This Week in Geek (13-19/05/19)


At home: With J.C. Chandor, you expect a certain procedural verisimilitude no matter the genre attempted. Triple Frontier wears its heist formula on its sleeve a bit too much for that, and the film falls a little flat as a result. The way the consequences of each decision are thought-out - lets call it realism - means there are some surprises, granted, but not a lot of the fun one might find in similar military heist movies like Three Kings or Kelly's Heroes. On the other hand, the formulaic elements - and once I started thinking of the set pieces as something you'd see in a dour video game like the Max Payne series, I couldn't really enjoy them - prevent it from being a true procedural like Melville's Le Cercle Rouge. Chandor's career has produced some interesting films to date, but none could really be called rousing. Same here, though the material needs it to be. Not bad, but his weakest effort. I can't help thinking a more action-oriented director could have pulled this off, as on the plot level, it would seem to work.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad just has me waiting around for the next Harryhausen stop-motion sequence, I'm afraid, as the story about the famous sailor helping a sorcerer against his will so he can restore a reduced princess to normal size is one of those picaresques that seem pretty random - strings of fantastical incidents, and complications brought about by Sinbad's dumb and venal crew - and it's very, very broadly acted. I'd go so far as to say some of the leads are just plain miscast. Kerwin Mathews especially is just a 1950s white jock who looks like he should be wearing a blazer or a letter man jacket. I'm not saying I want the cast in darker blackface (dear lord, no), but maybe a wig or facial hair? This entry in 1001 Nights genre is really just a showcase for special effects, and they're all interesting-to-great. Not just Harryhausen's creatures (as usual, expressive and well integrated into the action), but the practical and optical effects as well. But that's about it for me.

More serious than Michael Curtiz's previous pairing with Errol Flynn (Robin Hood), The Sea Hawk is still a grand adventure, with some pretty great ship sets, and an entertaining performance by Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth the First. Part of the fun is that this acts as an ahistorical origin story for the Royal Navy, but the Queen doesn't want to commit England's resources to it until Captain Thorpe convinces her Spain a warmonger (yes, parallels to World War II, given when this was made). No stranger to experimenting with color, Curtiz switches to warm sepia black and white when the Sea Hawks are in the Caribbean to contrast with the cold standard black and white of European waters. So much happens, it could rightly be called an epic, and while I could part with the wet romance between Flynn and Brenda Marshall's Spanish lady, it does come in handy late in the plot. We all know his true match is Liz I. Great fight scene at the end, reminiscent of The Adventures of Robin Hood's, which isn't a bad thing.

I'm not sure what kind of impact watching Billy Budd would have had on me had I never read and written papers on Melville's story. Knowing the character as American literature's greatest Christ figure (in a literature filled with them) gives the film adaptation a gloomy atmosphere because we know the world is evil and Billy's fate inevitable. If you haven't ready, there's still dread, but perhaps also shock. Regardless, this is a brilliant anti-adventure film where no good deed goes unpunished and the battles are more often avoided than sought. Where justice would prevail if the law didn't squelch it. And where one man's goodness must be destroyed because it puts into question the unnatural order of Man. Like I said, Christ figure. I thought Terence Stamp was an odd casting for Billy, but I came to completely believe his moral innocence, and his quiet intensity is well matched to Robert Ryan in the role of the cruel Taggart. Director and co-star Peter Ustinov is equally good as the empathetic captain nevertheless too weak to do the right thing. For such a talky, philosophical picture, it has great production values. The ships are obviously functional and actually on water, no models here. It makes you expect battles and violence, only to subvert your thirst for blood into something to be ashamed of. A brave attempt, and a powerful result.

Alfred Hitchcock pulls a "Presents" by actually showing up at the start of The Wrong Man to assure us it is, unlike his other thrillers, a true story. Starts out well enough, with Henry Fonda an everyman who becomes the victim of mistaken identity, is arrested and is run through the system. Hitchcock brings his knack for creating suspense to the mundane and procedural (police procedure has thankfully evolved since then), and we really do feel for "Manny". It makes you feel it could happen to anyone (and in a way, it's pretty quaint given what minorities have to go through in the U.S. today in terms of "mistaken identity"). It can't be helped, I suppose, but the true story of what happens with Manny's wife veers into melodrama in the third act, and really, that's where the film loses me a bit. Hitchcock uses real locations as set dressing, which causes a lot of sound problems, in court especially. And then the movie ends pretty much exactly the way I thought it would. Outrageous true events, but the resolution seemed pretty clear from the offset.

In between seasons of Star Trek, William Shatner went off to Spain to do White Comanche, which this Trekkie can't help but see as a combination of Trek's The Enemy Within and The Paradise Syndrome (the one where Kirk is split into good and evil halves, and the one where he thinks he's a Native America - I wanted to shout "I AM KIROK!" at various points). Shatner plays twin brothers, each embracing a different half of their exogamous natures - one the white cowboy, the other the Comanche brave - bringing his brand of melodramatic delivery to both parts. We don't see the title villain much, and that's a mercy because he's a ludicrous looking and sounding character, high on peyote buttons and irredeemably evil. This could be enjoyed as camp, but Kirok rapes a woman in an early scene, and it's all too dour to be much fun. Joseph Cotten is a weary sheriff who involves White Cowboy in a violent land grab plot while we wait for the unrelated showdown between brothers - pretentiously described as one man fighting his own dark soul - so it's really as if two films crashed into one another, and the result was scored by an inappropriate jazz band. It has its moments, but it's more or less a curiosity filled with western clichés, shot almost indistinguishably like a Star Trek episode.

The late, great Dick Miller actually gets to be the main character in A Bucket of Blood, an entertaining thriller from Roger Corman playing with ideas similar to House of Wax. Miller is a busboy surrounded by beatniks, dreaming of becoming an artist himself. His dream comes true, but in a macabre way, but he's not too well in the head. Part incel horror show, part satire on artists, the movie is one of Corman's most relevant. I've known many "Bohemians" like those pictured, and have been involved in many conversations that bent towards the pretentious and ridiculous, with people justifying their lifestyle or taste-du-jour with outlandish comments, all trying to be Oscar Wilde while producing little of value. That's the world Miller's character is trying to gain access to (there's even a Vegan joke, in 1959, if you can believe it), for all the wrong reasons (and that too feels quite modern). Sure, the production values aren't quite there - the art on show isn't nearly as good as anyone says it is, but that becomes part of the satire - and the acting is fairly arch (again, it fits the culture), but for a B-movie? Pretty reasonable. A surprisingly good script washes away all sins.

Barbet Schroeder looks at S&M culture in 1976's Maîtresse, a very clever picture, mostly a two-hander between Gérard Depardieu and Bulle Ogier who, as the brute Olivier and the dominatrix Ariane, spark up a nominally non-S&M relationship, I wouldn't say despite her job, but because it initially has an allure for him. The dominatrix stuff is rather explicit (I suspect her clients are the real thing), though the kink doesn't bother me in a film that also shows an animal being butchered in an abattoir (at least the people want to be there); that's all the content warnings you'll get from me. When I say Maîtresse is clever, it's because it contrasts Arianne's work with a so-called normal relationship where it's Olivier who seeks to dominate, and because of that, she gets to be a bit of a masochist as well. Yes, S&M is the extreme, but the movie wants to show that all relationships have their little games, their power struggles, their sadists and masochists. This plays out in big and small ways, from his trying to make her break off with her work to fighting over who gets to drive the car (a crucial metaphor). In the end, will they self-destruct, or will they both learn to surrender control to the other and find balance? A love affair told in a unique setting that kind of informs all love affairs.

Black Girl, a 55-minute feature by Senegalese author and film maker Ousmane Sembène, is a minimalist character study, taking us into the mind and world of Diouana, a Senegalese girl hired as a nanny by whites, taken to France, where she finds out she's now also cook and housekeeper. Hoping for a great adventure, she finds isolation, disappointment, and ugly casual racism. Though there are flashbacks to Senegal, it is a country and culture defined mostly by its absence and Diouana's longing. Told from an African perspective, it is the Western world that is alien, and Africa that needs no explanation. How she reacts to France tells us about Senegal. Her inner monologue can be repetitive, but so is her limited life in her bosses' apartment. I think perhaps the ending goes a bit overboard - what works in Sembène's original short story is perhaps not the best as film - but I certainly do not question the relationship he draws between gainful employment of immigrants and slavery. A correct indictment of colonialism, Diouana's situation works both as historical metaphor and psychological truth. On the way, he also examines the realities between the ugly stereotype of the "lazy" immigrant. I do think the English translation of the title "La noire de..." loses something by excluding the preposition. But which "de" is it? On the surface of it, you'd think it's "from". The black girl from... Senegal, or perhaps the image of Africa the bosses' guests have. After seeing the film, it's more probable this "de" is an "of", as to show ownership, the Colonial unable to get away from the role of Slaver. For such a spare little film, it sure has a lot to say.

If you told me Ingmar Bergman was capable of doing comedy, I scarcely would have believed it. After seeing Secrets of Women, what he and critics call his first comedy, I'm still not sure. The outcomes aren't exactly tragic, but the film starts with a woman wistfully admitting she's never known true intimacy with her husband and goes from there. An existential comedy, I suppose, composed of three flashbacks and two present-day moments among sisters-in-law, speaking frankly about their marriages as they wait for their husbands. (The Swedish title Waiting Women is more accurate because they are all waiting for something, be it intimacy, reciprocity, commitment, fulfillment.) Only one of the flashbacks could really be called "funny" (the scene in the elevator is definitely the comic highlight), but I still liked the film very much. Each "secret" kept my interest, and was beautifully acted and shot. Bergman's mastery of light, shadow, and reflections is prevalent, and he creates tension in the more surprising ways - a kitten taken away evokes the risk of losing a baby, characters standing on church steps makes you believe in an upcoming wedding, and so on. I don't think I laughed, but it's not that kind of comedy. I'll be darned if it didn't leave me with a smile though.

There's so much to unpack in Bergman's The Passion of Anna, that I don't know if I can do it. This existential drama is, at least in one respect, about identity. Max von Sydow's character has voided his, and more or less becomes what others make of him, to the point where he becomes Anna's lover, one suspects, only because he has the same name as her dead husband. Another character collects photographs of people and files them away in a massive library; even he admits there's no insight to be gained from looking at a person's portrait. Anna's own desire for truth is tangled up in the fantasy world she's created for herself. She's not who she thinks she is. And perhaps this is what justifies the film cutting to the actors discussing their characters, a conceit that neither helps nor hinders the film, but that perhaps resonates thematically in that way. And then there's the disturbing plot point about a crazed sadist killing animals throughout the countryside (I don't know what to know how those scenes were achieved), which creates a world both cruel and pointless, not at all in contrast with what's happening in the human drama. Bergman's usual discussions about God's existence (or rather, non-existence) add to the existential despondency of the piece. As bleak as the landscape it's shot in.

Oh man, I was not ready for Bergman's Autumn Sonata (in which he finally gets to work with that other famous Bergman, Ingrid). A simple, could-be-a-play, family drama about mothers and daughters, its structure is subtle but complex, its key being Chopin's Preludes, which early on is used as a motif. The piece tells us this family is pretty on the outside, but ugly on the inside, and boy, does it deliver. Bergman herself plays the other, a vain concert pianist more or less estranged from her daughters, but invited to stay at their house after the death of the mother's close friend. Right away, the situation is a ticking time bomb and it will explode, but before it does, we get a lot of incredible acting from both Bergman and the eldest daughter played by Liv Ullman. Even though the characters talk a lot, even to themselves, their expressions tell different, more varied, and more ambiguous stories. In Bergman's face, we read turmoil: a mix of pride, love, disappointment, and in the case of the daughter wasting away from a degenerative motor condition, repulsion. The character is a performer, first and foremost, mother isn't even in second place. And she's fostered a lot of resentment. In the middle of the night, things boil over and Ullman lays it all on the line. You'll feel the daughters isn't being fair, and yet this is the one time she's ever spoken any of her grievances aloud. We side with her, but with Bergman too. It's all so raw, and if you've ever had mommy or daddy issues (or inversely, had trouble connecting with your children), this will hit home hard. And the tragic cycle will continue, one doesn't change overnight, perhaps ever, so here the director may well be broaching his usual existential themes of pointlessness. I teared up often, sobbed through the emotional climax of the piece. Powerful, well-observed, if slightly heightened, drama. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Your appreciation of Nothing Left to Do But Cry is entirely dependent on whether you think Roberto Benigni and Massimo Troisi arguing about anything and everything for almost two hours is amusing. Clearly, I don't. I was open to it, but it soon become quite tedious. I was hoping to be charmed by the premise - two friends inexplicably stumble into the year 1492 and learn to live in the Renaissance, hoping to find a way home - but the film abandons everything it sets up at the midway point to undertake some other adventure, one that's also abandoned, until we screech to a strange halt, on a joke. But if this movie doesn't have a proper ending, it doesn't have a proper beginning either. Two comedians doing improv for a month's shooting and not bothering to really finish the film. That's what it looks like. So it's hard to justify getting invested in the fate of their host (forgotten), Troisi's romance (forgotten), the job interview with a hangman (scheduled and then forgotten), the Spanish Amazon character (forgotten), the quest to change history (anti-climactic), and the part Leonardo da Vinci plays (veering on the absurd). A deep disappointment. I guess I've got nothing left to do but cry...

Set time machine to Renaissance Europe. Keywords: Leonardo da Vinci and waterborne contraptions. Surprise modernity. A Spanish concernancy. Trying to deny a famous explorer.

I remember seeing Ever After in theaters, and being forced to watch Eddie Murphy's Dr. Doolittle beforehand, a surprise double-feature, probably because that film was so short, the cinema was afraid people weren't getting their money's worth. It was pretty terrible, so the "true story of Cinderella" was always going to be a more positive experience. Some 20 years later, I can say it still works despite Drew Barrymore's dodgy accent. Over-familiarity with the fairy tale drained some of my interest early on, though Anjelica Huston's textured performance as the wicked stepmother was a highlight, but once the romance gets under way, the film lets its hair down and dares to play things for laughs. Though magic isn't involved - indeed, Barrymore's Cinderella is a true Renaissance character, Enlightened and filled with agency - the movie is still fanciful, with Leonardo da Vinci more or less playing fairy godmother. In the final analysis, Ever After is... cute. And that's not said in a pejorative tone.


Anonymous said...

"Wrong Man" is an early superhero classic, second only to "The Third Man".

As for Sea Hawk, you can have yours, I'll have mine:


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