This Week in Geek (8-14/05/17)


I got the first two volumes of David Gallaher's and Steve Ellis' The Only Living Boy.


In theaters: They identified what people liked about the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie and with Vol.2, pushed on those buttons a little too hard, I thought. Some of the soundtrack cues felt forced and gratuitous, and there's perhaps too much cutesy Baby Groot for my tastes (especially when a movie has sex jokes and language inappropriate to the young kids brought out to see talking twigs and raccoons). That said, it was, like the original, great fun filled with geeky references, Gamora getting more agency (the one real problem with the first film), and an epilogue that had me holding back sobs. On a writing level, the film works by having a proper theme and delving into it no holds barred. Since Peter Quill is to meet his long-lost father, the film becomes about family, and more specifically about fatherhood. And so characters will invariably talk about their fathers, or surrogate fathers, or lack of fathers, and how that relationship molded them. Even Ayesha's Sovereign, essentially grown in genetics labs, and thus fatherless, act as a comment on the lack of a parental figure, in fact a race of adult children playing video games all day. It's everywhere you look, and that makes it a film ABOUT something, which is definitely what I want my superhero movies to be. While Vol.2 lacks the freshness of the original (we've gone from no expectations to high expectations), that was par for the course; it is a strong done-in-one superhero narrative with good jokes, action and emotion.

The Lost City of Z (pronounced Zed) is a rambling biopic about explorer Percy Fawcett's quest to find a lost civilization in the Amazonian jungle, an intermittent quest, interrupted by war and family, and one that, while worth telling, might prove frustrating for some audiences. It's got its moments, and the dialog is excellent, but structurally, it's as stop-and-go as the expeditions to Bolivia were. Ultimately, all the pieces matter, and help illuminate the characters' motivations - a sense of manifest destiny more than a destructive obsession (so there's unusual subtlety there) - and the critique of Imperialism by a man who contends the "savage" is equal to the white man for being or having been "civilized", while also struggling with the equality of women despite his progressive attitude towards his wife, makes the film relatively timely. But when not in the jungle, you will long to return to it, and while there, will be frustrated by how dingy and dark those scenes are... indeed, just like the film's protagonist. Was that the point?

DVDs: Rebel Without a Cause paints a picture of 1950s youth as a listless generation freed from the responsibilities of their parents', i.e. the economic strife of the 30s or the war of the 40s, and for whom privilege is its own curse. Throughout the film, the kids mock the police, family hierarchy, military service, anything that might have power over them in another life. Parental figures are ineffective, busy at creating the 1950s American utopia of propriety and wealth, and leaving their kids to their own devices. There's no reason to sacrifice, to share responsibility, and so the teenagers get into trouble for its own sake, just as something to do, or to get attention. The kid most left alone sees any charismatic (and here that's James Dean's character, James Dean whose death later that year would find mirrors in the film) as a father figure (I don't think the attraction Plato bears Jimmy is meant to be gay), and he's the one who pays the biggest price. So yeah, I get it, but I'll admit I had a lot of difficulty empathizing with privileged white kids griping about their lives and how their parents just didn't understand them.

The Jerk is a rather bizarre Steve Martin comedy (even by his standards) that spoofs the rags-to-riches biopic (so prevalent today) along with a few other genres along the way, and does so with zany sketch ideas that often stand out as completely original, but are more intellectually amusing than laugh-out-loud funny (mileage may certainly vary). For me, the improbable moron is the least interesting comedy archetype, and that's part of my ambivalence here. I also feel like the film's title is misleading, as the character is more naive than a jerk, although the word does have other meanings. I might have expected corruption to play a stronger role in the "riches-to-rags" climax of the story. I say story, but The Jerk is really a hodgepodge, with the protagonist moving from situation to situation, never quite gelling into a cohesive whole. I still do appreciate this as a parody of film clichés that does not resort to parodying specific films to take its targets down.

Disney's Hercules certainly suffers from some terrible CGI elements (a problem with a lot of 90s animation), but is not an unpleasant mix of elements from the Hercules legends, as put in a blender and spit out into a story that can be told for an all-ages audience (with shades of Superman). So the twelve labors happen, but not as part of a plot dedicated to them, and so on. Instead, the thru-line is a young man's journey to learn what it means to be a hero, something that goes beyond racking up glory through deeds, while the evil Hades tries to destroy him. Nothing too surprising, but effective. The animation is nicely inspired by Ancient Greek art, with a strong Loony Tunes streak to make the cartoony action beats palatable for the kids, though Hercules himself is too gooey and elastic; it bothered me. The songs are good, and the use of Muses as an R&B group is probably the best idea on show. I remember the film not getting a whole lot of traction back in 1997, and wondered if it was an underrated gem, but I think it was fairly rated at the time.

After seeing Chan-wook Park's The Handmaiden, and realizing the same director also made Oldboy and I'm an Android, I vowed to see more of his visually impressive work. Stoker is the Korean director's first American film, an even darker twist on Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, when a mysterious young uncle comes to live with his brother's widow and daughter. It's a horror/thriller where most of the attendant unease is created by the cinematography, editing and sound design, to the point where you might wonder what's real and isn't, every shot something that could bear multiple analyses. I sometimes fear Mia Wasikowska is typecast as a Gothic heroine, but she's so good in those types of stories, it's hard to hold that against the films. Stoker reveals its characters a bit at a time, building to a violent, coldly logical finale, well worth the appropriation the Dracula's creator's surname, if only to put certain thoughts and expectations in your head that bolster the mystery.

Election (1999) is a dark comedy about a high school election gone awry, where karmic backlash goes back and forth as the guilty are punished for their misdeeds. But while smartly written, it doesn't feature the biting political satire you might expect from the premise. It's nevertheless about the difference between morals and ethics, a question asked early on that is only really answered in the climax. Told through various points of view, including a teacher's, the film gives a novelistic overview of the events, though I think it goes astray in the very long epilogue section, beating The Return of the King in terms of "why hasn't the movie ended yet?". It's too bad it drags its feet to the finish line, because it ran a great race before that. Still worth your time and attention.

Ben Wheatley's High-Rise sets J.G. Ballard's novel in the 1970s, when it was written, and is a pretty faithful adaptation, though certainly more elliptical. Tom Hiddleston plays a brain surgeon who has just moved into a building designed by its architect to be a social experiment. The whole thing is a metaphor for the fall of the Monarchy and the rise of Democracy, though the latter isn't exactly given a clean bill of health. Watch for the Che Guevara poster, because that's just about when the Revolution erupts and the film starts to get rather chaotic. As with most of Ballard's work, things get apocalyptic, and it's no use trying to think of the film in terms of any kind of realism past that point. The building is self-sufficient and no one leaves and that's because you can't opt out of society, even when it's in turmoil. The kind of bleak comedy that can be better decoded over several viewings, but that doesn't make you feel any urgency to see it again for lack of narrative focus.

Netflix: Despite solid performances by Gillian Anderson and Ben Kingsley, Robot Overlords is really about four kids (including three teenagers) who find a way to perhaps fight the robotic invaders that have occupied Earth for the last three years. As such, it is in the "young adult" vein, and not too demanding, but if you like Doctor Who and Who spin-offs like Class, then you'll find the same level of adventure, effects, and acting. There's nothing too new about "chosen one" narratives, but the film does a fair amount of world-building, gives its characters proper motivations, and despite the formula, action beats you were probably not expecting going in. Usually, this type of modern B-movie leaves me cold, not to say bored, but in this case, I think it keeps one's interest and is fairly memorable without it blowing the doors off their hinges.

Serial Mom is a wonderful black comedy from John Waters, and starring Kathleen Turner as a perfect housewife who turns to murder for the silliest of reasons. Sweetness only takes her so far though, and eventually, the cops are on her tail, and the film does sag towards the end with its courtroom scenes, but only because the front half is so much fun. I mean, we've all had dark thoughts based on random irritations, but only Serial Mom acts on them. It's the contrast between attitude and deed that makes it work so well, and having the film play out as a police procedural/biopic of sorts allows for the uneven structure. In this "true story", the names have been changed to protect the innocent, and one of my favorite jokes is that the Mom's family are the Sutphins, which always sounds like the Somethings. A rollicking good time about the pettiness of Suburbia you might not be able to deny contains some wish fulfillment.

Van Helsing starts out strong with a black and white sequence that acts as homage to the old Universal monster pictures, but quickly devolves into bad CG effects, spread so thick there's hardly anything human about it. I don't mind the Gothic remix, where Van Helsing is an immortal monster hunter and Dracula is trying to build an army of Frankenstein's Monsters and werewolves, but the movie also requires us to believe that after 2000 years of monster hunting, Van Helsing has never encountered a vampire? Come on now. Hugh Jackman essentially sleepwalks through Transylvania with comedy friar in tow, his accent all over the place, and some sequences that cynically tap into his Wolverine persona. And why is Kate Beckinsale in this? Seeing as Underworld came out the year before, it's damn confusing to have her play yet another vampire hunter. Does she just have an appartment an Prague and can conveniently bring her own leather togs? I had to check that these films weren't set in the same universe. They're not. It's just lazy casting. So Van Helsing is an overdone action flick that hinges too much on its CG monsters; when these turn out to be pretty bad, it's hard to find any joy in it.

Takers is a heist movie with an appropriately generic title. It's all formula and clichés. It does have some energetic action and a couple of interesting schemes, but even though I'm a big fan of the genre, it doesn't amount to a whole lot. It wastes a pretty good cast that includes Idris Elba, Paul Walker and Zoe Saldana, giving the various characters subplots, but only stock personalities. Because I'm not sure we ever care about any of the characters, those subplots merely act as distractions. Sometimes they affect the plot and create complications, sometimes they don't add much of anything. Case in point the bit about police corruption Matt Dillon's detective must contend with while tracking the bank robbers. What's the point of that? It's like the script knows we should care about the characters and wants to pull at the heart strings, but doesn't understand how exactly. Already, I've started to forget the details; soon, I won't remember this film at all.

Comics: I often wonder about James Kochalka's creative process. Like the art, the story telling has a naive quality that, by this point, has to be cultivated, right? There's just so much whimsy that it's hard to believe he outlines his graphic novels beforehand, perhaps preferring a certain measure of improvisation, and seeing what daydreaming might bring next, writing himself into corners and making crazy things happen to get out of them. Such is the case with The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza, another delightful tale, albeit with a "comedy moron" at its center, ill-equipped to deliver a pizza, much less to control his destiny. It's the talking backpack that makes me say I'm all in on this, and the final twist is perhaps not entirely unexpected, but it's fun. I'm more a fan of Kochalka's biographical work, but his bizarre children's books always amuse me.


Anonymous said...

I'm a fairly big fan of the "Hercules" movie. There are at least a couple things it does well:

- It sells the notion of a primeval world consumed by chaos (the Titans) that was tamed by the gods. It's a little more Sumerian than Greek, but I'm good with it.

- There is a theory of film that you frequently want your hero to have some internal weakness that he inadvertently overcomes through the action of the film -- in short, the hero learns how to stop screwing up his own life, and that's ultimately what the audience responds to. They do it really well in this film: Hercules starts out wanting to be accepted and popular, finds it unfulfilling, and ultimately wins by being willing to give his life unceremoniously for someone else. He not only solves his initial problem of loneliness and out-of-place-ness, he transcends it.

- Hercules's victories were not easy; the movie very much sells that it took everything Hercules had to beat the hydra and the cyclops. And I really don't mind that Hercules pulled through only because he was taught to think through challenges as opposed to relying on raw strength.

- The movie played fair with the Hades / Hercules deal. Hades' offer didn't sound entirely unreasonable (taking Hercules's strength for a day as opposed to, say, giving up his strength forever); Hercules had the presence of mind to suspect people would get hurt; Hades shmoozed past the matter just enough to get Hercules to agree to it. And the detail that Megara would be unharmed was properly placed to allow the deal to be broken fair and square. I think it was set up well and played out well.

- Especially in the TV show, these guys know their Greek mythology, which is not to say that they portray it "right", only that they know it well enough to draw from it to whatever fashion suits them. Sometimes with results that comic book fans would appreciate:

Anonymous said...

No MST3K this week?


Siskoid said...

To do another MST3K post, I would have had to watch another 6 movies. It just didn't happen.

David Gallaher said...

>> I got the first two volumes of David Gallaher's and Steve Ellis' The Only Living Boy >>

Thank you!


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