This Week in Geek (22-28/01/18)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Because he made my favorite movie ever (Magnolia), I'm rather loyal to director Paul Thomas Anderson. However, I have to admit that I respect his other movies, but I do not love them. His latest, Phantom Thread, easily falls under this heading. It's the story of an elite, post-war dressmaker, a genius who seeks to control every detail, but meets his match in his newest live-in model/muse, a woman who may not be controllable, quite the opposite. What unfolds, very slowly and deliberately, is a psychological portrait of a man who effectively needs to need someone but seems to need no one, showing Oedipal yearnings and anxieties (a psychological trope I never find engaging, which is part of my problem with the film), and the women who love and understand him. As one might expect from PTA, his is a detailed, textured and ambiguous world, but in this case, one that comes across as a little long.

At home: Mudbound is adapted from a novel and feels, but that's not meant as a negative, merely that it manages to have novelistic élans, like poetic narration coming from several of the characters, sequences that jump from one cast of characters to another, and a scope that's a little longer, in terms of time, than most movies. The story examines race relations in post-WWII Mississippi through two symbiotically-linked families, one white, one black, and finds them intolerably difficult. In a state that is, thematically, stuck in the mud of the past, nothing can change, and even a progressive attitude will only lead to tragedy. At the very heart of the film are two war veterans, one from each family, something that bonds them beyond what skin color would permit, and while Mary J. Blige got an Oscar nomination for her supporting role, Jason Mitchell as Ronsel may well be the highlight for me. A heavy but honest film perhaps best exemplified by a the bitterest eulogy ever given in a film - it's worth getting to the end for it.

Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep is a convoluted blackmail story that wins us over not through its plot, but because it has memorable characters and sparkling dialog. It would quite naturally remind one of The Maltese Falcon, especially since Humphrey Bogart is the lead, but I find Bogart's Philip Marlowe more interesting and varied than his Sam Spade. For one thing, Marlowe is trapped between two femme fatales, one played by the electric Lauren Bacall (movie gossip fans: this is where the two of them had an affair, leading to a wedding 3 months later - chemistry level is indeed quite high), the other by Martha Vickers, a much more dangerous coquette, though a less sympathetic one. All the women in this are gorgeous and sultry, mind you, from the sexy book store clerk to the sassy taxi driver. That sexual mood heightens a lurid pulp atmosphere that also supports some fairly violent goings-on. One of the great, quotable private eye thrillers.


Sergei Eisenstein's birthday was this week, so it felt right to finally watch Battleship Potemkin (I'd seen The Strike in film history class at university), a surprisingly high-end production, with hundreds if not thousands of extras, use of actual battleships, and that famous, oft-quoted show-stopper on the Odessa Steps with the baby carriage rolling down. Set in 1905, this page of the Bolshevik Revolution presents a mutiny, as downtrodden mariners rebel against corrupt officers. Sympathy for their cause inspires a movement on dry land. Of course it's propaganda (ordered by Lenin himself on the 20th Anniversary of the Revolution), but it's Eisenstein, so it's regardless a masterclass in editing. How he cuts for action, building tension, and metaphor is incredible, and that comes hand in hand with the crafting of the shots themselves. Pretty brilliant cinematography as well. I didn't find it as shocking as The Strike, and the ending was a little limp as propaganda took over from story telling, but nevertheless, one of the greatest films of the silent era.

With Icarus, Bryan Fogel set out to do one of those "I am going to abuse myself on camera" documentaries, planning to go on a steroid regimen to boost his cycling power and see if he could cheat the anti-doping system like Lance Armstrong did. Through circumstance, he ends up befriending the Russian scientist at the heart of an Olympic scandal (one might say, THE Olympic scandal) and the documentary turns into a Cold War-type thriller where you really do fear for the people on screen. A surprising nail-biter that blows the lid wide open on Russia's cheating in international sports events (but certainly doesn't absolve athletes from other countries). You may not want to care about such things as the Olympics of FIFA after this, is all I'm saying.

To start, I do find it difficult to look at documentaries like Last Men in Aleppo with a critical eye, as a piece of film making, because it deals with real tragedy, and I don't want to trivialize it by treating it like an entertainment. It uses no talking heads, no voice-over, and very little onscreen text. Its only real artifice is editing. We follow a group of "White Helmets" in Syria's besieged city of Aleppo, more or less documenting themselves, in the raw, spending their days digging bodies out of the rubble as the Assad regime's bombs continue to fall from the sky. It is a chronicle of people doomed by circumstance, knowing full well they are unlikely to survive for long, and yet finding simple pleasures where they can. The people we follow are for more the most part engaging and charismatic, and you might for a minute forget this isn't written drama because of it. But make no mistake, this is real, and fair warning, the film contains disturbing images. It's hard to watch, and it has to be. It's a damn humanitarian disaster. You have to feel something for these men, these families, these kids, or else we've failed as a species.

Strong Island definitely falls into the category of documentaries I call "Passionate Eye", because while it seeks answers about the death of a young black man in the early 1990s and how the justice system failed to even bring his killer to trial, it can be better understood as a journal (indeed, it uses the victim's own at times) or memoir. The victim was the film maker's brother, and Yance Ford gives ample context - something often missing from news stories of this type - to craft what should be the last word on his brother, show where he came from and where he was heading, and explore the impact on his family. Regardless, Ford is very honest with the investigation and, rather shockingly, with himself. Strong Island creates a touching portrait of a wrongful death, extending back to the victim's origins and forward to the ends of the shadow he cast. Unlike a traditional documentary, it is incredibly personal, but we do need to stop looking at such cases as statistics, and rather as real people.

In 2008, when the banks crashed the housing market, none of them were prosecuted - indeed, they were bailed out by the government instead - except one, a small family-owned bank called Abacus in Chinatown. The documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail explores the case, standing firmly with the Sung family and making the point that they were easy prey for a D.A. who wanted to make an example of them, more or less as a consolation prize in the whole mortgage crisis. Good build-up and suspense from Steve James (famous for Hoop Dreams), who makes bank loans somewhat exciting, and clarifies what could have been a confusing yarn. In addition, it's a good Chinese immigrant story, with a focus on that community and how its unique qualities sort of led to the bank's crisis.

I don't normally review shorts, but I liked the Oscar-nominated documentary short Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 enough that it warranted it. This 40-minute piece, available on YouTube (that's rare for Oscar contenders), is a portrait of Mindy Alper, a 56-year-old mentally ill artist whose tortured work is quite interesting in its own right, and also saved her from suicide or life-long institutionalization. In her late 20s, she became non-verbal, and her regaining that capacity has left her with a strange English dialect I found quite magical. While her story is both sad and hopeful, it was this that gave the film its mesmeric quality, a film that creates sympathy for its subject. It's hard not to want to hug this lady at the end of it.

Doctor Who Titles: Is Chadwick Boseman making a career of playing black icons? There's Black Panther, of course, and he played Thurgood Marshall last year, and James Brown in 2014. Before all that, he was Jackie Robinson in 42, a competent biopic of the baseball legend's early career. It's good, but doesn't transcend the genre, presentational as a biography, and playing into the usual sports and injustice tropes you'd expect (but because they happened). It's Boseman that makes this a movie to recommend. He has such natural charisma, he's never not watchable. Harrison Ford gives a good performance as the team owner who brought him up to the big leagues, not at all his usual screen persona.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 11th Doctor and Clara go to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play and stop an alien invasion in the background with the help of a guy who's really good at hitting balls and stealing bases.

Oscar Pool Stash Forced Watch: One of my favorite genres puts a famous author in a story that has all the hallmarks of their writing. Often, the film will suggest that's how they got their ideas. That's not the case with The Raven, which purports to show a fictionalized version of Edgar Alan Poe's last days. Instead, John Cusack's Poe is recruited by the police (Luke Evans) to help find and stop a serial killer who is using Poe's stories as templates for his depraved crimes. Don't go looking for a biopic or an adaptation of the famous title poem, this is meant to be a fun (if at times grisly) "Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes" detective story. At times, the editing fails the script and things don't join up as well as they should (a capital sin for a mystery story), but overall, I was entertained. The DVD includes a fair director's commentary.
#OscarPoolResult: I'm a sucker for this type of thing, so I will be keeping it.


Some more MST3K movies (classic and new series), regardless of comedy commentary... Space Mutiny is the shoddiest thing ever, from the terrible acting and confused plot, to the obsession with 80s computer graphics and fx shots stolen from Battlestar Galactica(!). Given the title spawned a humorous role-playing game, I had hopes, but they were dashed; this is a deathly dull, woodenly-acted UFO drama with shoddy giant lobster effects. Don't believe the Masters of the Universe cash-in poster, Wizards of the Lost Kingdom is a confused sword and sorcery flick padded with sequences from similar movies about a boy wizard who must - eVENtually - defeat an evil sorcerer, with the help of a sports mascot and a badly cast barbarian - enjoyable only as silly nonsense. Wait, it has a SEQUEL? Wizards II has nothing to do with the first movie, only that it is the same kind of stupid fantasy mishmash, but it's better by virtue of not taking itself at all seriously and its glorified David Carradine cameo, despite an awkward teenage boy in the lead who makes Doctor Who's Adric natural by comparison. A movie like The Giant Gila Monster shouldn't be that talky, but its haphazard 50s teen plot drones on and on, only intermittently intercut with shots of a Normal-Sized Gila Monster doing not very much at all. And Carnival Magic is terrible, padded carniesploitation about a (barely) talking ape and internecine fighting at a carnival populated by bad actors (the chimp being the best of them).

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

PUNT SPEEDCHUNK!

I can't play hide-and-seek any longer, because all a person has to do is say "SLAB BULKHEAD!" and I can't help but respond with more names.

Siskoid said...

BRIK PULLGROIN!

Anonymous said...

FIST ROCKGROIN! ... dammit, you've got me doing it now.

There was an actual Cleveland newscaster named JUDD HAMBRICK.

Siskoid said...

GRAM KILLBUTT!

Null and Void said...

BIG MCLARGE-HUGE!

A terrible Terrible movie, but one of my favorite MST3Ks.... replete with railing kills.

And moving from that to The Big Sleep, I love the movie, though it is not without its flaws... (who DID kill the chauffeur and why? Even Raymond Chandler admitted he didn't know and he wrote the screenplay.) I am amazed that some of the dialogue managed to make it past the sensors.

Siskoid said...

Well he wrote the short story, but the screenplay is credited to a couple powerhouses: William Faulkner(!) and Leigh Brackett. And that steamy dialog was added later once the movie started shooting to capitalize on Becall being in an equally steamy movie or something.

also

BUTCH MCPECS!

Anonymous said...

Here's trivia: FLINT IRONSTAG and the World's Oldest Daughter have been married since 1979. I don't care a whole lot about the Kardassians, but I adore my Reb Brown / Cisse Cameron couples.

A while ago, I was posting as "Splint Chesthair" elsewhere on the Internet, and once I found myself arguing with "Captain America". I attempted to insult him by calling him a Reb Brown character; nobody got it. Things like that break my heart.

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