This Week in Geek (3-09/01/21)


Ryan Blake was nice enough to send me an old copy of Hamlet Through the Ages across the Pond, with an amusing note about how he knows I like Shakespeare's SECOND BEST play, as he places it after Macbeth, which is of course, ludicrous. We'll have it out one day.



At home: If you're looking for some kind of satire about the U.S. president in 1967's The President's Analyst, you won't get it. It really is about the title character, played by James Coburn, and how he unravels after at first enthusiastically taking on POTUS as a client. Then reality itself unravels and it becomes a crazy spy spoof. That's NOT A COMPLAINT! With its numbers-filed-off security agencies and Lalo Schifrin score, it almost feels like a strange episode of Mission: Impossible, but one where you're following the target. And if it weren't for the weird sight gags, I could almost make a case for it. The President's Analyst is weird and wonky and you never know where it's gonna go next, but it's also damn prescient, its exaggerations or conspiracy theories speaking to 2020 in a way that couldn't have been foreseen. A comedy about cold war anxiety that I would confidently program in a double feature with Dr. Strangelove. (But as the opening act, you understand.) Warning: The international accents are all over the place in this, with a Canadian speaking better British than the British guy.

Its poster evoking another Stanley Kramer production starring Sidney Poitier (The Defiant Ones), Pressure Point really isn't anything like what the image suggests. Poitier plays a prison psychologist trying to help a white supremacist (Bobby Darin) get a better night's sleep, but obviously meets with some resistance. Set in the 40s, with a 60s frame tale as if to say "look at how far we've come", the question is whether "we" in this scenario is society or white supremacy. Darin's speeches are terrifying because though you can't, with a right mind, embrace his ideology, his predictions could well be correct. By 2021, we have perhaps even more of a sense that they are. Pressure Point has some great cinematography, with surreal ideas in terms of the patient's flashbacks, taking the pressure (heh) off the fact that it is necessarily a talky film. The two leads are excellent. The frame tale does seem a little clunky to me, and kind of makes me want to see a whole movie about Peter Falk dealing with HIS patient (but not the solution he mentions half-jokingly at the end, please, yeesh).

After Ganja & Hess, I knew Bill Gunn's "experimental soap opera", Personal Problems, would be SOMEthing. I just wasn't sure what. One element of the experiment today looks old-fashioned, not to call it amateurish. It was one of the first attempts at shooting with video cameras. The medium, coupled with Gunn's actors doing a lot of improvisation, creates something akin to reality TV, only much more real. We're voyeurs in the characters' lives, and though the two "episodes" produced (PBS passed on a series and that was it) are rather chaotic, they do produce some memorable, even indelible, scenes of real drama. When it doesn't work, it's because there's too much ambient noise, too much cross-talk. But when it does, the way moments are extended and allowed to play out, awkward as that is for the viewer, breaks the rules of what is "filmic" or "televisual". And that's where you approach a kind of transcendent vérité, an illusion that might be entirely convincing if you didn't recognize Gunn himself in the cast. Part 1 is longer, but definitely has the best material (the interview, the hospital scene, Johnnie going ballistic on her freeloading family, and some nice musical numbers). Part 2 has its qualities, but you could safely skip it.

The film is called Unrelated, but I do find it Relatable, as someone who has, on many occasions, spent holidays with other people's families. It is at once an escape (there are very little stakes for you, mostly an observer), but it's also alienating, you can feel walled off. I respect director Joanna Hogg's decision to mostly keep her distance, to the point where conversations are half-heard under Italian cicadas and wind blowing through the the cypresses. It makes us feel like Anna (Kathryn Worth), not really a part of events. But if it's a thematic strength, it's also the film's biggest weakness, an obstacle to engaging emotionally with the story. Still, it does some things very well. The feeling of vacationing in some villa, perhaps just a little too long where it becomes awkward. The unrequited feelings Anna develops for baby Tom Hiddleston (all of 26 here), ambiguously unrequited as he is naturally flirty. Hogg's camera gets closer and more intimate in those moments, and I wish the film had been more like that. It's still a good female mid-life crisis story, subtle and observational, but there are so many great European Holiday dramas that you have get up pretty early in the morning to compete with them.

Things to Come, or L'avenir (The Future) is you don't want to confuse it with the H.G. Wells spectacular, puts its title card on the shot of a tomb, which bodes ill, but the film may offer other answers. Isabelle Huppert is a pragmatic philosophy professor who doesn't let it get to her when her life starts to unravel, choosing to see the freedom in it - only partially a front - but responsibility isn't necessarily the cage it's at first made out to be. There's a lot of subtlety in the film, emotionally, generationally, academically, all the stuff with the cat... and one detail I keyed on early is the function of books in this story about people who do a lot of reading. Look at where they ARE in the book they're reading and simultaneously in their lives. Their relationships to books are also their relationships to themselves and each other. A quiet but compelling drama that nevertheless made me laugh on numerous occasions, but that's because it's such a clear capture of the French national character, which can be aggravating in person, I'll admit, but I find the kind of confrontational complaining very funny on film because I recognize it from all the Frenchies I've worked with.

If you're a fan of Toni Collette's - and why wouldn't you be? - Japanese Story is worth your time. She's absolutely stellar as a geologist forced to take a Japanese executive on a tour of the Australian Outback that doesn't quite go as planned. There are only a few ways this set-up can go - survival movie, romance - but is still manages to take a few unexpected turns, and without as strong a performer like Collette in the role, it might be much harder to buy into it. I love her initial impatience with the whole set of circumstances and am almost sorry to see the story move on from there, but the emotional core we reach by doing so is worth the journey through the film's red, dusty deserts. Each section of the film kind of has its own atmosphere and feeling, but the core does not move. It's a rock. It's Toni Collette. She makes you feel every moment, whether upsetting, pleasant or devastating. It's her. I'm not to sure about the story or its structure, but I'm very sure about her performance.

Is it possible to feel nostalgic for something you never really liked? I think so. La veuve Couderc (The Widow Coudere) has the country atmosphere of a lot like unremarkable French books I might have read in school (have I, in fact, read any of adapted author Georges Simenon's stuff? I don't think so, not even Maigret, but I would believe it if you said I did). It even evoked a SMELL. The film proposes to show what happens when the village whore (not my word) gets old. Simone Signoret is a compelling screen presence as that character, scorned by her neighbors and extended family, lonely and the harder for it. She takes in Alain Delon, a man on the run, to do some chores around the farm. He's caught between her and her mirror image, the girl from across the canal, a capricious unwed mother. They might as well be a single woman, two aspects separated by time. There's a crime element (it's Delon, after all), but then, this is based on the kind of novel where nobody has the right to be happy. Which I guess is why I found them such a chore as a teenager. As an adult watching it as a film, I like it a whole lot better.

Jean-Pierre Melville's last film, Un flic (A Cop) is a thing of parts, and each part has something going for it. I think it's proper to wonder if they work together. On the one hand, we track a band of daring robbers led by a dubbed Richard Crenna. The heists are procedural as in the best Melville, though the model shots used for the train sequence are almost hokey enough to break the spell. Melville needs you to see this is the grittiest detail possible, not a second omitted. It makes the cop side of things (starring Alain Delon) all the stranger for jumping around as much as it does. At its best, there's a night in the life of a Parisian cop, with multiple crimes investigated, but that's essentially padding until Delon's hard police captain is led to the robbers. There's also the matter of Crenna and Delon sharing a girlfriend (Catherine Deneuve - so France's two prettiest actors are in this) and their having an unusual friendship that could have been explored a lot more. Ultimately, Melville seems to want this to be about the lonely life of the copper, doing right but having to stand apart from society (as manifest by the people closest to him actually being criminals without his knowledge), but we spend so much time with the crooks (and rooting for them, at that) I'm not sure it should have thematically been the eponymous Cop's picture at all. But hey, problematic Melville is still quite good.

A title like Any Number Will Do works well for a casino heist picture, but it's a far cry from the original French title (Mélodie en sous-sol - literally, Basement Melody, but then you miss the pun with the note "sol" in it). Either way, this is a classic heist picture that spends enough time with its two protagonists that we care whether they succeed or not. Jean Gabin is an old thief, just out of the clink, looking for one last score. I really like his relationship with his wife (Viviane Romance) and wish we'd gotten more of it. Alain Delon is the young buck he partners with, and who gets to do most of the action. Like all heists, things have to go at least a little wrong, it's always harder than the plan made it out to be. You need to that to keep the tension alive once we're essentially been told what the plan is. Even after that, there's always the question of whether the thieves get away with it or don't, and the film's answer to that is actually pretty interesting. I shall say no more.

Books: By now it's clear I'm going to read every single volume of About Time - the Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who - and enjoy it even I don't always (or even often) agree with the writers' criticism of the show. Volume 9, the one with the big wasp on it, covers Series 4 and the 2009 specials, including Doc10's appearance on the Proms, the Sarah Jane Adventures, and the animated Dreamland. In addition to the nitty-gritty completism I find useful for research, there are always interesting essays about various facets of Doctor Who (the stage plays, knock-off series, comic strips, going to HD) and trying to untangle the continuity (what's a fixed point? how can any know about the Time War? what happened to UNIT between the 70s and the 2000s?). While I think Wood and Ail are happily a little more positive about this series compared to the first three seasons of NuWho, a lot of their nitpicks can themselves be picked apart and when they try to untangle a continuity issue, they often only manage to make it more tangled when easier explanations exist. The essays are weaker on average because of it, and more prone to typos than the rest of the text. Rush to publication? It feels like there are more typos in this one  than in the others, including a missing footnote number that screws up the End Notes section. Fair warning.


Ryan Blake said...

Correct it is his third best

Siskoid said...

Ok, what's the top 3 according to Blake?


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