This Week in Geek (4-10/03/19)


In theaters: Had Greta followed its first act to term, it might have been an intriguing character drama that exposed both its leads' traumas through an unlikely, and eventually toxic, relationship. Had it leaned into its second act, it would have led to a potentially great twist, where what seems sinister really isn't, and Chloë Grace Mortez's Frances would have regretted falling prey not to a stalker, but to her entourage's cynicism. Had it been more like its thriller/slasher third act, it could have been a perfectly nasty piece of Hitchcockian macabre. Unfortunately, it switches gears every time and while there are good moments in each act, it doesn't really work as a whole, and never confounds expectation. And you had Isabelle Huppert right there; you could have carried off any of the films you instead half-assed. In the absence of any real cleverness, my mind instead strayed and focused on how "It Follows" scream queen Maika Munroe looked like Cybill Shepherd, or wondering how that orange bike didn't get stolen when it was left on the street, or what kind of message the film was sending when it showed its character gossiping during a movie in a darkened theater. Good performances and good ideas, but badly services by the script.

At home: My favorite movie about a black man putting on a white phone voice to succeed of 2018, Sorry to Bother You IS beautiful to look at (the colors, the way they show the cold calling), clever and versatile in its handling of racial issues, hilarious in the way the most awkward of comedies can be, and more than a little bit nuts. No matter from what angle you come at it, there's something to unpack, possibly something you find bothersome (it's in the title, folks, which comes crashing in at exactly the right time). It's about the unfortunate need to "pass" as a member of the majority if one wants to succeed, about whether or not that's a betrayal of your identity and thus of your culture and everyone in it, about the future (but actually the present) of slavery, about the majority's blindness and effortless and comfortable prejudice, about mind-numbing office life and one's ambitions within that soulless context, and about how there's never a good answer and you're damned anyway. Entertaining and thought-provoking. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Grand Prix takes the epic route to explore the lives of four (well, three really) Formula-1 racers in the mod 60s. Three hours of high-octane racing and soap opera with an incredible international cast (any movie with James Garner, Toshiro Mifune, Yves Montand, Jessica Walter and Françoise Hardy deserves my curiosity and attention) in a slick package that had me wondering just how John Frankenheimer SHOT this. The opening Monaco Grand Prix is particularly great, giving you a sense of the geography, who is who, and what the stakes are second-by-second from a driver's point of view. And throughout, even if the soap is just okay (I'd have even ditched one of the storylines as the short shrift given the younger pilot doesn't really add anything), the races, each different, are beautiful to behold. In some, we feel the speed, the danger and the immediacy, as if play-by-play. In others, the editing turns lyrical, an emotional impression in split-screen montage. If this were made today, I'd have an idea of how it was made (CG and GoPros, mostly). In 1966, it all looks done for real, with actors in cockpits and cameras... where DO you hang a camera in situations like these?

The first in Ingmar Bergman's "God's silence" trilogy, Through a Glass Darkly presents us with a small cast of characters dealing with personal problems, and draws parallels between their relationships with each other and with an unfeeling God. Father/Creator/God are closely knit concepts, with the patriarch a distant man who pours everything into his writing, rather than his family. His daughter has a mental illness that fascinates him and of which he might be jealous, as it seems to put her in touch with the divine. Her husband is the atheist who tries to smother the visions with reason. And her kid brother, also a writer and thus perhaps a Christ figure, is the only one she can confide in, but his emotions are out of control as a result of parental neglect. His incestuous impulses are mirrored in the father, although Bergman never confirms a history of abuse, it's very much there, between the lines, and likely the source of his daughter's troubles. And yet, the ordeal of the film makes the father understand God better and gives him hope that He exists. Is this an allegory for the Old/New Testament paradigm shift? Bergman explores these ideas without ever betraying his characters, so it works on several levels, and the final answer is just one possibility. The next film, Winter Light, proposes the opposite.

Sabrina's place in movie history is that it helped make Audrey Hepburn a fashion icon. As a romance, I'm less engaged, either with the classist notion that lower classes should dream of marrying into the upper classes, or with Hepburn's only two choices being so poor in everything but money. Sabrina can be with William Holden, who carries on with her but is engaged to another woman, or with Humphrey Bogart, a mercenary pragmatist who mostly doesn't want his brother to screw up a marriage-dependent merger, but ends up falling in love with her (and I guess that's good enough for her). No one age-appropriate in sight. Billy Wilder might have had something to gain from pushing the comedy more, in this case. There are some fun bits - the cooking school, Walter Hampden's shtick as the elderly patriarch, and so on - but more might have helped justify the ridiculousness of the love triangle and how it resolves. He said, from the 21st-Century.

In contrast to fairy tale romcoms like Sabrina where marrying into high society is the ultimate goal and spells happiness forever after for the romantic protagonist, Stella Dallas marries the lead off early, and turns it into a much more realistic story where ambition destroys relationships, priorities shift with age, and over-reaching leads to humiliation. There IS upward mobility in the film, but it's not meant to be immediate, and while the whole high society business is dated, it can still be seen as an expression of first-generation college attendees, etc. But Stella Dallas is all about Barbara Stanwyck. Everyone else, with the possible exception of Alan Hale's lusty Ed Munn, gives a mannered and wet performance. They're in an old-fashioned melodrama and lack complexity, while Stanwyck is thoroughly modern and acting her socks off as the single mother who will sacrifice everything for her daughter, having transferred her hopes and dreams to her.

Cam has one element I'm always game for, and that's immersion in a world I know nothing about. That's how I can watch films about the stock market or, I dunno, the hi-octane world of glass blowing, and never get bored. I love to discover new worlds. And Cam puts you in the world of sex cams in a way that's lurid and truthful without crossing the line into pornography. Things get strange when Madeline Brewer's Lola's account is hacked and a doppelganger appears to be doing her shows for her, and the reason behind it is no more ludicrous than the ludicrous solutions I thought of while watching. It might even eschew some of the more readily apparent clichés. So it turns into a Black Mirror-type fable about online identity theft, but also takes aim at online harassment and slut shaming. There's possibly some metaphorical and psychological ground to explore in the idea of Alice/Lola's twin identities, and how she hides and, in a way, hates what she does, but the coda would seem to say I'm wrong. Or am I?

Dirty Computer is quite the head trip. We're in the far future. Society is calling people computers, and dirty computers (anyone different) gets grabbed and cleansed of offending memories. Janelle Monáe plays one such "dirty computer" and every memory we experience during the cleansing process is in fact a pop music video, singing loud and proud about her identity in every hit (I'd go as far as call them that). As a black LGBTQ+ woman, this was obviously a personal project for Monáe, and each song can be seen as a metaphor for what is being erased (by white bros, no less), as well as revolutionary act, transforming memory into anthem, a form in which it may better survive and triumph. At 49 minutes, I wish it were longer, but in reality, it's a concept album, a short pop rock opera, and had it been longer, one might not enjoy it in the same way. As is, it's mostly cool music videos, and you could just put it on like a record and never get the urge to push the chapter button.

I think I've learned my lesson this year that I should just be a Johnnie To completist when it comes to his modern-day pictures, and leave the early wuxia-for-hire alone. Despite having him at the helm, and both Stephen Chow and Anita Mui starring, Justice, My Foot! is a late-era Shaw Brothers mess dripping with obnoxious synth music. The problems are mostly tonal. The comedy is very broad (as we can expect from the Cantonese style), but the fart jokes and mugging at the camera is supplemented by infant mortality, onscreen deaths, and attempted suicides. And it's really hard to care for Chow's unscrupulous lawyer because he's such a jackass. At least he's cursed because of it, and must change his ways, but he never really gets a new personality. Mui, as his kung fu wife, always bails him out of trouble and given how the legal shenanigans are bits of fast-talk that may or may not resonate with a non-Cantonese audience, she's easily the best thing in the film. I do believe in their relationship, though, and by the end, they've won me over. But there's a heck of a lot of noise to get through before that happens.

Frank Capra has always been a utopian film maker, but with Lost Horizon, he takes that in a more literal direction as his characters (some pulled from the James Hilton novel, some new) are brought to Shangri-La, a virtual paradise in the Himalayas, against their will. There's a lot to recommend in the film, but it's mostly in terms of visuals. The opening escape from revolution-torn China is exciting, and the alpine photography breathtaking. But I found myself asking too many questions to really get invested. How does Shangri-La get all its stuff from the outside? Why make it a Christian utopia nevertheless filled with Tibetan monks? Why does it seem to be a leisure paradise for white folks who somehow found their way there, but the Asian natives appear to be part of a working class? And what about all those hints at something darker? And I was irritated with the broad comic relief of Edward Everett Horton as the least convincing Brit ever. I don't mean to sound so negative, as it was still interesting, but also preachy at times. I like Capra more when he wraps his utopian fable in every day Americana. Lost Horison is too overt and things get lost in its attempt at scope.

I could really have done without the onscreen slaying of an elephant at the beginning of King Solomon's Mines (1950), but at least its Alan Quartermain is also revolted by it, and goes on to show a lot of respect for nature and for the native tribes of Africa he encounters on his journey. The production in fact makes use of real African performers and locations, giving this particular "jungle adventure" an authenticity not usually seen in the genre. So it mostly avoids common racist and imperialist tropes, but it's a little more hard-going on the sexism front, though Deborah Kerr plays a woman who everyone thinks will want to turn back, but never does. That doesn't stop Quartermain from dismissing her, and the production from calling for her to scream and faint every few minutes. It has its moments and looks good, but the adventure isn't overly exciting. It's a lot of walking, with episodic dangers that sometimes last barely a few seconds. And once we get to the end of the quest, it feels a little anti-climactic.

George Pal's The Time Machine is actually a lot closer to H.G. Wells' novella than you'd think. Even the queasy romance with a vaccuous Eloi is in the book, but there's a difference between reading about it and seeing it performed. No one buys it, George. The main addition is that the time traveler gets to visit actual future events, known in 1960, and there's some poignancy to be had with his visits to the two World Wars, informing his visit to 802,701 A.D. slightly differently. The time lapse photography is a very cool conceit to show time passing, and the machine itself a design icon. Now if I put on my Whovian scarf for a minute (and I note George's friend Filby has a similar one), I can't imagine this film wasn't a huge influence on Doctor Who. I find it a lot more credible that Sydney Newman had been inspired by the film rather than the book, and the same might go for Terry Nation who basically rewrote The Time Machine with the Daleks in the role of the Morlocks, and the Thal as the Eloi. So just as Trekkies should see Forbidden Planet at least once in their lives, Whovians should see 1960's The Time Machine.

Set time machine to Victorian era. Input: Literature; Opening shots with clocks in them.
Without a Clue is a Sherlock Holmes movie no one talks about, and kind of, sort of, what I wanted out of the recent farce Holmes and Watson. The case to be solved concerns a Moriarti plot to undermine the British Empire's economy through counterfeit money. It's a pretty dry affair and the villain is pretty boring, relegated to mustache-twirling and such. But you're watching for the premise, which is that Holmes is a front hired by Dr. Watson, the real detective, but it's an uneasy relationship. There's some general spoofing of detective fiction tropes, and things definitely get more interesting in the third act (despite the unnecessary transphobic jokes), but I really wanted to like it more. I mean, Michael Caine as a caddish Sherlock and Ben Kingsley as a brilliant but dismissed Watson? I'm there. But I'm not all that interested in either the plot or the slapstick, and it spends too much time on the heroes being at each other's throats to properly sell the idea that oh, it had heart all along.


De said...

Sorry to Bother You blew me away when I saw it last year. It managed to entertain audiences and provide a lot to think about afterward. Unfortunately, I know too many people who took the ending as venturing too far into the absurd. Way to miss the point, people.

Anonymous said...

I iiked "The Time Machine" better when they turned it into the children's show "The Teletubbies".


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