This Week in Geek (24-30/12/18)


Our fearless leader over at the Legion of Super-Bloggers sent us some Christmas gifts because he's awesome - a Sun Boy action figure for my Reboot Reviews partner Shotgun, and Lego Legionnaires and a Lt. Sulu pin for me. Appreciated!


In theaters: Aquaman is a big, dumb - but not too dumb - superhero/fantasy spectacular that takes its inspiration more from Arthurian legend than anything else, and yet manages to sneak in insane Silver Age references like Topo and Storm as much as more recent fare like the Trench. The film certainly looks great, and without resorting to lame slow-motion too, transitions between scenes and flashbacks particularly well done. The action rocks, especially when it gets close and personal (all the Black Manta stuff was more engaging than the big Lord of the Rings battles, for example), but for all its violence, the way the world is saved in a more understated way, through love and forgiveness. The characterization is thin, but these are myths writ large, and the film does manage some romantic moments, especially between Arthur's parents, but how Mera falls in love with the surface world at the same time as she does Aquaman is a very nice moment. As a plot, its quest structure seems like an obvious way to string sequences together, but can I begrudge a movie that features pirates its treasure map adventure? I do find it interesting that both villains, like the hero, are sons carrying on their parents' missions, and that if Arthur doesn't see himself as a hero, their motivations aren't entirely villainous, or are at least relatable. Aquaman isn't too demanding a film on the surface of it, but it's fun, it's gorgeous, and it's epic. I wasn't asking for much more.

There's a good comedy in Holmes and Watson somewhere, but it doesn't include Will Farrell. His idiot Sherlock is just terrible, while everyone else has some believability and funny shtick. But then, this is a movie that doesn't know what kind of comedy it should be. At its best, it has some fun with anachronisms and fools around with Holmesian tropes from across different media (most notably the Robert Downy Jr. version). At it's worse, dreadful slapstick and the leads acting like boorish morons. There are Airplane-type gags, but not enough to be in that style. There's a musical number, but just one, making you think maybe it would have worked better as a musical comedy. Heck, I would have rather watched the kid versions seen in the prologue for the length of the film. The REAL joke should be that Watson is the real engine for deduction, but his writing has always hidden that fact. It almost touches on that idea, but nope, Watson is also an imbecile. Committing to anything isn't really in this thing's DNA. Even the title. Why ISN'T this called Holmies as the posters suggested? It's a much better title for at least some percentage of the tone it goes for.

Emily Blunt makes a great Mary Poppins in the original musical's belated sequel Mary Poppins Returns. I was immediately wanting her to be Doctor Who and put the same spin on the role. That's my standard, I'm sorry. In many ways, this film is similar to Christopher Robin earlier this year. It follows up on an old children's book/film, catching up with its child protagonists now all grown up and in urgent need of reconnecting with those childhoods. And it's saddled with a money troubles-type plot only adults will get, though not necessarily care about. But Mary Poppins is a more lively film, with memorable songs, cool dance numbers, and great-looking fantasy sequences, so the banking stuff (which I admit was also part of the original) isn't as much of a drag on the film. It hits a lot of notes old fans want it to, but isn't opaque to those few souls who haven't been touched by the original. While I can only rave about Blunt (and hope they decide to do at least one more movie with her - there were eight books after all), the film's MVP is really Ben Whishaw as the grown Michael who is touching as all get out trying to escape his genetic imperative to become just like his father. Whatever its weaknesses - why do people keep giving singing roles to Meryl Streep? - Mary Poppins Returns overcomes them, largely because everyone's having so much fun, on screen as much as in the audience.

At home: If you were starving, could you steal a loaf of bread? Now, what if that loaf of bread was the love of your life? Remember the Night asks the question, as moral osmosis grips Barbara Stanwyck's serial shoplifter and Fred MacMurray's district attorney when he takes her in for Christmas mid-case. Stanwyck is so touching, realizing what her life's been missing after she meets his hilarious, but really very sweet family, that I openly wept through most of the film. Though there are moments of amusing levity, this is really about a doomed romance, though perhaps there's a way for the characters to meet in the middle. Remember the Night shows what Christmas, family and love CAN be, but despite its romantic veneer, there's realism there too. It plays by the rules of drama, not screwball comedy. I've seen Stanwyck in comedy and noir, but here she makes me fall in love and breaks my heart. Remember the night, indeed. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

The only real reason to watch The Christmas Chronicles is to see Kurt Russell play Santa Claus. And he's a good one! Otherwise, this story of kids getting the jump on St. Nick and almost accidentally ruining Christmas by separating him from his magical equipment looks like it was made for TV (which of course it was). But there are still some interesting tweaks on the mythos - ok, maybe not the CG elves right out of Trolls/Gnomeo, though I'm sure they'll play better to smaller children. For the adults, there are the moments that hark back to old TV Christmas specials (the musical number is a highlight), and the ending has some cleverness to it, a lot of heart, and a surprise guest appearance (more of this would have pushed it into that Christmas special arena and done it a world of good). Russell carries his scenes easily (and sexily), of course. Too bad he's not in every scene. I'm giving this a 3 out of 5, but a strong 3 out of 5; I couldn't quite justify the weak end of 3½ stars.

Flight of the Conchords' first and all-too-brief HBO special gets a lot of YouTube play in the house, and I've always been of the opinion that New Zealand's 4th most popular folk parody duo works best live. Dry, awkward humor comes alive so much better when there's an audience to play to. Their newest show, Flight of the Conchords: Live in London, is a pleasant mix of old favorites and new material, and the new songs have an epic, show-stopping quality that makes them a joy to discover. You're not just waiting around for the tunes you know, and even when they come up, they're arranged differently. Bret and Jemaine have evolved musically over the years, and the show makes use of much more than two guitars. And for all the well-timed jokes, there's still room for improvisation and discovering bits on stage. It's about as much fun as you hope it will be; even the normally very dry Bret sometimes breaks character for a chuckle.

I really have no reason to want to watch a zombie movie at this point in my life/the history of humanity, so succumbing to World War Z was entirely about seeing Peter Capaldi* play the "W.H.O. Doctor" (based in Cardiff, no less), a FULL SIX WEEKS before he was announced to have been cast as Doctor Who. That is a masterful clue delivered thanks to insider knowledge. Anyway... By 2013, we'd seen "zoombies" plenty, but Marc Forster can at least be counted on to deliver a good-looking movie. And there IS at least one memorable sequence in there (in Jerusalem). But otherwise, the action kind of blurs together as Brad Pitt fights off or escapes one zombie attack after another, just in different environments, playing a game of Pandemic for high stakes. The action is obviously the main draw, but it often feels like the movie wants to be a procedural - what WOULD happen during a real zombie plague? - and just can't get out from under its action requirements. Instead of one cookie-cutter hero, its scope would have been better served by an ensemble (in the style of, say, Contagion), which I understand was the novel's take on it.

Netflix is full of small-budget science-fiction flicks like Infinity Chamber, and when they're near-future techno-thrillers, I tend to compare them to the usually superlative Black Mirror. After all, if that kind of film can be done in series, one-offs should at least try to reach that level. And Infinity Chamber could, yes, be a Black Mirror story. A man is held captive by a fascist American government, his only company an artificial intelligence, while he is interrogated, forced to relive a memory until it yields answers. The woman in that memory could be the key to his emotional survival, perhaps even his means of escape, but the memory might be another kind of prison. Well-produced and well-played, the result has a Philip K. Dick vibe that spins ideas that will seem familiar from other mind-bending puzzle films, but with just enough of a spin to keep things interesting. It's really the story of a man being broken down by captivity in a sci-fi Guantanamo, the old idea of a prisoner building a motorcycle in his mind used against him.

Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose is a shaggy dog story about a theatrical manager whose clients are oddballs and losers with a tendency to drop him if they ever make it big. Your ability to appreciate the comedy is largely dependent on your liking Allen's shtick, as he plays the title character. I'm about neutral on that myself normally, but it's a little harder to take than usual here. I can enjoy the knowing showbiz satire and the character's passion for the people he feels responsible for, and the anecdotal structure works well, but I have a hard time connecting with the lead performance. It's too manic to actually feel natural. Not sure why it needed to be in black and white - is it a nostalgia thing? Are those days over? - so it neither adds nor detracts from the whole. Maybe I stopped giving the film my undivided attention after Allen fingered a 12-year-old's collar bone in an early scene. Brrr. THAT hasn't aged well.

Part 90s neo-noir, part savage Hollywood satire, Robert Altman's The Player has a lot of fun with its material, especially on a meta-textual level. We have characters talking about long tracking shots while a long tracking shot is underway. We have dozens of big star cameos doing Altman a solid, mixing with recognizable faces playing even small roles. We have the story itself being one of the pitches heard during the film, daring you to decide where it was, itself, manipulated at the studio level. Lingering shots on movie posters that comment on the action. Everyone pushing for realistic endings (and tell me if the way this crazy story is resolved isn't actually realistic). It's a film about film-making (as a product? as art? dramatic ironies are well conceived) that knows, but hides, that it is itself a film (product? art?). I wonder how much of the producers' cynicism is based on Altman's real-life experiences in Hollywood. Probably 100%.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre may dress itself up as a western adventure, but it's really a study in greed that's practically Shakespearean in its intensity. Humphrey Bogart has never had money, so the idea of striking it rich is no big deal to him at first, but once the gold dust starts pouring in, he gets more and more paranoid that he'll lose the first riches he's ever known. His dragon sickness is contrasted with his partners better dosed attitudes. But of course, it also works as an epic action western - it IS John Huston, after all - but not a predictable one. I did find that the theme of avarice and how one might succumb to it is at times overplayed. There's no real doubt the characters are headed down that dark road just from the thematic content (even if you can't guess the incidents). That said, still great. Walter Huston and Bogart are particularly strong. That's the thing with Bogie. He's so iconic as a hard private dick, you don't expect him to be able to act any other way. He shouldn't surprise me at this point, but totally does.

Alllll aboard! The Train-o-thon is leaving the station. Tickets please!

Dario Argento's Sleepless has a retired detective played by Max von Sydow revive his career to track a serial killer, thought dead, who has started to kill again. The murders are varied, vicious, sadistic, and disturbing. But while there are some good, suspenseful moments (the death of the "swan", for example), the film plays more like a mystery than a horror film, even if it is broken up with hyper-violent gore. Unfortunately, it's not a easy mystery to get into. The conclusions drawn aren't well set up, and the twists in the convoluted third act are pretty crazy. To the point where Argento spends the climax on a Q&A between protagonist and villain just so the plot can be explained to the audience. I'm also not sure bitterly contrasting old and new police methods serves a purpose. The English does it absolutely no favors - terrible voice acting - but even if that weren't a problem, there would still be the variable score that has a silly 80s vibe to it. Maybe I just don't like Argento. Even the films I've appreciated still elicit a "oh, okay" from me.

The Polar Express' source material is similar to Jumanji's and Zathura's, and I get a similar vibe from its film adaptation, with a young boy on the cusp of no longer believing in Santa picked up by a magical train and taken on a perilous journey to the North Pole where he'll either reconnect with his Christmas spirit or be lost. It's a good story with plenty of action, mystery, heart, and magic. So it's really too bad that the animation looks so dated. There are highlights. mind. The train sequences are well choreographed, and the Conductor's face is very well animated, but the bodies often have the quality of a Grand Theft Auto puppet, and the kids' mouth movement are particularly stiff. Even at the time, this was an awkward proposition. Having Tom Hanks play various characters, including the "hero boy" mo-cap, is a silly conceit that doesn't really bear fruit (if we're in a dream and everyone is an avatar of the boy, then Hanks' features should be in EVERYONE; they're not). Trying to make animation realistic misses the point of the medium, in this case. You could have the same digital environments with proper actors inserted into them and it would be a better-looking movie.

I'm a fan of Alain Robbe-Grillet's literary work, in particular Les gommes (The Erasers), his most playful "nouveau roman", an absurdist style he more or less invented, by which the mechanics of novel-writing are questioned, subverted, and destroyed. He also directed a number of films, something I didn't know until I found Trans-Europ-Express, and I was keen on finding out if he broke the rules of cinema as well as those of the novel. From this one example, I'd say yes! He and his wife are in the film, discussing a film project as it manifests itself. Part automatic writing, part commentary, the film takes shots at crime drama, exposing but at the same time excusing the genre's usual plot holes. Train track and bondage imagery converge to evoke a fictional character's lack of true agency, a major theme in Robbe-Grillet's writing, while also shocking audiences with sensual kink. Experimental films can be a chore, and T-E-E does have occasional longueurs, but like the director's books, there's a sense of fun there too, which makes it a lot more palatable.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is more John Hughes than I remembered. Its protagonists are decidedly older than his usual high school kids, but between reused actors from earlier films in support roles, the terribly 80s music, and the way comic beats are edited, it's undeniably of a piece with the rest of Hughes' canon. And though later in life, it still has the bent of a coming of age story, with Steve Martin learning a life lesson during the trip from hell. While he's good at being the jerk who instantly regrets losing his temper, it's of course John Candy who is the heart and soul of the film, managing to be both an obnoxious slob AND incredibly touching. I was surprised at how the third act suddenly went into cartoon territory with its action, but nevertheless pushed the drama to more heartfelt places than expected. Though my memories were dim going in, I'm sure Planes Trains helped mold my refusal to travel during the holiday season. How could it not?

Train de vie (Train of Life) is a bittersweet fantasy about a Jewish village that attempts to escape the Holocaust by posing as a Nazi deportation train, a crazy idea from their village idiot/wise man. Proceeding from that notion, we're introduced to a large cast, lovingly rendered, both funny and touching, contrarians who are often their own worst enemies in this mad endeavor. Especially once communism takes hold in the tail cars, bristling at the villagers playing Nazis up front. Somehow, all the subplots are juggled satisfyingly and there's a real joy for life in the proceedings. Not sure what to think of the controversial ending though, whether it justifies the film's premise or breaks off from it. That's for each audience member to say. It's perhaps expected to say whether one likes this more or less than 1998's better-known Holocaust comedy (especially given that Roberto Benigni was apparently offered the role of Shlomo, turned it down, and THEN made his own film), but Train de vie feels more like Fiddler on the Roof than it does La vita è bella.

Gene Wilder brings comic charm to what is essentially a crime picture in Silver Streak, a flick that starts out well, more or less in the tradition of such films as The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich, but Wilder keeps getting thrown out of the plot. That's funny to a point, but the film gets into trouble with these shifts, leading to a boring, shoot-em-up resolution. And then there's Wilder's first team-up with Richard Pryor. They have good chemistry, but it makes for an odd structure where the person you think of as the co-lead shows mid-movie and seems to have this inexplicably heartfelt loyalty to Wilder's character. They make it feel natural, but it's not really earned by the story. Pryor also permits a brief black face moment; they just about get away with it, I guess. From the first act, I was expecting something a lot more clever.


Anonymous said...

We are officially living in a wacky parallel universe: the United States has established concentration camps for children, but "Aquaman" is a hit movie.

This needs to be on the soundtrack:

Russell Burbage said...

I need to watch a few of these based on your comments. Oddly enough, I just recently rewatched Silver Streak myself....!
Trains Planes is the only movie I know of that features my hometown (St Louis) airport. So it would be a favorite if only for that.
And you're welcome for the gifts. Glad you like them. Did Shotgun do mean things to Sun Boy?:-)

Siskoid said...

She took pictures and sent them to the Girls, but not to me. I can only imagine...

Kurt "Welcome to Geektown" Onstad said...

If you want a good movie with the conceit of Watson being the smart one, check out Without a Clue, starring Ben Kingsley as Watson and Michael Caine as Holmes.


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