This Week in Geek (13-19/09/20)


Yesterday's post was my 9000th on this site. I guess that's a kind of accomplishment. Now on with the reviews...

In theaters: An absolute charmer of a Dickens adaptation, The Personal History of David Copperfield leans into the comedic elements of the novel - as it should, though some might miss some of the tragedies - and ultimately has a lot of fun with the idea that the book was semi-autobiographical and told in the first person. Copperfield does become a stand-in for Dickens himself, and director Armando Iannucci (wow, we're a long way from The Thick of It) finds ways to highlight the wonderful turns of phrase in the prose, which would normally be absent in a film. It can be zany and exaggerated because it's a story told. The memory cheats, and the author cheats more. While Dev Patel is always engaging, he's also supported by a wonderful cast bringing Dickens' characters to life - Laurie, Swinton, Capaldi, Wishaw, Gwendoline Christie, Morfydd Clark, Benedict Wong... Well, casting director Sarah Crowe has already won an award for it. Of course, Dickens's novels are just too full of incident for everything to make it into a two-hour film, and in this case, as in many such cases, I did feel like some events had been collapsed just a little too much. The dual-climax at the end didn't feel entirely natural, moving at breakneck speed toward an ending. Like Mr. Dick (surely the MVP of the film), the film needed a little more air to breathe in that third act.

At home: From the double meaning of its title, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is constantly throwing clues at you as to what's really happening, and my friend who've read the book (the author was here a few years back thanks to our literary festival, so there are copies floating around), Charlie Kaufman's adaptation is pretty true to the original (up until he starts throwing more overt art house ideas at the screen anyway). There's really no way to discuss what the film is about without spoilers, so you've been warned. I think one of the late decoder rings in the film is a visual quote of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which Kaufman wrote. That overhead shot of people and things on the ice field is telling you, if you haven't come to that conclusion yet (as there are several conclusions you might have come to instead), that this is a piece about memory. And crafted memory at that. The existential trick both the film plays is to put us in the head of the girlfriend character who is really just a shifting amalgam of different women the male character imagined himself going out with, and in a turn only possible in a Kaufman film, she is sometimes aware of her bogus existence. One of the themes at play is the idea of becoming other people through osmosis, by being around them, reading them, infecting ourselves with ideas that are not our own, and you can also take see the narrative as an exploration of that idea, even if the climax necessarily veers in another direction. The fragmentation of the male character into components that have a life of their own touches on that, but is also fueled by deep self-loathing that makes even a fictionalized "other" more palatable than the self (there are definitely shades of Adaptation in here), but a lot of Lucy says, feels or is told can actually be interpreted as Jake's internal monologue. One to chat about after it's over, though it'll necessarily leave some viewers behind, perhaps as early as the languorous first road trip.

Sidney Lumet's last film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, looks like it will be a "bungled heist" movie, complete with a fun cast and a non-chronological structure that reveals important information in a pleasant way. And these kinds of movies usually end up being comedic (darkly so, perhaps, but comedic). The title even seems to imply someone getting away with it. And so you sit back for a bit of fun starring Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman as brothers, Albert Finney as their father, and Marisa Tomei in the buff for the length of two acts, but the comedy? It goes away pretty quick, with Lumet instead focusing on the heavy drama of the situation (and the actors certainly have the chops for it). It's an interesting twist considering the history of this genre, and I am up for it. However, I do feel like the film ends leaving some things unresolved for certain characters I was invested in. Lumet is kind of telling me who the supporting characters were in the last moment, though I had come to a different conclusion. And why IS Tomei always topless? As attractive as I think she is, I find it a little disturbing from a directorial point of view.

A bleak but thoughtful noir, High Sierra is the film that made a star out of Bogart, pitching him into similar complicated anti-hero parts from this point on. The film basically draws a distinction between the criminal and the man, giving Bogart's Roy Earle an essential decency that is at odds with his profession. The two sides of the coin are exemplified in two women. On the light side, we have an old farmer's family Roy helps out, including the sweet granddaughter Roy might want to marry. Joan Leslie is just AWFUL in the role, which is my only real problem with the film, but in terms of story, she's part of Roy's quest for purity (which is of course going to fall apart). On the dark side, Roy's partners in crime are untrustworthy young toughs fighting over Ida Lupino, a woman whose love may well doom him. And then there's the dog who may or may not be a curse to those it bonds with, a nice pettable portent of disaster through the course of the film. High Sierra asks questions about the possibly intermixing of light and dark, whether the dark contaminates the light (Roy's quest for purity is thus self-defeating), or whether a good thing (Lupino's love, or the dog's) acts like anti-matter on matter in a bad life. Once you pick that lane, you're doing life.

Fred Astaire tries to con a sheltered heiress by posing as her guardian angel in Yolanda and the Thief, a Vincente Minnelli musical spectacular that features an extended surreal dance number of the type he will perfect in An American in Paris. And also Astaire playing the harp. I didn't know he could play the harp! In the cast, I like Mildred Natwick as the talkative aunt, she gets all the best lines. Quite naturally, the intrigue requires Astaire's soul to be in jeopardy, especially as he gets closer to his mark and - all together now - falls in love with her. But like the colorful fictional South American country where this all takes place, we're looking at an idyll. Can this world really be wicked enough to let the heiress hung out to dry? No, of course not. So it's a bit of fun, the only thing really missing is a memorable song or two. Alas, there's little to recommend on that front. It even makes me disconnect during the dance numbers.

If 1948's Oliver Twist is a classic among Dickens adaptations, it's largely because of director David Lean whose cinematography imbues the mean streets (and not altogether friendly countryside) of Victorian England with a quality akin to Gothic horror. The film is beautiful to look at. A couple of deaths are actually chilling in the way they're presented, most especially the brutal sequel that has the dog try to scratch its way off the scene of the crime. Lean almost extends this sequence beyond the audience's endurance, and all without really showing anything. Extremely effective film making. The film's big flaw, from today's perspective, is Fagin. While I was stoked to see Alec Guinness on the bill, but then he's in heavy make-up, a horrendous Jewish caricature (Fagin's religion or ethnicity is not brought up in the film, so why go there at all?). Quirk of the time. And quirk of the novel, as the exciting crime plot takes hold, Oliver becomes more a concern than a character, but then how much can we ask of a mostly silent little boy? A very strong adaptation that only shows its age in one portrayal. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Bing Crosby looks very stiff and awkward as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a court, might I add, that is filled with the most cartoonish Camelot possible. A sniffly old King Arthur, a villainous Merlin, a foolish knight, a super-strong Lancelot (and why is Morgaine in this if she's not going to be a concern?). Mark Twain's time travel fantasy is completely remixed with events happening out of order, and different characters playing different roles. And of course, the title Yankee uses songs to confound the locals as much as technical wizardry from the turn of the Century. So it's not to say the movie doesn't have its joys. It can be quite amusing, especially in its physical comedy, and there are a couple of fun songs. I also like the conceit of actors in the past playing their spiritual descendants in the present, even if it means the movie kind of blows some of its surprises through the frame tale. Just don't go into this as a Mark Twain purist. You'll only hurt yourself.

Capra before Capra, Turn Back the Clock is a little more fable in which a man wishes for a different life, gets it, and not too surprisingly, wishes he hadn't changed a thing. In the Depression era, it seems appropriate that films 1) indulge in this kind of fantasy since many were surely expressing regrets about the course of their lives, and 2) teach audiences about finding contentment in a time of scarcity. Or it's a movie, and love trumps money every time. The fantasy (or travel through time, you decide) is at least well thought out, with the lead not only taking the road previously not taken, but also using knowledge of the future to make the best investments and try to change things for the better and not just for himself. But there's a certain solidity to events that makes that a little pointless in big doses, I guess. A little stagey at times, and with a character who's not very smart when it comes to discussing his situation in the open, but this is still an interesting what if-type tale.

For a Bert I. Gordon flick, The Boy and the Pirates is pretty competent (I realize the bar is not very high), sometimes even inventive. What it isn't is particularly exciting. It's strictly a kids' fantasy adventure, when a little boy who loves pirate stories is whisked to Blackbeard's ship by a naughty genie (who sticks around to cause all sorts of mischief, wherein the moments of invention lie) and tries his best to get home before he's stranded in the past. It's a lot like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, actually, only the damsel is also like 7 years old, and the anachronistic tech is pretty much relegated to bubble gum, a gag that goes on way too long. While a movie for kids, it often lacks kid-friendly energy, going limp whenever there's a bit of action to be had (obligatory broadsides and sword fights fail to inspire), and parents today might raise an eyebrow at the occasional, and tonally iffy, violence. For pirate film and/or time travel completists only once you're past the target age.

Berkeley Square  is rather cagey as to how its particular quantum leap can happen, or at least, how Leslie Howard's Peter Standish can know (the opening sequence set in the 18th Century seems to imply there have been prior trips inside the body of his ancestor, but he makes so many mistakes on the trip we do see, it later seems unlikely. In any case, this is more Gothic romance than it is science-fiction, treating the present-day sequences the way you might the story of a haunting, and the 18th Century as if Standish were a supernatural visionary and then a demon needing to be exorcised. It's interesting that this lover of history who intends to observe and follow his ancestor's journals to the letter finds himself falling in love with the wrong woman in the past, threatening to short-circuit his own timeline. And so Berkeley Square becomes a doomed, somewhat overwrought romance. A bit esoteric and confusing, but I did find this take on time travel (and the locals' reactions) interesting.

Having Wonderful Time is only okay as a Ginger Rogers romcom, as aside from accepted formula, there's no real reason for her and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to bicker, then get together. I mean sure, why not, what happens at a holiday camp stays at a holiday camp unless there's a marriage proposal, but the motivations are just following the script. But is there even room for well-judged emotional turns? We are introduced to so many characters (in 70 minutes!) that in another era, you might believe this were a backdoor pilot for a Camp Kare Free TV series. Highlights include Red Skelton doing shtick, Lucille Ball as the latterly fifth point of a love triangle in the dueling gigolos subplot, and Eve Arden playing against type (not sure it works, but it's notable). Others kind of fall by the wayside, including all the people back in the city, and the best friend and her beau. I kind of lost track of who was who after a while. Rogers is in a number of comedy fluff pieces, but this one's fluffier than most.

What if you made The Office or Parks and Recs, but set it in a high school? Teacher of the Year is that kind of mockumentary taken to feature length, principally telling the story of the eponymous educator (Matt Letscher, not Keegan-Michael Key, no matter what the poster implies), currently considering an important sea change in his life. If the movie works its magic on you, you should should lean one way or another on this decision, as it's not clear cut at all. He's not the only "normal person" in the film, but comic interest is fostered by various comedy types, whether the jealous robotics teacher, the principal no one respects, or the outrageously bad guidance counselors. And despite the comic extremes, it reminded me of Tony Kaye's Detachment - there's something truthful about the job, even in the satire. Hidden at the core of this is a heartfelt ode to teachers, and just how many good teachers we stand to lose because of systemic failures, all the while keeping the bad ones. Underappreciated (much like the profession)!

It may not be the most original science-fiction film ever made, but Oblivion has Tom Cruise money behind it, so it at least looks good, is well cast, and has exciting action scenes. Earth is dead after an alien invasion, starkly so, and Tom Cruise is part of the minimal clean-up crew that's making sure humanity has the resources it needs to survive on its new home. But as soon as he casually expositions (I'm gonna use that as a verb because there's a lot of it) that he's been memory-wiped so he can do his mission better, the possible sci-fi twists start dancing in front of your eyes. And guess what, several of them turn out to be true. You can't confound THIS old dog with your tired old twists, man! That doesn't take anything away from the spectacle - I really like the menacing drones that make up the bulk of the antagonist force, for example - and ultimately, I feel like this gets a bad wrap BECAUSE it had such a big budget. Tell this story at a fraction of the cost and I bet everyone would be saying "hey, cool indie". Instead, I'll say, "hey, nothing new under the sun, but it looks cool".

So uh... is Andover the city/university where the movie takes place? It's really more its pun homonym And Over, a black comedy about losing your beloved spouse and trying to clone her with disastrous results. Bless its heart, the movie tries hard to make the science seem legitimate, but there's absolutely no way to "raise" a person at an accelerated for them to become who they used to be. The movie agrees with me (mostly), but the problem is Jonathan Silverman's character is supposed to be a genius geneticist, and he can't quite connect the dots on this. I guess he's gone off the deep end, but it should be pushing the comedy more so we can accept the silly science and the lead's dumb reactions. Couching the story in the five phases of grief feels more pretentious than thematically crucial (much better is the scene where he burns a lot of pancakes before getting one right). Never mind the insurance investigator subplot that's cribbed with plot holes, or for that matter, how the movie tries to squeeze a happy ending out of this story of unethical cloning and multiple murder. It's cute, I'll give it that, but the premise has problems at its core.

Some classic MST3K movies, regardless of comedy commentary... Manhunt in Space is just another wooden, confused (because built from Space Ranger episodes) rocketship movie, but it did give science-fiction the proud name "Vina". Ghost story Tormented is maybe better when it's being ambiguous, but I was too distracted by silly disembodied head shenanigans to really make that determination. Fire Maidens of Outer Space is about astonishingly dumb characters flying, driving, walking or dancing from one place to another, or else having a smoke in real time; without the padding, it would be, what, 15 minutes long? Another Space Ranger episode-crunch movie, Crash of the Moons does more for villains and guest stars than for its cardboard hero cast. And there's really no component of the pervs vs. aliens movie (Attack of the) The Eye Creatures that is even remotely competent.


Ryan Blake said...

Grabd blog entry

Jeremy Patrick said...

8,999 posts was an accomplishment. 9,000 posts is just showing off.

Siskoid said...

Tranqs BRyan.

Jeremy: Just wait 'til I get to 10,000. I will be insufferable.


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