This Week in Geek (4-10/11/19)


In theaters: If I were to marathon the Terminator franchise, I would skip from T2 to Dark Fate, avoiding all the lame-brain, never-happened-anyway, Linda-less movies in between. Though this newest (and hopefully last, I think we're done) chapter cannot top either of Cameron's films, I wouldn't be sorry to tack it on at the end. Let's talk problems, because it has many. A lot of the dialog, especially before Sarah Connor shows up, is clichéd and hackneyed. It gives us two key (forced) reveals that aren't reveals at all because they are pretty obvious even if you haven't seen any of the other films. And it sometimes hovers between fan service and NOT giving you the fan service you crave, which will be annoying to those who love or hate fan service equally. BUT! I was excited to see that, parallel development aside, the franchise jettisoned much of its mythos, making the victory from T2 a lasting, meaningful one. Linda Hamilton is a traumatized badass in the same way Jamie Lee Curtis was in the new Halloween last year, and she makes everything better. The movie finds its sense of humor once she shows up. The new Terminator has some fun tricks, and generally, the superhero action is well-choreographed and gives us stuff we haven't seen before. I admit to feeling tension, something that hasn't happened since T2. It is at times as relentless as a Terminator is, but I tend to think that's a feature, not a bug. And on the nose or not, I appreciate that it took the political messaging of T2 and took it further, having the bad guy in a border patrol uniform chasing a Mexican woman who is the key to saving the world. Hang subtlety, this really isn't that kind of movie.

At home: Miloš Forman's 1979 adaptation of the stage musical Hair may not be the tightest or best calibrated musical out there - we're jumping in and out of songs brusquely and I don't always feel like I can understand the lyrics as much as I want to - but damn it, I will always respond well to it. It's got a lot of great songs, for one thing, and the cast of characters is engaging and even touching. I was immediately taken by it, especially the tragic finale, when I first saw it on one of those music stations a few decades ago. Watching it now after many, many years, indeed, just as the "OK Boomer" meme has blown up, it exposes the paradox of this particular generation. So full of idealism, so playfully against authority, they would sell out and assert their own authority. Forman already senses this, perhaps, telling the story 10 years after it's set. Its hippies are free spirits who Claude finds "ridiculous", who Sheila falls in with like the character in Pulp's "Common People", who beg money from their parents, and shirk such responsibilities as wives and kids. Is Claude's intent to throw himself into the country's meat grinder any better? Hair celebrates an era, but also points out its failings. And in no way does that make me care less for the characters, laugh less at the funny bits, or feel less affected by its tragedy.

My DVR is full of international films right now and I need to make the effort, so I got it into my head to "visit" as many different countries/languages this week. Let's see how far I get...

William S. Burroughs puts his stamp of counter-culture approval on Decoder by appearing in Decoder, loosely based on his writings. This is a very German film about a fast food chain using specially-designed muzak to influence customers, and a punk kid (electronica musician F.M. Einheit, one of many musicians in the film) discovering it, fooling around with it, and turning it against the establishment. Visually, the film does what the music is supposed to be doing, which is throwing subliminals at you, quick glimpses of disturbing imagery (not for the squeamish, I don't think they're fake), while also borrowing amply from music video aesthetics. The acting is a little disaffected, which is justified in the kind of culture it's presenting, but it's still a drag. Interesting visuals and sounds aside, I don't think Decoder does much more than present its idea - there's little to engage as a story - though I am intrigued by the jaded policeman who would let the anarchists win, but as an establishment figure, must still pay the price for his passive complicity. There's something to that (and Bill Rice is one of the only true actors in the piece), but the film is too much of a Burroughsian collage to properly draw a line to it.

Deprisa, Deprisa, from Spanish director Carlos Saura (Cría Cuervos), to me is encapsulated in the image of two young lovers walking hand in hand through a field of garbage. We follow Angela, who has fallen in with her boyfriend's band of robbers, something they treat as a bit of a lark, the title (Faster, Faster) both something they shout at scared bank tellers, and a way of life. Live fast, die young, untouched by conventional morality. When life gives you lemons, rob a bank and give the police the finger. It's a simple story, but as can be expected from Saura, beautifully shot, with a real sense of place (the ugliest possible take on Madrid, and yet kind of picturesque in its way), and drawing some extremely natural performances from his cast of non-actors. There's a mystique around this film, as the robbers were apparently played by heroin addicts allegedly paid with drugs. Valdelomar who played Pablo in fact later died from an overdose after robbing a bank, though rumors of others actors' similar demise appears to be unfounded. So naturalistic is right, they're playing echoes of themselves - which truth be told only makes the story more poignant - but they're so unself-conscious, they look like proper actors. Not just proper, GOOD actors. Berta Socuellamos as Angela is a particularly strong screen presence. Extra points for a great Spanish soundtrack (I blamed Cría Cuervos for giving me an ear worm, but this is gonna put even more songs in my rotation). FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage started life as a 6-part TV mini-series on Swedish television, cut down to a still sizable 170-minute film featuring six vignettes in the life of an initially-married couple played by Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson. As a television series, it probably felt less urgent. In the film, what seems like a strong marriage (albeit a pragmatic, friendship-based one), suffers moments of crisis at a faster pace. Whatever the format, Scenes proposes to show complex emotions as actually complex, using characters who express themselves honestly even when they're lying or hiding their meaning. It makes you realize how glib and artificial most relationships are, in fiction. At first, the characters are lying to themselves and other, presenting a cozy front. That front shows more and more cracks and the truth may split them apart. But beyond that is another lie, the lie they tell themselves to justify an ambivalence I suspect stems from mid-life crisis. Maybe they do love each other, but couldn't identify the feeling. This is a most mature presentation of a relationships, with characters who are flawed each in their own way - the wallflower who ties her identity to her role as wife, and the easily humiliated braggart who plays everything as a joke for fear of feeling shame - and both grow out their patheticness by the end, perhaps. Nothing is simple, nothing is easy, everything is up for discussion and dissection, and what comes out of it is a very specific, but oddly real, love story.

Manila in the Claws of Light starts with a black and white credits sequence, very much in a documentary style, establishing from the off that it is a portrait of Manila. And when it turns to color, it nevertheless retains that gritty, natural (and naturalistic in the literary sense), feeling of cinema verite. This is the Philippines in 1975, but it could be an urban center in any poor region, at any time in history, where people suffering in rural areas flock to the big city to find fortune, but mostly find a world that wants to abuse them. Though Julio's quest to find his girlfriend, the victim of human trafficking, is compelling, it nevertheless often feels like an excuse for him to be in Manila so he can experience first and second hand the injustice, inequity and corruption on offer in Manila. Though Julio makes easy friends throughout, many of them come to terrible fates, and several of their stories are told rather than seen. This is a very depressing movie. Downer or not, there's one scene that feels indelible to film canon, and it's essentially the climax where Julio gets a certain piece of bad news as women cackle at a nearby table. A masterful moment of point of view realism.

Not gonna lie, after about 15 minutes I rewound Capricious Summer and started it again, having failed to get a handle on it. Some movies are like that and though I think maybe I'd have to have been raised in communist Czechoslovakia to get the underlying symbolism of it, once I really paid attention, I found the deadpan humor of Jiří Menzel's little film quite amusing. While the characters wax philosophical like we're in a Godard film, and have the look and mild tendency for slapstick the Three Stooges do, the wit is right out of Oscar Wilde, and the film's aesthetic out of 1960s holiday snaps. I was more taken by the earthy and honest character of the wife than the three friends or the sexy circus girl they try to woo because there was a reality to her, and when I say the metaphors just escape me, I can still kind of make out their shapes in the distance. The one that does resonate with me is the director himself doing a high-wire balancing act on screen, which seems to be an admission that this genre mish-mash is a precarious endeavor. Does it fall on its ass, as Menzel's character eventually does? No, I don't think so.

Fellini's Il Bidone ("The Swindle") follows aging grifter Augusto and his crew, initially on a number of cons that might be more amusing if they weren't swindling people who don't deserve it. Still my jam, but this vision of post-war Italy doesn't really allow for romantic notions of Robin Hood-ism. It is an amoral world where nothing is sacred, where even the Catholic Church's authority can be usurped by petty crooks, and indeed, when Augusto seems to grow a conscience (and even that is false, or partly false), his world rejects him with tragic consequences. The grifting world's lack of empathy works hand in hand with a lack of personal connection with others. If you don't care about anyone, it allows you to do terrible things. And so the one man saved is Picasso, whose goodly wife (Fellini's muse, Giulietta Masina, who we don't get enough of) makes him doubt and eventually fade from view. Augusto seems possible salvation in his estranged daughter, but it leads him to ruin. And of course, grifters can turn on each other, no matter the stated friendships. Augusto, well played by Broderick Crawford (who I imagine was dubbed in Italian), is a man the world is passing by. He doesn't understand how all his colleagues have moved on to bigger and better things while he's still pulling off the same old swindles. And similarly, he doesn't see his way out of it because even his best intentions are tainted by the wrong reflexes.

It's hard to get into Jia Zhangke's Unknown Pleasures at first, with its ugly digital video and listless characters, but what feels at first like raw documentary footage soon becomes a more cinematic experience. Certainly, cinephiles have a false sense of China. We're more likely to have seen its action spectaculars, lavish historical dramas, and/or product from Hong Kong. But what's mainland China really like? Unknown Pleasures dares show it. it's poor, it's depressed, its adults have given up, and its youth, raised on a mix of Chinese and Western influences, oscillates between bleak nihilism and YOLO. The key image for me is that of Xiao Ji, one of the three young people we follow, sitting on a stalling motorcycle. These characters have the will to do something, but no means to do so. And so in this squalor we don't only come to understand 2002's China, but a more universal feeling, that of living in a world that doesn't have anything to offer us except quick, destructive pleasures. Some have called this film aimless; I don't agree. It has direction, but like its pause-filled, awkward dialog, the world keeps stalling its characters in place.

In Emitaï, the "Father of African Cinema" Ousmane Sembène presents a forgotten chapter in World War II history. Senegal is a French colony, and as such, the French habitually press-ganged natives into its army, and raided villages for food. One village dares resist, hides its crops, and suffers for it. An interesting dichotomy develops. While the men argue with their gods - now impotent gods effectively displaced by the new French gods Pétain and DeGaulle - the women are conducting an act of passive resistance that puts them on the front line. Though we head inexorably for tragedy, Sembène still finds moments of humor in the absurdity of Senegal being ruled by remote white men, and a culture that is alien to its own. And then doesn't dwell on the tragedy. This is no horror show full of pain and martyrdom. It's a picture of defiance and resistance; that it ultimately fails isn't the point. Emitaï is also gorgeous to look at, vibrant and lush, and that one scene in the army office is comparatively drab in a way that seems quite on purpose.

Early on, Carl Dreyer shows an interest in female heroism with 1925's Master of the House, in which a tyrannical husband and father is used to showcase two forms of heroism. The touching wife endures pains, inequity and cruelty, and is perhaps a domestic precursor to Dreyer's Joan of Arc. His old nanny is still in the picture, and she takes it upon herself to give him a taste of his own medicine while his wife leaves for much-needed rest. The dominator becomes the dominated, as old "Mads" exerts her female will on him. At this point, the film becomes a bit too didactic for my tastes and suffers from the absence of Astrid Holm's kindness and her husband's unreasonable brow-beating. And ultimately, it's very old-fashioned, not to say retrograde. Dreyer may empathize with female characters, but he's still a man of his time. So the husband only needs to see the error of his ways, he's made compliant by the specter of childhood abuse, and the lesson is that the woman should rule the home because that is her PLACE. Starts off strong, but the characters' humanity gives way to something more tedious (and dated) as the film progresses.

"If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended..." That's what I was thinking watching Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up, a film sitting on the border of documentary and fiction. On the face of it, it documents and at times recreates a man's fraudulent impersonation of a famous Iranian film director, with the impostor and his "victims" playing themselves. What we discover is that there are reasons other than malice for wrong-doing, and though a liar, our man was motivated more by the humiliating facts of his life, his love of cinema, and fear of disappointing others. Ultimately, the film is about forgiveness more than it is about the crime, or else the film could not have been made. No one would have wanted to recreate the events for the director. Our man is a liar, but a benign one, which takes us back to the Puck quote, because fiction (and perhaps film especially because it involves actors in addition to the "auteur") is built on deceptions we are all quite happy to believe, and Kiarostami lies to us too, lies that would be undetectable if he'd never given any interviews. I don't really want to tell you what's real and what isn't, and so far as I know, it's mostly real. Or that what's the I and the rest of the audience choose to believe, because we need to.

Gone round the world and because drama translates better than comedy does, perhaps, it's been a rather depressing cinematic experience. Next week, I really gotta cleanse my palate with something exploitative...

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
Was The Gift Sam Raimi proving he was a "safe" choice for directing Spider-Man? Raimi would revisit similar material, but make it proper balls-to-the-wall horror in Drag Me to Hell, but The Gift is merely a supernatural thriller, and a fairly quiet one at that. Apparently based on screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton's mother's psychic experiences, it has Cate Blanchett as the local fortune teller, a single mom in a rural Southern town, getting embroiled in a murder investigation. The picture looks good, but the most Raimi thing in it is possibly the anti-casting of Keanu Reeves as a disgusting wife beater. The rest of the star-studded ensemble is on more solid ground, and Blanchett is essentially the most compelling reason to watch this. It's certainly not the murder mystery, which sadly has a pretty obvious solution, even if they try to red herring the heck out of it. Nor is it for the supernatural or "horror", which doesn't really come together in a coherent way.

The Legend of Bagger Vance almost manages to make be believe golf is awesome. It certainly does better than that one time I played an 18-hole with the Vice-Prime Minister (ok, he wasn't VPM then). It's a nice outdoor activity, but I never considered it much of a sport. Robert Redford's lush film both captures the outdoorsy-ness of it and addresses my biases about a golf's "athleticism". It's got a fine cast: Damon is his usual very good; I like Charlize's take-charge role; Jack Lemmon's narration makes me want to like the film more; and at the center of it is a zen master golfer Will Smith, who gives a strong performance as some echo of God. Of course, everybody is trying to out-folksy everyone else, so your mileage on this idealized, pastoral vision of the Deep South may vary. Ultimately, it's not the smoothed over racial politics that do the film in for me, it's that it's about too many things, and I'm afraid its contention that golf equals life comes off as pretentious mumbo-jumbo as people deal with the Great Depression, PTSD, love lost, being ashamed of one's father, etc. in golf terms. Or maybe not in golf terms. Some good zen lines here and there, well delivered by Smith, but I kept thinking, really? Golf?

Keanu and Charlize's second and last film together is Sweet November, a movie that feels like the 90s romcom craze finally running out of steam right there in front if your eyes. Case in point, there's very little reason for the the two characters to get together. The meet-cute just about works - advertising asshole Keanu costs manic pixie girl Charlize her driver's license and she insists on him driving her around, but that premise is quickly abandoned when she invites him into her one-month program to fix his life by living with her all - you got it - November. The fact that they're a couple on Day 1 and that Keanu gets a personality transplant by Day 4 is enough to show this thing is just automatically hitting romcom plot points without earning any of them. Really, there's no way the jerky boy we meet in the first act is the ethical human being worthy of Charlize's love we have by Act 2. The fantasy caters to both genders. For women, it proves you can change that bad boy for the better. Men, for their part, get to believe a beautiful woman will sex you for a month with the promise of no strings attached after that. Trite, reductive and wrong-headed. I don't think we're really invested when the tear-jerker melodrama of the third act hits, so it just comes off as manipulative and tiring. Jason Isaacs as the Scottish transvestite neighbor is probably the best thing here, but hardly enough to warrant a rating uptick.


Anonymous said...

About "Hair": as I understand it, in the theatrical productions, it is indeed Claude who goes off to Vietnam, and not Berger. That's a hell of a twist to put in the movie version, but it's also tremendously effective.

Fully agreed about how "Hair" doesn't make the hippies (or Claude) into unalloyed heroes. Although about the recent "OK Boomer" thing, I haven't seen much evidence that Millennials are any different than the Boomers they despise.

And give it this much, Treat Williams dancing on that dining room table was charming in ways that the gritty remake was not:

LiamKav said...

"Although about the recent "OK Boomer" thing, I haven't seen much evidence that Millennials are any different than the Boomers they despise."

Boomers are more likely to vote for Trump (or Boris Johnson). They're also more likely to agree with the death penalty and be against equal marriage. And despite spending the past 5 years calling everyone snowflakes and blaming millenials for the demise of breakfast, the diamond industry, chain restaurants and napkins, they have freaked out at the "OK Boomer" thing and are claiming discrimination.

Siskoid said...

Anon: I've obviously never seen the stage play, that is super-interesting!

And yes, Liam's right. "Boomer" in this context, doesn't even designate the generation, but anyone speaking from a place of privilege. Strictly speaking, Boomers should be in their 60s and 70s, and Millennials in their 30s. The teenagers going "ok boomer" are actually Zoomers, and they say this to anyone who's out of touch, whether Boomer, GenX, Buster or, haha, Millennial.

Hating a group for not using napkins and hating one for bringing back fascism is simply a false equivalence.

LiamKav said...

I'm very nostalgic for a time when "bringing back fascism" wasn't a daily worry.

Anonymous said...

Note that I'm not arguing that Boomers are swell, only that Millennials have yet to show me they're any better. From what I've seen, all the generations are more or less the same.

Here in the US, a majority of white people in EVERY age group voted for Trump, yes that includes Millennials. And take a look at those Unite The Right marchers in Charlottesville ... how many of them look like they were old enough to go to Vietnam? Because what I see is a phalanx of Millennials and maybe a few scattered GenX and GenZ. So if you're going to talk about fascism, that's not a Boomer-exclusive phenomenon, not even close. It just so happens that Trump is old enough to be a Boomer ... but then again so were Hillary and Obama, and neither of them is even a little fascist-friendly.

And even the political darlings of the Millennials -- the Bernie Sanders types -- prove to be appallingly indifferent to the issues that minorities face. That is at least a component of fascism: indifference to the suffering of minorities, and resentment that they even want those issues addressed.

Siskoid said...

That's not really what "Ok Boomer" is about though. It's about people acting like they know what's what, then not listening when they're told different by the people who ought to know. It's about making false equivalencies like "well kids today can obviously afford high priced education because they're wasting money on 5$ lattes. It's about a generation that had MASSIVE demographic power creating a world that has no room for smaller groups and in Hair's case, since that's the actual topic here, breaking a promise.

In 1968, youth could change the world because they were the biggest demographic. As soon as they got older, or got what they wanted, they turned that power to selfish ends, robbing future generations of opportunities sometimes passively (by sheer numbers filling all the jobs), sometimes actively, and now refusing to sacrifice any luxury, which they believe they "worked for", and denigrating younger generations for not doing things their way, ignoring the fact they made doing so impossible with their own behavior.

"OK Boomer" means "I'm not listening to your arguments anymore, keep flapping your lips, you've proven you don't listen to me, don't understand me, and never will." Which is why I say it's NOT generational a conflict, it's about privileged majority vs. under privileged minority. Watch me, a 48-year-old, say it to an 18-year-old rich kid. I've done it and will do it again. "Boomer" and even "Millennial" have lost their original meanings. It's certainly not about who is better or worse as far as age groups go, but if you look at who's influencing young fascists, you'll find a whole lot of older fascists. These things aren't born in a vacuum, and no matter individual morality, we have to acknowledge Boomers' demographic strength and their consequent power for either good or evil, as it applies to the second half of the 20th Century into this one.

Anonymous said...

It seems like a sloppy argument that "Boomer" can mean anyone who you don't think respects you enough. And it is very much implying the behavior in question is typical of Boomers in ways it isn't of anyone else. (The Boomers themselves had to deal with elders who didn't respect their issues, of course. The Millennials really, really cannot see how they're following the very same trajectory as the Boomers.)

Whichever generation succeeds GenZ -- maybe they'll be called GenAA -- is going to come hard at the Millennials for not taking climate change seriously, and no, they aren't taking it seriously. At least in the US, the Green New Deal is less a plan to actually fix the climate, and more a catalog of things progressives think are cool. You talk about how the Boomers won't sacrifice any luxuries, well I don't see that the Green New Deal even floats the possibility that climate change will require us all to run the air conditioner less, or even drive less. GenAA is going to be asking some hard questions about why the Millennials took what was perhaps our last chance at keeping earth habitable, and wasted it on performance art.

Siskoid said...

Again, the expression comes from Zoomers who are using the word Boomer in a non-generational way. If you're arguing semantics, you're shouting in the wind. This is just how language evolves, and nobody here is using a textbook definition. It's just what the word has COME to mean.

And yes, later generations are going to be critical of Millennials, and then Zoomers, etc. That's just the way of things (and vice-versa). The Boomers and GenXers have all the actual political power right now, and have had it since the 60s, leading to younger generations being pretty cynical and defeatist about political action. I can't blame Millennials or Zoomers, because the power is all consolidated with the older set. They're the only ones who can effect real change, youth can't EXCEPT through optics (which is what the performance art is really about). The ball has been in the "Boomer" camp for decades.

LiamKav said...

One thing I'd add regarding "Millennials look like they're on the same trajectory as Boomers" comment... That may well be true, but they're not there yet. And we can't criticise younger demographics for things that they do in thirty years time when they hold all the power.

(This does remind me of how weird it is to my British eyes when I look at the age of American politicians. On the one hand ageism is a terrible and often ignored thing, but on the other I'm pretty uncomfortable with the average age of the US government seemingly being around 70. Why aren't they retired and spending their days buying stupid presents for their grandkids?)

Siskoid said...

Liam, as someone who's always looked younger than he is AND who has worked with youth on culture and activism most of his professional life, I'll let you in on a little secret: Ageism is actually about discriminating against youth, not the opposite. It's one of the Big Lies we're sold, but guess what, the minority can't efficiently discriminate against the majority.

LondonKdS said...

Did you watch "The Sarah Connor Chronicles"? Fantastic series.

Siskoid said...

I completely agree. Shame it couldn't get a proper finale.


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