This Week in Geek (5-11/12/16)


At the movies: Moonlight is the story of Chiron AKA "Little", who is both gay and black, growing up in Florida. Each of the three acts covers a different period in his life (ages so different, three actors are necessary). The film was sold on the idea that while there are films that present the black experience or the gay experience, the combination is pretty rare and deserves its own feature. And I will agree, the reality is distinct. Chiron exists in a culture where "manhood" and "swagger" are overwhelmingly important, and even though homosexuality seems to be broadly accepted in his world, copping to it seems entirely dangerous. The film's backgrounds are always in extremely soft focus, like Chiron's options. What should he do, how much should he reveal, what does he keep to himself, and is self-denial healthy? The film is in its protagonist's image, extremely timid. Things are inferred more than said or seen, sexual and emotional awakenings are discreetly presented as if not to intrude, and the visuals and sound design are thematically coherent with that idea. And of course, lovely acting across the board.

The Almeda Theatre production of Richard III, starring Ralph Fiennes, was projected live at my movie house this week, and I couldn't resist. It's Richard III as the blackest of comedies, the central role played with impish humor, drawing you in as it should, the villain essentially conning you to go along with his plan, at least until he goes too far and becomes irredeemable in the audience's eyes through a staging choice that isn't Shakespeare's, when he rapes the deposed Queen on stage at the end of an argument. I'm ambivalent about the choice, but it works in the context of this Richard who is well informed by today's own political villains, and one can't help but wonder if a previous sexual assault wasn't inspired by a certain Access Hollywood tape. Otherwise, excellent staging, using the excavated tomb of Richard which was in the news recently as a summoning for the play's events, with characters enacting history over their grave, covered by a plexi trap door. On the big screen, this was more engrossing, I think, that the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet I saw last year, because the theater's more intimate size made for a story told in close-ups. It was just more filmic. A great production; keeping an eye out for the next Shakespeare to cross the waters. Bonus content: The director was interviewed before the play and during intermission, and it just made me want to see some of his other works (a Shakespearean comedy with Elvis impersonators?!), even if that's not really possible.

DVD: The front half of The Congress features Robin Wright as a version of herself, an actress who's seen better days, asked to sign a contract that would allow the studio to scan her and use her likeness in any film they please (within the conditions of that contract). It's an excellent meditation on what Hollywood asks of its stars, especially female ones, and how the actor's craft is to become someone else's puppet, not too far from the state the audience may find itself in, opiate of the masses and all that. The second half of the film - and it seems to take a real WTF turn in the middle and I wish I didn't have to spoil it for you to talk about it, so run off to watch it and come back - is an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress, but with the studio system replacing communism, and an actress as the book's scientist. Twenty years in the future, we've started to get away from scripted entertainments and are moving towards designed chemical hallucination. Will Robin sign over her likeness so that she can be inhaled, then used in anyone's imagination in any way they please. This world is represented in surreal animation which, despite the old-timey look of the characters, was motion-captured (so Robin WAS scanned after all) with very few returns to live action. Gorgeous and unexpected in every way. The DVD includes a commentary track with the director and animators, an interview with Robin Wright, and a handsome booklet with a short essay and a Q&A.

Netflix: As a French-Canadian kid, I was necessarily a fan of the anime series translated into French that were broadcast here on the weekends. Goldorak (UFO Robot Grendizer), Capitaine Flam (Captain Future), even Candy (Candy Candy). But the most intriguing and mysterious by far was Albator AKA Captain Harlock. Space Pirate Captain Harlock is a 3D animation film based on those old mangas/cartoons, which yes, I did watch in the French dub for old times' sake. Didn't help. Oh, it's not bad, exactly. It's an action-driven space opera about a rookie aboard the Arcadia who is actually a mole for the Gaia Coalition (an oppressive galactic government), who Harlock may yet turn, and several elements are ambiguous and mysterious as befits the original material. But it's also predicated on a whole lot of mumbo-jumbo about time knots, presents bloodless violence that undermines every threat to the characters, and I know this is very much coming from the perspective of someone with a particular fondness for Albator 78, I think it misses the boat by focusing on Gaia and not the plant women at war with humanity in that old series, the Sylvidres (or in English, the Mazone). In fact, most of the elements I found most striking and memorable in the original cartoon series were absent in the film.

It's a good thing I'm a sucker for time travel stories because Synchronicity certainly takes its time getting to the good stuff. The first half, though it includes necessary context for the rest, rips Blade Runner off for no reason, both in cinematography and score, and hinges on boring technobabble and an evil corporation plot. The question is, can the protagonist use time travel to save himself? Once the attempt is made, the film becomes an intimate, more "hard science" version of Back to the Future II, which isn't without its rewards. When you're inventing time travel, the nature of such trips isn't so easy to define, and so the movie becomes a scientific thriller where you're discovering the process along with the characters. And at its core is a progressively more engaging love story. If you're patient with it, the film's second half is worth it. The front half, though, isn't a necessary evil so much as a mishandled one.

Says so right on the poster, Dark Skies by the producer of Sinister. And this is basically Sinister, but with Keri Russell instead of Ethan Hawke, and aliens instead of a supernatural monster. The premise is stolen from Torchwood and Doctor Who (Sinister was From Out of the Rain, Dark Skies steals from Children of Earth and The Impossible Astronaut), there's warped video, inexplicable children's drawings, jump scares aplenty, a haunted house atmosphere, kids sleepwalking outside the house, a skeptical cop, the feeling this could all be in the characters' heads except it isn't, disappearing children, and the family moving house at the end. If you've never seen Sinister, this is actually an effective sci-fi/horror thriller, with mystery, interesting reveals, and genuine creep factor. If you have, AND some of the source material, it feels incredibly derivative.

If A is for Adam, the first man, then Z for Zachariah must be about the last man. The film by that name is a slice of life in a lonely valley spared the horrors of a nuclear apocalypse. Margot "can do no wrong" Robbie is the lone survivor living in this small, empty town until she meets Chiwetel Ejiofor, an engineer who stumbled on the valley in his radiation suit and decides to stay and share her life. They are a contrast to each other, hi the pragmatic engineer, her the religious preacher's daughter, people of two worlds and generations whose differences may highlight the lack of choice left in this universe. Then Chris Pine shows up, someone who DOES share Margot's upbringing, and their cozy life is thrown for a loop (it's Last Man on Earth played straight, essentially). I won't spoil the ending, which some will find more ambiguous than it actually is. So much is left unsaid, and yet, you should know what each character COULD say by that point, and that the film leaves us on a BITTERLY ironic ending for all involved.

Comet is five conversations between a couple that over 6 years, meets, breaks up, gets together again, breaks up again... in a parallel dimension. It need not be considered science-fiction, except for the card that tells us this and some surreal visuals along the way, and yet its meditation on the workings of time and fate are tangentially connected to that genre. Something of a cross between Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the film works as a simple romance where you get to know the characters and enjoy their witty banter, but its achronological editing adds extra layers and points to parallel worlds being dreams or film itself. What constitutes a "world"? Are worlds of the imagination, despite their physical or quantum irreality, nevertheless parallels? What about the "timeline" you wish for? Is it out there, parallel to what you actually got? On one level, Comet is an ode to the formative power of relationships both successful and failed, and commentary on love, desire, time and fiction.

Listening, AKA Brainstorm, is a straight science fiction story (i.e. it i plot and ideas driven, but ultimately bare of metaphorical ground) about brilliant grad students who basically invent telepathy. The film tracks the logical, though short-term, implications of such an invention, but doesn't have the vision to do more with it than a simple, if effective, thriller, with soap opera complications thrown in to motivate the characters. It's the kind of heady premise that makes you wary of some mind-blowing twist, but where it's all headed is telegraphed from the opening scene, and nothing too challenging results. The film at least has the sense to have its characters discuss the ethical and social implications of their work, which gives the enterprise the hard science feel of an Asimov short story, ideas presented without much art, though the cinematography does have its moments.


Anonymous said...

Hey Siskoid, I was just wondering if you've been watching Timeless (the currently-running time-travel show on NBC)? I didn't pay much attention to it until I read a review online that made it sound pretty cool, so I checked it out; it's pretty good ... interesting characters, some great time jaunts, and (naturally) an overarching conspiracy.

I just wondered if you've been watching, seeing as how you're a sucker for time-travel stories and all :)

Mike W.

Siskoid said...

I am such a sucker, but I can't find the time for weekly TV shows. I'll probably discover it on DVD later.


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