This Week in Geek (7-13/05/18)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Jason Reitman, Diablo Cody and Charlize Theron team up again for Tully, the last part of a "growing up" trilogy along with Juno and Young Adult(?), one of the most piercing and truthful portrayals of modern motherhood I've ever seen in cinema. The grind. The fatigue. The boredom. The isolation. Things we don't really think about or even talk about, maybe (going by conversations with friends who are young mothers), and Theron's character certainly has a lot on her plate - a son who may be on the spectrum, a daughter just coming into her own, post-partem depression regarding the new baby, and a husband who may not be as helpful as he needs to be. Throw in a mid-life crisis while you're at it. I especially love how she has the Cody smartass humor, but it's not cute anymore; it cuts her off from others. And then there's Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a night nanny whose free spirit acts as a healing influence on Theron and her family. For a good while there, I thought the film was going to eschew formula entirely, so I was a little sore at the third act reveal, something perhaps ruined by having seen so many other films. And yet, there's a twist on the formula that earns it. At the very least, there are two exciting uses of montage that I wouldn't part with.

Not gonna lie, Julius Caesar is not my favorite Shakespeare play. It is structurally flawed, and can sometimes feel stuffy, quotable though it is. That was my feeling after studying it and seeing the BBC and Marlon Brando productions. Just saw the National Theatre Live version directed by Nicholas Hytner, and it was a revelation. I've never been this emotionally involved. The production goes for modern dress, in an immersive hanger-like space where the audience acts as Roman citizens and takes part in what starts as political rally (with a rock band pre-show) and eventually turns into a smoky civil war (always the weakest part of the play). In that refreshed context, we see how the play is still incredibly actual in this era of fake news, pundits and ruthless politics. Are the Romans any more easily swayed by rhetoric that we ourselves are? Full props for casting women in men's roles too, as the play has very little to do for actresses. Michelle Fairley has the strength of character to play Cassius, and Adjoa Andoh is very funny as the near-sociopathic Casca. And while David Calder and David Morrisey are good as, respectively, Caesar and Marc Anthony, the play really belongs to Ben Whishaw as the thoughtful Brutus. So infectious and energetic, I really wish I'd been there in the flesh.

At home: Mary and the Witch's Flower has the high standard of animation you'd expect from Ghibli alumni and starts with a truly surreal sequence, but it soon settles down. Perhaps too much. The story of a young girl filled with insecurities but soon to come into her own thanks to a witchy adventure isn't new - not to Ghiblians certainly - and neither is the school of magic (Harry Potter), the twin cat familiars (Sailor Moon), or the nightmare fuel finale (which reminded me of Akira). But the remix isn't unpleasant, and there are some real flights of fancy in the design. I would say this is pitched at a younger audience - the psychologies are definitely more simply drawn - but that it contains intense and disturbing imagery younger kids may find frightening, a fact mitigated by how benign the plot turns out to be, with resolutions to sooth the most sensitive souls. Perfectly fine, with some lovely cat action and a strong look, but perhaps pales in comparison to the films it tries to imitate.

Watched the first season of Salvation, a show about a giant asteroid set to hit Earth in 6 months, and the efforts of a billionaire inventor in an uneasy partnership with the U.S. government to stop it, or else leave the planet with just enough people to salvage the human race. I love me a good scientific thriller, where things go wrong and solutions must be found (Apollo 13 stuff, you know), though in this case, at least half the impediments are caused by bureaucratic red tape, budget problems, and because it's modern-day television, conspiracies. That's less interesting, especially when you consider that the fate of the planet is at stake. Reminds me of 24 (for both good and ill), except the ticking clock is a lot slower. It DOES make me wonder where they expect to take the show in the long run. Do they ever save the day? Does it become a terraforming/colonizing story at some point? I'm intrigued enough to stick with it despite its formulaic television tics.

After chugging through the old Gamera films, I feared the 1995 reboot would be more of the same, only with updated (but just as cheesy) effects. Gamera: Guardian of the Universe is, however, something of a triumph for Godzilla's bargain-basement competitor. Yes, there is cheesy 90s CG at times (and bad slow-mo), but the practical effects are quite good. Generally strong use of miniatures, more textured monster costumes/puppets (which kind of makes them gorier), and the giant action is so well shot Toho poached the director to reboot the Godzilla franchise. Oh and look! They've done away with the screaming kids that populated the movies of the Showa era! Instead, Gamera bonds with a teenage girl through the help of Antediluvian technology, and I guess this cast of heroes returns in the next films, which I think is a good idea. I don't particularly think we need an explanation for why kaiju like Gamera and Gyaos exist, but the explanation is different from the Godzilla mythos, so it's interesting. It took a long time, but we finally got a properly good Gamera film.

The Quatermass Xperiment adapts the Quatermass tele-play for the movie screen and might just make me wish I were watching the original instead (only two episodes were recorded, the rest broadcast live and lost). Not that it doesn't have some very interesting body horror effects for its day (or any day), but its procedural style isn't helped by Brian Donlevy's plain, workmanlike performance (I'm not gonna hold his American citizenship against him, even if I don't see why a Brit couldn't have played a quintessential British hero, but the performance is just so ordinary). For Doctor Who fans, of course, this is important viewing. Quatermass and its success for the BBC paved the way for the long-running program, or at least served as powerful inspiration once the show started doing science fiction-horror. Xperiment's plot, about a space virus that converts human flesh to alien and threatens to spread all over the world until a meddling scientist-adventurer finds a common cure, became the template for many a Doctor Who story. That story, told for the second time, still packs a horror punch, but is kind of dull as a drama.

Made 20 years after Hammer's first try at bringing Quatermass to the screen, Quatermass and the Pit is a lot better than the 1955 Xperiment, and that's due to a number of factors: Andrew Keir is a better Quatermass than Brian Donlevy was, giving a more textured and sympathetic performance; the cerebral philosophy of the original teleplay is retained; and if you're a Doctor Who fan, it's pretty much a UNIT story! Written long before even if made into a feature AFTER Pertwee's tenure as the Doctor, its existential Lovecraftian story has Barbara Shelley as Liz Shaw, Julian Glover as an obstructionist Brigadier, and even Bryan Marshall as Sgt. Benton. It's got mind control, aliens that were here before we were and manipulated human evolution, Quatermass dealing with foolish bureaucrats, and a giant ghostly monster like in The Daemons. All you need is a Master-type to ally with the baddies and you get the perfect UNIT template. Even if it weren't like a "lost UNIT story", it's cracking good horror sf, smart and exciting. Hammer Studios really knew what they were doing by that point.

Doctor Who Titles: Hell Bent is an indie Canadian film made with mostly non-actors in the suburbs of Winnipeg. It starts as slice of life material, following three disaffected youths who have nothing to do except cause trouble, trouble that escalates as the film goes on. I guarantee you will want to slap one or more of these kids within the first few minutes, then the next, then the next, up through to the end. Don't watch this expecting to like them, but as a warning about youthful insatisfaction in places where boredom reigns. The kids are played by young teens, lending truth to the situation even when the acting (or what's being done to tourism in Manitoba) isn't great.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 7th Doctor, Ace and Bernice find themselves in suburban Canada and - in the background - discover an alien influence that's making young people grow angry and violent.

Cliff Robertson directs and plays the titular character in The Pilot (adapted from the novel by the same name), about an airline pilot with a drinking problem. If he were bad at his job, he'd have been fired already, but he's actually really good... except his faculties are starting to fail. This is a quiet piece that shines best when it's an airline procedural. We get to see what happens in the cockpit, how decisions are made, why there are delays and detours and so on. All very authentic-looking and interesting. The alcoholism element is well treated as well and avoids melodrama. The private life of the pilot is where the film sags. Though I don't begrudge Robertson wanting to explore the character's psychology and relationships, these only have a surface effect on the story (at best!), and could have been jettisoned to focus more on his professional life.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... and on a plane! The 4th Doctor, Romana and Adric just hit turbulence of their own making!

Books: After our Middle-Earth marathon, I endeavored to read Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, maybe before the year is out, we'll see. One down! I still find his writing heavy-going - the dialog is particularly unnaturalistic - but in The Hobbit, it can be amusing, the narrator (himself) obviously a story-teller rather than some omniscient and colorless voice. While I did read it as a 10-year-old, this time I was more interested in noting the differences between the Peter Jackson films and the original material. Sure, the movies were bloated with sometimes unnecessary action, but still improved on the story in some ways. Bard, for example, doesn't come out of nowhere. The dwarves are more clearly defined. They contracted some elements so that there's less of a back and forth (Tolkien has his heroes leave places then return to them, I don't know why). Clues to what they expanded in the film are there, sometimes in a single line, but it's like finding a little bit of treasure in the text. Ultimately, I'm not sorry I'm doing this, though I'm taking my time with it.

In The Last Days of New Paris, China Miéville creates a war-time Paris cut off from the world after a Surrealism blast that brings to life the movement's literary works and art, as strange topography/architecture, destructive exquisite corpses, or powerful quasi-mystical artifacts. In 1950, the war is still on inside the blast radius and the Nazis, normally in league with demons, are building an artistic secret weapon. Miéville has essentially taken the metaphor of art as rebellion/resistance and run with it, filtering Paris through the lens of surrealism and dadaism to craft a postapocalyptic landscape, as usual building a world bigger than the story it contains. I especially love the ending, which condemns the creative vacuity of fascism. In a way, taking absurdist art and turning it into a coherent adventure story is itself subversive, an act of rebellion that is somewhat anathema to what the surrealists were attempting, and that seems fair. A fun way to read it is to go to the notes at the back as they become relevant, and google the works referenced, as the imagery usually takes its cue from actual works of collage or oneiric art.

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