This Week in Geek (30/03-05/04/20)

"Accomplishments"

At home: The Platform, though its Spanish name actually translates as The Hole, is an allegorical science fiction thriller in the style of Cube, but far less ambiguous in its meaning. Or call it Vertical Snowpiercer, if you like, and that film taught us you don't need to be subtle for something to work. Imagine a prison with hundreds of levels, and a buffet going down a shaft in the middle, from the top to the bottom. I'll let you discover the other rules for yourself. Essentially, this is the story of how the wealthy leave nothing for the poor, and the poor have to turn to crime, and even the well-meaning wealthy are in no position to spark a revolution because there's a systemic break in communication that comes from privilege. It's all quite intriguing, though I find the ending at once abrupt and, once you've figured out the message, trite. That is to say, that's all very well, but no, the system doesn't care about that. Does my own cynicism make the film more bleak than it actually is? Kind of hard to imagine. A lot of people have been criticizing the movie for its lapses in logic (despite the far-fetched and unexplained premise), but this is really all metaphor. Everything is in service of the allegory and the message, so that's neither here nor there.

When I first saw Citizen Kane in film history class, I remember being impressed by its style. Orson Welles is an exciting rules-breaker because he comes at it from an outsider's perspective. Overhead angles like we're looking into a collection of snow globes filled with memories (I'm just I saw the Ark of the Covenant, there at the end). The jigsaw motif in a story that is about an unsolvable mystery. Faces disappearing in shadow and keeping those secrets. Voices echoing in what are basically the Churches of American Capitalism, vast empty spaces filled with stuff, but not people. And of course, several iconic moments, "Rosebud", Kane applauding the wife he's trying to warp with his ego, etc. What strikes me now is that while this is the story of William Randolph Hearst with the numbers filed off, it feels extremely relevant to our own time. It's about moneyed privilege, fragile all-consuming ego, sensationalistic propaganda... It reflects our time of insane billionaires distorting the world in their image more, possibly, than the era in which the film was made. For me, the buck stops at the film ennobling Kane, because I can't see that type of character as a hero, though the film is ambiguous about that, though it definitely wants you to feel some sympathy for him. A worthy classic of American cinema, but better seen as critical of American culture rather than celebrating it.

An early silent documentary, Nanook of the North basically gave pop culture its Inuit stereotype (or Eskimo, which the film uses liberally but shouldn't, as the term is a racial slur handed down from more southerly tribes), but it has to be understood that what Robert J. Flaherty was trying to film was actually how Inuit families lived traditionally years or decades before 1922, possibly things he had seen in previous expeditions to the Arctic, ignoring a lot of the changes already taking place due to Western encroachment. So "Nanook" and his family are a retro-composite and so the film is better seen as a docu-drama. So if you're wondering how they got a camera into an igloo, etc., that's your answer. With almost 100 years between us and the film, what's a couple decades though? Nanook stands as a document of how traditional hunting, fishing, house-building and family life were done in the Arctic, and captures the harsh conditions, the danger, but also the joy of the Inu lifestyle. I watched it on YouTube where it had no music track, so I just put my music library on random. It started with Rush's Rivendell, which captured the melancholy North quite perfectly.

The Navigator has a strong romcom premise: Saboteurs cut a ship adrift, and the only two souls aboard are Buster Keaton and his unrequited love. I'd watch this as a talky! As is, there are a lot of neat bits, though sometimes the set-ups are rather forced, but as long as they allow for Keaton's brand of physical comedy and stuntmanship, who am I to argue? You could say this an hour's worth of Keaton almost drowning, and as usual for him, it looks quite dangerous. In fact, the last act sort of forgets it's a comedy and goes for a big adventure set piece, dated because there's nothing so early-20th as your heroes running from island cannibals, is there? This is in contrast with the film's otherwise cartoony antic. And I mean it. It's a living cartoon, with gags you would expect from the Loony Tunes, especially in the underwater scene heralded by the poster. It's completely ridiculous. Somehow, my favorite bit is one of the simplest ones - Buster trying to shuffle some very wet cards. That one got me good.

Lady Battle Cop... just a Japanese rip-off of Robocop? Well, that may be so, but I'd probably rather watch this than some of the Robocop sequels. It's a lot of fun. I wouldn't say the production values are low exactly - the suit, the explosions, two K-pop songs written for the movie ("Women were made for tennis") prove there WAS a budget - but I could scrounge up better locations scouting around town for a weekend, and the camera work straddles the line between edgy and amateurish. So in the near future, a criminal cartel comes to Japan from America (tracks) and they almost kill the wrong person, a scientist working on a cybernetic police system and his girlfriend, a cute and bubbly tennis star who will become his first human test subject and be forged in the fires of violence. She goes after the whole racket (sorry, but let me say here that the one thing this movie is missing for it to be a true classic is killer robo-tennis moves, missed opportunity) and faces off against, most prominently, a psychokinetic rage-monster/super-soldier. And that stuff is in. sane. No No Give Up, guys!

An early Hollywood Hitchcock, Foreign Correspondent still has the feel of his British work - suspense yes, but also a lot of humor, a hero that doesn't really take the story all that seriously, and indeed, ol' Hitch is using the suspense as a gag (like the bit on the tower) and its release as a punchline. Released in 1940, the film does include a call to war for America, and Joel McCrea is affable as the title reporter more interested in the girl than the news, accidentally stumbling onto a plot to undermine the Allies on the eve of England's declaration of war against Germany. Again, this feels very British. Where the Hollywood comes in is in the big set pieces that betray a big budget, like the big windmill set, or the tempest-tossed castaway bit that really does look convincing, wow. Because of its casual humor and flightiness, and despite its attempt at a paranoid atmosphere, Foreign Correspondent doesn't have the kind of motive power we associate with some Hitchcock's later spy thrillers, but it does the job thanks to a number of memorable sequences.

While there's suspense in Jamaica Inn, Hitchcock isn't concentrating on it the way he does in later films. We just see too much. I could imagine a version of this story where Maureen O'Hara's capable Mary discovers she's living in a wretched hive of scum and villainy through sounds heard behind walls, and catching sight of something in a hole in the floor. Which she does, but we already know what she's going to see because we're also privy to the ship wreckers' meetings. Similarly, we know Charles Laughton's magistrate is in on it very early on, but if it robs us of a twist, it nevertheless works as a tension builder as the heroes trust the wrong person. If this piraty period piece (unusual for Hitchcock) ultimately flops for me, it's really because of its attitudes towards violent men. The ship wrecker's wife is behind him 100%, but he obviously beats her. It's not just her, the film ultimately forgives him. Laughton's insane villain is also shown compassion by Mary at a point where no compassion is merited. It's weird. Still a lot to like though, chiefly Maureen O'Hara's turn as a brave and clever 19th-Century heroine.

Am I wrong, or is Hitchcock's cameo in To Catch a Thief a lot more obvious than in his other films? My feeling about this one is that he is indeed slumming it a little bit, as if the whole cast and crew are on vacation in France, taking it easy by making a leisurely puff piece. He's letting his actors charm the pants off us, and they do, and that's entertaining enough. I dare say the "suspense plot" about a retired cat burglar trying to clear his name when a copycat (ha!) starts robbing rich ladies of their jewels across the Riviera is the weakest part of the film. There aren't very many possible suspects of note, so either it's one of the people you think it will be, or else it'll be someone you don't care about. Our interest (and Hitchcock's) is rather on the romance between Cary Grant's suave thief and Grace Kelly's almost-fatale thrill-seeker who might get more than she bargained for when she goes after Grant (that fireworks scene is played for laughs but still works beautifully). I like Jessie Royce Landis as Kelly's mother as well, and Brigitte Auber as femme fatale-the younger model too. Pretty locations and actors, some fun with suspense tropes, makes you think of summer... I'll allow it.

1945's And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians) is René Clair's adaptation of Agatha Christie's deadliest mystery, but it's definitely the Hollywood take on it. It's got to have a couple to root for, which means downplaying the original's cynicism and deadliness. It's a lighter piece, and we therefore better see the line between this and its parodies (Murder by Death, Clue, and Doctor Who's "The Unicorn and the Wasp", for example). So have the changes robbed it of its power? Not entirely. If you don't know the solution (and I never remember the solutions - except Orient Express - because I read the books when I was barely a teenager), it keeps you happily guessing, frustrating you in an "aw shucks" kind of way as your favorites (for the murders, or full stop) get bumped off. Clair shoots the house and island well and uses those trademark 4th wall cracks of his to good effect - I'll let you find out if they're confessions or red herring. Purists will say nay (even if I think Christie's theatrical adaptation had a similar ending), but I'll say yay, or at least, yeah ok.

National Theatre Live presents One Man, Two Guvnors with James Corden in the lead role of a hired man with two masters who must not know about each other, adapted from Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters, a commedia del'arte classic. And though I'm not a commedia fan per se, this crazed and often broad comedy makes me feel like I'm watching Molière (who took commedia and ran with it) or Shakespeare's cross-dressing comedies. Except it's set among Cockney-ish gangsters in 1963 Brighton, has fun (but sometimes overlong) musical interludes that get better once the actors get into the act, and interplay with the audience that could be pulled out of a Penn and Teller show! Corden even gets into hot water with the audience on the night they taped. But this is a play where the characters know they're in a play, to the point of winking at it in pantomime fashion, which might take a while to get used to. Ultimately, there's so much verbal and physical humor, you just succumb to its charms. Don't sit in the spit section. Note that National Theatre Live has decided to release one of their recordings on YouTube every week FOR a week (on Thursdays) to watch for free (you can make a donation), at least through the end of April as a response to the COVID quarantine. I intend to "go to the theater" all month.

Stanley Donen's Two for the Road looks at an entire relationship by cutting back and forth between different road trips through Europe, from the couple first meeting on the road, to what seems like their last, the marriage clearly on the rocks. As an editing job, it's marvelous, not only telling a story with natural ironies, and memories counter-pointing later events, but also filled with clever match cuts to send the audience back and forth through time unawares. Somehow, it gets its cake and eats it to, turning what could be a cynical story about marriage into a very romantic one. It's got humor, witty dialog, beautiful locations, and, well, Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, acting up a storm and not at all fixated on being likable, just real. Do we think these two are a good match? Does that opinion change depending on the time period we're looking at? It really is like all three Before movies wrapped into one, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's a key inspiration (or became one, midstream, at least by Before Midnight which has several similarities). And man... I thought the "child-king" concept was a more recent invention, but there it is wreaking havoc in the late 60s - those sequences with William Daniels are frankly as hilarious as they are empathetically irritating. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize... to the End

So this week, I decided to run right through what was left of my alternating KeanuWatch and CharlizeWatch movies. Let's ping-pong between them...

I pity the romcom fans who press play on Destination Wedding in the hopes of a Keanu Reeves/Winona Ryder feel-good romance. This movie is really Table 19 meets Before Sunset as written by a nihilist. And I think I kind of love it for that. It's an anti-romcom romcom where the characters are trapped in a romcom premise, with convenient romcom twists, and while they may occasionally feel drawn into the formula, they are too wise, disappointed, apathetic and well, broken, to fall for it. The dissection of romance, its myth and reality, especially in Keanu's deadpan delivery, made me burst out laughing a couple of times. Not so much because I agree with him - he's too cynical - but because I know people like what's being lampooned. A very awkward sex scene also makes for effective black comedy. Off-putting at first, this film feels very "written", like a stage play, and you soon realize that that's what they're going for. In fact, you could stage it as a two-hander with the actors moving from one type of bench to another and having their conversation. No other character has intelligible dialog (except what's on TV), we're always with them and are experiencing this torturous wedding experience through them. An interesting genre experiment, if you have the right mindset for it.

Next up for Charlize was The Fate of the Furious, not her best role, but one she has to reprise in Fnine (and perhaps other films, it's hard to get out of the Fast and Furious family). I reviewed it HERE.

Replicas is a failure in writing, sure, spending half the movie watching Keanu Reeves trying to resurrect his dead family by putting their brainwaves in copies, something you KNOW has to happen from the title alone, and it's so full of plot holes, you can't walk a foot without falling into one. It's also a failure of science, because it's all patently ridiculous. But mostly, it's a failure of imagination. The film sets up a potentially fertile area of science fiction to explore the human condition, what makes us US, whether there's an ineffable human quality, like a soul, etc. and then blows it on a formulaic third act, turning the story into a lame thriller. Consequences go out the window, even for the villain in fact, and it feels like somebody rewrote the ending without really looking at the the first two acts more than once. It might have helped if we got to know the family a little more before it meets its end, but Alice Eve as the wife might as well be a robot from jump. Strictly for people who like to get dad vibes from Keanu (you know who you are, Replacements fans), but regular audiences will find it pointless and deeply wrong-headed.

Again a previously-reviewed film for Charlize and that's Tully. I talked about it HERE. Similarly, John Wick 3 was a rewatch on the Keanu end of things, and it's reviewed HERE.

With most movies, the addition of Charlize Theron is a plus, and a reason to give it half-a-star more. I find the opposite to be true with Gringo, where she plays an unpleasantly racist businesswoman that the movie eventually wants us to cheer for, it seems. Her attitude goes well beyond the "women have to be this hardcore to survive in business" trope, and COSTS the film half a star. Not that it was doing too well in the first place because Charlize isn't the only scumbag in the piece, and really, the people you MIGHT care about, played by David Oyelowo and Amanda Seyfried, are naive dupes through most of it. This fiasco in the making (and I mean the story, not the film itself) has its moments, but there's just too much going on for everything to adequately pay off. We have ruthless business people trying to cut ties to a drug cartel that invested in their pharmaceutical enterprise down in Mexico, and an employee hung out to dry down there, and the boss having an affair with his wife, a fake kidnapping scheme and a real kidnapping scheme dueling one another, a mercenary-turned-humanitarian sent on conflicting missions, a drug mule and his girlfriend getting involved almost accidentally... It all ties together, but it's too much to juggle and a lot of balls get dropped. It's not tight enough a thriller, nor tragic enough an Elmore Leonard-type narrative, nor funny enough a black comedy. It wants to be those things, but it sadly comes off as obnoxious.

Charlize also starred in another Dior ad (The New Asbolu) during this time where she walks out of a pool of gold naked surrounded by models. These things are pretty and entirely designed around her hair color I think. They also made a 360 degree version so you can "explore the world". It's not really like being there, folks.

I am ending the marathon with a couple of fun comedies, Always Be My Maybe (with Keanu, reviewed HERE, and the basis for my marathon title) and Long Shot (with Charlize, reviewed HERE), and it's a good note to end on. And in many ways the same film! Randall Park is even in both of them. Everything after this I either watched within the last year like Toy Story 4 or out of order DURING the marathon (Between Two Ferns, Bombshell), or just recently missed at the theater (sorry Addams Family). Obviously, I'll keep an eye on these two stars. New Atomic Blonde, Matrix, John Wick, Fast and Furious, Bill and Ted are sure to hold my interest, even if new projects turn out to be Replicas or Gringos. Thanks for the last few months, K and C, it's been fun.

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