This Week in Geek (26/01-01/02/20)


In theaters: Guy Ritchie returns to the convoluted gangster comedies that made him a star director, but The Gentlemen is a more mature film. Where Lock Stock and Snatch sacrificed clarity for energy and required several viewings just to get the characters straight, this one is considerably slower, and while the characters are colorful, they are slightly more grounded. Highlights include the a criminal hip-hop group called the Toddlers, and their recalcitrant boxing trainer played by Colin Farrel, but the it's really Hugh Grant who runs away with the film as its unreliable narrator, pitching the whole thing as the film we're more or less watching, not knowing if he's a big player or a pawn in this whole business. Yes, it may strain your tolerance for filthy dialog and prejudice, but that's the world these characters live in. Personally, I thought it was all very funny and entertaining, with enough twists and turns to keep me engaged, yet never feel confused. The wardrobe people certainly deserve a special prize. It also gave me cause to think about gangster films, as I've recently gone on record saying they're all basically the same, but what I really meant is that American gangster films often borrow the same structure and star the same people. I much prefer the UK and Hong Kong versions, for different reasons, but though people like to compare Ritchie to Tarantino, I think the latter borrowed from blaxploitation and Hong Kong movies, while Ritchie's low-rent cockney world has a flavor of its own that reaches back to films like Get Carter. When I see things like Layer Cake, Dead Fish or Sexy Beast, I see them as Guy Ritchie rip-offs, not Tarantino ones. Not saying The Gentlemen is technically better than something like The Irishman, but it's definitely more fun.

At home: The Two Popes imagines conversations between Pope Benedict XVI and the man who would succeed him as Pope Francis, using everything that is known about their lives, public personas, and interpretation of Scripture. And it would have worked as exactly that - two very different attitudes towards the Church, and two great performances, imbued with humanity. That it also wants to be a biopic about Pope Francis is perhaps a weakness, but what we discover there is also part of any Pontiff's humanity, and if Hopkins' Benedict is a complicated, difficult figure, Pryce's Francis needs those flashbacks to complexify him, because he's so modern and approachable. Knowable, if you will. The film is surprisingly funny, juxtaposing an austere role with the mundane quirks and interests any person might have, whether or not they are a mouthpiece for God on Earth, and of course playing out as a theological Odd Couple, one Pontiff so disconnected from his flock, he has only the most tenuous hold on pop culture, while the other hums ABBA and uses public transit. The peek into the rituals and politics of a Pope's election are also appreciated. And while the shots released promotionally all seem to be very symmetrical and posed, director Fernando Meirelles actually keeps things hand-held and voyeuristic, much closer to his City of God than I first assumed. As a French Canadian of my age, Catholicism was an integral part of my upbringing, and like most French Canadians my age, I've abandoned the Church. But I still respond to theological discussion, especially as it relates to such things as progressive thought, and (my interest in Bergman shows) God's silence. But is God really silent if he speaks through your fitbit and you don't listen?

1933's Little Women's originates some of the scenes used in 1949's, but if you've seen one, you haven't necessarily seen the other, as they do deviate from one another. 1933's Depression era adaptation, for example, starts with Marnee giving clothing to the poor, a scene that would not exist in another big theatrical adaptation until Gerwig's. We spend more time with Jo's play, and less time than ever with the Little Women who aren't Jo. This is very much Jo's story, and by the time we get into the Little Wives section, all the other girls become "news from home" essentially, with Amy and Laurie's situation glossed over in the most frustrating way. Meg? Who's Meg? She's the one that's not Beth, although they're kind of the same except that one plays the piano and dies. So it's all on Katharine Hepburn's shoulders and even she can't help but push it into melodrama (as most of these performances are). Still better than 1994's freight train, but definitely a one-sided "Little Woman".

I'm kind of happy that TCM on occasion shows a film from the Czech New Wave, because it produced some very interesting film making. Case in point, Věra Chytilová's aptly named Something Different. Not content with simply juxtaposing two different stories in one film, one of these is unscripted and rather belongs in the documentary category. Both are women's stories and are edited so they speak to each other, either in terms of story and feeling, and/or filmically, where you expect the next shot to be one thing then realize you've crossed over again. On the one hand, a married woman struggling with the boredom of domesticity; on the other, an (actual) Olympic gymnast closer to the end of her career than its start and struggling with the fear of failure and injury. They have much in common - grueling routines, a lack of positive encouragement, and a life they want to quit, yet can't, in the final analysis, bear to give up. It's not a one-for-one allegory however, and the married woman will try to escape in a way the gymnast is unable to. One of these women will seemingly succeed and the other will seemingly fail, and you can flip that depending on your idea of success. And of course, one is real, and the other is a nevertheless well-observed fiction. This was Chytilová's first feature?! Can't wait to see her other work (Daisies in particular).

Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba) is a communist propaganda film, but just about the most gorgeous propaganda film I ever did see. Through four-ish stories, Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov paints a portrait of Cuba before and during the Revolution that lambasts the decadent West and Capitalism's exploitation of the land and people, and does so by preferring long handheld shots, fish-eyed lenses, and askew angles, capturing smoke and water and black and white greenery is ways that, well, have to be seen to be appreciated. In fact, I'd say any cinephile should take a look at this film, because it creates images indelible images - I don't even know how some were captured - that transcend the political message and patriotic fervor of the "story". Having come out in 1964, it's not a call to arms so much as a mythic validation for Castro's leadership. And yet, this is also a universal story about inequity and the will to put a stop to social injustice, whatever the regime, couched in artful pictures and good music. Luminous. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

I love me a "last western" western, and 1950's The Gunfighter is an early example. Gregory Peck plays Jimmy Ringo, a gunslinger with a reputation for fastest gun in the West, and though that may have been fun at first, now he's sick of having to fight (and kill) every young turk who wants to test him, and indeed, the law. In this simple but effective film, Ringo just wants to talk to the woman he loves for 5 minutes, and keep his head down, but his reputation is quickly catching up, everyone after him for revenge or to take his place. It's a fine dissection of the Wild West's heroic myth, showing its allure, but exposing its darkest and destructively macho side. Trading on the Ringo name, it makes you think this really happened, but of course it was JOHNNY Ringo who tangled with the Earps in Tombstone. This is an alternate reality where JIMMY Ringo was the better gunfighter, but also the better man. Perhaps not as stylish as the similar High Noon, but it does what it came to do, and does it well.

Can Sydney Pollack do a Japanese gangster film? Yes. The Yakuza is more than an attempt at an American version of a Japanese story, it seems to be vaguely quoting the likes of Suzuki and Fukasaku with its camera angles, slow-then-violent pacing, neon lighting, and exotic locales (I want an aquarium in my indoor pool too). I wanted to put the music in that list as well, but the film is bookended by syrupy, romantic, slow jazz, which I guess is Robert Mitchum's theme. He's the American who though he speaks Japanese, doesn't quite get the consequences of the yakuza's code or concept of obligation/burden. He makes a mess of things and triggers a tragedy of blood. But the more he understands, the more he has to play by their rules. He's the audience identification figure more than the hero here, a title I would instead give to Ken Takakura's tortured former yakuza. In many ways, Takakura is the whole of post-war Japan, a theme bubbling under the surface. With a movie that looks this cool, I can forgive the bits of ethnological exposition and the convoluted plot. Bottom line, Pollack HAS succeeded in making a Japanese gangster film, parts of which are indistinguishable from the real thing.

The one really interesting thing in Robocop 2 is Murphy struggling with the loss of his family and identity, his masters reprogramming him to be ineffectual as a way to sell their new Robocop 2 (heh), and that moment when he sets himself free. That's when they forget about him for the length of an act to focus on the villains, and by the time it's all over, after an extended and rather tedious shoot'em up, all the interesting stuff's been forgotten. Comic book reflexes from Frank Miller? I mean, comics have continuations, movies don't guarantee them (although there are more Robocop movies, of course). It's not a total wash. There are some amusing parody commercials, one the bad guys is a little boy and another is an amoral psychologist, the corporation is trying to buy the city which I think is probably the most believable sf element in the story, and there's a lot of stop-motion action for fans of those kinds of effects. But it loses much of the good will it's acquired with it's loud, blaring finale. Oh well. I did almost give it half a star more for the end music operatically singing ROBOCOP over and over though. And full disclosure: I think I've been remembering this flick wrong for years, confusing it with The Toxic Avenger or Robocop 3 or I don't know what.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
47 Ronin is a lot better than I was led to believe. Don't get me wrong, it's problematic in that it makes one of the famous ronin a white man, and goes through some pretzelly convolutions to put a non-Japanese outsider in the story. It also looks like the editing was done with a butcher's knife to try and fix something (including dreaded unnecessary narration), and that it would benefit from a longer cut to make things hit harder and more clearly. And not gonna lie, the accents are so variable, I really wish this had been, straight up, in Japanese with subtitles. Delivery and acting would have seemed more natural. That said, why do I still kinda like this movie? Well, it often looks beautiful, so in terms of pure cinematography and creating a fantasy version of Japan with magic and monsters, it's triumphantly distinctive if a little underexplained. Keanu Reeves as the samurai version of John Wick gets some good fights, and the larger set pieces are good too, including the final siege. So yeah, I wasn't sure about it at first, but by the climax, I was grokking it, warts and all.

I'm gonna knock out a bunch of things Keanu was in  here, starting with Extreme Pursuit, a 15-minute Chinese Volkswagen Group ad in which he assassinates Suet Lam in cold blood and shows up to his funeral. Unfortunately the victim's avengers aren't worthy of Keanu's villain, and the stuff where they try to get him is pretty dull. Evidently shot during the making of Man of Tai Chi, as Tiger Chen has a gratuitous cameo in it. You can watch in on YouTube. Then came John Wick, which I previously reviewed but still watched, and it's interesting how different it feels from the sequels, starting at the end and flashbacking to the rest; they really didn't know what they had. Next was the thriller Knock Knock, which I watched not so long ago so decided not to revisit; it also featured before-she-was-a-star Ana de Armas. Keanu's next role was as himself in an episode of Interrogations Gone Wrong on YouTube, a pretty amusing skit where he gets really pissed off at the absurdity of having been mistaken for Mark Wahlberg.

The Burning Plain is certainly a good movie for blond actresses. It stars Kim Basinger, Charlize Theron AND a young Jennifer Lawrence, and not only are they quite good, all of then, I can believe they would be genetically related. Good casting. And I quite appreciate director Guillermo Arriaga's sensitive handling of this story, especially in how he fashions in editing, cutting effortlessly between three time frames. But... This portrait of a self-destructive woman (Charlize, seemingly pigeon-holed in these "sad beauty" roles) whose past catches up to her is filled with mystery, but it's a mystery you can fairly quickly figure out, so then it becomes a case of just waiting for it to actually be revealed on screen. The only issue in question, for me, was the last shot, which comes at the end of probably the best piece of editing in the film. So I wanted to like this film much more than I did, as I respect the craft of all involved a heck of a lot, but I found it just a little too dull for a recommendation, honestly.

Charlize's next film was The Road, in which she plays a character relegated to the flashbacks. A great, great postapocalypse movie I almost want to put in a double feature with Fury Road (for deep contrast). I already reviewed this, of course, but still watched it, and now I'm depressed.


Simon (formerly Johnny Sorrow) said...

I found RoboCop 2 interesting for the way Miller got into Murphy's head by simply writing him as Matt Murdock, wracked with Catholic guilt. Miller really emphasizes the nightmare of being RoboCop, and makes his willingness to even go on living a puzzle that demands explanation. That takes him to some interesting places, even if the parallels between religious commitment and drug addiction are heavy-handed.

Siskoid said...

Demands it, then doesn't deliver it. I'm not saying it's Miller's fault, a lot can happen to a script before it gets to the screen, but there's just no payoff on that element.

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