This Week in Geek (7-13/04/24)


In theaters: Director Adam Wingard promised that Godzilla × Kong: The New Empire was a monster movie from the perspective of the monsters rather than the humans (who are rarely the most interesting thing in these films, especially the American ones), but there's still an awful lot of people involved. Whether they are sidelined or not (and that's debatable), and generally relegated to types (you're either an exposition machine or comic relief; at least Rebecca Hall is a strong emotional actress who can give her scenes some weight), Kong gets a lot to do on the trail of other titanic apes. In Hollow Earth, where much of this takes place, we lose the sense of scale and it just feels like a Planet of the Apes film, which isn't a bad thing to be. But guys, I can't stand the character we're calling Baby Kong. I might even hate him more than Minilla (so the best use for him is to be swung like a weapon). Wingard has also figured out that big dumb giant monster movies should be big and dumb and fun, and in that respect, Gokuzilla x Robot-Arm Kong delivers. Lots of destruction, lots of monster fights, Dan Stevens as a crazy surfer veterinarian to the Titans, giant wrestling moves, and at least one old favorite showing up. I'm calling it, the next one takes us to space (and I'm not just going on the Planet X Easter Egg).

At home: Fritz Lang captures the frayed nerves of the British under the blitz in Ministry of Fear, a paranoid thriller in which you can never trust anyone or anything, including the perceptions of the main character. Ray Milland has just been released from an asylum, you see, so when villagers at a town fete start acting strangely, leading him on a merry chase to London to find out why "they" are after him, you're not sure what to believe. What, if anything, does a war-time charity have to do with it? Milland is plunged into a nightmarish world of seances, Nazi spies, shady coppers, and bombing raids. Great use of light and shadow - I especially love how the final showdown is staged - and knowing this came out in 1944 makes it feel more immediate and urgent a story. The "loose lips sinks ships"-type posters are more than just period detail. A great Noir that owes something to Kafka as much as anyone. (Too bad it ends on a dumb joke.)

Douglas Sirk's Lured starts on a couple of incredible scenes that, through visual economy, introduce this tale of serial murder in London. Sirk gives a master class here. Of course, what follows isn't so economical and efficient... Lucille Ball (as a film noir scream queen!) agrees to work with Scotland Yard as an undercover policewoman after the disappearance of her friend Lucy(!), one of eight young women who answered classified ads and vanished. The mystery isn't that deep, but might throw you a few curve balls along the way. Lots of red herrings explored in detail, which gives Lured an episodic feeling. We might imagine Lucille Ball's character looking for the killer, week to week, and defeating other madmen and crooks along the way as she answered ads and tied loose ends. Charles Coburn and the other coppers are good fatherly figures too, even if the London accents are all over the place in this. Your only stop for a Lucille Ball/Boris Karloff collaboration!

Noir is the New Black! At some point, all prison movies tend to be the same, but 1950 is probably not that point. Caged is a melodramatic appeal for prison reform, with a crusading warden unable to make a difference in the life of doe-eyed Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), incarcerated on a bum rap and within a year, turned into a hardened recidivist. So you've got your criminal sisterhood, your wise lifers, your corrupt screws, cruel punishments, and just the normal shock of losing rights and freedoms... From our position up-time, we've seen it all before, but Caged remains a potent drama steeped in realism and filled with memorable characters that help make the harsh moments all the more shocking. Hope Emerson makes a great villain, the prison matron on the take who devises old-school punishments for her charges and is especially hard on our heroine. Both of them got Oscar noms for this and I'd say they were worthy of them.

What is perhaps most surprising about Sunset Boulevard - not just a Billy Wilder classic, but point blank a cinema classic - is how much of real Hollywood is in it. Gloria Swanson was, like Nora Desmond, a silent film star at Paramount (and one of their hottest tickets). She didn't go mad (though she was "aged" out  of the business when talkies took over and hadn't been in a feature in more than 15 years). but others like her did have well-reported struggled with mental health (like Clara Bow). C.B. De Mille appears in person as himself. We see producers, scriptwriters, readers, technicians. And it seems like Wilder is making a couple of indictments. One is the very idea of sending actresses (never seemed to happen to the chaps) out to pasture after they hit 35. Nora (and Swanson!) is only 50 years old and treated like a hag ("I thought she died"), and yet, Swanson here proves she can do it all - tragedy, comedy, horror, sublety as well as theatricality. But Nora is also used to undermine nostalgia for the silent era. She's one of those people who say "they don't make them like that anymore" with a measure of bitterness, and Sunset Boulevard is filled with the words she so hates, with narration on top of witty dialogue. Wilder is a talky writer-director and he affirms himself. Or does he? He still celebrates the silent era here, and his hero is a hack writer who gets killed for his trouble (in a kind of reverse of Video Kill the Radio Star). And so the film has that push and pull between the visual and the writer's mediums - the film maker's internal struggle. And of course, it's well made, has some great classic lines AND visuals. It certainly wasn't my first viewing.

Released under the lurid title Try and Get Me!, The Sound of Fury springs out of an infamous real event when a lynch mob attacked a police station in 1930s California. The film seems to take place in 1950, but the characters are definitely working (or not working, as it were) in Depression-era America. Frank Lovejoy is a family man down on his luck, roped almost against his will into pulling off small jobs by brazen crook Lloyd Bridges (who gives a fun, spicy performance here). Hey, I would turn to crime too if I had that nasty little boy at home. And then someone dies and everything goes to hell. First, they make one of the criminals sympathetic - if you were on a jury, you'd recommend leniency for sure - and then they switch gears and take us back to a subplot about a journalist fanning the flames of public outrage over a supposed "crime wave". We know fear sells papers. The movie attacks the media and its responsibility in maintaining democracy - an issue that's very much with us today - though it does get rather preachy when it tries to make bigger blanket statements. At its best, it presents interesting character psychologies, but ultimately, it's all in service of its polemic, which is weaker.

Otto Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends is a hard-bitten Noir in which Dana Andrews plays a police detective just-demoted for brutality charges when he accidentally kills an innocent man. I think he could have gotten out of it, but he panics, makes some bad decisions, and finds himself part of a team investigating his own wrongful killing. A great paranoid thriller ensues, with a reverse femme fatale in Gene Tierney, the girl who may inspire him to do the right thing (or at least makes having done the wrong thing untenable), and one of my favorite patron-restauranteur screen relationships ever, courtesy of Ruth Donnelly. There are shades of Hitchcock in this one, but also Marlowe, with many moving parts, not the least of which is the massive pull of both guilt and fear of getting caught. And who doesn't love a Spirit-like opening title that's part of the filmed action? Where the Sidewalk Ends is where Noirjoyment begins.

My Companion Film of the week features Deborah Watling (Victoria Waterfield)... One of two BBC productions of Alice in Wonderland starring a future Doctor Who companion, Alice (1965) does feature bits and pieces from the book, but is really about Charles Dodgson AKA Lewis Carroll and his relationship to Alice Liddell, who inspired the stories. And it's a real take-down too. Dodgson is portrayed as a pathetic, puritanical, stuttering, needy man grooming a young girl - which I'm sure it historically accurate, but wow, is it depressing. It doesn't help that Alice herself is flighty, spoiled, vain and occasionally cruel. The moments from the book itself, imagined by the characters at various moments, are rather tedious as they leave what's interesting (the researched biopic we otherwise get) behind, but what's "interesting" is off-putting and threatens to tip into its characters' tediousness. Doesn't exactly make you want to read or re-read the Wonderland stories.

Books: Collecting issues #268-275 and Annual #18, Fantastic Four Visionaries: John Byrne Vol. 5 also includes The Thing #19 (I see Byrne was trying to get traction on his rather pointless Thing book - Ben on a planet where nothing matters because it's all imagination, pass). This is essentially where I originally came in, though the collection has a couple issues I missed. Of particular interest: Black Bolt and Medusa tie the knot (this LATE in Marvel continuity?!), Johnny starts dating Alicia Masters in Ben's absence (don't worry, it'll be undone), the identity of Rama-Tut's time travelling ancestor is revealed, Byrne riffs on Marvel's early monster comics AND the so-called Universal monsters, and some low-life snaps a pic of a topless She-Hulk. Speaking of the Jade Giantess, she's worth her weight in gold in this series, and Byrne uses her (and draws her) well. It's kind of unfortunate to me that towards the end of the collection, he changes his art style, preferring thinner lines to his usual sharpie. Jerry Ordway will ink those admirably in the next volume, but I didn't like Al Gordon's take on these pencils as much. I respect Byrne wanting to evolve his style (there's no mention of it here, but I remember a text piece in the original floppies), but I still don't like it.