This Week in Geek (14-20/02/21)

"Accomplishments"


At home: The Dig - detailing the events of the impressive archaeological discovery at Sutton Hoo just as World War II was about to break out - is, like the landscape it takes place in, not unlike a relaxed rainy afternoon. There's an occasional thunderclap, yes, but for the most part, it's very British film making, country estates and stiff upper lips and all that. Now, there's a lot of value in showing actual archaeological work, as these stories usually involve tomb robbing, deadly traps and the occasional mummy, but don't worry, the British Museum is still kind of the villain. And of course, the cast is impeccable. True stories can sometimes meander or lurch in terms of plot, and it happens here. We're asked to care about many characters, and Lily James's is one, but only shows up mid-film. Where the movie I think transcends the genre is its subtle theme of essentially uncovering the truths of these various characters the same way the excavators are uncovering the deep past. These people have pasts, hinted and exposed, and a Peggy-come-lately is like that sudden discovered object that changes the focus of the dig. And then there's the whole matter of academics sidelining the real discoverer, and so the film itself is a dig into the past to set the record straight. It succeeds better there than structurally.

 

As it turns out not my favorite of Éric Rohmer's Moral Fables, Le genou de Claire (Claire's Knee) gives another of his teenage ingenues in Béatrice Normand's feisty Laura, but I find her less intriguing than La collectioneuse or endearing as Pauline, and maybe so does Rohmer. We have a similar summer idyll (in gorgeous mountain/lake locations, wow), but our protagonist, Jérôme isn't entirely interested in her, or in her alone. Let's just say there's a lot of ambiguity. The film has him constantly declare his love for his wife-to-be, who is never seen, while simultaneously allow himself flirtations and blaming them on an old friend, the writer Aurora, who may or may not setting traps for him to observe his reactions, which she might write about. Or is she trying to het him for herself? It's like second-hand seduction, and Jérôme protesting way too much, or perhaps even testing his own resolve, going a bit too far to see if he'll actually be tempted. But do we trust any of these characters when they speak? And yes, there's an erotic knee in there too (I wouldn't want to knee-shame, so I'll just leave it at "to each their own"). Claire's Knee, like Claire's knee, is perplexing, and doesn't easily give up its answers. At its truest, I think it's quite right about the pointlessness of affairs after a certain point, but more subtextually, of meddling in other people's.


The theme is dangerous love in Truffaut's La femme d'à côté (The Woman Next Door), the kind of love you forget yourself in, the kind of love that turns to toxic obsession, the kind of love can lead someone to commit a desperate outrage. Bernard (Gérard Depardieu) is shocked one day to see an old flame, Mathilde (latter-day Truffaut muse Fanny Ardent), move next door with her husband. If only there'd been more than nine houses in the village, they might have still been able to avoid each other. What follows is a dance of avoidance and attraction, where they put everything on the line, then try to step away, with tragic consequences. As mirror to their story, the local tennis club owner, and our postmodern (but unfortunately too reliable) narrator, also did something desperate for love in her youth, and here gets to avoid a repeat performance in a way that Bernard and Mathilde can't. It's all quite interesting until the third act, where things get melodramatic and, frankly, taper out. The solution reminds me of The Soft Skin's, where it worked better.


Confidentially Yours (in reality, Vivement Dimanche!, which would translate as "Can't Wait for Sunday!") was Truffaut's last film, and it's a fun anachronistic film noir that looks like it was made decades earlier. Certainly, Truffaut's interest in Hitchcock shows through, especially in the humor, but this is closer to the great American noirs in that the plot gets more and more complicated until it hardly matters anymore. The well-dependable Jean-Louis Trintignant is a realtor framed for a double murder, and the striking Fanny Ardent is his sassy secretary who for some reason helps him try to uncover the true murderer before the police close in. Unlike your normal noir, there's a postmodern tinge to it, as the leads muse about being in a detective novel, and of course, they totally are. What they stumble upon would be highly ridiculous if they weren't. The cinematography's cool, the reversals are fun, and while it feels like a bit of a lark for Truffaut, it's still a very entertaining lark. It's sad to imagine how many more films he had in him, but life had other ideas; he died the next year, age 52.

 

Knives Out with only French actresses, and somehow it's also a jukebox musical?! That's 8 femmes (8 Women). This 2002 whodunit has a great cast and sense of playfulness, with director François Ozon setting the film in movieland more than any specific era - it's vaguely the 1930s, with a take-down of the 1950s, and songs from across the entirety of the French songbook - with moments that play into the theatrical, acknowledging the film is based on a 1958 play by Robert Thomas. And with the musical element coming in, the color-coded costuming, and Catherine Deneuve standing RIGHT THERE, one can't help  but think of Démy as well. I don't even know if the musical numbers work or grate, but I don't really want to decide, because I'd rather cinema be weird than predictable. Where I think this dark comedy shines is in the way the murder of the family patriarch exposes the secrets of the 8 women in his life which has a transformative effect on them. Through their stories, we discover that this man, just the back of a head to us, was at best a jerk, and at worst a monster, and don't feel bad at all for him. The real crime is how the women have been treated, which extends to the solution moment, since there must be a toll collected for the death of the "great man".


As a Blade Runner fan (and I count it among my three favorite films), I've waited too long to see Soldier. It may be an unofficial expansion of the universe, ultimately condemning Blade Runner to Easter Eggs, but you don't have to squint a whole lot for it to work. They never say the word "replicant", but Kurt Russell still seems to play the role of an early eugenics experiment (pre-replicant) who ends up defending a small group of refugees from actual replicants, the technical descendants of the models we saw in the first first. A twentysomething Todd might have fought shoulder to shoulder with Roy Batty, if I've done my math correctly. And while Paul Anderson definitely isn't Ridley Scott, there's still a very real attempt to recreate part of the look of Blade Runner with the lighting and atmospherics. Now if only Anderson didn't love his post-production slow-motion (because it's not just in the action scenes, but used to extend simple looks)! It's just the cheesiest thing. As a story, the villainous officer who sets things in motion has a paper-thin motivation, which is a problem, and there's just too much in the way of gunfire and explosions for my tastes. American cinema loves it, but I rarely find it involving. But Kurt Russell does elevate the material with his nearly-wordless, almost impossibly restrained performance. He's a man bred from birth to be a soldier and is almost robotic, but if he's a robot, he's an abused and traumatized one, running on PTSD as much as he's suffering from it. And over the course of the film, he sees what he's missed in these simple villagers. There's some thing quite poignant about that, the combat veteran experience taken to a sci-fi extreme.


Though it's a short, Ramin Bahrani's Plastic Bag is many, many things. You might call it an adaptation of that bit from American Beauty. It's a ecological fable starring a plastic bag, brought to life as if by Pixar, though all done practically. It's a story of loss and longing, romantic in its way. It's a postapocalyptic sci-fi story, with amazing and efficient world building. It's a spoof of nature documentaries. It's an existential piece meditation on immortality. And it's a beautiful tone poem with gorgeous visuals and a perfect voice-over by Werner Herzog as the Bag. Filled with magic and dark ironies, Plastic Bag is a stellar work that can be approached and understand through a variety of filters, and so the film is somehow recyclable where its subject matter is not. It holds many surprises. I love it. I'm kind of imagining it on the same bill as The Red Balloon, and only need to figure out what feature would follow these two wonderful shorts without seeming a let down.

 

With my limited stand-up culture, I came to Tig Notaro though Star Trek: Discovery, and became intrigued that she had previously had her own semi-autobiographical television series. One Mississippi is a comedy, but deals with some very heavy topics - the death of a parent, breast cancer, child abuse - which made the first couple episodes sometimes hard to watch. It soon gets lighter, and Notaro herself is amazing and fearless. Her character on Discovery is relatively one-note, just dry humor and wit, but on her own show, she's open, vulnerable, charming, and textured. I find her and the whole cast quite endearing and wish there were more episodes. As it stands, One Mississippi includes two seasons of six episodes each, the second exploring Trump's "emboldening" influence on the worst elements of American society, though not at the detriment of the show's other themes - trauma, rebuilding, self-discovery, and the detrimental effect of secrets and lies on a family, a person, a society. Big thumbs up from me.


Role-playing: Since we'd spent part Family Day Weekend watching Mummy movies, it just made sense to play out the next chapter of our Rippers game which, not that coincidentally, took place in Egypt. Obviously, the players wanted to meet Brandan Fraser's character (even if it's decades before the events of the 1999 movie), but the game itself was happy to oblige. It has a built-in homage, with a head tomb raider called Allan Frazer. I was happy to oblige, and pepper in various recognizable tropes from the films. The team's combat monster could not, for the life of them, get a good dice roll out of the Discord bot, it seemed, which was very frustrating for a group mostly built around librarians and street urchins, but in the end, they did prevail, and destroyed not one, but two Royal Mummies (because it's not a Mummy story if the mummies didn't do it for love, on some level). I did also want to mention the light cosplay around the table, which ranged from explorer clothes, to Egyptian themes, to golden make-up, to a tropical stomach bug. And I finally found a use for my fez (but also demonstrated why I should never wear hats).


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