Poor Things

Yorgos Lanthimos. I like the way that sounds: YorGOS LANthiMOS!

Sorry, I can’t see a movie from this bizarre Greek filmmaker without going on about his name. It may be, in fact, that I don’t like his movies per se but I enjoy any excuse to say his name. Yorgos. Lanthimos.

Seriously, though, the deal with YL is this: He’s weird. He makes odd movies that, shall we say, challenge sentimentality.

Mark Ruffalo is less credible as a lothario than as a heartbroken schlub.

Personally, I like sentimentality, so if you’re going to dismantle it, you’d better do a good job. And so it was with the very challenging The Lobster and the somewhat more accessible (Academy Award winning) The Favourite. And while I liked The Lobster (a lot!) it was definitely in the realm of Movies-I-Would-Not-Generally-Recommend. (The Favourite, arguably, hides some of its prickliness and may be more watchable.)

Poor Things is also going to be challenging, no doubt. It is a brilliant concept (enough to where I want to read the ’90s book it was based on). Take the Victorian-era tropes of the young virgin, lured to her ruin by a seductive Lothario, struggling to survive by working in a brothel, only to come back home sadder-but-wiser.

OK, now, for the young virgin, substitute Frankenstein’s monster, and you have Poor Things.

The Monster. (This pose, and several others in the early part of the film evoke Elsa Lanchester in “Bride of Frankenstein”.)

The monster in this case is Emma Stone, and if you wish to see said actress naked, simulating sexual responses, this is undoubtedly the film for you.

But, as always, for Mr. Lanthimos, this is not the point. The story goes like this: A mad scientist (a wonderfully Frakensteined-up Willem Dafoe) brings his young student (Ramy Youssef) to babysit his monster (Emma Stone). Quickly, though, we realize she’s not a monster but a baby in a woman’s body.

The movie is increasingly blunt about it’s non-literal nature. The scenery is largely CGI mattes, there are dirigibles everywhere, strange architecture—I kind of feel like Lanthimos, far from a shock-the-squares kinda guy, is someone who just wants to tell weird stories without people getting crazy about the horror they would depict were they real.

Willem Dafoe had to spend nine hours in the makeup chair to look slightly scarier than usual.

It’s odd to say that a movie that has such intense graphic violence and sex has a “light touch” but there’s a purity of intent here: It’s not trying to gross you out or turn you on, it’s trying to get you to consider why you have certain reactions.

This mostly comes out as funny, if blackly so. The lothario (Mark Ruffalo) ends up the basket case as the monster uses him for sexual pleasure without any sentimental attachment. And then, as she learns of the suffering of others, she ruins him even further to give his money to the suffering and the destitute. She has no moral compunctions about sexuality but far from leading her to endless ecstasy, she ends up frustrated and ultimately numb.

But she never grasps the concept of victimhood either, and she becomes increasingly in control of her circumstances, even as she deals with unscrupulous, exploitative people.

There’s a third act twist which is both dark and funny, as the monster discovers her roots. And the mad scientist, who is constantly talking dispassionately about the tortures his own father inflicted on him (why? for science!) ultimately, much like his monster, discovers the value in genuine human sentiment.

Congrats on the Golden Globe, Emma.

For all the sex, violence and depravity, it’s a pretty upbeat story, actually. But you have to get through all the sex, violence and depravity, which could be either a plus or a minus depending on your own tendencies.

Acting is top notch. The music is brilliant. The CGI is fake-as-hell but deliberately so, that sort of not-trying-to-fool-you-just-trying-to-entertain look. The costumes are fabulous, capturing a Victorian feel mixed with the absurdity of Stone running around in what would’ve been called her underwear back then.

Though the ‘gique’s niece argues that it’s much more accessible than The Lobster. Still, the ‘gique counters, it’s not going to win over her grandmother (my mother) who hates The Lobster and considers it the worst movie ever made.

Overall, it’s of a piece with the rest of the director’s work. It’s much more highly rated (8.5 on IMDB) than his next higher work, The Favourite (7.5), but ultimately it cannot escape its own Yorgosity. Lanthimosity? That is, if you don’t like this guy’s style, this probably isn’t going to win you over.

I would be surprised if it breaks the top five. If the Golden Globes are worth anything (and they shouldn’t be) it might break the $30M (domestic) box office, but I’m guessing it peters out in the mid-20s. It’s gotten nowhere near the top five, and I don’t expect it to.

In the past three weeks, we’ve seen Monster, The Boy and the Heron, upheld the Christmas tradition of seeing Korean movies on the 24th, 12/12 and The Deadly Sea, and in the new year the 3D documentary from Wim Wenders, Anselm, and The Iron Claw. They’re all really good in their respective genres.

12/12 is a political thriller about how fascists took over South Korea in the ’80s (see 1987: When The Day Comes for the end of that story). These sorts of movies are typically super-hard to follow for us, but this one was so well done we were on the edge of our seats the whole time.

The Iron Claw is a moving drama based on a real-life wrestling family which is really terrific but also a tearjerker. Even so, it’s my recommendation of the week for “normie American fare”. It manages to portray values and people foreign to Hollywood in a respectful way. Check it out.

Holidays at the Extremes, Part Deux

Last time, I noted a bunch of movies I had gone to in the recent weeks, and ran out of room: At casa ‘gique, we’re back to pre-lunacy moviegoing levels, for as long as movie theaters manage to stay open.

“Everybody act natural.”

The Holdovers. If I say “Paul Giamatti portrays a curmudgeon in his latest role”, the reader could be forgiven for not knowing what year it is precisely. (Is Win-Win the only laid-back Giamatti role?) But in fairness, his curmudgeons are different one to the next: The misanthropy of Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) is not at all the irascibility of Miles Raymond (Sideways) or the all-out comic villainy of Hertz (Shoot ’em Up). So it is with Paul Hunham, the quiet defender of academic integrity at the religious prep academy Barton.

The year is 1970, and Hunham has been assigned the duty of babysitting the “holdovers”, kids whose parents didn’t pick them up for Christmas break. (Hunham was going to stay anyway, but only to read mysteries.) His assignment is punishment for failing a Senator’s son.) One of the students is Angus, a particularly snotty senior who is, nonetheless, the only kid in Hunham’s class who actually gets good grades. One of the fabulously rich parents shows up to take them all on a helicopter to a snow resort—all except Angus, because they can’t get ahold of Angus’ parents.

It’s an entertaining slice-of-life, as we learn the truth about Hunham and Angus, and also get a little inside to the life of the black cook, whose son went to Barton only to go off to Vietnam and get killed. There are a lot of progressive rakes to step on, and this movie largely avoids them. In the end, our three leads get their own character arcs, like real people rather than stock props.

This one gets the rare ‘gique’s mom Seal of Approval.

Nothing more awkward than posing for the family Christmas photo. Do you put the mistress next to the patriarch, or in-between the wife and eldest child?

The Lion In Winter. I saw this triple-Oscar winning film decades ago and absolutely loathed it. However, given Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, and young Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton, I thought I should watch it again on the big screen. I didn’t loathe it quite as much, and there are parts of the movie which are nigh unreadable on an 19″ TV which are actually visible in the theater. It did not, however, jump up in my esteem like ‘saw did.

My original impression still holds up very well: The trivialization, the edgy (for ’69) presentation of royal amorality, the whole imposing of (probably your own) family dysfunction onto historical events—it’s not for me.

And it’s not particularly internally consistent, either. Early on we’re treated to Henry and Eleanor discussing Henry’s promiscuity which is limited neither to a particular sex nor even species, but a big punch line is that Richard is gay, and this is supposedly going to cause some sort of problem. I mean, make up your mind, at least, as to how you’re going to distort history and stick to it.

Ultimately, there’s no one to root for or care about in this thing, and whenever you think you might, it turns around and mocks you for it. But if you want 130 minutes of acting exercises by past and future masters, this is your huckleberry.

This is a Christmas movie. Christmas, 1183 AD.

TFW she says she’s having crazy hot sex dreams about you and you know you can only disappoint her.

Dream Scenario. Based on a real hoax (or was it?), this movie tells the story of a man who, for no rhyme or reason, starts to appear in people’s dreams all over the world. An intriguing starting point to a story, this A24 drama/black comedy (not horror, whatever the marketing is) gives us as a main character, a nebbishy mediocrity of a university professor (Nicholas Cage) who latches on to the mob adulation, though he’s done nothing to warrant it.

The movie becomes an allegory for “viral fame”, particularly when the unearned adulation becomes unearned disapprobation, as the professor’s role in dreams becomes more violent. Our protagonist, who even in his dream state does nothing while events unfold around him, finally takes action and fails spectacularly at every turn.

It’s not a happy movie, even at the end when we see that our protagonist very much wants to return to his old life, but can only confront even approaching that idea in his dreams. We found it entertaining but are not surprised to see it didn’t make back its meager $10M budget. (It will probably recoup its costs in other ways, though.) Terrific acting from Cage and Julianne Nicholson in particular.

Not a Christmas movie.

This explains everything! (Or does it?) Also note: Christmas tree.

Deep Red (1975). I admit I struggle with Giallo. This movie, widely considered Argento’s best, is emblematic of the transition of giallo from murder-mystery/slasher to more supernatural horror. Some movies you have to turn your brain off, but for Giallo you have to drive a stake through the corpus collosum and bury the two halves in separate consecrated graveyards.

A series of often memorable visuals and wonderfully chauvinistic ’70s Italian dialogue is held together by this story: A psychic is demonstrating her powers when she senses a serial killer which nearly causes her to pass out. Later she realizes who the killer is and announces this on the phone while declaring she’s saving the answer for her book.

She is, of course, promptly murdered, as is the next person who figures out who the killer is and announces that he’s going to be coy about spreading the news. And the next person.  And this is far from the only time I found myself brought up short by illogic.

Well, it’s a deep, symbolic dream or something. I had fun watching it at the Alamo, though. Oh, the score is done by the guy who would go on to form Goblin, which would score a bunch more Argento films. (I don’t dislike the Goblin music per se but I find it very unspooky.)

Argento’s latest movie, Dark Glasses came out this year and was…fine. It made more sense than this, but “making sense” just isn’t a criterion he is graded on.

A Christmas movie!

Godzilla’s coming! And he’s pissed!

Godzilla Minus One. Everything you’ve heard about it is true: It’s a Godzilla movie where the humans are front and center, and Godzilla’s effect on their lives is what’s important. The main story is shamelessly manipulative (and the two “twists” are pretty obvious) but it all works anyway. In a world where prequels generally suck, this prequel to a prequel—well, I’ve seen it twice.

To me, the problem with kaiju movies is that the kaiju scenes are interminable. Pointless 20-minute segments of the army futilely shooting fireworks at a guy in a rubber suit, separated by some cheesy expository dialogue. This movie actually leaves you wanting more Godzilla, but not because he’s invisible most of the time. Rather, you really feel the destruction, and you never know how he’s going to strike—tail, claw, bite, breath (fun!)—and it’s all devastating.

Many wonderful touches. The original music, for example, makes an appearance. What I especially enjoyed was the stock characters (the scientist, the captain, the “kid”, etc.) are all fleshed out and given backstories. Not enough to bog things down but enough to where you care what happens.

The SFX are typical of Asian movies: They’re less about trying to fool you and more about trying to please you. Might be the first time a subtitled Japanese film has been #1 at the U.S. box office. (For one weekend, this movie was #2 and The Boy and the Heron was #1.)

Something strange is in the air when the American-made Godzilla movies involve a super-power globalist quasi-governmental organization handling the kaiju and the Japanese one explicitly calls out the governments of the world as being useless and it takes a ragtag bunch of ex-Navy men to solve the problem.

Not a Christmas Movie.

A Canadian healthcare training video.

Raging Grace. This is a straight up gothic horror with the only twist being that the maid that comes to work at the creepy old mansion full of family secrets is an illegal Filipina with a child. Really good, with the exception of a completely unneeded harangue by said maid about how much the English need the Filipinas, not the other way around—immediately followed by a scene of “save me, whitey!” when immigration shows up.

It’s a fine movie that makes it points quite well, then spells it out tediously, then tacks on an even less necessary coda. Worth a look anyway.

Not a Christmas movie.

Before “The Flash” was putting babies into microwaves.

Tokyo Godfathers (2003). This is “The Three Godfathers” but set in modern-day Tokyo. Instead of cowboys, you have three homeless: A middle-aged man with a mysterious past, a tragic trans character, and a runaway. One of four films directed by the late Satoshi Kon (Perfect BluePaprikaMillenium Actress), it reminded me how we used to have transexual characters in movies and it was okay.

All of our characters are flawed and all of them exaggerate their own sins in their minds. A very human tale about redemption.

A Christmas movie.

A Christmas Story (1983). Leonard Maltin introduced this 40th anniversary presentation by saying this was a timeless movie and I couldn’t help thinking how wrong that was. It’s so very much of its time, I’m sure a lot of younger folks can’t relate to it. From the macguffin of wanting a bb gun, to crowding around a radio, to waiting six to eight weeks for delivery or getting your mouth washed out with soap—this time is so far gone and was such a small window in eternity, even I have trouble remembering it.

It’s fun, though. It builds nicely to a climax after which it just sort of peters out. It really could’ve used a quick sequel but I guess the studio didn’t really care much about it.

A Christmas movie. The Christmas movie, some might say.

Joe Bob’s Creepy Christmas: The Brain/The Gingerdead Man. A goofy, fun pair of movies that take place around Christmas, so, good enough. A shout-out for the charity auction: Bid on items of dubious historic value or buy some ridiculously overpriced merch with all proceeds going to charity.

Merry Christmas, everyone.