This Week in Geek (17-23/02/20)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Masaaki Yuasa's Ride Your Wave is a romcom with a bit of tragedy and fantasy included, and of course it looks gorgeous, but if I loved it as much as I did, it's because it's genuinely FUNNY. Our lead, Minato, is one of those clumsy romcom heroines that has trouble putting her life together, except that she's an expert surfer. Then she meets a firefighter, falls in love and... wait, why is there more than half a movie left? Even in the formulaic first act, there are twists we don't expect, but once we hit the second, things get more anime, if you know what I mean, and from there, it's difficult to divine what happens next, so it goes from delight to delight, and ends on something as epic as it is bizarre. The softest audience members will have to dry their eyes; the more cynical will mock the use of a pop song essentially on repeat. I fall somewhere in the middle, but thoroughly enjoyed this tragic comedy about first love and learning to let go of it, and through that, the kind of autonomy that, happily as much as sadly, stays with you the rest of your life. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

At home: In Cop Land, Sylvester Stallone plays against type as a paunchy sheriff who isn't really equipped for action either physically or in temperament. I remember this being a big deal at the time. Today, the film is only infrequently mentioned and that's a shame, because it's a winner. The Cop Land in question is a small suburban town in New Jersey where NYPD cops live, and it's a haven for crooked cops especially since their Internal Affairs unit doesn't have jurisdiction there. Crime pictures often tend to be the same, but this one, despite having a lot of faces familiar to the genre, has a different story to tell, and I enjoyed the immersion into an unusual world/context. Stallone taps into the sad side of his movie persona as popularized by Rocky to offer a minimalist but pitch perfect performance as the effectively powerless lawman bullied by "proper" police officers. And even when he is finally pushed to the edge, it's a desperate kind of action movie for all of 2 minutes. It's also very well cast, even in the smaller roles. I do wish Janeane Garofalo had a bigger one, but you can't have everything.

The Firm put John Grisham on the movie map, which is a sin unto itself in retrospect, but a box office success or not, I really do find it to be a piece of hackery. You'd think a lawyer-turned-writer would give us a proper legal drama, but though the solutions are reasonably ingenious uses of the law (I guess, I'm just a layman), the premise would be done more honestly with The Devil's Advocate some years later. It's a big conspiracy that requires Tom Cruise's hero to do at least one out-of-character thing to make things complicated down the line, and which culminates in a tepid action chase around Memphis in which the most ridiculous pencil-pushing villain decides to start acting like a goon for hire. It's certainly a strong cast, with Gene Hackman showing some depth as one of the more textured conspirators, but I think I probably jumped off ship when Cruise and his wife escaped into the suburb streets because their house was bugged and proceeded to shout their conversation about the conspiracy in the open air. They should have been dead the next day. The Firm is a watchable enough thriller, and Sydney Pollack can at times do effective paranoia, but it's too procedural and grounded most of the time to earn its silly pulp shenanigans.

Jane Fonda as the outlaw Cat Ballou is good, but as a feminist icon only barely scratches the surface. The fact that she needed to be so supported by men as she avenged her father's murder speaks to another era of film-making. Lee Marvin, either sporting a metal nose as the villain, or being a kind of drunken master as Cat's hired gun gives a fun performance, though the Oscar surprises me. My favorite member of the gang is actually Jackson Two-Bears, a Native American raised by white folk who nevertheless owns his identity. This is a light western comedy, vaguely amusing rather than actually funny, with a plot and characters you want to follow, but direction that lacks the dynamism of stronger efforts. It's just kind of there, on the screen, and your pulse rate never really goes up. The exception is the inclusion of Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as a chorus, dropping by to sing another verse of the memorable Ballad of Cat Ballou. The music is certainly a highlight. I wish the rest of the film sang half as well.

Sometimes, you just want to watch a kickass Laura Dern shoot outlaws with a shotgun. Happily, the AFI Conservatory Directing Workshop for Women offers Courtney Hoffman's beautifully-shot, but altogether too short, The Good Time Girls. If I say it's too short, it's not because it doesn't tell enough of the story. The 15-minute shorts works well on its own. But the premise of frontier prostitute vigilantes is such a strong one, and the cast is so efficiently drawn, that you really really REALLY want this to be a full-length feature. An ovaries-out feminist piece that's about taking possession of one's sexuality and reversing the victim narrative, Good Time Girls is wickedly funny and extremely violent, and I love it. Its use of Lisa LeBlanc's Katie Cruel is outstanding and a nice, unexpected surprise since Lisa is from my neck of the woods and an awesome talent (and she's IN it, wow).

Lola is Jacques Demy's first feature, and it's the story Mr. Bland Roland Cassard sings about in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. For fans of the latter film, it unlocks a number of small mysteries. The shopping plaza that stands as his only memory is from this film, for example, and we find out how he got into the diamond business. His theme in Umbrellas is also his theme in Lola. Marc Michel plays the part sans mustachio, and he seems destined to help young girls in stores and charm their mothers. The first part of Demy's trilogy is a prequel to the next film, but works best in the way images, lines and characters resonate with it. It is not a musical (though Lola has a song), but rather has the same Hollywood romanticism, filled with melodramatic coincidences, American sailors on leave, and other tropes from the Golden Age of Hollywood. And yet the concerns are very much those of post-War France - listless youth, single mothers, loss and a need to recapture something - and the Americanisms are essentially part of that. I loved decoding my beloved Umbrellas through this film, but it stands on its own, wonderfully shot, and laced with pathos and humor.

If I can't love The Hours as much as I want to, it's that I would have wanted to spend more time with each of the three women at the heart of the drama, three women separated by space and time who nonetheless have an impact on the next. Nicole Kidman is near unrecognizable as Virginia Woolf and gives a quiet, fascinating performance. Julianne Moore is a housewife in the '50s, despondent in a marriage she cannot engage with and inspired by Woolf's writing. And Meryl Streep takes care of a dying poet in the contemporary day, and there's again a connection that goes back to the '50s and thus to Woolf, and a bit of writerly legerdemain to make thing cycle back there more directly. All three are supported by an A-list cast. All three characters are gay in their particular context. And all three women are dealing with the specter of suicide, from a different angle. Director Stephen Daldry interweaves these stories beautifully, editing them into one another on a door opening, a vase being set down, a head lying on a pillow, creating a stronger connection between them through images, and actively creating tension about what's about to happen in a mirroring kind of way. The craft is impeccable. Glass' music memorable. The subject matter is heavy, but the film doesn't tell you what to think. To its questions, there are many answers, and so no answers. So I'm only really let down because two hours is scarcely enough time to spend with any of the characters, and things end a bit abruptly for me. Which is perhaps the point.

I like To Die For more when it's being a send-up of the "I need to be on TV to feel validated" culture than when it's busy being a sex'n'murder thriller, but that's me. Nicole Kidman shows she had the chops for comedy as Suzanne Stone, a would-be television journalist who doesn't know what the heck she's talking about but is convinced she has all the tools required to be big. Buck Henry's script is devilishly good at dramatic irony, and the film's structure hanging on how television is treating the events (but with an omniscient eye actually looking at them) is a clever one. Lots of recognizable faces from film and television in this, some before they were proper stars, and even having realized this, was still surprised to see David Cronenberg makes an appearance (and what a well-chosen role). I certainly don't mean to say it's not GOOD as a crime story - it's certainly a sensationalistic one - but the flashback structure means we're watching a done deal unfold and the tension is limited. Even within that, the movie still keeps a few surprises in reserve and makes for a fun experience, albeit one that might make some viewers uncomfortable.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
Nicolas Winding Refn gives The Neon Demon a striking visual look, as if the story had been created out of fashion spreads and glitter glue, and as a visual experience, it's a triumph. What's more difficult to accept, initially, is the cold, apathetic acting, but I think that's part of the same aesthetic - vacuous beauty looking at you with dead eyes, and a conflation of "deadness" and "beauty" and the underlying ambitions. Elle Fanning plays an innocent, new to the fashion world of Los Angeles, someone whose beauty fascinates (or so the film tells us, this is a difficult thing to make EVERYONE in the audience believe no matter who you cast), but which takes its toll. Beauty has its price, as does the pursuit of any marketable "talent", so everyone wants something from. Weird things start to happen that play better on a metaphorical level, but I especially like the abstract "neon demon" itself, like a glowing symbol of Elle's Jesse engaging with her own ambition and potentially losing her soul. This is a more interesting angle than what the climax provides, sending us left when we should have gone right, and though the resolution is strange, it feels ordinary in the context of what has become a horror film by that point. The casting of such actors as Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves - older symbols of beauty, I guess - in smaller roles only makes me want to see more of them, as well. So though emptiness and superficiality are definitely themes, it does leave me with a hollow feeling.

When you start (and end) your comedy western with a call-back to Blazing Saddles, your movie better be able to withstand the comparison. A Million Ways to Die in the West does not. Oh Seth MacFarlane does provide some clever self-aware jokes about how the Frontier differs from our world and time in absurd ways, though the only laughs it drew out of me were the kind of non sequitur smash cuts/movie references he used on Family Guy. But there's a lot of waiting around for those as the formulaic romcom structure does its thing. He's the proverbial "nice guy" abused by his girlfriend Amanda Seyfried until he learns what love is from a gunslinging Charlize Theron, if only he can survive meeting her husband Lian Neeson. Yeah, it's a nice cast with a deep bench. Bit of a waste considering MacFarlane keeps losing all the good will he accumulates by pushing disagreeable racist and ethnic jokes, or terrible gross-out/body fluids humor that falls flat and makes me feel bad for the actors involved. I get that MacFarlane thinks he took his cue FROM Blazing Saddles, but he really learned the wrong lessons from it.

The second Dior J'Adore ad came out around this time, "The Future Is Gold", and it trades on her glamorousness, but also her action ability and growing association with genre fiction. This is three years after the first perfume ad, and the last (more recent?) is 4 years away, showing that Charlize is a sustainable fashion icon, but she doesn't have time to do one of your commercials more often than every few years.

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