This Week in Geek (5-11/07/20)


At home: I respect comics writer Greg Rucka, but admit I've never heard of The Old Guard before Netflix dropped an adaptation on its service. Though a movie, it really felt like the pilot for a series. I don't just mean the ending that begs for a sequel (though it's part of it), but it uses the trope of dropping a rookie into a team of veterans so it can better explain the rules of the world just like you would at the start of a series. In this case, that's KiKi Layne as the newest immortal soldier to be "triggered" and to join Charlize Theron's secret army. At the same time, the team's been rumbled and Big Pharma is coming after them for the secret of immortality, and I almost wish the film were more concerned with how Charlize's character wants to give up because they haven't managed to make the world better, it's only getting worse. Instead, we get a very TV story that builds the team and reenergizes its leader. It's fine, but isn't exactly remarkable. Some good fights here and there, with a John Wick vibe, but more cursory. I did like the characters, especially the Crusader couple. And Charlize's battle axe is very cool. But ultimately, this is the first of a series, and if another one isn't commissioned, it'll be the weaker for standing alone.

It's interesting that De Laurentis produced Barbarella because I kept comparing it to the later Conan the Barbarian (did you think I was going to say Flash Gordon? well that too). Though dressed up in space opera lingerie, it really is a a fantasy picaresque where the heroine moves from set piece to set piece, and where Conan is all MALE PRINCIPLE of macho violence, Barbarella exemplifies the female principle where there's just one last planet to conquer with love. Both movies made stars of their prime examples of their respective sexes too. Barbarella is a very weird piece of '60s camp, and I can't quite decide how sexist it is, a little or a lot. Jane Fonda plays her haute couture Alice in Wonderland with wide eyes, but she's no bubble head. She gets undressed and has sex with sundry and various, but this is a sex positive future born of the era of free love. She needs to be rescued, but isn't devoid of agency either. Maybe it's just a little thoughtless about these issues, and certainly, we're talking about a very silly film here. But there's a lot of imagination behind it, even if it loses energy the deeper in you get, no doubt because you system adjusts to the weirdness as you go.

La planète sauvage (Fantastic Planet, but it really should be The Wild Planet, and these aren't even the same in the story - I really don't think the translation does the French text justice across the board) is an animated film that looks like old-fashioned natural history illustrations, except the world they describe is a a surreal alien one (I was put in mind of the Codex Seraphinianus). The Draags are giant aliens that have imported Man to their world, "Oms" becoming pets or vermin. While crafting the strange world of the Draags is at the center of the film's concerns, it's as much about seeing how humanity adapts to it and builds a society of its own, part theirs, part their slavers. In this completely fantastical realm, we may catch sight of our own history in the process. The plot becomes somewhat secondary, and really operates on a mythical level, almost as a sci-fi Genesis story. Sets out to (successfully) prove that with animation, you can realize any vision.

It's hard to believe Grave of the Fireflies' Isao Takahata also made Pom Poko, a ludicrously silly ecological fable about shape-shifting tanuki with giant battle testicles, but there you have it. The film chronicles the war between encroaching suburbanites and bands of Japanese raccoons, using a narrator and point of view that takes a higher plane view of the story while still managing to zero in on certain raccoons. The animation is quite inventive, with the creatures seen in various stages of realism and cartooniness according to the scene, metaphorical scenes of human destruction, and very weird "hauntings" and transformations. It takes no prisoners, and people die on both sides. Even so, it's delightful fun and I desperately wanted a happy ending though I couldn't imagine what it could be (I know people better than the raccoons do). In the end, I got a wistful, nostalgic one rather than a truly happy one, and that's the best I could have hoped for, I guess. Don't look for subtlety in the environmental message, this one puts its balls right in your face.

Attenberg is named after Richard Attenborough as the 23-year-old late bloomer in the film is obsessed with his nature documentaries, and it's very much about human behavior and showing how, unlike animals', which are relatively easy to decode to the point where it seems mysterious how their behavior is transmitted, observed human behavior is dependent on unique specific dynamics with other humans (family/friends/lovers). If we were aliens looking through Athina Rachel Tsangari's camera, we would jump to all sorts of conclusions about the species or generally be mystified. Monica's specific context and relationships is a limited ecosystem built on personal idiosyncratic traditions and have a strangeness that is mundane. This is a quiet picture about a French-Greek young woman who at first isn't as interested in boys as she is in play-acting musicals and animal documentaries with her best friend, set on a voyage of sexual discovery at her dying father's urging, set in a sleepy industrial town in Greece. Within that specificity, we do recognize ourselves - in this moment, or that - but also glimpse a foreign island as anthropologically different as, say, your neighbor's house.

Company is probably my favorite musical of all time, and I'd seen some bits from Original Cast Album: Company on YouTube - Elaine Stritch's meltdown is particularly famous - but seeing the whole hour offers a lot more insight into how cast albums are recorded (or were, I don't know that they have the live orchestra there simultaneously anymore, it's probably all separate booths now). Pennebaker was commissioned to do this as a pilot for a possible series, but it didn't work out. Except it does give us SOMEthing from Company's original cast in lieu of a complete filmed version. Most fascinating is Stephen Sondheim wincing through the whole thing like he's the Frank Zappa of musical theater, and I came out of it with a better appreciation of what Broadway performers are capable of as voice musicians, and how Sondheim (a personal favorite composer) comes to it from a musical perspective first, and as a lyricist second, which explains how the songs are crafted.

When discussing Perreault's fairy tales, Peau d'âne (sorry, I can't call it Donkey Skin, that's just awful) is hardly ever mentioned. In the French-speaking world, the name is at least vaguely familiar. I've never heard anyone reference it in the English-speaking world. Maybe it's the incest element? Though essentially a take on Cinderella, yes, there is that weird thing about the Princess trying to get out of marrying her own father. But that's just part of the insanity in the musical film version by Cherbourg/Rochefort alumni Jacques Demy, Michel Legrand and Catherine Deneuve. It seems proper that after pushing Technicolor limits of what was in fashion at the time, they would mount a full-on, unapologetic fairy tale, with color-coded horses, beautiful costumes, and magical anachronisms. Oh, and Deneuve feeding pigs in a donkey costume. Bonkers, gorgeous, funny, psychological, and Legrand writes some nice music too. My favorite song is without a doubt the Love Cake recipe, but there's also a fun ensemble piece about how Peau d'âne is disgusting, which feels like inspiration for Disney's Beauty and the Beast village tune.

Jacques Demy returns to the Nantes of Lola, but the style of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg decades after those films in 1982's Une chambre en ville (A Room in the City), and if you'd told me it was made in the same era as those films, I would have believed you. Only some synthetic-sounding notes at a certain point betray its later origins (and of course, if you know French actors). If Umbrellas had a tragic quality, Une chambre goes full Shakespeare, set during violent clashes between police and strikers in 1955 Nantes (big This Is Happening Today vibes), dooming all the characters in love in some way, and an oracle sees it all. But if you're going to go over the top, you need a heightened reality to make it work, that's where the musical comes in. Demy without Legrand on music could have been a worry, but it isn't. The movie sounds (and looks) as great as Demy's better-known films. He remixes elements from his earlier musicals, like a mother-daughter relationship, a surprise pregnancy, and the plight of the working class, but Une chambre en ville stands on its own. The strike creates a specific theme, with "star-crossed love" a kind of protest itself, a rebellion that meets as much opposition as the strike itself, may explode into violence, and ultimately may prove fruitless if not pointless.

Chantal Akerman made a musical...?! Golden Eighties is, above all, very odd. It's odd within Akerman's filmography, and it's odd as a piece of film. Joyously odd. Set in the tatty shopping mall in the mid-80s, the musical follows the loves and lives of the people working in three businesses (a juice kiosk, a beauty salon, and a clothing store), the musical numbers a mish-mash of 50s and 80s sensibilities. It predates Hairspray and Cry-Baby, but that's kind of the feeling. (It's perhaps more in the shadow of Cherbourg if anything.) What's most odd for a director known a camera that stares into the mundane is how theatrical it all is. There's a chorus of mall rats, lovers kept apart by rapids of shoppers, fourth wall breaks, and choreographed movement even when we're not in song. Though an ensemble piece, Delphine Seyrig, who was Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, plays a different Jeanne who is just as resilient, if happier with her life and choices. I don't think I've cracked this one's code yet. The musical veneer is so shockingly weird, the themes - whether feminism, or the Holocaust, or whatever else in the human condition is suggested - are hard to grasp on a first viewing. Not that they need to be because this is probably the most fun you'll have with an Akerman film.

Bye Bye Birdie is really just a big piece of fluff, but it made movie stars of Dick Van Dyke and Ann-Margaret (the former had starred in the Broadway show, the latter made an Elvis movie immediately after, which is funny considering the plot). It's fluff, but it's largely fun fluff. Broad comedy in 1960s films is something that often annoys me, and some of the silliness (the stuff with the turtle, for example, and Paul Lynde's over-acting) just isn't funny to me. Van Dyke's mother's histrionics, however, did get me in the end. But you can get away with a lot more in a musical, so something like Janet Leigh's fez dance is a marvel to behold. There are, in fact, a lot of nice numbers in this story of a teen idol's visit to a small town, including Leigh competing with her dancing phantom in "Put on a Happy Face", Conrad Birdie making all the girls faint in "Honestly Sincerely" (and honestly, sincerely, there's a surprising amount of crotch for the era), and the jealousies of "A Lot of Livin' to Do".

Robert Bresson's Pickpocket is undoubtedly an influential film, an early example of the criminal without a motive, doing what he does because he can, and because he's convinced himself there's virtue in it, something embraced be later crime drama. Indeed, Martin LaSalle's Michel is on a quest to FIND a motive for his crimes, paying his mother's bills or her caretaker's (played by France's answer to Natalie Portman, Marika Green), but it's never truly convincing. Only in the ironic finish is he "freed" by an actual human connection. But here's the problem. LaSalle is a sleight of hand expert - and consequently, the most interesting part of the film is the pickpocketing choreography that will have you checking your pockets in public places hereafter - but not a professional actor, and while that does support the character's disconnectedness, he walks through the film stone-faced and it all seems very stagey. People moving to marks and reading dialog at a director's command, but as lifeless puppets. But it seems to be the style, because no one much emotes, perhaps as a correction so LaSalle's acting doesn't seem too out of place.

One of Eric Rohmer's moral tales, La collectionneuse scans like a French novel, all philosophical interior monologue, but the trick to such narratives is to question the narrator's point of view. In this case, Patrick Bauchau's Adrien is the lead character, but not central to the drama. Rather, he and his sadistic artist friend share a friend's summer villa with Haydée, a young woman who they are absolutely wretched to. Because she's sex positive, she's necessarily a "collector of men", and because she doesn't sleep with THEM, she's insignificant or a tease. Regardless, she's an object to them, and the male gaze is established almost from the first shot. Each character gets a prologue, and hers is silent, body-centric. They are Rohmer characters, intellectuals who feel the need to justify themselves and their impulses, but she's an enigma. Except she isn't. She can be taken at face value. It's Adrien who reframes her being, who makes her every word and action about himself. The ending very much exemplifies his narcissism and hypocrisy, saying one thing in voice-over, then proving himself wrong in the action. If his POV wasn't suspect before (and it was), then you need to go back after reevaluate everything he said before, and everything you believed about the situation.

Sally Hawkins and James Corden both look like kids in All or Nothing, a tragi-comic film from Mike Leigh that is altogether more tragi than comic. We follow three households living in the same council estate, each with grown up kids still living at home. Leigh's ability to dramatize real people who would not normally be the subject of a film is fully engage here, with economic and psychological depression mixing. There is a definite preference for the Timothy Spall/Lesley Manville relationship, and they're the ones that are gonna make you cry as tragedy changes their outlook on life, and I at first resented the fact that other characters seemed to fade from view. But thinking back, each of their stories did "arc" (just not sure about Allison Garland's character), and for the ones exposed as "leads", there is a sense of learning a lesson, maturing, coming out of the film changed for the better. Because as dank and depressing as most of the film is, it does end on a hopeful note. The characters scrape the bottom before coming back up. How Leigh continues to massage these things into shape through improvisation is anybody's guess.

If The Daytrippers is your first feature, how do you wind up then only making dumbass comedies like Superbad, Paul, and Keeping Up with the Joneses? Not to say these are all bad, but it seems like Greg Mottola got off the indie track pretty quickly. The Daytrippers has the underrated Hope Davis find a note that makes her suspect her husband's infidelity, so on her mother's recommendation/command, the whole family climbs into a station wagon, drives to the city, and investigates the possibility. Following clues, they meet a number of characters along the way, for no other reason than to expose or contrast their own family dynamics, and by the end, it will have been more about the mom than either of the two girls (the other played by Parker Posey), or at least about how they rebel against her meddling. What The Daytrippers shows us is a pivot, the moment where things can change, but not, strictly speaking, any real outcomes. Life isn't a story, it's ongoing, it's messy, it's unfinished. And this is definitely done on purpose, or else Mottola would have allows Liev Schreiber's intellectual poser to finish synopsizing his novel. An often funny character-driven comedy, it comes across as part Mike Leigh and part Noah Baumbach, but in that clash of classes, speaks many truths.

There are a lot of intriguing ideas in Sara Driver's Sleepwalk, but ultimately, I feel like the film is unfinished. There's a difference between ambiguity and opacity, and if it had just given up ONE of its secrets, I might be touting it as an example of the former and not the latter. Basically, a woman starts to translate an ancient, magical Chinese document and things start to go wonky, sometimes but not necessarily in line with the poetry. My favorite image or impression is how she starts seeing children doing strange things. Are they spirits? Faeries? What about that man who barks? Is she seeing animals as people? I was captivated by this lo-fi supernatural vision of New York, shot very prettily by camera operator Jim Jarmusch. And I don't need all that explained. But to have thriller elements never resolved, make a complete mystery of just who hired her and for what reason, and then end on a question mark even as to the plot, it's just a step too far for me. Then again, a rewatch might well yield more answers...

The first in a series of 26 films about a blind swordsman, The Tale of Zatoichi stars Shintaro Katsu (as they all do) in the immediately affecting title role. He's a rascal, equal parts insolent and wise, who might take care of enemies with a sharp word as much as his highly-developed senses and a quick flash of the blade. There's a tragic quality to him, but he's also a comic figure. In the first chapter, which is just beautifully shot by director Kenji Misumi in lustrous black and white equal to any Kurosawa film, Ichi is swept into a yakuza gang war in which there are only two honorable combatants - himself and a dying samurai - with most everyone else, through their interactions and own subplots, acting as treacherous and cowardly contrasts. What's really brewing is a tragic bromance between star-crossed warriors, and it's actually pretty moving for something out of an action picture. The Tale of Zatoichi deserves a place in any list of great chanbara films, and is one of the strongest debuts for a continuing character in all of cinema. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues, and the surviving cast all return, but it's without director Misumi and it shows. While it does have its moments of flourish, especially in the third act, Kazuo Mori's frame is more often cluttered than elegant... and so is this brisk 72-minute story. Ichi made a promise in the first film, and a year later he's returned to fulfill it... returned with a host of assassins on his tail. There's also a subplot about a figure from his past, which is eventually turned into the main plot, and though I'm happy to hand out with the characters again, the backstory feels dropped in somehow. If they'd filled out the run time with flashback sequences, it would have perhaps felt more organic. Similarly, some of the motivations behind everyone coming for Ichi are inferred, but not outright stated, which makes for a somewhat disjointed narrative. But having decided to make this a series, the background does give Ichi reason to travel and get into more trouble. There was no way a second film could equal the superlative first, so this is a necessary step down. The cast is still strong, and Katsu gets to show off more of his sword-fighting, so I was still entertained.

I wouldn't stake my reputation on the authenticity of 1958's The Vikings - the Vikings look good; the Saxons are at least 400 years off - but it has a great cast and gorgeous European locations, so I can forgive the Hollywoodized interpretation. I mean, Hollywood or not, the film certainly doesn't shy away from the nasty violence of the era. People get maimed and killed in the most horrific ways, even if they don't always show a lot of blood (one case excepted). The Vikings themselves are portrayed as party animals and happy rapists, and the English are craven dandies, so neither side comes off positively, except maybe Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh as the central couple. It's hard not to like Ernest Borgnine, I admit, and even Kirk Douglas' villain has a noble streak (not as much as the movie wants him to have, mind). They all acquit themselves well. This lusty action adventure has plenty of variety, cool stunts and fights, and a pretty nice score. I don't think I need it to be grittier and grimier. So Douglas has a modern hairstyle, so what.
Books: Been chipping away steadily at Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus in four volumes, and finished it this weekend, finally. This is probably my favorite reprint format of all time - sturdy hardcovers with newsprint interiors that are closer to the originals in terms of color and texture (though still recolored, as a lot of Kirby's originals lacked contrast). Basically, the books cycle though Jimmy Olsen, New Gods, Forever People and Mister Miracle in order of publication, and there's a certain sadness when the books are cancelled and Mister Miracle stands alone and turns into a more standard (well, by Kirby terms) superhero book, leaving the forces of Apokolips on stand-by. At least the collection includes the new New Gods story from the Baxter reprint series, and The Hunger Dogs graphic novel, as well as uninked pages, Who's Who art and other bits and bobs. Mark Evanier's text pieces about this era of the King's life are necessary reading. Though an aborted saga, for me this is prime Kirby, and I kept finding little treasures in it. Characters I'd never heard of (Seagrin must be avenged!). The strange realization that Barda and Scott Free didn't admit their love until the final issue. Inspiration for a lot of later comics (the Doom Patrol's Rebis is based on Mad Merkin, right?!). An exhuberant piece of pure comics. (Up next, the DEMON Omnibus, so don't cry for me, Argentina!)


Toby’c said...

“ When discussing Perreault's fairy tales, Peau d'âne (sorry, I can't call it Donkey Skin, that's just awful) is hardly ever mentioned. In the French-speaking world, the name is at least vaguely familiar. I've never heard anyone reference it in the English-speaking world.”
It was focused on quite a bit in “The Wolf Among Us”, Telltale Games’ adaptation of Fables.

Siskoid said...

Does Fables (the comic) reference it? It's been too long since I read it, but it did dig up a lot of obscure tales.

Toby’c said...

I haven’t read much of it myself, but probably not.


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