This Week in Geek (17-23/12/18)


Had our annual Christmas gift exchange - which is pretty much my Christmas Day - and received some very nice gifts from oHOTmu or NOT?'s girls. There's the framed picture of Art-Girl's rendition of Invisible Kid and Chemical King on a date, from way back when we were doing Legion: Hot or Not? Thanks, Shotgun! She also got me an old copy of Rock Band 2 and a microphone to get my Bard gaming group closer to a live performance. Amelie was so intrigued by my 2-inch Tarot travel set, she got me a tiny book on tea leaf reading, as well as a homemade oHOTmu shirt that riffs on listeners usually saying I'm okay too after lavishing praise on Siskoid's Angels. Elyse got me a fruit fly zapper (it'll come in handy if I ever leave a rotting bag of potatoes fester in my pantry again). Josée found me a Mahjong set, based on how we were all confounded by THAT scene in Crazy Rich Asians. Isabel got me the 2014 film Jauja on DVD; look for a review some time. And Nath got me a Gallifreyan tote bag to carry it all in. It's bigger on the inside, you know. Thanks all!


In theaters: Spider-Man - Into the Spider-Verse has a lot of guts. It doesn't care if its animation is non-traditional and multi-media, evoking the look of a comic book. It doesn't care if it makes use of different animation styles. It doesn't care if characters are killed, nor does it care if it has a silly talking animal as part of the action. It doesn't care if it lays the continuity references on its audience. And it doesn't care if it doesn't use the "best known version" of any given character. And in part because it is so bold, it all works. It's funny, exciting, touching, meaningful, beautiful, unusual, and a hell of a ride for comics fans and n00bs alike. It is, quite simply, the Lego Batman of 2018, and better than that for being more emotionally affecting. My only complaint is a technical one - perspective effects in the 2D presentation looking like we are just being shown the 3D version without glasses; some elements are distractingly blurry throughout, but I'm assured this is what Sony intended. Too bad, because otherwise this is a superhero masterpiece. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

At home: Coming off Drive and Only God Forgives, Ryan Gosling was evidently heavily inspired by his collaborations with Nicolas Winding Refn for his writer-director debut, Lost River. The colorful cinematography, the use of non-professional actors, the dips into disturbing gore... all are staples of Refn's work. This isn't a criticism, it gives makes the picture at once otherworldly and grounded in reality. Set in a decaying Rust Belt town in the here and now, the film reminds us that postapocalyptic and dystopian stories aren't as far from the real world as we'd like. The impoverished neighborhood of our characters is patrolled by a psychotic warlord played by Matt Smith*, while Christina Hendricks' single mother must head uptown to make ends meet by working in a strange, decadent, burlesque show. Meanwhile, her eldest son finds a town submerged under water, and in it may be the key to saving all their lives, but only if one believes in solutions born of magical realism. It's about the failed promises of the American Dream, not just to the individual, but to entire communities. It paints a world gone mad, but it's unfortunately one we recognize.

Fritz Lang's The Big Heat is a brutal noir that ups the stakes considerably when it dares to show us the protagonist's home life in addition to the case he's pursuing. Suddenly, the threats he receives when he gets too close to the solution to the badly explained suicide of a colleague are more visceral and suspenseful. Glenn Ford is great in this, juggling both sides of his copper's life through believable attitudes. Can a police detective keep both his integrity and his family intact when faced with this amount of corruption? And boy, is this ever violent for its time. That's the best part, really. Just how shocking it can be without really showing us anything that might attract the notice of the censors. Though nearer the end of his career than its beginning, Lang creates one of the iconic noirs of American cinema, with memorable characters and incidents, precision storytelling, and some cracking lines as well.

Woman of the Year marks the first film in what would become a long onscreen partnership between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and there's tangible chemistry already, though it's perhaps not the easy, witty romance we've come to expect from later efforts. Hepburn is great as an international affairs journalist at the top of her profession (the title woman), incredibly independent even in small mannerisms, who nevertheless falls for Tracy, a sports writer who initially wants to set her straight after she makes dismissive comments about baseball in an interview. The romcom basics are there, but this soon turns into a drama (despite some light comedy shenanigans), covering more steps in the relationship than usually allowed. Can his ego, in fact, live in the shadow of her accomplishments? To its credit, Tracy does not come off as a macho jerk despite his troubles, so it's really down to the closing act. What is should do is allow them to find a compromise somewhere between extremes without them (and especially her) compromising who they ARE. Unfortunately, the barest hint of that is given (in a line of dialog), but the film wants to end with the wives in the audience thinking they shouldn't have ambitions beyond the home. And that's not a message that has aged well. It's not even a message that's internally consistent with the rest of the picture. Oh well. At least the actors'll get to play opposite each other in more equitable relationships in the future.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, is a cinematic experience more than it is a narrative, and I resent its final incident because it forces a "story" into what was a crushingly honest, and intriguingly ambivalent, portrait. Jeanne is a widowed mother, living with small means with an increasingly distant teenage son. Chantal Akerman's fixed camera watches as Jeanne does her tedious chores in real time, inhabiting perfectly dressed environments that, thanks to the 3h22 runtime, have been burned into my memory. Nothing happens, awkward silences are the order of the day, and it's still somehow riveting. The only thing that's given short shrift is Jeanne getting paid for sex, which is just part of the routine. The way it's all presented, with no judgement, is also how the audience is invited to see it. In between polishing shoes and making dinner, somewhere there's this small lawless act, and the equivalency is worth noting. Prostitution aside, this is the tedium of thousands of homemakers, and putting its quiet drama to celluloid was in itself a feminist act. Lots to unpack in the final moments, and it doesn't destroy everything that went before, but it could be from another film. As such, I would rather skip it and be left with that boldly quiet experience.

Hold on a minute. My favorite song from Cabaret isn't in the 1972 movie?! How will I know not to tell Mama?! Anyway, Cabaret plays a lot like Bob Fosse's later directorial effort, All That Jazz, but I feel less connected to the story. It has the sumptuous look, and crazed editing, using the song and dance numbers as commentary on the drama, like an alternate reality crashing in. It's shockingly queer for its time, which is interesting, especially in the story's setting - fascist pre-war Nazi Germany. But it all rather relies on your ability to enjoy Liza Minnelli's manic pixie girl act, and my own threshold isn't all that high. What makes it work anyway is that it really IS an act, and Minnelli manages to show us the real Sally under all that make-up, the vulnerability showing through everywhere but in her confident musical numbers. It's just hard to tap into the love triangle at times because the only couple that's a natural 'ship is Brian and Max.

Bing Crosby's OTHER (first) entry in the "save the inn by putting on a show" genre, White Christmas has 100% less black face than Holiday Inn, though it does give us a Minstrel Show scare at one point. It's a fun entertainment that uses its four stars very well - Crosby's easy improv, Danny Kaye's more restrained than usual slapstick, Vera-Ellen's energetic but precise dancing, and Rosemary Clooney's voice and dress sense (that Batwoman dress is so great, it will haunt my dreams) - with some memorable song and dance numbers. There are silly misunderstandings to keep the romances alive, and a good deal of gay subtext for those who enjoy that kind of camp. Post-war patriotism and some heart in the message that we shouldn't forget our veterans. That Batwoman dress--oh, did I already mention it? Maybe it deserves to be mentioned twice. A likeable Christmas spectacular, harmless in the best possible way.

I liked the first season of Travelers enough to wait for Netflix to get Season 2. It arrived with Season 3 as a bonus! I'd previously described it as a cross between Quantum Leap and Continuum, but the way the mythology (and perhaps the real world) developed, it now takes the bent of Cold War era pod people narratives, but in reverse. Here, the pod people replacing our loved ones are the good guys, and I can't help but see the West's deeply divided politics/generation gap in this (the Travelers are Vegans who want to save the world from climate change, etc.). Well, they're not all good guys, because there's a faction who is a lot more ruthless about how it wants to go about it, and the show also creates a pretty cool supervillain that may or may not be connected to it. In spite of the conspiracy element, the two seasons try their best to tell complete stories each episode (with running subplots), and it ends on a high. If it ends. Season 3 gives us hope for more, but I don't think that's really the purpose of its short coda. Quite the opposite of hope, I should think. A warning perhaps. I don't want to give it away, but everything that's been set up culminates into a clever finale that make this series an easy to binge, satisfying, 36-episode time travel story for our times.

Allllll aboard! Get your tickets out! The Train-o-thon is leaving the station once more...

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing team up on the Horror Express to fight a threat out of Quatermass. There's definitely that franchise's mix of supernatural and science fiction at work, as a mummified caveman found in China turns out to be the vessel for some kind of evil during a trip through Siberia, the truth of which keeps shifting as the characters' understanding of it does, but if it's meant to keep us guessing, they fall a little short of that goal. Oh, it's not the pseudo-science that explains the monster's origins, but rather that it kills and kills and kills, always in the same way. It all gets a bit repetitive. Also too bad we don't get more of Telly Savalas' boisterous Cossack. He's definitely a more interesting character than the poorly characterized Mad Monk we're mostly stuck with though the length of the film (but then, what's a Lovecraftian entity without a good cultist to worship it?).

Transsiberian scores a lot of points early on. Two missionaries take the train from China to Moscow riding through evocative landscapes and meeting a younger but more road-tested couple that may or may not be a threat to their existence. Plenty of suspense and ambiguity around that, with strong performance from Woody Harrelson (atypically naive and goofy) and Emily Mortimer. In the second act, things go pear-shaped and we're very pleasantly in Hitchcock territory, especially once Ben Kingsley's dangerous Russian cop boards the train. But then, act 3. Well. That's when the train kind of literally goes off the rails and the film devolves into action thriller nonsense. Worse, it implies things that are then not followed up on, and it completely loses its moral center. The wrong people are rewarded and punished, and it's not about making a point. It just feels completely untethered from its own internal logic and ethics. Could have been great, but they fumbled it in the end.

The Great Locomotive Chase is a true tale of the Civil War, one cinephiles would have previously discovered in Buster Keaton's The General, but this is the docu-drama version. The names haven't been changed. This time, the Union is on the side of right, though Southerners aren't vilified. Fess Parker plays the heroic secret service man Andrews who brings a crew of soldiers with him to steal a train and dismantle the South's capacity to supply its forces on the border. This is a more serious character for the normally affable Parker, and I wish I could see a bit of his famous frontiersmen in him because there's a real lack of humor for what's sold as a Disney adventure. Correspondingly, it's a bloodless affair, though if I hadn't been chugging train-themed films, I might feel a little more invested in the action elements where they try to stop the train behind them in its tracks. Alas, films like Von Ryan's Express and The Train would do it better in due course. But it's not this film's fault that I can't be counted on to see movies in chronological order.

From Argentina, Moebius is a showcase for the talents of Buenos Aires' Universidad del Cine, and it looks like someone read a maths paper on topology and decided to make a movie out of it. This subway procedural concerns a train that's gone missing in the tunnels under the city. The solution to the mystery is a science fiction fable that's more philosophical than anything else, and leaves one feeling a little puzzled and empty as a result. It kept my attention the same way Pi or Primer did, but failed to give me as comprehensible an answer (not that Primer is immediately comprehensible, but it can be deciphered; I don't think Moebius really gives you what's needed). And yet, there are some artful shots in there, and it feels quite genuine in its portrayal of subway systems and staff (at least until we get into the fantasy of it). I've read that there's an allegory in there for "disappeared" dissidents - I just don't have the context for it - but it doesn't give us a "proof" of that intent either.

Made in 1940, Night Train to Munich is a British spy thriller set in the days just before WWII. Correspondingly, it's a satisfying mix of unflappable British daring and satirical take-down of the Nazis. Which isn't to say they're not dangerous, nor that the film doesn't poke fun at the English (there are two comic relief characters who return, in spirit, name AND body, from Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes - is there a British Train-verse?!). A young Rex Harrison plays the cocky British spy who hopes to rescue a Czech scientist and his daughter from Germany's war machine, and he brings the perfect blend of romance, action, and comedy required to make it all work. Despite being obviously studio-bound, the film has scope, bringing locations to life with grand miniatures when it must; they have a certain hokey charm that I think adds to the film rather than takes away from it. Unexpectedly fun.

In Lady on a Train, Deanna Durbin is on a train long enough to witness a murder out her window in a story that comically sends up film noir tropes from its first frame and creates an unlikely detective heroine, on the trail of the half-seen murderer. Helped by a narcissistic mystery writer who is more hapless than she is, Durbin stumbles onto clues and danger, but is at least clever when it comes to getting out of the latter. Fans of her musical work will also find some nice songs, some of them thanks to a silly, convenient plot hole. But none of this is to be taken seriously. It's just a flighty comic mystery, with lots of funny business from even the smallest of supporting roles (they should have made a movie just about Jacqueline DeWit's sarcastic secretary), and much of it works. It's even better if you've seen your share of noir. An amusing change of pace for your Christmas viewing.


Brendoon said...

Beaut! Thanks again for the weekly reviews. Todays lot bumped up my wishlist a good deal.


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