The Catch-Up, Part Two (Speaking Of Edition)

I may have accidentally stumbled onto how I can actually set an endpoint to this Catching Up business, and hasten the phenomenon of actually seeing a pinprick of light in this seemingly endless tenebrous tunnel: I’ll watch TV.

See, Friday nights that I don’t have a show are the nights where I can settle into my movie chair and watch three or more movies in a row. This is by necessity more than inclination: scheduling rather than solicitude. Last Friday, as a bit of a warm-up, and because it’s now in its second season and cropping up on my timeline again, I decided to watch the first episode of Legion before moving on to stuff on my Movie Watchlist. You know, find out what the shouting was about.

This is my brain on Legion.

I am not a binge watcher. I like to watch an episode of a TV series, then think about it for a while (you know, the way the format was originally intended).

Last Friday I watched the first six episodes of Legion‘s first season before dragging myself to bed at 2am.

Hey, everybody from my timeline a year ago saying how great and confounding and downright amazing it was, you were right. So now I will kowtow to my magic DVR and – unless showrunner Noah Hawley sucks me in again, no promises – alternate it with episodes of the recently-cancelled The Expanse which I have been hoarding like bullets in a Mad Max movie. I guess I should find some way to lay my hands on the first season of Westworld, too. Maybe this will stem the ever-regenerating list of back-filed reviews waiting to be written.

Speaking of which:

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Well, what you have here is your bona fide classic, re-issued in a stunning blu-ray by Warner Archive. Spencer Tracy is one-armed WWII veteran John MacReedy, who gets off the train at the titular town, claiming he’s “only going to be here a day”. Black Rock is a desolate little desert community that’s incredibly tense about this stranger’s arrival. And that’s all I’m gonna tell you, because I find myself in the odd position of not wanting to talk about a 60 year-old movie. There are two mysteries at play in Bad Day, and unraveling both is essential to your enjoyment of the film. Director John Sturges makes sure we are in the same boat as the movie’s characters: we know as much about what Black Rock is hiding as MacReedy, and we know as much about MacReedy as the townspeople – which is nothing in both cases. And the solutions are pretty satisfying.

If nothing else, the cast alone should convince you this movie needs to be watched. Besides Tracy, there’s Robert Ryan as the town boss, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin as his two bully boys, Dean Jagger as a worthless drunk of a sheriff, and Walter Brennan as the town doctor and undertaker. That’s five Oscar winners right there. Anne Francis runs the local garage, and John Ericson is her brother who runs the hotel.

Francis’ presence as the sole woman in evidence in Black Rock is the one detail that gnawed on me during my viewing; finding out later that  Sturges cut out all background characters to make Tracy seem even more isolated and outnumbered didn’t do much to diminish that gnawing, but it at least made it more understandable.

Shot in CinemaScope, Bad Day really forces you to confront the remoteness of the location (odd that leery MGM suits insisted that a standard 4:3 version be shot simultaneously) (and even odder that it was accompanied by a 4 track stereo soundtrack on a movie with almost no score). That blu-ray does it full justice, and if you don’t have access to an actual repertory house theater, that’s the way to go.

The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

And speaking of Warner Archive…

The opportunity to see a feature film directed by Chuck Jones was irresistible. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is a well-regarded children’s book; it’s the tale of latchkey kid Milo (Butch Patrick in the movie), whose school has crushed him into a youthful pile of ennui. Finding a magic tollbooth in his living room, he drives a toy car though it (in the movie, turning into a cartoon), and journeys to the land of Dictionopolis, where he gets involved in your standard heroic quest to save the kingdom, rescue princesses, and learn the value of knowledge. The book is a clever affair, full of puns and wordplay, and has been justly compared in that respect to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.

An actual problem in its translation to screen is that Juster’s novel, which is itself a satirical take on the state of education, somehow becomes drab and preachy, even if the color palette becomes brighter. There is too much HERE IS YOUR LESSON, STUPID KIDS, and far too little allowing Jones to inject some humor into the proceedings. I thought I was going to really enjoy this during the first self-conscious song during the live action sequence, where our Sandpiper-esque chorus croon about “What will happen to Milo” but then we descend into Dictionopolis and thereafter every song is absolutely dreadful, only compounding the misery.

It’s really a shame when you’ve got some heavy hitters in the voice department doing their usual best – Mel Blanc, June Foray, Daws Butler, Hans Conreid, Les Tremayne. The movie was actually completed in 1968, but MGM’s ongoing financial woes delayed its release, with minimal promotion, until 1970. I was honestly watching TV with an eye towards movie trailers in those days, and I recall only a 10 second ad for The Phantom Tollbooth, featuring Butch driving through that gate and turning into a cartoon. I guess it was effective enough that I remember it fifty years later. MGM closed its animation department almost immediately after the release.

Juster reportedly hated the movie. I can see why.

Chuck Jones’ legacy as a creator of quality shorter fare is unassailable, at least.

The Ritual (2017)

Speaking of people shouting about things (we were two movies ago): this was getting a buzzy moment on social media when it cropped up on Netflix, so yeah, sure, why not? You may have noticed, I do like a good horror movie.

Hm.

You’ve got five friends (Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton and Paul Reid) out for a lengthy hike/camping trip to honor a dead friend (tragic backstory that will get mined thoroughly, you can be sure). One gets injured, cutting the trip short, but instead of heading back down the trail they used, it is decided to cut through the forest, which will only take one day instead of two.

Everyone who thinks this is a bad idea, raise your hands.

Of course, things like compasses don’t work in the woods, there are strange runes on the trees, a night in an abandoned cabin yields weird nightmares, and there is something in the woods following them.

As I said, I like a good horror movie. This means in the past decade I’ve watched a lot of movies with people wandering around lost in some creepy woods. It’s like my Dracula fatigue: I’m in almost desperate need of something besides Blair Witch with a dash of Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch-house”. Most of the reviews I’ve sampled don’t like the third act, which is the only part I really liked – it’s the point at which The Ritual finally gains its own identity. It just arrives too late for me to recommend it.

Speaking of wandering through creepy woods:

Annihilation (2018)

  • This is director Alex Garland’s follow-up to his 2014 Ex Machina, which, as is traditional, I will be watching later in the year.
  • A meteor crashes to Earth, bringing with it “The Shimmer”, an expanding field that changes the environment as it expands. Five women (Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny) go into the Shimmer in an attempt to find out why the earlier teams never came back – except for one (Oscar Isaacs), Portman’s husband, who is now dying for unknown reasons.
  • Smarter people than me quickly pointed out that this is basically Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”.
  • That’s a very strong cast all bringing their A+ game to a story that requires some really questionable decisions on their characters’ parts.
  • It also has some king-hell horror movie moments.
  • The strongest of these, known as “The Screaming Bear”, is a creature straight out of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series: a predator that speaks in the voice of its last victim.

It may be this last item that got my goat and refused to give it back, in combination with The Ritual: I’ve lost count of the number of writing projects I’ve given up because I finally decided they could be seen as derivative of other works, not original stuff dredged up from my psyche. I should apparently get over myself and write those damned stories, because other people that do get them made into movies (even if Garland didn’t re-read Jeff VanderMeer’s novel before writing the screenplay).

Annihilation is still worth a watch, even if I can’t give it the enthusiastic referral I had hoped.

Oh, hey, speaking of not-enthusiastic referrals:

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Extended Edition (2016)

My pal Dave told me that this version added some character beats that actually made him feel better about the movie. So blame this on Dave.

  • It does.
  • The movie is still a goddamn mess.
  • So much of a mess that anybody that comes to me complaining that Avengers: Age of Ultron is a mess for trying to set up the MCU’s Phase Three is going to be strapped to a chair and forced to watch this Clockwork Orange-style. All three hours and two minutes of it.
  • I was really hoping for some illumination as far as what the hell Luthor’s endgame was supposed to be because I’m a gullible sap.
  • I can only assume that every time I see people on the Interwebs talk about how this was the best movie of the year, they are speaking in such heightened irony that I almost can’t hear it, but my dog can.

Zack Snyder v Superman (2016, Warner Brothers)

I am never, ever going to get over my essential bitterness toward Zack Snyder’s interpretation of these characters. From Superman killing Zod in Man of Steel to his pre-production statement of “This Batman kills”, those are major violations of the ethos of the characters I grew up with. Yes, this is a fat old fanboy moaning that his childhood has been violated, but for a better reason than “girls have cooties” (obligatory jab at Star Wars “fandom”, come at me, bro). Superheroes are aspirational characters, and the MCU’s Captain America has been a better Superman than Henry Cavill has ever been allowed to be (at least until Justice League). A major part of that aspiration has been going to great lengths to avoid taking life.

Gosh, this getting ranty.

*sigh* At least it gave us Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Even if it did murder Jimmy Olsen. And Mercy (again). And…

Crap. Should have quit while I was ahead.

Well, now I’m into the beginning of March of this year. That’s something.

3 Comments

  1. Oh, this is priceless because I was zooming through Legion’s 2nd season over this past week. I won’t say more except that it’s getting into a dissection of psychosis and other things that’s brilliant and the 7th episode of this season has a pretty mind-blowing opening sequence about fear that’s pure brilliance. That, and you get dance numbers in something like three episodes straight that somehow don’t feel out of place.

    And yep, I saw that extended BvS and nope, it did nothing for me

  2. Great to read your thoughts, as always. “Batman V Superman: DOJ” was so much worse than expected. You nailed it squarely and was perhaps a little too generous. It’s one of the very worst AAA movies in years. Let’s hope this (and “Justice League”) ends Mr. Snyder’s efforts to destroy the heroes we’ve worshiped all our lives.

    “Legion” is indeed excellent and trippy. More so, if one, “ahem”, imbibes of herbal material before watching. It becomes frankly mind-stretching.

    Keep watching and writing!

    • “Herbal materials”? There is such a thing?

      Haha, I would be lying if I said they did not enter into the equation. Best to be circumspect, however.


Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s