This Week in Geek (16-22/01/22)


Still collecting Julian Barnes' essays, I got The Pedant in the Kitchen, which represents his writing on cooking (see below, I wasted no time).


At home: I know people love Encanto, but if I give it a positive review, it's largely on the technical merits. It looks great, with what I feel are advances in hair and fabric physics and beautiful effects, imaginative musical sequences, and life-like "acting", and you can't go wrong with Lin-Manuel Miranda writing the songs (though I don't think this is one of his most memorable soundtracks). But we're pushed into the deep end immediately with two back-to-back info dumps (one of them a frenetic musical number), trying to introduce every member of a family with super-powers (of magical gifts), and then the house is alive and magic too, and it was all a bit confusing. Even now, I couldn't explain what the rules of this world are. Seeing some six writers credited confirms my impression that there's too much going on. It's not just the premise, but the themes as well. Ultimately, it's about acceptance, and the family unit as the best structure for that acceptance (so there may be something to the idea that Mirabel and We-Don't-Talk-About Bruno are stand-ins for gay characters), but this is dueling for attention with other (accidental?) metaphors. The older generation sticking their heads in the sand as the magic starts to fade seems akin to our leaders' lack of response to climate change, for example, and I just can't get behind a film where the "exceptional" privileged family gets to rule a community portrayed as so inept it needs its beneficent rulers to do everything for them. How patronizing. And after the facile emotional ending(s), the lesson is that the outsiders and "little people" have to forgive misrule and protect the status quo? Either the messaging is out of control here, or Disney is training kids to accept their corporate masters. Either way, it's why Encanto falls apart for me. In theaters, this is paired with Far from the Tree, a very cute story about parenting - whether to spare the rod or not - starring raccoons and wonderful 2D animation (glad to see it's not a lost art). In the context of Encanto, it seems to be a one-two-punch about forgiving abusive parents, but whatever.

Nexus Studios' anthology film The House asks three female stop-motion writer-directors to us the same house in each of their shorts and the results are gloriously weird, though the marketing is wrong to imply it's the same house in different eras, as if a multi-generational story. In each case, renovations are a theme, a metaphor for upward mobility, trying to change your life, and though the third short is more hopeful, generally drawing dark conclusions about such an endeavor. All three are dark/weird fairy tales of some imagination. In the first story, a Victorian family makes a deal with the devil(?) to get a bigger house, but the kids seem immune to the spell cast on their parents. The second features a fun riff on pest problems, with an anthropomorphic rat trying to sell the house despite its fir beetle, then house guest problem. The third presents a flooded world where a very cute cat is desperate to hold on to her house, if only her tenants would pay the rent. Adult fantasy with intriguing animation and a core of black comedy... I'm into it! Half a star more for the end credits song.

Another tearjerker of a comedy from Ricky Gervais, Derek is in many ways a companion piece to After Life (I experienced them in reverse order). I'm never too sure what to think about Gervais playing someone ostensibly on the spectrum - maybe because I can spot him peering out at times - except that it's done so affectionately. And in any case, Derek is a catalyst for kindness, his own engendering that of people around him, and it's less about his story, in a way, than it is about the rest of the nursing home staff (and cringy hanger-on). Kerry Godliman (who will play Gervais' adorable dead wife in After Life) is particularly well served. I loved Karl Pilkington as the cynical response to Derek in Series 1 and wish he'd stayed on. Shot as a faux-documentary like The Office, structured around two series and a special, Derek is another beautiful evocation of what makes life worth living, and as with After Life, I had some great extended laughs, but spent much of my time cathartically sobbing.

So this is what a Charlie's Angels changing of the guard looks like... Poison Ivy is trash, not because it's a sex thriller, but because of its stunt casting. Both Drew Barrymore and Sara Gilbert seem to be in those to show they're not little girls anymore - with a side-order of comeback for Drew - but it's pretty timid, all things considered. Ivy is a cuckoo, inserting herself into a family's life and empathically becoming whatever each person needs - an understanding soul to the dying mother, a mid-life crisis receptacle to the dad, rebellion and catharsis for Gilbert - but she's not sinister or menacing, even in her darker moments. I think that evades Barrymore's acting skills here. Or perhaps it was never meant to be part of the recipe. There's a final reveal as to Ivy's intentions that's practically buried and should have been played up more, but it's like the movie's been edited by the right-wing dad so that Ivy more or less goes from one misdeed to the next with at best a Lolita complex. With a female writer and a female director, even if they did come from B-movies, this had a shot at a stronger female gaze. It's still perhaps better to look at it through that lens. No bonus points for the pretty impossible to spot blip of a role for Leonardo DiCaprio.

50 Years of Criterion/2001: Isabelle Huppert is fascinating in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (La pianiste), something more intimate than I'm used to with this director, and in the character, I think there's a lot of his cold precision. That said, it's Huppert's show. The title character is a strict, sadistic piano teacher ("Are you rushing or are you dragging?" has nothing on her), stretching the limits of her dark sexual impulses as ugly little acts of control as a reaction to her smothering mother at home. Then a pretty boy virtuoso walks into her life and threatens the delicate (but already tipping) balance she's created for herself. An S&M romance might ensue, unless he rejects her for her need to dominate and be dominated. Psychologically rich, La pianiste is of course also accompanied by some tremendous music, and kudos to the actors for putting the extra work in to make that come alive.
Paired Short: It's a hard knock life for a dog and its thematically-linked young woman in the council estates of Northern England. "Dog" is apparently good preparation for Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, which is on my list.

2002: Tilda Swinton plays a scientist and her three "clones" (or rather, synthetic people based on her DNA) in Teknolust, an indie science fiction film that has some charm, but the science is so flighty, it probably should fall in the same category as something like Weird Science and Short Circuit. It's not important HOW any of it is happening, what you're really watching is these artificial women self-actualize and become independent with varying results. Their "mother" is involved in a plot to keep them safe and secret, and grows along the way too. It's all kind of cute. But there's something more going on. The synthezoids need to steal sperm to survive and apparently carry a computer virus that affects their victims, which smacks of a feminist message I'm failing to grasp. So while I applaud the novelty, and am a fan of lo-fi sci-fi like this, some elements do feel a little random, or if not random, under-developed.
Paired Short: I'm into the democratization of animation Lynch's Dumbland promises, as it's all home-made - crude, but still somewhat amusing - however, it's a crudeness that's matched to the subject matter, the ugly adventures of an ugly piece of white trash, so it doesn't do much for me.

2003: I remember the press at the time. Meg Ryan was trying to revitalize her career and get out of the romcom pigeon hole by baring all in Jane Campion's sexy thriller In the Cut. I'm sorry it didn't work (Campion prefacing with Que Sera, Sera is almost an apology), not because it's not a good film - it in fact seems to be her last good film - but because I've always fancied her a good actress, often better than the material she was given. Perhaps critics focused on the wrong thing (the nudity), or audiences were put off by the outwardly cold leads, but as a feminine take on film noir tropes, it works quite well. The script is literate and creates correspondences between books and poetry and plot elements. I really like how Meg's self-isolation and stagnation are highlighted by furtive shots of women running somewhere, or families at different major steps in their lives. They are going somewhere, she isn't, and when she tries, it may lead to tragedy. She's not running in the right direction. And the film is incredibly sensual. I'm not talking about the sex scenes here, but rather how the direction makes us notice imagery, sound, and especially, tactile sensations. Everything in the film is idiosyncratic, there's no lazy trope writing. Well, except maybe the solution to the murder mystery, just about the least interesting thing in the movie. And if THAT'S your metric for evaluating this kind of thriller, yeah, you might find it blah. The journey is much more intriguing than the destination in this case.
Paired Short: In the 2000s, Agn├Ęs Varda is still delighting, with the likes of Le lion volatil (The Vanishing Lion), a romcom set in Varda's neighborhood, filled with magic, mystery and playfulness, tricking you into believing it's going to be another documentary essay, for example, and making good use of her production company's feline mascot in the proceedings.

2004: The premise is one that sounds familiar. The neon-noir Throw Down is about a judo champion burnt out on booze and gambling, and events seem to point to a comeback. Enter Johnnie To who never does what you expect with any kind of material. Where there should be exciting music (fights, chases, tragedy), he opts for lyricism. Where there should be a big championship, there's a strange private fight in tall grass. Judo taken down to its poetics. You get thrown down, you get back up. Simple. And while Aaron Kwok is more or less a catalyst, frequent To collaborator Louis Koo is on that journey, along with Cherrie Ying as an unreasonably-ambitious, insolent singer. She's quite funny. It's not a traditional fight movie, though there is plenty of judo, an infrequent style in martial arts films. This slightly absurd world where everybody is liable to throw anybody else can seem silly, but by the end, you'll be thinking about taking classes. Watch out for dislocated shoulders if you do. Seems like a bit of a jumble in the first act, but it delivers on smiles and heart in a peculiar way few other sports movies manage.
Paired Short: Bong Joon-ho's found footage short, Influenza, tracks the petty (and less petty) crimes of a man just with CCTV footage around Seoul, and this partial portrait really does take the romanticism out of the crime genre. It also begs some societal questions like, what's the point of enduring hypersurveillance if it's not going to keep us safe? And is it fair to judge a situation just on these furtive images?

2005: You won't find Yorgos Lanthimos' cool precision in his first solo directorial effort, Kinetta. It's all hand-held, scoreless, messy... and quite boring. We watch a trio of characters doing chores, eating, even sleeping, and crave the moments where they interact and where, we think, a point might be made. For the most part, these interactions are play-acted, coldly simulated shades of some abusive relationship, perhaps reenacting what they think life is like, to furnish their apathetic existence with SOMEthing. There's little dialog to enliven the piece, and when there is, it's like watching a play where they only read the stage directions. Perhaps Lanthimos was inspired by the absurdity of prepping a film, and how cold staging and struggling for plot might look to an outsider. If they are making a film (a camera is involved), we're denied that context. And the camera isn't always there to record what seems to cause the "toxic relationship" (the "director"'s affairs, conducted like cold auditions), or stem from it (an otherwise unmotivated suicide attempt). There's certainly the kernel of an experimental short in there - I think it would make its point (if I've divined it correctly) in a fraction of the time. Anyway... a love story, I guess.
Paired Short: Guy Madden and Isabella Rossellini collaborate on My Dad Is 100 Years Old, a surreal but delightful (and honest!) tribute to her father, and sort of a precursor to her Green Porno series, somehow, as well. I loved it.

2006: Other than it happening to a French couple in Romania, there's ultimately little to make Ils (Them) stand apart from dozens of house invasion horror films. Romania does afford an interesting location for the climax, strange underground tunnels that apparently triggered actress Olivia Bonamy's claustrophobia. And the conceit of having the invaders initially never speak, and manifested as weird noises and dancing flashlights was a good one, but ruined by the third act reveal that should have been a separate film. Having failed to find anything but the tangential link to the "true events" touted by the film's opening and closing cards, I have to assume it's all fabrication anyway, so it doesn't really have an excuse for its lack of a satisfactory resolution. A simulated frisson is okay (as Blair Witch proved), but it just seems silly to me here. That said, this is a film that, just by the sound design and minimalistic visuals, would have worked much better in a darkened theater. It's an experience that's hard to reproduce in my living room.
Paired Short: El Doctor features a very interesting mix of animation styles, and a drunken old doctor who finds his groove back though a series of macabre and surreal vignettes.

2007: In Please Vote for Me, an experiment in democracy is conducted on an elementary class in China, which the documentary introduces as a totalitarian world where the adults aren't any more familiar with the political system than the three kids who will appeal to their classmates for votes so they can become "class monitor". This break from state conditioning exposes human nature as some of the kids start pulling dirty tricks just like in our elections, the voters prove fickle and easy to manipulate (same), and I guess the teacher is the media, smiling along as her third-graders don't play fair. It's extremely easy to draw parallels with our own systems... at least these kids can say they're just 9 years old, right? And in a way, more honest. At least they cry when they feel shame, and overtly call part of their campaign a talent show. Some will judge a few of the parents harshly for the way they stage manage their child, but they're also coming at democracy from a blind angle. I don't know if there was an intent either way, but it feels more like a savage critique of democracy than any kind of encouragement. It certainly shows are limited understanding of the concept - and sorry folks, but I think our own society isn't that much more informed generally - is a fast track to corruption. Extremely engaging.
Paired Short: She boards a terror train filled with weirdos! Madame Tutli-Putli is a creepy-cool stop motion short that very effectively uses CGI to give its puppets human eyes... THAT STARE INTO YOUR SOUL!!!

Books: Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night is a witty exploration of the fascist collaborator that resonates very strongly today. Told by a propagandist for the Nazis during World War II, writing from his cell in Israel, awaiting trial for war crimes, it smoothly moves back and forth through time, setting up the conditions for us to forgive his crimes, despite the fact that he's using the same words to condemn himself. The moral, from the preface by Vonnegut (acting as the character's "editor"), is that we are what we pretend to be, so can his outrageous antisemitism be excused if he didn't mean it? In trademark breezy fashion, Vonnegut creates one of his most interesting characters, explores the spy/double-agent's psychology, and makes us ask ourselves what we might have done (or in fact, are doing - social media gives us all a propaganda platform if we want it - what are WE putting out into the world?) in his place. Mother Night is ironic to the core, dryly funny, and morally devastating.

A fun little book, The Pedant in the Kitchen is a compendium of essays about cooking from Julian Barnes, and cooking in a particular way. A kitchen "pedant" is someone who slavishly follows recipes, and while I can improvise up to a point (and wouldn't try anything too complicated anyway), I recognize my own frustrations in the author's. Cookbooks are a variable lot. Some think you're a master chef. Most don't take into account your shitty oven (cooking times, I find, are often completely off). Some have personality that make them a fun read, others are dry as the chicken I've probably cooked too long. Barnes is evidently a collector of cookbooks and loves to whip up incredible dishes, setting himself up for amusing failure, which is describes with enormous wit. I had a few fits of giggles reading Pedant. It's not just cookbooks either - ingredients, shopping, food history, hosting meals, are all on the menu. Each essay is also illustrated by Joe Berger in a style evocative of Magritte. In this choice, the book follows Barnes' advice at least - when it comes to food, illustrations are better than photographs.