This Week in Geek (26/11-02/12/18)


In theaters: If Green Book looks like a reverse Driving Miss Daisy, it's really more of an Odd Couple road trip movie tracking the birth of a real-life friendship. Mahershala Ali is an uptight, cultured piano virtuoso; Viggo Mortensen puts on his best Denis Leary impression as the ignorant slob paid to be his driver and bodyguard while touring in the Deep South in the '60s. There's a lot of comedy in their interactions, but of course, the trip - somewhat referenced as Orpheus' descent into Hell in the film, though it's hardly allegorical - has plenty of opportunities for drama. It seems ridiculous to me that we still need movies about racism that are this obvious (racist man gets to know black man and changes his ways - you don't need to be "woke" to learn something you don't know), but here we are. Excellent performances, good music, back doored feel-good Christmas vibes... but it doesn't go the extra mile and treat its subject matter in a novel way.

At home: Creed is adept at both continuing Rocky Balboa's story - making him a lot more sympathetic and charming a character than I remembered - and kicking off a new boxing movie franchise. References to the other films are obvious, as indeed, Michael B. Jordan's Adonis Creed lives in the shadow of his father Apollo. He wants to forge his own legacy, however, and the movie is the same, and we don't get a repeat of either Apollo's story, nor Rocky's. And yet, both the character and the film must embrace what has gone before. Both he and it are sequels, acknowledge it, and use it as a strength. A nice thematic surprise. But can it fight? I won't lie, I have a hard time getting into boxing movies. I don't care for the sport, and to me it's one of the most boring martial arts. All those fights kind of look the same to me. Creed isn't the only exception to this rule, but it is an exception. I found myself following the choreography and strategy a lot more than usual, either thanks to a well-judged script or Ryan Coogler's visceral fight direction. Put me in the ring, coach, I'm ready for the next one.

An animated film for adults, or to teach older kids what life is really like, Watership Down stands the test of time, with its dark story about rabbits fleeing the destruction of their habitat to find a new warren, with all that entails, including the acquisition of a sensible gene pool, if only the next door warlord will allow it. It's brutal and violent, but not unnecessarily gruesome, filling you with a sense of dread from early on, and tugging at your heart strings throughout. Structurally, it's a bit "one thing after another" in the first half, but it mostly pays off. The animation consists of beautiful watercolors and the bunnies are especially well animated, with a different and just as gorgeous look for the myth sequence that opens the film. And there are some rich British voices to give the characters life too, not the least of which John Hurt* as the cleverest rabbit of them all. Though the book's author, Richard Adams, doesn't claim any metaphor about stigmatized minorities, it's in there, perhaps thanks to the sadistic blue-eyed rabbit clan. But if it is, it's not distracting and plays out better as post-viewing discussion than mid-film decoder ring.

Is Here Comes Mr. Jordan the original Quantum Leap? Robert Montgomery plays a not-too-bright boxer called Joe whose soul is brought to the Pearly Gates before his time by an overzealous angel and so must immediately be put in another man's body because his own was cremated. With the help of Mr. Jordan, a hologram - I mean, an angel - only he can see and hear, Joe sets right what once went wrong until he can find a life he can call home. It's a fun flick, with lots of twists and turns, for the most part unpredictable. Where it fails is in the performances which are frequently broad and cartoonish. I mean, I never find Montgomery particularly convincing in anything (not to say he doesn't have range, as is subtly shown in the last scene), but some of the supporting players are way over the top. It just about works for the light fantasy, but definitely feels dated. As to the way the lead is treated in the last act, I get why people think it's disturbing, but I don't have a problem with it, not when you consider the difference between consciousness and soul, which the film definitely takes into account.

Cabin in the Sky is a rare treat, a black cast musical from the '40s, and it's a real charmer, devotional in spirit, like a church choir come alive to tell a story, with great songs, fun dance numbers, and an unexpectedly apocalyptic climax. The conceit is a fantastical one, angels and devils vying for the soul of an inveterate gambler who's willing to repent and reform for the love of his pious wife. He's given a reprieve after getting shot, and from there, supernatural entities that only we can see play try to sway him and others to their side. There's both comedy and drama in the premise, and while the very end hasn't aged well in terms of tropes, it still works in the context of the story. African-Americans got so little representation in old Hollywood that even the slightest negative or caricatured portrayal would draw criticism, but I feel the film is balanced between the baddies and the goodies, that it has a lot of love and sympathy for all its characters, and that the ultimate message is an elevating and universal one.

I was only familiar with Buñuel's surrealist films, so Simon of the Desert, while an absurdist tragi-comic fable and not a piece of realism, was a nice, more accessible surprise. Buñuel takes the story of a Syrian saint who stood on a column in the desert to show his piety and turns him into a kind of super-Jesus being tempted by Satan, to explore his complicated feelings about Christianity. Through vignettes in the life of Samuel, the film exposes hypocrisies, shows off the absurdity of Jansenism and Biblical literalism, and in its abrupt finale (Buñuel has blamed financial concerns for the film's length, others have said it was originally meant to be part of an anthology that never came to be), shows us why Scripture is inadequate to describe the world, and at the same time, how we're inadequate as interpreters of Scripture. Because that's the thing, as a piece of cinematic blasphemy, it's really very reverent; it's mostly angry at humanity for its false piety. A complex work that I wish were slightly longer.

Martin Scorsese's Silence may be, like most of his films, over-long, but it never lost my interest. I was afraid this story about the last Jesuits to visit Japan would smack of the "White Messiah" trope, but it's quite the reverse. What these white men bring is destruction on those who would dare follow their teachings. They're not saviors at all, and are in fact humbled at the faith shown by new converts as opposed to their own doubting natures, forged in a world where Christianity is a given. Very complex ideas at work here, creating sustained contrast between private and public faith, and asking pointed questions about the value of missionary work and its role in colonialism. Japan rejects these in favor of its own traditions, and if its officials commit atrocities against the faithful, their point of view seems valid, though the contention that Christianity is dangerous is more or less a self-fulfilling prophecy. I can't decide if the lack of score is a gimmick, or whether the "silence" helps the audience think about these philosophical concerns, but to its credit, I didn't notice until the credits rolled. I was more concerned with the shifting narrative voices - narration as score? - which seemed messy as a storytelling device, rather than, say, emulating the different books of the Bible, or making a point about the known and the unknowable, two interpretations the film could have supported.

While Judi Dench plays the subject of the film in Philomena, its initially unwilling protagonist is Steve Coogan's jaded reporter who wouldn't be doing a human interest feature at all if he hadn't been fired from the BBC for his cynicism (essentially). That he stumbles on Yet Another Cover-Up by the Catholic ChurchTM while helping a woman find a child given up to adoption (and indeed, the identity of the child) is the sort of contrivance movies are made of, except this all really happened. A case of life being stranger than fiction. But the simple Philomena Lee is a great foil for Coogan's snobby Martin Sixsmith - the Odd Couple comedy helps alleviate some of the story's natural heaviness - and though he's the investigator of the piece and the one who "arcs", she turns out to be the protagonist after all, and she's the one who has decisions to make and things to lose in the climax of the piece. A keen character study wrapped in a journalism story.

Frank Capra's Lady for a Day ends one scene too soon, and I'm only saying that because I so wanted to know what happens to its characters in epilogue, and that's a testament to its virtues. As with many of Capra's modern fairy tales, it's all about the utopian idea that your community should care about you, as all sorts of people come to the help of an old lady who sells apples on the street, when her daughter arrives with an aristocratic fiancé and his father. Should any of them find out she's fallen on hard times... May Robson provides a touching performance as Apple Annie, necessary to make us buy the premise and not negatively judge the results. And it's also quite funny. A real riot, in fact. I found myself laughing out loud frequently at the sharp script and crazy twists and turns. Capra has many great films, and this one seems to have fallen through the cracks when people discuss his oeuvre. If I have to champion it, then I will. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

You can tell Life with Father is based on a series of short stories (or on a Broadway play based on a series of short stories, same difference) because it is very nearly plotless. It might as well be several episodes of a sitcom mashed together. Nevertheless, as a comic character piece, it is very amusing indeed. William Powell is perfect as the obtuse, opinionated patriarch who will argue with God himself if he needs to, never bending the knee to anything or anyone (cue the only baptism farce I've ever experienced in any medium), and Irene Dunn is his match, expertly handling him to get her way, with some confounding but funny ideas about home finances. But it all comes from a place of love, or else it wouldn't be as charming. The subplots involving their four sons (and a young Elizabeth Taylor as love interest) are only interesting insofar as they connect to the lead couple's relationship, but there's some useful mirroring going on there. I might have tuned in to see these people week in, week out, which is to the film's credit, but AS a film, it does tend to meander.

It's interesting to me that Attack of the 50 Foot Woman came out the same year as Home Before Dark, as it feels like the same story - a woman returns from a sanitarium to her cheating, gaslighting husband and eventually throws off his shackles to stand on her own two feet - albeit translated in science-fiction B-movie form. And it has everything it needs to be a cool, cult feminist fable. You certainly WANT to see her become a human kaiju and take vengeance on him. But it takes way too long for her to grow, as we spend time exploring flying saucers and such (which the script thinks should be called "satellites" because it doesn't really know what it's talking about), and yet, when she does, the movie loses its way completely. It just doesn't know how to achieve its effects so our heroine is mostly a transparent giantess of different sizes mixed into the action. She has help from a giant rubber hand, but very little in way of miniature sets. From there, the metaphor falls apart as if the film makers just want to end it before people start walking out, though I surmise they never knew what they were actually making in the first place. That sweet poster though.

So let's start the Train-o-thon... All aboard? Ok then. Terror by Night is a Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes locked room/locked environment mystery set aboard a train bound for Scotland, featuring a villainous plot worthy of Moriarty (in fact, perpetrated by another of Holmes' recurring enemies), but not based on any single Arthur Conan Doyle story. Not just a cerebral puzzler, Holmes and Watson both get into a bit of action as well, keeping the pace up in the third act. I'm not entirely sure everything that needed to be explained or revealed was, nor that Holmes is all that clever in his deductions (on a plot level, I pretty much figured out what was a red herring and who the real culprit was, early on), but this train ride is nonetheless a fair, 60-minute entertainment, with several iconic characters along for the ride. A slightly longer film could have tied up a few more loose ends.


Anonymous said...

About "Quantum Leap", I want to see a remake of the show that doesn't really involve Scott Bakula. Not that I object to Scott Bakula, but I would want the show shot from the perspective of other people who can't see Sam Beckett. Maybe this is best done as a YouTube series, and more for fun. Also, have him leap into other TV shows, so for example an episode of TNG where it's not Dwight Schultz as Barclay, but Dwight Schults as Sam Beckett pretending to be Barclay.

"Scooby Doo" would be fun too:

Velma: Does anyone else think Shaggy is ... off today?

Fred: What do you mean?

Velma: Well, did you notice how he figured out the Red Baron Ghost was just a dummy on wires? Even I wanted to run, but he didn't seem scared at all!

Daphne: You're right! The only thing that surprised him was that his dog can talk!

Fred: Come to think of it, I did see him talking to a new invisible friend named "Al".


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