This Week in Geek (18-24/11/19)

Buys

Doctor Who's animated adaptation of the lost serial The Macra Terror finally came out, and I also got Julian Barnes' 2016 novel The Noise of Time.

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Contender for worst trailer relative to movie in 2019, Charlie's Angels wears its Girl Power on its sleeve and that's just fine with me. Such things always seem a little old-fashioned to me, but then I look up and see all the bros and 'gaters spamming the Internet with their misogyny and I think, yeah, we're still there, fight on, Angels. Spy comedies are totally my jam, so though Liz Banks' flick has all the usual tropes - the race for the MacGuffin, the mole plot, etc. - that's just a rope on which to hang action and comedy. On the action front, it's got some very good fights (if sometimes cut a little finely) and fun infiltration shenanigans. And it's genuinely funny. Kristen Stewart's character especially - it's not just how she's written, but the subtle things she brings to the performance - but she's not alone. Patrick Stewart, Luis Gerardo Méndez, Sam Claflin, and Banks herself also have fun moments. Paying tribute to past iterations of the Angels, including allowing just the right dash of camp to the proceedings, the movie also expands on the world, in a way that reminded me of John Wick. I almost turned to my (female) neighbor in the theater to ask "Are YOU an Angel?". Fun stuff, with a boppin' soundtrack. Stay through the end credits for a string of amusing cameos.

For the first time, I got to see Princess Mononoke on the big screen (indeed, in WIDE screen, because I own it on video cassette), and in the original Japanese (sorry Gillian Anderson!). As usual, Gibli (and in this case, Miyazaki himself) in a theater makes my eyes water at the beauty and imagination, even if this one has a couple of dated CG elements (morphs, mostly), which I don't hold against it. A rich ecological fable set on the slippery edge between Mythical Japan and the gunpowder revolution, the film puts us in its hero's headspace. I don't think we can easily choose a side either. Obviously, the destruction of nature is a bad thing, but the "villain", Lady Ebochi, is doing what she thinks is right for her people. In a way, she's no different from the Wolf and Boar gods, simply the manifestation of a species' drive to thrive and survive. Ultimately, it's about balance, which is no doubt why a character with a foot in both worlds lends her name to the title. For fans of later Miyazaki coming to this fresh, it's going to be a fair bit more violent than what they're used to, but the wealth of detail, in animation as well as theme and subtext, is absolutely characteristic of his style, and may still be his most relevant and enduring work. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

At home: McG's version of Charlie's Angels from 2000 leans so far into camp, it becomes ridiculous, but not so far that I can enjoy it the way one might the 1966 Batman movie or even something like Spice World. When you have supporting players like Bill Murray and Tim Curry, and you only manage silly, not funny, there's a problem. Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore have good characters (I guess the latter is that generation's Kristen Stewart), but Cameron Diaz does not. I'm never sure what she's supposed to be - ditz? nerd? awkward? smooth? - and I'm ready to say she's actively bad in the role, whatever that role is supposed to be. When I compare this to the newest adaptation, the big difference is that this one is male gaze-y AF, to the point where it irked me. Not only is the audience forced to see random butt and cleavage shots (and bad sexual innuendo), but all the guys in the film itself are breast-struck in a caricatured way to heighten the experience. The actresses are obviously having a lot of fun (as per the bloopers in the credits sequence) and almost own it. You can also look forward to McG trademarks. It's a glossy-looking film with a hit-laden soundtrack, which counts for something, but all in all, it doesn't have the heart of something like Chuck, which is McG's actual gift to the super-spy genre.

Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle takes everything wrong with the first Angels film and doubles down on it. On the face of it, it's just as silly, just as fun if you thought it was fun, and just as dumb if you thought it wasn't. It trades Bill Murray for Bernie Mack, and Tim Curry for John Cleese. There's a Shia LeBoeuf sighting, and the plot is easier to follow for the most part. And yet, still not funny. In fact, this even campier effort is sunk by sadistic moments provided by villains who are much too violent for the tone of the movie. The other problem is that the bluescreen work and CG explosions are TERRIBLE. And there are a LOT of them. The girls are flying around like superheroes and none of it looks remotely real, and I kept thinking of cheap Asylum movies. It wants to be The Matrix in the way it presents action, but at a fraction of the processing power, looks like something a fan might have made and put on YouTube. Diaz is as bad as ever, if not worse (why is there a scene of her gleefully peeing?), Liu's character loses her edge, and Barrymore's predilection for bad boys gives us a shockingly stupid scene in the climax. Made me want to throttle someone, all right.

Susan Seidelman's promising first feature, Smithereens, is a neo-realist punk indie character study set in a New York of vibrant colors, interesting music, and grungy dilapidation. No romance here, except maybe what's in Wren's head. She says (or acts like) she wants to join a band, wants to leave New York, wants to fall in love, wants to be a fashion icon... But she wants to live the dream, not earn it. So she's a liar, and a profiteer, a bum who burns every couch behind her. It's the punk attitude with real consequences (suggesting, without every mentioning it, that you need to be well off to actually say F*** the world) and her nihilism spins her into friendlessness, and poverty, and hopelessness. It's a story about how someone ends up on the streets, with the very real notion that it was, in some way, her choice. Susan Berman is a kind of inner city Molly Ringwald as Wren, a spoiled brat without the suburban princess trappings. The ending is elliptical, but we can well imagine where it's all heading, and it's nowhere good. Still a relevant picture, even in our post-punk, post-grunge, post-wherever we are now world.

After a very indie debut, Susan Seidelman went on to make stuff like Suddenly Seeking Susan, She-Devil (oh boy), and Making Mr. Right, which are all female-led films, and what an indie-punk feminist film-making might get up to if hired by Hollywood to make formula films, I guess. Making Mr. Right is a high-concept romcom about a PR pro (Ann Magnuson) having to sell a space-age android (John Malkovich, who also plays its inventor), with fish-out-of-water, twin misunderstandings, type humor. It's rather silly on the whole and Makovich can't shed his creepiness to make Ulysses actually endearing. The film might be entirely forgettable if not fo Seidelman's quirks. It's blazingly colorful, for one thing, and it shows women in a way that's both sex-positive and unromanticized. Her style is to me encapsulated in an early scene where Magnuson shaves her armpits while driving to work. Ultimately, it's about the ridiculousness of the female impulse to change a man, but it's not sure what it wants to say about it within the parameters of the genre.

Australian director Jane Campion's Sweetie starts out as a cock-eyed oddball comedy, but when the title character shows up at her sister's house, it becomes a cock-eyed oddball drama about living with a mentally ill member of the family. Not that Kay gets a clean bill of mental health, but her quirks and progressively distant relationship with her boyfriend are eventually informed by Sweetie and their parents (who eventually enter the story). Her ill ease around trees is especially relevant through the metaphor of putting down roots and family trees. She is the dysfunctional fruit of a dysfunctional tree. In Sweetie, we find a grown child prey to wild mood swings, treated by way of revertigo by her father (who lets her get away with everything) and her sister (who shouts at her like one would a disobedient pet, and indeed, Sweetie takes on the traits of an animal when she's feeling anxious and angry). There's an actual child in the movie, and we can actively see some kind of family trauma transference going on as he is witness to the story. Campion manages to infuse her film with both ugliness and forgiveness, which has a beauty of its own. And visually, people are always in the wrong place in the frame, or we're too close, or we're at an odd angle, and that perfectly represents this family dynamic.

It made Marlee Matlin at star, and quite right too (and yet, not a big enough one). Children of a Lesser God is a complex love story in which William Hurt is consistently denied becoming an Abled Messiah to Matlin's fiercely proud deaf woman. Based on a stage play that didn't have the luxury of subtitles, Hurt does a lot of interpreting for the audience, a tic that might seem unnatural in anyone but a voice teacher probably used to speaking sign language back at the student. But it also puts us in his world (and I wish I knew enough signing to shut the sound off and watch it from her perspective). These guys love each other, but they have to learn to live with their communication problems, and while that's universal if heightened here, there's also the matter of their coming at disability from totally different angles. He teaches people how to adapt to the hearing world, she would rather people adapt to her circumstances, and as a kindness, perhaps, the two of them might meet in the middle. The film also acknowledges, then, that it goes both ways. She is mute to us, but we are mute to her. And it's never that simple, and yes, there's shame and self-loathing and anger and yet beauty in the experience. Matlin gives Sarah a sensuality that brings us into her world too. In the credits, I also found out the movie was filmed in New Brunswick, and that's so rare I can't believe I never knew. Cue people having sign language conversations sitting on lobster traps.

An Affair to Remember was a remake of 1939's Love Affair, and whichever you see first (probably AAtR), the other will seem like a direct copy. The original isn't as polished, but it is more economical, and while the remake has the punchier script, Love Affair is more subtle, in large part because its stars have such a naturalistic delivery, filled with hesitations and pregnant silences. Irene Dunn is charming and funny, of course, and Charles Boyer, an ACTUAL Frenchman - sorry Cary Grant - adds a lot, at least to a French-speaking audience. No subtitles, so you Englishers don't know what you're missing. I'll freely admit some things work better in the glossy remake, and Grant is the more iconic star, but I might like Boyer best. In any case, it's Maria Ouspenskaya as the grandmother who runs off with my heart in this. She is so damn touching, with her trembling hands and perceptive eye. She floored me. Basically, I'm saying both versions of the film are worth the watch, just maybe not back to back unless you're writing a compare/contrast essay.

Ingmar Bergman's semi-autobiographical Fanny and Alexander doesn't work like a normal memoir, since Bergman has said he is not only Alexander, but the strict bishop who becomes the mother's second husband as well. Even with the 188-minute theatrical release (I'll attempt the 312-minute TV version some day), there's almost too much to unpack, but I'll give my readers some leads. First, knowing the director's interest in existentialism and the nature of God, this is the story of a boy trapped between an artist's creative impulse (the theatrical family) and a moral rigidity (the bishop) that while exterior forces in the film, compete within Bergman himself, as evidenced by the visions of characters representing each. In their power dynamic, we also glimpse the conflict between fiction (lies) and Truth. Though the film starts fairly realistically, magic eventually enters the frame, perhaps because these are a child's memories, and the explanations fantastical (though there are plenty of scenes where the children do not figure). In the sumptuous and perfectly posed production (and its four distinct houses), I detect a history of theater (from presentational Passion Play to Shakespeare and on to Strindberg and his dramatization of the unconscious. The houses are also the architecture of religion, starting with a Catholic Christmas, imposing Protestant asceticism, and escaping to Jewish mysticism. As for why Fanny shares the title when she is essentially a mute character, we must turn to the always-present themes of time running out, impermanence, and the quest for continuity the family offers. And so what the characters cling to, lovingly, kindly and for some, possessively, is family. This is Alexander's story and perspective, but he cannot be dissociated from his sister. The title ties their fates together, no matter what. Like I said, almost too much to unpack.

1953's The Hitch-Hiker, by Ida Lupino, is based on true events, tracks the last free days of fugitive on a killing spree, and specifically the experience of two men on a fishing trip, who meander down to Mexico and get themselves carjacked and taken hostage by the killer. More psychological horror than action thriller, the two men offer a quiet heroism, simple resolve under pressure, but are largely impotent before a crazy man with a gun, and this despite their military background. None or little of the macho bullshit Hollywood normally would have churned out, so if you want a feminist reading of it, there you have it. William Talman is creepy in the lead role, with his lazy eye keeping watch through the night, and both Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy exude a weary everyman quality even before things take a turn for the worse. As for Lupino, her film is well shot, economical, and turns the sunny California desert into a sort of noir western wasteland.

It's clever that In a Lonely Place casts Humphrey Bogart as a screenwriter who doesn't want to read the book he doesn't want to adapt, because the movie is based on a book too, and because of censors, it doesn't really follow the book either (the novel puts you in the mind of a serial killer, which isn't the case here. The result is a descendant of Hitchcock's Suspicion, in which a Bogart's girlfriend (Gloria Grahame) starts to suspect him of being guilty of a young woman's murder, just as the police do. Onscreen evidence suggests he didn't do it, but as the film progresses, we see less-than-endearing traits come out. He lacks empathy, he has a macabre (writer's) fascination for murder, he's quick to anger and to violence. What we excuse at first slowly becomes grist for the mill, and in the push-and-pull of the romance, Grahame falls prey to psychological terror. Even absent the noir plot, a strong exploration of trust and its relationship to love.

The Tall Target is a near-noir historical thriller based on the alleged Baltimore Plot that would have seen Lincoln assassinated while he was still President Elect by secessionist agents. As with many successful nailbiters, it takes place almost entirely on a train, with Dick Powell as a disgraced policeman and just about the only man who thinks the threat is real. The mystery works, punctuated by action beats, and of course, the conspiracy and just good, old-fashioned hard-headedness getting in Powell's way. It's kind of funny than his character is called John Kennedy, considering it wouldn't have meant anything in 1951. There's even a scene where another character remarks that it's a pretty common name, and there are probably several people with that name. But the most interesting thing is the political climate of the day, well used by the film. Anxiety about the possible Civil War, realpolitik about Lincoln's legitimacy, propaganda about slavery (from both sides)... That's really what makes The Tall Target more than another locomotive thriller.

For many, I hear, Jennifer Connelly sent hearts a-flutter in Labyrinth. Not me. My Connelly-related hot-under-the-collar moment was Dark City. In my head canon, the Wachowskis once had dinner with Alex Proyas and they all brainstormed a movie, then went their separate ways to do their own thing. Proyas was first to movie screens, but the Wachowskis would get the more iconic and for most audiences, more mind-blowing, The Matrix out the next year. Dark City has too much Kafka and too little kung fu, I guess. What we do get is a great noir look, intriguing ideas about nature vs. nurture, the power of memories, and the existence of the human soul, and the climactic reveals are still eye-popping. That said, the characters are, by necessity, a little bland. Only Kiefer Sutherland's could be said to have more continuity, but his halting speech pattern grates after a while. It may be true to say Dark City is a triumph of design over story, and it's appeal is less universal than The Matrix's, but I still like it a lot as a tribute to the power of memories and nostalgia.

Radio Days is Woody Allen's tribute to the Golden Age of radio, a patchwork of childhood memories and tall-ish tales about an industry that was replaced by television (with some satirical nudges and winks at how it WAS the television of its day, corrupting youth, and so on). While it mostly follows his fictionalized family (his stand-in is played by baby Seth Green), we often take little trips into the industry itself, and some of the now forgotten celebrities who are treated almost as urban legends (i.e., have these people really been forgotten and I can't find any information about them, or are they vague memories turned into characters?). One of these, starring Mia Farrow as a woman with a pronounced accent, we return to again and again, and while it has its moments (like every plot thread, if we can call any of this a plot), I feel like it could have been a single anecdote and done. I have some interest in radio as main popular medium, and the film's characters are certainly amusing all the way through, but I felt a little disconnected from this one, perhaps because the framing tale it too thin, or perhaps because someone else's nostalgia acts as a foggy barrier, I'm not sure.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is another of Woody Allen's odes to the 1930s and 40s (like Radio Days and The Purple Rose of Cairo), and in this case, he tries his hand at filming what could be a script from that era. As a particular fan of 1930s Hollywood, I immediately perked up at the stock sets and bantery language, but by trying to mash up several genres popular in 1940 (the year it is set in), it sometimes feels a little confused. It has elements of screwball romantic comedy (the two leads who hate each other), pulp (the swami who hypnotizes people into crime), and noir (a femme fatale and an insurance investigator right out of Double Indemnity), as well as the sexism of the era, albeit contrasted with more modern attitudes (though the movie tries to have its cake and eat it too in terms of consent). Not everyone is on the same page in terms of acting style/delivery either, with Charlize Theron giving a performance that could be right out of a pre-Code picture, while others, namely Allen himself and Helen Hunt, feel more modern. I know Allen was forced to take the lead role when his first choices declined, but he makes everything more cringy, and I don't think he can carry the type fo comedy he's angling for. Loved the music though.

The Animatrix re-evaluated... For me, the collection is necessary only for "Beyond", the one in which a haunted house is, in Matrix terms, simply glitchy. I frankly do not need the to see things that are sufficiently explained on screen in the three movies, but "The Second Renaissance" is so gorgeous and inventive, it becomes the other reason for watching Animatrix. On the other end of the spectrum, "Flight of the Osiris" is a remedial video game cut scene that was only once remarkable for its CG mastery. Trinity's appearance in "A Detective Story" likewise almost tanks a nice noir. Animatrix carves a much better niche by showing us how else people are experiencing the Matrix, but unfortunately, what should have been a highlight - "World Record" - looks so ugly, I can't bear it. More than 15 years on, I note that while I only watched this a couple times, I had the included soundtrack on in the background for a good long while. Revisiting the shorts was a bit of a musical stroll down memory lane.

The Matrix Revolutions re-evaluated... My opinion really hasn't changed. I still don't get people who like Reloaded better and think this one's the stinker of the bunch. At least it has a STORY to tell to human moments (as opposed to philosophical interludes), and action that seems to matter beyond whether or not they're cool or not. Don't get me wrong, the dialog is often cliched, and aside from Link and Zee, the couples are too busy being badasses to show any of the required chemistry. Oh, and the Kid's intriguing origin in Animatrix never pays off. Swell. Look, a better-balanced Reloaded wouldn't have put us in a position where EVERYTHING has to happen in this one, but there we are. Cue Battle of the Five Armies-length attack on Zion, which is still the big technical achievement given the amount of animation and rendering that had to go into it. It means we're away from the main stars for a long time, and certainly away from the Matrix, and maybe that's why fans were displeased with it. I don't have much of an issue with it, except when time is of the essence and Neo wastes it. But leaving expectations at the door, this is still the better story, and I much prefer the final fight between Neo and Agent Smith here than the multiple Smiths one in Reloaded. It looks gorgeous where the previous one was too much like a video game with its bad CG Neo. The latter makes an appearance again, but is only noticeable for one shot. I felt everything in Reloaded was just a little too long, and I don't get the same feeling with Revolutions, maybe because the set pieces matter, they're not there for their own sake. I was surprised at how much they dropped hints of a 4th chapter... one day... almost 20 years later.

Big Finish Doctor Who Audio: The Acheron Pulse by Rick Briggs is a sequel to The Burning Prince, with the 6th Doctor returning to the same Empire decades later in a new incarnation. Once again, he's companionless for the outing (so I guess Doc7 will be to when the trilogy wraps), but that's not as much of a problem for Colin Baker's Time Lord. I always feel like he builds a strong companion relationship with all his allies. The audio has a lot of wild ideas - the Pictish culture, the Undervoid, the villain's final fate - which kind of leave the main plot and the connections to the previous story in the dust. They may also be too wild for their own good, and by the end, I've got big question marks over my head because they're under-developed. Was Briggs forced to add some of these things to set up the next act? If so, being squeezed between two stories does him no favors. The Acheron Pulse certain suffers from too many epilogues, as if the story was too slim for a full four parts.

4 comments:

Floyd Lawton said...

I feel I must speak up as a member of the Reloaded was so much better community. Your post has made me curious to revisit the movies to see if my opinions have changed. At the time I thought Reloaded showed the depth of the world but I don't think I was thinking about story critically (I was in my early 20s) back then to see the elements you pointed out.

I loved Matrix and I thought it was groundbreaking for sci fi movies and I was very into Reloaded. Animatrix I found depressing, so much so that I own it but have only ever watched it once 20 years ago. I was so let down when I saw Revolutions in the theater that I never rewatched it except for bits and pieces. I'll have to find it streaming somewhere because I never bought it, which is a measure of how disappointed my completist self was with the trilogy. It wasn't really whiny fanboy as much as an overwhelming feeling of "that was super cool but they mined the shit out of it for four years and now I'm just done". Obviously a forerunner of the last twenty years of pop culture sci fi but we didn't know that at the time. I was intrigued by the points you made and I am interested in rewatching it now that we are almost twenty years on.

On a selfish side note, have you talked about HBOs Watchmen anywhere? I've gone back through This week in Geek but didn't see anything. Between the blog and the podcasts I hear so much about what your brain has to say, I feel a weird void not knowing what you think about the show :-)


Siskoid said...

I don't get HBO, so anything on there I would usually have to watch upon DVD release. Even when I stream shows on Netflix, Prime, etc, I wait for a whole season or series to be done before I post it on This Week in Geek. And then there's the fact that, as you can see, I watch a lot of movies, but very little television, which is currently my preference. I am wayyy behind on any show I've been following, especially superhero shows, except the two I continue to faithfully review as episodes come out (i.e. Trek and Who). So Watchmen, a property I don't overly affect, isn't on my radar yet, since I have yet to watch even an episode of Doom Patrol, which I DO affect.

So I don't think anything... yet!

Floyd Lawton said...

That makes perfect sense, I'll stay tuned until then. Thank you for the personalized response from what is usually an omnipresent narrator's voice I can't talk back to.

It does seem that my brain has achieved Siskoid lexicon singularity and reading your response was like the voiceover in a film where the actor reads a letter in the voice of the character who wrote the letter. That was probably funnier in my head than in reality. Thanks for all the hours of great entertainment :-)

Siskoid said...

Confirmed! I'm capable of having conversations!

Thanks for the kind words, Deadshot.

 

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