This Week in Geek (24-30/04/17)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Free Fire is a fun experiment - it's basically just one sequence, and a shoot-out at that - and I was interested on that basis alone. What I could only hope for and not expect was what I got. A rip-roaring dark comedy that quickly got you invested in the characters and then, Fiasco-style, got the dominoes falling after a monumentally bad decision by someone you didn't think was important. Sound design is an important part of the film, letting us hear snatches of conversation off the one side or the other, developing smaller stories in the background and contrasting with action with comedy, in a fight where insults hurt more than bullets. And by giving the characters distinct voices and accents, it avoids confusion. The 70s setting not only helps isolate the one location, phone-wise, but also gives the enterprise the feel of an exploitation flick, which I think had the proper effect on the theater, all belly laughs and even shouted epithets, like I would expect from a rowdy New York crowd. So perhaps the story necessarily has little depth (it's just one scene), but it is detailed and rewatchable, and huge fun.

DVDs: Fargo may not have really been based on a true story despite its opening card, but Kumiko the Treasure Hunter was... sort of. There really was a Japanese woman who did some of the things in this film, though whether or not she really was seeking Fargo's bag of money is debatable. This isn't a docu-drama, but rather an elliptical film inspired by those events, presenting middle America with a folksy strangeness that captures well Kumiko's sense things lost in translation and putting us, the Western audience, in her shoes in a neat empathetic reversal. Like Clavell's Shogun, a book she is offered, which is necessarily a Western snapshot of Japan (certainly to its reader), an "idea of what Japan is" yet is not, Kumiko's image of America, taken from a Coen Bros. film, is equally absurd and cognitively dissonant once she gets there. Though on the surface the portrait of a troubled woman, lost in obsession while running from an unhappy life, there's something magical and hopeful about her journey, and both the artful use of mirroring (compare her to Bunzo the bunny, or the deaf taxi driver, for example) and gorgeous cinematography make this a slow burner worth watching.

Blue Velvet is film noir the David Lynch way, so set in small town America, where the mundane becomes strange, especially under his detail-oriented lens. So though despite the "private eye" in the story being a total amateur, a kid home from college who stumbles on a human ear in his back yard and fancies himself a detective, the trappings are nevertheless those OF film noir and pulp, with the protagonist caught between a troubled femme fatale and an innocent girl Friday (shades of Rear Window all over this), and a strange and memorable villain in Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth. The flip side of that film noir approach is that the dialog frequently feels stilted, as if the actors were putting on some kind of old-timey filter on their performances, but that may just be Lynch's style, a style that, despite always offering some interesting cinematography, I do often find puts the audience at a distance. I admire it without being seduced by it.

Bonnie & Clyde starts with a nude woman (technically) and ends with a shoot-out that violently and relentlessly riddles two people with bullets. In 1967, that must have been a game changer for American cinema. So I completely accept its place in movie history, and can definitely see how it made Faye Dunaway a star. She's electric and more than a match for Warren Beatty's charming bank robber. But the buck stops there (sorry about the pun, which you'll get if you've seen it). In a film where the point of view is squarely with the bank robbers, or indeed, is born and dies with their relationship, I would have expected more insight. As is, these guys are criminals because 1) the Depression means money is scarce and banks are evil anyway and 2) they were bored. Once Bonnie and Clyde are in a relationship, or once someone has joined the gang, the motivations are understandable through the acting if nothing else, but it's those points of intersection, when someone actively makes the choice to become a criminal, that glossed over and feel completely unjustified. The film is the poorer for it, and the criminal escapades eventually become tedious.

As a fan of Richard Linklater, I was very interested in finally watching his early Slacker, but yeah... Not so enthusiastic about it. The experiment is a worthy one: The camera follows one character for the length of a conversation, piggy backs on another present, even just a passerby, and so it goes for about 24 hours, walking around Linklater's Austin, using local celebs and friends with little to no acting experience. Unlike a multiple threads film like, say, Altman's Short Cuts, the sequences don't have narratives as such. They are vignettes of people with too much time on their hands (artists, students, unemployed, retirees, and thus "slackers") shooting the shit. And how literally I mean that is where my problem lies with the film. Where Linklater would eventually perfect the art of the "philosophical talking" movie in the Before films, and the most obvious follow-up to Slacker, Waking Life, what the characters have to say in this film is rarely that interesting or thought-provoking. And though Linklater apparently thinks of the word "slacker" in positive, subversive terms, it's hard to not see the film as an indictment of the lifestyle as that of pretentious people filling their lives with their own bullshit instead of properly engaging with the world. While as a snapshot of the ordinary, which this film could also have been, it's too artificial and awkward for that. I still respect its overt experimentalism, and particularly like the destruction of cinema crafted in its last sequence.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford recounts the last days of the James Gang and feels like a fatalistic dirge for both of the title's characters. Instead of the elation you find in normal westerns because of their action scenes, you find a portrait of depression and anxiety, and though during the film I might have sometimes felt like it was all too long at 2 hours and 40 minutes, then questioned the post-Jesse James material, I found myself weeping as the credits rolled by. Part of it is the release of tension, seeing as both the title and the narration (well chosen language from the novel) do not hide the inevitability of what is to happen - suspense is built on seeing the pieces move toward that inexorable position - and part of it is just the sadness of men who regret their murders and betrayals even as they commit them. And the whole thing has some stunning cinematography thanks to the always superlative Roger Deakins; I knew I was in the hands of a master during that early train robbery. Wow. A stark eulogy not only for the piece's characters, but for the era of American legends.

Seeing as I'm a time travel nut, I'm as surprised as anyone I'd never seen Frequency before yesterday, and even more surprised it had tricks up its sleeves I couldn't immediately foresee (ironic too). The premise has a fireman from the past talking to his son the cop 30 years in the future on the ham radio. The means is not important - some hand waving about sunspot activity - but buy the premise, buy the bit. And what they do with this wrinkle in the time travel formula is pretty great. It's an affecting father-son story, has a mundane but bigger than life love story at the heart of it, and some pretty good action scenes as the duo race, in two different times, to stop a serial murderer. And it's to its credit that in the third act, I kept asking myself "how are they going to get out of this one?" and was on the edge of my seat. Also didn't expect Looper to owe so much to this movie, but it definitely has that type of paradox in it, where the present "updates" to fit changed events. I know that's maddening to some, but treat it as a fantasy about a boy who gets to get back some time with his long-departed dad, and you'll be fine. More than fine, probably. A nice surprise!

As a fan of Richard Curtis' romcoms, I've seen Notting Hill more than once, but can't help being charmed by it every time, and this despite my natural aversion to pretty people decrying their unluckiness in love, which is tenfold in the case of Julia Roberts' mega movie star. But it's still an interesting point of view, brought to life by someone who's been through it, and contrasted by Hugh Grant's family and friends who are nominally ordinary people, but distinct and memorable characters all. Well scripted, well shot and well acted, and above all, funny! The DVD includes a commentary track that moves along at a nice pace, a few deleted scenes, Hugh Grant's acting tongue-in-cheek acting tips, and if you like the soundtrack, those sequences in isolation (not what I would call the most robust of extras in the latter case). Oh and production notes for readers.

Netflix: Doomsdays is an odd indie film about people breaking into homes and living it up until their owners return in a mostly rural area, and it plays, as the title would have it, like a postapocalyptic survival movie. The Road with hipsters, so to speak. Of course, there hasn't BEEN an apocalypse, but the characters believe there will be and they might as well start learning how to live that way. It's anarchic, and kind of worried me that the wrong people would get ideas from it. The exploration of who these quirky characters are, and what happens when their twosome becomes a foursome as more "survivors" join them, is the crux of this story, an internal plot where the external is really just vignettes shot at different houses. I liked it! An intriguing take on a now well-worn genre, no zombies required.

I've never not found a Danny Boyle film uninteresting, but The Beach is nevertheless one of his most flawed. Leonardo DiCaprio's Richard is a young bro on vacation in Thailand when he gets wind of a hidden beach on an island where the party goes on forever. Through his journey there, he will discover who he really is, in something that sometimes looks like they told Boyle to do Trainspotting with a bankable American star, but really has more in common with Apocalypse Now. But I'm intolerably ambivalent about the movie's themes and the work's opinion of its characters and situations. I think it works best when it has a hallucinatory quality, early on and at the end, but is the more grounded middle part then supposed to say THIS is the way to live, the "normal", and the so-called real world a noisy acid trip in comparison? That communal living is better than selfish individualism and excommunicated solitude? Fine, but then what of the coda set in a sterile eCafé? Has Richard found contentment, has the real world "stabilized" for him? Or is this a nostalgic indictment of a world where you're not really allowed to be yourself? Perhaps if I read the original book, I'd have better answers, but the film keeps jumping around in tone and makes its message shift in a way that doesn't feel purposeful. I still have yet to find a Danny Boyle film uninteresting though.

4 comments:

snell said...

It's must be said, in Free Fire every single character seems to be a worse shot than Storm Troopers...

Tony Laplume said...

Assassination of Jesse James is one of my all-time favorite movies. Just astonishing storytelling.

Anonymous said...

The theater where I screened Free Fire had a very short piece with the director after the film where he talked about his process. Did your theater have that too?

--De

Siskoid said...

No!

Well that particular theater sucks. Wobbly seats, people always jamming you in the knees because they can't stop from rocking them. They flash the lights too bright during end credits and post credit scenes. Inferior food/set-up. And have the gall to cost 2$ more than at the other Cineplex across town.

So no surprise they wouldn't offer extras.

 

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