This Week in Geek (20-26/02/17)

Buys

You know who's a scholar and a gentleman? The Irredeemable Shagg. Okay, maybe not a scholar. But a gentleman for sure. We were talking about topics for my Star Trek podcast, and the subject turned to Trek-adjacent William Shatner films, and having gotten excited about the prospect of covering Free Enterprise on the show, Shagg promptly sent me a copy. So expect a show about it before the end of 2017!

"Accomplishments"

At the movies: August Wilson's play Fences does not, as a screenplay, ever feel like anything other than a play. Its limited locations (the house and yard, very seldom does director Denzel Washington take us anywhere else) and almost exhaustingly talky script consistently remind you of the story's roots. Nevertheless, Fences is a layered work drawing a portrait of African-American reality in the post-war 40s, both general and specific to its complex characters, supported by strong performances from Washington and co-star Viola Davis. And despite the subject matter, it's also a universal story about inequity, bitter responsibility, father-son relationships, and more. The ambivalent protagonist, at once jocular and cruel, has been denied opportunity to often, he finds himself keeping his son from "swinging for the fences" as it were, but the play and film's message is ultimately one of hope for the minority's ambitions, arguably set far from pivotal moments in black history, but perhaps when these were first imagined. A bit too "artificial" to be truly effective emotionally, but there's a lot to unpack there.

20th Century Women, set in 1979 but using a biographical array of voices that provides much more than that one moment in time, is about a 53-year-old single mother (Annette Benning) who asks two much younger women (Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning) to help raise her teenager, only she might come to regret it. A beautiful and honest film, full of truth, central among which that you can never truly know another human being, no matter how close, through your own assumptions and projections. Mike Mills' story is semi-autobiographical and though it seems like his female characters are vibrant, quirky and real people (more than the boy who stands in for him), he seems to admit in the text his incapacity to render them with fidelity. Overtly feminist - it's not exactly subtext - this political background does a good job, I think, of explaining what it is to have been raised in a modern matriarchy. (Guilty!) 20th Century Women renders a touching portrait of each of its characters, with interesting flights of structural and directorial fancy.

DVDs: Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern is as good as the hype would have it, the story of a young woman forced, after the death of her father at the turn of the 20th Century, to get married to a rich lord and become his fourth wife. Cue masterful "court" intrigue as the four women vie for his attentions and the coveted red lanterns, which come to with his sexual favors and a host of other perks, according to oppressive and eccentric family traditions. Interestingly, we never quite see his face, and he is never given a close-up, which might lend credence to the theory that the film works as an allegory for Communist China - each woman representing a facet of society and he the "faceless state" - but I don't know enough about the Chinese socio-political landscape of China (in 1991) to make that call. All I can say is that Raise the Red Lantern is gorgeous, emotional, powerful, and perfectly posed, somehow a visual feast despite its restricted location.

The Third Man is a film noir classic set in post-war Vienna, part historical wonder, part pile of rubble, jurisdictionally split between various powers. The tense atmosphere created by this set-up, supported by director Carol Reed's dutch angles and powerful plays of light and shadow (the final chase in the sewers is a master class in black and white film making), creates an always interesting environment for Joseph Cotten's protagonist to navigate, a writer visiting an old friend who turns out to have been killed, a mystery he can't resist any more than his friend's sultry girlfriend. Like the best films noir, neither the lead nor the audience should know who to trust, if anyone. Despite being made in 1949, The Third Man is so slick it feels entirely more modern and is rightfully to be named among the greatest films of the 40s and 50s.

John Carpenter's Escape from New York has a strong hook, efficiently setting up its world where Manhattan is a prison in the far-flung future of 1997, and Kurt Russell's iconic Snake Plissken is a cool, badass urban version of Mad Max trying to get to the unscrupulous president of the USA whose plane was shot down over New York. But Carpenter's action is so limply directed that he almost immediately drops the ball. The movie is sluggish, the music doesn't support the action, and the action beats are either confusing or failed to get this viewer's heart rate up. Take the bit where Snake is driving a car through Broadway, something supposedly dangerous, but it's a slow crawl as gang bangers ineffectually throw bricks at the car... The star power in this flick just barely keeps it afloat at times, and the dark cynical ending is strong, but another pass through an editing suite might actually have been needed. I was expecting more from this cult classic.

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