This Week in Geek (1-7/04/19)


In theaters: Shazam! is the OTHER Captain Marvel movie, and it's hard to discuss it without blowing some of its surprises considering they are the things that made me smile and put the film over the top for me. What the trailers revealed was largely concerned with the character's origin story, and that lasts quite a while. Even if I hadn't seen the trailers, prior comic book knowledge would have have still made those sequences a little tedious for me. For an old longbox dog like me, there are a couple of satisfying deep cuts peppered throughout, but the fun really kicks into high gear in the third act, right on through to a funny animated end credit sequence. It ended on a great note and I came out of the theater happy. I did take its time striking the right tone, Sivana's murders rather intense compared to the rest of the movie, but things were enlivened by the Christmas atmosphere and the nice idea that, by now, people know about superheroes and react to them appropriately. So it's a winner with genuine heart and some punch-the-air moments in addition to the advertised action and humor. But it does make my blood boil that DC can't/won't call the character Captain Marvel even if I understand why; it's kind of a joke in the film, but it can't be sustained forever.

At home: Watching Unicorn Store, I was most reminded of Adult Life Skills (with Jodie Whitaker), as both are arrested development coming of age stories starring disconnected, artistic women at odds with their families. Brie Larson's directorial debut is less depressing and more fantastical however. Definitely the kind of comedy that speaks to me, I was giggling through most of it, especially on account of the creepy boss (Hamish Linklater) and the granola parents (Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack). Larson seems to have imparted her own subtlety of acting to her cast, who all do a lot with small expressions even when they are playing goofy caricatures (Sam Jackson, even as a glittering unicorn salesman, is still unusually restrained). Larson's character is immediately lovable as an artist whose girly aesthetic interests no one, and we're more than happy to go on a journey that breaks her down and builds her back up. We're used to this structure - it's often been done with boys and more standard "adventure" - but the specific details and characters manage to refresh the formula enough to amuse and, in the end, touch the invested audience's heart.

Les enfants terribles is an early Jean-Pierre Melville and therefore not the type of gangster film he will become best known for, not to say there's no crime in it. Based on Cocteau's novel, it deals with the toxic relationship between a brother and sister, too close for the audience's comfort, the latter manipulative and evil, the former at once playmate and victim, and quite possibly closeted. It tended to keep me at arm's length, unfortunately, with its élans of poetic narration by Cocteau himself and its unlikable characters, played by actors perhaps too old for the parts. The third act, however, is terrific neo-Gothic, where we go from vignettes to intrigue, and where the poetry and visuals start to move together towards a fatalistic end. By that time, one will have started appreciating the play on male/female twins Melville and Cocteau engage in - the two leads, Renée Cosima's dual role, the mustached bust - and understand this as the story of one twin/side devouring the other (the boy's mysterious illness). Narcissism, self-loathing, self-destruction, the themes are so powerful they might push the characters into the poetic/abstract, which is both the film's strength and its weakness.

François Truffaut revisits his autobiographical avatar from The 400 Blows in Antoine et Colette, a 30-minute short made for a international collective project with multiple directors giving their takes on "love at 20". An appendix to the classic The 400 Blows isn't something I necessarily wanted, but if Truffaut is going to deftly use biographical content the way he does, he could do worse than always use the same actor/character (and he would three more times). Antoine et Colette takes nothing away from the original oeuvre anyway. It tells a story of unrequited love (the 401st blow?) truthfully, and without undue sentiment. As with the first chapter of Antoine's story, Truffaut doesn't condescend to his subject and makes him neither a romantic hero nor romantic victim. This is just a thing that happened, and happens to all of us in some measure. Amusingly, young people in their 20s did a lot of texting even back in 1962, and it was kind of neat seeing how a vinyl record is pressed. Now I need to find the rest of the Antoine Doinel saga (and Colette returns to Truffaut's work too).

Babette's Feast starts in medias res, going back decades, proceeding forward, and finally rejoining the relative present before getting to the eponymous feast, because it is meant to be part of the epic tradition. It's a food epic, perhaps not as fantastical as Like Water for Chocolate, but nevertheless using food as an engine for storytelling, confrontation, revolution, closure, revelation, art, romance, holiness, and charity. Babette is a French cook come to live in a Danish village, working for two Puritan sisters who regularly feed the elderly and the poor in their community, catering to the soul more than to the body. How Babette came to be there is the stuff of comic opera. What she does to change their lives is no less comic, but is the stuff of epics. Homer listed ships. Babette sends out course after course, amazing dishes the Puritans cannot overtly enjoy. The dinner speaks to the communal power of food, its meaning in human culture, and serves as experiential metaphor for spiritual replenishment. In Babette, we see the other side, the act of cooking for others its own reward. A small, subtle film, but it feels big and very filling. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Seven Days in May proposes an attempted military coup in the United States of a decade or two in the future, but it's really the contemporary 60s but for a couple of TV-phones. For the audiences of the time, this political thriller might have its controversies. At the height of the Cold War, any given audience member might think the peace-making president is foolish and the general is right (especially with Burt Lancaster in the role). For a post-Nixon, indeed, post-Trump audience, there's no real dilemma for Kirk Douglas' whistle-blowing colonel, is there? The president is too heroic, too ethical, for his positions to warrant a coup. So it's really more about uncovering the conspiracy, then putting a stop to it even though the people loyal to the general have covered their tracks pretty well. Conspiracies currently being the most tired of tropes, I found my attention straying through the first two acts, but the third, especially that confrontation between the two leaders, almost saves the entire enterprise. Almost, but for me, not quite.

Keisuke Kinoshita's Farewell to Dream is a simple, intimate story, about a young man in post-war Japan who abandons his ambitions to run his father's shop, but it's also about saying goodbye to the pre-war, traditional Japan. The boy's sister is a modern woman, disrespectful of her parents and boyfriends, but even if you want to slap her silly, she's just a product of an unstable new Japan. Like her brother Yôichie, who doesn't intend to follow in his father's footsteps, she wants to forge her own future, one not predicated by oppressive tradition. But no one really knows what's possible anymore. That fairground with all the rides going around in circles may represent one avenue to take, perhaps for Yôichie, the only one. But what if the old cycle is permanently broken? It's a sad but not hopeless story and an effective slice of life, but while Yôichie is the lead, it's his mother who really captivates. Yuko Mochizuki's performance is heartbreaking in the role, crushed by every humiliating moment, and devastated by her children's sacrifices... She makes this a film about people hiding their eyes, and just writing about it makes my heart swell.

In The Garden of Women, Keisuke Kinoshita explores post-war Japan through a girls' college with repressive (read: traditional) values and policies, which the students feel they have to fight against so stay relevant in the New Japan. The school becomes a microcosm where issues germane to Japanese society as a whole are addressed. The Red Scare. The role of women. Growing inequity in the wake of WWII's bombing runs. When I watch Kinoshita's films, I get a better understanding of Japanese culture as we know it now, in particular their industrious drive, millions of people looking to find a productive place in society following the war, to escape the onset of poverty. At the same time, there's the encroachment of the rest of the world, American influence of course, but communism as an inspiration for civil rights. The Garden of Women is perhaps a little long, but it has a lot to say, following a number of young women (and an older one) and their particular dramas. And it ends somewhat abruptly. I don't think it's a strong or touching as Farewell to Dream which came two years later and has a couple of the same actors, but it's pure Kinoshita, putting the national malaise on the screen for all to see.

Timecrimes is a Spanish time travel slasher film that almost works as a predestination paradox puzzler, but for one thing: The ridiculous notion that one should be jealous of one's past self when all one has to do is wait a few hours before the "double" walks into a time machine and your timeline is continuous again. There is absolutely no reason for Hector, in the story, to go back to his house when he does, except to create more complications. Even the way the physicist explains time travel sounds weird and manipulative so as to provoke that reaction. Which isn't to say I didn't like Los cronocrímenes, but the paradox makes the characters slimmer than slim as they do things because they have to be done and not for any actual reason. Events only exist in the time loop and no "original loop" can be inferred. And what's that bit with the chronoliquid dripping into the car floor? Where's the pay-off? Things get more interesting in the third act despite the unearned twist, as Hector actually thinks himself out of the paradox, albeit in the bleakest, most joyless way. This isn't a movie where you punch the air when the characters figure stuff out. It's a real downer. Flawed but interesting.

Set time machine to Contemporary Era, dry country. Keywords: Slasher. Ugly mask. Van incident.

The Tobe Hooper films I've seen are bonkers, genre-shifting film artifacts, but going back to his origins, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn't all that different in that respect. You think you're watching a certain kind of film (true crime), find out it's actually a crazy cannibal slasher flick, but then the truth (which I'll keep to myself) is something else. Lurid in the best way, Hooper gives his debut and opus an indie edge AND some pretty beautiful cinematography (golden hour makes frequent appearances). The disturbia is supported by some really interesting animal imagery, though the genius move is in the sound design, crafting a score out of sounds heard in an abattoir. A demented heat stroke of a film, I've nevertheless seen too many hickspolitation movies that took a similar route in terms of plot to be entirely fascinated. But as usual, horror for me rarely feels visceral. I engage with the genre on an intellectual and aesthetic basis, and on the count, I got my money's worth. Certainly, it doesn't LOOK like cheap schlock, and it makes me sorry that Hooper was never given his head when he was handed bigger budgets.


Brendoon said...

On the Captain Marvel/Shazam thing, I read an interesting blog explaining the diff between trademark and copyright. It pointed out two main things: a trademark doesn't affect what happens inside the comic but the name advertised on the cover; and in order to stop a trademark from lapsing you have to keep using it.
The latter meant even when Mar-vell was at his least popular Marvel had to find ways to keep publishing under the title.
I wonder if the former fact is true and how much water it holds.
The other thing it pointed out is that current generations only Know the Captain as SHAZAM even though we and history know otherwise. That's hard to swallow, but it seems to be how things work when people get older.
No matter what our political beliefs, the fact we want to keep recognition for the Captain's name makes us veteran comic bookers into de facto conservatives!

This week I watched Cpt. Marvel's big episode on "Justice League Action," and darn fine it was too!

Brendoon said...

Though Plastic Man was my fave episode! Johnny Bravo and loony toons combined, it was.

Anonymous said...

I am told the "Shazam" movie does not actually name the lead character, as if they're dissatisfied with calling him "Shazam" and want to call him something else but haven't decided what. They ought to swipe a name that Marvel has lost interest in doing anything with; my vote is for "Jessica Jones".

I've described "Babette's Feast" as a cross between "The Return of Martin Guerre" and "Green Eggs and Ham".

Brendoon said...

There WAS apparently a reference to *ahem* Mz Marvel.
"Captain Sparklefingers" was a sneaky ref to "Captain Sparklehands" which was apparently suggested to Carol Danvers when she got her powers granted.
Aside from that, I recall Supergirl got adopted at one stage and became Linda Danvers, with her Kryptonian name that could have been Kara Danvers which is kinda close to the Marvel Identity... I bet that never even registered at the time!
A character in a comic I made in the late 80's and 90's was named Gor. It wasn't til years later I saw covers from the 60's fantasy novels about the world of "Gor".
"Oh Cr*p" I thought.
I'm still trying to figure out what to name him when I republish (Lucasized), the artwork's being updated and the dialogue redone so there's plenty of time to figure that one out.

Brendoon said...

Ah, thanks Google!
My own conundrum was baseless. Gor is used all over the show. There's a monster in attack of the clones, there's an urban slang, there's an Armenian word, there's an African football team and there's an existing male AND female name in usage, the latter being Norwegian. That's just the first two pages.
A dumb, off topic sidetrack, but boy am I relieved!

LiamKav said...

There's a good breakdown of the differences between IP, Trademark and Copyright on the Transformers Wiki.

From what I understand, DC could call the character whatever they wanted, but they wouldn't be able to sell a product (toy, movie etc) with a name that was trademarked elsewhere. This was essentially the practise for years with the comics, but I guess they eventually figured out that was just too confusing.

(Fun fact... Hasbro lost the trademark for "Bumblebee" at some point in the 90s and didn't get it back until 2006ish. So during the "Beast Wars" period when everyone transformed into animals they couldn't call a toy "Bumblebee.")

Bradley Walker said...

Brendoon, check out the Super-Team Family blog. There are seven posts that treat Linda Danvers and Carol Danvers as twin sisters.

Brendoon said...

Oooh! That sounds like FUN!!
I WILL check that out.

Brendoon said...

Haha! Direct from that thread, Geoff Roberts posted:
"Supergirl explains "Well, I'm just a copy of my cousin, and Ms. Marvel is just a copy of her Kree friend, who is just a copy of the Shazam Captain Marvel, who himself is also a copy of my cousin. The way we see it, we're ALL just copies of my cousin!"


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