This Week in Geek (4-10/12/17)


Realized I hadn't read a Paul Auster book in a long time, so got myself 1 2 3 4 (though I'll probably only read it next summer).


In theaters: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri uses heavy dramatic subject matter, and through dry humor and grace, manages to make it funny an not at all depressing. Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hays, a force of nature whose daughter was raped and killed some 7 months before and from her perspective, the cops (Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell) in her small town have done nothing. She rents three billboards in the middle of nowhere with a savage message pointed in their direction, and it flips the town upside down (cleverly, the police chief sends his own messages at the mid-point to make the whole story pivot once more). There's a lot to this picture, up to and including a satirical portrait of small town law enforcement as apathetic, corrupt and incompetent, but as the film navigates various points of view, the truth is always something more complex. In the end, grace comes from unusual sources without the film losing its hold on reality. Funny, but not farcical. Touching, but not sappy. Angry, but not unforgiving. Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) hands in another unique, entertaining story.

At home: Confidence is very much a prototypical con man movie - there's a crew, plans within plans, you aren't meant to be sure if you can trust what you're seeing or who the characters are actually playing to, and bad people deserving of to be cheated - and it works as an intellectual puzzle. And that's often enough (whether you smugly guess the truth or get caught be surprise). But it doesn't really work emotionally. The villains are more interesting than the heroes, for one thing, and only Rachel Weisz truly ellicits any sympathy. I don't know who thought Ed Burns was an engaging lead, but he's the cookiest cookie-cutter character of them all. And while I liked the convolutions of the grift itself and the slick direction, Weisz's character is too often the victim of rampant misogyny and objectification, not all of it necessary to the story. Made my skin crawl, especially early on.

In 1978, Michael Crichton adapted his novel, The Great Train Robbery, into a film. A novel that took its cues from an actual train robbery in 1855. It's a fun one, with Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland playing witty rascals planning an impossible gold robbery on a moving train, and executing that plan with some flair, and no small number of improvisations along the way. A lot of time is in fact spent on figuring out how to do the heist and on acquiring the keys necessary to get the safes open. By the time the train pulls out of the station, you're salivating for a resolution. All the way through, there's sufficient humor to keep the film from becoming too much of a procedural, with Connery is especial form. They should make more capers that take place in historical settings, whether true stories or not.

Spike Lee's Inside Man concerns a bank robbery that isn't really one, in which a disgraced police detective (Denzel Washington) goes head to head with a mastermind (Clive Owen) with plenty of recognizable faces besides. Right away, the title creates suspicion and paranoia, and hostage/suspect interviews edited into the narrative helps the notion along. The solutions are pretty clever and never talk down to the audience. That this takes place in Lee's multi-ethnic New York adds another layer to this chess game. That and his documentary-style camera work grounds the film in the real world, and yet he allows himself some directorial flair which doesn't detract from the mood, but rather enhances it. Great music cues too. This one keeps you guessing and entertains all the way through. Loved it.

1941's The Lady Eve stars Barbara Stanwyck as a grifter who snares eligible young men into her father's crooked card games, but suddenly falls for her latest mark, the shy and clumsy heir to Connecticut ale business, played by Henry Fonda. Can swindlers really fall in love, or rather, can they be in trusting relationships? There's the rub. While Fonda is good enough as the sap stuck doing farce and slapstick, Stanwyck gets all the wit of the piece. Both managed to make me laugh. The film's structure is a little odd, but that helps keep it fresh. You do feel like you've watched an entire story by the end of the second act, but it's all just a set-up for an even greater scheme. And in The Lady Eve, you're never too sure if Stanwyck IS playing Fonda, or if she is, how and why. A nice surprise.

White Men Can't Jump stars Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson as basketball hustlers in 90s L.A. (and it is VERY 90s indeed, wow those fashions) whose ladies want them to stop and get real jobs, but circumstances keep pulling them back in. Harrelson's character is particularly sad because he has a gambling problem, but in both men's cases, it's pride that puts them in a bad spot. Though their hard-won friendship eventually makes them relatable, their initial arrogance is a lot to swallow. You might well be on the women's side, and there, the film misses a few tricks by telegraphing some smart plan on their part, then not going through with it. Ultimately, the theme of the film feels forced, and there are important pacing issues. Full props to the actors, however, for apparently doing their own basketball tricks (or else to whoever managed that movie magic).

Frank Oz directs an all-star cast (DeNiro, Norton, Bassett, Brando) in The Score, a "one last heist" picture set in Montreal, and while that adds interesting color, it could take place almost anywhere. I don't think the city's used to its full advantage. Anyway, what we have here is a procedural film that takes us through the nitty-gritty of planning and executing a complicated theft, and manages to feel authentic enough that it overcomes the genre's clichés. The old thief who wants out, the charming rogue of a fence, the long-suffering girlfriend, the new kid on the block who's too impulsive for his own good, the last-minute complications... Set this in New York or L.A., and take out the big stars, and you've got a tight puzzle film built on a more than familiar framework. There's nothing wrong with that - in fact, I enjoy such films - but seems a waste of the talent pooled to make it.

A clown (Bill Murray) walks into a bank and robs it in Quick Change, but that's just the set-up. For most of the film, he, Geena Davis and Randy Quaid try to get out of New York city with the loot. And if there's one thing that's going in the cops' favor, it's the city. It just doesn't want to make things easy for our sympathetic bank robbers. Jason Robards delivers a fun performance too as the police chief that's after them. The comedy works, with plenty of amusing vignettes along the way (some with recognizable cameos), though I will admit some are a little weird. The romance between Murray and Davis is simply drawn, but likewise, works well as an emotional arc through the film. And then there's the cops'n'robbers stuff, in which neither side is played for fools (not Murray and Robards, at least), that actually lends tension to the piece in spite of the levity. A fun Bill Murray picture that I'm surprised is rarely mentioned when fans discuss his filmography.

From the "funny hats" school of fantasy, Red Sonja is the OTHER Conan film, in which Arnold plays Kalidor-who-is-not-Conan-we-swear. Why couldn't he be though? If you're going to have Arnold ex Machina every few scenes, he really should be playing Conan. (Answer: A rights problem.) So yeah, this does at time take away from the lead character's agency, but at least she gets tends to get the killing blow. Arnie is definitely second banana, and that's good. What's NOT so good is the wooden acting across the board, the terrible pacing issues as director Richard Fleischer never fails to linger on key sequences to rob them of their energy, and some muddled story telling, especially early on. Still, before your attention strays towards the end of any given sequence, they are interesting and even fun, and the film does a great job of creating a fantasy world, with great locations, builds and sets. Is Red Sonja a good movie? Not really. But it's the sort of goofy amusement you get from similar cult classics like Conan the Destroyer and Masters of the Universe.

Before George Lucas changed the direction of movie sci-fi, he swam WITH the current, writing and directing a 1970s dystopian film called THX 1138. Fitting somewhere between 1984 and Brave New World (and seemingly an inspiration for the Paranoia RPG as much as those two books are), the film paints a bleak, antiseptic portrait of the future where we live underground, where conformity is the rule of law, and where love and sex are banned. The plot, such as it is, follows Robert Duvall's THX 1138 getting off the meds and into his roommate's bed, and getting punished for it. Donald Pleasance is another non-compliant whose agenda is never completely understood. While I respect the world building, it goes so far as to create the tedium of this world, and the characters' tedium sort of becomes our own. The movie is LANGUOROUS and yet, somehow, manages to end in an interminable car chase. Intriguing, but sleep inducing and ultimately, unsatisfying. The 2004 edition has Lucas return to insert bad CG shots that feel extremely out of place in the otherwise remorselessly raw footage, because he can never ever leave a movie he's made alone. These aren't works in progress, George! I don't need to tell you they don't add anything important to the film.

Doctor Who Titles: Had to skip a couple of titles from the 7th Doctor era because the movies were unfindable, and by all accounts amateurish and/or terrible. So no Battlefield (there's a Hooligans movie that has that an as alternate title), and no Ghost Light (even if there are apparently a couple of movies with that name). We jump right to Survival, the alternate title of Panic in Year Zero, which was ALSO reissued with ANOTHER Doctor Who title, The End of the World!

In 1962's Panic in Year Zero! (AKA Survival), a Los Angeles family leaves town for a camping trip, coincidentally just before the city is nuked. Over the course of the picture, we'll find out just how far Ray Milland (who also directs) will go to protect his family. The focus isn't on radioactive wastelands, but on the chaos the ensues in surrounding areas as America becomes a lawless state. The resulting postapocalyptic procedural was topical at the time - the height of the Cold War - and isn't exactly dated by today's standards (though politically, it comes off as an NRA ad). It all hinges on Milland's intensity, no one else even approaching his standard.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The First Doctor and Susan are surprised to find nuclear war has broken out in the 1960s, but after helping a family survive, they go back in time and prevent it from ever happening.


Anonymous said...

I've heard that THX-1138 is supposed to be pretty good, but I've never seen it. I think Lucas adapted it from something he did at USC film school.

I haven't seen the movie, but I love the Great Train Robbery novel. As you said, it doesn't hew very close to history. (In real life, all the machinations about getting the key at the office were unnecessary, because it was left in an unlocked (and unguarded) cabinet ... he just walked in and took it!)

Mike W.

Brendoon said...

Red Sonja- Wasn't Neilsen married to Stallone around then?
Must have been quite a joke at that time, Arnie: second fiddle to Sly's wife.
It wasn't til' "Last Action Hero" I realised their rivalry wasn't serious.

Siskoid said...

Arnie and Neilson had an affair on set, so hopefully not. A quick wiki check says she met Sly later that same year. She definitely has a type.

Michael May said...

Inside Man is a favorite of mine and it's come up in a couple of recent conversations because Jodie Foster is awesome. I need to watch it again soon.

Anonymous said...

Panic in the Year Zero was one of those MGM "Midnite Movie" releases that I thought was going to be schlocky (based on the other releases under that label). It's anything but. Sure, it's filmed on a low budget, but I found the drama rather gripping. The time is right for a rewatch.



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