This Week in Geek (22-28/05/17)

Buys

Got myself the third volume of Only Living Boy.

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: I don't particularly care for either Prometheus' or Alien: Covenant's needless prequel-need to explain where the xenomorphs came from, but I do appreciate Ridley Scott's attention to theme, making this latest entry about creators and creations, and giving the franchise probably its best non-alien villain (strangely creepy too). From what I'd read, I was expecting Covenant to be more of a retread of the original film, possibly even a remake in disguise, but while there were unavoidable similarities with Alien and Aliens, it put enough of a spin on those movies' beats for my tastes. Seen as a sequel to Prometheus - which it definitely is, I was straining to recall how the pieces fit - it outdoes the previous tale, but while well told and extremely well made (without a doubt the best Alien film since Aliens), it took me a while to feel any real tension, perhaps due to over-familiarity with the monster and tropes.

DVDs: The Thin Man, the original Nick and Nora movie, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy in the roles (they have a naturally chemical romance), is more comedy than it is film noir (despite title and subject matter), and has such boisterous appeal, you might just want to chug their other Thin Man films. They spend most of the film drunk and trying to avoid detective work, delivering crisp banter and being charming as all get-out while trapped in a convoluted mystery of Big Lebowski-like proportions. Frankly, the reveal at the end is somewhat anti-climactic. But it's not about that. Watch it for the farcical sequences, like the cocktail party where all the suspects show up in view of unscrupulous journalists, or the bit with the martinis, or the amusing dog, or how Nick makes sure Nora doesn't get shot in their bedroom! 1934 seems very early to give mystery tropes these twists, but there you have it.

Very topical in 1967, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner retains a lot of its punch even today (Get Out's first act owes a lot to this film, for example, but one might substitute other minorities into the mix), and is powerfully acted by Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (not sure Katharine Houghton shows us the core of her character as well, rarely hitting notes above naive). Very much a talkie - it was very easily adapted into a play later - various combinations of characters have conversations trying to come to terms with what a mixed race marriage will mean for the couple, and for both people's parents, examining their own prejudices, and putting their money where their mouth is. Some will say the same points are made too frequently, but it never flagged for me. Some might say the subject matter is dated, but even if you make it only about parents worried their daughter is talking marriage ten days after meeting a man, it's relatable. Some might also find the film toothless because Poitier's John is almost too accomplished and perfect, to which I'd respond that this is a statement against racism in and of itself, in line with the rest of the film, and that if you give John too many "problems", it no longer becomes about race and loses its focus. Sometimes it's sickly sweet, sometimes more hard-hitting, but always worth seeing.

The Day of the Jackal, about a fictional attempt on Charles de Gaulle in the early 60s (when he really was targeted for death by a "patriotic" extremist group, is a procedural film that takes us through the nitty-gritty of an assassin's job (they even show him buying dye for his hair), with some portion of the film given over to the policemen's point of view, in a pen-and-paper universe that makes their task seem that much harder to us Internet types. The net effect is that you're rooting for a cold-blooded killer at least as much as the police commissioner in charge of the affair, and the spy sent to seduce a French official to get ahead of the investigation. Getting there, and seeing how each piece matters, is what it's all about, and the finale is almost necessarily an anti-climax (since we know de Gaulle wasn't killed). A slowly-building thriller with lots of European locations and great character actors in the minor roles for good measure.

Netflix: Roman Holiday is a reverse Cinderella story, where a young princess runs away from her duties during a stay in Rome and spends the day with an American journalist, both of them lying about who they are, providing some nice comedy bits, though the film is essentially a doomed romance. A star-maker for Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck shouldn't be ignored. Both actors give nuanced performances and are not only charming, but go through a character arc. The climax is a great piece of film-making, played, like most of the film, without music that might tell you what to feel of what is happening in the characters' heads, playing things out in real time, lovingly resting on faces, just letting things happen. It's quite touching. More William Wyler in my diet may be indicated.

The Shaolin Temple was Jet Li's first film - he's not even credited as Jet Li - taking a wushu champion and turning him into a star overnight, as he took on the role of a fresh-faced Shaolin monk, which would be cemented as his early career persona. The story is fairly simple, and in many ways is a retelling of 36th Chamber of Shaolin's, with a young turk learning the ways of Shaolin to take revenge on an oppressive warlord and ending up involving the Temple in politics and justice. There's less focus on training and Jet isn't the only monk catered to; we get to know several others enough to recognize them in battle and make their ups and downs matter. Speaking of battle, there is a LOT of action in this thing, almost non-stop in the third act, and it is excellent. Mainland locations give the film more production value than the Shaw Bros. stuff over in Hong Kong in the early 80s when this was made. Caveat: Though faked, the violence done towards animals in this film is, by modern Western standards, pretty shocking, though that peters out after the first act.

Kids from Shaolin is a follow-up, but not a sequel to Shaolin Temple, using many of the same actors, more beautiful locations on mainland China, and the same quality of action and direction. The story is entirely different, and indeed, feels different from any kung fu film I've seen. Two families, one composed entirely of boys and devoted to Shaolin, the other of girls devoted to Wudong, live on opposite sides of a river, and though there are evil bandits lurking about, the crux of the action is one wooing the other side (with valor and kung fu) and bringing peace through marriage. On each side, a number of young kids nevertheless versed in kung fu, and the film is impressive simply as a showcase for the kids' prowess. I thought we were in trouble early on, as the film featured a long cartoon sequence, some musical numbers and lots of silly comedy, but in the end, I like this film better than I did the original. Though lighter, it is more original, and still ends in a great big martial arts battle.

YouTube: Steven Sondheim's 1986 performance of Sunday in the Park with George, starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters (and oh my, Brent Spiner?!) is an amazing play with impressive set design and staging... I'm still stunned anyone could write a musical about pointillism... Pointillism OF THE SOUL. The two act structure tells the story of obsessive artist Georges Seurat's sacrifice of everything to finish his best-known work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte; the second taking us 100 years later to the present day where his descendant his working through his own problems as an artist. Sondheim cleverly comments on art, while also matching Seurat's style to what few details we know of his short life, the "dot" he puts on the canvas a metaphor for his single-mindedness and inability to see the forest for the trees, while also playing with the theme of transformation, whether that's the need for personal change, the transposition of reality into art, or the mutability of perception. Not a line is wasted. As for the often dissonant music, it might bother some audiences, but it too plays a role in understanding the play's themes, as Georges tries in vain to connect with the mainstream. A rich work that evidently gets richer each time you experience it.

2 comments:

American Hawkman said...

For the record, Nick and Nora are just as charming in the novel. You can clearly tell this is where the Elongated Man and Sue were lifted from, can't you?

Siskoid said...

Less soused, but TOTALLY! OMG I hadn't realized!

And THIN MAN was another flexible hero over at Timely during the Golden Age! Or else I bet that would totally have been Ralph's code name.

MIND BLOWN!

 

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