, that's a lot of clunky stage work.

I don't watch a lot of comedy specials, essentially because I'm too aware of joke construction mechanics, and I don't find myself laughing unless there's a STORY there. But I am keenly interested in tonal shifts and how a comedy show can flip into tragedy and still work. Patton Oswalt's Annihilation, made in the wake of (and as therapy for) the untimely death of his wife fits those parameters. Shot in 2017, it starts with a bunch of political jokes that he practically admits won't age well, and I can't laugh at Trumpism anymore, if I ever did. Where he gets me is in how he tells stories (like I said). When there's a specific context and an anecdote unfolding, I'm all in. Oswalt is also adept at doing crowd work and riffing on whatever answers he gets from the front row. And all the while, he's steeling himself for the tough section where he addresses his family's tragedy. This is the heart of the show, and you're laughing out loud in the middle of tears, it's expertly done, a little hard to watch, but he lets you off the hook often enough that it doesn't feel intrusive to be watching this. He ends on probably the acknowledged best bit of the show, but this, and the lesser political material at the top of the hour, are justified as part of his tribute to his late wife, what tickled her specifically, and what wisdom she left behind. Like a lot of comedy shows, it's really sections of varying quality, with visible segues to keep it in sequence; by making it personal and eventually quite raw, Oswalt achieves some measure of emotional cohesion.
Some classic MST3K movies, regardless of comedy commentary... I reviewed Gamera vs. Guiron before, but the MST3K version makes me realize just how terrible the English-language adaptations of the Gamera films are; the translation and dub are so bad, you can hear the voice actors stumbling over their nonsense lines. Earth (or Small Town USA, really) vs. the Spider is a generic giant monster movie, caused by a spider absorbing radioactive opening credits. Mighty Jack is a nonsense superspies-in-model-ships movie built from several episodes of a nonsense tv series, but the most nonsensical thing is the nonsense title. Robert Vaughn plays the eponymous clean-shaven Teenage Cave Man, but aside from amusing casting, this is is just a very boring clash of cave generations. And we finish off this batch with the sixth Showa Gamera film (previously reviewed), which even with the inferior English dub, is still the best of the original five sequels.

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