This Week in Geek (25/11-01/12/19)


Couldn't help it, got the Star Trek: The Official Guide to the Animated Series (a part of the franchise that deserves a little love.)


In theaters: Ford v Ferrari, as a title, sounds like a damn ad for a car manufacturer, which is why I prefer the European title, Le Mans '66, even if it only tells part of the story. It's thus a pleasant surprise that the film is anti-corporate, baldly stating that the corporate environment is a toxic dick-measuring context anathema to creativity. But what about the other metaphorical dick-measuring contest that is car racing? For our protagonists, there's a purity there that makes them proper heroes, but the two worlds are constantly compared in terms of competition, streamlining, and ethics. I don't drive and can't easily tell one car from the next, but for some reason, I have an affinity for car racing movies. While FvF doesn't come up to the level of my favorite, Grand Prix, it's a strong entry in the genre, less for the racing sequences (which are good, don't get me wrong), than for the characters' chemistry. I love the dynamic between Matt Damon and Christian Bale, of course, but also between Bale and Tracy Letts. There's a lot of humor and poignancy to be had from both, and that's really where the movie lives.

At home: Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête is, especially when compared to the ubiquitous Disney versions, a real creepshow. Following the original fairy tale more closely than those more recent versions of Beauty and the Beast, it at first seems like a Gothic redress of Cinderella (though I think the sisters here are much worse), but then Cocteau plunges us into a magical world of trick photography and near-pantomime acting (aside from Michel Auclair's naturalistic comedy performance as Belle's brother Ludovic) that feels more like one of the great fantasies of the silent era. It's gorgeous and always surprising. My research hasn't exactly confirmed anything, but the one big diversion from the original story seems to be the character of Avenant (surely an inspiration for Disney's Gaston), a rival for Belle's affections, and ultimately a threat to the Beast. But Cocteau's use of a dual role to connect the Beast and Avenant through actor Jean Marais creates an enigmatic transference unique to this version, one specifically designed to highlight what's always been true of this story when put to screen - after falling in love with the Beast along with Belle, we're disappointed with the Prince. Melodramatic acting falls by the wayside at the end and Josette Day's Belle keeps it subtle.

When I watched Jiří Menzel's Capricious Summer the other day, I thought the humor was odd. His first (and Oscar-winning) feature, Closely Watched Trains, is more traditionally funny. Set during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia (but no doubt criticizing the Communist regime at the same time), our man Milos is by design a version of "The Good Soldier", from a family of "Good Soldiers", a character whose artful evasion of duty is apparently representative of the Czech national character. The film is really about impotence. Milos', who is despondent when he fails to make it with his girlfriend and watches trains go by without ever having ridden one (and when the Nazis put him on a train, they throw him off being going anywhere, and then there's the equally short trip in the climax). All acts of rebellion against the German regime are futile gestures in the end. So this to me is very much about the country itself, a country that had been under the thumb of other powers for as long as anyone remembered (Austria, Germany, the USSR), and powerless to do anything about it. Even the amusing subplot about the cousin sleeping with every girl in town and rubber-stamping them seems to speak to that idea of having several mistresses in succession. With a lot of comically erotic imagery (a hole in a couch, the neck of goose, etc.) and an older generation obsessed with the decline of morals, this is a sex comedy that's really about national character, of the kind Menzel could only make during the relaxed period that gave us the Czech New Wave. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Early in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema, mysterious house guest Terrence Stamp has his head tilted in a Christ-like way, and that evocation turned out to be pretty relevant. There are certainly other ways to interpret this surreal film, but sex-as-religious experience is perhaps the most obvious. Stamp basically has a sexual or at least sexually-charged encounter with everyone in the household, and when he leaves, they are all thrown into an existential crisis, but are eventually inspired to different manifestations of faith (ascetic, artistic, rapturous, monastic, etc.). There's lots of religious imagery and music, but to me, this is spiritual experience absent the notion of God. All the trappings are there, with Stamp acting as Savior/Revealer, the house becoming a sacred site, followers being able to do miracles, and so on, but God isn't actually addressed. Books are important in the film - everyone reads, usually something that informs their character - but none of those books are sacred texts as we understand them in a religious context. Rimbaud, Tolstoy, the surrealists... a photo album comes nearest to "evangelizing" the characters' experience. And that's perhaps why Teorema needs to be nearly silent. Words can't adequately express the spiritual; its stand-in, sex, a vocabulary of gestures. I'm less equipped to speak to the Marxist element that's part of the film's DNA as well, so I've only partially cracked its code, I admit.

Mamma Roma is an early Pasolini film, and so looks and feels like he's part of the neo-realist movement of his day, until the ending where his penchant for Christian iconography is used to make the film more enigmatic. The title character is an emancipated prostitute who rescues her teenage son off the streets and sets off for a new life. Anna Magnani is earthy, raunchy and raw in the role - it's a great performance - at the mercy of her old pimp who keeps trying to drag her back into the life. Almost as much time is given to her listless, disaffected son, and neither seems able to disconnect from their former lives (due the naturalistic properties of neo-realism). Pasolini shines when he get symbolic, so I greatly admire the way Roma sleeping with different men is suggested by long walks with men who relay each other in conversation. And then there's the transformation of the son into a Christ figure, evoking the Passion and his disappearance from his tomb, and in turn, Mary Magdalen. As in the later Teorema, Pasolini gives us the Divine in the commonplace. Obviously, Roma isn't named accidentally, but I wonder whether "Rome the whore" is meant to be the Roman Empire as much as the fascist and post-fascist Italy of the film. In the end, it's a Christian image that might save Mamma Roma's soul, but that's ambiguous at best. Pasolini brings the Church down in the muck with his characters and it may be shown to have little power to save.

Michelangelo Antonioni treats his first color film, Red Desert, as an exploration of color. It doesn't just happen to BE in color, it presents people and objects as blocks of vibrant color in bleak, almost black and white, spaces, separating (and that's a key word) or integrating his characters into the world he's, painter-like, created. Monica Vitti (who I could watch all day, what a presence) is a woman very much separate from her world, incapable of adjusting, suffering from anxiety and what today we would call PTSD following a car accident. Her husband, her son, her friends, her lover all cause her to feel estrangement, and Antonioni translates that into images and sounds - the musique concrete is as industrial as the backgrounds, filled with acid smoke, blank walls, robotic toys, and ships seemingly floating through the landscape. The film is entirely about an existential crisis isolating her character, and in the end, she's merely learned to avoid the "triggers". She copes, but one can ask if coping is the same as adjusting. The birds that avoid the factory smoke have not learned to breathe it. A gorgeous, elliptical film, and though it doesn't have the vocabulary to talk about mental illness the way we understand it today (Vitti's character is perhaps only "fragile", not to use the word "hysterical", which the film thankfully doesn't), it still resonates with truth.

Antonioni's L'Avventura (The Adventure, which I imaging also means The Affair if Italian is anything like French) has an intriguing hook. A group of friends go on an excursion on a volcanic island and a young woman of their number, Anna, disappears without a trace. Monica Vitti plays her friend Claudia who almost immediately starts to replace her, wearing her clothes, Anna's boyfriend Sandro falling for her, and other, more sly examples of transference. Anna's starting position, as feeling increasingly estranged from Sandro, suggests that she has become someone else and can no longer sustain that relationship. But if Claudia eventually succumbs to his charms, shouldn't she revert to Anna (i.e. have Anna return)? It doesn't quite connect. Instead, the drama gets more literal and is about a kind of survivor's guilt and Claudia's growing feeling that she is interchangeable (and she may be). After the first hour, I feel like the languid pace made me lose interest. I was about to say it lost the plot, but this isn't really about plot. What it loses is the narrative drive that Antonioni's exploration of themes usually has. Everything takes just a little too long to not frustrate when it fails to achieve closure.

L'Eclisse (The Eclipse) does not actually feature an eclipse, except poetically. The first of these occurs when Monica Vitti's character hides and reveals the boyfriend she is breaking up with. Atonioni plays a game of light and dark throughout, sometimes visually (at its unfortunate worst, when Vitti is inspired by stories of Kenya to dance around in black face), sometimes through the theme of sudden absence, which can be seen in everything from big losses at the stock market to fleeting looks on Vitti's face when she appears to momentarily fall out of love with Alan Delon's trader. It all culminates in an experimental sequence where the characters disappear from the drama as the film becomes a disquieting tone poem. I respect the director's process a lot here, but like his previous film, L'Avventura, the pace is quite slow, or even when there's a lot of energy on the screen, it feels like everything is happening in real time - the trading floor sequences specifically. Antonioni requires the right frame of mind, but Vitti, at least, is good for any occasion.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
Kevin Bacon kidnaps asthmatic Dakota Fanning right out of resourceful mom Charlize Theron while Courtney Love makes she her doctor/pilot husband gets the ransom money in Trapped, a thriller that hangs on a lot of coincidence, but is still pretty efficient for what it is. It's well acted for the most part, though I've already forgotten who plays the husband, and there are a couple of crazy action beats, though the plot is perhaps a little confused at times. Bacon's character is vile in the extreme, but we're also expected to believe there's a reverse-Die Hard motivation behind the crime, which doesn't quite fit, not given their serial pattern. The bleached opener makes you think the movie will be much worse than it is. The bog-standard review might want to call this a bog-standard thriller, but the material is elevated by the actors and a fairly unusual plot. I just think it might have been better without the suddenly personal stakes, as the complication isn't really needed except to justify the parents putting their daughter's life at risk by fighting back.

These days, third-act romcoms are pretty common, what with our aging population and all, but Something's Gotta Give was something of a forerunner, simultaneously telling us men should grow up and date age-appropriate women, and that what's good for the gander is good for the goose, and that more mature women are sexually attractive too. Like a lot of people, I question whether Nicholson's man-child is a better match for Diane Keaton's anxious playwright than Keanu Reeves' wholesome doctor (chronologically Keanu's best and purest role in years, in my opinion), but all the characters have such an honesty about them, I'll root for whatever. There's a surprising complexity to the relationships on show that allowed me to find various outcomes acceptable, which you'll agree isn't always the case with this genre, where we're very obviously being pointed toward a certain match. Frequently amusing, sometimes touching, not necessarily always going where you think it will, and filled with engaging stars... I'd call that a win.

Role-playing: BarD&D Season 2, episode 6... Now in the company of the Tuigan army, our bardic group has to navigate the barbarian horde through a mountain nation in the hopes of getting to the [ARC ARTIFACT] that will [MAGIC] the [VILLAIN]. It's a long journey, but I didn't want to bog us down into too many sessions of it, so I split up the [STORY] stuff and the [RANDOM ENCOUNTER] business. If it's [STORY], we play it out. If it's [RANDOM ENCOUNTER] (which isn't all that random, but as the players had full control over which roads they took, I couldn't know in advance which pre-prepared encounters would come up), a single roll determined the outcome, and the player in charge of that roll/encounter would narrate what happened. On a failure, they would have to explain the punishment I imposed. Further, each road had its own score, as determined by the players, and if it was appropriate to the encounter somehow, bonuses (or inversely, penalties) could be applied to the roll. I thought, prepping in, that we'd never get through the entire journey in one session, but we did! The time-savers worked well, the PCs made some big mistakes but found cool ways around them, and the climax was an epic demon-destroying light show, followed by a full orchestra sitting in with the group. How does a double dose of XP sound? Everyone up to Level 6!
Set list - The Shire (Howard Shore), Release the Kraken (Ninja Sex Party), Happy (Pharrell Williams), People Are Strange (The Doors), The Invisible Man (Queen), Dust in the Wind (Kansas/Veilside), Ghostbusters (Ray Parker Jr.), One (symphonic, Metallica)


Andrew said…
In addition to inspiring much of Beauty and the Beast, Cocteau's film was also one of several works referenced when the Imagineers were designing DIsneyland's Haunted Mansion.
Max said…
That D&D session sounds fantastic. I especially like the idea of handling the random encounters with one roll! I'd love to know more detail about how that was done. Was it just a straight D20 roll with only the one situational modifier, or did PC statistics/abilities have any impact? Regardless, the game sounds like a blast, and I kind of wish it was being podcasted :)
Siskoid said…
Not that we play d20 or anything (I can't abide it), but yes, that's pretty much it. Essentially, cycling between players, starting with the one on my left and going clockwise, a player is told the set-up then asked to roll something that's appropriate to the encounter (Wisdom, THAC0 vs creature's Armor Class, could be anything). If they succeed, they narrate how the group successfully navigated the danger. If they don't, a penalty is immediately applied (damage, loss of an item, mistrust from allies, again could be anything within reason) and that same player must narrate how and why things didn't go so well in a way that explains that penalty. Saved a lot of time.

I doubt the games would make sense as a podcast because we speak in a mish-mash of French and English. Probably be incomprehensible to anyone but us.