This Week in Geek (16-22/07/18)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: I like a good Die Hard, and I did like Skyscraper, but usually, the formula is "Die Hard in... a plane, a hockey game, etc.". When you're doing Die Hard in a building, even if it's a substantially different building, you're asking for unflattering comparison, even if you cross its DNA with The Towering Inferno (and maybe a little Enter the Dragon). The Pearl, a super-tall structure in Hong Kong, is its own setting, but there are times when you recognize Die Hard's story beats even if the numbers have been filed off. It has little of Die Hard's texture or humor, its straightforward plot almost never showing anything that isn't Chekov's gun. In almost every case, you see the action coming, usually from the moment it's telegraphed. Still, Dwayne Johnson is as affable as usual, Neve Campbell shows she deserves more badass action roles (no damsel in distress, this), and I liked Byron Mann in the mostly thankless role of Inspector Wu. At its best, Skyscraper uses its vertiginous to create palpable tension. At it's worst, it's still an okay, but less than memorable, entertainment.

At home: In Point Blank, Lee Marvin is a closed-lipped hard man who escaped Alcatraz, was gunned down and robbed by his partner, had the gall to survive, and is back to get his money back or kill everyone who stands in his way. For a crime/revenge picture, nothing too out of the ordinary. But director John Boorman shoots it like an art house film! There is almost no scene in this flick that doesn't feel original thanks to setting, staging, acting, sound design, or editing. The resulting surrealism works because its protagonist, Walker, is essentially suffering from PTSD, and that's represented in the way the film is cut. Triggers lead to flashes, hallucinations, or other scenes, and ultimately this stylish ride - which I can't believe later film makers didn't more overtly steal from - ends in an existential spot. So yes, the style does put the audience at a distance, but for cinephiles, every shot is a joy.

If you don't mind people getting whacked in your comedies, might I recommend Married to the Mob? What I remembered most from this when I saw it on TV long ago was the big 80s hair. Revisiting it today, there's a lot more to like. I guess the pun to be made is that it's whacky, but zany is perhaps the better epithet. Michelle Pfeiffer plays Angela, a mob widow with a good soul who wants out of the Family, but they (mostly Dean Stockwell's boss and his jealous wife) won't leave her alone. She falls for Matthew Modine's awkward FBI agent who's initially working her, but obviously falls for her too. The humor mostly comes from character, but director Jonathan Demme also populates the film with odd restaurants, clubs and salons. In fact, I think that's probably the best thing about the movie - its world feels lived in. Characters have pre-existing relationships and well-worn mannerisms, quirks that need not be explained. The end credits with its wealth of deleted scenes gives it extra richness. Add a sweet romance, some non-obtrusive mother-son stuff, and use the gangland murders as a background that, like in Angela's dilemma, keeps rearing its ugly head but isn't what the movie WANTS to be about, and you've got an underrated piece of 80s film. It's not gonna win any awards from a plotting standpoint, but it does take chances with tone and comes out ahead. At the very least, it's cute.

Cleopatra Jones is a blaxploitation Jane Bond who has to go back home when a drug queenpin, played by Shelley Winters of all people, makes trouble for Cleo's friends (in 'sploitation style, she's a community leader and local star despite being a "secret" agent) to draw her into a trap. The film, and its star Tamara Dobson, provide the right sense of cool and camp, even if they quite manage the action beats on this budget. The hand-to-hand is in necessary close-up or unimpressive, the car chases confusingly edited. Pretty good climax in the junkyard though, and Winters gets to throw down in a leather suit. I do think it's nice that the movie doesn't play into the genre's usual excesses. The violence isn't sadistic and there's no gratuitous nudity. This makes Cleopatra Jones, and her relationship to romantic interest Bernie Casey (and to the other smitten men in her life), actually kind of sweet.

I can't quite decide where to put The Last Dragon. Is it terrible 80s dreck or camp genius? I'll stick to the middle, I guess. Somewhere between loving tribute to Bruce Lee films (the hero's wardrobe comes out of Lee's filmography), sanitized spoof of both blaxploitation and kung fu movies, earnest action adventure, and video-filled episode of Solid Gold. That is as weird an intersection as it sounds. The fashions and music (overwhelmingly dated and awful, DeBarge's Rhythm of the Night is the only survivor) make it feel like a parody of the 80s, but no, it's a snapshot of its own era's excesses, having been made in 1985. Based on the over and under acting of the principals, I would say this was made to play on Saturday afternoon television for younger teens, were it not for some ill-fitting language (very little, it's like it forgets its tone from time to time). But just when you're a little bored with ANOTHER music video played in real time, in comes outrageous characters like the Shogun of Harlem, and maybe everything is all right. Couple of fun fights near the end, and it's being pretty harmless overall makes it a silly and even likeable oddity.

In Iceman, Donny Yen is a 17th-Century wuxia warrior frozen in snow (along with some antagonists) and awakened in modern-day Hong Kong. But, and this is what disappointed Western audiences are mostly griping about, it's a comedy. And Chinese comedy can be a little broad, and definitely includes toilet humor. So none of this is to be taken seriously, and it shows. Yen's warrior suffers no culture shock from being 400 years past his time as if this were just something that happens. Indeed, the characters are largely underwritten, especially the antagonists, their motivations mostly opaque until the closing moments. And Iceman's greatest sin by far is that it doesn't tell a complete story. It ends on a cliffhanger and doesn't really service its own story very well (a second chapter comes out this year, 4 years after the first, not exactly a rush to production). So the real reason to watch this is because you're a Donnie Yen fan (which I am), and to enjoy the incongruity of chi-powered wuxia tricks in a modern HK crime thriller setting (the bridge fight is definitely the highlight, bad 3D and all). I was hoping for more from director Wing-Cheong Law, who apprenticed under Johnnie To and here uses a number of that great director's regulars (Simon Yam, Suet Lam), but it's still an amusing trifle. The DVD includes about 20 minutes of behind the scenes footage and interviews.

Yeon Sang-ho's follow-up to Train to Busan is Psychokinesis, a superhero story in which a pathetic deadbeat dad gets powerful telekinetic powers from a meteor and uses it to help his daughter fight a nefarious construction company trying to bulldoze her business, and in doing so, put their relationship, such as it is, back on track. As with Busan, family is at the center of this genre film. Played with some humor - the dad is a well-meaning but hapless shlub, the evil CEO a fun sarcastic girl - it has a tone not dissimilar to any given year's crop of Marvel movies. It's not quite on that level, of course, but the psychokinetic tricks are well done, with good variety in the action. Fans of Busan may be disappointed with the lighter tone and more straightforward treatment, but I think it's rather sweet, especially compared to close western cousins like Chronicle and Hancock.

In the wake that grimdark live action Titans show trailer, I bring you Young Justice, how to do dark Titans correctly. This is a proper follow-up to Justice League/JLU, even if it takes place in a slightly different universe, with the same level of action and fun with the DC Comics canon, but more character development. It's got that angsty 80s Wolfman vibe, but I like it a lot better. Of course, the word Titan is never mentioned. The team is just The Team. Sidekicks striking out on their own, but also acting as the Justice League's black ops. Good stuff. Season 2 takes a risk by being set 5 years later and introducing many new heroes, but it pays off and doesn't abandon anything set up in season 1. Offputting for about 4 episodes, but you should trust it. Glad to see it'll get a belated third season (even if it focuses on my hated foes, the Outsiders) as the first two managed to hit a lot of strong beats, and drew out the occasional laugh or tear from me. (Watched first 12 episodes on DVD, the rest on Netflix. It may have something to do with the subtitle of the second season. Stay tuned to this channel.)

I've gone on record often enough about this. The Suicide Squad concept only really works if you've steadily been building your world and bring back previously seen villains whose deaths could potentially resonate. It was true of DC's New52, and it's true of the film. Who are these guys, and why should we care? In fact, the movie doesn't know how to properly introduce this big a cast of characters (some of them hardly necessary), giving Deadshot three separate introductions, for example, but some Squad members none at all. But beyond that, while it has its moments here and there, usually in relation to Margot "can do no wrong" Robbie's Harley Quinn, there's hardly a sequence in here I don't have some problem with. The structure and editing are chaotic, the film contradicts itself at every turn, and the soundtrack is in competition with Zack Snyder's Watchmen for most boring and obvious in all of cinema. But it's biggest sin is that it doesn't know what some of these characters are about. Deadshot in particular is unrecognizable, lobotomized and turned into a loving dad who just wants to see his daughter. By making him and the team anti-heroes rather than actual villains, the whole premise is undermined and Suicide Squad becomes just another cliché-ridden super-powered runaround. They had a perfect model in the original Ostrander series, but no one seems to have read those comics. Watching The Dirty Dozen would have done in a pinch. Alas. A lot of people who just don't get it produced a flashback-happy grind run on faceless monsters, and that's about it.

The granddaddy of POW movies, Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 is obviously as much in the DNA of The Great Escape as it is in that of Hogan's Heroes (or even M*A*S*H). We follow a group of American POWs in a German prison camp who suspect they have a spy among them. William Holden is the prisoner they suspect as he's a master trader, but are they right? What's striking (and ultimately the most influential) is just how much of the film's real estate is given over to barracks life and clownish shenanigans. Wilder juggles varying tones beautifully, allowing a lot of levity in what is essentially a World War II thriller, and yet never deflating the more dramatic scenes. The result is a comedy that comes from character and situation, and thus feels as real as the tense escape attempts or confrontations with deadly Nazis. Plenty of good moments - some ribald, some quiet, some exciting - and characters that will grow on you.

Books: I was drawn to Robert Van Gulik's translation of the 18th-Century Chinese detective novel Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, not gonna lie, because I liked Tsui Hark's outlandish Detective Dee films. This is not that, of course, though once Van Gulik decided to write his own Dee stories (and then other authors, mostly Frenchmen), I wonder if they didn't stray more and more into the fantastical. It's here, mind you, just not in the foreground. I suppose what's interesting about the original book, aside from its exoticism for Western readers, is that it's three mysteries in one. They're not connected or anything, but a case of "when it rains, it pours" for Judge Dee who hasn't solved one murder that another is brought to his attention. Good variety in solution and procedure, which is what's required. However, the modern Western reader will have some trouble with Chinese law's focus on extracting confessions through torture. It's matter-of-fact and Van Gulick warns us in his extremely valuable preface about Chinese detective stories (and probably downplays it), but it's still off-putting. So I'm going to file this under curiosities (which is by no means an indictment on my part) and pledge to read Dee stories derived from this, but meant for Western audiences.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

About "Stalag 17", remember Hoffy, the barracks leader? Now remember Leonard Rodriguez, the very old student on "Community" ... ? Same guy! He also appeared in an episode of "Hogan's Heroes", and also the "Hogan's Heroes" episode of "Community". I notice these things.

Here's some trivia for you. "Stalag 17" focuses on the doings in barracks 4. On "Hogan's Heroes", it's a plot point in a couple episodes that barracks 4 is the only building they haven't built a tunnel to. I put it to you that "Stalag 17" and "Hogan's Heroes" are actually happening at the same place at the same time, except that Hoffy has a much harder time with escapes than Hogan does. I'm guessing Hogan and Hoffy just don't get along.

I saw the first season of "Young Justice" and only part of the second season; damn fine show.

Brendon Wright said...

Must admit I haven't seen Young Justice- a misdemeanour I'm ashamed to admit, cos animation is the optimal way to see superheroes (yep, even the Marvel stuff)


Now, if that grim-dark live action titans trailer you mention is the one I've seen, you can relax... as professional as it looks, it's actually one of those irritating fanmades that make you think it's for real, and then you realise you've just been pranked.

I understand the only Titans movie actually coming is "Teen Titans GO"... oddly still listed on the DC site (next to the new SHAZAM trailer.) as coming out this week while the release date here in New Zealand says "October 4th". One is either an injustice, or else the other is out of date.
A lot of folks hate TTG, but I reckon it may be the best the Titans have been and will ever be...
...though the aforementioned sin may affect my *ahem* "findings."


Brendon Wright said...

OH!
Bu**er ME!
I've just seen the comic-con roundup and there IS a Titans live action series coming.
I'm going to have to watch the trailer to see how much the aforementioned "fan" ripoff nailed it.
AS I've said... there's NO WAY it can top TT-GO!

Siskoid said...

Some of the jokes in today's post are dependent on seeing that trailer. You're well isolated, Brendon.

De said...

I was wondering when you would get round to Suicide Squad. As someone that liked BvS (I know I’m in the minority there), I wasn’t expecting Suicide Squad to be such a dumpster fire of a movie. Did you also play Spot the Reshoot while watching?

Siskoid said...

No. Kind of played it during Justice League though.

Brendon Wright said...

>You're well isolated, Brendon

It certainly shows, doesn't it!
I've seen the trailer now, must go back and re-read the post.
sho' is one dark trailer.

Brendon Wright said...

De... I also enjoyed BvS, as a minority we're still pretty well represented.

 

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