This Week in Geek (11-17/06/18)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Hereditary is, on one level, about the things we fear we may pass on to our children, and the film amply plays into that, whether it's presenting allergies, birth defects, or mental illness. What is actually going on in this horror film would be getting into spoilers, especially considering that it changes its skin every so often. Part of the enjoyment is having one's expectations confounded. What I will say is that it's a very well made film, and an intelligent one. It manages jump scares not through dissonant chords and smash cuts, but with mood and the innocuous things the audience connects to the events. It lets your eye roam and find the scare. Watch the topics covered in the teenager's classroom, because they're essentially the titles of each act. The film's recursive qualities, mostly achieved through the dioramas Toni Collette's brilliantly-portrayed character makes (which also ties into a theme of manipulation/puppetry), enhance the creep factor and bring an existential dread to the proceedings. Is our course predetermined by our genes/family history? It's a sound basis for psychological horror when you think about. A second viewing would probably yield more interesting elements laid in, including a completely different interpretation of literal events that may well hold up to scrutiny. The actual ending left me a little cold, I'll admit, but movies like this often do. I like them (The VVitch and The Kill List are the examples that come to mind), but intellectually.

At home: Fritz Lang's M is a masterpiece of suspense, an obvious inspiration to countless films from Le Cercle Rouge to Hitchcock's oeuvre. And yet it still surprises. Peter Lorry is intense and magnetic as a child killer holding a city hostage with fear. The police can't even begin to find a lead, and their many raids cause the criminal underground to start their own search. At first, the paranoia comes from our fearing for the children, in the back half, feeling Lorry's own. Perhaps the most striking thing about M is its complete lack of score. Any music you hear is diagetic and voices only. Kids singing, the murderer (and others, just to make us on edge) whistling. The deep, unnatural silences at times made me wonder if the audio had been lost, but these were precursors to some surprise, or ways to isolate characters. On purpose, and thus admirably brave, but I'm not entirely sure it always worked on first viewing. Somewhat distracting. However, I can't deny it created a disquieting atmosphere, and probably heightened the paranoia. The sound design holds other tricks, like overlapping conversations between cops and robbers, but of course, the visuals are also very strong, as can be expected of a master of silent cinema. And the story works as a procedural mystery, so it's not all cinema-theory bells and (heh) whistles.

Perhaps the most important shot in the film version of Dear White People is Sam filming towards camera, as if to capture its audience's reaction. Whether black or white, the subject matter is uncomfortable. Before going on, let me say that I'm a big fan of the television series that spun out of the film. It's hard not to compare, and in the comparison, the show is the better version, giving depth to more characters, and more consistency to the story telling. The show can illustrate its points, while the film has to sometimes settle for demagoguery. And having seen the show first, a lot of the plot points are spoiled, though the film does do other things with Coco, for example. But even some of the dialog is the same (and a few actors too). Where they've recast, I think the show probably comes out ahead (give or take Dennis Haysbert as the dean), or perhaps it's just allowed to make its characters more sympathetic through time and attention. The characters are perhaps a bit too aloof in the film. But does it hold up regardless? Yes, I think so. Some have said it was too focused on its message, but the message is a timely one, and film can play a role in activism. Besides, I reject that it's only about that. These characters are conflicted and not all coming from the same place, nor going in the same direction. It's acerbically funny at times, and real in its way. If it has a weakness, it's that it starts a conversation it doesn't have time to finish. And so thank you Justin Simien for taking your exploration to series.

Even if Ang Lee weren't a great film maker (and he is), his adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility would have triumphed just on the casting. Kate Winslet, Gemma Jones, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Imogen Stubbs, the perfectly sour Harriet Walter, even the small roles afforded Tom Wilkinson, Imelda Staunton and Hugh Lorie... But it's Emma Thompson who's meant to take and break your earth as Elinor Dashwood, a pragmatic but disappointed Austen heroine surrounded by melodrama, who has to parcel out for herself whether one should pursue love or practicality when it comes to marriage. Her character is as restrained as Winslet's is emotional, even if both are tragic, and it's how much she bottles up inside that makes us crave for a release. Lee and his impeccable ensemble manage to get to the core of Austen's tragi-comical writing, making the dated melodrama simply a background to the exploration of women's limited options in the 19th Century, and sadly, beyond. There are enough characters here given heft to create a large, textured portrait.

Wonderstruck is a beautiful film about two deaf kids who, 50 years apart, run away to New York to find a absent parent. Their fates are intertwined through a Cabinet of Wonders exhibition at the Museum of Natural History, and the editing between the two stories has real motive power. The trick, is that director Todd Haynes gives each era its own look and feel. In 1927, Millicent Simmonds (A Quiet Place) is in a black and white, silent film. Not as extreme (no pancake make-up or cue cards), but her world is composed of beautiful cinematography and score. In 1977, the only recently deafened Ben (Oakes Fegley from Pete's Dragon) lives in a world where we do hear other people talk, but are sometimes plunged into a strange tinnitus; his world is in the 70s idiom, yellowed film and soundtrack. Both young actors are very effective, Simmonds especially, and we're sorry to see her go when the past catches up to the present. There's also a third style in here, a flashback told in diorama, which is one of the visual themes of the movie. Again, just beautiful, but you might wonder if it all fits together. I happen to think it does. The film, like its visits to the museum, acts as a visit through different exhibits, each holding its own particular fascination. I was, indeed, struck with wonder.

Michael Mann is an American director who works in the Honk Kong idium - he's learned that energy can often triumph over a weak or formulaic story. It worked for Blackhat, but not, I fear, for Miami Vice. Crockett and Tubbs get involved with a drug cartel in their feature film return, and though Jamie Foxx is fine in the later part, Colin Farrell walks around with a distracting blond mullet and has scarcely any chemistry with bad girl Gong Li so we never really believe their romance. But then, the characters are so thinly drawn, it's hard to care for anyone (Naomie Harris may be the exception). Mann throws in gratuitous sex scenes as if he were evoking the 1980s when Miami Vice was on TV, but little else does. It perhaps doesn't help that I never saw more than a couple of episodes of Vice back in the day, but I'm not sure it matters. The film is a fair crime picture, with a lot of macho posturing and cool camera work/lighting. But no more than that. I was weighing whether or not to bail out after the first 25 minutes. And if I had worked on this movie, I think I'd be pissed at Mann for rendering the credits in an illegible ultraviolet font.

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon is the first prequel to Tsui Hark's first Detective Dee film (based on the books based on the folk tales based on a real Tang Dynasty constable), trading mega-star Andy Lau for the younger and far less memorable Mark Chao, but he's not bad in the role, by any means. What really hampers this otherwise fun romp (I mean, it's wuxia Sherlock Holmes with a big dollop of kaiju, it's in fact, QUITE fun) is the director, not for the first time, being too ambitious given his effects budget. The CG is prevalent and often unsuccessful. It's not just 3D matte paintings and giant monsters, he uses it to show Dee's observational powers, to make the action more super-heroic, and sometimes just to create fun transitions between scenes. Director Tsui doesn't know when to quit while he's ahead, so he prolongs a joke well into the credits sequence and stretches his cgi budget well beyond what it can effectively do. But once you accept the style and go with it, Rise of the Sea Dragon has lots of stuff you haven't seen before. It's splashy, it's funny, it's exciting, it's weird. Its energy might just make you forgive its flaws.

Books: Decades ago, I abandoned Piers Anthony as a writer, having outgrown fantasy in general, and his books in particular. While I'd devoured many of his series as a teenager, all but two of his Incarnations of Immortality books remained on the shelf. So as a nostalgic exercise, I slid With a Tangled Skein out of its slot and read it. In Incarnations, Anthony imagines what it would be like to actually be Death, Time, and here, the three faces of Fate, doing their work, but also facing off against Satan's schemes. My long-held opinion of the writer did not change. The ideas are clever, but he's no stylist (by his own admittance). There's lot of tedious redundancy in the prose, and the plots are picaresque (I was dismayed to find the climax was essentially a dungeon crawl). Most damning is his portrayal of sexual politics, only slightly alleviated by the time frame the characters come from. The way men and women interact is old-fashioned, and the protagonist seems to be fated (I get that it's thematic) to sleep with men she doesn't love. There are no less than four attempted rapes in the story, and while the story notes at the end point to a news item that no doubt inspired it, none of them feel necessary, so leave you with a sick feeling, especially given the repetition. Strangely, I would have read more about the characters as they were before Fate intervened, so I thought we were off to a good start. Still fairly enjoyable as an adventure story spanning several decades, but may strain the patience of some readers.

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