This Week in Geek (5-11/02/18)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Call Me By Your Name is a gorgeous-looking film, making the most of its Italian location cinematographically, and in line with the sensuality inherent in its subject matter. Set in 1983, the sexual relationship that develops between a 17-year-old (Timothée Chalamet) and a visiting grad student (Armie Hammer) is somewhat taboo, but the complex emotions wrought by the situation are sensitively and intelligently played and shot against the notion of Greco-Roman Antiquity (where such relationships were common). Symbolism in the film is subtle but appreciable, mostly concerned with the notion of forbidden fruit. The film does transcend its LGBTQ+ content, however, and I easily found myself connecting with many of the characters. Who hasn't experienced the complicated shades of love, whether unrequited, timidly hidden, or in the pressure cooker of a "stolen season"? Michael Stuhlbarg as Timothée's father nearly steals the show near the end, giving a surprisingly heartbreaking performance after mostly providing (excellent and natural) comic relief through most of the piece, but director Luca Guadagnino gives his young lead the final word, freezing you in your seat through the start of the closing credits.

At home: Loving Vincent uses animation techniques developed for Waking Life and A Scanner, Darkly to bring Vincent Van Gogh's paintings to life in the most gorgeous way, using his characters and environments in a coherent detective story. It looks beautiful, but is frankly a little dull (I'm surprised I haven't seen some uncharitable soul compare it to watching paint dry), consisting mostly of talking heads as the lead character interviews various people in Vincent's life to elucidate either why he committed suicide or who might have murdered him instead. Despite considerable talent both in the animation department and in the actors involved, the work feels at a remove from its audience, not at all immediate. I do appreciate the underlying metaphor though. It's really about refusing to accept a person's suicide and trying to make sense of something lacking all sense, i.e. clinical depression, suicidal thoughts, and self-nihilism.

If Godzilla was the granddaddy of all kaiju films, 1956's Rodan is a clear uncle as the first COLOR giant monster film (and also directed by Ishirô Honda). Where the King of Monsters was a metaphor for the atomic bomb, Rodan represents the dangers of climate change, as unseasonable melt awakens giant grubs to be eaten by the giant pterodactyl when its egg hatches. In the climax, Rodan acts as a veritable hurricane. And yes, this was all thought up more than 60 years ago. Problem is, is takes forever for him to show up, and even when he does, it's through fleeting glimpses. The real action comes very late in the game, and we have to sit through a lot of stuff with flooded mines, amnesiac scientists, and news reports while we wait. This is a trope of kaiju films, especially introductory ones, but Rodan tests my patience more than most, perhaps in part because it is such a somber film (as was the more resonant Gojira), not very much fun at all. Of course, the third act is a beauty in terms of photography and model work, so all is forgiven.

Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon tells the true but outrageous story of John "Sonny" Wojtowicz, an inept bank robber who managed to capture America's attention when a bungled robbery and subsequent hostage situation became a media circus in the early 70s. Al Pacino's Sonny isn't a villain - his reasons for committing a crime are desperate and noble - but he IS a fool. So it's definitely to Pacino's credit that he makes him endearing and sympathetic, while never quite letting him off the hook. He's a real pill, no matter his motivations. Pacino's roles so often seem like they are in control of their situations (until they aren't) that it's fun to see him subvert his screen persona. Lumet choreographs these true events with a lot of skill, and treats his subject as a tragi-comedy filled with no-nonsense New Yorkers who don't take crap from anyone, not even cops or robbers. It amuses but manages a certain seriousness too, and as a story, carries a lot of surprises and pathos.

D.O.A. (1949) is a noir thriller with such an interesting premise - a poisoned man tries to solve his own murder before he dies - that it's been remade (1988's version with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, for example) or completely reimagined (one might mention Crank here) several times since. But the premise is certainly better than the execution. Despite a great opener, D.O.A. had trouble grabbing me because of its early "she's gorgeous" whistle sound effect every time we see a beautiful woman, then keeping me with its complicated plot and uneven melodramatic acting. One saving grace is Neville Brand's thug, obsessed with shooting someone in the gut... Creepy AF and nightmarishly shot. Unfortunately, it comes a bit too late, and I might have given up on the film after the third scene in a row when the hero (Edmond O'Brien) barged into a woman's room to question her abusively. The repetition is clunky at best, silly at worst. I can see why D.O.A. is remembered today, but not necessarily why it should be WELL remembered.

Chris Marker's short, La Jetée, is famous for 1) being made up almost exclusively of black and white stills with narration, and 2) having formed the basis for Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys. I was surprised at how much Gilliam adapted from 28-minute story, even the look of its postapocalyptic world, but just as surprised at what he didn't, and that therefore seemed new and interesting to this old Twelve Monkeys fan. As a piece of non-formulaic SF, it certainly works, and the slides have some nice creepy effects. But it's the marriage of unusual form and unusual story that really makes La Jetée a worthy classic. Its treatment of memories as stills, forcing the audience to fill in the blanks or jump in time, Proust-like, from moment to moment, isn't unlike how memory actually works, and the film works as a philosophical meditation on the concepts of time, memory and finite-ness (by which I mean mortality, but the word doesn't evoke enough of what La Jetée gets at). Deceptively simple, there's a lot more to unpack in its poetics than you initially realize.

Michael Caine and Shirley MacLane in a caper movie together? Yes, please! Barring any insensitive 60s casting (a lot of white actors playing Middle-Easterners and I don't know what to make of MacLane's implied ethnicity), Gambit is a forgotten gem of the genre. It has fun with its structure, showing you the planned heist pulled off without a hitch before resetting everything so you can see the reality of it. Caine's plan can only really work if 1) MacLane's character is a docile robot, 2) the wealthy target is easy to manipulate, and 3) Caine is as smart as he thinks he is. None of those things are true, and what then unfolds is a fun and bantery comedy where nothing turns out exactly as planned, least of all MacLane's role in Caine's shenanigans. It's a bit glib on the romance angle, but if you don't take things at face value, it tracks by the final shot. And is it me? Looks like Star Trek's first season essentially cast right out of this movie.

King Kong's little cousin Mighty Joe Young (1949) is Ray Harryhausen's first film credit and it's an auspicious start to a legendary career. The effects are just incredible, with some great interactive moments between the live action and smoother-than-expected stop-motion elements. In fact, though the story is good, it seems specially crafted to create opportunities for grand spectacle - a safari club riot, an orphanage inferno, etc. One caveat however, while this is a story about the mistreatment of one particular animal - Joe is made to star in entertainments against his will - it's hard to believe some of the animals used in the action of THIS particular entertainment were treated humanely. Those look like dangerous stunts and the creatures aren't in control. It doesn't take away from the film's achievements (or even my general achievement), but some sequences definitely had me frowning on that count.

Doctor Who Titles: Blink stars Madeline Stowe as a hard-edged, blind violinist (and there's some pretty good music by the Drovers in the film as a result) who gets cornea transplants, but the surgery leaves her with blurry vision, and delayed images, which makes things difficult for the police when she becomes the eye witness to a murder. The premise is somewhat ludicrous, but it makes for a fair thriller, though not one that manages to avoid the damsel in distress clichés. It tries for Noir, and sometimes succeeds, but when it fails, it's usually because of Aidan Quinn's bad screen presence as the cop. Unless the casting was done on purpose to surround Stowe with creepy men who could act as red herrings. All the men in her life do seem incapable of understanding what's ethically appropriate. Stowe is good in the film, but alas, the plot and her leading man fail her in this one.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 7th Doctor, Ace and Bernice Summerfield help Emma track down the killer instead; turns out she was seeing temporal afterimages all along.

Oscar Pool Stash Forced Watch: I tend to like it when literature crashes into the real world, and it certainly does in Don Juan DeMarco. Though Johnny Depp nominally plays a man who THINKS he's Don Juan, some of his filmed recollections are right out of Byron, and the florid language with which he speaks of love is the real highlight of the film. His romanticism is infectious, and his psychiatrist, played by a mumbling Marlon Brando (awkward casting, at times), starts to rekindle the passion in his marriage (with Faye Dunaway). Unfortunately, the film doesn't really know where to go after its intriguing set-up. I find the climax depressingly mundane, and the more fantastical coda doesn't feel satisfying. A good try, but the pass is incomplete. The DVD includes a Bryan Adams video and an isolated music track.
#OscarPoolResult: As this is a subgenre I enjoy, I'll keep it, warts and all.

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