This Week in Geek (11-17/04/21)

Buys

A few new books have made it into the house in the last couple weeks - Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: A TV Companion (for a project I've been nursing), and Ayoade on Ayoade: A Cinematic Odyssey AND Ayoade On Top (because funny).

"Accomplishments"

 

At home: A good dog. A good robot. Maybe that's all I needed Love and Monsters to have. The blueprint here is obviously Zombieland, but without the shock jock attitude, the foul language, or the tired zombie tropes - an action adventure comedy set in a postapocalyptic America, this one some 7 years after every cold-blooded animal was mutated into a monster. In terms of the small patch of world we're allowed to see, there's a lot of imagination, and as a picaresque, it juggles danger, wonder and humor quite well. The Australian locations are gorgeous, though sometimes hard to reconcile with whatever stretch of 85 miles this is supposed to be in the U.S. As the title implies, our ill-equipped protagonist Joel is braving the wilderness to get to his high school sweetheart who lives with another cluster of survivors, but beyond that and the supposedly accidental COVID-era isolation vibes this gives off, I like how the film opposes empathy and fear as two ends of a spectrum. While the survival instinct is grounded in fear, humanity should strive to go beyond instinct, beyond survival, and openness to the world and empathetic perspectives yield greater rewards. Plus, a good dog, and a good robot.

 

While the world is abuzz with Falcon and the Winter Soldier, let us not forget Captain America's first spin-off series, Agent Carter, which actually makes a pretty fun companion to it. The stroke of genius here is the addition of the real-life Jarvis as Peggy's secret assistant, as having two unapologetic Brits in American surroundings turns them into a prim and proper comic double act we got to enjoy for two seasons. The year is 1947, so Peggy has to deal with a lot of sexism, but as even the villains turn out to be top-level females, there's a good feminist undercurrent. Hayley Atwell is of course worth her weight in gold. The second season leaves New York for sunny Los Angeles, greater stakes, and more humor, and going in, I was afraid early cancellation would mean it all kind of ended with annoying loose ends. Each season does have a final scene that asks a question, which the series never answered for lack of time. Otherwise, the characters have their arc, confront and overcome their hardships, and there's a sense of an ending. No major cliffhanger to make the experience irritating.


The first feature signed Paul Thomas Anderson, Hard Eight isn't actually the director's first collaboration with the great Philip Baker Hall - they did a short together - but it IS the first appearance of John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman in a PTA movie (and Melora Walters' as well, in a tiny role). Many of the things PTA will do later are embryonically here, in particular naive John C's relationship with an avowed screw-up (here played by Gwyneth Paltrow) and his interest in the procedural gives us a few tips on how casinos work and such. And of course, it looks and sounds beautiful. However, we are definitely in the post-Pulp Fiction era (enter Samuel Jackson) where a lot of talky crime films were being made. And still, this stands up on its own. It's a gambling/crime film, but it's not the Big Money - people struggle over a few thousand dollars. Hall is a good Samaritan to hangdogs Reilly and Paltrow, and we might wonder why, or how he can maintain his lifestyle. And whether things work out or don't in any given situation is basically a roll of the dice. The film has a moral center - Hall's character - but neither right nor wrong have any say on how things will go. Chance, not karma, rules.


Melville's first crime/heist film, Bob le Flambeur, is admittedly rough in spots (technically), but ultimately rewarding. Taking its time to set up the all-nighter world of Montmartre in Paris, of Bob "the Gambler", reformed after a stint in jail for bank robbery, and his friends and foes. After a bad night of gambling, Bob finds himself looking to score quick money and plans a heist. And it's a heist that has everything for it to fail! If the characters don't know it, the audience certainly does, and so there's a certain inevitability that sets in, which is a mirror of Bob's gambling addiction. We follow the ups and downs, the self-destructiveness, the recklessness in spite of believing one has "a system", and even a cavalier attitude in the face of defeat. The gambler's psychology applied to the heist picture. "Flambeur" is patois that evokes "burning" something, and let it all burn on the off chance it'll work out. Shades of Melville's future crime procedurals, but the focus is less on the mechanics of the crime (though still present) and more on the human element that will always get you in trouble.


1981's The Professional  (Le professionnel) has Jean-Paul Belmondo as a French secret agent sold out by his agency before he could assassinate an African despot, resulting in two years in a harsh African prison. This is all prologue to his return to France to exact vengeance - beautiful, poetic vengeance - on the people who abandoned him for political reasons. It's pretty great. Based on the dialog, Belmondo is maybe a little old for the part, but his eroded face is a monument to his hardships and works for the picture (so what I'm saying is, he should have been gone more than 2 years). Not only is he smart and audacious, staying a step ahead of his former cohorts as they try to stop him, but also very witty. I love his flippant humor. Ennio Morricone's score for this is surprisingly romantic, as if to put him in the right no matter what he's doing - the music certainly doesn't cover any of the other characters - good on its own, but I often questioned its style. And make no mistake, there's something of the exploitative in this, with garish violence, gratuitous nudity, and the n-word bandied about. I do wonder how they got permission to film that chase scene in and around Paris' tourist attractions though, woah.

 

Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion name-checks Kafka at the end, but it's really a reverse Kafka - not the absurd plight of the person on trial, but the absurd power of the person putting others on trial. Gian Maria Volonté plays an obnoxious police chief who, Columbo-style, kills his lover in the opening sequence and then spends the rest of the film vacillating between "you'll never catch me" and "please catch me already you fools". The idea of police (and other people with power) being above the law certain resonates with our age, and Volonté makes a speech at some point explaining what role the police plays in society, and it's one of the most instructive, insightful things I've heard about the state of affairs some of us are finding themselves in re: law enforcement. As an unnameable once said, a person with power could walk down Main Street and shoot someone in plain sight and not get arrested. I think they proved it since. This film was a big fat warning, more truth than satire at this point. Most interestingly, when we flash back to the relationship between killer and victim, she gets off on his capacity to abuse his power, a good representation of those who would turn a blind eye to these abuses in the name of the status quo. Ennio Morricone's score for this one sounds like it was played on a badly tuned instrument - it knows something is dreadfully wrong with the world.


Dario Argento's first feature, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, is a weird and wild thriller that could and should get a mention when tracking the history of the slasher genre. Black Christmas and Halloween are no doubt indebted to this earlier film, and I see its influences right through to Scream and beyond. The story is more than a little convoluted and requires a Silver Age comic explanation at the end (more or less), but it's not really about that with Argento. His interest is in disturbing image-making. Who then can forget the image of a man trapped in a glass box, forced to watch an attempted murder in an art gallery? Murder as art is certainly part of the shtick, and one wonders of Argento is simply mirroring his audience's position - trapped in a box, watching awful lurid things happen. Similarly, while it's absurd that the police would practically deputize a witness to help them solve the murder, the audience are also, in spite of itself, trying to solve the mystery. It's what we do as active viewers. His camera work is positively visceral, frequently giving us immediate points of view, unusual for 1970 and not all that common today either. The best example: A man jumps from a window, and we see it through is eyes as if it were us. So if there's something harrowing about The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, it's that immediacy - we're in the room with a killer.

 

A year from the widely banned 120 Days of Sodom, Pasolini injects a lot of nudity (mostly male, some might say, refreshingly) into his loose adaptation of the Arabian Nights. These aren't the best-known tales in the canon, though there's a sense of a remix of their elements - 40 thieves here, a lamp there, stories within stories but no actual Scheherazade - Pasolini having essentially picked and chosen from the most erotic (certainly, one of the most enduring images is the use of a trick arrow even Green Arrow wouldn't have dared use). Indeed, things don't become "magical" until late in the film, though there's a lot of magic in the film's lustiness and its amazing locations - places we haven't seen a million times like Ethiopia, Iran, Nepal and Yemen. The Russian doll structure ends up instructing the frame tale characters on love and desire; they all carry some element of danger associated with those feelings, the potential for loss and destruction. However, the off-canon African poem the girl tells the boy at the onset speaks to some matches made in heaven, and there's hope for the two of them in that.


I think revenge films may be one of my favorite genres - I don't think I've ever admitted that to myself before. So I have a lot of good will towards Death Rides a Horse, a spaghetti western about a young boy whose family is raped and killed by evil men, and he must take revenge after growing up to be John Phillip Law. Things get complicated when he finds out Lee Van Cleef is ALSO on their trail because they cheated him out of some loot. This is good because 1) it makes the revenge plot more interesting and 2) Van Cleef is awesome and nuanced, while Law is, well, a terrible actor. I can't stand his John Wayne drawl in this and he's as stiff as a board. One is raw talent, the other experience, and still the bad guys give them a good run for their money. The direction features some stylistic flourishes, and the sandstorm climax, especially, has a lot of fun gags. I've seen better dubs, of course, it's almost like they went out of their way to de-sync some of the dialog, but that sort of disappears into the background as Morricone's driving strums hit, and Van Cleef gives you a naughty wink.


Books: Still trucking around with Isaac Asimov's Foundation series... the second book, Foundation and Empire, includes two stories, The General and The Mule, taking us only to the 300-year mark of a 1000-year epic. And if this one has a theme, it's that of the effect of Great Men(TM) on history, which would seem to contradict the books' whole notion of history being influenced by social trends rather than specific people. If I had trouble with The General, it's that history is too powerful, and the protagonists don't really have to do anything to resolve the crisis. Well, that's par for the course in Foundation, but usually, they still figure it out and that's the climax. The General doesn't really work that way and is disappointing. The Mule is novella-length and repairs much of the damage by creating a threat that psychohistory could not have predicted, giving the protagonists some shot at agency. It's a big mystery with several moving parts, and at least some of them I guessed early on, but there were enough of them to sustain my interest and race to the finish - a big long explanation, which I admit is a little clunky, but the revelations pleasantly go right to the end.


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