This Week in Geek (11-17/03/19)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: In some ways, Captain Marvel is just another building block in the MCU saga that's leading to Endgame, and so despite its 90s musical vibes and tech (that's when I was a young man, so it all spoke to me), it is of a piece with the rest - some aspirational drama, some comedy, some tension, some action (not always as clear as I'd like it), links to the bigger arc, references for comic book fans, cool effects wizardry, plus in this case a cute kitty. Marvel formula or not, it still defies expectations with twists I wasn't expecting (perhaps created with comic book academics in mind). But what puts Captain Marvel over the top for me is that while it is a story about a woman coming into her own power, topical sexism is only an undercurrent. For the character, it's not about gender norms, but about being a (faulty) human in Kree society (but we know what the movie is really/also saying). Brie Larson is a more subtle actress than most in this kind of fare, coming off as quietly confident and easy to like, never using words when a facial expression will do. The movie is only weakened by having her turn into a CG avatar in the space battles because she eats up the screen otherwise.

At home: Obviously, my comic nerd background drew me to Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a biopic about comics' most eccentric creators (now where's my Jim Steranko spy thriller?!), and a surprisingly touching LGBTQ+ love story. Many would consider a polyamorous relationship shocking even today even if the women's bisexuality is better accepted than it was in the 20s, 30s and 40s of the film, and yet, despite the kinky content that inspired a lot of incidents in the Golden Age Wonder Woman stories, I was consistently sold on the relationship as something perfectly natural however outside my own experience. There's kink, but real love. I'm sure the film makes ahistorical links between the Marstons' lives and Wonder Woman's tropes, but they also seemed pretty natural and unforced. My only real beef is with the framing sequence with the lady from the Catholic League or whatever it is investigating the possibility of banning Wonder Woman. While useful to bring it all together, some of her questions could be answered with "look lady, 90% of all superheroes have this trope", but instead they make it seem like Wonder Woman is unique in every conceivable way. A minor problem in an otherwise effective piece.

Joseph Kahn's Detention was all kinds of fun, so I was excited for Bodied which is ALSO all kinds of fun. But this satire of race relations is all kinds of uncomfortable as well - a feature and not a bug, in my opinion. Essentially, it is a gangsta fight movie set in the world of battle rap, with the whitest ever person taking an academic interest and ending up battle rapping himself. The battles are clever and varied and you get to know and care for a lot of the rappers, but the film doesn't shy away from tackling how problematic a lot of rap lyrics are, and though it's all fun and games, it knows that fun is compromised and compromising. At the same time, it totally takes down the protagonist's absurd academic culture and its ability to standoffishly process white guilt and at the same time, justify racism and cultural appropriation. A deceptively complex treatise on majority/minority dynamics that keeps doubling back on itself and making you feel uncertain about your own enjoyment of it, and yet reveling in its role as a piece of entertainment. This one leaves a mark. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

A spiritual precursor to Hamilton, 1776 is the musical about the signing of the American Declaration of Independence, if you can imagine such a thing. Well why not? One of the things that gives the U.S.A. its potent allure both within its borders and abroad is how well the nation's birth was mythologized. The film plays into those myths, but also pokes fun at it, being a bit more ribald than one expects from the strictly 60s look of it (it was old-fashioned for 1972, not a problem out of its original context). Now, it sometimes goes too long without a song, usually because of drawn out Congress scenes, but the music is replaced by wit, vim and vigor, and I couldn't help liking the way the Founding Fathers (and their political opponents) were portrayed. The story is also punctuated using the lovely (and mythologically famous) relationship between John and Abigail Adams. An amusing but also rousing interpretation of the legend, if not the strict historical fact, of America's beginnings.

The Agony and the Ecstasy starts with a very formal 15-minute documentary on Michelangelo's sculpture, which stands as herald of what follows. It's not EXACTLY like watching paint dry, but the point of the film is really to show the artistic achievement that is the Sistine Chapel, especially considering its artist was a sculptor and not a painter. It's not even something he wanted to do, until he became obsessed with it. And it was ordered by a pope, who was really more of a warrior. The two unusual men clash, often entertainingly, through the performances of Rex Harrison as Giulio II and Charlton Heston as the artist, neither particularly pious when it comes right down to it despite their devotion to the Church. The ironies are palpable in concept, but the telling is a little too dry to really make them pop on screen. And so the film feels a little long, a short epic (with intermission) in need of a trim, and bizarrely straightwashed, when Michelangelo's sexuality might much more easily have been completely ignored.

The Defiant Ones are Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier (in his first above-the-title credit), playing escaped criminals chained together, on the run from the authorities in rural Southern U.S. As a straight-up fugitive movie, while I've since seen the "chained together" trope, I don't remember seeing it so well realized. The actors do a fair bit of their stunts, and the journey looks really difficult and dangerous in their situation. Things are further complicated by racism, Curtis and Poitier bristling with anger and resentment at being stuck to the other. If you want to see a metaphor for America in this, you certainly can. Curtis is a bootstraps kind of guy - white conservative America - who hates being saddled with a black man who "doesn't know his place" - the civil rights movement that, in 1958, was on the rise. The film dips in the third act with the introduction of a woman entirely too keen to get with Curtis - her motivations are murky and her character detestable - but it's not much of a dip. And you can count on cutaways to the police force for light comic relief and relieve the tension (comic, but never incompetent, just real, and that's a subtle high wire act).

William Wyler's 1936 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' Dodsworth is a rather adult story of what happens when a married couple reaches the point where they are retired and their kids are all grown up, but I'm not sure it's an entirely balanced one. The author seems to side with Mr. Dodsworth, painting the Mrs. as a vain society snob, selfishly cruel in a way that makes it hard for me to fathom why all the men fall at her feet. Mr. Dodsworth's faults contribute to the marriage's decay, but seem benign in comparison. Or at least, more subtle. He's a bit dull, entirely unafraid of domesticity, all of which is a turn-off for a wife afraid to grow older. Had Mrs. Dodsworth been less of a jerk, Wyler might have gotten away with making her a tragic figure, and I think the audience might have come out of it more fairly divided (according to each person's experience). But she's clearly the villain, and deserves her lumps, and that perhaps robs the piece of that extra layer of emotional complexity it otherwise seems to be driving at.

Rabid is an early David Cronenberg horror flick and consequently squishy from early on, but it's not entirely successful. It feels a little choppy, our movement from sequence to sequence not always clear. And it has some terribly wooden acting, though adult film star Marilyn Chambers is watchable enough despite her limited range as the Typhoid Mary causing a zombie apocalypse in wet rural Quebec and in Montreal. The sense of place is kind of off and on, and it certainly doesn't capture the linguistic landscape, though locals might find an echo of the martial law imposed earlier in the decade during the FLQ threat. There are some good bits, but a lot of waiting around for them, and like a garden-variety X-Files episode (don't tell me Chris Carter and his team didn't see Rabid), don't expect any real explanation. I read the Soska Sisters are releasing a remake of Rabid this year, and I'm sure they'll do it justice. They can probably tighten the focus on the odd vampiric hug-rape stuff and its relationship to male fear of female sexual empowerment (surely why Chambers was cast, right?).

With Je t'aime, je t'aime, Alain Resnais uses the literal conceit of time travel to motivate his exploration of a doomed relationship, one that has apparently led the protagonist to a suicide attempt. The time machine is a weird psycho-symbolic chamber that allows him to quantum leap into moments of his past, obviously guided by his frame of mind, but he is incapable of ever changing anything. It's memory as time travel, and leaving the dry formalism of the science-fiction thriller behind, Resnais makes his story unfold like a Proustian novel, forcing his lead and his audience to skip from moment to moment, repeating some, aborting others, and generally teasing the mystery of just what happened bit by bit until... Well, that's a little ambiguous. Is Claude whipping himself towards another suicide attempt, drowning in his own guilt, or truly looking for an exit to shock himself back to the present? That might be up to you. An influential editing tour de force.

Set time machine to mid-20th-Century France. Keywords: Head trips. WARNING WARNING CAPSULE HEADING OFF COURSE TO ALTERNATE TIMELINE!

Boy, do I hate Jean-Luc Godard. I can appreciate his fearless experimentalism, but generally find the results amateurish-looking, thematically or tonally incoherent, and more than a little pretentious. Alphaville isn't as bad as some, i.e. I didn't bail after the first act, but it still annoyed the heck out of me. It's a film noir set in a future that looks exactly like the present, where continents are referred to as galaxies, but the Cold War wasn't too long ago. In Alphaville, emotions have been outlawed and a computer runs things. Maybe love is the way out of this Orwellian nightmare, but the lead is even less emotional than the natives, so I don't know. While there are some exciting pieces of film making - the lean and mean gun fights, for example - the sound design is horrendous. The "tan-tan-tannnn" suspense music turns the film into a parody (it doesn't help that characters have names like Heckle and Jeckle), but not in any way a funny one. The computer voice sounds wet and phlegmy, which is repulsive and bizarre. And generally, the environments are full of echo and voices get a little lost. And as usual with Godard, characters have a tendency to spout poetry and philosophy with Brechtian apathy. Alphaville shows up in a lot of later film's DNA - Godard's films are a gold mine for young directors looking for cool ideas - but I don't think the ideas come together very well. Anyone who poaches elements from Godard stands a good chance of using them better than he did.

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