This Week in Geek (2-08/12/19)


In theaters: Knives Out is pure entertainment, a classic whodunit with a crazy solution and lots of twist and turns and a detective who could have come out of literary fiction (and deserves an entire series of mysteries). An all-star cast keeps you invested and wondering, and everything is earned. You can pick up clues yourself, they may lead you astray or to the truth, and it's all done with verve and a sense of fun, while still indulging in exciting thriller elements. It's funny too, well beyond the lines they put in the trailer (which I had found more trite than amusing). At the heart of the drama is a woman who cannot tell a lie and how she navigates a family of rich assholes who are all after the money, and her tension-filled relationship with Daniel Craig's gentleman detective, a hilariously pretentious character that could have come out of the mystery writer victim's own books. And that, I must say, adds a layer of possibilities to the convoluted (but somehow always easy to follow) plot. Great, great fun at the movies and I'm particularly impressed that director Rian Johnson doesn't resort to Sherlock-like overlays to make us understand the detective's deductions, and yet, we immediately get it from camera and editing choices. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Not really having much of a connection to Frozen, it took me a while to get into Frozen II, but when they started to push the comedy harder, I found myself chuckling along. Normally, the comedy sidekick could be an irritant, but Olaf is probably the best thing in the movie (how he does recaps alone...), Kristoff's musical number is a parody of a music video that comes out of left field, and we can always count on Anna's insecurities for both laughs and heartfelt moments. Elsa, to me, remains a little remote, but she's a bit of a superhero in this, so gets some good moments. The theme of accepting the darker parts of our history and moving forward in a positive way is relevant to our times and a worthy one, though in terms of plot, I didn't feel like there was any surprise there. The mystery just made the characters look obtuse or at best, in self-denial, but then that's part of the issue, isn't it? And while the movie does some interesting world-building and doesn't wallow in call-backs, it's also not daring enough. I think there was a way to get that ending and yet make it feel more transformative (anyone else get vibes of Disney's Annihilation?). And oof, on a visual level, this has to be the princessest princess movie ever to princessly princess. The color scheme is out of the "girl's aisle" at Toys R Us, easily evoked what with all those toy ads during the theater pre-show. Okay Disney, we get it, you want to make sure kids ask for your merch for Christmas. If I make it part of my movie review, it's that the film felt very "toyetic" at times, so yes, like a toy ad.

At home: Glee meets Shaun of the Dead in Anna and the Apocalypse, a quirky British Christmas musical that starts out with a strong metaphor - teenagers so self-absorbed they don't notice the zombie apocalypse going on around them - but eventually has to give in to the comedy-horror genre, turn Anna into a version of Buffy (who HAS been in a musical) and start bumping off characters. From there, other metaphors do suggest themselves, whether teens thinking everything is basically the end of the world, or their feeling of isolation as wi-fi breaks down, but the one that most resonates is the school rebels refusing to join the zombie horde like most of their class will after graduation. We're all zombies, shuffling from work/studies to home, staring at glittery tv screens, and so on. Only the purest rebel souls will break the mold and leave the world high school was preparing them for behind. As for the music, I do think there are a couple good songs and fun choreography, but wow, the pop music is so cheesy, it almost killed the film for me early on. But mostly amusing, with plenty of "aww"s around the room when such and such a character got bit.

Holiday Affair is a charming Christmas movie starring Janet Leigh as a widow and single mother caught between a long-standing, reliable beau she is clearly not in love with, and a mysterious and magnetic man who's just come into her life, played by Robert Mitchum. His screen persona is so cool as to be stand-offish, and that adds to his attraction, a man who in other circumstances wouldn't have time for these romcom shenanigans, but hey, it's the holidays. He's still gonna drop atomic truth bombs all over the place and if that's good for Leigh, than so be it. The kid is really good too. The film has a strong dramatic grounding and a lot of heart, which makes the comedy sing. Trains (and other vehicles) loom large because this is really about moving forward from a stopped position. The ghost of Leigh's husband is holding her back, and it's not so much about getting on either Wendell Corey's or Mitchum's "train", as it is getting on a train at all. Christmas is that symbolic time of rebirth, so the perfect season for this textured romance and the choices it inconveniently offers. So have fun over the holidays fighting over whether that last scene happened, could happen, or should happen. I know I will!

My friend Karelle was absolutely right about Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass. It's most definitely an ancestor of Les parapluies de Cherbourg, at least in its structure and final moment. Using its Wordsworth quote to good effect to contrast youth and experience, and daring (as much as it can) to discuss virginity and sex and the teenage anxieties inherent to them, the film is also truthful about parents and kids, and how the former screws up the latter as a matter of course. But it doesn't want us to feel bitter about that, it's just part of life and of everyone's identity. Pat Hingle gives a strong performance as the businessman and patriarch who destroys his own family because he ultimately sees it as an investment. Warren Beatty as his son is a bit of a non-entity for me, while Natalie Wood is unsurprisingly riveting as the lead of the picture. I like how Kazan puts us in her headspace, letting us hear whispers that represent her humiliation that fuel her anxiety and depression and lead to her break. It's a bit old-fashioned in the way it treats some of this material, but by setting in the late 1920s, it's all justified.

Mike Leigh's Career Girls are Hannah and Annie, former college roommates getting together for a weekend six years later, the film juggling the narrative between the two time frames. I much prefer the present day, which provides lively comedy as the girls go visit flats they have no intention of moving into, being shown around the place by various morons who all think they're a lesbian couple. By contrast, the nevertheless necessary flashbacks have the performances jacked up to rather improbable levels of nervous tics that largely annoy, and yet serve as contrast to how well they've done in the intervening years (especially compared to an old friend they coincidentally meet who poignantly HASN'T done so well). Because the characters created in improvisation by Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman aren't your typical movie characters. One is an acerbic ballbuster and the other anxious to the point of malaise. A big part of their shared past is a fellow student obviously on the autism spectrum. This isn't your normal, prettified crew of twentysomethings, and that makes a big difference. Initially, I think it's harder to like them. Ultimately, I think it's what makes them touching. A loving but truthful portrait of rejects who found each other, and perhaps need to find each other again, Career Girls isn't Leigh's most powerful film, but it has a quiet dignity and whether you're an open sore or closed off or somewhere in between, there's a least one moment here that should feel relatable. After it was done, I felt rather weepy, and I'm not sure why. But it plays in the film's favor, surely.

Life Is Sweet was Mike Leigh's second feature, a tragi-comedy about middle-class ambitions, some over-reaching, some listlessly lacking, most denied fulfillment. And so, about how to react to disappointment. Do you keep fighting? Manage expectations? Withdraw and give up? The characters give us a broad spectrum. While we're mostly following a family with two grown up twins still living at home (fraternal twins, but Claire Skinner and Jane Horrocks really do look like each other, geez), there's an extended subplot about a friend of the family played by Timothy Spall starting a restaurant, and though it's a story that serves as contrast to the rest, he's putting on a funny voice and playing it so broadly as to be a major impediment to one's enjoyment. Much more interesting are the happy-go-lucky parents, Alison Steadman and Jim Broadbent laughing themselves through life lest it drag them down, and the daughters, in particular Horrocks' self-destructive Nicola. Mike Leigh's strength is definitely to present characters you find pretty unlikable, expose their vulnerability, and melt your heart by film's end. And that happens here. Whatever my annoyance with Spall, or other characters' tics and flaws, there's an emotional climax that gets me, and then an ending that isn't one, because life doesn't have movie endings, and you're left living with the characters for a while.

Remember the '80s sitcom Mr. Belvedere? Well the situation was based on a book, which had also gotten the movie treatment. 1948's Sitting Pretty was the first entry in a franchise, with Clifton Webb helping the King family rear three boys after THEY think they've hired a female nanny (Lynn can be a man's name!). Webb's performance is so strict as to skirt unlikability, but his barbs against the suburb gossips (and indeed, everyone is a gossip to some degree, even the Kings) nevertheless endear us to him. There's a lot of amusement to be had, and maybe an outside laugh from time to time as well. I can't really say it brought back to many memories of the old sitcom (I just remembered the name gag, really) because they're so different. Not the same family, and certainly, the strict mores of the '40s making the situation more scandalous-seeming than it really is, must have been absent. But mostly, it's that Christopher Hewett's version of the character had to be sweeter to sustain a series for six years. Webb's Mr. Belvedere IS sweet, but he doesn't want you to know it. My favorite exchange is when Mrs. King says "You claim to hate children" and he answers "that's true". That he hates them, or that he claimed to hate them? *Wink*

Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra get into their sailors' uniforms four years after Anchors Aweigh for another shore leave movie, On the Town. This is Stanley Donen's first collaboration with Kelly and heads and shoulders above Anchors, but really, Kelly's fingerprints (footprints?) are all over it. Donen didn't direct An American in Paris, but the two abstract dance numbers in On the Town are clear precursors to American's show stoppers, and Donen didn't direct that. I love the opening number ("New York, New York", but not that "New York, New York") and how it's echoed in the finale, and really, all the numbers are fun even if the melodies aren't necessarily catchy. The story, of course, is thin and silly. Three sailors have 24 hours ashore and decide to find some girls and go out on the town. That's it. It's cool that those women are very forward, post-War dames, and while Ann Miller is a stand-out performer, Betty Garrett steals the show as Brunhilde the cab driver who takes a shine to Sinatra. She's hilarious. Even in the songs, this flick leans into the comedy part of musical comedy, and is the better for it. A fun, flighty dream, with enough charm to make you forgive the dated cultural insensitivity of the museum number.

A lot of people love Hot Rod, and I'm a latter-day fan of The Lonely Island, but they don't have songs in this, and while it was more watchable than most SNL movies, there's very little there I would ever want to revisit. Kiv directs, and at his best, he turns musical montages (and other semi-musical moments) into parodic music videos, echoes of what the trio would churn out on Saturday Night Live and eventually, as a full-time gig. A lot of good moments there, I admit. But otherwise, it's the kind of comedy that makes me frown more than laugh, where 90% of characters are jerks or fools (or both), and playing it rather broadly (Danny McBride is particularly annoying). We've seen this kind of plot before - it's essentially put on a show to raise money to save [business/person] - but never in the Jackass/backyard wrestling/dangerous stunts subculture, so I definitely give it points for that. Hot Rod does some things well, but many things not so well (jettison the pointless McBride and Hader and we'll talk), so I can't quite share a certain generation's cultish nostalgia over it, alas.

When they rebooted Godzilla in 1984, we could have expected a more grounded franchise to come out of it. Took a while, but in 1989, the Heisei era began with Godzilla vs. Biollante, an entry that is balls to the wall insane, and mining the often silly Showa era for all it is worth. In other words, shove your grounded take up your dino-butt! So we get superspy shenanigans, fictional countries, a psychic girl who communicates with the monster, and a very trippy ending. What's new? Well, fooling around with genetics creates the anxiety that usually fuels giant monster films, the atomic scare now past, and reboot Godzilla is feared and hated, not the giant wrestling hero of yore. And we get a completely new monster, essentially a monstrous flower bigger than Godzilla himself! It's second form is more traditionally monstrous, and leads to some pretty fierce action. It's still guys in suits, but it's next level, which I couldn't say for 1984's effort. If I have a complaint, it's that there may not be enough OF it, but the human drama holds your interest well enough while you wait for the creatures to show up. Plus, the '80s-ness of the film is a hoot, from the shoulder pads to the wire model computer graphics to the electric guitar version of the military theme (thankfully, it's only used once). Fun stuff.

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah wants me to believe Godzilla was just an ordinary dinosaur during World War II who got a dose of radiation from American atomic tests... An ordinary. Dinosaur. During WWII. From there, it goes crazy. You read that right. See there are these time travelers from the 23rd Century who want to prevent the dinosaur from becoming GZ in 1944, so they rope some "experts" in 1992 to help them (not that they were needed), and off they go, but these three winged imps they brought along, genetically-engineered pets, get mutated into King Ghidorah instead, but fate makes sure Godzilla rises anyway, but he's a bigger threat that King G, so events leads to Mecha King Ghidorah and lots and lots of destruction. Aside from the silly origin stories (I just can't get aboard), the movie is bananas in just the right way. They've really doubled down on the Showa-era nonsense, turning left when I feared they would turn right on the franchise. It's pretty glorious despite the bad green screen and the android character running on air (that's... that's not how superspeed works). Another fun entry, and I can't believe I waited this long to jump into the Heisei stuff.

If Godzilla vs. Mothra (The Battle for Earth) threads water a little bit, it's that Godzilla is surplus to requirements, and from his point of view, it's more or less the same story as the previous King Ghidorah (with even the same ending). From fans' perspective, it owes more than little bit to 1964's Mothra vs. Godzilla. Still, it's something of a minor success that I'm sorry to lose sight of the comedy Indiana Jones character and his family once the monster action ramps up. There's some cool monster action between Mothra and her "dark" counterpart, Battra (who looks cooler as a caterpillar, I should say, which is the opposite of Mothtra). Both are defenders of the Earth, or rather, Mothra protects while Battra avenges. Where Battra stands on the moral checkerboard might be a little confusing; I had to explain it to myself. Objectively, this should get a 3 out of 5, but half a star has to be added for Mothra (my favorite kaiju) and her magical metamorphosis into a giant butterfly.

Frankenstein Conquers the World is Ishiro Honda's take on Mary Shelley's, or rather Universal's, famous monster, so it's nuts. Start with the Nazis raiding Dr. Frankenstein's lab during World War II and stealing the monster's immortal heart. They ship it to Japan when the Americans drop the bomb right on the Tell-Tale Heart. 15 years later, it's grown a body, and not long after that, it grows to giant size and fights Baragon, a dinosaur that looks like a big puppy and who will return a couple times in Godzilla movies. Like I said. What Honda's film keeps from the classic Frankenstein stories is the public's mistrust, and of course the gentle monster, who is little more than a big gangly cave teen, is hounded by the army and framed for Baragon's crimes. Sadly, the monster fights aren't that spectacular, which comes mostly down to the setting. There aren't a lot of miniatures to destroy and most of the fight takes place in a cave, so could be pulled from a regular-sized 1,000,000 B.C.-type film. Just a caveman wrestling a big lizard. Still, it's got a funky premise and a sympathetic and unusual monster.

The War of the Gargantuas was originally meant as a sequel to Toho's Frankenstein movie, but then they decided against it, and yet, very strangely, still acted like it was a follow-up, with lots of discussion on what happened before. Except it's a total retcon. Frankenstein has a different origin story, a different look, and a different cast desperate to save their gentle monster. Including Russ Tamblyn (West Side Story, The Haunting) who gets badly dubbed over even in the English version. But good news, this one is better than the original in practically every way. Akira Ifukube's score evokes Godzilla's while being its own thing. The smaller size of the monsters allows for unusual locations (an airport, waterfalls...) and more detailed miniatures. There's a fight with a giant octopus and I'm not made of stone. And it doesn't mind indulging in a bit of black comedy, though I do think it's a missed opportunity not to do the "Stuck in my Throat" gag with the lounge singer rather than in the earlier airport sequence. A fun romp and apparently, the film that somehow inspired Brad Pitt to go into acting. I'm gonna presume he was interested in the travel opportunities mostly.

No one can really pronounce or spell Quetzalcoatl, so the movie is just called Q, AKA Q: The Winged Serpent, and it's what happens when the American B-movie industry attempts a giant monster film in 1982. A B-movie it may be, but it's a GOOD B-movie. Director Larry Cohen doesn't blow his wad on monster effects early, replacing them with what B-movies are good at, like gore and badass cops (here played by David Carradine and Richard Roundtree), before going all Harryhausen on us (old-fashioned, but fun). Though the cops are on the trail of the Aztec cultists who have summoned the totally unfeathered Feathered Serpent God, our actual protagonist is an ex-junky (Michael Moriarty) who knows where it roosts and holds it over New York City's head because it makes him feel important. So the plot's unusual and that definitely plays in Q's favor. It might just have been an ordinary creature feature if Cohen hadn't infused it with so much texture. New York locations are well used, every character has their moment even the day players, and there are plenty of fun gags and lines. You can do a lot with a little if you CARE.

Jason and the Argonauts is arguably THE Harryhausen movie, but it speaks to its quality that some of my favorite images from this myth-brought-to-life don't fall in the stop-motion category - the gigantic Poseidon pushing on the island, bronzed Nancy Kovack's dance... - although of course, there are some grand creature effects as well. The show stopper is without a doubt the skeleton fight, which has great integration, choreography, and most of all, PERSONALITY. It's great. The giant animated statue, the harpies ruining Patrick Troughton's picnic, the hydra... they all have they pleasures, but the skeletons, man, wow. Of course, the story is a picaresque that takes you from encounter to encounter just so [EFFECTS] can happen. Don't expect much character work. Even so, a couple of the Argonauts manage to differentiate themselves, in particular to a lusty elder Hercules and the clever Hylas. We also get Honor Blackman as Hera, which is a proper place of, well, honor, for the former Avenger and future Bond girl. So lots of incident and monster fights and then the movie... stops. The sequel it promises never materialized, which is a shame, but also not much of a detraction. It's not like the story isn't as old as time.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize

I like fiascos, and they don't all have to be about stupid criminals. Waking Up in Reno is an attempt at making that kind of movie with stupid couples instead. Two couples, or three if you count the fact that two people are cheating on their spouse with the other's, go on a road trip to Reno. I won't exactly say "hilarity ensures", but mild amusement, maybe. The only reason to actually works it at all is because the cast is engaging. Natasha Richardson is tragic and gets a great revenge scene. Charlize Theron is at this point in her life the person you cast when you need a sad beauty, but it works. Billy Bob Thornton and Patrick Swayze and the jerk and the idiot, respectively, but by the end are more than than simple archetype. It's just that none of the CHARACTERS are very likable and it's sometimes hard to tell if the script knows the stuff they spout is vile and ignorant, or if it believes those things too. And even if it does, then calling it a "redneck road trip movie" (as I've seen the movie called) still takes a shot at people who come from small towns. I guess it all comes down to whether or not you believe in the power of the characters' catharsis, because this particular fiasco wants to end on a happy note, and double down on the lack of consequences. Eech, not sure about that.

In Ellie Parker, Naomi Watts is on the verge of stardom, not just because she was about to make Mulholland Dr with David Lynch (in which she also starred as struggling actress), but because it's all right there on the screen. She not only plays Ellie, but Ellie isn't as good an actress as she is, so she has to downplay parts in Ellie's auditions. Shot on video, like some reality programming, we only know it isn't because Ellie might have flights of fancy we're privy to. It's cheap as hell, but raw, and it really does make you feel like this is a documentary of sorts about the hordes of unknown actors toiling in the shadows, never quite making it, in Hollywood. When the characters go to a Dogstar show and meet Keanu Reeves, it's like he's not aware writer-director-co-star Scott Coffey is shooting a movie. That's why Chevy Chase's late turn as Ellie's agent calls such attention to itself (not that he does any shtick, mind you). Part truth, part satire (it stings BECAUSE it's so true), part comedy (I laughed), part tragedy (at least on the scale the film is working at), Ellie Parker apparently grew from a short made some years before and it's well worth the expansion.


John said...

I've never seen Q, but I vividly remember Roger Ebert's review of it, in which he quoted an exchange between critic Rex Reed and producer Sam Arkoff:

Reed: Sam! I just saw “The Winged Serpent”! What a surprise! All that dreck--and right in the middle of it, a great Method performance by Michael Moriarty!

Arkoff: The dreck was my idea.

Siskoid said...

Hahaha, that's great.


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