This Week in Geek (31/10-6/11/21)


In theaters: Edgar Wright programmed some recommendations on the Criterion Channel's "Adventures in Moviegoing" series recently, and they are obviously a list of inspirations for Last Night in Soho, none more so than the trashy youthquake flick Beat Girl which is almost its 60s sequences' decoder key. I recommend the double bill. Though it is less rousing than past efforts for not being a comedy, Soho will still benefit from repeat viewings just like the rest of Wright's filmography. Also possibly, subtitles, as there are an awful lot of mumblers with accents that kept me from fully engaging in the first act. Is Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) dreaming of the 1960s, psychically time traveling, or being haunted? The eventual answers may change how you interpret dialog and imagery on a second go, though the movie is a good example of how twists and reveals can be polarizing. Depending on the audience member, could go either way, but I think once you go with it, the consequent resolutions are excellent. Ellie's interactions with Sandy (Anna Taylor-Joy who could have been a 60s icon, not unlike a couple of the older actors here, well cast) are my favorite part of the film, a great use of dream logic and technically beautiful. I suspect whatever mild disappointments one has with this one will evaporate over time... the opposite of the film's thesis on looking back at the past and finding it wanting (the past is just the present with a nostalgic filter on).

At home: Hard to believe The Harder They Fall is music producer Jeymes Samuel's first full-length feature because wow, what a great western. I see a lot of people comparing it to Tarantino's style, and yeah, it has something of both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained to it, but that's mostly because it uses the same inspiration - blaxploitation films of the 70s. Where Samuel does better than Q-T is that not once is the n-word allowed to be spoken (Trudy wouldn't have it). The villains in this (Idris Elba, Regina King, Lakeith Stanfield) are so damn cool, you're not sure you shouldn't be siding with them against the nevertheless sympathetic heroes (Jonathan "Kang" Majors, Zazie "Domino" Beetz, Delroy Lindo, and Danielle Deadwyler as "Cuffy", a name with a nice Pam Greer inspiration). But it's the setting that's the coolest thing. You never see black towns in the Old West, but they existed, and I love the contrast between a colorful and sadly short-lived new world and the hilarious "white town" that suddenly makes an appearance. Because this isn't just about a black cast, it's about a black world, white people very much on the periphery. And in the final confrontation of this revenge story, we get something that's got a bit of a metaphorical kick to it as a result. And no surprise, but the soundtrack is uncommonly great.

That Mario Bava was making a gory slasher in 1964 is eye-opening. That Blood and Black Lace dares use Technicolor instead of black and white is bold. This lurid tale of models being bumped off one by one by a faceless killer, destroying their beauty, but then posing them beautifully, is shot with Bava's usual stark colors and is a feast for the eyes. The approach is a little like discovering a new dimension. Horror tropes like the old sign swinging in stormy winds are old standards from black and white, but Bava is like, what if there were another dimension besides light and shadow? As an aesthetic piece, it's potent. Its weaknesses lie in the dialog and acting. I may be reacting to the dubbed voices (Italians do love their international casts and figure out the voices later), but my eyes tended to gloss over when the cops were talking. Not that it's a bad murder mystery (Columbo would have gotten to the bottom of it faster though, seems tailor made).

In 1960, we got Psycho, but also the less well-known Peeping Tom from a late-career Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus), another proto-slasher with similar impulses lurking behind the meek killer's actions. Like Norman Bates, Mark Lewis likes to watch and is haunted by a cruel, dead parent. But Mark's morbid fascination (on which point I will remains a bit vague since the uncovering of his pathology is what drives the intrigues) is also that of that audience. We are exposed as complicit in the popcorn-munching interest in seeing women die on screen (die and/or disrobe), absolved by the knowledge that these are fictional lives. And yet, we did see them suffer and die. Academics call it catharsis. If we are Mark as voyeur, Powell himself is Mark as film-maker, producing these images for us as much as for him. For him? All the stuff with Mark on set, with the terrible director and just-as-terrible actress seems like the act of someone who's become bitter, if not cynical, about the system in which he must work, with just a dash of self-loathing. It all amounts to a an intriguing and meaningful little thriller with a lot of surprises in store for us along the way.

I kind of resent my film history teacher, back in the day, showing us one of Bunuel's truly surreal films (The Golden Age) as an example of his work, because it put me off most of his output, which isn't that opaque. Belle de jour IS surreal, but much more subtle an experiment than Un chien andalou, etc. Waking dreams and memories keep breaking in until you're questioning the reality of even the main narrative. I came out of it confident that the absence of cats in the main thrust - Catherine Deneuve is a frigid wife who spends her afternoons playing the prostitute for reasons she can't quite figure out, psychoanalysis as unfolding text - meant that it did happen. But lingering questions undermined that feeling. What was in the Asian man's box, and for that matter, what language was he speaking? Isn't the plot about the thug who loves her something she might have seen in a movie, and resolved conveniently? Did she, in fact, ever return to Mme Anaïs' place after that first day? More overtly, what's the deal with the cats, and are the quick flashbacks meant to explain her frigidity or just show it was there from early on? The truth is that dream and reality intermix easily in Bunuel's work and whatever you're looking at is the reality, even if that reality is based on the subconscious - magical realism, but replace magic with psychology. Actual magic is practiced by Bunuel's images which ask those questions, but more importantly, trigger very personal Rorschach-like answers (you don't want to know what I think is in the box).

As with La Ronde, Max Ophüls explores what we call in French, le parcours de l'objet (i.e. the course an object takes) in The Earrings of Madame de..., as the pesky title jewels keep getting lost and returned to a countess played by Danielle Darrieux. As usual, Ophüls impresses with impossible tracking shots and inventive staging - his camera work is more modern than a lot of contemporary movies - and uses irony and reversal first to create comic moments (is this his funniest film?), then fuel tragedy. I do somewhat resent the ironic ending and would have been interested in seeing the original novella's actual finale, but perhaps he felt it too sentimental. Be that as it may, I feel like it undercuts the best thing about the story, which is the complex relationship between the countess and her husband, in a marriage of convenience, yes, but not a toxic one... until her own romanticizing makes it so. The most painful irony is that he would have given her everything she wanted so long as appearances were kept up, but she couldn't trust that narrative, even during the Belle Époque.

50 Years of Horror/2003: Kim Jee-woon's A Tale of Two Sisters looks absolutely gorgeous - that almost goes without saying - and though it has a distracting twist (in that I'm not sure it entirely works), I think it survives it. It's a ghost story, and in this house where two sisters have a fraught relationship with their distant father and wicked stepmother, everyone's essentially a ghost. Characters co-exist without seeing/understanding each other. So it would almost work as a pure psychological drama, but there's something more going on under the surface (and other THAT surface), and the ultimate revelations decode the imagery in a most interesting way. There's something rather relatable to siblings in an emotionally hostile environment sticking together, but also needing to reinterpret their childhoods later, at least to my particular experience (which I understand isn't common, but hey, if director Kim is going to be making films just for me...).
Also from that year: Freddy vs. Jason, One Missed Call

2004: What to say about Saw, except that I finally Saw it? The movie that launched a thousand torture porn flicks can't be ignored, and as with James Wan's other works, it has a strong premise. Saw could have been a great claustrophobic horror thriller if it hadn't strayed from the two men set against each other in a cell, an unknown entity psychologically torturing them until the final ironies are unleashed. But Wan has a thing for the investigator archetype, so we need some cops in sequences that confused the timeline a bit and created a murder mystery element that overly relies on crazy twists. At the same time, the two guys in a cell, while better able to sustain a movie-length narrative, is the least memorable of the Jigsaw Killer's crimes, the more iconic tortures relegated to the flashbacks. An intense proposition, but ultimately let down by a deflating structure and what I find is a rather silly twist.
Also from that year: Shaun of the Dead, The Grudge

2005: What if Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu had been made into a movie in the 1920s when the story is supposed to have taken place? That's what the makers of the 2005 adaptation have tried to do, and it marvelously manages to emulate the make-up, acting, set design (in the German Expressionism vein) and effects of the silent film era. If not for the website address at the end, you could be fooled into thinking this is a previously lost film. And the approach makes sense since it's a story OF found documents, tales within tales, spreading a mad contagion. As a narrative, that's also the story's weakness, so much of it is second hand, but I think once we catch sight of the monster, we're glad to have been on the ride (I also quite like how they created the boiling ocean). It's a fun and well-executed experiment that might well expose why there aren't a ton of Lovecraft's stories made into films.
Also from that year: The Descent, Hostel

2006: A progressively more claustrophobic descent into madness, I never considered that Bug started life as a stage play because of the strange horror elements. Theater can and has done genre, it's just not a ready association. Ashley Judd plays a woman in a difficult situation - living in a motel "suite", her ex-husband is just out of jail, a dark secret on her conscience, and a bit of a substance abuse problem - though things seem to turn around thanks to a chance meeting with Michael Shannon's character, an enigmatic young veteran who sees the world from an unusual angle and sparks fly. Then they start seeing/imagining "bugs" in the room and paranoia sets in. A paranoia that frighteningly seems less unbelievably extreme today than it probably did in 2006. Judd has a great speech at one point that exemplifies the sort of conspiracy thinking that's derailing society even as I write these words. And if it's all psychological horror rather than anything outwardly sinister, does it explain everything? The audience is left wondering...
Also from that year: The Host, Slither

2007: I like snowbound movies, so I really like the setting in 30 Days of Night. Why DON'T vampires spend all their time near the poles? Seems perfect. And I like this vampire pack too, more animalistic than what we're used to, borrowing on zombie and werewolf tropes to make their siege of an isolated Alaskan settlement scarier. And I like Melissa George's character, even if she's trapped in a cliched relationship with Josh Hartnett's. So this is better than I was told it was (I can't compare it to the comic myself), but I also recognize its weaknesses, which are mostly down to pacing. It's too long, with too many incidents as compared to character building scenes, and at the same time, it's hard to believe it takes place over 30 days. The vampires are so efficient, it feels like a couple days tops, so when everyone started talking about the dawn, I was, like, "huh?!". Needed a bit more of a ticking clock device.
Also from that year: The Mist, Trick'r Treat, Death Proof, Planet Terror, Teeth

2008: With Tokyo Gore Police, I was expecting a crazy blood-soaked B-movie with bad CG in the style of Robo-Geisha. What I got was a crazy blood-soaked (that seems like understating it) B-movie with demented PRACTICAL effects, and that makes a big difference. In a cyberpunk future apparently inspired by the Jet Set Radio Future video game (if designed by Cronenberg), body modification is big and terrorists who can turn wounds into weapons run amok. Eihi Shiina (Audition) is our heroine, giving off disinterested Lucy Liu vibes, which I don't mean as a compliment, in a disjointed story of pornographic violence and violent pornography (not as lascivious as I make it sound, rather this is a movie with a dick cannon in it). Here's the thing. Because it's a spoof of sex and violence in movies, you can never take it very seriously, but the seriousness of the protagonist kind of wants us to. The action choreography relies too heavily on slow-mo and other tricks to cover up its weaknesses as well. But I can't fault its imagination and sense of limitlessness, so I'm giving it a recommendation anyway. Might definitely have worked better as a series of 10-minute shorts on MTV or something.
Actual best from that year: Let the Right One In, Pontypool