This Week in Geek (23-29/07/18)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Though of a piece with the previous film - and indeed , relating back to at least the MI3 - Mission Impossible Fallout is probably the best in the franchise since Ghost Protocol, and thus, of the entire series. It has everything I expect from this branch of M:I, i.e. great cons and heart-pumping stunt action, but also delivers a more personal story to the point where if this were the last movie, it would have provided excellent closure. The plot has more inter-agency machinations, with the crew getting interference from what should be allies, and creating impossible dilemmas for Ethan that must then be worked into the mission. The locations are extremely well used, which is a must for globe-trotting spy thrillers (I sometimes judge James Bond films entirely on that), utilizing their full potential and showing us things we haven't seen before. McQuarrie really gets it, and though this feels like an ending, it could also be a beginning. It'd be a shame if it were to stop here.

At home: I loved Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins, so I was up for another samurai film from the same director, but Blade of the Immortal is a manga adaptation, so the treatment is a little different. Mostly, it is extremely episodic, with the fast-healing hero - a cross between Rocky and Wolverine - facing one opponent after another while on a quest to avenge the death of a girl's father to whom he serves as bodyguard. It's not unlike Lone Wolf and Cub, but everything happens over 140 minutes as opposed to six films. It also shows its roots by committing one of my particular pet peeves, funky anime hair in live action. Be that as it may, the action standard is high, with lots of diversity, and it looks GREAT. So many "perfect shots" in this, never looking better than in the black and white prologue, which feels like you're watching some Kurosawa classic. It's Takashi Miike, so of course, it's blood-soaked, but the source material makes him avoid some of his trademark disturbia, at least, for the most part. It doesn't dislodge 13 Assassins from its promontory, but it's still a fine, and perfectly shot, entertainment.

Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle is the second part of a Toho anime trilogy, following a part 1 I didn't really like. It's better than the original because it dials down the unrelenting and pointless action of the first film, and introduces (or better develops) some intriguing elements. The ugly CG Godzilla isn't in it much, but allows for a different kind of dilemma - does winning matter if we lose our humanity, and how should that argument impact an ally alien race? Unfortunately, most of the film is people looking a screen graphics and delivering technobabble and sociobabble. There's some promise in the mention of other kaiju (and don't tell me the "buggy" twins don't evoke Mothra's fairies), but how will that promise be fulfilled in the third film when they waste MechaGozilla basically as a brand name in this one? I have an innate interest in Godzilla, so I HAVE to see these (it's not like I'm paying extra money, they're on the 'flix), but up to now, there's no one to really care about, whether we're talking about the humanoids or the monsters.

Anatomy of a Murder is an iconic courtroom drama - the poster inspired the Fiasco game's graphic design and Alan Moore's Anatomy Lesson in Swamp Thing, but for most people, it's Jimmy Stewart playing that simple country lawyer - that manages both a dissection of its characters and the event surrounding a murder AND ambiguity as to the verdict's validity. This it does by sticking to Stewart, and not confirming things he's not privy to. In 1959, this naturally shocked audiences, but while we're more used to frank sexual themes and the idea of rape, the film (which is based on a real case) still offers a treatment that is relevant today. Right-minded (that is to say, correct-minded) people know there's never a justification for rape, and yet, trials both legal and public still today re-violate the victim by calling out behavior and dress. I did not feel the tactics used in the film were any different than those used today, which is what remains upsetting today. Of course, how it relates to the murder case is tangential, and almost becomes a distraction. I was retrying it in my head, which the length and procedural pace certainly allow you to do (without ever feeling bored however). Good performances all around, with Stewart and the amusing judge played by Joseph N. Welch (a high profile lawyer, but not an actor, and yet) are the highlights. Lee Remick is properly enigmatic. George C. Scott is a slick shark as the prosecuting attorney, but perhaps a bit too overtly villainous. Jazz fans should check out the Duke Ellington score (and cameo), which supports Stewart's character flying by the seat of his pants during the entire case.

The Interview is a small 1998 Australian film starring Hugo Weaving before he was an international star, as a man grabbed from his home by the police and interviewed for a crime he may or may not have committed. On the one hand, there's a procedural element to this that makes the police station really live as behind the scenes, office politics run rampant and detectives feel the pressure to bring results. In the interview room, Weaving shines bright, and whether a regular Joe or a murderer, he's in a duel with these detectives. Because whether he did it or not (and the film moves from ambiguity to certainty and back again on this matter), the object lesson is that things have to be done correctly to get the perp, and the coppers may be their worst enemies. Well worth watching, even once you think they may have lost the plot, it's all part of the game the script is playing.

Chuck Norris vs. Communism is a Romanian documentary about how underground video tapes of American movies in the 80s might have helped bring down Ceaușescu's isolationist regime. Through commentary by both the people who watched these forbidden movies and those who dubbed and distributed them, we've privy to a completely different experience than our own. There's a sweet naiveté to the way these people experienced even schlock cinema, and I had a big smile on my face through most of the first act at discovering or rediscovering something I take for granted today. There's an element of the spy thriller in all this, with some close shaves for those closer to the source, but mostly, these are happy memories for the people interviewed... and for us. The point that watching Rambo or Pretty Woman might have helped a revolution along isn't hammered on - you can give it the weight you think it deserves - and sometimes you wish there were more investigative meat to it, but for film lovers, this is an obscure, but quite lovely chapter in the way film has been experienced, and changed lives.

Cinema Paradiso is a semi-autobiographical memoir of director Giuseppe Tornatore's youth, growing up in a small Italian town and befriending its sole projectionist. Ennio Morricone, far from his cowboy stuff, delivers a score as pretty as the images, less a plot than a series of anecdotes and impressions, couched in nostalgia. It's a love letter to the the movie-going experience, and what fascinated the director about celluloid, and if you feel a kinship with young Toto, you'll get it. I will say that the feeling of nostalgia did overwhelm the piece at times, and my innate skepticism did ring with alarm at the surely idealized memories, and I found my interest slightly waning once Toto was older (adolescent idealization feeling sappier than the child's). Still, that ending, oof. It's emotional, but also redolent with meaning. A love of cinema consummated. Stolen moments restored, as per the function of this memoir. More. As a collection of memories, the film might seem to meander, but it really did know where it was going.

If I have a problem with About Time, it's the time travel premise. On the one hand, I'm not sure it always works within its own rules. On the other, there is, at least early on, a creep factor to a man using his powers to essentially trick a woman into falling for him. Because I don't really need a high-concept gimmick to watch a Richard Curtis romcom. As usual, his characters are well drawn and witty. The cast, excellent, with Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams having consistent chemistry, while Bill Nighy, Lindsay Duncan, Tom Hollander, and Margot Robbie dependably bring up the rear (to name but the most recognizable names). And there isn't a WHOLE LOT of time travel once the relationship gets into gear. But I can forgive the premise because the film kind of agrees with me and abandons it in favor of stronger themes - cherishing memories but living in the present, and always, accepting life for what it is rather than second-guessing everything. I don't know that the movie is entirely consistent, but it's cute, it's warm, and its not-entirely-original life lesson taught better than usual.

Famously, Jonathan Demme did not get final cut on Swing Shift, and I would have hoped TCM was showing the later-released director's cut. Alas. I hear only good things about his original vision, but as shown, it's more interesting for what was happening behind the scenes than on. Producer Goldie Hawn fighting with the director, reducing Christine Lahti's role for being a scene stealer (she still got an Oscar nom, oops!), and of course the first inkling of a Goldie Hawn-Kurt Russell romance. Too bad. I mean, doing a movie about women during World War II is a worthy subject (and not dissimilar to Demme's Married to the Mob four years later), and you can sometimes see what he wanted to do with it when we see how this first female work force was treated. But his fast-moving structure, covering years and jumping through time, does not serve the straight romance Hawn wanted to make. Emotional turns seem to come out of nowhere as a result, the edit jumping over scenes crucial to that kind of story. It's not unpleasant, but every time it has something interesting to say, it swerves to avoid doing so.

There's only so far that melodrama can take me on an aesthetic journey. That's what Howards End taught me. Based on E.M. Forster's novel, it has finely crafted characters and witty dialog, and the acting is certainly up to snuff (you don't really have to twist my arm to watch Emma Thompson in anything), as is the cinematography. Set in the Edwardian era, on the cusp of a new society that denies the British Empire's strict class system, and signals the arrival of new industry, independent women, and the end of the great houses (fans of Downton Abbey take note, we're on similar ground here), everything in the film speaks of transition. I have problems with the editing, finding the jumps in time jarring in the sense that they seem to leap important character turns, and those unjustified fades to black in the middle of conversations. But it's the plot that lets the film (and I guess, the book) down. As its mechanics take over, the strong themes and portraiture of English society at the turn of the previous century seem to fall away. I still recommend it, as this is a particular literary pet peeve of mine, but nevertheless, there it is.

After The Sixth Sense, it seemed every movie needed a mind-blowing twist, and it became a joke to the point where it seemed people didn't care if they spoiled it for you. Nicole Kidman's haunted house mystery The Others suffered because of it, and 17 years later, I'm watching for the first time, but already knowing the answers. I have to wonder what I would have thought had I gone in fresh, since the movie does offer several twists that make you think of it differently (or would have) as the story proceeds. Stepping back from it, I think maybe the final reveal feels a little silly, but isn't unearned plot-wise, though ultimately, I'm not sure the rules of the haunting are consistent. Regardless, I give the film high marks for atmosphere. So high in fact the flaws don't really matter. The situation as presented is full of mystery, unsettling and macabre, while the script elliptically prepares you for the truth. If I HAD gone in with fresh eyes, I would probably have remarked that a second viewing was necessary to catch all the nuances. In my case, I got to enjoy them on the first.

Get ready to have your mind properly blown. In 1988, Bill Moyers sat down with mythology expert Joseph Campbell for a series of interviews edited into a 6-part PBS series on The Power of Myth. You can stream the series on Netflix with the introductions recorded for the 2012 DVD release. While not entirely ignorant of Campbell's interpretations of myth, I was perhaps unprepared for the eloquence and verve he brings to the subject, and though it'd be fair to say a couple episodes go a long way - the amount of insight may force you to take a break so you can process it all - I found myself wanting to binge-watch what is essentially just an extended conversation between two smart and prepared people, often challenging one another's thinking and beliefs. It's not all rote on either's part. Fascinating. The way Campbell talks about the spiritual experience quite often made me weepy, his taking to task religious literalists felt almost more relevant today than it was then. Do I agree with everything he says? No, but where I don't, Moyers comes to my rescue, daring to argue the point with a world authority. Powerful stuff, and I hope you'll allow your own beliefs be challenged by this. It's all about transformation, after all.

I don't normally watch stand-up comedy specials, and I don't know how Hannah Gadsby's Nanette fell on my radar, but I had an hour to kill and pushed the button. All I can say is that I was not ready. Now, I'm always interested in different perspectives (I'm using that word instead of opinions quite consciously), and a Tasmanian lesbian comic fits that bill. And still, I was not ready. What Gadsby does in the first act is disarm us. She's sweet, she's sympathetic, she's a good soul. And once we're disarmed, she turns her set into a drama. An intervention as much for her as for her audience. As for the world we live in. Touching. Powerful. And the great thing is, she tells us she's going to do this. She goes meta, she explains how her show works, and we still fall for it. All the more willingly. I laughed and I cried, I found it relatable without being able to claim I can know what she's really talking about. In my case, she preached to the converted, but I hope she converted some who were not already like-minded. The show breaks the rules of stand-up comedy, maybe even breaks the contract between comic and audience. But sometimes you need to break the rules. Ready or not, this is that time.

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