This Week in Geek (16-22/09/19)

Buys

I received my copy of ATB Publishing's Outside In Takes a Stab, for which I contributed an essay on an episode of Angel. The book also covers Firefly and Dr. Horrible.

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Hustlers is a lot of fun. It's funny, it's emotional, it's sexy, it's crackingly well directed and scripted, and it features a powerhouse performance from Jennifer Lopez. You can trust the hype on this one, yo. The only criticism I can level at it is partly based on the fact that I've seen too many true crime dramas, and the structure is thus well-worn. Comparisons to Scorsese are also apt. That said, it only kind of flags for me towards the end because the front half, which sets up this world and these characters, is far more interesting. I love a deep dive into a profession I know little about, and J-Lo introducing Constance "all heart" Wu to the world of high-price strippers is riveting. The characters feel so natural, it feels like the best improv. Real reactions and real relationships. The sisterhood that's formed before things go pear-shaped in the third act is charming and magnetic, and I hated to see that end. I knew Hustlers would enjoy some success because A Star Is Born and Crazy Rich Asians were hits, but regardless of why people are buying their tickets, its success is all its own.

At home: The Purge suffers from audiences wanting it to be something else. It's a blunt metaphor for violence in America, so you want it to be more satirical. The Purgers are wearing freaky masks, so you want it to be more of a slasher film rather than a horror-action hybrid. The premise is intriguing, so you want more world-building instead of a small, claustrophobic story. That premise is also outrageous, so you want it to be more camp, funnier. But leaving expectations out of it, The Purge is a home invasion movie set in the kind of "don't ask too many questions" dystopia frequent in '70s sci-fi. And a pretty good one. We have a family that feels safe, things go pear-shaped in several ways, and mayhem ensues. We have Ethan Hawke and Lena Heady, who I always like, and Rhys Wakefield doing his creepy best as "Polite Leader". And as satire, it's a little undemanding, but it works well enough for me. Beyond the idea that the rich eat the poor in this world, and the general absurdity of being the NRA's wet dream where everyone is armed to defend themselves from everyone being armed, there's a point where the protagonists are morally compromised, where, no matter how liberal they are, they are still profiting from the system and have blood on their hands. That's a rather more subtle idea. I don't think there's much point in belaboring how "realistic" any of this is - it's not meant to be - but I can totally believe the sociopathic rich kids who attack the house. Where The Purge loses me is in the way other Purgers act like it's a cult and we're in the Wicker Man suburbs.

For those who felt The Purge didn't explore its premise's full potential, its sequels did more world-building. The Purge: Anarchy reverses the score of the original. Instead of a house under siege, the protagonists are caught outside where the Purge is actually going on, and there's more of a sense that there is a Purge economy. It also introduces the idea that there's a resistance movement growing against the violent new world order. As conceived, the movie starts with three different stories. There's a couple ambushed and prevented from going home. There's mother-daughter team caught in the violence when a veritable army storms their building. And all four eventually find themselves under the protection of Frank Grillo, a man on his own mission. It's all a bit... shall we use the word anarchic? A bit hard to follow at first, but things get better when all the characters are together. The third act, with weird culty stuff, takes us away from the pure survival tension of the street scenes and their crazy Mad Max villains. For being so haphazard, this may be the weakest in the first trilogy, for me.

The Purge: Election Day builds on Anarchy and makes for a much more focused political and action thriller, as an anti-Purge presidential candidate makes her appearance and scares the New Founding Fathers into trying to assassinate her on Purge Night. Her story intersects that of a deli owner desperate to save his business from looters, and his friend, a paramedic who works with the resistance, and unlike the previous film in the franchise, these stories are much better balanced. The action is tighter, the stakes higher, and for fans of the films' horror elements, they play out as surreal vignettes for the main plot to drive through. Until the culty climax, of course, and I still can't get completely aboard though it now seems inevitable, but at least it's part of the story and doesn't come out of left field. It could end here, frankly, but Cloverfield-like, the franchise could have more to tell in and around its premise (and does, since there's a prequel and yet another chapter in production). I would never call the Purge movies any kind of important cinematic achievement (hopefully, we won't feel the need to call them prescient in a few years' time), but they didn't steadily drop in quality the way other B-movies often have.

Sidney Poitier's first credited screen role is No Way Out, a medical drama in which he plays a young intern, and the only black doctor on staff at the County Hospital, who may or may not have caused the wrongful death of a criminal brought in with a bullet wound. It only really matters because the guy's brother, a raging racist played by Richard Widmark, believes he did and is calling for war between his white ghetto and the black neighborhood where Poitier's doctor lives. First role or not, Poitier is a movie star FROM JUMP. You can't take your eyes off him, and you find yourself frowning when he's not included in a scene, at least early on, though Amanda Randolph as the white doctor's housekeeper is very touching in her supporting role, and I think we care for Linda Darnell's character when she's put under threat for siding with Poitier. In terms of portraying racism, No Way Out lays it on THICK, and Widmark is vile by any standard, but it's a good thriller that understands how to use Chekhov's gun, and ends on a cracking line. Kind of the template for Poitier's career - how many movies did he make that were straight up about this? - but it distinguishes itself by also being about a medical dilemma that transcends questions of race.

In Edge of the City, Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes are dock workers who strike up a friendship, and that friendship is what the film is about. Poitier offers a complete stranger a hand and something develops, their lives get intertwined, maybe he can help him out of a tight spot... and the question is how far each of them would be willing to go for their friend. The interplay between the two actors could have carried the day alone, and I would have been content with stuff like Cassavetes finding the courage to speak to his parents about the trouble he's in, Poitier setting him up with his kid's schoolteacher, and generally how it's not about overcoming racial tension between them. So it's almost a shame that the third act goes for high drama with its confrontation with Jack Warden's crooked and bullying foreman. First, the film's roots as a teleplay are evident in the kind of sanitized language used there. Warden shouting at Poitier that's he's black comes off as weird and desperate. Second, it forces a down note where I think the audience wants something more hopeful after spending time with these characters. Still liked it, but more at the front end than the back.

Sydney Pollack started an illustrious directorial career with The Slender Thread, a tense suicide hotline drama starring Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft that plays at once like a self-murder mystery as Poitier's Alan pumps Bancroft's Inga for information, and a ticking-clock thriller where the police must find her before she succumbs to an overdose. Pollack's skill is already evident here, taking what is essentially a radio play, and drawing us into his world with various intriguing twists, like his camera flying around the city and landing on various characters connected in ways we don't yet understand, or giving us shots that express Inga's point of view (like the giddy go-go club sequence). Above all, it's a character study in which the main intrigue is whether or not someone can forgive themselves, especially absent others' forgiveness. While I don't begrudge Bancroft her flashback scenes - they're strong in isolation - I kind of resent the film's shifting perspective and wish it had been a very intimate, bare-bones, conversation between Alan and Inga, in which we never see her at all. Maybe it's my radio roots talking...

We've seen a lot of inspirational teacher stories on film, and on the surface of it, To Sir, with Love isn't really inventing anything. In fact, it's sort of amusing that 12 years earlier Sidney Poitier was playing a difficult kid in just such a drama, Blackboard Jungle. Here, he's the teacher who gives up on teaching his graduating recalcitrants about math and geography to concentrate on readying them for the adult world. An interesting tack, and while you'd think it would trade on the obvious race reversal (the inner city kids are white, the inspirational teacher is black, so this is a Black Messiah story, for once), it doesn't push that button. Nor does it wallow in melodrama, avoiding easy marks and opting for realism and sincerity instead. Poitier gives a wonderful performance as a man who finds his vocation, but I also want to highlight Judy Geeson's performance. Her school girl crush could have made her a problematic character, but I instead found her very touching. And of course, there's Lulu's memorable theme tune. Can't forget that. To Sir, with Love is as good an example of this type of film as you're likely to get, a charmer through and through. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

The Marx Brothers' first film, The Cocoanuts, is a very early talky (1929!) based on their Broadway show, and it has some of the finest Marx shtick put to film. And that's as true of the physical comedy (the adjoining room bit) as Groucho's joke-a-minute speeches (most famously, he and Chico in "Why a duck?"). I could do without the dancing girls or, Irving Berlin or not, any song the Brothers aren't involved in (so pretty much all of them except "Tale of the Shirt"), but I get that this is much closer to what they did on stage, a real variety show, than some of their later films. It's in fact pretty interesting to see the first film, despite its sound and picture problems (it's pretty old), because it's the template for almost everything that's to come. In 1929, the theatricality all makes sense. The Brothers never really leave this format, which evolves into a very specific "showcase" style. Well here it all is for the first time - Chico on piano, Harpo on harp, Groucho on Margaret Dumont - in a pretty tight comedy with no so tight love affairs and jewel heists thrown in (the latter is only memorable for Kay Francis, in my opinion).

I flipped The Ambassadors of Death on DVD. I of course covered this on the blog some years ago, episode by episode (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven), but had watched it then on a streaming service or other. Having since gotten the DVD, it was a chance to revisit one of the stories I had the fewest memories of. Indeed, it only survived in black and white despite being a color recording, so stations seemed less interested in playing it when I was a kid. But through a process that was explained on some OTHER DVD, they found the color information WAS on the tape, and managed to restore it. There's some weird color ghosting going on sometimes, but it's nice to watch (almost) as it was. The DVD also includes a making of, a trivia track, a commentary track with various actors (including dear Caroline John), stuntmen and crew, a feature on the news article surrounding Jon Pertwee's tenure as the Doctor, and a vintage trailer (which I didn't know they made back then).

Some time ago, I replaced my Inferno DVD with the Special Edition. Again, for full reviews, check out the in-depth Doctor Who coverage of the era (episodes one, two, three, four, five, six, seven). Everything that was on the original DVD package is here as well: A useful commentary track, a subtitle trivia track, a photo gallery, a strong making of featurette, the Lord Haw-Haw deleted scene, Jon Pertwee's introduction to The Pertwee Years video, a BBC visual effects promo film that includes Inferno's explosive finale, and a featurette on the UNIT era, up through Inferno. I like what they've added. Toby Hadoke organizes a HAVOC reunion and gets taught how to do a high fall by Doctor Who's famous stunt team. Another featurette covers the wilderness years, highlighting the various efforts to bring Doctor Who back (including a top secret project we knew nothing about except for a mysterious picture!). The latter is also the basis for an Easter Egg, in which David Burton talks more fully about his time as the Doctor in that aborted effort. The previous DVD release's Easter Egg is also on here: A clean, titleless copy of the Inferno title sequence. These things are nothing if not thorough.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
Trial and Error tries to propel post-Seinfeld Michael Richards to movie stardom, but his character feels like a watered-down Kramer playing in a bad sitcom idea he might have given Jerry. Basically, he's an idiot actor who, through plot contrivances, has to pose as his lawyer friends in court for the length of a trial. It's not exactly bad, as these things go, with Rip Torn at times amusing as the defendant, and a palatable resolution, I guess. It's not exactly a great film for Jeff Daniels either, playing his frustration in an over-the-top, tear-your-hair-out way. But it IS a pretty good turn for Charlize Theron as a vivacious, freedom-loving alternative to his horrendous fiancée at home. And there lies a source of ambivalence. By being exactly what he needs, "Billy" falls under the category of manic pixie girl (though not really manic; he's the manic one), so she's dangerously close to entirely being in his story's service. That's not a good look, especially in a movie where the Kramer character is so lascivious. The one moment where we're alone with her, sans Daniels, is great, and hints at the film's theme, namely that we're all actors, putting on performances, at the risk of believing our own shit. The locations are beautiful too. Shame about the TV-level score. Not great, but not as bad as people make out either.

A movie that made me realize I didn't know much of anything about the Beat Generation, The Last Time I Committed Suicide is based on a letter by Neal Cassady (who?! see?!) to Jack Kerouac (I know this one), presenting some events of his life. The bookends relate to the title. It starts with his lover's attempted suicide, and ends with a moment of self-sabotage. The film has the proper jazzy feeling in its sound, editing, and general look, Cassady's prose a highlight either coming from voice-over or straight from the characters' mouths. Not for the first time is Keanu Reeves - the tempter of the piece, constantly trying to draw Cassidy back into a life of restlessness - heard delivering literate lines in a way that fails to sound natural, but I don't think anyone here sounds particularly natural. The script sounds as "written" as any based on a play, even with the help of a strong cast, not least of which is Thomas Jane in the lead role. But ultimately, who cares? As a moody period piece, it works, but as a story, its structure has the haphazard nature of a biopic, and yet it could be about anyone. It fails to make me realize why Neal Cassidy is of interest.

Books: Some guide books take me ages to get through, others you don't really read cover to cover, but Bookwyrm? A real page-turner. Available from ATB Publishing, this "Unauthorized and Unconventional Guide to the Doctor Who Novels" by Anthony Wilson and Robert Smith? covers the Doctor Who New Adventures put out by Virgin in the 90s, and despite my having read only about half, I couldn't stop reading where I was up to. Spoilers be damned, I was having too much fun. The twist on the guidebook formula is that Wilson and Smith?'s voices are so clear, it's like you're part of a conversation between friends. There's plenty of humor, but also staunch devotion to what they think is a high-water mark in Doctor Who history. They draw links to the new series, which was more inspired by the novels than even I knew, gives examples of prose both good and bad, discusses all points of interest in a way that doesn't spoil everything (though the big beats are of course going to get spoiled, but I feel like I could still read the novels I haven't, perhaps with some distance, and enjoy them), before giving us their two reviews. I can't wait for the next volume, which proposes to give this treatment to the Eighth Doctor Adventures, but I guess I'll HAVE to wait, because that's a LOT of books.

Gaming: Played a game of Fiasco last night with Fred, Bob, Max and new roommate Cloe. Without a doubt because she's been binging Star Trek The Next Generation, she picked Ongoing Missions as a scenario. Be warned this gets convoluted. I played the ship computer (C64) who falls in love with a double-headed alien (Chlo and Max working in tandem) whom the captain, a real Kirk's reputation Lothario type, is trying to bed. I hate my programmer who won't accept my digital feelings, but who also has been stealing technology from new worlds and new civilizations, in this case a psi-helmet that's going to become crucial to the resolution, as C64 leaves the humans in a dead, burning hulk and psionically uploads itself into his paramour's second head in a fusion of souls to rival The Motion Picture's. Played mostly for laughs (as may be discerned) as with no regard for the Prime Directive, despite the fact the playset reads pretty straight, as far as these things go. I think this particular group may take up the challenge again, some time.

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