This Week in Geek (10-16/12/18)


In theaters: Saw the most recent staging of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest at the cinema, and it's always great to see a play with as much of the text uncut as possible, something movie adaptations rarely do. While it might be true to say Wilde is better read than played, as there are many ironic lines that just fly by unacknowledged in a theatrical production, just to keep the pace up, the richness of the language nevertheless comes through. Sophie Thompson as that old battleaxe Lady Bracknell and Fiona Button as Cecily are easily the funniest and more engaging in this particular production, though no one does a bad job of it. The awkward Prism/Chasuble romance is beautifully played too. The gay subtext to some of the scenes seemed more like a comment on Wilde himself than on what was on the page, but it works with one the themes of the play, which is that given the veneer of high society, everything is flighty and true emotional context should not be taken seriously. So men fall in love with women, but maybe because it's expected of them, and you shouldn't take anything seriously either. A fun affair that pokes fun at Victorian respectability.

At home: The 2011 staging of Much Ado About Nothing, starring Doctor Who alumni David Tennant* and Catherine Tate in the lead roles, really plays to the cheap seats by adding a lot of slapstick to its modern dress adaptation. More perhaps than is needed. Messina is translated as a vacation resort where everyone is drunker than in Joss Whedon's version, and smoking like chimneys for the first half. There's clever use of a revolving stage, but a lot of the actors' moves are haphazard and distracting. And the comedy is so broad at times, the production doesn't seem to trust Shakespeare and it can feel a bit desperate. Tennant is definitely good as Benedick; he has comic timing, but also the ability to bring the more serious moments to life. Tate's powers are the same - and as in Doctor Who, she's strongest in the emotional beats - but she also brings her trademark mugging and shouting to the role of Beatrice; it's a bit much at times. The rest of the ensemble is fair to good - the Princes and Ursula the stand-outs - but ultimately, out of the five filmed versions I've experienced, this effort comes in at maybe #4.

Passengers changes tack with every act, which is partly why it gets a bad rap, I think. It starts as a deserted island story, becomes a romance that plays awkwardly in the Age of Consent, and finally turns into a disaster thriller as the spaceship setting breaks down. Movie goers interested in any one of these could be left unsatisfied because the other elements get in the way. But as a plot, one flows into the other quite naturally, and though Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence don't exactly stretch their acting muscles, they are quite watchable in this. The romance is difficult, yes, but it IS presented as an important dilemma, and in the end, where else can it go? We can accept both the mistake that throws them together and their acceptance of their fate. If there's a real problem, it's that the film is too crowded. There's a lot of world-building - and the film certainly looks great - but some elements stay in the deep background while they could have, with a line here and there, made a POINT. As the film nears its end, it starts taking shortcuts in the both the mechanics of the disaster resolution and the relationship, perhaps one too many to get to the finish line properly. And while getting a coda is nice, a more elaborate montage sequence might have made everything better. The closure it offers is partial at best. The film goes into fruitful and complex territory when it asks "What would happen if..?", but never gets to answer it in full.

Z was made in 1969, in France, by an ex-pat Greek director, and is about the repressive regime of Greece in that time. Taken out of that context, it becomes about every repressive regime, especially those in democratic countries, and so speaks to the Western powers of today with horrifying precision. We immediately recognize the nationalistic alt-right fascism, the hateful mobs, the tribal politics, and the corruption of high officials trickling down to the populace, even if the specific issues belong to another time. Z starts as a political thriller with shades of satire, but soon becomes a police procedural when a high-profile activist is killed, one that leads its Mueller-like magistrate to uncover what appears to be a right-wing conspiracy. Even if it didn't resonate with contemporary events, Z would still be a great film, somehow managing to make its dozens of characters distinct and memorable in a fast-paced tale of... lawyer interviews? Believe it. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Shot in a high contrast black and white that evokes a frozen past, The Last Picture Show is a lot more honest than most when it comes to telling "coming of age" stories. The formula normally demands such films end on the kids either moving on, or on the cusp of moving on, to bigger and better things. That's not the reality, especially not in the dead end Texan town of the film, where even those with more options than others get mired in the muck of the status quo, out of fear and anxiety. It's about what keeps you from moving on, and subverts the usual movie trope of everyone having great ambitions and the capacity to realize them. The younger characters are the leads, but - and this may be a function of age - I was more drawn to the supporting adult roles, examples of what happens to people who never did move on, and regret it to some degree. Beautiful performances from Ben Johnson, Ellen Burstyn, and Cloris Leachman in a difficult and atypical role, but 1971's fresh new faces have a lot to offer too, with early roles for Jeff Bridges, Cybill Sherpherd and Randy Quaid. Timothy Bottoms didn't becomes a household name, but he carries the film with heart and soul.

When I go to a National or Provincial park, I often go off-trail, but not very far off-trail. Like, maybe 20 feet at most. In Backcountry (sic), a couple gets lost in the Canadian wilderness and shows why you really shouldn't go any deeper than that. Their camping trip goes sideways early on and takes the bent of a thriller, then a survival film, and finally a monster movie (I guess the killer bear sells it, so has to be on the poster as an overt spoiler, but it's only one incident among many, albeit key to the story), but all of it points to one theme - man's hubris and Nature's retaliation in response. While it's a simple story with little in the way of fantastical contrivance, it manages to good deal of suspense, and the character drama feels true to life. That means some lulls in the action at times (one wonders if it is hamstrung by the true events it is loosely based on, or simply its budget) and some luck along the way, but a fair entry in the survival genre overall.

The anti-union sentiment present in the textile industry workers in Norma Rae is alive and well - I just saw the topmost review on IMDB call the film propaganda and make the claim that unions are both violent and the cause of jobs going overseas. In other words, it's no used asking corporations for a living wage and safe working environment and we'd be wrong to do so, because we're just killing the industry that puts the pittance on the table. Absurd. And so Norma Rae retains its usefulness as an aspirational piece of cinema, on the surface about changing the conditions at a factory, just underneath about a woman changing her life, supporting by an endearing but textured performance by Sally Field (YES! we really do like you, Sally!). And they don't exaggerate the "evil bosses", avoiding the sensationalism of similar films, without sacrificing any of the drama.

What Happened to Monday (AKA 7 Sisters) has a preposterous dystopian set-up (but most are) in which siblings are outlawed to keep Earth's population down, but don't worry [REDACTED CONSPIRACY YOU CAN SEE COMING FOR MILES]. The system is put at risk by septuplets who have managed to survive hidden, each being "Karen" one day of the week, but otherwise quite different. Noomi "Dragon Tattoo" Rapace gives distinct performances, and by now, even a B-movie can achieve seamless twin effects. You never get the sense there aren't seven characters in the room. I found the basic plot points entirely predictable, but it doesn't mean there aren't surprises along the way, and so it still works as a sci-fi action thriller despite it being anchored in formula. One thing that does bug me is that they didn't give Willem Dafoe a Swedish accent, but the daughters he raised alone in isolation all have one (Rapace's). I know, I know... We have this impossible setting, but what I can't get past is a small detail. Well, disbelief IS suspended by a thin thread.

Christmas in Connecticut is an utterly cute Barbara Stanwyck Christmas screwball comedy in which she, as popular housekeeping writer Elizabeth Lane (cousin of Lois, presumably), is forced to fake the lifestyle she describes in her articles - complete with husband, baby, and farm house in the country - for both her boss and a war hero who's apparently never known hominess... Well, it's complicated because it's screwball, and it's very amusing, even if the ensuing romantic triangle is edgeless. Stanwyck owns this, but even if she plays the romance opposite some 2-dimensional non-starters, she's well supported by the rest of the ensemble, including a boisterous Sydney Greenstreet (in full satire mode), the more overt comic relief S.Z. Sakall (endearing though sometimes hard to understand through his accent), and people might not think to mention her, but Una O'Connor as the prim, disapproving maid. Prepare yourself for some fun, witty comedy, and don't look at the romantic relationships too closely.

Once again, allllll aboard! The Train-o-thon is leaving the station...

The BBC's adaptation of Charles Dickens' The Signalman is an eerie ghost/supernatural story that has the feel of an episode of Sapphire & Steel, if that means anything to you. A gentleman gains an interest in a despondent railway signalman - that's archaic today, his job is to keep watch on a tunnel and send word if there's a train coming the other way or some other obstruction - who tells him tales of seeing a ghostly figure that presages doom. At its best, the descriptions of what happens when there's an accident inside a tunnel are enough to give you chills, without ever having to see it. Not so strong, perhaps, is the final twist, in part because we've been final twisted a LOT since the mid-70s (never mind the 19th Century), but the necessary shock really isn't on screen. Still a good, if understated, adaptation of Dickens' OTHER ghost story.

Sin Nombre ("Nameless", in English) tells the story of a Honduran girl trying to get to the States by taking a freight train through Mexico, where she meets a young gangbanger running from his posse after turning on them. Two stories, one a harrowing immigration journey, the other a brutal crime drama, dovetail into one. What struck me most is how beautiful even the impoverished parts of Mexico are, the cinematography lush and colorful. The way the U.S. is represented, on the other hand... That was 2007, and things are different now, but the immigrant's story remains a potent one. We have no idea what it takes to get from Central America to Texas' border. Sin Nombre gives us an inkling. But as it is also a crime picture, it strikes a balance, neither demonizing nor glorifying those who cross over undocumented. So if it's sometimes hard to watch, it's because it should be.

I'm not really up on my Buster Keaton, so though it is often played as slapstick comedy, The General was much more of an action flick than I could have imagined. The connective tissue is a little dull, but the real reason to watch is the two incredible train chases, on real moving trains, as the "General" is first stolen from the South by Union forces during the American Civil War, the taking the return trip with Keaton's heroic engineer at the controls. Amazing stunt work. The final battle has huge production values as well, so don't stop watching. This was loosely based on a true incident, and that takes the sting out of the North being villainous and the War essentially being about saving Keaton's kidnapped girlfriend. The real issues behind the conflict have been completely whitewashed, if you know what I mean, so it really plays as a fantasy with a vague background. A setting for prat falls and awesome stunt work.

Much of Unstoppable's building blocks come from true events, which happened in Ohio in 2001 (look up the CSX 8888 Incident), but give them to Tony Scott, and you'll reliably get a slick rip-roaring action flick out of it. Scott adds a number of incidents to make the story more exciting, and is perhaps harsher on the railway employees responsible than history ultimately was, but otherwise, engine 777 and the way it's dealt with, follow 8888's model. Along the way, we learn about the two leads' back stories, but I doubt we really care. The incident is the real star, and proceeding through various attempts to stop the runaway train before he derails and spills toxic chemicals all over Stanton, PA, is what it's really about. Casting actors who bring immediate personality to the screen is how Scott gets away with it - not just Denzel Washington, Chris Pine and Rosario Dawson, but Lew Temple, Ethan Suplee, Kevin Dunn and Kevin Corrigan all distinguish their characters quickly and efficiently. Perhaps not one of the great, memorable Tony Scott movies, but I can't deny it was an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, and that's exactly what it was designed to be.

I wasn't expecting all that much from Von Ryan's Express, a Frank Sinatra vehicle in which he plays an American officer who helps a British regiment escape Axis Italy by hijacking a train, but what an exciting ride! Unlike the train itself, which you'll agree, makes for an awkward escape vehicle, the movie does not railroad you towards foregone destinations. Quite unpredictable from the first scene to the last, with a smart hero facing off against smart foils, whether that's the Italian fascists and Nazis, or the mistrustful men he's inherited in the POW barracks. And then there's the railway system itself, which creates quite a few problems. Moral questions take a back seat to action and suspense, but they're still there. Sinatra's Ryan always wants to take the high road, but it's rarely expedient. He's often damned either way, as no good deed goes unpunished. And so it's his character that creates complications, not contrived happenstance. And nice location work too!

Jean Renoir creates a contained noir thriller out of Emile Zola's novel, La bête humaine, in his 1938 film adaptation, set in the (then) present day as opposed to the end of the 19th Century. It is the story of a jealous railway employee who kills a man, and the train engineer who looks the other way and winds up falling in love with the murderer's wife. If my English-speaking readers don't know Zola, think of him as Steinbeck's French precursor, and so it is impossible for the characters to escape their class/family-mandated destinies, no matter how hard they try. Inevitability drives this well-acted melodrama. The train is, in fact, more than a simple backdrop, but a symbol of Zola's brand of literary naturalism. It goes back and forth between two places, but can never deviate from its tracks. The film's characters are thus doomed to repeat the history they want to escape from, and touchingly, they know it.


Brendoon said...

Of course, I haven't seen Tate and Tennant's Much Ado, but as far as being funny there's no such thing as trusting Shakespeare, I believe he needs all the help he can get.
A quote from Douglas Adams that I agreed with before I knew he said it: (discussing the greats of English Lit) "Master? Great Genius? Oh yes... the only one who couldn't make a joke to save his life would be Shakespeare.
Oh come on, let’s be frank and fearless for a moment. There’s nothing worse than watching a certain kind of English actor valiantly trying to ham it up as, for instance, Dogberry in Much Ado. It’s desperate stuff. We even draw a veil over the whole buttock-clenching business by calling the comic device he employs in that instance malapropism—after Sheridan’s character Mrs. Malaprop, who does exactly the same thing only funny in The Rivals. And it’s no good saying it’s something to do with the fact that Shakespeare was writing in the sixteenth century. What difference does that make? Chaucer had no difficulty being funny as hell way back in the fourteenth century when the spelling was even worse. Maybe it’s because our greatest writing genius was incapable of being funny that we have decided that being funny doesn’t count. Which is tough on Wodehouse..."

Ah, Douglas Adams, PG Wodehouse. I love the crack about Chaucer!

Brendoon said...

... or have I just reverted to harsh-dude mode?

Siskoid said...

Or Philistine, rather. ;)

I know I'm a bit of a Shakespeare scholar, but I do find Shakespeare clever and funny, but these are plays and the actors have to do the work. Where I feel the above play goes overboard is in the direction, which makes the piece feel like British panto at times, with crazy props, mugging, and out of character moments of clowning.

Now I agree that Dogberry is an extremely difficult character to bring to life, and he's often played as a demented clown. I think giving him a vulnerability is important, because he's not a madman, he's a self-important poser with a brittle ego who is deeply afraid he'll be found out. Of the five filmed versions I referred to above (BBC, Branagh, Tennant, Globe, and Whedon), only Nathan Fillion managed it.

Brendoon said...

Interesting! I haven't watched Fillion's Dogberry, though I'm a confirmed Fillion fan-boy.
Glad he's back on telly soon.
(America's greatest stars are Canadian, we've said that before...)
Brannagh's Ado was still a LOT funnier than when we studied it in school. The teacher was telling us how funny it was but somehow managed to ensure it wasn't...

The Douglas Adams quote was from an essay about how splendid Wodehouse is so used a spot of hyperbole in regards to The Bard. I note he was talking about "making a joke" as opposed to larking with language.
"Shakey" is definitely a master of puns, wordplays and double entendre (ah, how we giggle at "whipt me behind the arras") though I wonder if puns are an especially Anglo/Euro thing?
Do all cultures see wordplay as humour or can it get you imprisoned in some States?
As a former Anglo colony we practice the art in New Zealand (to my surprise there was a local celebrity pun-off some months back. I don't believe there were any deaths)

I don't recall ever seeing a U.S production make use of puns except in the context of pointing out how droll/lame/old a person is if they think words are funny. There must be subcultures where it thrives, but do Americans enjoy a pun? Without cringing?
I've actually wanted to find that out for a while. Anyone know?

Brendoon said...

I had a longer ponder about puns and wordplays and the United States... Thinking back on Tim the toolman Taylor and Home Improvements, I think there may have been puns aplenty. Not to mention there must be movie titles using puns though I can't think of one offhand. I DO think many U.S productions perhaps deliver puns in a different way, not delivering 'em in BIG CAPITALS the way us Anglos often seem to, but slipping them in unheralded. A preference for "cool". Even now, I'm not sure I'm observing a real thing, just gathering thoughts. Does any of this seem valid?

Siskoid said...

I don't know, being neither an American nor an Anglo.

Brendoon said...

I guess it makes no difference, anyhow.
Not unless I was planning to open an online pun-store and targeting...
...But wait! I think I had it wrong.
There have been a lot of "trump" related puns in American headlines.
The pun must be universal then.


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