This Week in Geek (19-25/01/20)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: I went to see Underwater for one thing, and that's Kristen Stewart being badass, maybe with a side-order of since-cancelled T.J. Miller getting tortured and viciously killed by a monster. The movie delivered on that score. For a movie that cost 80 million dollars, Underwater plays as one of those little sci-fi flicks you find on Netflix and have never heard of. That is to say, it gets you into the action very quickly and almost forgets to introduce the characters. In a way, I appreciate the fact that we learn who these people are while the disaster/monster movie is going on instead of the usual formula (not that it avoids formulaic tropes), but it does make the film feel a little thin. It manages some great moments of cinematography, though a lot of the sea floor action is necessarily murky. It is literally unclear at times, but there's a sometimes visceral "you are there" quality to it. The monsters, without giving away anything, are interesting by virtue of not being one-trick ponies/visuals, but Underwater doesn't really make good on the promise of Lovecraftian existential dread made by Stewart's opening monologue. There's a psychological overlay, but it's thin. Nevertheless, this checked several boxes for me, as if produced with my particular tastes in mind.

At home: I am quite impressed with Jérémy Clapin's J'ai perdu mon corps (I Lost My Body), a dark and melancholy animated film which could be described as Homeward Bound with a disembodied hand, a hand that in a way represents its owner's phantom pains, but also a more intense psychological trauma. We really watch two strands, one the hand, and seemingly fate, crossing the city to get back to where it belongs, the other the events leading up to the severing. The former is intercut with tactile memories, uncovering the mystery essentially through what a hand might remember if a hand had memories. The latter is filled with human moments, as Naoufel tries to get closer to a girl he likes (and who sounds like every French girl I've ever met), and not always in the best way. Ultimately, it's about a hand that escaped its fate once, but destiny wants its literal pound of flesh, and so it's about Naoufel getting off the path his trauma has set for him. Once he does, would he then simply disappear from the story, having even escaped the animator's pencil, like a fly? There's more to unpack, including the astute cultural casting that lends even more meaning to Naoufel's sense of isolation and lack of opportunity, but I don't want to give the entire game away. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Impeccable and deceptively simple film making from Martin Scorsese in The Irishman ensures that despite its length, the film is never tedious (except perhaps in the epilogue) and if each scene isn't strictly necessary to the plot, it does help inform the three main characters played by Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino (this is his FIRST collaboration with Scorsese, do I have that right?!) and their relationships. And make no mistake, this is portrait more than narrative, and an actor's showcase more than it is a director's (again, that's because it's deceptively simple). As a disputed version of what happened to union leader Jimmy Hoffa through the eyes of his friend, mobbed up Frank Sheeran, it's engrossing, but only really because of those performances, and the texture we get from them through the novelistic approach. A few words on the "CG as make-up" used to track the characters through various ages in this. While I thought young DeNiro looked a little strange (but not in the way these things usually do, because I thought it MIGHT be make-up), generally the aging was pretty amazing. I had to look at pictures of Pesci afterwards to find out how old he actually looked. In other words, it's pretty seamless. Because all gangster films are kind of the same to me, and these particular guys are certainly not on their first go, I was not as wowed as some, I admit, but I do respect the film more than I love it.

An approach that prioritizes visual storytelling rather than dialog, stylish direction and cinematography, an Ennio Morricone score, harsh violence... Once Upon a Time in America is a Sergio Leone spectacular all right, and it's one of the great ones though it has a couple of irredeemable flaws, in my opinion. Moving back and forth over three time periods - with wonderful transitions, I should add - the film tracks the rise of a criminal gang from kids trying to make a buck on the streets at the turn of the 20th Century through the Prohibition era and to "respectable" white collar crime. It's the story of crime in America, as told through a cinematic, i.e. glamorous filter, which is how most gangster epics go, really. The rise, the opulence, the inevitable fall, we've seen it many times, and it's up to each of these films to have memorable scenes and characters to define them. In this case, the shared focus on the gang as kids is its main draw, with an interesting but dangerous friendship at the center of it (between, as the adult versions, Robert DeNiro and James Woods), and I quite like that final scene between them. Also props to whoever cast baby Jennifer Connelly as Elizabeth McGovern's younger self - they could be mother and daughter. HOWEVER. Once our lead becomes a rapist, it pulls you out of the film. Leone may or may not be pushing the glamor with the cinematography and music as a contrast, which is to say KNOWING it is ironic, but it feels like the movie excuses the behavior. My other problem with the film is that the climax really tips into melodrama with its last-minute revelations (and at the same time, the gist of it is kind of predictable). Though the final sequence walks us back from it, I'd rather not have had to BE walked back from the twist. That backdrop with the bridge tho!

Watched a few Harold Lloyd shorts (between 10 and 30 minutes), and I'm just gonna discuss them all in one go. Before Harold Lloyd wore glasses, he played other characters, most prominently a Chaplin tramp rip-off called Lonesome Luke. Messenger is one of these, a furiously madcap postman sketch that has nothing on similar but far superior fare like Jacques Tati's early films. Bumping Into Broadway shows that longer is better for Lloyd; we can savour not only the bits of comic business (which even includes fight choreography, and some amazing rag-dolling from one of his co-stars), but the sweet romance, the fun caption cards, and the human moments for these down-on-their luck characters. Next Aisle Over is a good example of a 10-minute short from Lloyd - it has one great comic sequence (when he's a shoe salesman) and having finally found its groove, it's over. You always want more out of them than what ends up in the short. Young Mr. Jazz has a simple plot, but smartly focuses its 10-minute run time on romance. Lloyd and his love interest enter a dance hall of ill repute (great pickpocketing scene) and must get out of there alive. It's fun and cute, though the print is in disrepair. I Do is a longer piece that starts with that famous phrase, then jumps ahead to domestic shenanigans with Lloyd as the father of small children, well-meaning but making a hash of things. The older kid is a right terror, but even so, I think the joys of parenthood shine through when the chaos subsides.

Tora! Tora! Tora! was a bold project. Recreating the attack on Pearl Harbor with an American directing the American parts, and Japanese directors on the Japanese side of things. The resulting procedural docu-drama isn't particularly stylish (though I do wonder what, if anything, survived of the apparently frustrating 3 weeks of shooting by Kurosawa), but it does offer a balanced take on the events. The film is very much in the shadow of the Vietnam war, with Japanese elements quite against starting this war, and the U.S. failure preventable if not for a mix of complacency, incompetence, obstinate arrogance, and Roosevelt essentially wanting something to happen to get into the war. Tracking the mistakes and seeing military leaders struggle with the spectre of war is what kept me invested. And then we have the recreation of the attack itself, shot mostly for real, looks like, and in cinematic history, on par with Ben-Hur's chariot race, i.e. THE reason for watching the movie even if you don't care about the preceding matter. Except I did care about the preceding matter. A riveting historical document.

John Waters' Multiple Maniacs is the first in a trilogy of bad taste that includes the better-known Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, and the only one I hadn't seen. It's a very early picture, sitting somewhere between raw and amateurish technically, but Waters' sense of humor and clever subversiveness are already apparent. For example, Divine's freak show doesn't feature physical deformities, but behavior at which the suburbanite patrons can feign shock and outrage, like men kissing and junkies begging for money. But you're still not sure this is any good. Then comes the maverick, extended scene in the church, which intercuts Divine's prayers and an insane sex scene with what is essentially Waters' Passion of the Christ, which is simply next level. The story is really that of Divine's character slipping into madness and violence in her pursuit of the American Dream, eventually turning into a monster, to the point where I would classify this as a kaiju film even if she never gets to stomp balsa wood buildings or toy tanks. I love the surprises the movie had in store for me, and laughed a lot, but it's definitely not the kind of thing you want your room mate to walk in on when they come home from work. Or maybe it is, depends on your sense of humor. Mine, when I explained the film to her, said "So, 4 stars and a heart?". She knows me so well.

I haven't finished my complete Keanu and Charlize watch, but I'm embarking on a separate movie-watching endeavor. There are about 600 features and shorts I've checked as "seen" on my Letterboxd account, but that have no reviews, not even a quick one-liner. In other words, I didn't have a blog the last time I saw them, and either I don't remember enough of them to make the call, or I really wanted to see them again and do it properly. Well, wait no more. Once a week, I will attack my un-reviewed Letterboxd list and going through each entry will either write something quickly, or if I can't or won't, will actually watch the film and review it here in one of my usual capsules. All of this as a way to introduce the following...

In French Kiss, romcom queen Meg Ryan is doing Meg Ryany things, being cute and neurotic and is her predilection, and Kevin Kline's French is actually quite good, and his rascal has nice chemistry with his co-star. In many small ways, it's a movie that checks several boxes I care about - rude French people, Canada as a plot point, a con man in the lead, a cool Continental soundtrack - but it's really up to the stars to sell think Pink Panterish run around France, and they do, slowly but surely getting closer even as they try to get Meg her wandering fiancé back. There's a bit of screwball in there, but a lot of jokes they don't hit you over the head with, like Meg consistently missing Paris' landmarks, or her putting toilet paper in her luggage. France plays France, and aside from Kline, French speakers play French speakers (which is important to me), including Jean Reno who I quite like as the Cupid cop who wants to do right by his friend on the other side of the law. I think this one is a lot of fun, kind of a throwback to romantic comedies of the Golden Age of Hollywood in a way, and that's a feature, not a bug for me.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
If Generation Um... isn't technically mumblecore, it seems to at least be ABOUT mumblecore characters, especially once it stops pretending to be anything else and the three leads start messing around with a camera. It is, for one thing, badly titled. It is not really about a particular generation (Keanu Reeves' John is not in the same age group as Mia and Violet), its listlessness really the same as anyone's on any given 24-hour period. So yeah, we watch Keanu eat an entire cup cake, go to the store, chase a squirrel, not everything we do in a day is significant. Sounds like I'm defending a movie that's not very good, and it's true. I went back and forth a number of times on this. Because what happens on screen is rarely all that interesting, and it's of course cheaply made, but part of the disinterest I at times felt (yes, only at times, I did find the three stars watchable) was because it spent zero time explaining the threesome's relationship until the climactic sequence where it all comes together. The revelations there make sense of many enigmatic statements or actions from before, ironically counterpoint the hope manifested in front of the in-movie camera, and makes me like the film a bit better. If you respect it at that point, don't sit through the credits, as it features perhaps the worst scene of the entire flick and almost annihilates the good will it just generated.

With his next film, we enter a different phase of Keanu's career where he's creating his own projects. I rewatched Man of Tai Chi (previous reviewed), which he produced and directed as a showcase for the talents Tiger Hug Chen, his fight double on The Matrix films. The Keanu Reeves who writes his own ticket is the better Keanu Reeves, from this point on.

Sleepwalking tricks you into thinking you'll be watching a Charlize Theron vehicle, but it's the story of her taking off for a month and leaving her pre-teen daughter with her underachieving brother, so she's not in it all that much. Said brother means well but gets himself into trouble when he steals the girl from a foster home at her request, a road trip through the cold landscapes of wintry Saskatchewan that can only end in tragedy, with a typically nasty performance from Dennis Hopper as the granddad along the way. For the most part, Sleepwalking feels like a TV movie, especially with that terribly ordinary stock score, but it does achieve moments of great beauty when it shoots the landscape, and at least one memorable moment, by which I mean little AnnaSophia Robb at the pool in roller skates, being a very dangerous younger version of her mother there. The movie is very much about where one comes from, and the sins of the parent visited upon their children with potentially tragic results. Are we fulfilling the promise of our ugly upbringing, or waking up and taking charge of our own lives?

Charlize's next film is also one I previously reviewed, Hancock, and I think I liked it better this time around. Maybe we've gotten enough superhero movies since then for the approach to feel fresher.

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