This Week in Geek (10-16/06/19)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Everybody's comparing Rocketman to Bohemian Rhapsody, and for good reason. On the surface of it, they tell the same story and are even visually similar. There are two big differences however. One is of course that Rocketman is a musical, which enlivens the predictable narrative with numbers that are more about feeling than fact, makes the music seem that much more personal, and excuses timeline distortions putting certain songs in the wrong eras, etc. The other big difference is in the point it makes about its lead. Rhapsody was about the remaking of one's identity and leaving it there, made the film more generic - from person to fiction, and in that fiction we lose something. Rocketman also deals with this, but focuses more on the why. Elton John was starved for love, and the theme runs through his life, the moments the film chooses to show, and the music. So in the end, it's just a richer and more entertaining picture, not simply saved by the music. And yes, Taron Egerton is a rock god. The only thing the movie is really missing is Egerton interacting with himself on the set of Kingsman 2.

At home: Despite its lack of swordplay, 1934's The Scarlet Pimpernel has the right swashbuckling spirit, pitting a dashing master of disguise against the tyrannical forces of Robespierre's French Republic, while affecting an amusingly foppish secret identity in his everyday life as a British dandy. Leslie Howard has the proper edge AND sparkle to manage both. Now sure, the film (and the original source material) is asking a lot from me to care for French aristocrats bound for the guillotine, but it at least addresses the evils that some blue bloods committed. The most interesting part of the film for me is the Pimpernel's marriage to Merle Oberon's Lady Blakeney. She's not aware of her husband's dual identity, but that's not really what's putting pressure on their relationship. Rather, he believes she informed on certain nobles and thus betrayed his secret ideals. So while there's the satisfying play or move and countermove between our hero and the sly Chauvelin, it's how the missus figures in these intrigues that keeps the story humming.

After starring in a couple of women prison movies, Pam Grier hits the big time in Coffy, a lush-looking revenge picture about a nurse who goes on a killing spree after her 11-year-old sister is addicted to heroin by the system. Yes, the system. For all its lurid blaxploitation material - violence and gratuitous nudity mostly - it has something to say about society. It's all connected, from the pusher on the corner to the crooked politician who benefits from letting crime happen. Coffy is gonna go after them all. Pam Grier isn't a very strong actress at this point - few people are in this flick - but she has great presence. She's a real badass, but not a cold one. She's haunted by what she does, and her resolve is only strengthened over time. But she's not exactly a bastion of feminism either, falling out of her clothes at various points, mostly because she uses sex as a weapon. Not to say a guy like Shaft isn't sexing all over the place, but when the woman is the protagonist, it gives those scenes a completely different bent, and so Coffy becomes victim to the genre in which she exists. It's still one of the genre's better examples though.

Baroness Von Sketch Show dropped its third season on Netflix this week and I wasted no time watching its 10 episodes, which provide a good blend of satire, awkward humor, absurdist comedy, and even broad slapstick. We easily recognize the absurdity of life in an office, for example, something these four Canadian comediennes take a lot of shots at, but their usual wryness is also used for more angry pieces, like its devastatingly on-point take on rape kits sitting on shelves. Wow. Taking no prisoners and I like it (even if it's not something you can really laugh about). A fun surprise this season is the participation (I almost want to say cameo, but it's more than that) of Janeane Garofalo on one episode. Fun guest-star, and the show is totally in her comedic wheel house. Wish she'd had more to do, but that's me speaking as a fan of hers. The Baronesses have more than enough appeal to carry their own sketches without special guests. A fourth season has been announced.

The Watermelon Woman is part of that breed of indie movie from the 90s that would fit a triple bill with Clerks and Mary Jane Isn't a Virgin Anymore, and has the distinction of being the first feature directed by an openly gay black woman. And her voice is consequently quite original. There's a meta element to it, as Cheryl Dunye plays herself trying to make a documentary (on horrendously low-quality video) about a black lesbian actress from the 30s about whom virtually nothing is known. And while the "Watermelon Woman" is fictitious, the interviews for the most part aren't, including  a laugh-out-loud (accidentally?) funny Camille Paglia who speaks from white privilege and says all sorts of ridiculous things - academics gone wrong - if not about LGBTQ+ issues, the black experience. Woah Nelly! Dunye felt she had to invent her documentary subject because there was no documentation available after decades of white and straight washing. Well, she makes us believe. This fictionalized quest is frames by Cheryl's dramatized life, with (variably talented) actors playing friends, co-workers and romantic interests that are impacted by her work, with the movie having a testimonial feel as a result. Though made on the cheap, its ideas transcend its production values, asking a lot of questions about identity, representation, history both personal and public, and what it all means to each individual.

Yasujirô Ozu gets me. Or I get him. Whichever. Even though his films are technically slow and quiet, I get drawn in, I burst out laughing, I break into tears. At the subtlest things. Case in point, The End of Summer, a tragicomedy about a large family whose patriarch meets up with his old mistress almost 20 years after his affair, to some fretting, though that's hardly the only subplot to follow. In fact, an hour in, you may not be sure how each character is related to the others, to the point where ancillary characters poke fun at it. Ozu has a lot of season-titled movies and this one is apt. As the family straddles pre and post war generations, it is about the end of an era. After this will be the time to finally make decisions that have been held back (resisting the future is a common theme in Ozu). And though perhaps it's the sweet old patriarch that's kept the family mostly grounded in Japanese traditionalism, we'll come to realize he's also a free spirit, and it's something he's given his children, which is exactly how why they embrace modernity. Amusing enough that I laughed out loud several times, The End of Summer nevertheless had me weeping by the end. The intimacy with the characters that Ozu creates is responsible for both ends of the spectrum. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

An Autumn Afternoon is Ozu's last film, and though he didn't know it, it feels like he's moved into a last act. Maybe that's what he calls "autumn", but his post-war Japan is now, in 1962, much more industrialized and "modern", as his trademark establishing shots attest. And instead of tradition clashing with modernity, modernity simply is, and tradition is something to wax nostalgic about. The film is filled with school reunions and old war buddies. The director again treats us to a kindly old patriarch who worries about marrying off his daughter, and she sort of becomes a symbol for the past. Letting her go (and in the traditional Japanese way) is akin to finally putting the past behind. Japan's history on a certain level, but for the father, it also means the next stage in his life, a lonelier one. Though there is humor, the piece is immensely melancholy, and if you've seen other Ozu films, you too pine for a simpler time where his camera was set in market streets far from the big city.

Masahiro Shinoda's Pale Flower is a gorgeously shot (and scored) yakuza noir set in and around gambling dens, which fits perfectly with its fatalistic themes. We follow Muraki, a mobster who just came out of prison and is trying to get his bearings in the shifting underworld. He killed a man because it was his turn to kill a man, and because it was that man's turn to be killed. In that absurd statement is the crux of the film. Muraki meets a mysterious young woman called Saeko, a nimble gambler who wants to every increasing stakes so she can feel alive, and the two of them, each in their own way, represent how brief our lives are, though you're within your rights to question whether their existential and nihilistic reactions to that realization are correct, or just self-destructive. Note that while the gambling monopolizes a good chunk of screen time, the game they play, perhaps enigmatic to Western eyes, is something Shinoda teaches visually, to the point where you can appreciate a good hand at least once. I still can't say it gave up all its mysteries, but it certainly didn't detract.

I really have to force myself to watch Godard, and since Breathless is meant to be his masterpiece, I stuck with it. So. Hm. Yeah. I certainly respect the rule-breaking, but he here again leaves me cold. The attempt is at anti-Hollywood film noir - at no point do we think the anti-hero has a heart of gold or that the girl should end up with him, the plot as stated is never followed through, and the atmosphere is often the opposite of what's expected. In one sense, it's supposed to evoke realism. Life doesn't have a movie plot. And yet it still feels wholly artificial, especially in the pretentious dialog. At its best, Breathless does some cool stuff with rapid jump cuts, but a few of those experiments don't work at all. Belmondo as the leading man plays a such a grade-A asshole that you almost want to jump ship because of him. The extended conversations between him and his American girl have basically been lampooned by ze Little Rabbits, a French band, in their song "Ma femme américaine" (My American Wife), which I love better, but I guess it was worth watching Breathless just to make the connection. Sorry Godard fans, I just can't, I guess.

The 39 Steps is pretty typical of Alfred Hitchcock's British period, with its higher proportion of (non-macabre) humor mixed in with thriller elements (the tone at times reminded me of The Lady Vanishes, for example). In this spy story, Robert Donat plays a man who by chance meets a spy. She is soon killed, but not before handing him her mission, vital to the United Kingdom's security. And then he's off to Scotland to carry it out, while simultaneously on the run from the authorities who think him her killer. There's practically a twist or reversal every few minutes from there, plenty of interesting characters along the way, and even a maverick shot or two. Flying by the seat of its pants, the movie almost feels like a serial that's been compressed into a single film, and a good one at that. I'm not entirely onboard with the way the climax is resolved, but it at least rewards the viewer's attention and makes sense of things that didn't seem all that relevant earlier on. In The 39 Steps, we definitely see some Hitchcock's mannerisms and obsessions taking shape.

Cinematographer Haskell Wexler takes the directorial reigns in Medium Cool, a film about cameramen and journalists in general that dramatizes the questions he's come to ask himself (which he even asks at the top of the film, playing himself at a party): How important is it to be an impartial observer in events, and what does that professional lack of empathy do to you? How much of that apathy do you transmit through the television screen? People perceive tragedy as images, which distances them from even the real thing. And can one be "impartial" when, as Wexler proves with his effervescent style, camera work, editing, scoring - even choice of subject! - all manipulate the image and thus the audience? There's a lot to unpack, and Wexler isn't always subtle about it. The ironies of the ending, for example, aren't needed for us to get it, and feel a but blunt. And one can wonder if the personal story (the romance, and perhaps especially the young boy's flashbacks) really fit the film, even if caring for the characters is, I think, required. Shot half as a documentary, placing the leads in real world events as they unfold - Wexler puts Verna Bloom, in that yellow dress, in among demonstrations and violent police action! - gives the audience a thrill (which we should immediately question), but it has no emotional resonance without the personal story. More questions than answers, perhaps as a result of those "distractions", but those questions are still relevant today. More so. Bonus points for using Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention on the soundtrack.

Oh David Lynch, what have you done? Your first feature film Eraserhead is a highly visual film that features indelible images sure to give me nightmares. Of course, the film IS a nightmare in which the protagonist has other nightmares. There's no waking up from this. What Lynch does here is use expressionism (the film in fact looks like it could have come from the German masters of the silent era) to translate the modern family man's anxieties. So Harry is more or less forced into marriage, which is manifested by cramped, prison-like quarters he shares with a noisy wife obviously suffering from post-partum depression, and a mutant, inhuman baby that could hardly be his, could it? But what if it is? Does having a child essentially replace you in the world? Does it void your self? Harry's dreams are no real sanctuary from these questions as squirming, giant sperm fly around while a woman with a testicular visage sings a song the Pixies would later cover, trying to reassure him and... failing? Well, that's left ambiguous. And you're left ill at ease, to say the least. Joe goes up against the Volcano and loses.

On the dangers of changing gears too often... Starting with its premise, Our Mother's House is about a family of seven kids whose fanatically religious single mother dies of an illness one day, and at least initially, the film is about how these kids (well differentiated and affecting young actors all) will cope not only with their grief, but with maintaining a household so they don't have to tell anyone and go to an orphanage (you'd be forgiven for thinking this is a period piece, but the kids probably read too much Dickens). It's all about child logic. And I like this movie a lot. Then almost supernatural thriller elements are introduced as the children evoke their mother's spirit and practically build a religion around her. It's a creepy turn, and yes, I like this movie too. Then a new parental figure comes into their lives and threatens to upend them with Elektra complexes and a definite God vs. the Devil undercurrent, and while I don't dislike this at all, we're now a couple of movies removed from the first act. It all ties in if we consider who is the instrument of the dead mother, but we've still changed gears so often that what we gain in unpredictability, we lose in tonal cohesion. Still one to discover.

With The Plumber, Peter Weir shows that horror, things that fill us with fear, dread and anxiety, need not lead to bloody murder. An anthropologist trying to write her newest book finds life unbearable when an obnoxious plumber enters her apartment to check her pipes and ends up staying for way too long to fix/destroy her bathroom. It certainly trades on the mistrust people with higher education have of the blue-collar working class, but the thrill comes from more than the woman's classism. It's also the story of a woman's space invaded by a strange man, while her husband ignores her problems in the pursuit of his own ambition. Throughout, the movie is a little ambivalent about whether or not the plumber is sinister or not, and we're allowed to think that his extremes are translated through her point of view. Some viewers may well cheer the plumber on, rather than this colonialist from the intelligentsia. A lot of fun and rather more thought-provoking than it would first seem.

Hot Tub Time Machine is essentially The Hangover with time travel, so I was at war with myself as to whether I would ever watch it. Turns out, it's a pretty fun movie. I like the actors, whose screen presence transcends the fact they are written as entitled, prejudiced jerks. I like the riff on Quantum Leap, even if the time travel mechanics aren't ironclad. I like the 80s jokes and soundtrack, though I'm left cold by much of the crass gross-out humor. It's biggest flaw is that it has nothing to say. It's a coming of (middle) age movie, but it has no strong opinion on what that means, or how its characters should grow as people by revisiting their youth. Anything they should confront about themselves is magically fixed by the changes they introduce in the time line, so I guess it's just a power fantasy where you don't need to change, everything else does. But it doesn't really know it's saying that. It's not saying anything. So I'm content to have found it amusing and I will leave it at that.

Set time machine to the mid-80s. Keywords: John Cusack. Skiing. The one that got away (broke up with you). A rebound meetcute. Ski bullies. References to the USSR. A builder of science fiction tech. Suicide attempts. A musical performance.

If Better Off Dead... wasn't one of the inspirations for Hot Tub Time Machine, I'll eat my hat (well, A hat, I don't think I actually own a hat). There are too many commonalities, from John Cusack skiing on down. But what a strange little comedy. I think the way to understand it is to say it's a story being told (sans narration) after the fact, by the two POV characters (Cusack and the French exchange student Monique), in which we get to visualize every distorted memory, joke and exaggeration as fact. This is How I Met Your Mother, but with more visual gags, I suppose. So while the basic plot is your standard high school, coming of age, romcom, much of the verbal humor is dated and even irksome, and the 80s soundtrack mostly dreadful, there's so much whimsy, so many bizarre ideas - the mother's bad cooking, the obsessive paperboy, the drag race sportscasting, etc. - that I ended up thinking it was pretty neat. Could do without the stop-motion burger sequences, mind. A forgotten gem I think we're better able to enjoy today than back then.

Books: In his debut novel, Spaceman of Bohemia, Jaroslav Kalfař creates a layered onion. The story of the Czech Republic's first astronaut, going out to a comet, perhaps encountering an alien life-form, leaving his love behind, is echoed in his family history and in the history of Bohemia/Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic itself. Whatever is happening to Jakub, our protagonist, today is informed by his past, his country's past and present, by the alien he meets even, and vice-versa. It's a strange story, but no stranger than the Republic's, a story about transformation, about thinking the world is one way and discovering it's another, about destinies interrupted by invasive forces both known and unknown, about yearning for the past while also needing to let go of it... A deceptively complex tapestry told with some humor, but also a lot of truth, very specific in the culture it means to represent, and yet universal on an emotional level. When you make me actively want the two separated lovers to find each other - something I'm hardly counted on to care about most days - you're doing something right.

RPGs: We're taking the plunge! BARDnD Season 2 is in the planning stages, leaving the best-known Forgotten Realms for the mysterious East, less a tour than an extended adventure about which I can't say too much on account of my players being readers. What I can say is that we're adding a member to our merry bardic band, as bassist "Liv" is set to join the Tragically Imps during episode 1 (probably in early July). Sat down with our new player Vincent this week and rolled up a Bohemian, tea-reading nomad, which yes, means I have to come up with a tea leaf precognition mechanic. And yes, it's me, so it will involve actual tea and actual tea reading concepts (thanks to oHOTmu's Amélie who gave me a tiny pocket book on the subject in my Christmas stocking last year). As a challenge to myself, any future read will not be something I planned, but rather will decide what I must now plan for. I've got the season more or less laid out (and also know what Season 3 will be about), so it's just about getting the players together and having fun now.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Now I want to see "The Watermelon Woman". I never got a chance back when it was at the "artsy" theater for about a week.

I just looked up the Paglia interview and it seems it was a send-off and a joke not a real interview ala Borat.

Siskoid said...

And yet... Paglia just got into trouble with students last month over controversial (they say "dangerous" comments about identity, sexual assault, and other matters). I still wonder.

The movie is available on YouTube for a couple bucks, which is how we watched it.

Green Luthor said...

Savage Steve Holland, the director of "Better Off Dead", also directed "One Crazy Summer" and "How I Got Into College", which... well, let's just say you'd have no trouble at all believing the same person directed all three. If you liked one, there's a pretty good chance you'd like the other two.

Siskoid said...

Thanks for the tip!

 

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