This Week in Geek (18-24/03/19)


Got ATB Publishing's Bookwyrm - An Unauthorized and Unconventional Guide to the Doctor Who Novels Vol.1, The New Adventures 1991-1997, by Anthony Wilson and Robert Smith?, which if you know me, is right down my alley. And podcast network partner and friend Xum Yukinori got a few copies of his Xum's Who printed and sent me one; it's gorgeous! Thanks, Professor Xum!


In theaters: I couldn't make up my mind if I should watch Norway's In Order of Disappearance before Cold Pursuit - same movie, remade by the same director for American audiences - but ultimately, if I was going to pay to see Cold Pursuit, that's the one for which I should be the least "spoiled". The change of venue certainly inspires interesting differences even sight unseen, like the participation of a Native mob, but while I might end up liking the original more (I'm giving myself a few weeks), this version is pretty cool too. Liam Neeson on a murderous revenge spree, we've seen before. In a world where movie tropes are deconstructed and made to follow real world rules? That feels a lot fresher. Cold Pursuit, then, turns into a black comedy in the style of Blue Ruin, or the Coen Brothers, and that's right up my snow-plowed alley. The villain, an angry granola drug baron, is particularly amusing, but he's not alone. Hans Petter Moland finds a way to make all his characters distinctive efficiently, so that we care just a little bit more when they are killed or survive. Like winter, the subject matter is grim, but damn if it wasn't a fun time at the movies. We giggled a lot. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

At home: Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres) is a stylish Belgian crime thriller set in Spain, and consequently springing off Sergio Leone's spaghetti western experimentations and into a surreal abyss. Leone meets Bunuel maybe. And yet, it has stylistic touches all its own. The slim plot concerns a band of thieves stealing a gold shipment then holing up, now without incident, in ruins inhabited by complicit anarchic artists. Adding to the feast for eyes and ears are the latter's waking visions, often involving a Goddess figure that, by the end, may seem to take an actual hand in the proceedings, depending on how you interpret it. At the same time, the lurid flick acts as an experiment in editing, doubling back on itself frequently to multiply points of view through a time stamp conceit that works reasonably well. A sizzling and exciting piece of movie making that takes no prisoners and bars no holds.

Louis Malle's Atlantic City is aptly named. Not only is it the setting of the story, but Burt Lancaster's down-on-his-luck, talking-about-glory-days-that-never-happened, small-time crook Lou is the city's very avatar. Like the place we're presented, he's cheap under his vainglorious veneer. He makes promises that are impermanent, as Lady Luck tosses him and the people around him this way and that. And he's kind of fine with it, despite his ambitions. He's seen better days, but they were never that great, you know? Much more plotty than other Malle films I'm aware of, it's also a pretty good crime fiasco where the leads are ambitious but hapless (the Coen Bros. would soon take this formula and run with it), but the picture doesn't want to judge them for it. It makes the dramatic irony an undercurrent rather than a top filter.

With Au revoir les enfants, Louis Malle puts a piece of his own childhood to the screen, and I wasn't sure, at first, that I needed to see another boarding school coming of age movie set in a past that was not my own (Nazi-occupied France), filled with autobiographical vignettes. But as the friendship between Malle's stand-in Julien and Jean, a secretly Jewish boy, develops, the picture comes into sharp focus. We've meandered into a relationship, half through fascination, half through rivalry, a friendship fraught with tension and danger, with a great potential for heartbreak. Absorbing from the point where you know what's happening and what might happen (and so perhaps all the way through on second viewing), I regret my attitude through the first act, my trouble distinguishing the school boys from one another, my waiting for Irène Jacob to show up in her small role. By the end, I was totally taken in, and left with a heaviness in my heart.

Jacques Tati's first feature is Jour de fête (The Big Day), a nearly plotless throwback to silent era comedies as only Tati could keep making them. He plays a bumbling mailman in a small rural town where everybody knows everybody, on the day of fete. Village life is another of Tati's trademarks, and he fills the first act with character introductions, enlivened by lightly comic gags. By the time the fete is underway, you feel like you know all these people. From a personal perspective, it's very interesting how rural French accents have sonorities similar to French Canada's, but I still needed the subtitles as Tati's mumbling is always approaching the realm of sound effect. The final act, which is what most synopses dwell on, is a remake (with some reused shots) of a previous short, L'école des facteurs (The School for Postmen), which I also watched. It's fun by itself and has a completely different opener and closer, so it doesn't feel redundant. Still, though Jour de fête meanders a lot more, it's a more complete experience and no simple (I say simple...) sketch.

I can easily see what drew Martin Scorsese to Hugo - a boy looking at the world through a window, a love of cinema history and preservation - but the film (possibly like the book it's adapted from), doesn't really work as a cohesive piece. It could have been a biopic of (and love letter to) George Méliès, director of countless films in cinema's earliest era, including Voyage to the Moon. When we flash back to the 1910s, there's real magic in the air, and Scorsese captures at least some of the magic of those old fantasies. Or it could have been a fairy tale about an orphan living inside the walls of a railway station, fixing up an old automaton that might hold a message from his dead father, always escaping the clutches of a cartoonish inspector out to get him. The two stories feel bric-a-bracked together most awkwardly. History went the same way without the fictional Hugo to help it along, so he feels like a Spielberg kid there to pull at your heart strings, a boy who's interest in movies feels odd because he lives in an artificial world of celluloid already. And though that world sometimes feels like Méliès' - the colors, the bit with the mouse - its Dickensian melodrama and literary dialog belong to other eras entirely. Hugo has many things going for it, but it's missing key nuts and bolts for it to really work on all cylinders.

Simon is a very strange satirical comedy from the mind of one of Woody Allen's 1970s co-writers (indeed, it's hard no to think of Sleeper through some of it). I appreciate it for its very unusualness - scientists convince a man he is an alien to conduct a massive social experiment that then goes wrong, that's quite the precis - and Alan Arkin is generally strong as an angry neurotic, but on the whole, it's a satire without focus. At its best, it lampoons academic research projects, through both the think tank that, absent funding concerns, have become mad scientists one and all, and the eponymous character, a hack college professor desperate for grant money and legitimacy. But then it also wants to attack the vacuousness of television, the military, and a hundred smaller targets of human triviality. While it has some fun ideas and can be intellectually droll, it mostly falls flat from lack of focus... and from not enough Madeline Kahn!

I've seen a lot of riffs on The Prisoner of Zenda, but never an adaptation (sorry, PICTURIZATION!) of the actual story. The 1937 version came as the most recommended, so here we are. The Victorian-era fairy tale is fun and full of wit, though the main romance drips with melodrama smothered in violins. The marketing materials hyped what was to be the greatest sword fight ever filmed, but I don't know about that, even for 1937. It's no Scaramouche. For me, the best duel by far is all done in words, as Black Michael and Rudolph make it plain they both know the other knows Michael tried to kill the king. Major props to the effects, managing to create interaction between two Ronald Colmans in a way that had me wondering if Colman had a twin brother. And going back to those riffs I was talking about, the Doctor Who serial The Androids of Tara not only overtly steals the plot of Zenda, but I was surprised and amused to see Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s lusty secondary villain take his leave of the action the exact same way Count Grendel would in Who.

Well, Timeless ends with Season 2, or rather with a Christmas wrap-up double-episode that winks at a possible follow-up, but really does conclude the story the time travel series was telling. I really do like the characters and the found family element of the core team, but the villains' stories are undercut and sort of peter out, perhaps because it has to end more rapidly than originally conceived. The way time is constantly being rewitten is fun, and some of the time missions involve less commonly known historical nuggets (some, like Hedy Lamarr's invention of wi-fi, I knew, but I'd never heard of Mrs. Sherlock Holmes... indeed, female historical figures are generally given the spotlight, which is cool). Unfortunately, Timeless can't help but fall into tired television tropes, in particular the dreaded Big Conspiracy Enemy(TM) which puts me to sleep, and character development through perfect anecdotes that explain behavior entirely. The whole season felt like Alias to me, with a touch of Quantum Leap teasing that God and the Devil (or at least Fate) were active agents in this universe. Regardless, the series itself ends on a corker, and though the Christmas special puts a nice bow on things, the show's true potential is just out of reach and you can feel it.

Set time machine to 1941 Hollywood. Keywords: Hedy Lamarr. Married/not married.

In Come Live With Me, Hedy Lamarr is a beautiful Viennese refugee who will be deported unless she marries an American citizen. Since her boyfriend is a married man, she makes a deal with a struggling writer, played by Jimmy Stewart, to marry her. The first act is all rather melodramatic, and attempts at comedy from the bit players mostly fall flat. Good premise though, so one keeps watching. But as the situation develops, one may fall under the spell of this difficult romance between two people who, by romcom rules, should get together, but lead completely separate lives (except in the writer's head). The third act is about as romantic as anything I've ever seen, with very strong echoes of Remember the Night (which is a favorite), so the slow wooden start is forgiven. That third act is probably watchable and effective all by itself with no huge loss.


Mike W. said...

I generally liked Timeless, although it would've been nice to see it continue and develop naturally. You're right about the Vast Conspiracy trope (kinda reminded me of the Templars in Assassins' Creed), but I guess they need a powerful enemy or there's not much drama. I'm glad we got some closure with the wrap-up episodes, at least ... that's more than most cancelled shows get.


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