This Week in Geek (18-24/02/19)


In theaters: I really liked Happy Death Day, and while the sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, wasn't quite as focused, I liked it too. The first movie was a slasher flick with a Groundhog Day premise. The protagonist, Tree, relived the day of her murder until she solved and stopped it. Coming back to that day is a risky enterprise, but 2U puts the slasher element in the background and turns to science fiction to feed the second act. I don't want to say too much about the plot because a lot of the fun comes from the various surprises. I can say that Tree's character arc from the first film only seemed complete, but it's much harder to let go of the past than we were led to believe, and the emotional climax is so poignant, the plot's climax feels positively tacked on (but wait, after the animated part of the credits, there's an epilogue that either sets us up for a very different threequel, or else takes the piss - quite possible since it has fun mocking time travel tropes throughout). 2U switches gears a couple times like that, which keeps things interesting, if not completely cohesive.

You can tell the same effects house that gave us the Planet of the Apes movies worked on Alita: Battle Angel. Though I was not convinced by the trailers, Alita does turn out to be the best CG actress I've ever since, and extremely well integrated into the live action. If you told me they just embiggened Rosa Salazar's eyes and that's it, I'd almost believe it. It's the main draw because everything else is good, but hardly original. It's Rollerball with cyborgs, a "chosen one" narrative, and lots of CG fights. Not to say there aren't any surprises or quirky bits, and it is unashamedly a manga brought to life, and that's a compliment. Due warning: While it tells a fairly complete story, I realized near the end that it was meant as a first chapter. That's worrisome if it's not going to do gangbusters. The good news is, with penny-pinching Robert Rodriguez at the helm, he'll probably find a way to finish the story regardless.

At home: Based on the tell-all of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me? recounts writer Lee Israel's 1990s crime spree, falsifying literary letters and selling them to get herself out of the hole. As a story, it's interesting, but just okay. It almost gets to the central irony of a character who cannot be anything but herself socially (to her detriment), but can never be herself in her writing, but not quite, and that's too bad. Where it shines best is in the acting. Melissa McCarthy is strong in the role - I will add "of course", I think she proved her dramatic mettle to me in St. Vincent a few years ago - and she's well supported by Richard E. Grant*, playing what could very well be his cult character Withnail some 30 years on, but actually Israel's damaged friend Jack Hock. The film also provides some insight into the wheelings and dealings of the publishing world that I enjoyed, more so that that of elite collectors who seem very remote to me.

The Umbrella Academy's first season - ostensibly based on the comic series' first storyline (I only read the second trade, I think) - successfully remixes superhero tropes for the Netflix-chugging audience, being equal parts X-Men (a School for Gifted Youngsters, Dark Phoenix), Heroes (save the cheerleader, save the world), and Misfits (including Robert Sheehan in a starring role). Despite the familiarity, there are plenty of twists, turns, quirks, weird powers and clever narrative devices to fill up the 10 episodes as seven unlikely heroes are asked to save the world, and might if only they can fix their own lives first. The time travel element is juggled well, lest a dropped ball break the show irreparably (I'd say there are a couple of close calls on that score). Great music cues too. Felt like the showmakers listened to the same music I did in the 90s. If I have one gripe, it's that the season should have been a complete story, with a tease for the next. As is, it comes just short, and now I gotta wait a year for a resolution.

With It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (so many Mads!), director Stanley Kramer attempts an epic that's broad comedy instead of historical drama. Does he succeed? While you don't quite feel the long running time as much as you might, the film's humor is really of its time. I was perhaps most impressed with the credits sequence, a fun little animation that keeps throwing name comedians at you until you can't believe all these people can be in the same film. In practice, however, too many people are making faces like Jerry Lewis' and generally shout at each other. A little of that goes a long way. So I didn't love this race-to-the-treasure spectacular, but did find a lot to admire. Some fun stunt work, for example, and the intermission cliffhangers achieve a kind of alchemical balance I enjoy (earth, air, water and fire dangers). I thought I saw the ending coming, but it pulls an extra act out of its car boot and gets more insane by the minute after that.

A ship of merchant marine is sunk by the u-boat. The survivors, people from all walks of life, find themselves on the same craft in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat. As you can imagine from the master of suspense, tension mounts. Having been written by John Steinbeck, you should also be ready for some of them not surviving to the last reel. A nice little claustrophobic thriller that pretty convincingly creates the sense that we're out on the ocean, Lifeboat's cast of characters features many villains. Some by choice, others by necessity, but no real heroes. It's just people trying to survive; morality might just get in the way. And so who can you trust? Who can you even like, given the circumstances. Hitchcock and Steinbeck deftly navigate the waters of the soul, so to speak, and provide us with an ensemble character study as well. There's a bit of a lull in the middle, but with so many personal stories to cater too, there's usually always something to look at.

I was immediately taken by High Noon's silvery sheen, like a daguerreotype come to life, but more than that, it provides an unusually complex western narrative for one made in the early '50s. High Noon is more or less told in real time, with its title acting as a veritable ticking time bomb, as Gary Cooper's Marshal tries in vain to assemble a posse to help him with an outlaw coming to town. As the suspense reaches its crescendo, the editing works like clockwork. I actually started doing that thing where you count out beats and snap your fingers to the rhythm, and the picture would change on cue. Has the film lost its original meaning, as a reaction to McCarthyism and a condemnation of Hollywood hanging some of its people out to dry? Or is that still a relevant, even universal theme? Having one of the appeals take place in a church perhaps purposefully evokes Peter repudiating Christ three times. And so, High Noon asks whether we will stand together or let others fight our battles for us, even if they may fall from lack of support. And then some smart gunfighting choreography, making this a satisfying entry in the genre and not just an off-brand Waiting for Godot. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings is Tsui Hark's third Dee film, but the second prequel to the original, and it finally puts the Empress center stage as an antagonist, tying into the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. The fairly generic Mark Chao is once again "Young Detective Dee" (though no longer young enough for it to be reflected in the movie title, which just seems to be like a sad confirmation that Andy Lau will never play Dee again), caught up in another crazy wuxia mystery, this one filled with witches and wizards trying to overthrow the Tang Dynasty. You might even call them supervillains. The insane Buddhist finale has to be seen to be believed, but it's also a dreadful deus ex machina. The least of the three films, story-wise, it does have better character development and much better CG than the previous installment, so it's entirely watchable even if sometimes you wonder just what's happening and who all these people are.

It's always a little hard for me to watch a animal-driven film from before the days of the American Humane Society's presence on set. 1966's Born Free, the true story of a British couple adopting a lioness on a Kenyan preserve has a couple of dubious moments, but for the most part, the animals seem well treated and the production even reintegrated the animals into the wild against the studio's wishes (I guess they didn't get it) after it wrapped. If you're interested in lion cubs running rampant in the house, and an incredibly tame lioness hanging out with actors like she's just a big house cat, you'll find what you're looking for, and some nice nature photography to boot. I often wondered just how they got the lion to do what she did. What Born Free lacks is richly drawn HUMAN characters. They have only one thing on their mind, and it's Elsa the Lion and her welfare. It's all very saccharine and idealized and hard to believe. These people can't even raise a "tut tut" when a big game hunter almost massacres their pet. I can't get the theme song out of my head though.

1942's adaptation of the Jungle Book has a lot more people in it than any other version I can remember. Taking its cue mostly from two of Kipling's humano-centric stories - Tiger! Tiger! and The King's Ankus - it largely skips over Mowgli's time with an all-animal cast (Baloo is very much the loser here) to get Mowgli to a human village, where he learns to speak, romances a girl (sort of), and frowns at men's capacity for greed and violence. That may be one of the only ways to make this picture in the 40s. There are some good animal scenes set in colorful environments, the nature-style footage edited to create the animals' personalities, but there's also real interaction with humans there. On the whole, it looks gorgeous and has some charm. Unfortunately, taking that angle opens the door to a whole lot of black face, with white people playing Indians. So it's a good thing Sabu plays the famous man-cub, or else it would be wall-to-wall problematic.


Kurt "Welcome to Geektown" Onstad said...

Wasn't "Rat Race" the modern equivalent of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, World?" If you haven't seen it, I recommend it. And it's got Rowan Atkinson in it for your Who-watch.

Siskoid said...

Yes, it's at least the British modern equivalent. I haven't seen it, and might, but not in the context of the Who-watch. Atkinson already had his go-round thanks to Bernard and the Genie. And indeed, the Who-watch is over as of this week, details in the next This Week in Geek.


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