This Week in Geek (2-08/02/20)

"Accomplishments"

At home: I respect what Uncut Gems is doing, but it's also a cacophonous, relentless movie where people talk all over each other, and that works at such a frenetic pace, I couldn't believe there was an hour left when I started losing patience with it. Comparatively speaking, sure, Adam Sandler does a good job of portraying a gambling addict, but the Safdie Bros. are essentially playing to his strengths as a performer; he's still doing the tantrums and the shouting and all of that. Because the character can't get off the roller coaster, he's not allowed much depth. The most valuable scene for me was the climactic basketball game, which is a crisp microcosm of what the entire film is doing. The gambling addict forgives the bad breaks, and uses the lucky ones to justify his superstitious faith, and we really feel the rush with him. After the movie was over, some of my friends wondered if the black opal MacGuffin really did have magical "luck" properties and we could track Sandler's ups and downs based on whether he had it in his possession. I find it very interesting that the movie makes you wonder about that. It means you fall into the same trap the characters do. In reality, we make our own luck, and Sandler has many ups and well as downs, regardless of where the stone is. Kind of opposite to the basketball game, we tend to think his lucky breaks are anomalous, and that his descent into "bad luck" is dictated by the Movie Gods, but it's all down to decisions. His bad decisions void his good luck, and make his bad luck worse, but he's the one doing it. Not one I'd gladly watch again - it's noisy, Sandler's performance is fine but overrated, I can't get into the weird airy score, and I really don't like the ending - but I do respect what the Safdies were going for.

Moonstruck was one of the few Oscar contenders I saw when, as a 16-year-old, I was reviewing movies for a youth-produced public access television program, and I remember giving it a good report even if probably wasn't really targeted at a teenage boy. In fact, it's such a third-act romcom that I can't imagine what Kid Siskoid would have said about it. Adult Siskoid also enjoyed it, at any rate. Moonstruck moves beyond its formulaic premise by presenting several couples past their prime (Cher and her romantic triangle with brothers played by Danny Aiello and ever-askew Nick Cage are the youngest, but still consider themselves past the time for passionate romance), each taking a different route. Olympia Dukakis is especially affecting as Cher's mother who, like everyone else, gets a second shot, but is perhaps too adult to take it. A lot of great lines and moments, sometimes getting a laugh, often getting a smile, and the sort of operatic backdrop and soundtrack that makes these small events resonate more strongly. I suspect Teen Siskoid liked this because he was told by proper critics to like it, or else was famished for even competent film making that year (you should see the list of what I forced myself to see that year), but he somehow knew what he was talking about. It's in the little profundities for me now.

Once a Thief is a nice little jazz noir with a great, immersive opener, and a well-paced, fiasco-driven, chilling ending. It's just what's in between that's a little more rote. And yet, there's a lot to like in the body of the film too. Alain Delon is an ex-con whose life is regularly troubled by this one cop (Van Heflin) who runs him in for crimes he didn't commit. It's the old story where a guy tries to get his life in order, but the system keeps dragging him back down into crime. That, and his ne'er-do-well brother (Jack Palance) and his scheme to rob a place. Once a thief, always a thief, but the other expression, honor among thieves, doesn't hold, and so it's all heading toward heartache like a freight train. Deep, oily black and white cinematography gives the picture a lustrous look, and the jazz soundtrack feels perfect for a story where the characters are improvising themselves into early graves. Ann-Margaret's a bit too melodramatic for my tastes as Delon's wife, but that's my only complaint.

Sidney Lumet's The Anderson Tapes beats Coppola's The Conversation by a few years, in terms of putting the concept of hyper-surveillance on film, but it doesn't really know what to do with it. Initially, it's a little paranoid, and makes you think Sean Connery's heist will fail because he's been in the slammer for 10 years and isn't up on new police techniques. But then there's a confusion about who's doing the spying (several parties), and the idea gets lost once the criminal scheme takes off. Oh, it's gonna be a massive fiasco, don't worry, but the promise floated by the title and the first couple acts kind of slinks away, then makes a lame return at the end. I do like the heist and how things start to go wrong, if only in part because Connery's been out of practice. This is a movie that shows you all the moving parts, so the cops get something to do on screen, ramping up the tension in the third act. It's all the other stuff we're shown that doesn't necessarily pay off. The Anderson Tapes looked like it had something to say about the then-contemporary world of 1971, but the plot doesn't fully follow the theme, and the message gets lost in Lumet's verité stylings. But hey, "introducing Christopher Walken" might be enough of an incentive!

Somewhere between He-Man and Deathrace 2000, there is Deathsport, a Roger Corman production that has some moments of grandeur, but is mostly tedious. Maybe it's just me, but the stupidest exploitation genre is the motorcycle movie. And for all its sword and sorcery tropes, this flick is a motorcycle movie. David Carradine plays a barbarian warrior in the year 3000, dragged to the big fascist city to die in a killer motocross event, and eventually getting the chance to topple the entire regime. There is a LOT of motorcycle stuff, and while it's accompanied by very nice, but not always motivated, explosions, it gets to be a drag after a while. I appreciate the weird myth-building, but it comes with stilted dialog meant to represent an other world. The mutants subplot should have been jettisoned, and some scenes are obviously out of sequence. The final duel is actually pretty cool though. Visually, the expressionistic lighting in the city seems a precursor to sci-fi art film Beyond the Black Rainbow. It's like every time I want to throw a compliment at it, we get another interminable motorcycle sequence that makes you wonder how these "death machines" are in any way going to help the bad guys defeat the insurrection.

Because it takes place in 2017, you might want to check out 1987's Cherry 2000 just as an exercise in what they got right. It's not worth it for that. Is it worth it at all? For genre fiends, yes. There's an admirable stunt sequence in there somewhere, and it doesn't really take itself seriously, so some of the jokes do land. I can't really decipher its message though. Taking the mail-order bride concept too far, David Andrews' character owns a robotic one that sees to his needs. The body breaks down, and he needs to put her chip in another, but the model is quite rare, so he hires Melanie Griffith's Edith "E" Johnson, a mercenary badass who will help him find one in the lawless desert. At absolutely no point do we not think his arc will be to realize a human woman is better than an android one (though we consistently wonder what's so great about Cherry given how limited she is mentally, that you'd need to keep her chip). Fine for Andrews, but it means Edith has to be in service of that arc and falls for him without much provocation - it's terrible for her character. Add to that the violent hippie cult they find in the desert, where women keep being told to make sandwiches, but at the end, get to enjoy their own, and it becomes the worst attempt at a feminist statement I might have ever seen. Ultimately, if Cherry 2000 disappoints, it's because Griffith isn't believable as Mad Maxine, neither in terms of performance nor of script.

The World may be Jia Zhangke's first state-sanctioned film, but it still portrays the same China I saw in Unknown Pleasures (the only other film of his I've seen to date), a China filled with poverty, migrant workers, and listless youth. The trick here is that it's shot in and around the World theme park in Beijing, which simulates the experience of travel without having to go anywhere, with airliner "rides" and smaller-scale monuments from around the world in front of which you can take your holiday snaps. The location adds an oddity to many scenes, and in a way makes the story more universal. It could happen anywhere, and seems to. But the bigger metaphor is that the characters are starved for travel, for achievement, for progress, but are stuck in place. But while I respect the premise, I'm not all that engaged in the stories of these park workers. Love affairs fraught with jealousy, a friend from home looking for work, a strange and kind of wonderful ending that's just a little too abrupt... It made ME listless. Oh well.

Ancestor to both Black Swan and Suspiria, perhaps, The Red Shoes does several things right. One of these is immersing you in the world of high-pressure ballet, from both the composer's and the dancer's points of view (played by Marius Goring and Moira Shearer, respectively). While they could have glossed over the work itself and concentrated on their (late-in-the-game) romance, the music and the dance in this film are quite wonderful as well, and it takes its time setting our artistic heroes up - as well as their patron, and ultimately, their villain, the producer played by Adolf Wohlbrück. On note is one of those impossible dance numbers that, while happening on stage, is full of magical effects and scene changes that couldn't possibly, but that's where the film's action meets its themes. Because the third thing the movie does well is juxtapose Hans Christian Andersen's The Red Shoes, the story of a dancer who is given magical shoes that turn out to be a monkey's paw, with Shearer's dueling passions. She dances in a ballet based on the story, but is also living it. Throw in some beautiful cinematography, and you have one of the greatest films about dance ever put to film.

I watched Lust for Life in the wake of Kirk Douglas' departure from these realms, a Van Gogh biopic to which he evidently gave his all with a vigorous performance as the tortured painter, with a script based on letters between him and his brother (it's one real misstep is having the brother read the letters in voice-over, which just seems confusing). Lust for Life doesn't shy away from speaking the language of the arts, and Vincent has many philosophical discussions with other people in the art world about aesthetics and techniques, which I found particularly interesting. The film is also shot in the places where he painted, juxtaposed with the actual works, its sense of place adding lush spectacle to a story that's essentially a downer. But mostly, it paints (ha!) the picture of a difficult man who has since become the poster boy for mental illness, but without leaning into the Van Gogh myth. That is to say, he isn't some isolated, misunderstood genius, just one who, through a combination of starting late, dying young, and being a bit of a terror in his personal life, never achieved mainstream success in his lifetime, but an artist who brought the same passion to his art he did to everything he got involved with (including his stint as clergyman). We have this image of Van Gogh in our minds, and the film defies the expectations it creates.

In Armageddon, they recruit drillers to become astronauts. In The Core, they recruit astronauts to drill down to the Earth's core. Well of course. Now, I'd been led to believe The Core was a bad, stupid movie. It's not. It's a good, stupid movie. And not that stupid at that. I mean, I've watched too much Trek and Who to now start complaining about technobabble and cinematic SCIENCE! It starts as an Emmerich-strength global disaster movie when the planet's electro-magnetic field goes crazy, and keeps a breathless disaster movie feeling for the ensuing mission to take a laser train down to the Earth's magnetic core to fix it. A lot of the science is possible because the movie says it does, but its engaging cast gets to work out problem after problem within the parameters it set for itself, and the adventure is an exciting thrill ride. Plot holes are inevitable (that's the mandated drilling joke), but none hampered by enjoyment. If people herald the completely unscientific Fantastic Voyage as a cult classic, why not this? I thought it was a lot of fun. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Drive Angry has Nicolas Cage escape hell itself to save his baby granddaughter from a Satanic cult, killing hicksploitation goons even as he is pursued by a demonic force (a delightful villainous performance from William Fichtner). This kind of thing seems to happen to Nick Cage a LOT (also, who does his hair in these movies?!). Starts as a kind of deranged Grand Theft Auto movie, then heads into gonzo supernatural territory, with Amber Heard riding shotgun. It's really the first time I take real note of her presence in a movie (and I'm counting Aquaman). The irreverent tone and crazy action sequences put me in mind of the Ash vs. Evil Dead television show, though ironically, the car stuff is, on the whole, the weakest part of the movie. That, and the bad 3D effects that keep getting thrown at the screen. Good, filthy entertainment with some original ideas about the afterlife, that makes good on its promises. A bit dark, but if you like your Nick Cage movies on the bonkers side, Drive Angry should be on your radar.

It's more common now, but 1963's Hud kind of broke the rules with its irredeemable lead character, Hud Bannon. For the most part, fiction is transformative. We're looking at characters' lives during a crisis moment where they will "arc", learn something, suffer a change, etc. Hud's world changes (by emptying, mostly), but he doesn't, not a jot. He's a jerk at the start, and he stays a jerk. We know him better, so maybe he's even worse. Hud has a lot in common with Martin Ritt and Paul Newman's later production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but that one has a transformation in store for the lead. The crisis in this case is the potential loss of a ranch's cattle to disease and how it could destroy the fortunes of three men, all that is left of a ranching family. The youngest (Brandon De Wilde) is caught between his grandfather (Melvyn Douglas), a proud and ethical rancher, and his uncle Hud (Newman), who is ready to break all the rules to ensure his inheritance. There's a line that resonates strongly: "Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire." That's De Wilde's dilemma, and one gets the feeling it is also America's as a whole. It's interesting that by 1963 standards, the movie seems to exalt conservative values and condemn Hud as a liberal libertine, but today, Hud's greed and corruption would be better recognized as one of the worst strands of modern conservatism. Whatever it's saying, the best reason to watch Hud is Patricia Neal's turn as the family's earthy housekeeper, a wonderful performance that has you sit up every time she's on screen. She's captivating in whatever role she must play with each of the Bannons.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize

Apparently, there once was a film called Daughter of God, and the studio butchered it and called it Exposed, and that's just not very good. This was the second film in a row produced by Keanu Reeves to feature Ana de Armas, which leads me to think he was instrumental in "discovering" her (though of course neither of these films made any kind of splash). Daughter of God is really her story, and is a good showcase for her range as an actress, as a woman who starts seeing angels and believes her pregnancy is miraculous. Meanwhile, and it really is "meanwhile", Reeves is a tortured cop trying to find his corrupt partner's killer. The two strands are connected, but the characters don't meet for the length of a bible (so Ana doesn't help Keanu fight crime with her psychic powers or anything). The final twist/resolution is an ugly one, surprising without coming out of left field, but it leaves a lot of subplots dangling, or honestly, feeling like Keanu's entire thread has been a series of red herrings and a waste of time. Others have severely panned this film, and maybe it's out of support for the director who's vision was compromised, but I still see the original peeking out, so I can't be that harsh. An unfortunate victim of the system.

Anyone Can Quantum is a fun sketch (available on YouTube) in which Keanu Reeves calls Paul Rudd from the future and sets in motion events that will lead to Rudd challenging Stephen Hawking to a game of quantum chess. Fun and punchy, with all concerned amiably laughing at themselves, it really doesn't matter if you don't get the science involved. And I admit, it was very vague for me even if I probably know more about quantum physics than the man on the street. I guess it depends which street. Is Schrodinger's chess a thing? It looks like a thing. Maybe it is and it isn't. But I really did think the sketch would end with an ad for an app. He then was in Key and Peele's Keanu, not just in spirit, but as a kind of spirit guide. He does this a lot, and it seems to work especially well if he's just a voice, as these two quick jobs demonstrate. I've seen Keanu a number of times -  it's delightful - and first reviewed it HERE.

The Astro Boy show was on TV when I was growing up, but I wasn't into it. In French, the title would be more properly translated as Astro the Little Robot, and it just seemed like kiddy fare to me, perhaps, and too cute compared to my Grandizer and Harlock favorites. Right or wrong, decades later I'm sitting in front of the CG animated adaptation, ostensibly because Charlize Theron does like 30 seconds of narration (though it has a cast that generally makes me wish it had been live action), and I can't tell you what they got right, inserted sly references to the canon, or what. In some ways, it's got too much going on, with Astro's origin, the entire mythology of disposable robots/people, fascism on the rise, a side-villain who pits robots against one another in the arena, scavenger orphans, a comic relief robot liberation front, and a giant monster battle. In others, too little, as the social messaging flounders as Astro destroys robots otherwise painted as having some sentience, or as the whole thing ends on a facile resolution that makes a poor coda to all the destruction porn. The animation is dynamic and about right for 2009, with the sore point being Astro himself. They tried to make him look like the anime character so much, he lacks some of the dimension the other characters have and doesn't seem as well integrated and textured as the rest of his world (which is more shades of The Iron Giant than the original show). And yet, when Charlize narrates the history, the retro 2D animation there (which I do like) goes for a 60s American style, not anime. That seems like a bad choice. You could do worse, it's more watchable than a lot of animated bombs, but a bit of a jumble.

Charlize was working on projects that took a while to come out, I guess, because her next credits after that little bit of narration are a music video and an ad! Brandon Flowers' Crossfire has her kick butt to rescue him from various tortuous situations at the hands of ninjas - she's got to use her Aeon Flux training SOMEwhere, right? (Atomic Blonde can't come soon enough.) And she also became the face of the Dior J'adore campaign, which we will return to a few times in this rewatch. The first ad has a nude Charlize speaking French, and that is all you need to know. I'm not made of stone, okay?! Conversely, Charlize is a complete mess in Young Adult, her next project. Rewatched, and I forgot how good the music was in it (previously reviewed HERE). Then there was the Alien prequel Prometheus, the greatest indictment of which might be I had no real recollection of, in which she plays the corporate heavy and is kind of wasted among a strong cast (she isn't alone). I reviewed that one HERE.

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