This Week in Geek (14-20/05/18)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: I Feel Pretty is getting a lot of grief and while it is by no means a perfect movie, I do not think the arguments against it hold much water. If you judge it by its premise, it is indeed cringy for Amy Schumer's character to think herself beautiful only because she's brain damaged. But I think you're supposed to cringe. Wrapping women's confidence up in the way they look may be an unpalatable ideal, but it IS a socially-reinforced REALITY. (Note also her love interest, whose insecurities come from a lack of virility, same thing, and the film goes farther in showing how even the beautiful people are taught to hate themselves for this or that.) The women I saw this with found it eminently relatable, and felt at odds with themselves when they noted one unattractive trait or other in Schumer's Renée, and had to dismiss it as "learned behavior". While I myself find Schumer, if not beautiful, charming as hell in this, but that only made her more sympathetic, and I'll admit to relating to the material as well. Who HASN'T had insecurities that under the microscope proved to be baseless or irrelevant? At its weakest, I Feel Pretty has the same mechanical plot as other high-concept romcoms (I'm reminded of 13 Going on 30 for some reason) and many have criticized the cosmetics company setting as a diffusion of anything the movie is trying to say (you're beautiful, but buy our make-up). I get it, but it also smacks of "there's only one kind of feminism" and there's nothing wrong with women (or anyone) translating their identities through clothes or make-up, and it would be naive to think that a confident Renée would throw the rouge brushes out the window. That's not our world, and it has nothing to do with the point of her story. There's a lot more subtext in this than people are willing to give it, no doubt because the final message is hit on the head so hard. But subtext there is. The conversation this movie has started alone is, I think, valuable in and of itself.

At home: Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer keeps you at a distance almost from the get-go, with oppressive camera work, grinding musique concrete, and performances purposefully devoid of emotion. Everything about it seems designed to make you apprehensive as you wonder what horrible truth lies beneath of its surface. ON the surface, this is an odd thriller about a heart surgeon who befriends the teenage son of a deceased patient, a relationship that will, through some kind of magical realism (look up the myth suggested by the title), give his family a strange illness. At one point, one character says "it's a metaphor", and it's true of the entire movie. Though re-contextualized as part of the film's plot, everything that happens has been cribbed from the symptoms of trauma - survivor's guilt, apathy, repression, walking on egg shells, not being able to get out of bed, worrying about one's health, self-harm, acting out sexually, loss of appetite, replacing the loved one rather desperately, tears, remodeling, showing up to the house with food, making excuses, playing the blame game, busy work, and so on, and so forth - or else is a symbol for it - lost mp3 players, watches that keep ticking deep underwater, open hearts and wounds... And while that's an interesting intellectual game, it does not lead to an emotional involvement, nor does the film's resolution feel all that satisfying. It isn't meant to. You swallow the heartache, and you move on, if not necessarily forward.

It is without shame that I report that I probably would never have watched The Crown if not for Matt Smith's presence. After all, a Whovian of my obsessive temperament must keep up with his Doctors post-Who. And wow is Prince Phillip a prick! I'm certainly not a royalist, but this sumptuous combination of Downton Abbey and The West Wing has a lot going for it. Some will like it for its tell-all qualities (who knew the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II was touched with so many scandals?), while others - of whose number I count myself - will better appreciate the political wrangling and brushes with world history. Great cinematography and subtle performances add to its appeal immensely. And it is well titled, as it's not only about the Queen, but about anyone bearing the weight of it along with her - her family, her prideful consort, her father and uncle who preceded her, her government, and the way the Monarchy has to change as the 20th Century unfolds at breakneck speed. Two seasons are currently available from Netflix, two more have been announced.

White Heat is an oft-quoted James Cagney classic, and I wish I could say I loved it more than I did. Make no mistake, Cagney's performance as a dangerous and irredeemable gangster should be required viewing, by far the best reason to see the film. As a crime picture, it doesn't seem to want to decide what subgenre it belongs to. It starts out as a train robbery movie, then it's an undercover cop movie and a prison movie. Then it's a about a heist, becomes a procedural manhunt story, but it ends with a "crime doesn't pay" action scene. Many strong elements are introduced that seemed to need more attention - the mother who is just as bad as her son, the assassination attempts in prison, the undercover cop getting caught in a lie - but don't as the film once again pivots. Throughout it all, you have Cagney lighting up the screen, legitimately turning it into a character portrait that makes you forget about plot and structure. But it's as if this character were too good for one film, and they tried to fit him into several at once.

1996's Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion brings back some of the cast from the previous film, but I do wish it had reintroduced them a little better (and I watched the two movies less than a week from one another!). That said, Gamera 2 surprisingly DOESN'T resurrect a monster from the Showa era, instead creating a three-tiered threat that gives the human cast more to do. "Legion" is a giant bug "queen" that makes use of smaller (the size of bull) drones, and a massive seed delivery organism to launch itself at other planets. There's lots to figure out and many different situations for Gamera itself to fight in (though I wish they'd made more of the snowy climes early in the film). The effects are good, the action quite violent at times (this isn't as kid-friendly as the original films to be sure, though the kaiju's bond with children is still evoked), and it actually has some shocking turns. As with the previous film, the cinematography on the kaiju stuff is superlative, though Legion's design is less than iconic, haphazard even. It could have done with a bit more color, I think, to make its different parts stand out. But it's certainly given me an interest in 90s-era kaiju films, something I have very little experience with.

Doctor Who Titles: Smile takes us behind the scenes at state-level teen beauty pageant, but while it's satirical, it doesn't need to do anything too extreme to get its points across. Indeed, if you told me every moment in here was anecdotally true, I'd believe it. It just lets the setting's innate absurdities and ironies speak for themselves. The vacuous interviews, the disinterested judges, the pointless sabotage, the organizers' self-importance... the documentary-style camera lends it all a smirking reality. At first, I thought the tangential subplot about local businessmen carrying on was surplus to requirements, but no, it plugs right into the film's ironies (the wholesomeness these adults ask of the young ladies) and themes (the empty feeling of pursuing purely superficial goals). A hidden gem from the 70s, possibly inspired by Altman's work.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 4th Doctor and Sarah Jane have to pull Harry away from a local beauty contest while investigating a hooded chicken cult.

While I've heard Thin Ice (AKA The Convincer) was butchered by the studio, that's the only version I can really discuss. And while it's not an unpleasant experience, it doesn't quite break through the eponymous ice. Greg Kinnear plays a dishonest insurance salesman and either it's karmic fallout season, or he's being conned. Here's the thing, I've seen too many of these types of movies NOT to know exactly what's going on, but it may work better on audiences less steeped in the genre. You can only cheat a dishonest man, grifters say, so to me it seemed obvious from the outset, and I kept wondering if this or that was the twist that would take this away from my expectations (but then it would have felt even more like a Fargo rip-off, especially given the Midwest setting). Alas. Not to say the performances aren't good, or the plot badly put together. It just falls a little flat for me.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 11th Doctor and the Ponds get involved in the search for the missing violin in a rare snowbound episode.

Books: Lawrence Block's Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, a Manual for Fiction Writers, was recommended to me by pro writer and podcast friend David Gallaher, and I thank him for it. Originally published as a series of columns in Writer's Digest, this collection of pithy essays about writing - as a profession, as a discipline, as a structure, as a craft, as a bloody CALLING - are as entertaining as they are useful, filled with personal anecdotes, well-chosen examples, tricks of the trade, and humor. This isn't a technical manual, or a "for Dummies", but an inspirational, "find your own way and yet, watch out for these pitfalls" manifesto. Just the kind of kick in the butt THIS writer needed at this juncture (and thankfully, Block's techniques aren't too far from mine, at least on the discipline side of things). It's just that I've been far more productive with my non-fiction (this here blog included) than my fiction. Time to remedy that.

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