This Week in Geek (27/12/20-02/01/21)



At home: I wouldn't be surprised if Antebellum drew inspiration from Welcome II the Terrordome (see below) even if it eventually subverts that earlier film's conceit of a temporal crucible. There are just too many lines to draw between them. Through editing and coincidental detail, the film tries to convince you that Janelle Monáe's character is living in two time frames, each dreaming of the other, and if some audiences might have scratched their heads at it, it would have perhaps been more interesting and poignant. As it stands, the slave narrative is brutal and gripping, while her life as an activist/pundit naturally lacks the same motive power (though Gabourey Sidibe is a charm in this section). But ultimately, the solution is perhaps unimportant even if it could have been narratively braver. The idea is to make ancestral trauma manifest and contextualize past and present struggles as part of the same continuum - and perhaps more importantly, to do the same with past and present racism. Monáe's a queen, as usual. Jena Malone is damn creepy as one of the villains.

By all accounts, 1973's Walking Tall is a cult classic (have to find it), but the Dwayne Johnson remake isn't unentertaining even if one feels it gets further and further away from the "true story" it's based on. Translated into a black ops veteran - and into The Rock! - the man on a mission to clean up his corrupt logging town is more superhuman than wrestler-turned-lawman Buford Pusser might historically have been allowed. In fact, they don't even use his name, though details of a former sheriff's death echo Pusser's as a tribute (not sure that plays). Thanks to Johnny Knoxville playing Johnson's not-in-the-same-class sidekick, there is some comedy, and at its best, the movie sometimes evokes, before the fact, the show Justified. Heck, Neal McDonough is even in it! Whoever wrote the screenplay has absolutely no idea how court works, and the only way to get passed that scene is to immediately turn your brain to off and enjoy Dwayne righteously dealing out frontier justice with a 2x4. Pretty good use of the woodland setting too.


Based on the 1993 documentary of the same name - and recreating several of its scenes - Gridiron Gang feels like fiction because it seems to proceed formulaically from an elevator pitch. That pitch is Dangerous Minds as a sports movie, and one might, probably correctly, surmise that the fictional elements injected into the story are to put it more in line with "the formula", and all the names have been changed so take from that what you will. Dwayne Johnson plays a probation officer at a juvenile detention facility who decides to use football to give his kids, mostly inner city youth involved in gang activity, something else to live for, exchanging gang fidelity with something more positive through team-building and self-esteem. Personally, I think it works. Most sports films are going to follow a similar route, but whether they succeed or not comes down to two things. First, you need strong characters to fuel engaging subplots, and the higher personal stakes of the setting accomplish that. Second, you need to know how to shoot sports action, and though I don't know football from much more than what I see in movies, I could understand the plays, and how they related to the characters and their arcs. Nothing groundbreaking - purists may well say the documentary made this redundant - but a well told story.

When you cast Dwayne Johnson in a true story - and it seems to happen a lot - you run the risk of his presence alone amping things up to absurd levels. Snitch manages not to do that, but then you have the problem of expectations, where a movie disappoints fans of its star. It's the Rock, but he gets beat up by a couple of drug dealers, is scared of guns, is essentially "a regular joe". When his son gets tangled in the drug-related mandatory minimum sentencing, Johnson's character will do anything to hand the Feds a bigger fish, which gets the rest of his family into even more trouble. Aside from some 18-wheeler vehicle action, it's a pretty grounded take on the material, and makes for a fair thriller. Michael Kenneth Williams and Jon Bernthal are as good as ever in supporting roles, and it feels like this was the latter's audition tape for The Punisher. Is it the most memorable Dwayne Johnson movie? No. But it does the job it sets out to do and appropriately dials back its star's capacity for high octane action.

An early Dwayne Johnson flick, The Rundown has him proving he can be an engaging action star while playing a Seagal-esque would-be cook/recovery specialist who hates guns, out in the Brazilian jungle to get his boss' son back home. The jungle has a massive hell pit in it where Christopher Walken chewed up the scenery, clearly having fun here, and rebels who want to set things right. There's even an Indiana Jones bit with the treasure that might help them do it. As a high octane action film, it's got some crazy fights where the Rock is essentially a superhero, though a naive one, which is what gives his enemies the upper hand once in a while. Unfortunately, a lot of my interest is drained by it also trying to be a comedy, and I'm sorry, but Seann William Scott, who carries most of that (as the unwilling rescued), is obnoxious more than he is funny. A lot of the jokes fall flat or just seem to belong in another film. But the Rock getting spun around by jungle fighters and bullwhips? I'm into that.


A semi-supernatural Japanese revenge picture with Meiko Kaji starring? Blind Woman's Curse gives you every expectation that it will be like Lady Snowblood. Until you look at a calendar and realize this is before Snowblood, before even Prisoner 701. So Kaji isn't the avenger, she's the target of the blind woman she once wronged. It's still a little as if Lady Snowblood crashed into Kwaidan, with a horror vibe that's sometimes slashery, sometimes expressionistic, but at odds with the yakuza setting. In fact, while there's some good cinematography and cool fights, the film's genre mash-up feels rather haphazard and needlessly complicated. Not only must Kaji's yakuza boss contend with a ghostly curse, but also a competing clan. And then there's the fact that the movie can't decide on who is its protagonist. By rights, it should be the Blind Woman. In reality, it's Kaji. But for large parts of the story, it's a reformed gangster putting his life at risk (Makoto Satō). There are three films here competing for attention. They're all pretty cool, but together make for a chaotic experience.


Afrofuturism is defined as art about imagined and alternative Black experiences, spanning science fiction, fantasy, and documentary, often hybridizing film with music, dance and other media. The most mainstream example is undoubtedly Black Panther. The Criterion Channel dropped a curated list last month, and I decided to watch a fair few this week. Before getting to the features, I want to take a moment to quickly review some shorts. The premise of the melancholy Afronauts is that Zambia had a space program competing with NASA to get to the Moon first. I love lo-fi SF, and this is very lo-fi to the point of magical realism, and uses the trip as an analog of colonization and how Africa might have handled it instead. By the same director, Jonah is an amazingly polished piece featuring pre-stardom Daniel Kaluuya as a man who dares imagine his African city transformed by tourism, but perhaps not for the better; gorgeous gorgeous GORGEOUS. Divorced from Western expectations, its resolution is more like the tale of the Chinese Emperor who went to the Moon. Robots of Brixton stars multi-media robots with definite Afro-centric looks as a future page of static history; intriguing but too short, though it makes its point by the end. Monique Walton's The Becoming Box is intriguing in a Twilight Zone sort of way, but too short. There's enough here for a whole feature, and without more, it's hard to pierce its deeper meanings. Her previous short, Dark Matters suffers from the same problem in that we just want it to be longer (there are worse criticisms). In this case, however, a woman's question about the origins of the universe, of life, and of her own identity are better served and work even in the shorter format. The Changing Same is about feelings of displacement, but feels too unfinished to really stick a landing. You and I and You works as a music video for The Dig, but Terence Nance tells a complete if ambiguous story about either the death of a child or the hope of its escape from the white world that plagues the parents. Nance teams up with Blitz Bazawule for Native Sun, a tie-in to a music album that follows a young boy on the streets in Ghana, a story that keeps changing channels just like its soundtrack. Bit enigmatic and not sure it entirely works. A postapocalyptic African samurai short, Hasaki Ya Suda is pretty convoluted for something that's basically just a bunch of cool sword fights. Set in the wake of Burkina Faso's revolution, Twaaga is about a boy's obsession with superhero comics translates the world into his world view, and kind of vice-versa. I really like this one, its sense of place and character. Strong Black Mirror vibes with Touch, nominally about android love, but really addressing a new type of slavery that speaks to our modernity. Could you represent retrocausality as a function of interpretation with out-of-order archive footage? Yes, but I'm not sure 1968 < 2018 > 2068 manages it. The editing experiment leaves me cold.

Not uniquely Afrofuturistic, Born in Flames is more of a feminist piece, but it covers a lot of ground, extending its message to all minorities. Shot like a documentary, following militants, introducing news items, but also including fictional elements that couldn't possibly be documented, Lizzie Borden's 1983 film is like a document from an alternate reality where the U.S. went socially democratic and yet women are protesting their sidelining post-revolution, while a Women's Army is taking more drastic action. It obliquely predicted the "post-racism" revolution of Barack Obama's presidency, not only creating a violent pushback from Right, but also not changing things very much at all. And when I say "predict", I must mean all of that was already true in the 1980s, just replace whatever social actors into the narrative. The lie of Neoliberalism is that "liberalism" is just a new kind of conservatism, albeit an orthodoxy painted in different colors. The revolution was an exercise in branding. Though the film takes its cues from such militant organizations as the Black Panthers, modern eyes will also draw comparisons to the Black Lives Matter movement. As it's told in vignettes, it's not really the kind of thing where you latch on to any single character, and it's necessarily didactic. But if there was ever a time to discover this film, I'd say it's now. It's never been so relevant.

If Malcolm X had made movies, they might be like Welcome II the Terrordome (which indeed, uses his speeches as part of its text). A powerful expression of rage that still speaks to what's happening today, it has several sequences that are very hard to watch, its outrage unflinching. But at the same time, it has an interesting lyrical element, presenting its dystopian ghetto as a half-way realm for lost souls, tying into the stories of slaves walking into the sea to die and transit to the afterlife and perhaps never making it. And so it is with black history. A story of a displaced people, their roots cut off, and in a way, whatever astral umbilical ties them to their culture severed. The Terrordome is here, is now, is a sequel to the oppression of the past (that's the Roman II in the title), and its hope is that it is a purgatory from which one can eventually escape and reach one's ancestral shores. Much of the film feels like a gangster rap video, and I like both its soundtrack and futuristic score. Wouldn't be surprised either if Born in Flames were one of its ur-texts, as similarities abound.


Supa Modo, out of Kenya, is a beautiful - and unpredictable - little film about a young girl dying of cancer who is a fan of kung fu and superhero movies. She likes to pretend she has powers (and sometimes maybe she does); her sister likes to help her pretend; and her mother simply holds up the pretense that she isn't going to die. Sounds heavy, and it can be, but the little girl is so charming, and the story so positive, that if I wept, it was more because of the contrast between what we see and what we know is really happening. Eventually, the entire community contributes to the illusion (in several ways), and isn't that what the "I have a dream" speech was all about? By sharing a dream, we can make it real. That's sort of what's happening here. And as a superhero movie? Yeah, it works! In most ways, it's completely atypical. In others, we recognize the tropes. There's even a post-credit sequence! Don't tell me Africa is out of the loop on global pop culture! A wonderful film that, here at 2020's finish line, makes it into the list of the favorite films I've seen this year.

They showed the "hellmouth" in Ethiopia on Netflix's "Alien Worlds" and I wondered why I'd never seen it in a movie as it looked like another planet (I imagine volcanic plains are pretty dangerous). Well, Crumbs starts there, though as a manifestation of the film's postapocalyptic setting. Which might as well be today, by Ethiopian standards. Home of a once thriving empire, the film uses it as a mix of nuclear landscape, decaying infrastructure and standing ruins, in which our hero quests for Santa Claus with the hope of being sent to a mysterious hovering spaceship so he can go home (he will learn what home really is). So it's quite strange, and proposes a culture that's something like postmodern voodoo, also a bizarre mix that includes everyday objects that have lost their original meanings and have become mystical in the process. Though its writer-director is Spanish, he is tapping into what a lot of Afrofuturism seems to be about, i.e. a longing for a lost Eden by a people who feel displaced even in their own homes, which may or may not translate into disappointment when the Eden is found/recreated. Crumbs is intriguing and sweet, but also enigmatic. On the one hand, I like its world-building, on the other, it may leave too many questions unanswered.


When Joe Morton's mark on science-fiction is discussed, it's usually Terminator and sometimes Eureka, but no one seems to mention The Brother from Another Planet (1984 - the same year that gave us Starman), in which he plays a mute alien who ends up in Harlem. Perhaps it's because the film seems to panic in its third act, realizing it doesn't really have a plot, and shoehorns one in. Strongest are the alien's early and rather sweet connections with people, and his story's mirroring of various immigrant experiences. The odd space calypso music definitely fits that theme. There might have been something to be done with the (white) aliens tracking him, as their inability to fit makes for an intriguing contrast to explore, but their final confrontation with "the Brother" is odd and confusing, coming on the heels of the plug-in drug plot, and followed by... what exactly? But Morton himself gathers a lot of good will with his silent yet engaging performance.

Yeelen (from Mali) begins with some shocking, real-life violence to an animal and I wish I'd been warned, so I'm warning you, gentle reader. Beyond that, the film stages a mythological story of a son and his estranged father, both sorcerers, whose paths will one day cross for a final reckoning. The reasons aren't clear even to the participants, and I choose to interpret it as a universal clash of generations, the past giving way to the future. There's a lot of pageantry in these kinds of films, and though they follow the logic of myth (referencing things that will be lost on most audiences), they are, to me, rather representational. Though I recognize the style - I think Ousmane Sembène (Senegal) made some historical films (like Ceddo and Emitai) that have the same pace and feel - I just couldn't get into Yeelen. It gets particularly tedious in the final act, just as it's supposed to get exciting, and the sound design gave me a migraine. There is certainly some ethnological value to staging myths and legends (of any culture), but they can fall just an inch too far into pseudo-documentary, and that remove makes me feel less invested.

In specificity, there is universality. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty may be Terence Nance's obsessive dissection of his unrequited feelings for one woman (and others as context), but while the "you" spoken by the narrator (who was that? great voice!) is always Nance himself, it was sometimes in fact "me", people I know, or complete strangers. Nance is brutal with himself, the film a portrait AND a manifestation of his romantic anxiety; it's not just about him wallowing in self-pity, it's part of the wallowing itself. You might even think parts of it are a little skeevy in the post-consent world of today, but I think he knows that and it's one more layer of his self-deprecating (which can be quite funny, honestly). It's also part of the play with the documentary and autobiographical format. Insightful, surprising, intimate, the film may make you fall for the girl of his dreams as well, and I love the art house experimentalism, which includes beautiful, surreal animation in many styles. The one ugly moment, for me, was his bitterly reductive 2-second summation, but it too is an honest feeling and fits the stream of consciousness of the film.


I don't have enough of an ear for jazz to appreciate Ornette Coleman's music, which is probably why Shirley Clarke's Ornette: Made in America left me a little cold. I won't dispute that Coleman is an interesting artist and rightly celebrated. His connection to space science as much as visionary ways of making music make him an unusual futurist. But while the documentary enamored of him specifically, it didn't really manage to make me enjoy his work. Like his detractors, I find it cacophonous, just every instrument overlapping into a mess. Clarke attempts to "free jazz" the film as well. It jumps around Coleman's life, the editing at times frenetic and jagged, just like the music. It even made me think it would take a sharp turn into speculative fiction at some point, in the reenactment portion of the piece, but it didn't really. Intrigued by it all, but I just don't have the background to properly enjoy it.


Tony Laplume said...

You might consider the Dwayne Johnson Walking Tall as the true story entering into myth. We have precious few new ones of those these days, and we seem happy to ignore the old ones, too. See also: Detective Dee!


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