This Week in Geek (29/12/19-04/01/20)

Gifts

My roommate came back from the Dollar Store with a comic book version of the New Testament. Instagram followers will eventually see it under my #comicscollection.

"Accomplishments"

At home: It's very weird watching Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal after his version of Death has been parodied in so many well-remembered comedies (a wide range, from Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey to Last action Hero), and then discovering that, for all the hoopla about the terse Waiting Women being Bergman's one comedy, this is actually QUITE funny, if darkly so. The bit with Death cutting down a tree, and Gunnar Björnstrand's caustic squire commenting on the smith and his wife making up, had me grinning in what is otherwise an existential and metaphysical piece about whether or not there's an afterlife and what it might mean to Max von Sydow's crusader. You can't outplay Death, but maybe you can draw the game out long enough to make a difference with the Man Upstairs, all the while questioning whether he exists at all and if it's all pointless. The witch burning scene struck me as something of a riposte to Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc, its implications more disquieting. Despite some dark material, quite a bit more fun than most Bergman films, I still prefer his more subtle and actor-driven meditations on the subject of God's silence (Winter's Light strikes me as the most powerful).

When I was in the university film history course, the professor showed Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, which he'd taped off the television. He hated the sappy violin that had been used a soundtrack, so he made us watch it without any sound at all. We were still completely riveted. That's the power of Dreyer's intense close-ups and, the further we get into the film, his experimental, unhinged camera work. Turns out, Dreyer hated all the scores composed for his film too, and if he'd had his way, it would have played silent. Well, the Criterion edition has a church choir score that supports the subject well. As for the film, it's a shocking, emotional drama, in large part based on the actual transcripts of Jeanne's trial, in which monstrous clergymen try to make a young woman (or possibly a trans young man) reject her faith, through browbeating, torture, trickery and threats. If that sounds upside-down, it's because the Church is not here interested in faith so much as OWNING faith and controlling the faithful. She will show them what real belief is like and ascend to sainthood. Dreyer's early interest in faith is on full display, and he takes no prisoners. Maria Falconetti's acting is superb and the final stake scene one of the most harrowing in all of cinema.

With 1955's Ordet (The Word), Dreyer weaves as complex an exploration of faith as he can, testing an aging patriarch's resolve with hardships that force a crisis of faith in him. He feels his prayers go unanswered and is plagued by three sons who challenge his beliefs. On one end of the spectrum, his eldest is a good, loving man without faith. His youngest has the faith but no real strength of character, and he's in love with a girl raised in another faith (akin to Jehovah's Witnesses), which is a problem for both him and the girl's father. And then there's the middle son who has gone mad and believes he is Jesus Christ's second coming. The test, then, is to keep his faith even though bad things happen and various parties blame them on his wavering belief or his belief in the wrong faith. We too are asked to evaluate what is right. Is it enough to live a good and moral life, i.e. does God require faith? Should faith celebrate life or only prepare for the afterlife (the patriarch considers the latter ghoulish, but his own miseries belie the tenets of his religion)? And where's the line between blasphemy and unbelief when it comes to the mad son's contention that he has supernatural agency? (He is in many ways like Dreyer's portrait of Joan of Arc.) The power of the film is that wherever you find yourself on a spiritual spectrum, it will have you praying (so to speak) for the central tragedy's reversal, and like the characters, a dialog with your faith or lack thereof will necessarily be engaged. Powerful.

I saw Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (or Les ailes du désir, as we called it) in a film history course at university, and it blew my mind, especially its maverick use of Peter Falk as himself, and it still blows my mind today. Wenders creates an unseen world of angels, some of them tired of an eternal existence and wishing for a human life, and in that premise is a celebration of all that is human, from rubbing your hands to warm them up to realizing something is the color red to loving a woman. The angels are here to give hope, and their own perspective can only revel in the big and small things that make life worth living, even when we think it is not. Oh did I say loving a woman? Yes, there's a woman played by Solveig Dommartin who learned the trapeze and did all her own routines, no doubles (impressive), for the movie, but while Bruno Ganz' Damiel is drawn to her, it's only as part of a whole. Part of a complete life, not the be-all and end-all. He would have been content just to hold an apple in his hand and be hit by a truck. Life for its own sake as something precious. Obviously, the American version, City of Angels, is just gonna turn this into a Meg Ryan romcom, but the original is more meditative, more universal, and more shocking. And it kind of has to take place in Berlin in the 80s, y'know? It's not just that Wenders is German, but the Wall is a perfect location to set that transition between one existence and another. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Now that is has been restored, 1947's Repeat Performance makes for a great New Year's Eve movie, as it's about the past year's regrets and the new year's resolutions and back to those regrets when you can't keep them. Joan Leslie plays an actress who kills her husband in self-defense on New Year's Eve and wishes she could Mulligan 1946 and avoid the mistakes that led to these circumstances. In Twilight Zone fashion, it happens. But this isn't Capra, it's cold, deadly Noir, and Fate cannot be so easily cheated. The most obvious thing to anyone watching is that she should have used that year to divorce that boozing, abusive cad of hers, but we have to take as given that she loves him even if he's no good for her (it's Noir, he's an Homme Fatal!). Besides its plot and ticking calendar, the movie also has some cracking lines, an amusing bit with a waiter (I wish I had the talent required to supercut that recurring bit of business in classic films), a gay character, and Mrs. Howell (I mean, Natalie Schafer) as an obnoxious patron of the arts. Time travel is my poison, and it's nice to see it surprisingly slipped into my 1940s Noir drink like this.

Soylent Green has one of the best-known twist endings in film history, so... does that lessen its power? I don't think so, because while everyone remembers the punch line, there's a lot more to this dystopian flick. There's a lot of world-building, for example, and I especially appreciated how the over-population was presented, going so far as to stage a fight right on top of people. The have-nots are huddling together on staircases, the middle class might be sharing cramped apartments, and the rich, well, the rich have so much space they can hire "furniture", companions who see to their every need, from the throng of people who just want to get out of the crowd. Edward G. Robinson, in his 101st and final role is touching as an old man who remembers the world as it was, and the film doesn't get any better than the scene where he shares a meal with Charlton Heston who's been raised on energy crackers. And there's a strong exploitation vibe coming from the cop story, from the grisly murder to the corrupt cops to the live-in prostitutes lounging around (including Leigh Taylor-Young looking like Lauren Ambrose 1.0 to me). I quite like the aesthetic and how it was adapted to a near-future that thematically hasn't passed its due date yet. So yeah, Soylent Green still has power. We have two years to prepare for it...

Four years before The Time Machine, Rod Taylor is one of four astronauts who fly into a time warp and end up in a very Time Machine-esque future, or as per the movie's title, a World Without End. The four rugged pioneers are caught between deformed primitives and highly-advanced, effete pacifists. You know the drill, just don't ask me why Gort is on the poster. A precursor to Planet of the Apes and Terry Nation's first Dalek serial, it's really a product of its time. In other words, it's totally wrong-headed, but that's part of its goofy charm. The skirts are short, the women fall in love with Real Men(TM) at the drop of a hat, and might makes right. These cowboys come in and immediately dismiss a pacifist culture that's survived a nuclear holocaust, and show that warmongering actually is the solution to all the world's problems. (I could buy a swinging pendulum argument, but that's not what's happening here.) I use the word cowboy knowingly, as the "savages" are here to be mowed down, tamed and/or assimilated. Now if only any actor in the film knew how to shoot a gun convincingly. Extra points for an ending that eschews the usual formula.

The cannibalized American version of Daikaijū Baran, Varan the Unbelievable is a shoddy reworking trying to pull a Godzilla 1956 by inserting new scenes (and indeed, a new plot rooted in thoughtless colonialism) into an uncredited Ishirō Honda's monster sequences. So we can agree the difficult part is the monster stuff, right? So there's really no call for how bad the other half of the movie is. An objectionable plot at least inhabited by a Japanese-American supporting cast (though possibly non-actors going by most of the performances, heck, they even make the White Hero narrate all over their lines when it gets too horrible), that jump cuts from take to take inside the same shot, and stock music instead of the original Akira Ifukube score. The monster sequences starring Varan, a Godzilla Redux that allows for bigger miniatures (which I like), are good, but obviously second or third generation film, in bad shape compared to the new American footage of people listening tor radios intently. The good news is, one day I'll stumble on Honda's original and it'll feel fresh as lake water.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms doesn't reinvent the giant monster genre, but it's a good entry in the genre on the American side, in large part due to early Ray Harryhausen stop-motion effects (this is his second film, Mighty Joe Young was the first). Already, he has a handle on integrating effects into live footage, and the finale is a literal roller-coaster on fire. In the story, scientists are happily melting the polar ice caps with atomic tests when the free Godzilla, I mean Gamera, I mean a Rhedosaurus, is freed from the ice, and starts a rampage down to the North American Eastern seaboard. Its addition to the genre is that the protagonist is not believed about seeing a giant monster, and spends most of the film trying to convince others the threat is imminent. It's no addition to the monster genre per se, of course, but you don't see it a lot when the monster is several stories tall, and all joking aside, it's done pretty well. Had fun with the French-speaking boat captain down in Nova Scotia as well, despite the dreaded "zut alors", which WE DO NOT SAY IN FRENCH CANADA! Only I care about this, I know, and it doesn't detract from a sometimes goofy, but still effective creature feature.

Objectively and compared to the rest of cinematic canon, Godzilla: Final Wars is not a terribly good film, but as the Avengers: Endgame of Toho monster movies reaching back to the '50s, it's AMAZING! In this ultimate continuity, not only have the original continuity Godzilla films happened, but a lot of other Ishirō Honda spectaculars, and those that HAVEN'T have a good chance of getting referenced (who else expected Gorath?! Or the monster from Atragon!). It's chock-a-block full of monsters, including Emmerich's big dumb 'zilla in its craptastic CG glory. And Godzilla must fight them all after they've been Pokeballed by aliens and thrown at various cities (a sequence played for laughs and satisfying enough without making the movie 4 hours long). The human cast includes Don "The Predator" Frye spouting macho nonsense, and a cadre of super-powered mutants who can fight kaiju with nothing but laser bazookas. They're also pretty good at kung fu fighting the aliens, but those sequences go on way too long. Thankfully, the kaiju action is fun, and in addition to the monsters, Toho's Golden Age is paid tribute to with wrestling and football action, as well as Minilla-Godzilla family cheese. Insane, fun, and relentless, and a great way to close the books on the franchise until more realistic takes (in Japan and America) start it up again.

I don't know what I would have thought of 1994's Little Women now that I've experienced the superlative Greta Gerwig adaptation, but I've decided to go back in time and look at some of the older films. My problem with the '90s version is essentially that it's rushing to the novel's story beats and skipping over what I would call emotional context. We're told far more things than we're shown, and the film fails to define the stakes for decisions that we don't actually see the girls make. We're told, for example, that Jo was horrible to Amy after she burned her book, but we don't see it. Beth gets a piano from the neighbor, but it's almost the first time we hear she's a musician. Same with Amy's sudden artistic skills. We're told Amy is in love with Laurie, but she seems to accept him and Jo doesn't really react. It's like that all the way through. I recognize the incidents, but they're just things that happen. Only Jo's romance with creepy Gabriel Byrne is solidly backgrounded, and it puts me off. Winona Ryder, one of several actors for whom a "historical accent" sits uncomfortably, is hopelessly miscast as Jo, never showing the character's force of will. And you know what? You can't cast someone who is conventionally attractive and have her moan about being an ugly duckling. Her "one beauty", my ass. Still, it's a pretty-looking film, filled with recognizable faces, and I definitely got teary-eyed for Clare Dane's soulful Beth.

Eddie Murphy stages something of a comeback with Dolemite Is My Name, a funky biopic tracing Rudy Ray Moore's rise to fame, devoting a large part of the film to his making the cult hit movie Dolemite. Though wanting to be a star for its own sake is not necessarily a motivation I can tap into, but Moore's do-it-yourself attitude is. I'm very much a do-it-yourselfer, and would rather self-publish than go to a proper publishing house (for example). That's just how I came up in the world. Nobody trusts in Moore, so he has to show them what he can do, and surprisingly became a comedy sensation (potty-mouthed comedians and rappers both owe him a debt of gratitude), and then felt he needed to put his on-stage persona on the big screen. Enter: Dolemite, the Movie. Here the film takes a long detour into Ed Wood territory. Moore has a lot of enthusiasm, but no skills, which makes for an amusing story. I'd imagine watching the inept Dolemite AFTER this will give it a warm glow it wouldn't normally have. This movie has cool blaxploitation feel and will make you want to explore that genre (my education can only be called partial on this), though I don't really think it's all that penetrating as an exploration of its subject.

After seeing Dolemite Is My Name, I had to see the original Dolemite movie for myself. I really wish Rudy Ray Moore's enthusiasm was more present on screen, I really do. He gives a kind of non-performance that sinks many of his scenes (not that there are too many able actors in the thing). There are also bits we see filmed in "Is My Name" that don't appear to be in the movie. Digging into it, they ARE from later films. I think I won't be the only one disappointed. But that's not really Dolemite (1975)'s fault. Except it would be much better if it pushed the comedy like those missing scenes do. As is, it's an absurd mish-mash of exploitation tropes, and is unintentionally amusing (or possibly full-on funny, but I think you'd have to see it with other people), no more. Moore gets to do his famous monologues in two places, so we get a feeling for what he's comfortable doing (and more of a twinkle). Both times, they are padding, and in one instance, it looks like he was actually accosted by fans on the street and they kept filming as he did their thing for them. Not the case or the Internet would be all over it, but it still looks accidental. A cultural artifact that's certainly more watchable than less inept movies, but it's still inept at all levels of production.

Here I thought The Harder They Come was, from the poster and the fact that it was referenced in Dolemite Is My Name, a blaxploitation film. It does have a crime plot, but no; it's inclusion in the Dolemite biopic is probably more an acknowledgement of inspiration, since its story of fame-seeking is similar. Every poor country must have its piece of neorealism and this is Jamaica's, and it reminded me quite a lot of Manila in the Claws of Light (Philippines) which I saw recently. In that one too, a young man comes to the big city to better his situation, but finds only hardship, poverty and injustice. In Ivan's case, he tries to make a go of a music career, but the system is rigged and at the midpoint, it becomes a Bonnie and Clyde story, sans Bonnie, and somewhat less interesting to me. Regardless, the film has a real sense of place, vivacious editing, a clever way of filming things it doesn't have the money to film, and a great reggae soundtrack.

Astaire and Rogers' tenth and final film together, The Barkleys of Broadway, may not have been planned that way (Garland was to star for starters), but it feels like a pretty perfect wrap-up to their partnership. They play an older if not particularly wiser couple, their chemistry is amazing, and then there are songs like "You'd Be Hard to Replace" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me" which have more meaning because of their long association. The latter in particular, a reprise from Shall We Dance, actually got to me, I admit it. Ginger is rather quite funny in this, and I feel like no one's gonna say it because the great Oscar Levant steals the show with his zingers and his fun third of "Week-End in the Country", so I'm gonna say: She's funny. But yes, Levant is an equal partner in the movie, not just because he's the couple's hilarious chorus, but he gets his own musical numbers as well, incredible piano pieces where he becomes a blur of hands. I love a good piano sequence in a movie (it's why I like Marx Brothers' films, for example), and Levant is just next level. I won't pretend all the musical numbers are great and memorable ("Shoes with Wings On" is pretty crazy though), but I still liked this a lot.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
North Country is a fictionalized account of a landmark sexual harassment class action case brought against a mining company in the 80s, with powerhouse Charlize Theron in the role of a single mother who needs the job, but like her female co-workers, isn't respected in a male-dominated environment that resents their presence. The mine is maddeningly misogynistic, one of those narratives fueled by righteous anger, and as we cut back to the courtroom scenes that act as frame tale, Theron gets to make barbed points that would never have flown in actual court (the court stuff doesn't feel realistic, that's not its function), but nevertheless makes you mentally punch the air. Theron is good of course, but she's well supported by the rest of the cast. In particular, I find her family very effective, from the teenage son who resents her for going against the grain to her miner father who must choose between his macho convictions and his screw-up daughter to her mother who says just the most abominable things in service of the patriarchy but means well, we get some great performances there from Thomas Curtis, Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek respectively. It's a true life story pushed into the realm of melodrama, but the performances keep it grounded.

You can't dislodge the original The Day the Earth Stood Still from its iconic science-fiction film status, and given that the Keanu Reeves version doesn't really have much in common with it (the basic premise, the robot's look, and a couple names), I decided I could watch it as just a different SF film that just happens to have the same title. Even so, it doesn't quite work. As a piece of world-building, it's got some good ideas. It finds ways to explain this much more antagonistic Klaatu's human appearance and gives the threat to humanity cool destruction porn effects. However, it all gets bogged down in family histrionics thanks to an objectionable child character whose third act turn, like Klaatu's itself, is unearned. Where the real tension should lie with whether Jennifer Connelly can convince Klaatu humanity is salvageable, the movie keeps making it about whether she can find the time to do so while they deal with typical government obstructionism (or her kid's) and get chased by the military. By going the action route, it forgets what it's actually about. And if a movie ever needed an epilogue or coda, it's this one. The ending is so abrupt and unsatisfying, I loudly shouted "WHAT" to myself. It's still resonating through my walls as you read this.

The people involved with Æon Flux, including Peter Chang who created it as an animated series, are all convinced of the project's viability and throw someone else under the bus (up to and including the studio that butchered the edit) for the film's failures. I'm gonna go ahead and say it was probably never viable. There are things you can do in a comic book or a short animated show that just won't translate to a live action feature unless you adapt it forcefully. While the screenplay redrew the world and the characters in an attempt to make the story more compact and the characters more human (I'm guessing), those were probably the wrong thing to change. The end result is in a way too slavish to the original with an action-before-character approach that feels entirely cartoonish, and an episodic structure that shows us Charlize Theron's action heroine doing all sorts of things and using all sorts of gadgets against various threats ad infinitum, with small breaks to do plot-necessary exposition. SF ideas strung together, but who are these people beyond the archetypes they represent? There's just no getting properly invested. I don't think the story really understands its central premise either because, and I'm being vague in case you do decide to watch it, are motivated by what they've been told to be motivated about. I guess the characterlessness has been built into the setting, but that just gets us back to its lack of viability. Let's be thankful it wasn't successful enough to spawn a series of Underworld or Resident Evil-type sequels. Charlize has some much better action films in her future.

Reads: Well, the Codex Saraphinianus can't be read exactly. It was an attempt by surrealist illustrator Luigi Serafini to recreate the feeling one might have had as a child, before one could read, flipping through some encyclopedia or other, finding the images fantastical and mysterious. I started reading too early to have much of an experience with that (I was a practiced reader at 3 and a half), but I still love fictional encyclopedias, atlases, etc., which may have drawn me to role-playing games (or did it go vice-versa?), comic book Who's Whos, and ultimately, the work of Borges. The Codex uses an invented script that, while consistent, cannot be decoded. It's graphics, not language, just there to support strange images, divided into vegetable, animal, mineral, and various spheres of human endeavor. It's like a mad naturalist's notes on a country or planet you could never get to. A whole world that obeys different rules, surrealism rather than physics, where things grow out of other things, and are composed not of atoms, but of smaller particles unique to each object or being. It's gorgeous to look through, and the presentation is lavish, using thick ridged paper that makes the Codex something like an artifact that dropped out of a wormhole and onto your shelf.

A note on the dating of these posts. Since the very beginning, 13 years ago, the dates have always included the Sunday on which the post came out. But in reality, anything I consumed on that day was actually commuted to the next This Week in Geek. Lately, this has fired up my OCD and I've decided to use the switch to 2020 to fix it. From now on, "This Week" will be from Sunday to Saturday. Not that anyone but me cares.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love how Antonius Block and Jöns are almost certainly the inspiration behind Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo on "Rome". There's no way it's accidental.

Years ago I made a Demotivational Poster generator, based on a still from "The Seventh Seal". Make a bunch of your own posters, hang them in your office!

http://www.paprikash.com/captioner.html

Go ahead, feed it something benign like "You got to where you are one day at a time."

Siskoid said...

Thanks for the dark laugh!

 

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