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

"Accomplishments"

At home: With the money behind it, Shane Black's The Predator should have been more than schlock, but it IS schlock, and AS schlock, it's better than average schlock. I certainly enjoyed the cast, or I should say the supporting cast because Hollywood keeps casting generic white boys as soldier heroes that seem indistinguishable from one another. But Olivia Munn, Keegan-Michael Key, Sterling Brown, Thomas Jane, Yvonne Strahovski (playing the mom, but dude, it's criminal not to have her fight anyone, especially since you tease it), Travante Rhodes and Jacob Tremblay are all actors I want to watch. There are many cool and crazy action scenes in the film, and I liked the comic banter between what I felt were pretty interesting characters (all the soldiers are dealing with a mental health issue, etc.), so when the plot veers into nonsense, well, that's really where this film was at. I'm not expecting some kind of intellectual sci-fi piece from a slasher franchise about alien trophy hunters. What's wrong is a whole other order. The movie is badly edited, and I often asked myself just where we were, or how we'd gotten there, who just got killed, etc. It would usually explain itself within moments, but the lack of clarity (only amplified by Netflix viewing, which smother night scene into an impenetrable black screen) is a bug, not a feature. And I will never not be irritated by movies pushing for sequels when they don't deserve them. This is evidently pitched at teenagers, given the amount of gore and dumb jokes, but I found it entertaining enough, warts and all.

Because my familiarity with George Miller's post-apocalyptic universe resides in the two last films, the original Mad Max looks quite strange and not really of a piece with the rest. No strange deserts, and indeed, society has not yet completely fallen. Max lives in a nice house with all the amenities and is essentially a highway patrolman. In terms of dystopia, it's closer to a western than it is the films that would come later. But the attitude is definitely the same, and in my head canon, Hugh Keays-Byrne's Toecutter somehow survives the film and evolves into Fury Road's Immortal Joe (same actor, after all), since his biker cult seems to have bloomed into what we see in the last movie from the seed planted here. Plot's pretty ordinary, but Miller does a lot of inexpensive world-building and it's just an excuse for visceral car stunts anyway. He keeps the frame alive with loads of kinetics pretty much at all times. This is exciting action film making, probably inspired by The Cars That Ate Paris, but taking it to iconic levels.

The same year Roddy Piper starred in They Live, he was also in Hell Comes to Frogtown. Strange year! Obviously, Frogtown is pure exploitation, not really well made or acted, but it's FUN, and that's what exploitation films should aspire to be. The bomb has fallen, and 10 years later, there are very few people who are fertile. Enter Sam Hell, an anti-hero with powerful swimmers whose junk is nationalized in the name of repopulating the Western Block. Not sure why they would risk his furious motility on a mission to rescue a fertile harem from a city of mutant frogs (still can't tell whether radiation turned people into frogs or frogs into people, I think both), but you shouldn't be thinking about this too hard. The movie wouldn't know proper consent if it tripped over it, but Hell is at least presented as a post-apocalyptic Don Juan, irresistible to women, but also capable of loving all the women he's with. He's a romantic being asked to have sex clinically. Not there's too much titillation in this thing (just enough) and it knows it's silly - just watch the trailer, it's a thing of beauty. Star Trek fans may get some joy out of the reference to "Arena" in the film, though it may have been accidental. Mad Max meets Y the Last Man.

A traditional American giant monster B-movie, The Giant Claw relies on stock footage and heavy, unnecessary narration (unless you're a teenager otherwise occupied at a drive-in, but then those kinds of kids get their comeuppance in the film) and actors looking out of shot at the special effects. I'm not gonna pretend those effects are top tier, but they are charming and well executed, which is what separates this from and Ed Wood spectacular. The giant bird is a big (the proportions are pretty variable actually), ugly muppet on strings, but at least they know how to make it eat parachutists and crash into model buildings. The audience perks up when it's on screen, as ridiculous as it is, and might even root for it given the forgettable stock army/scientists that go after it and its eggs (come on now). The real clunker for me was how they explain the creature's existence. There's this whole crazy rigmarole with the superstitious French Canadians (we are also a cowardly lot) who believe in something called La Cargagne, which the only French Canadian character can't pronounce in French (eye roll), and that's all jettisoned when some science type comes up with the anti-matter galaxy theory, which makes so little sense, they have to paper it over with a lot of technobabble (when they could just have invented the science - the movie acts like the audience will know about actual anti-matter and require proper scientific explanations). Japan never had these kinds of problems...

I've got an ear for accents, but we're so deep in Yorkshire in Ken Loach's Kes that I might have needed subtitles. But Loach's approach is immersive faux documentary. It feels like we're watching real people (and we are, there are lot of non-actors) in real places, really speaking and living. The plot summary sounds like a heart-warming family picture - a poor, bullied boy finds solace in training a kestrel - but it really avoids formula, putting the bird sometimes far in the background to focus on school and family life (where the boy, Casper, is constantly brow-beaten and sometimes just plain beaten - the P.E. sequences gave me PTSD) and opting for literary naturalism where you just can't get out of the pit no matter how hard you try. To me, the most touching moment is when Casper is asked to talk about his hobby in front of the class and for the first time this kid who's neither good at academics, sports nor socializing comes alive. In another film, that would have propelled him into a secure or happy future, but Loach is too realistic for that. The movie ended, and I found I was openly weeping. For Casper, for my young self who was also into some niche thing more than I was into people, for billions of misfit kids throughout history who were abused or ignored by a system they never made.

Loosely based on a 12th-Century ballad about the origin of a church, Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring is not unlike his other work, i.e. it questions the existence, purpose and morality of God in a universe of inequity and cruelty. The greatest cruelty of the Judaeo-Christian faiths is, quite possibly, the guilt we are supposedly born with, well-dramatized in the film when a young girl is raped and murdered by three highwaymen after she shows them only kindness. Every act of kindness in the film is in fact repaid with treachery and malice, an echo of prayer and worship being rewarded with hardships we must then justify with the unknowability of the Divine Plan. So in the film, while there are two real culprits, everyone feels guilt. Those who let her go into the woods, the boy who was forced to watched and feels complicit, the jealous girl who wished her dead, and then guilt begets guilt once the father takes his revenge (in the ballad, it's even worse, because he kills his own vanished sons). And as usual for Bergman, God answers with gaping silence, and still the characters double-down on their worship. At times harrowing, this is another meticulous master class from Bergman, the most resounding image Max von Sydow reenacting the violation of his daughter with a sapling, and throughout, you are asked whether you can forgive any of the characters, or indeed, God for creating a Hell on Earth (also part of the iconography).

With his staging of The Magic Flute, Ingmar Bergman makes me believe Mozart had a sense of humor, and more wondrous still, that HE has a sense of humor. His movies aren't exactly knee slappers, you know? But The Magic Flute has some genuinely funny moments, which I really didn't expect from a filmed opera. Like, okay, I've seen just one or two operas ever, student productions, so I don't know how many actually manage comedy. What helps here is the subtitles, and if theaters offered this option, I'd be more inclined to discover these classical musicals. Mozart's music is of course, wonderful, and Bergman has the balls to shoot it on a small stage, just as he'd originally seen it as a boy. But while it's always theatrical - and its fantastical elements presented by people in animal costumes, the Hell sequence is still pretty great however - it is shot like a film, with close-ups, reverse angles, people looking into camera, impossible position changes achieved in editing, and the sparing use of sets that couldn't possibly share the same stage. Occasionally, we're shown what's happening backstage or in the audience (as with the Overture played out entirely on their faces, a huge cross-section of humanity to make a point about the music's universality). Throughout, Bergman is clever, daring, and really rather charming. I loved the experience and can only give it the highest marks. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

I kind of wish I'd seen Jan Troell's The Emigrants in the 190-minute, original Swedish-language cut, but only because I found the English dub distracting, not necessarily because I wanted more of the film. It's very good, but it's also what we call in French Canada "un film de misère" (literally, a misery film). We spend a third of the film watching the hardships of the 19th-Century peasant class in Sweden, until they decide to embark on a voyage that's just as hard, and their rose-colored image of America means they'll probably know hardship there as well. Troell creates many images of simple, mundane freedom along the way, preparing us for the journey, and cleverly includes characters who believe themselves persecuted for their religion (which is not the case for Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann's family) to create parallels to the Book of Exodus. Indentured servitude in Sweden is thus akin to slavery in Egypt, there's a manna scene, the religious extremists on the voyage view themselves as the Chosen, and Minnesota is presented as the Promised Land. It's not one-for-one, so don't expect any burning bushes or Commandments, but it's definitely there and makes things more engaging for me. But it's still a film de misère, and there's just so much one terrible thing happening after another I can take in one sitting.

The story of Elia Kazan's uncle and how he escaped Turkey's ethnic oppression, America America is obviously a very personal project for the director, who adapts his book and even lends his voice to the narration. Name changes are either to allow for dramatic changes, or to protect his uncle's reputation from some of the crimes the young Stavros (played with smokey brooding by Greek actor Stathis Giallelis) commits over the course of the story do not taint his reputation, who knows. But it IS a biopic, no matter how sculpted, and so its parts are uneven. Strongest by far is the first third, which shows us the regime the Greeks and Armenians were living under, and forces Stavros into real misery. The middle part, where his prospects looks up and he is tempted to stay in Turkey, is the lull; we start to feel the film's length. The shorter third act brings back some tension as it's not clear Stavros will be able to get off the boat. Nevertheless, each act includes a crucial moral dilemma, and if there isn't as much physical danger after the first act, Stavros' soul remains in peril. The film seems to say these sacrifices of honor were worth it, but it's really up to us to answer.

John Ford may get top director billing, but How the West Was Won is really Henry Hathaway's film, having shot most of it, and really, the BEST parts of it. Ford's famous, I get it, but Hathaway's no slouch (True Grit, Niagara) and here his still shots have a painterly quality, and his movement is visceral, putting the camera right in the action. Now, this was shot in Cinerama, a three-strip process that was only ever used for two movies, what you might call primitive Imax, and sometimes, you can see where the strips join (but very seldom in the restoration). For movie goers getting this experience, it would have been immersive, with the three panel screen going around them. On a flat screen, it's just about the widest image you can get, and the way the camera moves through space, as if through history, has a distorted, fish-eyed, effect that makes the land seem to bulge and move, as if it were alive. The difficulty in converting this into something we can watch without the original technology makes it an even more resonant visual artifact for me. And I do love the music, which I once used for a Western role-playing campaign. Debbie Reynolds is on hand to trigger some diagetic musical numbers. As for the story, we follow different elements of the same family through the history of settling in the West, from Ohio to California and the territories in between. The best parts are the opener - Jimmy Stewart as a mountain man crossing paths with the Prescotts on their dangerous river journey - and the final train sequence that looks truly dangerous. Hathaway's camera is always affixed to a wagon or a horse or a boat, putting you right in the action, and when a man flies, he flies quite a ways. The middle part is where it sags for me, George Peppard not terribly exciting as a naive young man - you're basically waiting for him to grow up - and the non-Hathaway sequences by Ford and Marshall not as exciting as the rest (though I respect the buffalo stampede sequence by the latter). Still, with Spencer Tracy's rousing narration, this feels big and epic and there's more to love than there is to forget.

I would say there are two reasons to watch John Ford's Two Rode Together. The first is the relationship between Jimmy Stewart's greedy, bluntly pragmatic marshal and Richard Widmark's Army Major. The two are friends and have an easy banter that feels improvised, and their friendship is strained when they are tasked with going on a mission to recover white folk kidnapped by the Comanche, and in many cases integrated into the tribe. And that's the other reason, just how this "rescue" leads to tragedy by showing the real-life consequences of such kidnappings, and what happens to the people brought back to a world they scarcely know, or that scarcely knows them. But while there's a lot of dialog I liked, I sometimes felt Stewart was basically delivering some of them as himself, the folksy, stammering talk show guest. And structurally, the film gives up its stake at being a revisionist western when in the last act, the boys race to complete their romantic subplots and get married. And of course, there's always the matter of non-Natives playing Natives, which I understand as an artifact of the time, but even in that context, the wigs are terrible and they cast a blue-eyed white dude to play the Comanche chief. In a movie that is about spotting the non-Natives who are part of the tribe, this is especially distracting.

Ford brings a lot more style to Sergeant Rutledge than I expected, the first act particularly moody and the romantic shots of the hero rousing, but this is a case of my wanting to like a picture more than I ultimately did. It's To Kill a Mockingbird in the Cavalry, essentially, and it's got Jeffrey Hunter (the original Captain Pike) defending Woody Strode (who should have gotten higher billing, but Hollywood) from a rape and murder he didn't commit. When we're in the story via flashbacks, fine, there's a lot to like. But the courtroom scenes are just so awful they made me grind my teeth. The frame tale just feels so fabricated and manipulative, forcing witnesses to somehow tell the story in sequence, hiding crucial facts until narratively they should be told, and cheating the audience with false tension by not having characters say what they should be saying. Maybe in 1960, audiences weren't too aware of legal procedures (and this IS a court-martial in the Old West), but to these modern eyes, it's a real circus, filled with nonsense and posturing, and I just want to walk into the screen and punch the prosecutor. The nature of the crime being what it is, I recoiled at the attempts at injecting comedy into the proceedings via the judge's silly wife, and ultimately, the crime's solution hinges on someone overacting in the extreme on the stand. I was into Rutledge's story, and intrigued by the page of history the black cavalry men represented, but the focus is on the trial was, hem, ill-judged at best.

Zatoichi's Vengeance (not to be confused with Zatoichi's Revenge) has a heavier feel than many of the entries in the series, a deep sadness running through it. Ichi is once more asked to deliver something by a dying man, and finds himself embroiled in a village's troubles with the local yakuza boss (called Gonzo, it's hard to keep a straight face). His scheme is basically ransoming family members for debt, keeping all the businesses in a stranglehold. In this situation is the family of that dead man on the road, including a young boy who looks up to Ichi, and a sad prostitute (an effective performance by Mayumi Ogawa, I wanted even more of her character) for whom a samurai will risk all. Then there's a blind priest whose sensory powers are intriguingly the equal of Ichi's who instructs him on the effect he's having on the boy, and how he's setting the wrong example. This has Ichi trying to not fight back at crucial moments, and feel wretched when he must. Visually, I at first thought it was one of the weaker installments, on account of all the day-for-night (a method I despise), but the way it's used on the bridge scene, turning the drum fight into a kind of shadowplay against the white sky, is quite striking, so there's that.

1966 was certainly a sad year for Zatoichi, because just like the previous film from that year, Zatoichi's Pilgrimage is dripping with sadness. Ichi visits Japan's shrines to ask forgiveness for his sins, all the deaths he is responsible for weighing heavily on him, when he is side-tracked by a good man who has to kill him to fulfill a debt. Usually, Ichi vs. a friend is at the end of the film. Here, it's what sets things off. A sad horse guides him to the man's sister and of course, a village under threat, this time by horsemen. A tragic romance blooms. We meet some interesting characters like the off-puttingly jovial village headman. And Ichi has his longest showdown yet. Good, strong teaser about a brazen purse snatcher too, and it relates to the main story too in its conflict between word and action, and the attitude of the main villain. Director Kazuo Ikehiro isn't quite as experimental as he was in films 6 and 7, though he does give Ichi a strange dream, but rather affects painterly long shots that heighten the melancholy, setting the tale in one of Japan's most gorgeous landscapes.

Looks like the unfinished background on white paper is really Isao Takahata's thing. Princess Kaguya and The Yamadas had it, and 1991's Only Yesterday plays with it to differentiate between flashbacks to Taeko's time in fifth grade (set in the 1960s), and the full, detailed frames of the 1982 present. It's a play on memory, this collection sparked by a trip to the country which she was denied as a child that year, but that eventually leads her to something buried in her, which we might today call impostor syndrome, forcing her to question whether she is really meant for the country or just a tourist poser. Along the way, we meet her family and class mates in memorable vignettes, and the people she meets on her vacation in the present, all well supported by the subtle (animated) acting. I don't mind the slow, reflective pace, though the present-day conversations about farming felt a like a heavy-handed manifesto and went on too long. All is forgiven at the end though, where the fantasy available to animation makes memory and reality combine in just the sweetest way. Great, great pay-off.

4 comments:

Ryan Blake said...

If you need help with regional uk accents please ask. Reasonable rates. Ee ba gum

Charles Izemie said...

Most opera houses have subtitles these days! Well, actually more like supertitles running above the stage in the proscenium, so there's nothing to prevent you from going and (one hopes) enjoying the productions. And numbers such as "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" tend to be rare, so even relatively leisurely reading is possible.

LiamKav said...

Mad Max is one of those things that I find absolutely fascingating despite never having seen any of the movies (although I did play the recent game). The retroactive world building. The way it deliberately eschews a rigid continuity. The fact that the world in each of the films has collapsed so much from the prior one but no-one seems to have realised apart from the main character.

The kinda want to watch them all in order, but I dunno if I'd be able to get past the Gibson factor (I'm already upset that he's ruined Chicken Run.)

Siskoid said...

Ryan: What would have been the plan? Watching the movie simultaneously with your whispering translation in my ear? Besides, I'm good at extrapolating from context.

Charles: I'll inquire if my local theater does that. I'm friends with the general manager.

Liam: You can always find relief in the fact that actors are just puppets and this is a director's medium, but yeah.

 

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