This Week in Geek (1-7/01/23)


After watching the series, I decided to check out the Jack Reacher novels and nabbed the first couple. They look breezy enough.


In theaters: Though I fully recognize that Strange World is yet another creation by animators who evidently had problems connecting with their parents, I still really liked this one. What it lacks in originality in terms of theme (although the environmental subtheme is more interesting), it makes up for in sheer design imagination. We all assumed the "strange world" was another planet, but this is more of a Journey to the Center of the Earth, with a twist I won't spoil here. Some of the shenanigans are pitched a bit young, but there's a nicely diverse cast (whose secret MVPs are Gabrielle Union and Karan Soni), and it at least gets how generations differ from one another, almost as overlays over genetic predispositions. The three men of the Clade family are alike in crucial ways, but their goals and sensibilities are different. That's well done. As is the animation. In addition to the spectacular world their inhabit, there was a doll-like solidity to the characters that made me feel like I was watching stop motion, and some really great expressions (face and body) throughout. It IS a little underwritten - or shall we say, simplified - in terms of world-building. We just have to accept that things are as they are. But I could have used more clarity in the climax as to why things must be the done the way they're done and why certain characters are acting the way they are. Still, it's a fun adventure.

At home: Danny DeVito's directorial work always has a strange tone, even when compared to other black comedies, and that's often proven off-putting to audiences. Matilda is without a doubt his most successful (perhaps because Roald Dahl is also tonally askew), and I find a lot of little details to love in his adaptation of the story. Some comedy directors think it's enough to present a funny situation and have funny actors say funny lines, but DeVito understands that there are many more opportunities for comedy in film making, so you'll find humor in the set dressing, costumes, camera shots, editing, sound design, etc. Mara Wilson was THE child actress of the mid-90s and is great as the precocious girl who develops telekinetic powers that free her from an abusive home and school. Relatable in that I was a precocious reader too (just not, you know, A Tale of Two Cities in 1st grade), it's always great to see something that's about the power of reading. Aside from Wilson, there's a lot of great casting in the film, whether Rhea Pearlman getting to play DeVito's wife just like in real life, or the two FBI agents, for comic effect, but all the kids too, as well as Embeth Davidtz and Pam Ferris as the polar opposites of the school system. Matilda is a story about child abuse (or at least neglect), sure, but pitched from a child's eye view that makes it magical and fun. It might be a little scary for sensitive kids, but that's what gives it enduring appeal for older audiences.

I don't know why stories about betrothed medieval-ish girls refusing their suitors was in the zeitgeist in 2022, but The Princess is the fourth instance I've found (along with Catherine Called Birdie, Rosaline, and the Willow TV series). This one is really The Raid in the tower where a princess is being held against her will, but in the reverse direction because Joey King isn't waiting around for some guy to save her. And because she has to save her family from the dangerous usurper who wanted to marry her to get the keys to the kingdom (Dominic Cooper), it's a little bit Die Hard too. And... I am there FOR it! Yes, it's a little repetitive, but there are enough different environments and action gags to keep things lively, and it's just fun to watch the princess use all sorts of martial arts to absolutely destroy nasty guards literally three times her size. Even with the flashbacks, the story is thin (especially given that several of those flashbacks are training scenes), but that's not what The Princess is for. It's a high-octane "Game of Death" that never lets up and I don't need it to be anything more. Cool score from Natalie Holt too.

Ingmar Bergman's romantic comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night, evidently borrows from Commedia dell'arte, with its avowed clowns and lighter-than-normal touch, even proposing a pivotal wine-drinking scene that evokes Puck's shenanigans in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It feels like an old-fashioned Hollywood comedy in its staging, but much more sensual (even a little erotic). Various couples are caught in a web of lust and love of their own making and a couple of the women eventually contrive to set things right and put the correct couples together because none of them are very happy. It's still Bergman, folks, so comedy or not, people contemplate suicide and murder to resolve their problems. The comic MVP is Jarl Kulle as a military martinet absolutely obsessed with conflict, but the film's heart is Ulla Jacobsson, a young bride married too early by a man too old who remains a virgin and whose awakening passions don't register with a husband who thinks of her still as a girl. But none of the characters are surplus to requirements. Bergman could be a crowd pleaser when he wanted to be.

There is the notion of the French New Wave in Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, even if it came out decades before the movement - it just feels more modern than most of the 1930s' output. In the film, Juliette marries a river bargeman (Jean) to get away from her small town, but she soon discovers that one can be on the move and sitting still at the same time. Longing to see the sights, she's more or less trapped between the house(boat)work, the doddering old first mate (one of Michel Simon's signature performances, most memorable) and his dozen cats, and her husband's misplaced jealousies. And yet, it's also a passionate, realistic romance with a sliver of eroticism. The barge setting merely heightens the newlywed feeling of suddenly having to share one's space, make concessions, and discover the less enchanting side of one's partner. There's an improvisational style in Vigo that sometimes allows flubs, sometimes creates interest, definitely a sense of just trying to get it done that translates as energy. And though there are moments in the first Act, he keeps his best cinematography for the last, in my opinion, providing French cinema with some of its indelible images.

A sunflower is always turning towards the sun and gains a death-like appearance when it's not there. And so does Sophia Loren in Vittorio De Sica's Sunflower, a woman who keeps looking for her husband (Marcello Mastroianni) after the war, believing him to still be alive somewhere in the USSR, unable to move on with her life. Seeing as he IS played by Mastroianni, you expect him to be, but flashbacks to their very brief courtship create a certain tension. Could this be all there is to the role? Whether she finds him a dead man or a changed one, she is probably heading for tragedy. As is other collaborations with De Sica, these two are a sexy, but also goofy couple, so the early comedy is appreciated. What we have here is a romantic ideal, but one dosed by reality. War is cruel, and so it time. Directorially, I quite like how De Sica evokes distance in his shots, a physical distance that relates to temporal and other kinds of distance. I will say, however, that I rarely buy that we're in the war or post-war era, especially when we're on location in Russia. The general style is way too 60s for that.

Visages Villages (or in the more boring English, Faces Places) kind of acts as a follow-up to Agnès Varda's Mur Murs, as she teams up with muralist JR for a rambling, semi-scripted(?) documentary collaboration, ostensibly about murals and their impact on people (as with Mur Murs), but really about their May-December friendship. They go to small communities in France looking for inspiration, Varda's documentary subjects (perfectly ordinary people) becoming the subjects of JR's giant photographic murals, all the while trying to please one another. From my time in the world of visual arts, I can definitely co-sign that this is how a lot of contemporary art is arrived at, especially in the world of installation. With Varda, there's often a sense that the form is manipulated for narrative purposes and some of the dialog can sound "written", so it's shocking to hear her in improvised conversations with random people and still sound the same way. Even at her mumsiest, the woman is a true wit. She has an ease with turns of phrase and a very precise way of expressing herself. So I don't know anymore, but even when a situation has been engineered (or recreated?), it nevertheless feels truthful. We're happy to take the road trip with them - I love films about artistic process - but it's easy to miss the point. The real subject really is the two of them, and it comes into focus at the end in a most touching manner.

The title I've Heard the Mermaids Singing evokes being drawn to something or someone, perhaps supernaturally, without explanation, and that's what this little Canadian indie addresses. Sheila McCarthy plays Polly, a temp assistant who falls in love with the pretentious bisexual curator of an art gallery, but it's not a sexual thing, or at least she doesn't think it is. But Polly isn't very bright and at least intellectually, keeps getting things wrong. As the narrator of her own story, this makes her unreliable, but not in the way unreliable narrators usually are (liars and tricksters). She has too little guile for that. But emotionally, what she feels is truthful. Like the curator, she has artistic ambitions, but is insecure about them. Yet that "truth" might make the audience decide that she's a better artist than her employer/crush. Director Patricia Rozema infuses the film with charming expressionistic touches, like Polly's dreams where she enters her own photographs, and the way the transcendent paintings that change everything are presented. Cat content: Minimal.

Based on an actual botched heist that took place in 2004, American Animals seemingly takes its cue from the fact the participants can't all agree on what actually happened to craft a hybrid between actual documentary and well-acted docu-drama, sometimes playing with that idea by using camera tricks to alter reality or introducing the real people into the narrative briefly interacting with their actor selves. Heist movies are innately entertaining. Botched heists (fiascos) are too. But this elevates the material to make more of a meal of the rather mundane circumstances. Ultimately though, it's about facing up to your mistakes and the regret that follows, which traditional narratives rarely do. These college students were ill-equipped to carry off this daring crime, not just materially, but morally. If this were a fiction, I'd call it an exaggeration of that time in your life when you take jokes too far, dare to dream and plan and not think about the consequences. It's real, but the description still sticks. More true stories/biopics need to be at least this clever.

An eccentric millionaire leaves everything, including his baseball club, to the feral cat he adopted in Rhubarb, a charming animal comedy that has Ray Milland overseeing the feline's affairs, running after his when he gets kidnapped, and so on. Cuz see, not only is the millionaire's selfish daughter angry at being cut out of the will, but the team's lucky streak due to their mascot is driving the bookies out of business. He's got a lot of enemies for somecat who was living rough only a few years before. No doubt as per the book, there are a lot of disparate incidents in this thing - some romance, some crime, some sports, a court case... - but it holds together well enough. The humans are fine, but it's the cat (or cats, since different attitudes are played by different Rhubarbs, from aggressive to well-behaved) who's the real star, whether doing shtick, action, or just looking handsome for the camera. The only truly unbelievable thing is how long it takes the love interest to figure out she's allergic.

Rewatching The Lion King for podcasting purposes (coming soon to a podcatcher near you!), I'm surprised by how quickly Simba grows up and indeed, how short the movie is. Were it made today, there might be more to his adventures in exile. I'm also rather shocked at how violent and sexual Disney's animation films were in the 90s (holding up Hunchback as another example). But memorable songs, gorgeous animation, a strong voice cast, nothing shocking there. My memory didn't fail me there. There's a reason this one has become an enduring classic worthy of Broadway shows and various spin-offs, and it's not the over-reported Hamlet connections (they're rather thin, again, wait for the podcast). It's everything I mentioned plus the sense of a new world opening up based on African rather than Western iconography (in a way, this is the Black Panther of its day), the Circle of Life opposed to the hyenas' death cult in a struggle for dominance, overlaid with a Shakespearean (ok, fine, you made me say it) body politic that makes the King's morality manifest in the land. It leaves you wanting more because they only really scratch the premise's surface. Disney fully acknowledges how important this was to them by putting Pride Rock behind the castle somewhere in their Wonderful World animation.

In the absolutely brilliant The Way of the Househusband, the yakuza Immortal Dragon has given up the life to become a stay-at-home househusband, but he hasn't given up the style or the intensity, leading to some hilarious juxtapositions of the domestic and gangland crime histrionics. There are 90 episodes (to date), short gags about various elements of housekeeping, shopping and pleasing your spouse (not like that!), packaged as 15 longer episodes (still clocking in at 16-18 minutes), and while chugging them might give you a sense of redundancy (especially by the second season, it's kind of obvious why it's half the length of the first), that one comic premise, even repeated, is a lot of fun. There's enough of a cast to keep things interesting, and the house cat gets its own shorts from time to time. Househusband shows how much you can do with minimal animation - no really, it's almost an "animated comic book - turning technical limits into pure style. And hey, some really good household tips peppered throughout.

Seeing Ozu's Good Morning as a talky color remake of I Was Born, But... is perhaps overstating the connections between the two films. Yes, it's about kids getting into mischief, but not the same mischief, not with the same parents, and definitely not in the same era. Much of their insolence comes from their wanting a television set, which their parents are against! But the way they intersect with the rest of the neighborhood, affording us the chance to follow a NUMBER of little stories - the case of the missing dues, the timid courtship, the retired man looking for new employment, and the most elaborate fart joke in cinema history - is what makes this world so lived-in and warm. It strikes me that Ozu's low camera placement and characters speaking toward camera are powerful tools for immersion. We live with these characters, they become our own neighbors and family members for a while. Ozu's titles are often elliptical, referencing some time of day or year, but in this case, it's a greeting that holds much meaning. The theme is communication, what words matter, where politeness fits in, and how one can say everything by saying nothing, or say everything and not be heard. How misunderstandings are born, and how people can just innately understand each other too.

Books: Definitely one of the better reads in Time-Life's World War II collection, The Resistance covers organized resistance in the occupied countries of the West - Scandinavia, Belgium and France - with plenty of grit and detail, anecdotes about living under a brutal occupation and rising up prioritize over the numbers game a lot of these volumes play. While the French Resistance and the savage Maquis get the lion's share of pages, other countries' efforts are still well covered for a bigger ensemble picture of resistants across Europe working towards underground railroads (for lost soldiers and Jews), sabotage, espionage, and counter-propaganda. And it somehow does it without overlapping too strongly books like Liberation and Partisans and Guerillas, which cover similar ground (thematic or literal). I suppose that as someone who got caught up in this collection originally for the promise of spycraft (the much advertised Secret War volume), this is as close to a Secret War II as they came.

Nao Fuji's collection of Infinity Comics, Marvel Meow, is a very cute series of strips in which Captain Marvel's alien cat Chewie interacts with other Marvel characters, in mostly silent, two-tone, one-page strips followed by a splash page punch line. These kind of, sort of make for three larger "arcs" - Avengers, X-Men, supernatural & cosmic, and Spider-Man & other New York heroes - but the the thread is usually pretty thin. I'm not up on my Marvel Universe enough to get 100% of the jokes, so the less you're into the comics, the more gags might fly over your head (but I think it's enough of the MCU stars that it will MOSTLY work). In the end, it probably doesn't matter anyway. You're there for kawaï Manga cat shenanigans, and Fuji excels at that. Her superheroes look on point and aren't particularly cutesified, but the cat looks and acts like a cat (regardless of circumstances and alien heritage) and cat owners will relate to many of the moments. Meow just goes to show that even if you've got all the power in the world, your cat is still going to steal the show.