This Week in Geek (12-18/01/20)


In theaters: Is 1917 a good title for something that takes place over a day? (And indeed, is almost 2 hours in real time given the one-shot conceit, though director Sam Mendes does find ways to contract time.) Lets talk about that conceit because it exacerbates the completely legitimate comparison to an MMO side-quest. The story is so streamlined - it's this one, very simple mission - that it's basically an NPC giving the player a quest and off we go. With the camera never cutting away from the main character and following him through the adventure, often over the shoulder, the visual vocabulary is somewhat like that of a third-person sandbox/shooter. Does it really intensify immersion into the story? Maybe. I kind of think Mendes gave himself and his cast and crew a big challenge for us to marvel at as TECHNIQUE and that's all there is to it, but that's fine. We DO marvel at it. If there is a point to the single shot, it may be to show war as a continuous and relentless experience, here crunched into 24/2 hours for our convenience, a temporal prison for men who just want to go home but are afraid they can't connect to that other timeline. More importantly and all that said, it works, with a couple of stand-out moments (the flare run and the final sequence through to the end and bookend especially) and given the brief scenes with the characters NOT on the mission (you can't exactly go back to keep track of them), it's especially wonderful that they each leave such impressions (and not just the ones who are name-brand actors). My personal favorites are the hilarious Andrew Scott and that big fat rat.

Charlize out of order... I saw Bombshell, and let's get this out of the way before going any further - while I agree things are not black and white, no movie is going to wipe away the damage the people represented have done by working at a vile propaganda machine, no matter how sympathetic the actresses playing them are. But that also doesn't mean I'm going to say they deserved the sexual harassment they got while working at Fox. That's a separate issue, and while the movie takes its shots at Fox News (by just saying how it is, no extra satire required), it works as a workplace drama about fighting back against systemic sexism - without making the point (or needing to) that sexism is one of conservatism's core values. Austin Powers director Jay Roach plays it for laughs with a style that's more I, Tonya than The Big Short, which makes the uncomfortable moments all the more uncomfortable. Good juggling of tones. But of course, this is most interesting for the acting. Charlize Theron changes her voice and diction to the point where she's a different person; Nicole Kidman seems like she's doing more of an impression at times, though I'm not sure Gretchen actually has that lisp; and Margot Robbie is good as usual as a fictional/composite up-and-comer. I was surprised at how engaged I was given how much had to be glossed over, but there you have it.

At home: Mamoru Hosoda's Miraï is a piece of anime truthfulness about a young family, and in particular a young boy having to come to terms with a new baby coming into the household. Young parents, or those who have had the opportunity to otherwise interact with small children, will immediately relate to the chaos the film reproduces. It can be rather noisy and screamy at times, but is punctuated with moments of tenderness, beauty and reward, just like parenting. Hosada creates a detailed world just inside that one house, but when the young Kun goes into the yard to play, his family tree (so to speak) creates garden fantasies of different kinds, each one allowing Kun to grow and understand his place not as the new reject of the family (a child's polarity imposes that if he's not the favorite anymore, he has to be hated), not just as the member of a unit, but as part of a continuum. The anime has a chance to shine in the fantasy portions, but I dare say it glitters even more in the simple human moments inside that incredible house. A very sweet film that doesn't hide the difficulties of managing children, with a couple of nice belly laughs along the way.

I might need to see more of French director Claire Denis's movies to really get a handle on her bleak science-fiction drama High Life, but I'll say this: Robert Pattinson, an actor who has laughingly mentioned that directors have taken to showing him masturbating in their movies, very specifically DOES NOT in this one. But we do see him interacting with a baby, sensitive ovaries dully warned. High Life starts as a mystery, with Pattinson and his baby daughter alone on a doomed space mission, struggling with loneliness and depression. Through disjointed, but not too difficult to understand editing, we track back and discover how they got there, what happened to the crew, and eventually flash forward to a resolution. I like a good space movie grounded in present-day tech, but I'm not sure I understand 1) the mission (perhaps not important) and 2) what Denis is ultimately trying to say. And that's really down to its confoundingly opaque ending. That said, I quite like her vision, dark though it is, and she definitely offers something new to the canon, even though we've had other space-as-isolation films before and after (most recently, Ad Astra). Rituals and societies start to form in microcosm even if they are societies of one or two. Intriguing psycho-sexual stuff, but like I said, I really need to study up to really appreciate it.

2018 was the year both High Life and Aniara got list in space and made us have existential thoughts. The latter was based on a long-form Swedish poem that looks quite intriguing, Aniara the name of a space craft halfway between luxury liner and shopping mall, on its way to Mars with colonists. Except it is knocked off-course with no way to turn around. What becomes of this population (that of a small city) over the years? Mostly interested in the short-term, the film's bleakness is tempered by our POV character, "MR", whose lack of attachments with the outside world means she can take this as a great adventure. But not everyone thinks the same. Less about some overarching metaphor than actual speculative fiction showing how society would evolve faced with the trip's pointlessness (and maybe that's the metaphor, as our own Spaceship Earth just goes 'round and 'round, so the search for meaning is the same), Ariana comes off as episodic at times, and too "big picture" for its own good, but fans of harder SF will enjoy seeing such a vision put on screen with relatively little means.

My stupid two-word review for Joachim Trier's Thelma is "Queer Carrie", but if that intrigues you, all the better. Unlike Carrie, which used horrific psychic powers as a metaphor for puberty and teenage anxieties, Thelma is about a college-age girl. But it's also about an important life transition because she struggles with coming out as gay though she's been raised as a strict Christian. So while there's definitely a sci-fi/horror plot that stands on its own and subversively makes you side with a character responsible for some objectionable actions, it also works very well as a metaphor for owning one's identity, rejecting parental orthodoxy, and the stresses and guilt associated with all of that. The film looks beautiful too, and Eili Harboe in the title role is an engaging, sympathetic presence. From its enigmatic first sequence to its satisfying ending, Thelma keeps surprising, terrifying and enchanting. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

If I hadn't know Zhang Yimou directed Shadow, I would have guessed just from the color treatment. In Hero, he Rashomoned the color scheme of each segment. In Curse of the Golden Flower, he smothered the Tang Dynasty in opulent purples, greens and golds. Shadow is just as distinctive, a desaturated black and white where only flesh tones and blood provide color over a stark but beautiful calligraphic world. There are wuxia elements, but they're almost entirely limited to the final confrontation between the Yang and Pei Kingdoms (one between small armies, the other a personal duel), and it's stuff you haven't really seen before, so it's cool and a little crazy. But for the most part, this is a high-stakes chess game between Pei's indolent King and his warmongering commander, the latter acting through his wife and his "shadow", a near-double who must play his part after he gets injured and sick. The theme of identity is addressed through the notion of building one's own, that we are perhaps who we choose to be, even if that is a mirror image (or shadow) of someone else. But I don't think it's really all that profound; we're really here for the court intrigue, the tense moments, the ironic reversals, the original fight choreography (umbrella fu!), and the slick and sumptuous cinematography and music.

Ousmane Sembène's Ceddo has a similar look and feel to his earlier Emitaï, a kind of docu-drama that takes the camera back in time, using an entire Senegalese village as actors to reenact a historical event that would have happened everywhere in Africa. Traditions are not explained to a Western audience, so for non-Africans, the approach is rather anthropological. In Ceddo's case, it chronicles the religious strife caused by the arrival of an Imam who converts the king, forcing animist traditionalists to rebel. There's also a Christian missionary in the village, so a third religious faction must also exist even if it isn't particularly present. Now, there's a lot of pageantry, and the acting, often done for the assembly (courtroom-style), will be off-putting to Western audiences, but it's quite correct. The great evil of religion is forced conversion, which is often justified as the saving of souls, but is really just a means of control. I think the richness in Ceddo (which is the name given to the unbelievers of the new faith) is in the fact that everyone knows everyone else in the village EXCEPT for the intruding converters, who did not grow up there. It makes all the interactions more resonant, and the disruption more tragic. Visually, Ceddo is sumptuous and colorful. Aurally, it starts with cool traditional instruments, but goes out swinging with Westernized funky jazz, which may or may not work for you. In a way, the climax shares something with '70s blaxploitation films, but it has nothing to do with Islam, so the sound conversion doesn't match the story's. I find Sembène's films (this is my third) extremely important because they tell stories no one else tells, giving voice to a point of view of the conquered as opposed to the self-serving conquerors.

Apparently Sally Hawkins' breakout role (I think she's perfect and completely different in everything, she's one of my favorite actresses working today), Happy-Go-Lucky shows director Mike Leigh once again showcasing one of those annoying, bubbly people who seem untouched by tragedy. In Life Is Sweet, Alison Steadman is laughing through life, but it's a shield, and a cracking one at that. For Happy-Go-Lucky's Poppy, it's not fake. She's one of those people who go through life taking nothing very seriously and somehow escaping tragedy as it just slides off their backs. She rubs a lot people to wrong way - she's manic, but not a magical pixie - but it's in the moments where her positivity breaks that she becomes touching. Poppy is never sad or upset for herself, but has great empathy for others who are incapable of laughing things off the way she can. There's a lot of truth in this. There are people who seem to have bad luck always following them, but it's really just because of the way they react to them. If we take these chapters of Poppy's life as a plot outline, there's just as much bad and good luck as in any life, but it's the way she reacts to it that makes all the difference. Her world is thus necessarily translated into very colorful tones. And for all the truth, there's some right comedy to the piece as well. The dance teacher has some great moments, for example, and Eddie Marsan is great as the angry incel driving instructor. Knowing Mike Leigh's worlds are mostly improvised only makes the scenes all the more fun to watch.

The Guilty is a spare Danish film about a cop who's been desked, working at the Emergency Services phone lines, which he hates, until a kidnapped woman calls in and he resolves to try and help her come hell or high water. This is a classic maverick cop on the edge movie, but we never leave the call center (it's two rooms, that's it) and all the action is delivered as sound. We never cut away (as in the similar Sidney Poitier movie The Slender Thread), it's all phone action (so more like Tom Hardy's Locke)... and it's riveting. The voices are compelling, the soundscape immersive, and the upending of the usual cop movie tropes fun to watch, as our man Asger investigates the case remotely, goes well beyond what his job entails without ever leaving the phones, and risks making things worse by trying to resolve the situations, rules be damned. Over the real-time hour and a half of the film, we'll also peer into the mystery of why he's been punished with a desk job, and his own arc will beautifully dovetail with that of the kidnapping case, with lots of twists to keep this procedural thriller alive.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
Sometimes, you can just sort of tell they've cast Keanu Reeves in a movie because the character is meant to be emotionally undemonstrative. I think that's the case with Henry's Crime, an odd, but ultimately forgettable heist picture in which he plays a man who goes to prison for a crime he didn't commit, nor defended himself against. His mysterious reasons create some intrigue through the first act, I suppose, but the answers aren't exactly psychologically sound. Once out, he decides to commit the crime he was in for with the help of James Caan's confidence man (and he generally steals the show). Vera Farmiga is the acerbic actress from the theater next to the bank who he falls in love with, which could upend the entire plan. There's at least an attempt to make things more interesting by having Keanu get a role in the play, and Chekhov's Cherry Orchard kind of mirroring the plot of the film (indeed there's more of this than the mechanics of the heist itself). However, it all falls a little flat because so many elements are unconvincing. Is the play supposed to be bad or not? Does the movie earn the right to pull a Moulin Rouge like it does? Too many questions and plot holes than can be glossed and papered over, though it's watchable for the time it lasts.

Battle in Seattle isn't quite the story of the landmark protest of 1999's World Trade Organization because the human face it puts in the events are for the most part fictional. And it's not really the story of any of those characters with the protests as background because there are too many to give us more than a thin story. It's not ineffective - you might follow the budding romance between professional activists, or the cops forced to intervene, or the mayor's office, or minority voices trying to be heard at the conference, or the journalist who loses her objectivity, or Charlize Theron's bystander caught in the rioting, and feel invested - but all their stories ultimately feel insubstantial. The quality of the acting probably gives it more weight than it otherwise might have had. The real purpose here is to make people aware of the WTO's evils, but that's accomplished in the frown-inducing prologue and epilogue. The main body of the film does sometimes act as a delivery device for this information, but loses control of its message with questions of whether activism or police action are good/bad.



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