This Week in Geek (9-15/08/20)


At home: It's hard to categorize Zombi Child until you've seen it through because there are a number of moving parts that connect with one another only in due course to create a fuller picture. Among these pieces are true Haitian zombis working the fields in the 1960s, a Haitian teenager going to a new school in France, her aunt who appears to be a voodoo priestess, and her white friend who writes letters to her summer love. At first, there is certainly a sense that the "zombies" are the teenage girls, vacuously mumbling their lines (if you know actual French young people, you will recognize the patois and delivery, which to me was often as opaque as the Haitian creole, thank you subtitles) and disconnected from their reality (whether their classes or their emotions). But since there appear to be real zombies in the film, things get progressively stranger and writer-director Bertrand Bonello uses his time not only to portray what feels like genuine voodoo practices and ethos, but also ask pointed questions. Is the flesh-eating movie zombie a corruptive act of cultural appropriation and what effect does it have on contemporary generations' view of their own culture? When a white person decides to use voodoo's power, is that also an act of colonial aggression? Is there in fact a "hierarchy of pain"? Who should have the market cornered on that, by rights? As an intellectual top layer, he uses the school's teachers to ask further questions and put ideas in our heads, while also encouraging critical thinking and a questioning of the material. Those glimpses into the class room could in and of themselves, act as filters through which someone could write a number of essays on this simple, but rich film.

A bit of tour through Charlie Chaplin films I'd never seen, starting with a few early shorts... Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle play drunks in The Rounders, but a couple of quality slapstick moments and a striking last image can't trump the misogyny and blackface. A Fatty Arbuckle boxing comedy, The Knockout has a lot of fun ideas (breaking the fourth wall, and that last reel goes where no boxing movie has gone before or since), and a really interesting role for Minta Durfee, but the boxing itself is the least impressive part of the film, bar Chaplin's amusing participation which seems to prefigure City Lights. Mabel Normand had her own series of shorts in the 1910s and even directed a few; not Mabel's Married Life though she co-wrote it with Chaplin, but she's definitely the more interesting character in the piece. Chaplin gets up to drunken fighting shenanigans - pretty stale even in 1914 - but both he and Mabel do amusing things with a boxing dummy in the final act. And A Day's Pleasure is a fast-paced, quite amusing gag-a-thon of car and boat jokes; the gimbled camera may make you sea sick, however.

In The Pilgrim, Chaplin is the most honest escaped convict you're ever likely to meet, disguised as a priest to trick the authorities, until the people from a small Texas town take him for the real thing and he gets in over his head. A strong comic premise and pretty consistent through the film's 47 minutes (comedies of the silent era often veered wildly from set piece to piece, Chaplin's included), and one which may inform the character's reformation. Either he was never made for a life of crime, or playing a parson turns him into a good person. A better film might have made more of that, but there's still a lot to enjoy, including a proper villain, a thief from Charlie's past who wants to hurt the people our hero has come to love. As with most longer Chaplin films, there's an obligatory cooking (or baking) gag, though not shoes, this time. There's a bit of western action and Chaplin (Chaplain?) doing a sermon in pantomime, and a good-hearted sheriff to enable a sort of happy ending. And I like the use of an actual song. The face-slapping kid, though... annoying.

When Chaplin started doing talkies, they were bold and often controversial affairs, as is the case with Monsieur Verdoux, a black comedy in which he plays a fictionalized version of French bigamist and wife killer Henri Landru. Monsieur Verdoux is certainly more prone to slapstick, and this "comedy of murders" includes a number of sequences in which he tries and fails to kill his most obnoxious wife played by Martha Raye. They make a fine comedy double act, and Chaplin's trick is to make Verdoux so sympathetic, you will be on his side. This criminal mastermind does, after all, have a real family somewhere for which he is doing all this, at least in his mind, and his justification, a bleak meditation on the corruption of the world in the Depression/build-up to WWII era, satirically juxtaposes his crimes to larger crimes committed by businesses and states. And then there's the touching relationship between him and a young woman he intends to try a new poison on. So tonally, this is a strange one. If you go with it, it will reward you. But the killing of women is not a joke that can easily be laughed at.

A love letter to the days of Music Hall, Limelight is an incredibly personal picture for Chaplin, and his investment makes everything resonate more strongly. Intercut with vintage comedy routines, songs, and ballet (the same way some old-fashioned musicals were structured), this is the story of an over-the-hill comedian (Chaplin at his most self-derisive, and potentially, honest) and a young dancer battling depression and crippling anxiety (Claire Bloom who here gives a somewhat airy performance, but an effective one nonetheless). Can they heal one another? The answer is going to be yes, but in her case, she has a whole career in front of her, while he'll be old and obsolete even if he is "fixed". There's so much to love in Limelight. Chaplin's love/hate relationship with the stage and the audience. His first and only team-up with Buster Keaton. The way he predicts much of the action as if tapping into familiar patterns (Bloom's romantic subplot, the Cyrano crack that leads us into an ending frankly reminiscent of Molière's). His refusal to accept her love. The slap followed by the prayer. I could probably go on. This is a film that is so full of nostalgia and self-reflection that you'd be happy with it at two-thirds the length (I felt full at 90 minutes), but keeps going and getting better and more touching. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

With A King in New York, Chaplin lampoons the country that sent him into exile (from the safe confines of Shepperton Studios), playing the title monarch ousted by a revolution sparked by the corruption of his ministers. He takes aim at contemporary (1950s) American culture, especially movies and TV, its dedication to capitalism and advertising, and in the last act, at the very McCarthyism that made him leave the U.S. There are two things Chaplin kept from his silent films when he moves to talkies (I mean, aside from the physical comedy). One is the characters' ability to look into camera, theatrical asides not often afforded people in film. The other is a structure built on set pieces that fit a theme or premise. I feel it more than usual in this one, but it's all used to good effect, lulling us into a false sense of security with the comedy upfront, and the more political matter in the back. Of particular note is the King's touching relationship to a 10-year-old communist played by Chaplin's own son Michael. I admit to both laughing out loud and getting fer-klempt over the course of the film, so it is the full package, witty satire with a streak of slapstick. More people should be aware of it.

Fell into a YouTube hole the other night with friends, and the trailer for Arthur played. It is largely based on Dudley Moore's obnoxious drunk laugh, and I knew then I had to watch the movie (which I hadn't seen since it aired on TV when I was a kid) almost as a drinking game (without the drinks because I would have been dead from alcohol poisoning before the end of the opening credits). Though it was surprisingly showered with Oscar noms (and a win) back in the day, there are elements of this that have aged very badly. Moore's drunken act isn't funny anymore (if it ever was), and though it still works to give the character some pathos, I wish he'd been less drunk through the climax. When he's not on the sauce, he's perfectly charming and likeable, but I wanted him to be better motivated (and better motivate others) in those closing moments. The other thing that dates it is that it's hard these days to properly care for the idle rich, and this pampered 40+ year-old man-child, while kind-hearted, may still remind us of the worst elements of the so-called Top 1%. What it DOES have going for it is just about everything else. Dudley Moore isn't really funny, but the actors/characters around him are, especially, but not exclusively John Gielgud as the butler and true father figure. Liza Minnelli also puts in a properly naturalistic performance and she and Moore play very well against one another (even if the real "romance" is between Moore and Gielgud). And no, once you get past the opening and an Act 2 relapse, there isn't THAT much of the obnoxious laughter.

The original Bedazzled stars Dudley Moore and his comedy partner Peter Cook (as the Devil) and to me at least it shows how Cook was really the brain trust of the duo. Moore's Stanley is the punching bag through most of this, and it's Cook's dry wit and background gags that make me laugh (and a crazy Top of the Pops spoof). In terms of structure, it feels like a thematically-linked series of sketches, and by saying there's a little of the Devil in everyone, Cook gets to play characters in each of the parallel lives he gives the love-starved Stanley (only to deliciously troll him). And yet, Satan also has his own arc, and if Stanley's lesson is earmarked early and well learned, the Devil may get hoisted on his own petard. There's some smart theological humor, though also a big metaphysical plot hole, but only if you believe what the Devil says, which you shouldn't, especially that bit. There's a crazy credit for Raquel Welsh, but sadly, she's probably in it less than 5 minutes. Another one of the Devil's lies! No, the last piece of this three-hander is another comedy legend, Eleanor Bron, who also gets to play various versions of her character in the worlds of Bedazzled.

Foul Play had the potential to be another Charade or Hopscotch, but it's neither of those movies. I don't think it's even any of the movies it more explicitly wants to be. Essentially a Hitchcock spoof, it stars Goldie Hawn as a Hitchcockian heroine, a normal person caught up in an assassination plot filled with strange characters from the pulpiest Noir when someone puts evidence in her purse and all the bad guys come looking for it. Unfortunately, the direction is so bog standard, you can't really tell they're trying to quote the great suspense director (they kind of manage Bullitt at one point, but that's just normal for shooting in San Francisco) other than in the basic plot elements. And the humor is sporadically way too broad, even cartoonish. I groaned at the extended humiliation of a little person, and felt embarrassed for Burgess Meridith during his kung fu scene. If it were all broad like that, it might be more acceptable. But it isn't. These moments are just jarring. Chevy Chase left SNL for pictures, and this was his first, but he's nearly a non-entity as the maverick cop here, and kind of creepy as the romantic lead, certainly not allowed to do more than a couple of his patented slapstick bits. Had he been more prominent and in full Chevy mode, that might have excused the film's broad comedy. Strangely, the highlight for me (aside from Goldie Hawn who is, as ever, very cute and fun) was Dudley Moore, the one zany non-villain that recurs though the narrative. That's the kind of humor (character-based) that, coupled with the genre take-downs, might have improved Foul Play, but as is, it grows progressively more tedious.

I love a good heist movie and Dollars (or in actuality, "$") turns out to be one. I say it like that because it's a little hard to get into at first. The plan, hatched between cool security expert Warren Beatty and neurotic call girl Goldie Hawn, is already under way by the time the picture starts, and you're constantly catching up to what the plan is. And who are all those bad guys running around with their own plans? The movie explains itself organically, when there's call for an explanation to be given, but not before, and the heist and escape are really quite well done once we get there, but $ may frustrate with its unclear first act (compounded by gritty indie 70s vérité style that favors dark shadows and local sound). I'd say the last shot also has an unnecessary lack of clarity. But for the most of the run time, I was well entertained, and when things start to go wrong (as they must in heist pictures), the stakes feel real and also a bit ridiculous. If this is also a comedy, that's where you'll find it and shout "oh nooo" along with the screen. Fun funk soundtrack too, even if I'm not a big fan of Little Richard's theme tune.

When I was a kid, the reason you knew who Goldie Hawn was, was Private Benjamin, and while I feel sure I saw the movie on TV, I probably remember the television spin-off more readily. The sitcom really didn't have the full breadth of what happens in the film, so it was to my surprise rewatching it that is takes its time setting Judy Benjamin up as a socialite princess who will have no place in the Army (Militarily Blonde, I called it), and takes well beyond the typical boot camp shenanigans I'd also seen elsewhere to give her a full blown career, as well as a romcom plot. Though carried in large part by Hawn's charm (and for a while there, Eileen Brennan was more fun and three-dimensional than most drill sergeants in most army comedies), the romantic comedy element does seem to go a bit long, but thematically, it superimposes following the military's orders and following a man's in a relationship. One is a duty, the other is not. The subplot is also marred by one of my bugbears: non-French actors playing French people and mangling their French lines (truthfully, Hawn has a better accent than her paramour,  Armand Assante). Overall, a cute workplace comedy about discovering and testing yourself, and one that never questions the place of women in the military, like, at all.

When a film is based on a play, it very often shows, and it shows with Butterflies Are Free, essentially a three-hander with Goldie Hawn, Edward Albert and Eileen Heckart. But I don't mean that as a knock. I really like plays-to-film, or at least, the good ones, which very often have the wonderful dialog I crave. Albert plays Don, a young blind man on his own in the big city for only a month, over the protests of his mother (Heckart) who of course will come crash the party practically the second he makes a meaningful connection with Freedom's avatar, Jill (the irrepressible Hawn). Some parts of this can seem a little After School Special, but there's such charm and humor in the budding relationship that what seems like old-fashioned explanations of how a blind person lives their lives actually plays well enough. The character turns are, on the other hand, quite adult. The two women in his life representing freedom and dependence, Don AKA Donnie AKA Donnie Dark (any relationship to Donnie Darko?) will eventually see that there's a mixture of both in each situation, and that's dramatically presented in their shifts of attitude. If this is a crisis point in his life, it is also one in theirs. The mother having to cut the umbilical. The young girl whose fear of commitment is inadvertently a prison. I laughed often. It touched me. But more than anything, I felt like I was hearing truth.

Some of the Zatoichi movies have very generic titles and I feared Zatoichi's Cane Sword could be one of those. Happily, it DOES focus on Ichi's singular sword. People like to joke about the death toll in these movies, and in the 15th film, it seems the weapon could become victim of its own success and over-use. Can a sword die? Well, when it cuts through stone and wood in addition to yakuza thugs, it may. Ichi gets of course embroiled in the affairs of a village in the grip of dishonorable gangsters and the lives of their victims, and there's a certain thrill to seeing him face the situation without his resorting to swordplay (new wrinkles on the gambling confrontation abound). But of course, violence begets violence, and Ichi must eventually do what he does best in a finale enlivened by snow and barrels (you heard me), and a well-crafted surprise to trigger the climax too. Don't expect too much of an origin story for the sword, but the acknowledgement that is is special in some way is enough to background the story.

With Zatoichi the Outlaw, star Shintarō Katsu gains more control over the character he's been playing for now over 15 films, making it under his own production company. The changes take getting used to, and it remains to be seen (well, from my perspective) if some of this is directorially driven or will remain a part of the franchise. First was the look, which had oppressive highly saturated blacks. Grittier, but also cheaper-looking. Then there's the level of violence, which makes sense given Katsu would later produce Lone Wolf and Cub movies, but it's almost off-putting how much blood, torture, and dismemberment there is in this one compared to the rest of the franchise. Weirdly, Ichi seemed out-of-character to me, more vicious and threatening, though he does acknowledge he's lost his way, so in the end, I decided this was just a moral bump in the road to contrast him with the peacenik community leader in the story. AS a story, there are things in Outlaw I would not part from (like the musical performance after Ichi tries to go "straight"), but while I respect its attempt at telling a story that takes place over a longer time frame, it did feel over-full of characters, a point made by the necessary double-climax to the film.

Turns out Outlaw was juste a Katsu Productions try-out, and Zatoichi Challenged backs things off from the previous film's extremes. Phew! There is some padding up front - including a pop song! - and the story of Ichi promising to bring a kid to his father has been done before, that was one of the best Zatoichi movies. Can you go back to the well? This kid's older, and if you wondered what it would have been like if Ichi had kept the baby from Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, it might be like this. Very different outcome, however, with the father NOT a bad guy, but an artist forced to create forbidden pornographic pottery, and getting a price put on his head as a result. I found the final duel surprisingly poignant, beautiful examples of honor, and... is that real snow? It looked like real snow. It certainly helps that Miwa Takada is in this - her third and last Zatoichi movie - as she has the most endearing presence. I looked forward to her every appearance, and will miss her.

Some classic MST3K movies, regardless of comedy commentary... The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent gets into the Book of Guinness World Records for greatest title length to historical accuracy ratio. Star Force: Fugitive Alien II compiles another couple of Japanese TV episodes into a movie that climaxes three times and rips off Star Wars; the audience does not, however, climax. War of the Colossal Beast may shed The Amazing Colossal Man's entire cast, but it's just as slow to get a to a giant rampage, so it's a proper sequel, I guess. Tor Johnson completists will want to watch The Unearthly, where he serves a sanitarium psychiatrist looking for the key to immortality in the pretty patients he abducts, but it's dead on arrival. Master Ninja makes a hash of any kind of coherent story by smushing together two episodes of a cancelled 80s action TV series; I wonder who regrets their appearance here - Lee Van Cleef or Demi Moore.

Role-playing: After a six-week hiatus, Star Trek Adventures was back in business, the story a kind of Quantum Leap turn in an effort - I believe - to explore some of the PCs' history (or at least crisis points), and we were all shunted into the acting captain's life of suffering in the Bajoran camps, with the hope of righting what once went wrong (the death of his pregnant wife). The responsible aliens may be trying to find/create the perfect timeline for their own needs, I don't know, and fellow player Jen and I talked at length after the session trying to figure out if any changes to the timeline would be permanent from our perspective (I know how I would play this as a GM to torture the players perfectly, but that's not my role here) because that could create some interesting dilemmas. From Skoid's point of view, he got his ass chained up to a pole with two other characters (while the doctor got to do comic relief outside the tent, good on him), pulled a Houdini and dislocated my wrists to escape (with the help of my handy spine implant to dull the pain), then stabbed a Cardassian in the neck after some fun banter between us to get him real riled up. A great moment the GM said was going to be an "end credit moment" (à la TOS), which is nice kind of role-playing award to give players. I mean, the freeze frame won't have Skoid on it, just T'Abby, but she's cast as Rachel McAdams, and Skoid is just a Bolian shlub, so. Next session, it's my turn to write the recap Log. I hope my group likes my unique take on that...


Charles Izemie said...

Loads of Chaplin watched, but the most important question remains unanswered:

Did you recognise Frazer Hines in A King in New York?

Siskoid said...

I admit I did not.


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