This Week in Geek (2-08/09/19)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Luce is a complex drama that cannot properly be unpacked in a short paragraph. It's a big Wow, from me. In a way, it's a superhero story without the superhero trappings. Luce has a tragic origin story, has abilities beyond those of his colleagues at school, consequently feels a responsibility to them, which manifests in a kind of vigilantism. He even has a secret identity, and there's the constant threat that he will be exposed. Superhero story. But that's a structure in which to explore many things, most powerfully, what it means to be a young black man in America. You're either an Obama, or a monster worthy of a policeman's bullet in the back. It's perfection or being denied every advantage, and the immense pressure of that, and where it comes from. The film doesn't play the race card so much as the whole race card deck. Luce's white parents who adopted him out of a war zone, well-meaning and loving colonialists. The black history teacher who comes at it from an antiquated point of view and in effect promotes notions of social naturalism at the detriment of her community. Luce himself comes from a place of privilege and not, so he can recognize it, and not. While the plot has shades of Six Degrees of Separation, at least in the way it treats identity, it provides a fuller discussion, more relevant to today. If that last shot doesn't bring things into focus, I don't know what can. And I am in love with that score. Wow. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

At home: I confess that I Confess held more interest than it actually does for me because it's shot in Quebec. I surmise the story needed a strong Catholic setting, and Quebec in the 50s certainly corresponds to that definition. I don't think the location is THAT well used - what's the point of the climax taking place inside Frontenac? - but it's distinctive and unusual, and though the accents are all over the place, the local day players sound perfect. This is another of Hitchcock's "falsely accused man" movies, the twist being that the priest who gets accused of murder knows who did it, but refuses to break the seal of the confessional. He's an unusual hero who would rather stick to his principles than cleverly loophole himself out of the situation (though in the end, sort of does, but it's not really played that way). There's also an impropriety with a married woman that confuses things. But while it's an intriguing take on the suspense thriller, Hitchcock feels very restrained. There are moments - the opening noir sequence, the moment the killer suddenly starts to sweat and threatens the priest - but the latter's passive resolve keeps the story from achieving many thrills, and the resolution hinges on a moment of panic rather than anything the heroes do. It's almost better if you don't know who directed it, as comparisons may lead to disappointment.

Ingmar Bergman's Persona invites many competing and collaborating interpretations, but given his body of work, what most resonates with me is Elizabet Vogler as God, changing "roles" according to the era, or any given person's faith. In the literal story, she is an actress who one day stops speaking, and absent any real pathology, is sent home with a talkative nurse, Alma. The film is about Alma's personal relationship with God, and because this is Bergman, it's a silent, remote God, one that looks at her creation and finds it shocking and ugly, one that, by her silence, invites confession and introspection. The decoder ring, for me, was the art house intro created with images of the Divine's historical evolution. Even within the film, Elizabet's divinity transforms, especially after Alma comes to think she (and thus her faith) betrayed her. The abstract Christian God of modernity falls to psycho-analysis and the concept of the divine interior (i.e. when you pray, the answers come from some part of you), which in an existential universe, is the source of self-loathing. And so, osmosis between Alma and her God occurs in the third act. It's of course possible to read the film completely from a psychological point of view, or perhaps metatextually (because it sometimes breaks the fourth wall and manifests as film). My single viewing yielded what it did, but the film left a lot of doors open for next time.

Stars in My Crown opens on a preacher coming into an Frontier town and making a sermon at gunpoint. It's even on the poster. From then on, it's really not that kind of a movie, though it's one I wouldn't mind seeing too. Instead, like the novel it's adapted from, it's an essentially plotless series of vignettes presenting the life of an Old West pastor. There are subplots acting as connective tissue, like his difficult relationship with a young doctor who doesn't put much stock in the power of faith, and crucially, miners trying to force a black man to sell his ore-rich land, but for the most part, it's a character study. Not just of Joel McCrae's Josiah Gray, but of the whole town. By the time we get to the bigger events' resolutions, we have enough of a context for them to mean something. Director Jacques Tourneur gives the film a soft touch and some of its poignancy comes from its subtlety. I love the story of the farmer who doesn't believe in God, but most lives by Christian tenets, for example. Tourneur doesn't force the issue, it's just there for the audience to catch. A lot to like in this unusual picture, if you're patient with it.

MGM's Arsène Lupin Returns and he's turned into Melvyn Douglas! The best part of the first film, six years prior, was the participation of the Barrymore brothers, so they are missed, but Douglas acquits himself well enough as the retired gentleman thief who has to investigate a copy cat before the police or an interested American detective follow the leads to him. In the first film, brothers playing against each other was part of the game, so maybe that's why Warren William's G-Man has the same basic look, but at times, it feels like every man in the movie has the same mustache. The mystery of who is impersonating Arsène Lupin doesn't feel like much of a driving force, nor does the seeming romantic rivalry between the two leads amount to anything, but the film has a good finish, a likeable female star in Virginia Bruce, and a decent comedy double act in E.E. Clive and Nat Pendleton. When Lupin has cute animals in his arms... take a drink!

In addition to the seminal comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, Winsor McCay was an early pioneer of animation, producing 10 animated animated shorts in the silent era and developing many of the techniques crucial to the art form. I watched the entire collection, though three are fragmentary (I'd especially have liked to see The Centaurs finished). He starts off with a bang in 1911, dramatizing in live action his pitch to investors (he often pulls a kind of behind the scenes element), before animating his Nemo characters. And it's not simple, easy animation either! Hand-colored, with complicated rotations, perspectives and smooth movement and morphing. Not to say it's downhill from there because McCay keeps innovating - in particular with the notion that realistic and painterly animation could be used to recreate events like The Sinking of the Lusitania - though his looped action technique sometimes makes for repetitive and padded sequences. Gertie the Dinosaur is a famous one, charming if a little clunky because it was originally made to be interactive, on stage. Either way, an intriguing look at early film-making, with a strong sense of craft and some wonderful surreal images.

Bring It On is fluff, but it's iconic fluff that inspired more fluff - its own lesser sequels and the Pitch Perfect series, for example), and it actually does a number of things right. Most notably, it's not a clichéd underdog story, but about reigning champions going up against the worthy underdogs, and thanks to a changing of the guard, the finale will actually pit underdog against underdog, and I think the audience would be happy with either result. The movie is also aware of White Messiah tropes and denies its characters that option. The dialogue's not bad, the comedy works, and the main quartet of stars are attractive and watchable (I mean, they have a cool vampire slayer chick who knows what's what). Where I have problems is in the way they shoot the cheerleading choreography. It all kind of looks the same to me, and changing angles on large groups means they sometimes look haphazard and rather unimpressive. This movie needed to watch more grand musicals. So it never actually gets better than the opening number for me, because at least that had humor.

I'm going to go ahead and say the Astaire and Rogers classic, Swing Time, is overrated. Really, it's only real showstopper is the technically-difficult shadow dance in the Mr. Bojangles, but that's been severely compromised by being an extended blackface sequence that leads into the emotional turning point of the film where you're consistently distracted by thoughts of "when is he gonna wipe it OFF?!". Generally, the songs are better than the dancing in this one. "The Way You Look Tonight" has rightfully become a standard, and there's a lot of fun to be had with "A Fine Romance" and "Never Gonna Dance". However, after a perfectly amusing dance school number with the always well-matched Astaire and Rogers, the movie builds up tension as to whether they can dance in public (because of a jealous boyfriend as band leader) and then gives us... just about the same thing we just saw. As for a romcom plot, the (rom) characters are more fickle than usual, and a little of the (com) character played by Victor Moore goes a long way, but it's fine. I just can't get more exciting than that.

A Damsel in Distress is half a Fred Astaire musical - in which he renounces love shortly before falling in love (as usual) this time with a member of the English aristocracy with an uncertain accent (Joan Fontaine) - and half a Burns and Allen comedy full of silly lines and misunderstandings. That first element is up to Astaire's normal standards, with some nice dance sequences and a few fun songs (I always like it when he shows off his percussionist skills in a number, quite impressive). There's a very weird extended sequence on a fair ground in the middle there, which kind of gave me the spins but was a lot of fun. Some nice characters, some subtle, some broad, but you've seen one of these romcoms, you've sort of seen them all. If I put it over the top, it's because of the other ingredient brought by his comedy co-stars. Gracie Allen is just throwing one funny line after another like there's no tomorrow - she hardly has a line that's NOT a joke - and though sometimes her almost willfully obtuse shtick falls flat, it mostly sings. And Burns and Allen get up to some song and dance as well! I was in the mood for something silly, and I got exactly that.

Well, ouch. Practically every moment in Rush Hour where Chris Tucker is on screen is a painful one. He's desperately trying to do Beverly Hills Cop, but only comes off as an unfunny parody of Eddie Murphy, an obnoxious cartoon character that is never credible as a police detective. Creepbag Brett Ratner, for all his vocal devotion to kung fu cinema, can't get rid of Americanisms like fast cut action (when you have a talent like Jackie Chan, you don't cut out after two moves) and a boring shoot-out at the end. An obvious, predictable, cliché-laden plot is decorated with overt racism, not just from the script, which has ugly American Tucker ridicule everything Chinese (never mind his consistent sexual harassment of one of the only engaging American characters in the film), but from the direction as well, or am I to take the "oriental score cues" as anything but troubling? There isn't even a truly impressive action set-piece to seek my teeth into. Everything Jackie does, I've seen before and done better. About as good as it gets is when he's trying to protect art. About as BAD as it gets is when they use his "fish out water" status to make N-word jokes. I just can't with this one.

Freeway sells itself as a modern adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood, a down-in-the-gutter, potty-mouthed, violent and unseemly adaptation of the fairy tale, and at times that conceit is silly - the picnic basket, for example - at others, it seems to be abandoned (the big chunk between Reese Witherspoon's character getting the better of the Kiefer Sutherland's Big Bad Wolf and the climax), so I'm not sure it's necessary. Or at least, it might work better if it were more subtle instead of telegraphing large chunks of the story. At first, I was hard-pressed to like the protagonist Vanessa, but she eventually becomes a sort of iconic anti-hero that won't apologize for who she is, and proves a lot more noble than her trashy origins might suggest. And that's the whole point here. The Wolf's idea of "garbage people" is probably our own, and we might be asked to revise that, or at least accept that there is value in people we would never want to deal with. Freeway is a grungy 90s film with almost as dark and grotesque a streak as U Turn, but I like it better for what little light shines through (Witherspoon's strange wholesomeness and the cops played by Dan Hayeda and Wolfgang Bodison, to name two examples).

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
Charlize Theron's first speaking role (and yet all the websites insist on calling this her first onscreen nudity), 2 Days in the Valley seems to have the distinction of being constantly called-out for being a rip-off of Pulp Fiction. Sounds like a complaint that was made at the time and has become "received wisdom". I don't see it. While the success of Tarantino's opus got a certain genre of film (neonoir with a quirky streak) greenlit, it doesn't necessarily mean it's a rip-off. In fact, it has a lot more in common with Elmore Leonard than it does QT. A fiasco-laden, convoluted plot in which various characters stumble into one another over the course of a crime plot. It's got a pretty great cast. Charlize is already a star. Jeff Daniels is great, but one sore point is that his story tapers off and doesn't really amount to anything. Danny Aiello is properly the star of the show and gives a very fun performance. And I found some joy in the plot that reveals itself as it goes along. A nice little surprise with memorable characters and locations, give or take the dangling plot thread.

A Walk in the Clouds certainly has beautiful, warm cinematography, but it's probably too syrupy to really make me fall for it, even if I've also worked on a vineyard (it never looked that idyllic though!). Keanu Reeves and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón are fine as the romantic leads, but they get blown out of the water by the patriarchs (one antagonistic, one playing Cupid), Giancarlo Giannini and Anthony Quinn. I was all ready to swallow my personal biases and give the film a recommendation for its painterly look and, despite some overwrought dialog, sincerely romantic moments, and then the ending happened. Looking into it, I find that it's the big deviation from the Italian film this is adapted from - Four Steps in the Clouds - which actually ends on a down note, with the male lead returning to his wife at the end. Alfonso Arau's version forces a happy ending, but also a completely bonkers action climax and cheesy symbolism finish. On the one hand, I can't believe I just saw that, so I'm glad I did. On the other, while I'm all for magical realism in film (and even expect it from Mexican directors), it breaks from the reality established in the previous 90 minutes. Had Arau included a few more overt moments of fantasy (like his Water for Chocolate did), it would have worked. As is, it blows you right out of the movie like a dynamite blast.
Role-playing: Hurricane or not (ok, let's be frank, tropical storm or not) we went ahead with our BarD&D game this week, the start of a trek that will take our bardic heroes to a sacred, but abandoned city. In a way, this was the calm before the plot, with more occasions to learn about the local culture before they have to draw links between what they've learned and what's really happening. So a bit of a grind, going through monasteries taken over by army deserters, with a little mystery (though all but one character avoided the bullet by ignoring a certain thing, and so we had to use our first Raise Dead ever, sorry Black Philip, maybe that just ups your cred with metal heads), a little action, a few engineering puzzles, stupid cannon fodder, and maybe a comedy giant at the end. A full-rounded scenario, in other words, buy not one that advanced the story VISIBLY. (Invisibly, that's another story...)
Set list - Rainbow in the Dark (Dio), Miserlou (Dick Dale), I'll Make a Man Out of You (from Mulan), Ain't No Rest For The Wicked (Cage The Elephant), Have You Ever Seen the Rain? (CCR)

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