This Week in Geek (29/07-04/08/19)

Gifts

Having figured out my unconditional appreciation for Yasujirō Ozu, my friend Isabel splurged on a Criterion Collection DVD of his opus, Tokyo Story, which I can't wait to watch. Everything I've seen from the director, even the early silent films, has touched me deeply... and they WEREN'T his masterpiece? Well. I may need a box of tissues for this one.

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: The more I think about Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the more I like it, but in the watching of it, I did feel a little listless at times (as with The Hateful Eight). It doesn't need to be that long, and a lot of points it makes are way too on the nose. If anyone wants to call this QT's "most personal film", I think they would be right. Fictional actor Rick Dalton is on the other side of his career peak, and so is the cowboy in the novel he's reading, so we might see this as Tarantino's own midlife crisis movie. There are references to many of his past films (Rick stars in an Inglorious Basterds-type film, Bruce Lee is a character, Kurt Russell is a stuntman, and the film's relationship with the Manson Family Murders is akin to Basterds' with World War II. The foot fetish has never been more blatant, with way too many feet pressed up against the lens. And of course, it's about making films in the era that begat a lot of what QT would later use as inspiration, and a chance to indulge in the gadget side of things, reproducing looks from old films in the Dalton vignettes. On the other hand, the language is more naturalistic and less "written" than any of his past efforts (that may or may not be a positive, depending). We spend two-thirds of the film getting to know the amusingly pathetic Dalton, his stunt double Cliff Booth, and real-life murder victim Sharon Tate (a loving portrayal compared to the comedy wrung out of the other two), then we finally get to brass tacks and things get tense and violent. So while there's a lot of humor and knowing the characters as well as we do helps the pay-off, it's still a film that indulges in long detours from the plot. A lot of the best scenes are in those detours, but sitting in the theater, I did long for a tighter focus.

At home: Free Enterprise is in the same subgenre as Swingers, but replace swing dancing with Star Trek and other geeky fandoms. If it doesn't succeed as well, it's because the leads aren't as endearing as Jon Favreau or even Vince Vaughn. I like Eric McCormack, but his character is cold and obnoxious, while Rafer Weigel is a womanizing man-child who cracks wise but doesn't really emote. The worst of it is that they are both misogynistic, and would totally be -gaters in today's terms. The film seems to know this, as they do get called out on it eventually, but at the same time doesn't. There's really no reason for the gratuitous female nudity, and the romcom plot is steeped in nerdy wish fulfillment, requiring women to be sex objects and/or unicorns. I also felt like it could have been edited more tightly, that fraction of a second of dead air between jokes dragging the patter down. That said, there are a lot of amusing moments and lines, and unlike say The Big Bang Theory, geekdom isn't filtered through a mainstream filter. It is unapologetically geeky, and the references fly, some overt, some quite subtle, and across many fandoms. If you're into that kind of culture, you'll have fun with it, and with William Shatner playing a pathetic has-been version of himself, acting as a quasi-mentor and being a good sport about it all. Problematic and slightly dated by today's standards (geek culture has become more prevalent, with both genders, since), it's nevertheless a fun comedy about people obsessed with their fandoms. The DVD features deleted scenes for which opening text apologizes, and the commentary track doesn't skimp on those apologies either (first film, didn't they know what they were doing, Shatner made a lot of changes to the original script, but still bros who don't realize the full scope of their tonal deafness). Plus, a making of, a glossary (nerdy jokes in text), screen tests, interviews, bloopers, a terminology subtitle track, a music video... A nice geeky package.

Masahiro Shinoda's Double Suicide is an amazing piece of film-making, in particular in terms of style, but I think the fiasco of a romance at the center of the plot is interesting too. A paper merchant (a well chosen profession that allows for poetic language like his paper-thin excuses, etc.), though married, is in love with a courtesan; it is mutual. He longs to ransom her from the whore house, but it's too expensive and a richer men may steal her away. The thrust of the action is how they and their kindly allies (including the very moral wife) try to prevent them from carrying out their suicide pact. Melodrama to be sure, but the theatricality of the story and acting are well supported by equally theatrical sets, and Shinoda is very playful in his adaptation of what is an 18th-Century play usually performed with shadow puppets. As the film starts, we hear recorded phone calls between the director and his crew, planning out the film. Moving in, it feels like he's shooting a live play, with delivery we associate with No or kabuki, until we move in closer yet and things come alive more naturalistically. Set changes between acts are represented by fast cutting through empty sets. But my favorite part by far is the presence of figures clad in black, invisible to the characters, who act as a combination of stage hands, telekinetic movement, narrator-observers, and angels of death. They create striking images throughout, and I have to admit to being particularly tickled because I did an improv show once where we simulated superhero powers with what we called mime-jas (in French mimja was a better pun), similar figures who went around the set and played the role of "powers" (discussed it HERE). Turns out WE INVENTED NOTHING! I bow to the fatalistic Shinoda in this matter. Wow. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Chantal Akerman, like Andrei Tarkovsky, loves stillness and silence, the better to lull you into a meditative state where thoughts and impressions come during the movie as opposed to later. Les Rendez-vous d'Anna is no different, and boy, does this plainly autobiographical piece ever bid thoughts and impressions to the surface! We follow a film maker played by Aurora Clément whose life story is very much like Akerman's. She's from Brussels, she travels the world to show her films, she writes home but doesn't disclose everything (her apathy towards the men she encounters foreshadows a kind of coming out that may have been Akerman's), and she's more observer than participant in her own life. Anna says yes to a lot of things, but we don't necessarily apprehend her actual level of interest. It is, at best, fleeting, like her presence in any given city. The film captures what it's like to travel alone (I wonder if we still do, because of the internet, though hotel rooms are to me still soul-draining environments), its tedium, the seeming irrelevance of one's meetings with strangers, the long silences where we're just in our heads, looking passively forward. Formally, when there's movement in the frame, it's either the talking characters walking and the camera being forced to track them, or else background elements that refer to travel - train, cars, hotel staff going about their business - otherwise, Akerman fills the screen with geometry, architecture, and symmetry. Places fixed in space. And so Rendez-vous becomes a series of intersections on a map. Anna intersects with others' lives, but never stops, while the final scene evokes certain forks in the road, but gives no clue as to which might lead home.

The first feature film directed by a black woman, Losing Ground failed to get a wide release in 1982 and has only fairly recently been made available to cinephiles, but as it must have played in New York, I would bet it was seen and appreciated by directors like Spike Lee (it evokes She's Gotta Have It, for me) and Cheryl Dunye (as The Watermelon Woman also uses dance as part of its vocabulary). This relationship drama catches up with a philosophy professor married to a painter. She's analytical and structured, he has a bohemian spirit that's making him drift away from her. Notably, at the start of the film, she teaches Sartre's No Exit, which evokes two people suffering each other's presence, but then we see her research the ecstatic experience, as a way to get closer to her husband's mindset. The growing estrangement and research leads her to star in an indie film, a story told through movement rather than dialog, and brings her closer to "ecstasy", i.e. losing herself in the moment/art, and at the end of a marital last act story, gives her and us shocking catharsis, even as it picks apart the very idea of ecstasy as it relates to the husband's behavior. Some sound problems highlight its own indie nature, but this definitely needs to be seen by more people, and more than just because it features non-white/anglo characters in atypical roles.

Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones are truly great in Claudine, a family drama and romance about the mother of six kids, on welfare, dating a proud garbage man, and the obstacle course the System tries to make them jump through as they make a go of it. This is a fine piece of naturalism, creating characters that feel real and that each have their own story and relationship to one another, even the kids. Real, funny, touching, it checks all the boxes, and is an unheralded classic about the black experience, and the working poor experience as well. A lesser film would have compromised the human story to highlight the System's absurdities, but in Claudine, it's just part of the reality and never feels like it's taking time away from the relationships. Above all, this is a human movie, showing people, as if unwritten, warts and all. The ending is particularly marvelous, both a down and an up note, incredibly satisfying and resonant. And a very cool a soundtrack by Gladys Knight and the Pips too!

In The Gay Divorcee, Ginger Rogers wants a divorce from her boring possessive husband, so her lawyer invents an excuse so he'll let her go - a paid Lothario in her room all night. Misunderstandings lead to Fred Astaire being there instead (or in addition to), and off we go with song, dance, and romance. And comedy too. While the bulk of the humor is meant to come from the zany supporting cast - Alice Brady is especially amusing as the hare-brained aunt, Edward Everett Horton is as usual playing it as broad as possible, and Erik Rhodes' pro romancer is good for a chuckle (and interestingly coded gay) - Astaire and Rogers deliver zingers of their own. I'm a tough audience, so I always love it when I surprise myself laughing out loud. I did, several times, with this one. Bonus: The big hit from this musical is Cole Porter's "Night and Day", one of my favorite crooner-type songs to sing in the shower or doing chores or whatever. There's also an extended sequence of people dancing the Continental (with a song about it), which makes me realize this is how people used to learn the newest dance craze, right? Takes me back to my youth when my sister insisted we learn square-dancing steps off the ol' community-access channel's western variety show. I think I could still approximate the "pinto". I bet she still knows it by heart.

Despite the Judy Garland-Gene Kelly pairing, The Pirate is a better pirate comedy than it is a musical. Not to say there aren't some good musical interludes (the big hit from this show is "Be a Clown", and there's a pure Gene Kelly fantasy dance sequence that convinces me he could have done kung fu movies), but the feel few and far between as the mechanics of the plot take hold. And it IS a good plot, full of fun twists, a villain to hiss at, and the heroes needing to be clever to get out of situations. That said, I'm not sure it's a comedy that works as well if it ISN'T a musical. That is to say, the way Garland especially plays comedy is part of that kind of showy hyper-reality. Her character, a Spanish girl obsessed with the idea of being swept off her feet by a romantic and adventurous pirate, is a drama queen, so she uses it fairly amusingly when she needs to manipulate. Kelly is the frothy actor who would put on a pirate act to win her love, and he puts in a fun and charming performance, as ever. A good time, even if the genre hybridization was slightly unbalanced.

Seijun Suzuki's whacked-out opus Tokyo Drifter is insane without being AS insane, and covers the same ground in terms of premise. Branded to Kill follows a Yakuza hit man who, after failing on an assignment, becomes the prey of every other hitman. While Drifter went for musical colors, Branded features deep noir photography, which only serves to make the sex and violence more disturbing. And yet, it's also funny, especially the crazy hits our boy gets up to, and the action scenes resulting from his screw-up. When a 50-year-old movie surprises me again and again, it's a sign that more people need to discover it so present-day action flicks can reference it. Suzuki can't help but be experimental, veering on the surreal, embracing the weirdest aspects of the French New Wave, but giving everything a slick formal look that feels very Japanese. You might well wonder if the fabled No.1 Hitman is real or a part of the protagonist's psyche. I mean, what's the point of all the butterflies if this isn't going to be a transformative experience for him... and for us?

Miss Hokusai is a biopic anime about the daughter of the heralded artist Hokusai, an artist in her own right, who may have penned or finished a lot of his work. The film has a tighter focus than the manga it's based on, which itself played fast and loose with available biographical data, but it does what it does best: Use art to talk about art. 1814 Edo is idyllic and sometimes transforms into great Japanese works. Supernatural forces are at play, sometimes provoking great art, sometimes corrupting it. Episodic, yes, but each vignette has something interesting to say about the artistic process, and/or about this particular family's dynamic. Hokusai is unbearably dismissive of his daughter's talent, but doesn't think much of his work either (he famously said he'd only really get the hang of it by age 100). I say it's unbearable, but she matches him dry comment for dry comment, and his misanthropy is actually quite amusing. Flights of artistic fancy, moments of tragedy, comedy beats thanks to a dog we see grow up on screen, all help bring this one together despite a certain structural haphazardness. I guess it has the "balance" required of Japanese art. We did chuckle at the '80s electric guitar riffs in the soundtrack, but for me, they work. It's the sound of the call to modernity the film means to evoke through Miss Hokusai's life. A pleasant exploration of the artistic process and making peace with one's never-satisfied sense of perfectionism.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize (1988 edition)
How to make me think even less of The Hangover: Show me a movie with the same premise, but that doesn't squander its potential as much. The Night Before is that movie, and while it's not great, it's a far sight better than The Hangover. Two years after The Brotherhood of Justice, the film reunites Keanu Reeves and Lori Loughlin, though she doesn't like him much in this. He's the nerd she has to go to the prom with after losing a bet. Of course, all sorts of bad things happen so that they never get to the dance (let's just say this is one of the few comedies about human trafficking), and we watch Keanu try to backtrack and fix the previous night's events after waking up from a spiked drink. There are some clever jokes peppered throughout, and I enjoyed myself, though I have to say the acting was extremely broad (he's earnest to a fault, she's unphasable Cordelia from Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Gangbanger stereotypes are par for the course in this era, of course. The villainous Tito is actually better when he's just an off-screen presence.

Permanent Record is one of those "social awareness" movies, as it addresses teen suicide, but it escapes the After-School Special clichés by being pretty true to life. As the first movie to showcase Keanu Reeves playing the electric guitar, I thought it might be a cinematic oddity, but it's actually Keanu's best career performance to date. Coming off the heals of some pretty simple characterizations, it's almost a revelation. We get to know the overwhelmed youth who commits suicide before it happens, which is important, but then follow his grieving friends, family and classmates as they deal with his death. He was a gifted musician, so they try to pay him tribute through music, but then the politics of it - seeming to glorify suicide - come into play, as they would in the real world. I'm sad to say this happened last year in my own outer circle, and was on the "principal's" end of the event, struggling with optics even as I, like everyone else, wanted to highlight a young person's life and achievements. Permanent Record isn't arch or melodramatic or treating things in a formulaic way. It is, instead, sadly relatable.

It's too bad about The Prince of Pennsylvania. It had a lot of things going for it, not least of which a pretty good performance by Keanu Reeves, but also a stupid criminals plot of the type I love to see fall apart, and characters that don't feel pulled from stock. Really, everyone has a little something extra to make them seem fresh and interesting. It just doesn't work structurally, is all. I checked the clock and the plot only finally kicks in at the exact mid-point, meandering until that time. Yes, we're getting to know the characters, but there doesn't seem to be a point. Once we're in it, there are some very fun bits - Keanu's character has kidnapped his own father from a coal mine and is desperate to get ransom, but it's a terrible plan - only it crashes to a rather unsatisfying resolution. Or rather, the resolution is fine, but the epilogue feels wrong, isn't properly set up, or else fails to pay off certain things the film spent too much time on. And that last line is a real groaner. A swing and a miss, but in other hands, could have been a minor classic.

Undoubtedly, my favorite type of villain is the manipulative kind (it's kind of also my favorite type of anti-hero), so Dangerous Liaisons is right up my alley. Glenn Close and John Malkovich are delicious French aristocrats playing games with people's lives, challenging one another to greater and greater deeds of seduction. It's not seduction for sex or conquest, but for cruelty's sake. Their motivations are loftier and more spiritual, which makes them more evil. So what happens when they allow themselves to be touched by a soul they're trying to corrupt? From a distance looking like a boring historical drama, Liaisons is really a darkly comic sex comedy and duel of wit. Great lines abound, and the leads are magnetic. I wish their victims were as richly written, but the epistolary novel the film is drawn from necessarily stayed with certain points of view, so the characters incarnated by Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves feel a little under-drawn. My one regret is that the film doesn't end some 10 minutes before its actual run time. If it had, the ending would have felt triumphant and left one wanting to see a whole extra film of dark manipulation. As it is, there's a freight train of epilogue that's good, but not as thrilling.

2 comments:

De said...

Free Enterprise definitely didn't age well. I still like the Shatner stuff, but the Mark and Robert stuff is downright embarrassing now. It's one thing to like the stuff you consume, but to be consumed by the stuff you consume (pop culture, alcohol, sex, etc.) isn't something to be applauded or celebrated. Or maybe I'm just a cranky old man now.

Siskoid said...

Definitely, it's a product of its time, and the product of first-time film makers. In the supplementary material they frequently say that they wanted to portray these echoes of themselves warts and all, and so the characters' flaws aren't meant to be applauded, but I don't think they had full control over their message if that's the case, because they are rewarded rather than punished for them (as movie formula takes hold maybe).

 

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