This Week in Geek (28/06-04/07/20)

Gifts

Got a couple of gifts from friends this week that are worth mentioning on this blog given its topics. DJ Nath painted me a lovely landscape with the Enterprise glimpsed in the upper atmosphere (she also got me a 3-month subscription to the Criterion Channel). And Art-Girl designed me a shirt with the Blade Runner origami unicorn on it!


"Accomplishments"

At home: Hamilton is impressive on a number of levels (one might say, every level) turning a chapter of American history into an illuminating, often moving, very clever, relevant, and linguistically-acrobatic piece of theater. The songs are great, both the comedy and tragedy work, the choreography has energy and requires as much technical mastery as the text... but what's most impressive to me is perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda's alchemical processing of tons of biographical data into a work filled with recurring motifs and double meanings as the drama heads inexorably towards that last "shot" and the fated reversal of Hamilton and Burr's core attitudes that dooms them both. Of all the double meanings, the use of cast of color to represent the Founding Fathers (while the hilarious King George and his loyalists are white) is one of the most interesting, exposing the ironies of fighting for freedom yet retaining slaves (despite several of the Founders trying to abolish it) while at the same time bringing the material into focus for contemporary audiences. There's been so much white-washing done to history by those who write or dramatize it that this bit of "black-washing" also feels quite à propos. The original-cast recording presented on Disney+ is pitch-perfect in every way and a testament to an enduring Broadway staple that subscribers will be watching over and over and over again I'm sure. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

I recognize the often cringy humor in Fleabag because I have it all around me. Phoebe Waller-Bridge has created a wonderfully frank portrait of women today, and I recognize a lot of the women in my life in her characters, even if they are pushed to comic extremes. Now of course, her lead is a terrible person (though perhaps no more than the delightfully passive-aggressive stepmother played by Olivia Coleman), motivated by her damage, but because she speaks to camera and gives it knowing looks, we're complicit. Except the show does ask what the function of the complicit camera IS, and though I found Season 1's reveal too well telegraphed to really feel "betrayed" by our narrator, Season 2 expands on just who we, "the audience" are in this drama, and where I watched Season 1's six episodes sporadically, I chugged through Season 2's. The first dealt with the trauma that created the set-up, but the second was a love story, like all things Fleabag, an inappropriate one with a priest played by Andrew Scott (probably the best I've ever seen him in anything). For a comedy, Fleabag goes to some very heavy and moving places, and I found myself weeping about as much as I was laughing.


The success of both The Good Place and Black Mirror has spawned Upload, an Amazon Prime comedy series about a guy who get digitized and placed in a virtual reality after-life a little bit before his time. But the story is not exclusive to the VR, as contact is not lost with the living world, and indeed Robbie Amell's Nathan must contend with the rich entitled girlfriend who owns his data plan, the people who possibly murdered him, and falling in love with his Angel (tech support) Nora (played by Andy Allo). The future of 2033 combines many Black Mirror type ideas and through its first season, continued to intrigue with its world-building, both in the satirical real world and the absurdist after-life. It strikes a varied tone compared to the shows I compared it with, making an overt computer gag one minute, sad and melancholy the next, with a strong romance vibe, but also a lot of thrillery tension. That is somehow works and made me hunger for the next season to be immediately available is a minor miracle, but there it is. Upload finds its own odd voice very quickly and sticks to it, and is filled with memorable, endearing characters and an impossible love affair you want to root for.

Of all the competing sitcoms about the after-life, Forever is perhaps the most perfect. Told more like a novel than a sitcom, it takes its time setting things up, doesn't stick to any given status quo, and regardless of its title, in 8 episodes, it's told a complete story. One that might make you dream of a second volume, but nevertheless, complete. It's a 4-hour experience about the tedium of marriage, what draws people together and pulls them apart, with more smiles than laughs, and a few tears along the way. Well, look. You don't have to twist my arm to watch Maya Rudolph in a lead role. She and Fred Armisen play a couple who die and are translated into ghosts (of a sort) where their humdrum (but certainly sweet) marriage can continue, into eternity. The show is more interested in that than in explaining its metaphysics, which are nevertheless absurd enough to fuel the comedy, but also some existential dread, and it's staged in such a way as to lay the metaphor bare. They might as well be alive, either content or bored with suburban routine. I would have welcomed a second season, but I think it's perfectly fine the way it is.

Celestial intervention to give (mistakenly or not) a the dead a reprieve was a common trope in 40s movies, and that makes sense. Cheating death and yet feeling death is still coming for you is a veteran's story, isn't it? A Matter of Life and Death has exactly that set-up, with David Niven jumping out of a burning plane with no parachute in the opening minutes and the proceeding (not flashing back) from there. An accident of fate allows him to survive in time to fall in love with the radio operator he last spoke to, so he's less willing to go to his assigned rest when Death catches up to him. The twin climax is to appeal the decision in Heaven, and a brain operation to alleviate his hallucinations. In the film, I have no doubt Heaven exists because there are objective scenes set in it, but real-world incident (a life-threatening procedure) is at least orchestrated as an explanation if you think it does not. In any case, while this is a sweet love story, it's the seamless effects and impressive production design that really elevate it, and I'd recommend it on that score alone. The trial isn't exactly what you think it will be either, a lot smarter and more philosophical in fact. The film likes to quote literary greats to the point of overdoing it, but that's the vibe here - a story that is fantastical in the same way The Wizard of Oz is (though reality is in color and fantasy in black and white) - a kind of tone poem about what makes life worth living.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a co-pilot dealing with a hijacking in real time in 7500, a procedural airplane film that manages to engage despite its minimalist approach. Aside from the opening credits, which show airport security footage, the camera never leaves the cabin from its sight, there is no score, and though there are some movie tropes at play - the loved one under threat, the non-zealot who might be turned - they are still dealt with in a real-world fashion. I don't think the film ever cheats in its resolutions. One of the things the lack of score enables is the right atmosphere. The sounds and feelings evoked in the first act gave me a real sense memory of how it feels to be on an airliner - the smell, the g-force, the tension - and though I know it's not possible, I could almost swear Gordon-Levitt is actually in a real cockpit on take-off. A simple story, not entirely original, but the way it's done, putting you right in closed quarters with the pilot, with only glimpses of what's happening elsewhere, really works for me. I like well-crafted procedurals, and Gordon-Levitt never feels anything less than absolutely real.

Dick Powell is an insurance investigator bored with the daily grind who gets more than he bargains for by pursuing a little adventure in Pitfall, and though I always find him a bit of an unlikely Noir hero or romantic lead, his everyman persona does work for the set-up. Lizabeth Scott is an obvious femme fatale then when she pursues a relationship with him, because why would this dame fall for a schmoe like him? Except the film has several surprises in store for us, and though Scott has all the makings, her power over men appears to be accidental and by the end I believe her when she said early on she never asked for the things a convict boyfriend sent her. To three men, she's an object to be possessed, but Powell's character is a more decent sort, whose affair weighs on him (why WOULD you cheat on Jane Wyatt? - just don't burn my Golden Age comics!), and so perhaps that's the attraction. He's a damn sight better than Raymond Burr's lumbering bully, the actual homme fatal of this piece who exudes so much menace, he ramps up the tension in his every scene. Suburban boredom rocked by Noir happenings, with a more sympathetic than usual fatale... I've only seen Lizabeth Scott in one other movie and thought of her as who you call when you can't get Lauren Bacall, but I've gained a new appreciation of her here.

I think Hardcore kind of over-eggs the pudding up front by showing how conservative George C. Scott's character is - not just that he's a man of faith, but that he think blue is too overpowering a color, stuff like that - which makes his mid-film character turn hard to believe. He's shocked, disgusted and extremely uncomfortable with the world of sex workers and pornography his runaway teenager daughter seems to have fallen into, but he can suddenly pull off a seedy alternate identity and enact his crusade like some kind of Calvinist Liam Neeson? Not sure. Similarly, the daughter's motivations aren't really foregrounded enough to make sense (especially given how long we spend in her wholesome family environment), and I gotta say, it seems like a wasted opportunity to cast Marc Alaimo as the late-third act villain and never even let him speak a word. An actor with THAT voice. Shame. Shame. That said, Hardcore still has a lot of grit, sometimes has fun (as with the delusionally "artsy" porno production, and dares to be surreal (the chase through the kink dungeon, for example). If this is a descent into hell, then Peter Boyle's scuzzy private eye acts like a corrupting devil, and his motivations are also suspect. As one of Scorsese's key writers, Paul Schrader has crafted some iconic works. As a writer-director here, his attack on religious hypocrisy (with Scott as a man who believes himself and his family are part of God's chosen and cannot fall from Grace despite evidence to the contrary) becomes subservient to the film's sexploitation trappings.

Sam Fuller's Underworld USA is dark noir where even the hero scares you, and that makes for a great revenge picture. It's the story of a kid whose dad gets killed in front of his eyes by a gangsters. 20 years later, after he's gone down a criminal road himself, he gets a chance to make them pay. But it takes a bit of planning now that the four culprits are near the top of the national organization. How he manages it with cold, ruthless calculation is what makes the picture fun. Several of the bad(der) guys are quite memorably evil, so it's easy to root for the anti-hero, no matter his methods. The only thing that might do him in is love, which is where Dolores Dorn and Beatrice Kay come in as the bruised love interest and mother figure respectively, two actresses who should have done more based on this picture alone. The cinematography is visceral and in your face (or, if you like, in the character's faces, all sweaty close-ups and anxious eyes), and I simply can't believe Fuller got away with that ice sucking scene. Hard edged and unrepentant.

If Joan Collins in I Don't Want to Be Born left you wanting, go back a year to Larry Cohen's It's Alive for the better, crazier killer baby flick. Though definitely B-movie schlock horror, with Cohen you always get a lot of texture which elevates the material to the top level of "B". He might give even bit parts more character than is needed, and the cinematography is often memorable (the cop car in the sewer tunnel, the milkman sequence). And in this insane story of a mutant baby who jumps out of the womb and starts a murderous rampage - no real explanation given - he evokes the idea of the unwanted or unloved child, and abortion, but as the title suggests, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Cohen does draw it out longer than necessary, with a lot of creeping around in the house at the start of the third act, false scares, etc., but I think he knows where the malaise is. A killer baby is an absurd and laughable idea, but how the family reacts with both love and hate to their progeny, the media circus surrounding the events, and the bloodthirsty manhunt with cops really, really wanting to kill a baby, that's where the real horror lies. I just found out Cohen made two sequels, which just adds to the insanity... and to my must-watch list.

A relatively early Ghibli film, Ocean Waves puts the studio's technical mastery toward a novel adaptation recounting the story of a teenage boy's fraught relationship with a selfish, self-centered girl who has his wrapped around her little finger when they're not outright busy hating each other. Told zealously through his point of view, partial knowledge of what's going on is very much a theme. On the one hand it mirrors how we an only know ourselves, which causes misunderstandings with others. On the other, high school is a microcosm, and when they get older, the characters reveal secrets and acknowledge that their world was "too small", which made them care about the wrong things. At times - and this speaks to their maturity - it seems more about a bromance corrupted by shared feelings for a girl, and it's where the best moments can be found. Perhaps that's why I resent the ending a little bit. But until that movie moment, I find a lot of truth in Ocean Waves.

When Horst Buchholz (the member of the Magnificent Seven nobody likes) gets off the boat in Tiger Bay, he looks like he's going to be James Dean on the Welsh Waterfront. Then he commits a murder, and we realize this is really the story of the young girl who witnesses it (Hayley Mills in her first film, just before she became a Disney star), but doesn't give him away. Why not? Well, there's a fascination with his gun, and a kind of crush developing from that, and an open door to escaping her life on the streets of a Cardiff slum, perhaps it's even that she's a pathological liar, but nothing is necessarily spelled out. Both leads are perhaps at their best and most effective here, and it's hard not to root for Buchholz to escape the law even after what he did (and yet, I was always like, wait, are they going to break movie convention by letting him get away with it?!). What I like most about this movie is that it keeps surprising you, turning left when you think it will go right, and yet always absolutely consistent in terms of its characters and what they would do.

How great is Bernard Herrmann's score for the original 1962 Cape Fear? It drapes what is otherwise a bright small town and various vacation spots with an eerie menace from the start. It's great. But the story of an ex-con come to get revenge on his accuser wouldn't work if that ex-con didn't hand in a great performance. Robert Mitchum has a nonchalant charm that makes his moments of depravity all the more shocking and menacing, while Scorsese made Robert DeNiro a much more overtly monstrous figure in the remake. Director J. Lee Thompson shows you don't need to over-egg the pudding quite that much (I mean, DeNiro filled me with dread for years after I saw his Max Cady, whatever part he played) for it to still work as a thriller. Mitchum exudes menace without having to show much violence at all. And yet, you can easily believe people around the targeted family would believe Cady when he says he's the victim of prejudice. One of the granddads of "why don't you believe me?!" stalker thrillers, it's still pretty hard to be beat (and no, I don't think 90s X-TREME Cape Fear quite does).

I remember seeing The Blue Lagoon on TV, and given the nudity (none of it under-age despite the furor at the time, Brooke Shields has an obvious stand-in), it was probably cut to ribbons. Or it may have been in French translation, and French-language channels didn't really get upset over that sort of thing. Whatever the case may be, it's a beautiful picture to look at, with lush locations, animal photography, and the feeling of being in Eden with the first two people, still in their innocent state. When they're little kids, learning to survive on a deserted island, and seeing civilization through fragments like memories, photographs and the ship's cook who, for a time, survives with them, it's rather quite sweet. When they reach adolescence and become Shields and Chris Atkins, I'm afraid the acting isn't strong enough to carry things off. Best when the characters don't speak, really, line deliveries proved a stumbling block to appreciating this story of young love developing outside society. I might have liked it a touch better too if it had gone 100% for ONE of its endings, but the climax is filled with coincidence and contradiction, and doesn't feel ambiguous so much as unresolved and forced. You know that moment where they walk back into the jungle, covered in mud? That would have made a fine ending.

Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island was a strange piece of connective tissue in what we might now call the Verneverse, as it not only continued (and concluded) the story of Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but also made use of characters from In Search of the Castaways. The 1961 film does away with that last bit in favor of shipwrecked ladies to create romantic tension, and treats Nemo as a movie icon returning to the screen as a third act reveal, but of course doesn't care about some of the book's revelations as this is not strictly speaking a sequel. Before he shows up, this is a perfectly find adventure movie, with good action sequences, several of them against Harryhausen creations. After, I feel like the production design is all over the place, presenting a sunken city in the Pacific that is half Greco-Roman, half-Egyptian, while Nemo's stuff is part George Pal, part Flash Gordon, part Aquaman. The ending IS more cinematic and satisfying than the book's, however, but ultimately, the film, like the novel, is a bit of a Frankenstein's Monster.

The way humans (well, Americans) behave in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, we definitely deserved to lose the war. No amount of earnest infodumping while puffing on a Reed Richards pipe is going to change my mind about that. Sure, there are misunderstandings, but as soon as the aliens walk of their saucers, they get gunned down, no questions asked. We deserved everything we got, and more. As with most B-movies of the '50s there's a lot of talking and explaining things, while the audience waits for the money shots, in this case, Harryhausen's iconic UFO attack on Washington, D.C. and quality destruction porn as the saucers start falling out of the sky. It's interesting to see Harryhausen's effects used for something other than proper "creatures", but the saucers and explosions are no less impressive. It's just too bad the script doesn't know who the aggressors actually are in this drama.

When TCM named Ann Sheridan their Star of the Month in June, I didn't expect to fall for her this hard. But here I am, watching lesser films in her catalog, just because they're on. San Quentin is actually a pretty good prison drama, with pre-stardom Humphrey Bogart as Sheridan's convicted brother who just might be saved if the new Captain of the Yard (Pat O'Brien), who just happens to have fallen in love with her, takes the right kind of interest. To root for a warden type, you need to see them care about the men, and O'Brien definitely does, his grand experiment really to parse out who's a chronic recidivist and who has an actual shot at reforming, and keep them separated (why am I hearing Outcast right now?). Despite the short running time (70 minutes), the movie manages several examples of his empathy and style, while also creating various political roadblocks for him among the inmates, personnel, and board. And while I could have done with a bit more of the romance (he gets invited to a home-cooked meal awfully quick), Sheridan has such a nice presence, I'm happy for every minute we spend with her. A solid and efficient entry in the genre, with a smart escape attempt as well, my only real complain it is that ends too abruptly on a melodramatic and somewhat needless moment.

The world got to know the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night, in a way that was very different from past music stars' forays into film (namely, Elvis'). They got to be themselves play-acting situations they would normally be in (more or less), using their actual personalities and cementing their appeal with fans. The film would go on to influence the portrayal of the band in media (Help!, the animated series, you can even count The Monkees), tons of music videos, and other artists as well. We wouldn't have Spice World without A Hard Day's Night (yes, I went there). But it is bizarre, and of that stripe of '60s comedy I just don't find funny - I have similar problems with Blake Edwards pictures - with an extended gag about McCartney's "clean" grandfather causing all sorts of trouble while the Fab Four get chased around England by crazed girls, authoritarian cops, and their own exasperated manager. More than a little self-serving. Obviously the music is good, but while I didn't expect a proper story, the only set piece I have any real affection for is Ringo playing hooky and walking down a canal. John is just pure anarchic lunacy. Paul is the pretty boy. And George is probably the one you'd notice on second viewing, but not all that much on the first. For Beatles fans, this is doubtless a seminal document. If I speak heresy here, it's because I'm not a particular fan and am coming at it strictly as a cinephile, giving it more respect than admiration.

I think it makes sense to compare the Bob Dylan doc, Dont Look Back (sic), to A Hard Day's Night (and not just because the Beatles are referenced disparagingly). There's the same frenetic camera work, the same sense that we're seeing candid moments, both have been used to source post-hoc "music videos", both are set on a tour of England, and both broke the mold of the type of film they were making. Except Dont Look Back is a proper documentary and much more counter-cultural in that it doesn't NECESSARILY act as publicity for the act. I guess that really depends on what you think of Dylan as a person. Full access means we see shows, hotel room improvs, business negotiations, shitty drunken moments, and a heck of a lot of Dylan trolling and confronting journalists whose questions he finds stupid. We reach, Bob, we reach. If that makes him your tell-it-like-it-is hero, then great. For others, it will just seem like he's being a jerk for being a jerk's sake. I personally think it's fun, but there's a whole lot of it, and through that, you understand why this CAN'T be a generic talking heads documentary. What questions would Dylan answer meaningfully? Just watch him tour and draw your own conclusions. Is he conceited? Does he only care about the music. Does he have contempt for the circus? Or is he playing a character of sorts? This is the raw truth, unvarnished by interpretation or commentary. I was also amused by the Donovan punchlines, which are just about the only evident "manipulation" of the footage to create an effect.

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