This Week in Geek (23-29/12/19)


In theaters: Greta Gerwig's done it again. Her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is damn full of HUMANITY, it makes the heart ache. There is no role so small that Gerwig does not imbue it with SOMETHING, a richness of detail and soul that makes each and every one relatable, amusing, touching, HUMAN. Now, I don't know, central as Jo is (and Saoirse Ronan is rock solid in the role), if Amy was supposed to be stand-out character, but Florence Pugh is EVERYTHING in this, doing the most growing up (from 13 to 20) and crafting an evolving character that steals every scene she's in. What a great year 2019 has been for her - an extremely versatile actress and a real star. I have to admit some of the back and forth between the Little Women and Little Wives material had me scrambling at first, as the color grading of time periods isn't always obvious, but that's a very small complaint. The main story as extended flashback allows Gerwig to draw parallels between the two halves and produces at least one gut punch from it. Not a dry eye... The other Gerwig addition is the focus on the book's innate feminism, and let's be honest, 19th-Century women's novels often featured a betrayal of their autonomous heroines by having them marry at the end. Certainly a betrayal in modern terms. Gerwig finds a way to have the book cake and eat it too, which is pretty clever. Now, would you believe I've never seen any other adaptation of Alcott's novel? I guess I'm going to have to check them out to compare... FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

At home: With Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach wears his inspirations on his sleeve. Not only do the characters sing parts of Sondheim's Company (my favorite musical), but there's an article about Nicole and Charlie (Scarjo and Adam Driver) called Scenes from a Marriage, an overt reference to Ingmar Bergman's film. Both pieces are about the complexity of marriage, and the latter tracks a marital breakdown. As does THIS movie, which could have been called Divorce Story except no one would have wanted to watch it. At the heart of this breakdown are, I think, so well-chosen professions for the leads. Charlie is a director, a control freak, a man with a vision who has created his own world and doesn't see the need to disrupt it. Nicole is an actress, mutable, out of control, crafting a new non-married identity that seems unrecognizable to her husband. You might think, wow, this must be a sad film, and yes, it definitely has crushing moments of poignancy. But it's also pretty funny at times, darkly so when the divorce lawyers are on screen. The whole process is shown to be toxic and absurd, and makes bad people out of good, loving parents. But for all that, it's not a satire; it's all just more complicated than that, and the actors of course carry it well. I will say it's rather strange to watch a Baumbach movie that leaves New York for L.A., but it's thematically resonant for the writer-director to be as alienated as his lead character is.

Took me a while to get into The Mandalorian, but about half-way, once Gina Carano showed up (admittedly after a long string of great guest stars), I was in like Finn (see what I did there?). Everybody goes on and on about it being like a western set in that Galaxy Far Far Away, but it's really more of a samurai narrative, and I'm only sorry they didn't go full Lone Wolf and Cub with it, since that's basically the set-up. With its 8 episodes, they managed to tell some varied stories, and though it all felt rather slim and episodic at first, many characters introduced early on make a return, so all the pieces matter. But even when I was a little ambivalent about it, I still loved the music (I've been known to play the theme on a loop) and those end credits that looked like concept art, were always great. Mando is a success, however, because producer Jon Favreau managed to do what I think all modern (post-Return of the Jedi) Star Wars projects have struggled to do. It's had a veritable impact on pop culture. Baby Yoda is the best example, but "This is the way" and "I have spoken" are two catch phrases I've seen a lot of on social media in the past two months. Nothing in the prequels or new films has managed to do this, except in a derisive way (emo Kylo Ren, for example). At the very least, people should treat themselves to the Taika Waititi-directed finale's teaser opening comedy sequence between two stormtroopers, it's delicious.

Netflix's Lost in Space revival's second season starts off real well with some insane alien environments and the same "one damn thing after another" attitude towards its survival script as the first season's. Around the middle there, it gets bogged down in standard and tired TV science fiction tropes, my own personal bugbears, conspiracy stuff and people acting stupidly to keep secrets we don't really care about. It's like genre TV doesn't know what to do to keep its ongoing narrative going without them, and it makes me ache for more old-fashioned episodic structures when I encounter them. It does lead to good survivalist moments however, which I think is where this series lives. We don't need human villains other than Dr. Smith, frankly, and the Robinsons are better as whizes who use science to get out of crazy cliffhangers than as these sorts of social rebels that no one listens to despite their having all the answers (and then being treated like these over-competent Messiahs, which is what happens when they're allowed to interact with too many other colonists). Still an entertaining and good-looking series, which dropped on Christmas Eve probably because the Robinsons celebrate a Christmas in the first episode. That's fun. I certainly haven't given up on the family yet, so the conspiracy bugaboos haven't bothered me toooo much as yet.

Looking at Going My Way today, it's a little surprising that it made so much money back in the day and won the Oscar for best picture in 1944, to the point where they had to go to sequel. It's just a little loose and slow for that, often more like vignettes about a progressive pastor (Bing Crosby) who comes to a depressed parish to get the church out of hock and improves the community with good works and songs. I don't love the title song, I'm with the music execs on that, but The Mule is a treasure. The film lives and breathes in the dynamic between Crosby and an older priest played Barry Fitzgerald; their story comes to a touching resolution. Another vignette I wouldn't part with is Alfalfa getting slapped silly. Now THAT'S peak physical comedy! Other subplots are more or less geared towards forcing musical numbers - it's the kind of padding the movie's going for - as there isn't very much of a plot. Ultimately, director Leo McCarey pushes the performances into a fun, semi-improvised place, and religion is shown as a community builder, not a strict off-putting doctrine. Crosby's Father O'Malley deserved a sequel and got it, or a TV show in which he saves a church every week, but that just wasn't a thing back then.

Though Going My Way was the bigger hit, its sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's is not only the better film, but the better remembered one. It's definitely funnier and pacier, and it's got Ingrid Bergman in the role the Sister Superior of a Catholic school BIng Crosby's Father O'Malley must save or sell (the bishop gives him a lot of latitude in these). Again, Leo McCarey has crafted a number of vignettes with a strong improvisational feel around a loose plot, but it's better grounded in a place, so the parts (including the big subplot about a wayward girl and her even more wayward mother) add rather than distract from the whole. O'Malley's progressive ideas about education feel more extreme than those he had about running a parish, but that makes you side with Bergman's Sister Benedict more, and she gives an altogether sympathetic performance. As with the previous film, it's really about the relationship between O'Malley and the faith leader he's come to help, and it's a great one, rooted in mutual admiration and a true sense of vocation. And that first grade nativity play! Worth the viewing for just that scene!

In All Is Bright, Paul Giamatti plays an ex-con who goes New York with romantic interloper Paul Rudd to sell Christmas trees from Quebec in the hopes of buying a gift for his daughter who's been told he's dead. So it's a sad Christmas movie, and kind of relentlessly so. The one light in the film is the always perfect Sally Hawkins as a Russian housekeeper who takes an interest in our sad sack. I wish I could say the idea of making these guys from Quebec pay off more, but there are scarcely any real French speakers in the movie, and not just because it mostly takes place in New York City, but because a number of speaking parts are faking it. At least the two leads are meant to be Anglophones. Still, I like the film's frank naturalism and it pulls off a minor "Christmas miracle" even if there are no magic resolutions, which is life. The holiday's tradition is that things should be brighter, but sometimes, that title is just ironic, what can I say.

Not all film epics are grand and sweeping, but Lawrence of Arabia definitely deserves both epithets. Cinematographer Freddie Young is painting with light on this one, and the marvelous cinematography (which manages to make yet another trek through  a desert as riveting as the first time Lawrence set off) is beautiful supported by Maurice Jarre's score. The Middle East at the end of the Ottoman Empire is well realized, visually and culturally, taking you on a voyage that might make you fall in love the same way the title character does. It's incredible that such a performance "introduces" a talent like Peter O'Toole to movie audiences, but there it is. At times, I felt the character's motivations were a little nebulous, but ultimately, the ambiguity is probably what makes the film as powerful as it is. It's a veritable cinematic novel (not unlike David Lean's other epic Dr. Zhivago) where characters and nations change, grow, and risk everything. In Lawrence, we have someone who is brilliant, but cavalier, and starts to believe his own hype, which leads to a fall from grace. And that doesn't play out the way it sounds either. I don't think I'd ever seen it in its entirety, though I know I watched large chunks of it on at least three occasions. This time, I didn't even speed or walk out through the overtures, intermissions or exit music. The music really IS one of its best features, after all.

Klute is a good-looking '70s noir about an emotionless private investigator (Donald Sutherland) tracking a missing business executive, who ends up protecting and falling for a call girl who may know too much (Jane Fonda). And that's how one might describe it based on the title. Sutherland is Klute, but we don't get much of a handle on him. It would be much more appropriate to call the film "Bree", because Fonda gets to give the fuller performance. Not only do we get a strong sense of her profession in scenes with her Johns, but there are some great revelatory scenes with her therapist as well. Bree Daniels is as emotionally cut off as a Klute is, but we understand her better. Her portraiture, and the relationship that forms between the two leads, is really the crux of the film. The thriller plot is only okay insofar as it allows the characters to meet. It's certainly not much of a mystery, for lack of enough suspects, perhaps. The cinematography is certainly worth a gander, though, boldly daring to plunge the world in the darkness and coming off as unusually lush despite (or because of?) all its practical lighting. But the one glittering light on the film, no contest, is Jane Fonda.

Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack has a crazy-long title, but it still shafts the third "guardian monster" of the movie - sorry Barugon, your silly pooch-ass doesn't get any recognition! For this one, which AGAIN reboots the franchise so that only the 1954 film happened, Toho brought in director Shûsuke Kaneko who in the '90s had very successfully revamped Gamera. While there's still some dodgy video-looking CG, it's a net improvement over the previous Millennium-era films. It's weird to think of King Ghidorah as a goody, but it, Mothra and Barugon are all awakened to stop Godzilla's newest rampage, with some destructive consequences. The fights are pretty good, and Kaneko knows how to shoot these things to make them more visceral. Godzilla's newest redesign looks to me like a dead-eyed T-Rex, but it's still a lot better than his plasticky predecessor. And the human story is actually watchable! The daughter-father team (a TV journalist for supernatural schlock producers and a career Navy man) are strong daredevil heroes. The movie is perhaps more straightforward than most, but the climax has a couple of completely mad ideas which I'm all for. I wish I could confirm the franchise is permanently on the right track, but I don't think I can.

If the previous film (G,MaKG:GMA-OA, to use only its abbreviation) had me punching the air because they got Shûsuke Kaneko to direct, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and the next one over went back to vs. Megaguirus' Masaaki Tezuka. Uh-oh. Actually, I shouldn't have been so worried. It's pretty decent! It's even fun! Once again, a few tweaks to Godzilla, and of course, a continuity reboot. I don't really get why you have to ignore all appearances beyond the 1954 one if you're going to reference Mothra and The War of the Gargantuas to explain all that kaiju-fighting tech Japan has, but anyway, while I can't quite recommend the CG or Tezuka's video zooms, there's a lot less them than in his previous effort, and they're at least in service of a crazy story in which Mechagodzilla is built around the original GZ's skeleton and piloted by a sympathetic heroine in need of redemption. The film even manages a couple of really cool shots, and puts the sappy epilogue in a post-credit scene so as not to damage the final money shot. Color me surprised!

Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. is not only a sequel to Against Mechagodzilla (I guess Millennium finally had a hit), but to the original Mothra as well, even bringing in kaiju veteran Hiroshi Koizumi to reprise his relationship with the big butterfly and her fairies. Now, Mothra is none too happy that Japan has desecrated a Titan's bones by building Mechagodzilla around them, and if they're not given back to the sea, she'll attack. If they do, she'll defend them from Godzilla. What do you think stupid humans do with this ultimatum? Mothra of course brings in the idea that the supernatural is a force in the Godzilla universe, but this is still a pretty unusual take in Mechagodzilla that might have been helped by bringing back the previous movie's heroes. As is, we get some new fresh faces who have to build a relationship with the audience and the mech, which leads to some screaming about "Mechagodzilla, I hardly knew ye!!!!" in the cheesy, unearned finale. Why are they treating the big robot like it's a person or noble animal that you can have a bond with? At best, it's an undead cyborg. But good destruction overall.

The oddly-titled Space Amoeba (AKA Yog: Monster from Space) is a very good example of why I hate American dubs. I've seen enough Ishirō Honda monster spectaculars to know what they feel like, and there's something about the English dubs on monster movies of this era that makes them seem dumber than they actually are. But beggars can't be choosers and I indeed did watch the American version. I can only hope the Japanese dialog isn't as insipid, though I know it's probably not stellar. This one starts with an unmanned probe returning to Earth with an unwanted passenger aboard. The cast visits an island near where it fell to scout it for tourism potential, but also to investigate monster legends, so it's not clear whether there were always giant beasts there, or if the aliens are making them, or perhaps just controlling them. The main monster, an elephantine cuttlefish, is really rather sweet with its googly eyes and conical head, so I have some affection for it. The other monsters are okay, but their battle has too many close-ups to really stand out. Honda uncharacteristically missed the mark there. But I do like the basic plot, and "Gezora" would probably make my top 5 one-off kaiju, so I'll give the film's problems a quick gloss over.

I'm not gonna take 1976's King Kong to task for its effects. I've watched too many Japanese kaiju films to be bothered by men in suits, and it's of its time just like the original stop-motion 1933 classic is, just like the 2005 mo-cap CG version is. It just so happens that stop-motion is a more impressive technique than blue screen and giant animatronic hands, and WETA's CG was more realistic. For what they had to work with, I think the effects are fine. If this Kong is a failure for me, it's just entirely different reasons. Updating the story to then (then) contemporary day is perfectly okay, as is the redraft's ecological bent, but it means the film has to jump through a LOT of hoops to make an oil company that initially wants to drill Skull Island into producers of a giant ape show in the middle of New York, y'know? And to replace the Empire State Building with the World Trade Center? Besides making us feel a little queasy today, it just doesn't produce as iconic an image. As the finale concerns itself with gunfire and explosions and a lot of screaming, we lose a key piece of the puzzle. And what can we say about Jessica Lange's introduction here? Knowing her later work, she seems hopelessly miscast as a flighty, 70s new age, sexpot, wannabe actress who joins the expedition after a shipwreck where all hands were lost but she doesn't seem to care. All the characters are tropes, really, but hers is one you'd normally use as a gag done by a day player. Putting "Dwan" at the center of the film makes it all even more absurd.

Gotta give them credit, the Rebirth of Mothra films all find a way to make Mothra be reborn, and I appreciate that.The third installment really cements the idea that this trilogy was all about the three fairy sisters, and in particular, gives Belvera a good redemption arc that is anchored in the concept of family, and requires a generosity of spirit from the twins and the audience both. It's also dripping in spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but that's kind of par for the course with Mothra films. Very nice of Toho to let this side-franchise use King Ghidorah (the very best of the villains). It's after the world's children so as to provoke the mass extinction of the human race, presumably, and sometimes, the only way to beat an unbeatable giant monster is to go back in time to when it caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs (that, in itself, is a delicious detail which leads to some fun sequences) and destroy it in the past. Like its predecessors, Rebirth of Mothra III is just the right kind of insane, which makes up for it green screen work which is... not good.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea meets Forbidden Planet meets Lost Horizon in Latitude Zero, a Japanese-American collaboration signed Ishirō Honda, in which Joseph Cotten and Cesar Romero play dueling submariners in a world where there's a hidden underwater utopia on the 0th Parallel. The film really gets bogged down in its own world-building, showing a trio of bathysphere accident survivors that Latitude Zero has this gadget and this gadget and this ideal and this gadget and also this gadget. The main sub is basically a utility belt able to do almost anything based on the circumstances. It's Honda, so there are monsters, but they're pretty ridiculous. Ludicrous or not, the way they're made is pure butchery and rather gory for a movie of this ilk. Still, there are some cool effects and battles throughout, so call it camp with a slight edge. I don't think the ending makes sense, but it's amusing, and one certainly can't condemn the flick for lacking imagination and energy. One to enjoy with friends that can riff track it live, but is enjoyable for fans of the genre to watch without any kind of comedy support.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
Keanu and Sandra are reunited in The Lake House, in the hopes of getting that Speed chemistry back, but if you're hardly going to show the couple together, there will be far fewer sparks flying. In fact, the characters are perhaps a little too sad, generally, for much energy to come across. This romance fantasy is an unexplained (I don't mind) cosmic joke in which two star-crossed lovers are separated by time, but are somehow allowed to correspond through letters. Two years isn't much of a distance (just wait a bit!), so you expect the tragic twist with a chance of reprieve, but it's that kind of a movie. I'll admit to having been intrigued with the premise and the way they used to change the present from the past, etc., except it's never very consistent. Sometimes history was written, sometimes it's gooey in a Back to the Future way, and I kept wanting the film to PICK ONE. And then there are the letters. As a narrative conceit, they have the actors speaking the lines and answering back in voice-over, but how long do these conversations go?! Keanu says one word, Sandra answers with a couple words, back and forth... It would take you weeks to get through a thought, so you can't exactly do this to discuss where to meet "tomorrow". The Lake House just isn't in control of its own mythology, and I'm afraid the romance itself is a little dull. There are times where it aims at a central metaphor tying events to light and architecture, but I never got a grip on it, so... It's a bit whatever.

Charlize Theron gives a strong performance in Head in the Clouds, but truthfully, what the hell is this movie about?! Spanning more than a decade in a love affair between an idealistic politically-minded boy and a hedonistic libertine girl (which is sometimes polyamorous with the addition of Penelope Cruz's model/nurse/rebel) through the '30s and '40s, it wants to be a big epic like they used to make them, or a novel (not that the narrated prose is in any way more than ordinary), to the point where I started thinking writer-director John Duigan might have had a rejected manuscript in a drawer somewhere. As a romance, even a melodramatic one, it doesn't really explore why these two should be together except a kind of physical pull. Dullish Stuart Townsend's Guy (yes, that's his name) has a better connection with Cruz, but she's cruelly taken out of the film before the end. In fact, both women are punished too harshly for their life choices. Sure, there's a building irony in the fact that Theron denies world events when we know the War will come to her Paris, but the twists and turns in THAT part of the film (which might as well be a different film) don't really connect with what we know of her. Beware book adaptations where there was no book to adapt!

Keanu hadn't played a cop for a while when he made Street Kings, and in this star-studded drama, he's a corrupt cop but corrupt for the right reasons, i.e. breaking rules to get scum off the streets. Everyone is this is either dirty, or appears to be dirty, and few are exonerated. It's watchable enough, even satisfying, though once you sniff the tropes in the air, it's hard to be all that surprised by the film's twists and turns. Character-wise, I don't think it would be half as good without the people cast, because the script tends towards broad strokes and unsure motivations. But you have Keanu Reeves doing gunplay à la John Wick, Hugh Laurie as a tricksy internal affairs officer, Forest Whitaker as an unusual maverick enabler, Terry Crews as a shade of his future Brooklyn 99 character (he's even called Terrence), Naomie Harris as his moral center, and Chris Evans as Keanu's protege of sorts. Among other recognizable faces. So no, it doesn't really pop out of the crowd of cop dramas, but if you're a fan of any of these names, you'll find something to like.

Reads: I know I missed an album or two between the first of James Kochalka's Glorkian Warrior series, but "...and the Mustache of Destiny" is easy enough to get into even with the new characters inhabiting the plot. It's of course a crazy plot working off child logic, as the stupid stupid Warrior continues to frustrate his talking backpack as a bunch of Cubist kids follow him around into random holes in the ground in the hopes of becoming Warriors themselves. It's silly, amusing, colorful, endearing, and surreal, owing something of its language and tone to Dr. Seuss. Kochalka writes a little bit about the genesis of the book on a page after the story, which is appreciated, as are a couple of bonus Glorkian strips, including the very first, originally published in the Pop Gun Anthology. I dunno, I'm a sucker for Kochalka's aimed-at-children adventures, and also for coffee-based humor, which this has in large amounts. Kids don't drink coffee, so there IS something here for adults after all!


Anonymous said...

"We really should have left King Kong on top of the WTC so he could swat down planes."

- me, on 9/11/2001, but silently to myself because it was WAAAAAAYYYY too soon


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