This Week in Geek (4-10/04/21)

"Accomplishments"

 

At home: What if Mike Cahill (Another Earth, I Origins) made The Matrix? That's one way to describe Bliss, in which a despondent Owen Wilson, at the end of his rope, meets a homeless and off-the-grid Salma Hayek who tells him our horrible world is a simulation. But do we see the proof of this or is Wilson having a psychotic break? That's the wrong question to ask. Though I agree there are ambiguous moments, particularly at the tipping point, it's clear from early on that Hayek is telling the truth. I might even say it doesn't actually matter which world is real because that's not the point of the story. One world is horrible (and recognizably ours), but people aren't any more satisfied in the utopia that awaits. The problem isn't with the world but with ourselves. And so what is missing from Wilson's life - what his bliss actually is - is what's germane to the story, and though the simulated world we like to call the Darkest Timeline was made for a reason, it comes to serve a different purpose, and instructs us on the importance of human connection over the notion of a perfect life. I thought I'd miss Cahill collaborator Brit Marling, but Salma Hayek is very good in this, and though Cahill seems to have frustrated the expectations of critics and audiences alike with this one, I'm a sucker for his indie SF puzzlers. When you ask the right questions of Bliss, you get satisfying answers after all.


The Shadow was definitely made in the shadow of Batman '89 - the look, the opening titles, Jerry Goldsmith doing an Elfman pastiche - though it's Batman with a lot of more mysticism, which is what gives it its own flavor. Now that the mainstream knows more superheroes, it becomes an interesting "archaeological" film. The Shadow is 90 years old this month - the pulp character, that is - and the movie is a good demonstration of how many superheroes' DNA the Shadow is a part of (sure, Batman, but Dr. Strange, the Punisher, Superman - via Margo/Lois Lane, and for comics fans, the Creeper, come readily to mind). Great cast of supporting players, including Ian McKellan, Tim Curry and Peter Boyle, though Alex Baldwin is sometimes so arch that I felt like this could be what Jack Donaghy was doing in his youth. He's good as the Shadow though (he has the laugh down), and when Lamont Cranston goes all spooky-eyed. The Shadow is more ruthless than Batman '89, so the violence is a slight notch above without being egregious. In terms of film, it does feel derivative in spots, but it has its own story to tell I think it stands on its own. Better than you remember or imagine!


I won't act like I'm an expert on Will Eisner's The Spirit, but Frank Miller's movie version is really just a Sin City movie with terrible humor in it. Between its over-serious, macho voice-over and cartoon humor, it looks like a sketch parody that's been extended to 100 minutes. Just not one that's funny (give or take the interplay between Sam Jackson, Scarjo and the clones, which might have worked in a whole other movie). The actual Spirit's tone is better suited to the comics page (and short stories). Miller can't achieve whimsical humor because he's too sadistic, and his idea of a joke is someone dropping their pants. So you're left with a lot of style for style's sake, but the attempt to fit as many characters from the strip as possible just complicates things because they've been remixed so heavily and they're just sketched in anyway. In a way, the fact that Miller doesn't have a handle on the material shows up in how he includes references to people who have NOTHING to do with the Spirit, like Ditko or the guys who founded DC Comics. One small pleasure is seeing Stana Katic play a rookie cop who everyone thinks is gonna make detective quite quickly, a year before Castle starts production. But I don't think I can credit Miller for that one.

 

Based on Adventures in Babysitting, Elisabeth Shue should have been in a thousand successful movies. She is so winning as a babysitter doing "one last job" and having to take her charges into the big city to help a friend... and then everything goes wrong, they get involved in a dozen crimes and a musical number, as zany character upon zany character tries to prevent her from achieving their goal and getting home before the parents do - big Ferris Bueller vibes. The story is tight - if something's been established, even as a gag, it's gonna play a role eventually without you seeing it coming - and each of the kids also gets to shine, even baby Anthony Rapp as the necessary 15-year-old perv that was a stable of 80s comedies. Speaking of babies, Bradley Whitford is also in this as a teenager (let's see some ID, I'm not as convinced). The soundtrack is pretty great and doesn't feel dated either. This could have been a simple runaround, but the characters are imbued with a quirky strangeness that works in the film's favor, whether that's the little girl being obsessed with Marvel Comics' Thor, the one-handed trucker named Handsome Jack, or a touch as simple as putting Shue in light Doctor Who cosplay. A lot of fun.


Jacques Demy's Bay of Angels starts with an ominous shot - the camera speeding away from Jeanne Moreau, as if it knows to run from her. Not so the young man who is introduced to gambling and to her on the same outing. The film is both about gambling addiction and this whirlwind romance, and both are treated the same. The roulette wheel's mysteries brings highs and lows which create a push and pull between excitement and regret. So does the relationship. Complicity feels great, but Moreau's self-loathing only leads to toxicity. For her, the game's the thing. For him, she and gambling are ultimately linked - quitting one means quitting the other. If Demy is nevertheless operatic here, it's largely thanks to Legrand's great score, because otherwise, La Baie des Anges is a realistic, even dark affair. He manages to make the roulette wheel both dangerously glamorous, but also fill you with expected dread at its results. And that ending? Seems pretty clear-cut, but it isn't. I don't want to spoil it, but it's worth examining what we feel in that moment.


Jeanne Moreau was born with a sad face, and that's exactly why Antonioni put her in La Notte, a melancholy portrait of a marriage on its last legs, going out with a whimper rather than a bang. Moreau wanders through the streets of Milan, looking at images of age and decay, or of departures to unknown destinations (but that's too idealistic a word for what we see), with the death of a close friend as foreground to a day and night of reflection. One last(?) night with her husband, her last pangs of jealousy(?) as he's played by Marcello Mastroianni and gets a lot of female attention (naturally), and procrastination reaching that tipping point. Mastroianni is also good as the distantly curious husband, as is Monica Vitti as an equally melancholy younger version of Moreau. With Antonioni, it's all about inference, and we're called to interpret what we see, how images relate to the characters' interior world, and what actions and words might mean. He'll eventually reveal it, but even that's ambiguous. There's a woman at that last party who seems to make a prophecy, and is later contradicted, but what if she's right? And she might be. I just don't know which interpretation is saddest.

 

When I saw Bunuel's name at the top of Diary of a Chambermaid, I was afraid I'd have a hard time getting into it. Surrealists, you know. But this isn't one of his early surreal pieces, more like a take-down piece of French bourgeoisie and the fascist politics he'd tangled with in the past. Jeanne Moreau arrives in a sleepy village to take a job at an estate filled with, well, creeps mostly. Every man in the story is a different shade of creep, a rainbow that goes from pervert to monster and includes right-wing radical. The first part of the film has some humor as Moreau navigates the wicked waters of this world, then something happens to change everything (as is typical of films based on books that call themselves "diaries") and things get darker... and less explicable. I'm not sure Bunuel really complete the pass on some of his elements, and as things get more overtly political, we may get a little lost. I recognize modern fascism in the 1930s of the film, but these aren't my specific issues or grudges, they're Bunuel's. So while I've reconciled myself to that abrupt WTF ending, I still do not thing it's a satisfying one. (The novel's ending may be even more objectionable, with Celestine becoming as bad as her bosses, but that's a different issue.)


Jeanne Moreau's big break into films of substance came by way of Louis Malle, pushing out both Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers (Les amants) in 1958. The latter made film history by being a big hit in Europe and because of its sexual content, getting a theater charged with pornography charges in the States (of course). Cue the famous "I know it when I see it" line from the attending judge who dismissed the charges. Moreau plays a dissatisfied provincial wife who goes the Paris often to meet a would-be lover, though both men are boring bourgeois types - a workaholic and a polo player - who most definitely put their professions above her in their lists of priorities. The jealous husband forces a meeting with the usurper at which point the film teeters on the edge of screwball, and instead falls into one of the most romantic and sensual third acts in cinema. Screw those guys, what about the no-nonsense archaeologist who helps her out of some car trouble and ends up spending the night? Transgressive for its time, Les amants retains some of that power through its uninhibited sentiment, washing away bourgeois cynicism in favor of something scarier, but better.

3 comments:

Tony Laplume said...

You know, I really don’t get how so few fans seem to realize how familiar Miller is with Eisner’s work. Visually there’s no one who works in the comics medium who understands it better than Miller. So it’s odd to suggest he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Siskoid said...

As a director.

Tony Laplume said...

He did apprentice under Robert Rodriguez. The first Sin City is filled with similarly gonzo ideas, which of course come directly from Miller’s comics. I think Miller’s vision of The Spirit is most shocking because the comics themselves ( as you yourself admit) aren’t widely read. Though, again, Miller certainly read them. And even if the results of the film are a Miller version of Eisner, I still figure they deserve far more credit than they’ve gotten.

 

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