This Week in Geek (26/11-02/12/23)


At home: Sometimes, you want to recommend something for everything, but it's ending. Except, that's what leaves a lasting taste in your mouth. Speak No Evil is such a film. At the onset, a Danish and a Dutch couple meet while on vacation and the latter invite their new friends to spend a weekend with them that winter. The Danish family is as repressed as the Dutch one is wild and free (even chaotic). So when these virtual strangers share close quarters, frictions arise that in some cases are just culture clash. But the Danish husband is obviously looking for something in this budding bromance, yearning to deliver himself of whatever existential pain he carries. Not being at home, with hosts you don't feel secure with, is an anxiety the audience can well tap into, especially since each family has a child running around, being exposed to another parenting style. We know this will turn to horror (or at least thriller) because the ominous music tells us so. The actual turn is shocking and grim, but unfortunately, I don't think it's what we were really leading up to, and the villains' motivations are extremely underwritten. If liberation was the theme, then that needed to be addressed in the ending. Instead, a cursory statement and some horror moments. The first two acts are much well acted and balanced between what's normal and what's sinister that it's a shame it had to exhaust itself like that.

In 1966, François Truffaut published a series of in-depth conversations between himself and Alfred Hitchcock, known in the English-speaking world as Hitchcock/Truffaut. The documentary of the same name takes its cue from the book - with several name directors chiming in about its importance to them, and Hitchcock's oeuvre overall - to discuss the Master of Suspense's work. The conversations were taped and are a big part of the film's audio landscape (I haven't read the book, but I imagine those fun outtakes aren't in it). H/T does what all good documentaries about film should do - it makes you want to watch or rewatch more of its subject's films. Hitchcock's of course, but Truffaut's too. In 1966, the book rescued Hitchcock's work from its genre labels and set him up to be the genius innovator he's known as today. The film can't do that, because it's a done deal, but it still reminds you of the best bits and highlights others you might have forgotten.

When people talk about the young upcoming directors of the early 70s who all hung out together - Scorsese, Lucas, Spieberg, Coppola - they usually forget Brian De Palma was part of the ensemble. He just never had the sustained success, financially or critically, that his friends did. And yet, he's given us Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, and if you're more of a fan, Blow Out, Body Double and Dressed to Kill. In De Palma, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow sit down with the undervalued director for a long interview about his career, with a particular focus on where his ideas come from, and he's a lively fellow (Holy Mackerel!) who easily admits to his mistakes, but is also at a place in his life where he doesn't give a shit, so you want to know what went wrong in Mission: Impossible? You'll get it! The overall portrait is that of an auteur trying to work within the Hollywood system and getting frustrated. Many of his films are upsetting and one might say his imagination isn't commercial, but he is, for my money, Hitchcock's best successor. If the sexual content of his flicks makes you squirm, it's supposed to. I don't think the shower scene in Psycho was any more "acceptable" at the time (or Vertigo's perversity!).

I was surprised at how much of the imagery that comes to mind when I think of gangland Chicago came from The Untouchables, when I probably first and last saw it near its release, but I think it's even infected my memories of the Odessa steps scene in Battleship Potemkin. Though completely ahistorical, De Palma's gangster pulp is filled with memorable action scenes and cracking dialog supplied by David Mamet who obviously wanted this to be more of a morality play. It still is - as Elliot Ness' purehearted boyscout eventually gets pushed into doing things the "Chicago way" - but it's more exciting than what on the page. This is Kevin Costner before he was a big star, and he's a little raw at times, but it's also before he started grating on my nerves. You need him, but really, all the other members of the team are cooler from the young Andy Garcia to the streetwise veteran Sean Connery, but I think especially the Charles Martin Smith as the bloodthirsty accountant who has the key to putting Capone behind bars. On the villains' side, you have De Niro of course, but his assassin played by the lizard-in-human-skin Billy Drago is creepy as hell. I will say that some of the pulp elements can be a little silly (the courtroom scene, for example), but generally, this is a slick-looking, suspenseful crime picture with a strong ethical thruline. And heck, Morricone on score?!

If 99% of the people you know are criminals, it's going to be real hard not to get dragged back into the stink when you decide your second lease on life should be spent on clean business and reengaging with the love of your life. Carlito's Way is a tragedy from minute one, because we know where we'll end up, but De Palma is one of the masters of suspense, so it works not so much by making you wonder what, but rather HOW (though if you've been paying attention, you'll probably see the angle Carlito fails to). Though it feels dated to have Pacino play a Latino character (again, and there are several mentions that he looks Italian), he's nonetheless very strong in this. Sean Penn is a real scuzzball. John Leguizamo... Luis Guzmán... Viggo Mortensen?! Great cast. Nice period soundtrack. Some great set pieces, as is usual for the director, in particular the final reel (if you're in a De Palma film, don't take the train, it ain't worth it). And it's all well supported by the novel's prose narration, really nice writing and dripped in just right an amount - I'm not a big fan of narration, but here, it really adds to the whole. You root for Carlito to finally get out and, man, it's crushing that he almost makes it.

Based on the Hell's Angels manga, the Hells anime could and should have been much shorter as you do feel the serialized nature of the original material, including repeated information that made me wonder if the film started life as a series (it didn't). Rinne is a schoolgirl who finds herself in Hell without having died and has to go to high school with demons some of which show their inspiration (there's a witch-like Kiki, a Phantoma out of De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise, Steela could be an Astro-Boy type, and Rinne herself is rather like one of the Sailor Scouts, with a Luna-like cat companion). It's a weird situation that gets weirder and weirder, converging on the First Murder (Cain has been reincarnated into Helvis, a demon Presley headmaster, just to give you one example), and because it's so weird, Rinne is often asking what the hell is happening. It's just that she's just been told in the previous scene. Still, she wins the day with school spirit, friendship and love, the film's visuals are completely insane, and it's so wild (not to say frenetic) as to be unpredictable, which counts for a lot.

Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours is one of those quick-patter comedies and just a delight from top to bottom. Rex Harrison plays a famous symphony director with a loving, young wife, but also an over-zealous brother-in-law who has her followed by detectives while he's on tour. Rex is outraged at first, but that niggling thought sprouts an ugly vine that chokes his heart, and pretty soon, he's imagining the worst. What's fantastic is that they let the symphony play. A LOT. There's a number that's just played for a bit of comedy, and then three more that become background to delicious fantasies in which Rex imagines how he might confront his wife and her presumed lover. And I think we still like Rex after he imagines a bloody murder. I do think the slapstick sequence near the end goes on a bit too long, but I want to forgive it because it works as a percussion piece (and it IS telegraphed by small clumsy moments earlier, things you discount as small onset mistakes). Lots of fun characters help support the film's lightness too, including a music-loving Private Eye, and the ending solves the mystery rather well. Too often, romantic comedies give their leads jobs that don't really mean anything to the plot. Unfaithfully Yours is entirely built around Rex's. It's great.

Jūzō Itami usually presents us with a satirical tale set in a very specific milieu - restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, the tax office, a family funeral - and with Tales of the Golden Geisha, it's the less universal and therefore approachable world of the modern geisha. Nobuko Miyamoto is just such a geisha who, released from service early by the death of her patron, becomes a sought-after "lucky charm" for various men, but they're all corrupt bankers and politicians (the patron was a member of the clergy, so no less hypocritical). These men, and the sexism inherent in geisha culture, are mocked and exposed, but it's really rather strange that, once we've been introduced to that culture, the film turns to romcom tropes. All the stranger because we really don't want the meetcute-d couple to get together no matter how often Fate puts them in each other's way. Miyamoto's geisha is a pleasant, even innocent, lady, so why should we want her to be with Masahiko Tsugawa's womanizing banker. She's treated horribly, but (geisha-like?) keeps a pleasant demeanor. It's off-putting, but it makes a point. Perhaps too subtle a point, which puts this at the bottom of Itami's films for me. But with Itami, even his bottom is higher than most directors' tops.

Apparently inspired by Itami's own hospital stay after a yakuza stabbing (retaliation for their portrayal in Minbo), The Last Dance is savage satire of medical practices in Asia - in particular, physicians not telling the patient all the facts, I suppose from a belief that hearing a word like cancer can make you depressed and less likely to beat it - but by making the terminal patient a movie director who was making a movie about cancer and who is married to Nobuko Miyamoto, Itami's real life spouse, there's something's of an uncomfortable autobiographical element to it. Like Golden Geisha, the male lead is a letcherous adulterer, but was that Itami himself? In any case, the medical send-up works, with doctors smoking like chimneys in cancer wards, but what makes the film so interesting is how it progressively becomes like the director's movie. The cinematography, the music, the colors, the plot and dialog, even the way characters are used becomes more and more filmic as we approach the day of doom, heralded from the beginning in bold numbers. The turning point isn't quite the weird and wooly near-death experience (worth the viewing for this alone), even if one might want to say he never came out of it to explain the osmosis between real world and fantasy.

Books: Sayaka Murata's Convenience Store Woman - a title that sounds like an unmade Jūzō Itami film - is a short but rewarding novel told in the first person, although the subtleties of "personhood" seems to escape its heroine. On the one hand, it's an interesting insight into neuro-atypicality. On the other, her identity as a store worker has something to say about identifying with your job, whatever it may be. And if you'll allow me a mutant third hand, it's also a satire of Japanese society as Keiko is always being pushed to either get a better job or get married (so the Itami comparison stands up). The book goes into great detail about how to best run a convenience store, but as she takes many things at face value, Keiko eventually disrupts her world based on others' advice, takes in a male boarder (to call this a romance would be the most perverse of statements), seeks to broaden her horizons. Japanese society or not, social expectations are universal, and taking an unusual path - or finding contentment in one - is frowned upon wherever you may be. This is relatable to me personally, even with my typical neurology. And effective novella that works on so many levels, it will feel like a longer work.