This Week in Geek (22-28/12/14)


People went out of their respective ways to give me comics this week. Many thanks to Legion of Super-Bloggers leader Russell Burbage for a copy of New Adventures of Superboy #50 (my favorite of the run, on account of the LSH/Dial H crossover) signed by Paul Kupperberg, while neighbor Marty trolled me with shitty Gambit comics. The conversation he had with the comic shop clerk sounds hilarious. And then I got some DVDs for myself: Submarine, The Grand Seduction, and, ooooh yeah, The Protector 2.


At the movies: Tim Burton's Big Eyes has a problem, and it's that its two leads don't live in the same cinematic world. Amy Adams is perfect and naturalistic as a downtrodden housewife and sincere artist, while Christoph Waltz is an absurd caricature, essentially the same character he played in Inglourious Basterds. I'm starting to think it's all he can do (I'd be outraged at his Golden Globe nomination if that was something I did). I'm not going to deny he's funny, but there's no interiority to support the character. I suppose we're only ever in Adams' (or if you prefer, Margaret Keane's) head, but Waltz's Walter Keane quickly becomes as irredeemable as a Hong Kong action flick villain, which doesn't fit with the biopic's tone. There are still many things to praise - though not, I hasten to add, the unnecessary narration; what was that all about? - chief among them the Mad Men-ish portrait of 60s misogyny in the art world, and the struggles of a woman who was a product of her time and accepted, to a point, her husband's domination. Great comic turns from Jason Schwartzman and Terence Stamp as art snobs, and because I'm one of those art snobs myself, I can point to the Keanes (both in terms of kitsch and art marketing) and say "that's when art died". Also great, James Saito as the judge who must decide who is the real artist between them. Best. Judge. Ever. Burton's usual tics are mostly absent from the biopic, which I'm grateful for, the only real "quirk" being the casting of actors with particularly large eyes to populate Margaret's world.

I wasn't expecting to enjoy Into the Woods quite as much as I did, even if the third act suffered from too much darkness and too few songs. But I went in with no expectations or research, and was rewarded for it with some nice surprises, mostly in the casting. Lovely to see James Corden in anything (can't help seeing Craig from Doctor Who, but that's a feature not a flaw). I never knew Emily Blunt could be so funny. Anna Kendrick is, no surprise, excellent as a reluctant Cinderella (puts to shame the awful live action copy of the celebrated animated film they showed in the previews). Tracey Ullman is in this? Cool! Chris Pine is hilarious and his Prince Charming is more Captain Kirk than his Captain Kirk ever was. I know you won't be shocked to I less enamored of Johnny Depp's mercifully brief appearance the Big Bad Wolf, but that's less to do with him than the text, which suggests the woods are a metaphor for sexuality, transformation and the general loss of innocence. The Wolf as sexual predator. More Fables than Disney, Into the Woods might be too dark for smaller children, but then, were the Brothers Grimm? A final note on the marketing: Based on the entire songless trailer, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of movie goers were caught unaware. So if you don't know, yes, this is a musical.

DVDs: Seems like the studio decided Tom Cruise's latest SF action flick, Edge of Tomorrow, didn't do well because of its generic-sounding title, because the DVD is all about the tagline/new title "Live Die Repeat" I wonder, why not use the Japanese source novel's title, All You Need Is Kill? Maybe I just answered my own question there. Or maybe they should just have called it Starship Troopers Meets Groundhog Day. Because that's exactly what this is. Cruise is a terrible and cowardly soldier (really, he's the army's P.R. man) who becomes progressively more competent as he relives the same day thousands of times in an effort to defeat an alien invasion that was itself successful thanks to temporal shenanigans. Well thought-out plot (except for the baffling coda), strong action scenes, flawless effects... I give it a thumbs up, but not my strongest recommendation. It just doesn't have much depth. It's not really about anything but its premise, which is literally based on die/respawn video game logic. The DVD includes a couple of featurettes, one on the armor worn by the actors, the other on alien design.

I've been trashing The Fast and the Furious franchise for years without ever having seen one, so I watched the first one to see if I needed to be slapped for that. Well, I got slapped alright, but my opinion remains unchanged. Actually, if anything, I've gone even more negative. Based on the franchise's success, there are a lot of fans of macho posturing, car fetishism, expressionless actors, and brazen product placement than I ever wanted to imagine. And I know my action standards are quite high after some 5 years of weekly Hong Kong cinema, but holy crap, I haven't been this aggressively bored by an action film since, I dunno, Bad Boys 2?No real race choreography, an incompetent plot that's at once too ridiculous and not ridiculous enough, sound that's too loud when cars an involved and too low when dialog is, and absolutely no one to care about. Just awful. I've been told it gets good around the 5th or 6th movie. You do see what the problem with that is, right?

In its third season, Homeland loses too much of what made it must-see viewing. It USED to be about trying to figure out whether or not Brody was working for the CIA or the terrorists, and it's that constant ambiguity that made the show as suspenseful as it was. With that out of the way, it's become about Carrie's mental troubles, and Brody's daughter running away from home, and Brody becoming a junky. It's fair drama, and these are all a direct consequence of the past two seasons' events, but it's not what made Homeland interesting. I don't even think the surprise twists play fair with the audience, but I don't want to go back and check if everything was actually laid in correctly. It does get better near the end, as we get properly back into CIA mode, and ends with enough closure I could stop watching entirely now. I think I will. Carrie has become a strange caricature of her initial character anyway, as absurd a member of an intelligence service as Jack Bauer ever was on 24. The DVD offers a commentary track on the finale, a few deleted scenes, and a couple of interesting behind the scenes featurettes.

31 indie SF films in 31 days... Nearing the end now... Sunday's high-brow selection was Fritz Lang's Metropolis, which I agree is difficult to call "indie" as it cost millions and is a huge production, but it was also cut to ribbons after its initial, disastrous release, and though my copy is Kino's recent "Complete Metropolis" with 25 minutes of restored footage, it's still missing a few scenes. Hadn't seen the movie in over 20 years, and it was the colored, pop soundtrack version (which is still great - in fact, I find silent cinema soundtracks such a snooze, I took a cue from that and put my playlist on shuffle to accompany the results, with some fun, surprising results), and there it sat on my shelf. I decided it fit the criteria after all. Well, with those 25 extra minutes, the film is much more interesting and coherent. The scientist has a motivation for creating the robot, and a crazy Nosferatu type thugs up the joint, showing Lang's vision was even more steeped in the Christian concept of Heaven and Hell. Though a touch deeper in this version, Metropolis is still mostly spectacle, and gorgeous spectacle at that. I remembered it as a sort of proletarian fable, but it's also a great big action movie, especially in the last act. Though they do broach the subject, the DVD's extras are less concerned with the making of the film, than they are about the found footage and restoration efforts. There's a 50-minute documentary about it, and an extra interview with the curator of the Argentine archive where it was found.

Upstream Color was next, a 2013 film written, directed, produced, edited, composed, designed, cast by and starring Shane Carruth, the guy who also made the opaque time travel thriller Primer. While I enjoyed that film, its reputation for being impenetrable was well deserved. Upstream Color shares that feature, though where Primer was cold and technical, this more recent effort is more emotional and lyrical. Essentially, it's about a kind of entity that possesses people with some kind of worm, or rather, about the aftermath of having been possessed. Those affected don't remember the time they lost, but share a bond nonetheless, and we follow a romance between two such characters as they try to put their lives back together and perhaps get a sense of what happened to them. It's very much the kind of film that seems puzzling throughout, and then right at the end, you think you've understood it. But ask someone, and they'll have a different, but just as legitimate, answer to the puzzle. Carruth just doesn't believe in exposition, you see, so you have to come to your own understanding, because in life, things are often left unsaid. This might be frustrating if the cinematography and editing weren't so good, but this is a beautiful and intriguing film, with merit even if you don't understand what it's on about.

Next up, a little Canadian classic called Cube. I've talked about it before (HERE), where I promised to write up some theories about it some day (I clearly haven't). It's the last of the films on this list I'd previously seen and just wanted to watch again.

Christmas Eve happened to be an Astronaut Wednesday, so... Christmas on Mars? Well. The Flaming Lips' art film is difficult to get into on account of the cheap-ass production design and the use of mostly non-actors, but it's still a trippy experience. Based on a movie director Wayne Coyne's mom only think she saw on a sleepless night, Christmas on Mars is about a decaying outpost's crew visited by an alien super-being who stands in as their Santa Claus. Along the way, we'll see (or hallucinate) a whole lot of vaginal imagery, and ultimately ponder on Man's place in the universe and whether it is natural for us to go to the stars, as contrasted by the unnatural virgin (in vitro) births of this future. The silent super-being who seems to give birth to himself from a giant ovum/spaceship, stands in for God and accords the jaded and tormented characters of the film a certain measure of Grace. Of the few actual actors on parade, Adam Goldman makes the best therapist ever. Worth it just for that scene. In the extras, Coyne doesn't give anything away, but does discuss the film's strange origins. There are quirky, amusing interviews with each of the Flaming Lips (and not just about the movie), arty Zeta Bootis theater intros, a fun if brief booklet, and an outtake Easter egg I wasn't able to find.

On ApocaThursday, Blindness, based on the José Saramango novel I wasn't able to finish this fall. One day, like a contagion, people start to go blind (a special blindness where all you see is white). The first affected are quarantined in a disused hospital, where they are left to their own devices and descend into barbarism, until the rest of the world joins them. Julianne Moore is the one person unaffected, though she joins her husband in Ward 1, feigning blindness to stay with him. None of the characters have names, as per Saramago's book, which serves to allegorize them. What we're seeing, beyond the literal story, is the whole history of humanity, from tribe to tyranny and back again to the kind of community that makes sense to us while governments and corporations rule the so-called "real world". The anonymity of the characters made the book difficult, but with human performances (and great ones too, what an awesome international cast), the literal story is enriched. By turns disturbing and touching, Blindness is a transformative experience for its characters, maybe even for its audience. The DVD has one of those annoying "branching" features that interrupts the film with behind the scenes footage and interviews, but you don't have to press buttons. The footage is just inserted into a longer cut, with a tell-tale icon in the corner of the screen. Which means it's very easy to scan to the 20 minutes or so of making of material.

The Man from Earth posits an immortal Cro-Magnon man who survives to the present day. Moving on every 10 years to avoid questions, he is currently a university professor and decides to share his secret with other academics who perhaps think it's an intellectual experiment... at first. What follows is an interesting discussion on what that 14,000-year experience might be like. Jerome Bixby's script is just a long conversation, and was (unsurprisingly) also made into a stage play. What surprises and disappoints me is that though made in 2007, The Man from Earth looks like a 90s TV movie. That is not the kind of cheapness I normally associate with indie film making. Once you get over that hurdle, there's some interesting content. Some will no doubt find academics discussing the Bible "Christian bashing", but it's true to the setting. In fact, it's the Biblical literalist of the group who seemed woefully out of place here. Thought-provoking TV, but is it cinema? Not so sure.

With a premise similar to Blindness, Perfect Sense is about humanity's senses being extinguished one by one, and as with Blindness, the root cause is never revealed, or else is metaphysical. This is both background and foreground to a romance between the leads, an epidemiologist played by Eva Green and a chef played by Ewan McGregor. The film is a testament to humanity's ability to adapt to these peculiar losses - which individuals have endured, if not entire populations like this - and does its best to take away the audience's ability to perceive these senses as well, through word choice, lyrical montage, and sound design. The crescendo at the end is amazing. A beautiful and appropriately sensual film experience, and aside from equally powerful grace notes, different enough to Blindness to make both watchable days apart without either feeling redundant. A real surprise given the stock DVD cover, which makes it look like a generic thriller.


Martin Léger said...

Watching Big Eyes with Jason Schwartzman and Terrance Stamp as snooty critics makes me want to see a film focusing exclusively on an artist versus his critics. Do we have that already? We do have things like The Artists and Hugo that focus on trending shifts, but I can't think of a film solely focusing on a artist going head to head with a critic. That probably has to do with the fact that they have such a symbiotic relationship.

Siskoid said...

Has anyone ever seen Mr. Art Critic?

Anonymous said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again: "Metropolis" and "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey" are the same movie.

In other news, can I say I'm not super-fond of the new "type two apparently Welsh words" that reCAPTCHA is doing? Usually takes several times before reCAPTCHA and I can agree on all the letters.

Siskoid said...

That's not the captcha I'm getting... I have a one-click "I'm not a robot" box. Weird.

Of course we do get some Welsh readers in here, maybe they have better luck.

Toby'c said...

"puts to shame the awful live action copy of the celebrated animated film they showed in the previews"
Not sure what you were getting this from, but I saw the new one recently and it was excellent: it addressed every problem I have with the animated movie without needing to go into dark, revisionist territory.

Siskoid said...

Bear in mind you're reading a review from last December, when Cinderella wasn't out yet. All I was saying was that the trailer looked terrible and left me asking "What's the point?".

Toby'c said...

No, I got that, it's just that I'm not sure what in the trailer seemed awful about it. Thing is, "the point" always seemed obvious to me: that the first Disney Cinderella had a LOT of room for improvement, and I don't just mean compared to the Renaissance movies or later. Even in the trailer I saw, Cinderella and Kit (formerly known as just the Prince) had more to say to each other than in the entire original movie, a problem than even other Disney romances in the 1950s had less trouble avoiding.

Siskoid said...

You have the benefit of having seen the animated film more recently than I have. The trailer just seemed completely redundant - moments and designs I remembered from the animated film, or at least THINK I remembered.


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