This Week in Geek (2-08/03/20)


In theaters: Blumhouse's version of The Invisible Man might be the scariest version of H.G. Wells' story - I say story, but concept would be more accurate - with an incredible amount of edge-of-your-seat tension, the thriller elements helped along by some shared frustration with the lead, though I often felt the manipulation and resented it. As a techno-thriller, it isn't immune to plot holes, and where invisibility is involved, there is always going to be some hand-waving as to how it actually works as you see it on screen. I'm not, by nature, a nitpicker, but my brain was constantly distracted by that kind of stuff. But the story nevertheless drew me in emotionally. There was an opportunity to make the monster more ambiguous as a presence - is Elisabeth Moss' character imagining it or not? - but once you've revealed you're doing H.G. Wells, albeit from a different POV, that's kind of out of the window. The film still manages to say something about toxic relationships and how a woman rids herself (Halloween 2018-style) of that negative presence in her life. Plenty of thrills, scares, creepy invisibility gags, fun winks at the 1933 classic, and "how will she get out of this one?" moments along the way. I'm also always stoked to see Aldis Hodge (from Leverage) in stuff, and he's got a good role here. There are plot contrivances, sure, but The Invisible Man immerses you in a high-anxiety universe so you don't see (or mind) them.

At home: On the carousel of love, round and round we go, getting on, getting off, and we can't be sure into whose arms we'll land. That's what Max Ophüls' La Ronde is all about, a clever anthology about love and desire, set up as a chain where everyone gets to have two different lovers along the way. Strung up in a cinematic necklace, pearls of wisdom follow one another, but they are often self-serving, a means to justify one's behavior in preparation for jumping on or off the carousel. The film would be of interest even if it were only a kind of Short Cuts, but it's much more intriguing than that. Adolf Wohlbrück plays a mysterious meta character that is part narrator, part Cupid, part stand-in for the film maker, part Deadpool (how's that for a description?), smoothly navigating, but also  manipulating, the stories as they're being told. It seems a weird coincidence that I recently watched Lubitsch's One Hour With You, because it seems to be the template for La Ronde - a comedy about adultery, breaking the fourth wall, dialog (really, monologue) in verse that sometimes turns into song... One of Lubitsch's lesser works, but whether inspired by it or not, Ophüls polishes the same kind of material until it glitters and captivates. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Maupassant was one of those authors whose work was mandatory reading when I was in high school, and who I never truly appreciated. Short stories about 19th-Century mores, suffering, irony... No teacher ever made the adolescent me connect with the material. In Le plaisir (Pleasure), Max Ophüls has Maupassant's voice take us through three of his stories, bookending the longest with short tales though that middle part could have been its own film. And so the meat of the movie is about a bordello's entire staff going to the country on vacation, and it's quite charming and understated. I could have spent the entire runtime with these ladies of the night. The first story is probably the weakest, as it's over by the time it's started, but the last one, about a couple who find happiness but not joy in their marriage seems to me perfect cynical Maupassant, and in that feeling, I find an adult capacity to relate to his work that I didn't always have. Of course, Ophüls has something to do with it. I find in this director a subversive ability to break the rules without you noticing. A narrator who takes another character's voice; a camera set up in the wrong place, hiding the action, but revealing the characters; anthologizing of unrelated stories to create new connections... The direction doesn't often call attention to itself, but look at it from a student of cinema perspective, and it's more interesting than the stories themselves.

Wim Wenders frequently makes his protagonists wanderers, exploring a space that is both outer and inner. In Paris, Texas, his almost-garishly colorful American production, Harry Dean Stanton is his melancholy wanderer, a man who comes out of the desert transformed after four years' absence, but transformed for what? Wenders makes him take the slow road, but it's a journey that will reveal his trauma, his personal need to disappear, and his quest now that he has returned to the land of the living. The film is really about where we come from as a notion of identity, and creates a disjointed geography where Paris is in Texas and might be mistaken for the one in France, where one is conceived in a place they've never been, where the sounds of planes backgrounds a sedentary family, and where ultimately, in a climactic directorial tour de force, two people are together but separated, by glass, by staging, and by the last four years. Sam Shepard's screenplay is deceptively simple but full of his trademark details that take us into metaphor, well supported by Wenders' introspective yet visual style.

Behind its lackluster title, Kansas City Confidential hides a fun little crime picture with an interesting hook. Four men plan and pull off a heist while masked and only the boss knows who everyone is. (Ironically, there are a couple of great faces behind those masks, guys like Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam.) When it's time to split the loot, they have to wait for the heat to taper off, then will meet under the boss' direction. Fine. But enter an ex-con in the wrong place at the wrong time who almost goes down for the crime, and he's going to use the fact these guys are mysteries to each other to get his revenge/compensation. As you might expect, there are twists, turns, and inevitable double-crosses, and some are pretty clever, though the film telegraphs them a little early sometimes. I kind of wanted it to be edgier - it's an ALMOST-Noir, too romantic to be a proper Noir - but it's still worth watching (whether you're following its Reservoir Dogs connection or not).

In Escape from East Berlin (AKA Tunnel 28), Robert Siodmak brings his Noir stylings to a paranoid Cold War thriller about a family who live on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall and decide to try and make a break for it, under the ground. Nosy neighbors, omnipresent patrols, and of course, how noisy an enterprise this is all work to make the escape thrillingly difficult. Nice tension throughout. If Escape has a weakness, it's that it leans way too far into anti-communist propaganda. It's really not necessary to over-egg the pudding with purple-prosed narration and text scrolls about how terrible it is to live with freedom, and I don't think it was needed at the height of the Cold War when this was made either! But seeing as it's the bookends, one could imagine this was a studio requirement as the body of the film itself isn't as histrionic. We even have a reluctant hero (right out of Noir) who thinks he has a good life in the East and doesn't want to leave. A more dosed approach is definitely better.

As a story, Woody Allen's Manhattan is, especially in retrospect, incredibly self-serving, but then so are a lot of his films. His character dates a 17-year-old (who will go out of his life by the time she's 18), falls for a more age-appropriate woman (Diane Keaton), and when the relationship falls apart, goes back to the teenager who he should never have left in the first place. If he hadn't taken it to the extreme of having her be a minor, I would instead be calling it a bold self-examination, not just of what an older man (and him in particular) finds attractive in someone who isn't on his level (power), what he finds difficult but also enriching about a more equal dynamic, and how pathetic the older man is in a relationship with a younger woman (as the ending does have a certain emotional ambiguity). It's there, or used to be there, but we know too much for it not to be cringy AF, a kind of manifesto against women with "baggage" in favor of empty but beautiful molds you think you can fill with whatever plaster you like (and if the film retains some power as a story, it's in that "think"). If I make abstraction of all that, Manhattan contains some of Allen's wittiest dialog, and of course, the cinematography is gorgeous, making cityscapes epic, and filling interiors with composed perfection. But guys, really, why are 70s film makers so obsessed with the Lolita trope? Case in point...

But for the ending, Taxi Driver could be the American classic received wisdom tells us it is. De Niro hands in an intense performance, and Scorsese goes almost Giallo with his colorful night cinematography, while the day exposes a filthy New York City filled with garbage, rust, and background violence. Though some people will always get the wrong message out of films like this - connecting to the protagonist in a way that makes him "right" though he's really a symptom of the decaying, corrupted world he lives and moves through - that ending tends to help them more than it does the film's point. Personally, I have no doubt the epilogue is a fantasy. It's just too ludicrously "happily ever after" to make sense otherwise. The incel stalker, would-be presidential assassin, does not get the girl or go back to his normal life after this. The way it's shot, with the camera leaving the scene of the crime as if it were Bickle's soul, also supports that interpretation. But it doesn't help. It seems to say, go to your well-deserved rest now, young hero, sleep peacefully, here's a heaven with 72 virgins or what have you. Where life gives him his comeuppance, the film decides to fly away and reward him for his vigilante action. Taxi Driver will always be iconic because of the moments everyone remembers, but as a whole, it is severely problematic, and as social mores evolve, only gets more so.

The first movie I ever saw was Benji, back in what was probably 1975, in a screening room in the city hall of the village I then lived in, dubbed in French. I was four years old, at most, and my memory is more of going to see it than anything that was on the screen. Seeing it again for the first time in 45 years, it really is for the kiddies, isn't it? I guess if you really like cute, well-trained dogs and don't need a plot, you'll be satisfied. But woof, this might work as a 45-minute television episode, but at twice the length, it's padded beyond redemption. They certainly didn't have enough music for a whole film, and Benji's theme was in danger of driving me insane before the end of the first act. Watch Benji run from friend to friend in town. Okay let's do that a second time. Okay, how about a third but now he has a girlfriend? Eventually, a kidnapping plot turns up and Benji becomes an episode of Lassie where no one understands what she's saying, and the movie tips into tonal dissonance (it looks like a dog is brutally killed, sorry kids) and Benji has flashbacks to when he was, what, a police dog?! You can't pull the K-9 Unit memory trick at the hour mark, Joe Camp! You have to understand, Higgins, the dog playing Benji, is unimpeachable. He's the Joaquin Phoenix of the canine set. But he's embarrassingly supported by the other actors who are either pitching their performances at little kids, or as just BAD. The only actor I want to watch is Terry Carter (Colonel Tigh from classic Battlestar Galactica), but he's criminally underused. I don't think you can call yourself a family film if you're not for the WHOLE family, and that means the adults too.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize

I don't claim to know more than the general public about eating disorders, but To the Bone looks legit enough, supported by the real-life experiences of writer/director Marti Noxon (Buffy) and star Lilly Collins, albeit a prettified movie version of people suffering from such. In another era, it would have been a typical "movie of the week" on network TV. On Netflix, it can be a little edgier, but it nevertheless doesn't really escape the tropes of the genre. I do commend the fact that it's attacking the issue from all sides, with varied situations, advice and treatment options (Keanu Reeves no-bullshit doctor isn't necessarily right), trying to connect with as many affected people as possible (though possibly more teens, given the heroine's attitude and the forced romance element). If it ultimately fails, it's because it makes promises it can't keep, with the film's idea of rock bottom rather different than mine, and a lot of subplots set up that don't satisfyingly resolve themselves. I don't need a proper ending for everything, especially recovery from a mental illness, but if you're going to throw balls in the air, I kind of need you to catch a FEW of them.

On Charlize's end of things, I rewatched Mad Max: Fury Road and holy crap. Is that the spiky car from The Cars That Ate Paris?! Deep cut, Mr. Miller! Between this and her next film, Ms. Theron also appeared in two shorts/ads. The first is as part of a New York Times video shoot that shows some of the best actors of 2015 defying gravity in some way. These are essentially either little fantasy pieces or lyrical dance with special effects, and pretty enough, but there's really not much to them. After that came her third Dior ad, "The Absolute Femininity", where she seems to be walking on water, because Charlize Theron is pretty much weightless I guess, though they could have titled it anything.


Tony Laplume said...

In a lot of ways, Joker is exactly what viewers seem to have wanted Taxi Driver, at least in retrospect (like this) to be. But I think it's a movie that was always more than the sum of its famous parts. When I finally got around to seeing it, I thought Peter Boyle's part best summed it up, as social commentary, as criticism, in a way the '60s counterculture could never adequately explain. But to get to that point, it has to be De Niro edging toward oblivion, for it to sink in. So to be remembered, it has to be memorable. But it doesn't do anyone good if its message ends up forgotten.

That being said, I still like the Joker version, which is as appropriate to its time as Taxi Driver was to its.


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