This Week in Geek (31/10-06/11/16)

This is going to seem like a strange week, media-wise, but I can explain. My roommate, Hot or Not's Shotgun, has started a movie-a-day marathon through which she hopes to watch 30 top-rated animes she's never seen; I'm watching along when our schedules coincide. I don't focus on anime much, but you're going to see a lot of them crop up in November. Then, through no one's fault, I fell into a number of female-driven, female-written, female-directed coming of age movies on Netflix, which will give the reviews a certain thematic quality (especially since all the anime covered have female protagonists). As for the three or four Inception-like movies below, that's just a weird accident.

"Accomplishments"

At the movies: As far as superhero origins go, Doctor Strange doesn't reinvent the wheel, but the world of magic is one we haven't seen done as a superhero narrative yet, and the film is an effects-driven visual feast with better than average acting (even if I'll never get used to Cumberbatch's American accent). As with the comics, it's really the Iron Man formula, right down to the arrogant protagonist, but that was a winning formula. If the structure is fairly standard, the set pieces are instead inventive - anything can happen including an astral form kung fu fight!). From the trailer, the movie looked a lot like Inception, and I was afraid it would look "mechanical" all the way through, but the Dark Dimension really does look like what artist Steve Ditko imagined back in the '60s, and there are plenty of winks to Marvel Comics besides (for fans, none of which are distracting for the uninitiated). And while the villain suffers from what most MCU villains do, the fact that they're taking their time building Baron Mordo means he might well become one of their best (alongside Loki). Marvel adds another viable franchise to its stable in Doctor Strange!

DVDs: Blood: The Last Vampire is a short, 45-minute anime that is consequently big on action, slim on everything else. We follow the last vampire, a government agent tasked with clearing a U.S. army base in post-War Japan of monstrous, shape-shifting infiltrators. The movie is chock full of cool action beats and effective horror and gore moments, but leaves a lot of the setting's background ambiguous. I don't dislike that, but a longer running time might have helped illuminate some of the potentially niggling mysteries. Saya's vampirism isn't explicit for example, and one gets the sense that she has some relationship to the creatures she's killing. The mention of the Vietnam War seems to imply the monsters are influencing international events, but that too is left open-ended. It doesn't help that Blood did spin out into a couple series, but these are alternate takes on the concept, not sequels. But it's a wild ride while it lasts, even if you don't think it lasts quite long enough, with great lighting and animation, although turn-of-the-Millennium CG backgrounds are always distracting to me.

The Cat Returns is a wonderful and completely insane fantasy from Studio Ghibli about a young girl who saves a cat's life one day and finds herself introduced to the secret Kingdom of Cats where she is given the chance to marry the cat prince... against her will. And it is BONKERS. My favorite bit may be the Secret Service Cats throwing rowdy alley cats over fences, but this anime keeps throwing hilarious surprises at the audience, especially those among us who call ourselves cat lovers. The level of animation is of course top shelf, but the story has several levels to it that are quite satisfying regardless of that quality. This kinda ridiculous take on Alice in Wonderland transforms its heroine literally and metaphorically, and reveals itself as a coming of age story at the end, with Haru growing up as a result. So inventive, I think it can be watched again and again. (Oh, and while it shares a character with Whisper of the Heart, it's not a proper sequel; I'm proof positive it is not needed to enjoy this film.)

Surely one of the inspirations for Inception, Paprika is about the clash of reality and dreams and the ability to navigate the latter, with the title heroine a dreamscape therapist trying to find just who is using dream technology to implant the dreams of the insane in normal people and spreading chaos. Visually, it's an amazing piece of animation, surreal but meaningful, and the title sequence could stand alone as a music video and I'd watch it all the time. The story can get a little monotone when the characters deliver technical exposition, but these scenes are few and we're soon in another maverick sequence. Even the most mundane of scenes have some spectacular animated acting, mind you. Most interesting to me was that in addition to the epic terror plot, several characters undergo dream therapy almost incidentally and come out of these events having resolved a personal problem, lending additional richness to the film.

Netflix: Trance is a twisty-turny heist movie by director Danny Boyle - who always delivers an interesting film, in my book - starring James McAvoy as an art auction employee who uses his criminal accomplices' attempt to steal a Goya to steal it for himself, but oops, he gets a nasty knock on the head and loses the memory of where he put the damn thing. Now he's on the hook for it and the crooks decide to use a hypnotherapist to get the memory out of him. She's played by Rosario Dawson and she may be using her skills to play everyone, but just what is her agenda? The convoluted plot isn't so complicated as to be opaque, it's just that you can't trust everything you see. And Boyle certainly knows how to fill a frame, this is a gorgeous-looking film with some interesting conceits when we go into McAvoy's memories. Fun and trippy, but you gotta pay attention and be open to emotional (rather than strictly rational) truth.

The To Do List is one of those coming of age sex comedies that do not interest me one bit when they have male leads (Superbad a prime, fairly recent example), but that come with a breath of fresh air when you make it about a female character (and even better, written and directed by a woman, in this case first-time feature director Maggie Carey). I'm not likely to laugh out loud, but I at least find them amusing and am interested in the point of view. This is the story of Brandy Klark, an over-achieving high school graduate who realizes she never took the time to learn about sex and tries to complete her bucket list of sex acts before she goes to college. It takes place in the early 90s before the prevalence of the Internet made learning about sex so easy (it leads to some cute "historical" jokes), so she frequently makes a fool of herself, misunderstands terms, and so on. On this journey to sexual discovery, she'll figure out that sex is a paradox, both important and no big deal at the same time, and will, to her credit, never place herself in the submissive role. In movies, sex is often something that "happens" to women, even when it's consensual. Here, the heroine (indeed, like all the women in the film) has great agency, and no shame in having that agency, which I think gives The To Do List its interest.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl, based on Phoebe Gloeckner's semi-autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, tracks a 15-year-old's sexual journey after she seduces her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe. The protagonist, Minnie Goetze, dictates her "diary" to the audience and takes us through her story, a frank tragi-comedy that doesn't necessarily make her look good as she manipulates her way into Monroe's pants again and again. There are highs and lows, humor and heartbreak, waking fantasies given form with animation inspired by the adapted comics and honest emotional truth. The hybrid is well-balanced, and makes good use of its mid-1970s setting, not just in terms of the mores that make the story possible, but through Minnie's interest in underground comix and therefore the look of her own cartooning work and of those animations. Needless to say, Bel Powley is perfect in the role, but also props to Kristen Wiig (as her mother) in a more dramatic than usual role.

Tallulah is about three women who will very soon regret something they've done, all three prisoners of bad decisions. There's Allison Janney, refusing to sign her divorce papers and thus upend her life. There's Tammy Blanchard, a bad mom who would rather get drunk than take care of her baby. And there's Ellen Page as the title character, a stubbornly homeless girl who steals the neglected child and shows up on her estranged boyfriend's mom's doorstep (Janney) hoping the boyfriend will come home. The fourth female character, a one-year-old girl is the means by which all three will complete their character arcs. Tallulah is the last character to express regret, having built a wall around herself to avoid doing so, but a soon as that wall crumbles, she opens herself up to healing and growth. A great acting showcase for all involved, the story is also worthy of being told, and nuanced to boot.

Diplomatie (or Diplomacy) is a French-German film based on the play of the same name, and its roots are obvious - this is essentially about two men talking in a single room. The film collapses the historical timeline to present the decision by Nazi general and Paris' governor von Choltitz NOT to destroy the City of Lights as the Allies advanced on it in a single night of debate with Paris-born Swedish Ambassador Raoul Nordling. Looks like there are still WWII stories left to tell. Obviously, we know how this page of history turned out, but the film nevertheless retains its tension, perhaps because it's really about saving a man's, and a nation's, soul. Will von Choltitz make the right decision, or is Nordling only buying time before the point becomes moot. We're left with an engaging conversation about ethics, the realities of war, our duty to history and to the future, Nordling pulls out all the stops to insure the city's protection, and both actors put in an excellent performance. It wouldn't work otherwise.

3 comments:

De said...

I saw The To Do List about a year ago and was pleased to see that Agent Coulson eventually settled down.

Siskoid said...

Since it takes place in the 90s, it appears to be before the Avengers Initiative. What happened to his family???

Toby'c said...

I remember being kinda underwhelmed by The Cat Returns, but I was oddly blown away when I saw Whisper of the Heart a few months later, now a top-fiver for Studio Ghibli for me.

 

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