This Week in Geek (27/04-02/05/20)

"Accomplishments"

At home: I like a good journalism thriller and Official Secrets has moments where it delivers that, but its focus is really on a real-life whistleblower played by the blank wall of my movie-watching existence, Keira Knightley. Oh she's fine, but given the amazing cast assembled for this thing, I wanted to spend more time with Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans (on the journalism side) or even Ralph Fiennes (on the legal side). In the end, trying to tell the story of a leak pertaining to the Iraq War from all those angles, while worthy and topical, lacks definition. Why does it end on that shot, for example, if the emotional core of the story is Knightley? I am not, however, disputing that putting a face on what might motivate a whistleblower, even if it tonally disrupts the procedural elements of the film, is a good idea. There's an ethical dimension to it that is well served by emotional context. And the recognizable cast makes it easy to immediately know who is who and not get lost in the tangled web of the plot. And yet, it's still a case of "this happens, then this happens", simple presentation of facts where I want a bit of art.

If it weren't set in the shadow of the Holocaust, The Shop on Main Street's premise would be a comedy, and indeed plays like one for most of the runtime. Tono is appointed "Aryan manager" of a Jewish business for which he is ill-qualified, but the old lady who actually runs the store is oblivious to the Nazi occupation, going deaf besides, and thinks he's just there to help her out. She's a pain in his ass, and yet too endearing to send packing, and that's all very well and good until the Fascist Guard come to town to take all the Jews to the camps. Jozef Kroner is great as Tono, doing much without saying a word, never too sympathetic, and yet not unsympathetic either. He's no fascist, it's just a business opportunity. Ida Kaminska puts in a strong performance as the old woman too. And it's all told with an effective slice of life quality, at least until the climax with its brilliant use of the audience's judgment through the camera lens. A dark tale about impossible choices and the corruptive nature of fascism, wrapped in a sort of small town comedy in which you spend time with a community of affecting characters. Some call it gut-wrenching, but I admit I perhaps braced myself for something harder to watch, and so came out of it relatively unscathed.

Victor Sjöström (The Phantom Carriage)'s The Outlaw and His Wife is an effective silent melodrama about a woman who falls in love with a thief on the run, takes off with him, and then though there's a sweet romance in all this, terrible things happen. Among its strengths are its visuals, shot on location in the mountains of Iceland and making the most out of that. I also like the opening sequence with the lost sheep, which resonates through the main plot. But despite spending what seems like an inordinate amount of time setting things up before the flight from town, I never quite believe how the two leads fall in love. It just kind of happens, and Edith Erastoff, I dunno, just doesn't seem the type. Is there such a thing as a pragmatic look? Once they flee justice and explore a proper relationship, I'm more invested, and when tragedy strikes, it's believable despite the extremes. The original score has long been lost, but the new composition is a little dissonant for me, though I appreciate the inclusion of waterfalls and wind as part of the soundscape. It actually adds a lot to the atmosphere of this bleak winter film.

Out of Belarus comes Come and See to show there are many stories yet to be told about World War II, as Eastern Europe's role in that history hasn't had as much exposure as the operational theaters the Americans were involved with. Come and See is the story of a boy soldier, one who starts out much too eager to join the Partisan army and fight the Nazis. You know where this is headed, but director Elem Klimov pushes the envelope when it comes to this military coming of age and loss of innocence, and we watch the boy get older and older the more he witnesses, and there's a kind of crazy montage climax that's all about that theme. Throughout, Klimov opposes the male drive to destroy to the female drive to create, in one particularly character, a girl who almost appears as a supernatural wood nymph, suggesting war is against the natural order. Taking its basis from the historical fact of Germans burning down hundreds of villages and their inhabitants in Belarus, itself an ignored chapter of their villainy, the film offers a lot of moments we've never seen before - and fair warning, an animal dies on camera in one of them - and dares give us simulated tinnitus for the length of an act. It's a powerful piece, though not as difficult to watch as I've been led to believe.

The original Swedish version of A Woman's Face is a noir-ish melodrama that stars a young Ingrid Bergman as a scarred femme fatale, who turned to crime because her looks don't give her better opportunities. Anna is a cool character, whip-smart and ambitious, a bitter pill whose hardness is full of insecurity cracks. Then she gets the opportunity to get plastic surgery - you don't cast Bergman and leave her scarred for the whole movie, although I think I would have been interested in that - but can her heart be healed along with her face? The idea that beauty is good and ugliness evil isn't a particularly evolved one, but it does fit certain genres, including noir. And the film does make a good point about how looks engender a certain treatment from people, which has an effect on the life of a person, whether perceived as attractive or not. While the noir doesn't completely evaporate after the operation, melodrama does take hold and so the last two acts are a little tepid and even saccharine, and it's melodrama's rules that provide a resolution as the thriller fails. Great black and white cinematography though!

Woody Allen's first dramatic turn, Interiors, deals with a family whose unstable matriarch is obsessed with interior design of the beigest, most boring sort, and at the same time is responsible for creating turmoil "inside" her family members. From that initial cleverness is born a movie I find pretty dull, honestly. Meant as a tribute to Ingmar Bergman, it matches the essential look of that director's color films, and has the same golden glow of movies like Scenes from a Marriage and Autumn Sonata (out that same year), and of course it's a lot of people speaking their truth. But the rhythm is Allen's, and where Bergman's characters have an existentialist perspective, Allen's come from the tradition of psycho-analysis, which is far less interesting to me. The former has a more profound and universal quality, while the latter is specific and self-centered. I'm not going to argue the movie isn't well shot or acted, because it is, but the only character I wanted to spend time with is Maureen Stapleton's "vulgarian" other woman, while the rest are just your usual New York art scene elitists, common to Allen's films, but without the comedy, just tedious pretentious people.

If I hadn't committed myself to rewatching movies I'd never reviewed, I probably would never have revisited Bull Durham. It's a baseball movie, first of all, and it stars Kevin Costner. That is normally enough for a pass. I don't even know if I actually dislike Costner as a performer, or if he just consistently selects projects I have no basic interest in. Be that as it may, it was on the list, and so here I am. Bull Durham is not the main character's name as I falsely remembered - can anyone explain the title? it's about the Durham Bulls, but how does that grammatically resolve in that title? - he's a sort of baseball gunslinger hired by a Minor League team to get the local pitcher into the Majors. The baseball story has a lot of gumball machine philosophy, but it's pithy and Costner and Tim Robbins are fun foils for one another. As it turns out, this is just a side-show for a romantic comedy between Costner's Crash and Susan Serandon's sexy baseball groupie (the movie basically prefigures Almost Famous, but with sports) and the unfolding theme is that experience trumps raw quality, though not everyone necessarily delves that deep. I'm not sure how well the movie juggles the two genres at times (it seems all over and then they have to tack on more romance stuff), but ultimately, though I found it perfectly watchable, it's just not the kind of material I'll ever have much passion for.

Wow wow wow wow... A Special Day is special indeed. A delicate and elegant film about fascism's "accepted oppression" set in 1938 Italy, in fact on the day Hitler came to visit Rome. A national holiday, everyone races out to the parade, but our two leads have a reason to stay home. Sophia Loren is a shabby, tired housewife, one who accepts fascism's proposed values. Marcello Mastroianni is a gay subversive (but only really subversive for daring to exist) living across the courtyard in the same apartment complex. Both are playing against type, but they have such star power, it hardly matters, and though a romance would seem impossible from that precis, nevertheless something develops between them over the course of that one day. And throughout, the state propaganda blares out from the nasty concierge's radio, inescapable. One character is obviously oppressed, but so is the other, and the sad part is her realizing she is. Fascist values - which then as now must curtail the rights of women - once comforted her in her unhappy marriage, but after this one day's idyll, no longer. At the end, like the parroting myna bird that allowed for their meeting, they return to their cages. The acting is impeccable. The sepia-toned cinematography cheats us into thinking this is about the past. Great use of location. Wonderful on every level. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful is a Hollywood confidential, albeit one about a fictional producer (Kirk Douglas), or I should probably say, a composite of actual producers. David O. Selznick was famously afraid it was about him, but in the "Cat Man" movies of "Shields"' early career, one must necessarily see Val Lewton. Whoever Shields is or is not, each of three flashbacks shows how he sequentially minted a director, a star and a writer, and how he eventually betrayed them. They own him everything, in a way, but have sworn never to work with him again. Can the allure of a new project bring them back to the fold? Minnelli shows us a Hollywood where the personal often takes a back seat to professional ambition, and makes Douglas an ambiguous figure. Is he ruthless businessman or driven artist? Is the work more important than the people? Are they temperamental ingrates with bruised egos, or are there things that cannot be forgiven? It's hard to pick sides and decide who might just be a hypocrite, and that's a strength. Of course, the flashbacks aren't all of equal value, and I felt like they started strong and ended on the weakest. The director's story is full of behind the scenes interest; the star's has some fun bubble-bursting needle scratch-type moments that foreshadow what will happen in the relationship; and then the writer's is so "writerly" in its narration that it feels artificial. Still, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses.

Minnelli and Kirk Douglas team up 10 years after The Bad and the Beautiful to make the very similar Two Weeks in Another Town, though this time the time frame is chronological and Douglas plays a recovering alcoholic actor in need of redemption and to start the next chapter of his life. Amusingly, The Bad and the Beautiful was one of his movies, so Minnelli really isn't hiding the connection, and so one must wonder if the director played by Edward G. Robinson isn't some reflection of him. The movie is replete with artistic insecurity, not in the making of it, but in the themes and dialog. The director is being mocked by critics as repeating himself (indeed, there are many scenes here that echo the previous film), the young actor is listless and wants out, the older one is wiser but knows he hasn't resolved the issues that drove him to self-destruction, etc. If The Bad and the Beautiful asked for forgiveness and perspective, Two Weeks in Another Town is the work of older artists who ask whether the pain was worth it. It's less ambiguous, but no less self-reflective, and compared to its ancestor, the film gets to play with beautiful Roman locations and slick color, so it looks pretty great.

There's nothing Noir-ish - a term I too frequently use - about Out of the Past. This Robert Mitchum vehicle is as Noir as Noir gets, no ish about it. You get the in medias res structure, the convoluted crime plot that's hard to follow on first watch, beautiful black and white cinematography signed Jacques Tourneur (Cat People), crackling hard-boiled dialog (even from, like, the diner's waitress), and a femme fatale at the center of the story. And I feel like they took the concept of the double-crossing femme and ramped it up to 11. Is Jane Greer's character redeemable at all? Well, the picture will tell. If the movie is about anything, it's about weakness. In a Noir world of flawed individuals, it seems reductive to call any character "evil". So what actually drives them if not those same, very human flaws, and what tragic mistakes might one make following the wrong impulse? Also includes a coolly menacing performance by Kirk Douglas, and one of the most savage fist fights put to film in classic Hollywood movies. But yeah, I was often lost in the plot mechanics.

Filipino director Lino Brocka's follow-up to Manila in the Claws of Light is Insiang, a piece of naturalism set and shot in the slums of Manila where people are piled on top of each other, looking for jobs, and screaming at each other a lot. This is a very loud film, with blown-out sound and dragging musical cues even when the immersive chaos at the start of the film (which starts with a pig being bled out in a processing plant, just to give you a jolt from the beginning) calms down. The story isn't rosy, but it is engrossing no matter the film's technical flaws (which do not include the visuals, which are rich and colorful, and even more impressive when you realize the film was shot in seven days). Insiang is a young woman at odds with her bitter, nagging mother, a difficult relationship that becomes even more difficult when mommy dearest invites a predator in the already too-full house. Insiang will eventually get her revenge on the people who wrong her, lending some desperate thrills to the third act, but the heart of the matter always lies with the mother-daughter dynamic, the former's hubris almost out of Greek tragedy, but the emotional context is modern and universal, at least to anyone who's had a cold parent.

Before James Cameron's Titanic, the last cinematic word on the great unsinkable ship's tragedy was 1958's A Night to Remember... and it may still be. Cameron threw a lot of effects at his version, but the earlier film is damn impressive itself, with amazing production values and a strong British cast. Some of those shots might seem familiar, as they turned up in B-roll used in such shows as The Time Tunnel. The movie's take on the disaster is to make the innocuous mistakes accumulate to explain how it could happen (I especially like our seeing what's happening on the ships that got the S.O.S.), and it really does focus on the event, where Cameron divided its attention between the historical reenactment and the fictional melodrama of Rose and Jack. A Night to Remember introduces us to many characters (and even similar couples), but they are there to put a face on the tragedy, not to co-opt it. The sinking of the Titanic is tragic because it shattered the lives of people LIKE this, but the Cameron blockbuster makes that background to a doomed romance. I always resented that. A Night to Remember shows none of that Hollywood clap-trap was needed

Terrence Malick's first feature, Badlands, already shows off his trademark ability to find the poetry in moments, places, and characters. Though only loosely based on a famous late 1950s killing spree perpetrated by teenage Bonnie and Clyde types, it's so rich in detail as to feel like Malick really is working off the girl's naive, lyrical impressions. I really don't know where reality stops and the movie begins, but what Malick seems to have seized upon is the real-life fact that Starkweather - here, Carruthers -  was just the nicest guy... except for the wanton killing. Martin Sheen's portrayal manages to walk that tight rope, and in some ways, he's just as naive and innocent as Sissy Spacek's Holly Sargis (in real life, Caril Ann Fugate). This is a sweet romance, with many images that evoke drifting, following a current rather than following any true motivation, to see where it gets us. A sweet romance... but for the wanton killing. One of the musical cues in the film turns up some decades later in True Romance, which made me go, "ahh, I see what Tony Scott did there". A gorgeous, enigmatic picture about reckless youth, at the border between the western's outlaw hero tradition and the modern crime picture so important in '70s independent cinema.

While I've often said biopics weren't my thing, Spike Lee's rousing Malcolm X has just enough of the mythical, and such a great central performance, that I can't help but love it. In a way, Lee plays it as an American gangster film. A natural born leader, "Red" Little gets into the Harlem rackets and eventually gets too big for his britches, and so we have the quite familiar rise and fall of the gangster, with lavish dance numbers in the middle, right out of Scorsese. But that's just act one. And if that rise, betrayal and fall play out in the political and religious sphere later, we nevertheless have the sense that Lee has co-opted an American movie trope to tell a different story, a Messianic one with Malcolm X a polarizing figure to be martyred, with his former church playing the part of the Jews who allegedly sold out Jesus and White America as the Roman Empire. Malcolm X is his own message, so in elevating one, Lee elevates both, and while you could claim he spends too much time on his early, criminal life, I dare say it's all of a piece. Starved of opportunity, ambitious black men took what they could, even if it was under the table, and Malcolm X lived it so he could later identify and reject it. Those uncomfortable with the extremity of his arguments (and Lee's) should check their privilege at the door, and recognize that the film is tracking the evolution of a man's thought as much as the biographical details of his life, and that extremity has value, and the pendulum will swing back from it. A powerful lesson in questioning so-called truisms handed down by the founders of our society (what is has to say on language alone is worth the price of admission).

You know you're a complete Star Trek nerd when you watch an indie film from the '60s and recognize the plaintive, romantic oboe of Gerald Fried who was also responsible for "Ruth's Theme" in the episode "Shore Leave", then used as a love theme for the rest of the original series. Such was the case with One Potato, Two Potato, an honest portrait of a mixed race couple who have to fight for the custody of a child when the white ex-husband shows up, and fueled by his racism, asks to be the girl's sole guardian. I also like how much of a tom boy the little girl is, the film going against convention, while the bio-dad is all about showering her with girly things. The acting is superb and naturalistic, just like the writing and the black and white photography, simple without being raw or unpolished. In the couple, we see a better way of being, one that is more real and legitimate, and it's society that is systemically destructive. The scene of Barrie and Hamilton walking on sidewalk cracks like they're "tight ropes" is perhaps THE metaphor for the story.

I think I liked the Chris Evans "Die Hard with a cell phone" movie Cellular more than most. A fun little premise well executed. Connected is the Hong Kong remake, starring the always dependable (and a lot more frazzled than usual) Louis Koo as a man desperate to keep his promise to a kidnapped woman (the very effective Barbie Hsu) who hacked a smashed phone to get to him, at random. If you've seen the American original, it's almost beat for beat the same, so I was looking to the details and the action moments to bring something different. Director Benny Chang, a frequent collaborator of Jackie Chan's, provides action that is unsurprisingly more gag-oriented, but despite the ridiculousness of some moments, the three leads (Nick Cheung plays the disgraced police officer role William H. Macy had in the original) play it straight and get a lot of tension and heart out of it, and most improbable, all things considered, is that Koo manages to keep his glasses on for the entire picture. From the first car chase, you know you're in for some fun stuff, and Cheung is definitely a better fighter than Macy. Great location work too. One changed detail makes a lot of difference: In the original, Chris Evans' dilemma is that all this action makes him run late for some event with a girl - big deal - but Louis Koo's less fresh-faced character has a date with his oft-disappointed young son, so every decision is a gut punch for him. Koo and Hsu's dynamic is also more romantic, which leads to some nice moments at the end. Had Whichever version you see first will probably take the bloom off the other one's rose, but they're both fun action flicks to watch a few years apart.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine's seventh season is showing signs of wear and tear. This is pretty standard for comedies. At some point, they figure out what the "joke" is about each and every character, and they lean hard into them, to the point of complete absurdity, and at the cost of the realism that often held the show's heart. What I like about B99 is that while it is a funny workplace comedy with endearing characters, it still managed to tell efficient police/detective stories. Season 7 still has some, but the balance is tipping towards shenanigans and soap opera. You can tell they're servicing a lot of continuity because characters are introducing guest stars in the bluntest possible way ("Blogger and podcaster Siskoid?! What are you doing here?"), much more interesting when it is adding to the extended cast than when it is returning to old favorites. Had they not self-destructed the character, Vanessa Bayer's guileless Officer Debbie could definitely have joined the cast, and what's not to love about J.K. Simmons as a super-detective?

National Theatre Live's presentation of Frankenstein is actually two presentations, depending on the night you see it, part of the clever mirroring of Victor Frankenstein and his Creature. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller (two TV Sherlocks, which can't be a coincidence) exchange roles night to night, in service of a story about toxic fatherhood, child abandonment, and thus the sins of the father being visited on the child. We need that osmosis, and given the somewhat misogynistic streak running through the dialog and action, I'd have to also say the interpretation of Shelley is that her novel is at least in part about how creation is a woman's domain, a man only being able to unnaturally bring a creature forth, a creature that will necessarily become a destructive force. It's more Modern Oedipus than Modern Prometheus, perhaps. Impeccably shot for the big screen, director Danny Boyle has given it a cinematic scope without resorting to turning it into a movie with, for example, one of those obnoxious live scores we tend to get in theater today. Now, the one I watched had Jonny Lee Miller in the role of the creature, and he steals the show with an amazing, physical, sympathetic yet dangerous, evolving performance. Cumberbatch is well-cast as Victor. I watched the other version for about 40 minutes before scanning through to various scenes, but I couldn't get into it. Cumberbatch's Creature felt a little silly to me, and Miller with wig was fine, but it really did feel like they exchanged roles for one night as a gimmick. The other way around feels like such perfect casting and performance that Creaturebatch is its pale and gross imitation. If you only watch one, make it the one with Miller as the Monster.

The BBC production of The Winter's Tale is highly theatrical, with abstract sets and a lot of speaking to camera, but then the play invites theatricality with its famous exiting bear (a mercifully-brief man-in-a-suit moment that only tickles me because that man is Doctor Who monster extra Pat Gorman, but it's quite awful) and a jump in time that requires the character of Time to come and explain it to the rubes. And I frankly love it. In his later days throwing off the shackles of strict genre, Shakespeare creates a dark tragedy about jealousy and paranoia in the first half - Jeremy Kemp excellent as an Othello who is his own Iago, but it's Anna Calder-Marshall's humor and dignity as Hermione that catches much of my attention - then turns around and offers a pastoral comedy filled with clowns, rogues, marriages, and renewal in the second half. A veritable rollercoaster with some of the best character writing in a while (taking the plays in presumed writing order) and perhaps because I'd never seen or read it before, real tension in Part One, and a touching sweetness in Part Two. I did find one moment jarring (no, the child actor who kept glancing at the camera - hey, if the adults could do it) and that's when three nobodies infodump scenes I wanted to see. As it turns out, Shakespeare didn't want those moments to steal his true climax's thunder, and who am I to argue, but in a proper film version, I would expect at least some visuals to accompany the words. Like the play's structure, it gave me whiplash!

Role-playing: Ran the first of two chargen sessions for my Savage Worlds Rippers game, three of the oHOTmu Girls participating and coming up with 1) an alienist/mentalist who didn't believe in the supernatural but too many of her patients babbled about monsters so she did some investigating and found out the hard way they were real, not only joining the Rippers who saved her life, but freeing at least one woman wrongly shut off in a sanitarium for her claims of being haunted; and that would be 2) a super-researcher whose family was low-born but nouveau-riche, married her off to an aristocrat who promptly sent her to the asylum despite the fact she actually IS tormented by a mischievous spirit (let the poltergeist gags begin!) - she's on the run from the authorities as an escapee and the Amazon lodge is giving her sanctuary; and 3) a Japanese magic practitioner whose parents were killed by a werewolf - a scatch has made her allergic to silver and made sure she would never forget - she lives to see garous destroyed. This first half of the team is rather brainy and weak on combat... we'll see if the other four players will be enticed into playing a battle-nun or something similar in next week's chargen session.

Annnnd then I played - yes, PLAYED, in never happens! - in Mawwwwster Ryan Blake's nascent Star Trek Adventures. Last week, I shared my Bolian security officer with you in these very pages, this week he was made flesh, so to speak. Seems my habit is to narrate even the dialog more than actually play it out, which would seem to be a GM reflex, except that when I'm in that role, I use lots of voices. But an NPC can be played off the cuff, while a PC kind of needs to be nailed down. I dunno. I'm also not really used to the online format, though I'll have to be going forward in both games. A short session, but to date I'm playing Skoid as the guy who gets things done in the background - via private chats, though the GM initiated it to keep different tracks alive and no one waiting for too long - and I'm playing him as a bit of comic relief (befriending a whole lab-full of Federation scientists and getting a lot of scuttlebutt in what seemed like 5 minutes while the other officers were doing IMPORTANT THINGS(TM). Story's just beginning, so not much to say about it yet, but I was led to believe an Iconican gateway would be involved - what the GM proposed as the travel-tech MacGuffin is actually far more interesting. I'm about to pollute the Ferengi culture with one of the worst bestsellers of all time (the joke is dark and heinous, much to Ryan's dismay), so let's catch up in two weeks.

2 comments:

Radagast said...

Per Wikipedia:
The film's name is based on the nickname for Durham, North Carolina, which has been called "Bull Durham" since the 1800s, when W. T. Blackwell and Company named its product "Bull" Durham tobacco, which soon became a well-known trademark. In 1898, James B. Duke purchased the company and renamed it the American Tobacco Company. By this time, the nickname Bull Durham had already stuck.

Siskoid said...

THANK YOU!

 

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