This Week in Geek (30/09-06/10/19)


In theaters: I've seen about two-thirds of Ghibli Studios' output and on the strength of that I'm declaring my favorite ever is The Secret World of Arrietty. Wow. The film rapidly immerses you into the world of tiny "borrowers", barely 4 inches tall, who live inside the walls and floors of a house. Arrietty is an engaging heroine, at an age where she wants to see what's out there and get into trouble, and she makes us want to follow her. Living at that size is beautifully imagined and the garden and house come off as magical places, while "human beans" are given extreme close-ups to show Arrietty's point of view. I didn't even need a plot line. I just wanted to experience the world. The story is pretty sweet, however. A sick boy comes to live at the house and discovers its tiny inhabitants, throwing their lives into turmoil despite his best intentions. The friendship between the two young people is nevertheless the key to saving the family from disaster. And still, it's a stolen season story, and we're not allowed to know what happens next, except in our dreams. Sad or happy ending? We decide. (Unless you're watching the English dub, in which case a needless voice-over blows the mystery.) FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

At home: The Good Place keeps destroying its status quo, building a new one, and destroying that one as well, every few episodes, all while plunging into ethical philosophy. It may just be one of the bravest television shows ever. Season 3 is no different. If we've seen "Heaven" and "Hell" in past seasons, this one largely takes place on Earth. A little less of the absurdist visuals perhaps, but the humor resides in the characters anyway, and I often found myself laughing out loud. Towards the end there, I thought I knew how it would end, and indeed, thought this was a fine third and final chapter of the story. But no, when I would have zigged, the show zags, and zags AGAIN. What?! There's just no way to keep one step ahead of this one. Season 3 uses its shifting planes to include a number of fun guest-stars, not only the semi-regular Maya Rudolph, but also Adam Scott, Stephen Merchant, Nicole Byer, and others. Keep it coming, Fremulon!

1968's The Split started life as an adaptation of one of the Parker novels, albeit a sequel to Point Blank where Parker was renamed Walker and was played by Lee Marvin. It morphed into a vehicle for the just-as-cool Jim Brown, however, and Parker was renamed McClain. Like, what's wrong with the name Parker?! Anyway, the result is a slick and dirty little noir about a heist/armed robbery and how everything goes wrong before the criminal gang can split the money. It has a star-studded cast, though many had yet to really come into their stardom at this point. And it's shot with flair and gusto by Gordon Flemyng. I wasn't expecting this level of invention from the director of the Dalek movies. Not to say it's perfect. On my best day, I have trouble staying interested in a "final shoot-out", the robbery is less interesting than what comes before (a crazy recruitment phase) or after, and what the heck is that freeze-frame ending all about? But it's a lot of fun, set to funky Quincy Jones beats.

With his debut, Funeral Parade of Roses, director Toshio Matsumoto was intent on breaking all the rules. Those of the censors, of cinematic formalism, of society itself. Even before he puts Oedipal stuff in there, this exploration of the gay and trans subculture in Tokyo is already pretty avant-garde. And then he keeps switching genres on us, inserting sped-up comedy, or grand gignol, or flashes of absolute art house, or pulling out of the narrative to interview the actors about their roles (they are all gay, or trans, or sex workers, essentially playing themselves). Formally, he makes use of mixed media, editing in elements of contemporary art, magazine-style photography, and photonovels. Chronologically, the film doubles back on itself several times, so that it's not clear what's a flashback (except for the genesis of gorgeous glam queen Eddie's persona) and what's a flash-forward. Alternating between docudrama, subversive comedy, objet d'art, and horror show, Funeral Parade of Roses is an at-times oblique but loving exploration of identity, body dysmorphia, and a culture that didn't yet know how to talk about itself. Kubrick fans, take note: This was apparently a big influence on A Clockwork Orange.

In Black Narcissus, nuns in Himalayan India move into a palace that was once where a prince kept his harem and, by some kind of Gothic principle, it starts to test their vows. The coldest nun (Deborah Kerr) starts to daydream about her youthful dalliances. Another goes mad with passion, jealousy and wrath (taking us in horror territory). The others show flashes of anger, of panic, of depression. And yet it's a beautiful place, with wonderful cinematography. Is Black Narcissus an indictment of colonial religion, contrasting nature, "primitive living" and paganism with the core denial of human passions represented by the nunnery? Or does it exalt religious service by dramatizing the threat to the nuns' souls? Is it less about religion than it is colonization (and is there a difference)? Either way, nature seems to reclaim this corner of "civilization". My usual warnings about black face, but otherwise this is a great-looking, well-directed film that offers a lot of surprises. Certainly not following any kind of formula.

Spooktober is upon us, and I'll try to watch a horror film each day (follow my progress on Twitter). Can you believe I had never seen the original Halloween before? Well, it's true. Though Psycho is the granddaddy of the slasher film, Halloween is foundational to the genre, essentially the spark that lit the fire of a craze, and set up many of the tropes we associate with slasher flicks. What is most intriguing is that despite its fingerprints being all over the movies to come, it is also very distinctively UNLIKE its imitators. No jump scares, for one thing. Carpenter's score is perfect for building tension, but it doesn't cheat. The jump scare is a tool to STARTLE audiences, not scare them. Another interesting element is that we're often seeing things from Michael Meyers' point of view. We're in the psycho's head, then over his shoulder, and eventually third person and more with Jamie Lee Curtis' babysitter under siege. This may be why Michael is a faceless monster with unexplainable motivations (and why it was probably a mistake to dig into his back story, from what I hear of the sequels). He is a cipher, one that is initially us, until we, with the help of the camera, reject the murderous impulse. There's a lesson about horror film massacres embedded in this device: Most victims are unlikable if not dislikable, and it's the person the film makes us empathize with (Curtis' much more responsible and warmer teen) who survives.

Paul W.S. Anderson probably shouldn't have let someone else direct his second Resident Evil film, RE: Apocalypse, because Alexander Witt really makes a mess of it. Expanding the zombie/monster virus' scope from a claustrophobic facility to an entire city, allowing for interesting fighting environments like a church and a school, should be a no-brainer. And some of the gags are certainly good - Alice is a smart fighter that's about a lot more than shooting point blank at a creature. But most of the action is so badly shot and/or edited as to take the stuffing out of every sequence. The shots that do work are right out of the playbook and are dull from overuse, and the rest is quick cuts, frame rate manipulation, etc. hiding all the work we KNOW Milla Jovovich is doing. But what perhaps tanks the movie the most is the lack of a proper point of view. We get some 1st person shooter type of stuff (like the way they introduce Sienna Guillory as the initially over-the-top-macho babe to make us think she's Alice), but the narrative keeps switching between protagonists and makes us impatient for the people we actually want to follow. Too bad, because it distracts from the fun of the crazy plot.

Images is Robert Altman's take on the horror film, starring Susannah York as a housewife slowly(?) going mad and hallucinating old lovers, versions of herself, and still seemingly in the driver's seat (that's an accidental pun, for those who have seen it) and trying to "self-medicate" by taking care of her demons herself. But what's a hallucination and what's real? The film keeps you guessing. Is her husband as played by René Auberjonois, presented as the reality, ACTUALLY real? Is the young girl she meets a real person, or just herself at that age? I didn't trust anything, even the punchline, and still don't. The characters may finish the jigsaw puzzle they find in that windswept cabin, but I'm not sure we do. And that's for the good. Altman is adept at laying in reflections and shifts in perception without signposting them, and intriguingly, he lets York read the children's book she was writing at the time over the action, as a further layer of reality (or irreality). The characters' names were taken and redistributed from the actors' names, which also adds to the mirroring effects, meta-textually at least. When people discuss the Altman canon, Images is usually ignored, but it has the plotting intricacy of Gosford Park, somehow married to the improvisational quality of The Player, Nashville, et al.

Spiritual precursor to both Bewitched and The Love Witch, Bell, Book and Candle reunites Kim Novak with her Vertigo co-star James Stewart to fairly amusing effect. She's a witch who, practically on a whim since witches can't technically love, puts him under her spell. Eventually, she'll have to choose between commitment (love) and freedom (her powers) in a way that can only be read as sexist, but that mirrors a lot of romcoms. The woman is attractive because she's independent and owns her power, but the man needs to dominate her and rob her of the very thing that attracted her to him. Here it's witchcraft, but you could call it sexuality, etc. It's very '50s in that sense, but while it comments on gender politics, I don't think it necessarily agrees with the conclusion. It's unevenly funny, but when it amuses, it amuses well. The way Novak tortures Stewart's fiancée, is a great little scene. Stewart is well-practiced as a tongue-tied leading man. Jack Lemmon and Elsa Lanchester are fun as the other witches in the family. And Ernie Kovacs steals the show as the lush writer of supernatural manuals. Him and Pyewacket, the PATSY-award winning cat who plays the witch's familiar. Great cat actor!

The City of the Dead (AKA Horror Hotel in the States, because all horror films must sound like schlock) is an atmospheric black and white tale of witches who perform human sacrifice, living in a tiny, foggy town in New England. Visitors are welcome for all the wrong reasons! Part Psycho, part Wicker Man (though neither could have influenced it), it is filled with creepy performances and beautiful horror cinematography, though the first half is stronger for being more mysterious, despite Venetia Stevenson reading her lines rather stiffly. Once we know what's going on and the story pivots, it's less effective, but still comes to a great finish. Lessons I learned: If Christopher Lee tells you to go some place, DON'T. And if Valentine Dyall tries to bum a ride, don't let him into your car! Why would you trust these ghouls?! In short, a great mood piece that suggests a lot with relatively little means. Some great editing tricks in there too, I love that kind of stuff.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
Woody Allen's Celebrity stars a couple of neurotic stand-ins for himself, with Kenneth Branagh actually doing an impression of him, which is more than a little annoying, actually. He's a failed writer who responds to his mid-life crisis by divorcing his wife and getting back into dating. Because he's an Allen stand-in, impossibly beautiful women (Famke Janssen, Charlize Theron, Winona Ryder, Melanie Griffith) throw themselves at him. ATYPICALLY, however, he isn't rewarded but punished for his promiscuity. The other character is the equally neurotic ex-wife played by Judy Davis, who if she can get over being dumped, will be able to remake herself. She's the more engaging of the two. Both gravitate towards celebrities of all stripes, one willingly, the other through circumstance, as a sort of quest for betterment. Most of the time, the film presents celebrity status and subculture as vapid and ridiculous, and there are plenty of recognizable faces because apparently everyone wants to work with Allen, if if it's just for a glorified cameo (Trump even shows up, which made my stomach grumbly), and the director takes plenty of potshots at the film industry and even at his own body of work. But it's long, indulgent and slapdash, so while there's good meta-commentary here, a funny zinger there, or a piercing irony somewhere, the film lacks focus and says at once too much and too little.

1998's Mighty Joe Young remake is a Disneyfied shadow of the 1949 original, that despite using the lessons learned by Jurassic Park to create its creature (and the giant ape does look good, a mix of physical and digital effects), suffers from entirely too earnest heroes. That is to say, Bill Paxton and Charlize Theron are cartoon heroes whose supporting case have unmotivated character turns, up against thoroughly evil cartoon villains that weren't part of the original RKO film. Good or bad, the characters don't have any proper motivation other than their "alignment", making for some pretty syrupy sequences. The story is brought into the present day by making it more about animal conservation than putting an ape on the entertainment circuit (albeit with similar results), that present day very much the world of 1998 (Charlize has a pager and a glorified extra, seeing Joe, exclaims "Phat!"). What's really unfortunate is the addition of evil poachers with a link to Jill and Joe's orphaning, who track Joe down to America with a convoluted plan to get their hands on him, which then turns the picture into a sustained action chase with an animal in such peril that it makes the kiddification of the characters (and all the stuff with young kids going oooh, ahhhh, even as the violence happens around them) rather pointless - this is too intense for younger kids. Tonally dissonant, with a formulaic story thant gets worse and worse (nothing past the bit where Joe drags some jeeps around was worth it for me).

Providing what is probably Keanu Reeves' most famous role, The Matrix takes most of its cues from Hong Kong cinema (kung fu and gun fu), with an added layer of cutting-edge CG (not all of which has aged well, not that it matters), but would prove to be a game-changer for American action cinema. As a lover of HK cinema, I can see its fingerprints everywhere, but Keanu looks as proficient as any A-list martial arts star, so the work stands on its own, and we can thank The Matrix as much as Crouching Tiger for reviving an interest in Chinese action pictures, those choreographed by Yen Woo-ping to Western screens, and the essential Dragon Dynasty collection on DVD. Watching it today, its crazy action, heady Buddhist themes, and super-cool aesthetic still work in a way that would never again be captured by the franchise (the Wachowskis get one more chance apparently, we'll see). Perfect soundtrack. Iconic scenes. A career-maker or invigorator for most of the actors involved. One of the most influential movies of the turn of the Millennium. "Whoa." For what it's worth, Neo. I agree.


Green Luthor said...

Unfortunately, The Good Place will be ending with its currently airing fourth season, although at least it'll likely go out on a high note. (And considering I watched most of the first season absolutely loving the show, but still wondering how they could possibly stretch the premise past that first season... they've more than exceeded my expectations.)

(There's also a series of short webisodes setting up The Bad Place's scheme from the season 3 finale. Mark Evan Jackson's Shawn never fails to entertain.) (I probably prefer his character on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but he gets to play the perfect supporting role for Andre Braugher there, so... not really a fair comparison. Shawn is a great role for him, too.)

Anyhoo... is it safe to assume Celebrity may have filmed some scenes in Trump Tower? Apparently, it was a pretty popular location for film shoots... but Trump would insist on having a cameo in any movie that wanted to film there. (Though it wasn't a stipulation that said cameos actually be included in the final cut of the films. More than a few were filmed with the directors fully aware that it was never going to make the final cut, or be a "deleted scene" on the DVD...)

Siskoid said...

I wouldn't say "unfortunately" even if I like the show. Tell your story and get out. Many shows went way past their due date, which was often the 4th season, come to think of it.

I just saw Trump Tower in The Devil's Advocate, but no, it's not in this (I didn't notice nor is it listed on IMDB). Trump appears in a restaurant.


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