This Week in Geek (21-27/07/14)


The rest of my cheapass Deadwood order came in (Seasons 2 and 3) and a book of pulp pastiche edited by Michael Chabon, McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales.


At the movies: Peace is a fragile thing in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a story that depends, as these kinds of stories do, on people/apes being stupidly mistrustful on both sides. That's not so much formulaic as it is universal, and though the manipulation is pretty obvious, Dawn is nevertheless another superlative entry in the Planet of the Apes franchise (which now has 3 good films to its name, along with the original and Rise). The film wisely opens on Caesar, his tribe and family life, so that we empathize with the apes before we do any humans, but also offers a human hero in Jason Clarke's Malcolm. Misunderstood peacemakers on each side, hatemongers on both sides too, and those who let themselves be swayed on each side. As with Rise, the effect are impeccable, CG apes looking as solid as anything, which means you can concentrate on the action and politics without distraction. Seeing as we know where this is all going (the events of the original film), it's a pretty fatalistic piece of story telling, one where victories are Pyrrhic at best, but still an exciting time at the cinema.

DVDs: I almost didn't want to watch the last season of Leverage (the fifth) because it would mean it was all over, but I still ran through it. Couldn't help it. These 15 episodes have all the humor, drama and action of the previous efforts, this time embracing Portland, Oregon as its location. There are correspondingly a couple of aviation episode including a 70s cop show pastiche about real-world mystery D.B. Cooper. Splitting the team up for a trio of jobs makes for some of the best episodes of the season, including an all-Parker bottle show. And it ends in outstanding fashion in what can only be described as a con perpetrated on the audience where all possible endings, dark and light, are incorporated. The DVD includes fun, rambunctious (and slightly sad because they keep mentioning a 6th season) cast and crew commentaries, a few deleted scenes, and a gag reel.

Still hungry for grifting stories, I then watched Catch Me If You Can, the Spielberg biopic about real-world impostor and con man Frank Abignale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio in another of those roles that require him to star in decadent parties), who as a teenager in the 60s committed bank fraud for millions of dollars and successfully posed as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. Tom Hanks is the FBI agent obsessed with bringing him in. While I can fault any of the acting, which is superlative, or the casting, which has a lot of neat cameos, or the look, which recreates the glossy 60s since made very familiar by Mad Men, Catch Me If You Can is, to me, like most of Spielberg's stuff from the past 15 years, rather unexciting. I don't know what it is, but it's like it's almost too polished, too well-produced. Is it lacking in risk and energy? Or in this case, is it just the normal flow of a biopic, missing the thrill often found in grifter movies and shows? I don't know. The performances ARE exciting, but the story telling doesn't take enough chances. The DVD's second disc has about an hour and half of documentary features, focusing on the filming, casting, score, costumes, etc., as well as pieces on the real Frank Abignale Jr. (present and accounted for) and the production's FBI consultant, and a photo gallery.

American Hustle is good contrast. I reviewed it previously when I saw it theaters (though it's nice to see not so close-up, turns out Amy Adams DOESN'T have horribly twisted giant arms), so I'll use this space to explain why it worked for me where Catch Me didn't. After all, both are period pieces about real stories featuring both con men and the FBI. So why do I like American Hustle so much? Beyond the layered character studies, the film making feels DANGEROUS. The emotions are raw, scenes have an exciting improvisational feel, the characters are volatile, and we're not always sure who is scamming who at any given time (which is a must for con stories, it's part of their DNA). That's what makes the story as thrilling as the con itself. And it's danger that's shared by the characters - you don't know if they'll succeed. That's what's missing from Catch Me. The production is as slick as its protagonist, and the way the story is told, you sort of know how it'll all shake out. The DVD here has deleted and extended scenes and a short making of.

All this impostor stuff brought me to Denis Villeneuve's Enemy, an introspective film based on Portuguese writer José Saramago's The Double starring Jake Gyllenhaal as both a listless history professor and his double, an actor the former finds in various bit parts on DVDs. Bizarre and ambiguous, Enemy owes as much to Kafka as it does to magical realism, with just a hint of Guillermo del Toro, a fable about identity and intimacy and how we might hate parts of ourselves. I don't want to say too much because ambiguity is a big part of this, and in any case, I still had questions at the end. I wish I'd watched it with other people. It's that kind of film. And lovely to see Toronto play itself - it's so rare - even as a smoggy dreamscape. The DVD has several featurettes which might all have been edited together as a longer piece taking us from novel to screen, mostly through cast and crew interviews. Enlightening without giving everything away.

Continued my cinematic conversation about identity and intimacy with Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon, a comedy-romance full of truth about male/female expectations. It's deftly done, funny and true to life. JGL plays the title character, one of those Ginos who expects women to be like those in porn. His world view is shaken when he falls for Scarlett Johansson's character, who expects men to behave as if they were in romantic movies. Neither is healthy, but they're the fantasies media sells us as realities, and Johnny must find a new truth if he's to become happy. And maybe Julianne Moore's older, wiser woman (but don't call her lady, we learned that from Magnolia!) might just have the answers he's seeking. JGL has fun with playing against type, and as a director too. I like how his world is presented in fast, modern cuts until he falls in love and it turns into sweeping dollies. Each of the three acts has its own look, in keeping with his evolving and maturing relationships. I hope JGL has other films in him! The DVD has strong making of elements and entries for a related collaborative project called "My Favorite Things".

Part of the Hal Hartley Collection, my next DVD review includes two of the auteur's films (well, three, but the short The Sisters of Mercy is more of an actor exercise in staging and line reading, featuring Parker Posey and Sabrina Lloyd). First is the one-hour The Book of Life, an entry in a French contest that required the story to be told on the last day of the Millennium (as the rubes count it, so December 31st, 1999). Hartley came up with an apocalyptic story as the Second Coming of Christ anxiously ponders whether or not to open all the seals on the Book of Life, while Satan tries to corral a few more souls into his service before the end. It's all done in contemporary New York, without effects, made even more mundane by the digital video look (this despite a streaky unreal treatment to some of the footage, or the cute touch of having the Devil find microphones around the city where he feels forced to address the audience). Liked it and what it had to say, though the medium and Hartley's trademark rhythms give it a certain amateurishness. The Girl From Monday is a longer piece in the same video style, and ambitiously, a piece of science fiction. In this world (and Sabrina Lloyd's role as co-protagonist can't help but recall Sliders), everything is marketed, including human intimacy. It's become illegal to engage in relations off the books, for love or lust rather than market share and raising one's value. Things are complicated by the coming of alien "immigrants" translated into human bodies (like the eponymous Girl), and by a counter movement to which the protagonists adhere. Contemporary New York here subs for "the future", which is fine, though the film stumbles whenever it tries to do "genre" too much (show futuristic tech or do fight scenes). As with The Book of Life, the fantastical trappings are merely tools for the film maker to discuss philosophical concerns, and The Girl From Monday comes off as a good little dystopian short story with something interesting to say about consumerism and intimacy, with human performances from Lloyd and co-star Bill Sage. The DVD package includes a short making of for each of the longer films that explains their genesis.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty hits the nail on its message's head perhaps a bit strongly, but it's one we call all appreciate: Live life, guys. So it's about this shy, retiring guy who works at Life Magazine and who, seeking love and a missing photograph meant for Life's last ever cover, goes from dreamer to doer. Ben Stiller stars and directs, and gives the film a sharp photographic look, at least initially, adding movement and color as Walter starts to really live. It looks gorgeous and is definitely a feel-good film, with lots of locations and action worthy of the magazine whose aesthetic is emulated. It's not flawless, however. Seeing as the first act includes a lot of Walter's fantasies, it becomes difficult to trust the film maker when the adventure becomes real, because that adventure itself is somewhat heightened. A more cynical viewer may be in his or her rights to refuse suspension of disbelief, though the clues to the "reality" are there. But I, for one, bought into it. By turns charming, funny and touching. The DVD has too small a stills gallery, and three little featurettes on the look and sound of the piece.

I reviewed Her earlier this year, when it was in theaters, and needless to say I loved it. A second viewing this week made me more critical of the Samantha character, however, and brought a new layer to the film's exploration of relationships in the modern age. Despite the title, I first understood the film to be about HIM, and no stranger to crushing loneliness, identified with the male character, fell in love with Samantha just as he did, etc. By focusing on HER this time, I was taken by the character's intense selfishness, which makes complete sense in terms of Samantha's literal immaturity. In addition to that layer is the mirror between Samantha and Theodore's ex-wife, and between Sam and Theo themselves across relationships. It seems I'm not done seeing something new in this film, but then, it's a Spike Jonze movie. The DVD package is disappointing because I'd have liked to see more making of stuff; we only get a conversation about modern relationships by various people reacting to the film.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - BBC '80


Anonymous said...

Sonuvagun, I didn't think anyone else even knew about "The Book of Life". It's one of those films that I realize isn't great, but I can't imagine any other film coming along and taking its place in my heart. Keep your eyes open for James Urbaniak (Dr. Venture) early on.

By now I'm sure you know about the surprise guest star at the end of "Her":

Siskoid said...

I'm just discovering Hartley's work. To date, it's interesting without necessarily lighting me on fire.


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