This Week in Geek (25-31/03/19)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: There is a LOT going on in Us, much of it impossible to unpack if I want to keep spoilers to a minimum. At first, I thought Jordan Peele was going back to Get Out's intent, using the African-American experience to motivate horror tropes. The trailers claiming that we are our worst enemy, and the family's doubles dressed in orange prison jumpsuits set the tone for a play on "who we are vs. who racists think we are". In the imagery - which is replete with "doubling" motifs - there's something very much like Childish Gambino's "This Is America". Except it takes a different turn, and becomes about more than one ethnic group's experience. It's about a divided America (or insert whatever Western country you want), using an 80s symbol of unity turned into its opposite as one of the story's oddest (apparent) non sequiturs. As your perspective of the "doubling" changes, it raises new questions and targets of satire. Peele also indulges in some pretty original world-building (pointing the finger in decodable ways), and provides the suspense and disturbia we require of the genre. Perhaps at times, Us tries to do too much. It needs to show us US after all, and we're not simple people. The structure strains under its own weight, but everything pays off so well, I really don't mind. The biggest compliment I can pay it is that I would have watched that family on their vacation - living through personal comedies and tragedies - even if it hadn't been a horror film beyond the first act. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

At home: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a savage 1969 satire about the sexual revolution that has a similar tone to The Graduate, I found, about a couple that has a life-changing experience in a mountain retreat, and returns with a more open relationship by which their friends (the second couple in the title) are shocked. Columbo villain Robert Culp and Natalie Wood at her most resplendent are really the targets of the satire, eliciting laughs more than understanding from their audience both in and out of the movie. The characters are acted about as well as they can be, but are so extreme in their conversion, they're really a pastiche of the trend their following. Ted and Alice, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon, are real people faced with this paradigm shift, rejecting it, being drawn to it, flirting with it... So when all four friends find just how far is too far, it feels very real (no matter the direction's soft stylistic touches). Open relationships are not for everyone. They have limits. They may be healthy or toxic. The movie doesn't really make a stand either way. The subject matter is too complicated for that, and so the film maker approaches it with as much bemusement and open-mindedness as he can muster, much like the characters in the story.

I knew the sitcom Alice was based on a movie (with Vic Tayback also as Mel), but I didn't realize it was s relatively small part of the early Scorsese movie, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore! Well, the diner stuff does have its laughs, but what's most engaging - and perhaps I'm coming at it through my own experience as the child of a struggling single mother - is the mother-son relationship. Ellen Burstyn is wonderful as the mom who sort of pals around with her 11-year-old because that's just who they are. So often in movies, parents and kids fall into the roles of, well, parents and kids, but the truth is, relationships are more varied and complex than that. You can already see young Scorsese developing his style here, with his very mobile camera (well, he'd just done Mean Streets, he was a winner out of the gate), but the style never distracts from the film's truthfulness, it just makes it more immediate. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore isn't a movie magic Wonderland. Plot threads get cut off when Alice races out of town, the kid is believably annoying, ambitions have to be dosed with reality, and the man of your dreams is perhaps just "good enough". It's a world where a parking lot doubles as the beach because that's what real life is sometimes.

Woody Allen's Alice stars Mia Farrow as a socialite with a failing marriage and untapped ambition who goes to a Chinese doctor of alternative medicines who plies her with magical herbs, which have a variety of effects and to my surprise, are not psychosomatic. Allen breaks the rule about Chekov's hypnotism wheel. While I really didn't need another adultery story from this director (especially in his contention that having affairs FIXES relationships), or such an on-the-nose stand-in for himself (Farrow is practically doing an Allen impression), the satire of New York's rich elite can be amusing. I especially like the locations chosen, which never look like what they're intended to be, at least to our middle class eyes. They match the ridiculousness of the Dr. Yang-driven plot. Lots of fun performances in guest roles and bit parts, of course, but Keye Luke as Yang, is a highlight, and you'll wish there was a companion film that told us just what was going on in his world that we just get glimpses of. Unfortunately, this was his last before he passed.

I mentioned this when I reviewed Sabrina, but the whole "social climbing romance" genre holds very few rewards for me. Alice Adams features a young Katharine Hepburn saying "Maaahvelous" and "Daahhling" a lot, a girl from the middle class trying to get in with the snobbish in-crowd, and I find I have a lot of trouble investing in such a story. Hepburn is such a snob herself for wanting that life, and so filled with self-loathing, that it's hard to fathom why Fred MacMurray's character would fall for her. He clearly rejects the elitism of the people in his class strata. Saddled with a Capra-esque glue patent subplot that's meant to support a fairy tale ending, the movie has nowhere to go once Alice realizes what we've known for at least an hour. Are we to understand the middle class could make it if only it would get out of its own way? Because that's the message of both the A and B plots. Oh, Alice can be very touching when she's feeling humiliated, but even with a strong performance, it's hard to sit there and WANT her to succeed.

In Alice in the Cities, Wim Wenders gives an unlikely pair of companions in Philip, a journalist who's just driven though the United States and failed to find a story, and Alice, a young girl abandoned to his care by a woman he just met at the airport. Together, they meander through New York, Amsterdam and the whole of Germany, until Alice can be put into the hands of a proper guardian. Hauntingly scored, this is a quiet film about human contact and urban alienation, Philip's Polaroids empty of people until a crucial moment, when Alice becomes something other than a burden to him. The young actress is very strong, eliciting his annoyance and sympathy both, an effect she also has on the audience. Movies about men saddled with daughter stand-ins are usually very purposeful - it's an action movie trope - but this road movie is purposefully pointless. The characters don't really know what they're looking for, and so fail to find it, except in a roundabout way. A few minutes in, I was afraid I might get bored. By the end, I had totally fallen under its poignant spell.

Lifeforce is an amazing take on the vampire genre, and it's not just that it's heady mix of 60s procedural science-fiction, 70s psychosexuality, and 80s blood and guts is, on the surface of it, completely bonkers. The way it switches genres all the time might jarring to some audiences. I dare say there's a lot more to the story, entangling vamps - SPACE vamps! - with the concept of soul mates. The blood transference innate to the vampire genre (reimagined as soul transference, but same deal) evokes the idea that vampires become us as much as their backwash turns us into vampires. It's not a leeching, but a transfusion. And so their allure taps into the narcissistic impulse. We want to become them, or what they represent in our psyche, but risk losing our souls by diving deep into what might be the worst part of ourselves. That's pretty rich subtext for such a lurid film (the main villain is naked for most of her scenes), and for a B-movie by Cannon Films, there's a lot of money and know-how on the screen. I love the look of the vampire ship, and the animatronic zombies are pretty cool too. On the acting front, I like to think Peter Firth is playing his same MI-5 character, and look, Patrick Stewart just a couple years before Star Trek! Deserves a better reputation.

There's a lot to admire in The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, but I don't think it actually works well enough as a story for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. And that's too bad because it is a very striking and original time travel film. 14th-Century Cambria is represented by stark black and white, while the trip to the future is in color, as likeable characters try to flee the Black Plague by digging through the center of the Earth to the other side (20th-Century New Zealand) on the word of a boy who is having divinely-inspired visions. It's unfortunate then that the boy in question acts so woodenly, and that, be it because of thick accents or strange editing choices, it's sometimes hard to understand just what's happening. People seem to be doing what they're doing because a premonition told them they'd be doing it, so justifications and motivations are hard to come by. And while I appreciate the idea of making the 20th Century a fearsome, dangerous hell from the POV of the characters, the film seems to forget about our own POV and cheats. For example, we know that cars aren't demons from hell, so it's not credible that absolutely no one ever tries to swerve or stop when Medieval pilgrims cross the road. So yes, original enough that I'm glad it exists; I just wish it was a little more coherent and engaging on a character/plot level.

Set time machine to 14th Century Europe. Keywords: Snow, a boy narrator, the Church, unexplained deaths.

I never managed to read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, but the film definitely has the hallmarks of other works of his I've read - a mystery filled with libraries and books, well-researched history, and so on - and I'm generally interested in such fare. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud doesn't shirk from that, though the film is necessarily less complex than the novel must be (it's a brick), and some of the murder mystery solutions seem obvious (the how if not the who or why). The Medieval monastery setting is interesting, though it's filled with grotesques. Perhaps that's historically accurate - the order is filled with men who could not marry for whatever reason, presumably - but there are moments where it feels like only a few years have passed since Annaud's other well-known film Quest for Fire (indeed, it's shot in similar climes and what do we make of the feral, subverbal peasants living by the abbey?). So I initially found it a difficult watch, but for the charismatic presence of Sean Connery's Franciscan Sherlock, his Watson a young Christian Slater with a single expression on his face, but as the mystery deepened, I got hooked. The political maneuvering between Connery and F. Murray Abraham's inquisitor was a highlight.

1 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Columbo villain Robert Culp"

Heh, maybe you could make that a thing: any time there's an actor who ever played a Columbo villain, that's how you describe them. Columbo villain William Shatner, Columbo villain Johnny Cash, Columbo villain Leonard Nimoy, and so on. (Though I concede that Robert Culp did it more than most ...)

 

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