This Week in Geek (24-30/06/19)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Toy Story 4 expands on the toy universe in a couple ways, one of which isn't explored enough, and that's the birth of a toy. Forky is a homemade toy, and he is brought to life, is immediately funny, and in some ways it's kind of too bad the story isn't more about him. No, this is Woody's story, a quest to feel useful again now that he isn't the kid's favorite toy. The metaphor doesn't really come into sharp focus, but that's perhaps to the film's advantage. Aging audiences might connect to their own situation going into retirement, parents with their kid moving away from home or simply becoming more and more independent. The first Toy Story was 24 years ago, so the franchise has older fans that must be catered to. I'm sure the creepy dummies that act as villains were designed for older audiences too, but surprisingly, didn't hear any children freak out in the theater (adults, however...). Focused or not, the film delivers on laughs, looks gorgeous (duh), and is sincere and heartfelt. A lot of the original cast are sidelined - even Buzz until the third act, but then, maybe Tim Allen is so toxic at this point, we should call him the Anti-Tom Hanks - but Woody's new friends, some led by Little Furiosa - I mean, Little Bo Peep - are fun enough you don't miss them. Highlights include Key and Peele as plush carnival goons, Keanu Reeves as a Canadian Evel Knievel toy, and of course, Tony Hale as Forky. Christina Hendricks makes a fine villain you can care about too, and there are a few cameos worth perking your ears for. I haven't been the most invested in this world (this is the first one I've seen in theaters), but I quite liked it, thank you. One thing though: No short to precede it?

At home: I put off watching the third part of Netflix's Godzilla anime trilogy for a long while because I really didn't like the first two parts, but seeing Godzilla: The Planet Eater now, I find I've lost all my patience for its metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, and just don't care about its philosophical diatribes about triumphant nihilism or the power of religion. The dialog sounds like it was written by a mathematics major, and the characters gasp a lot as if the stakes kept being raised, but there's not much actual tension or excitement. If at least it gave us a cool monster fight, but no, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is ACTIVELY BORING, just slow-mo set dressing for the actual battle for Sakaki's soul, featuring that ugly CG Godzilla, but also an off-model, just as CG Ghidorah. There's a Mothra tease in there, but it's just surrealism in the service of more mumbo-jumbo. I'm not dead set against a philosophical kaiju film, but it's got to be more than pop psychology terms strung up in a random order. To think, with all the possibilities animation opens up, and a great starting premise, this trilogy is what they came up with. Such a waste.

Groundbreaking? Maybe. King Kong vs. Godzilla came out in 1962, essentially the big GZ's third movie, getting him out of the trouble he got into in Godzilla Raids Again, a whole SEVEN years after the last one. So in a way, this big fight between movie monsters is what kicks off what I will call the camp era of Godzilla, where the monsters are more like pro wrestlers, and the cataclysm metaphors are something musty. Even if their King Kong suit is pretty ropy and the face's animation real twitchy - look, it's not the best Godzilla head either, looking like Cookie Monster from afar - it's still interesting to see Japan's version of the classic 1933 film (give or take Japanese extras in black face). Ishiro Honda reproduces its most memorable images, but also evokes Godzilla's previous attacks. I wasn't going to give the movie too good a report at first, but the final battle is actually well worth it. Crazy stuff that we're more or less tricked into accepting thanks to the more comedic human subplots. Hey, it works, and I already spotted the stuff I want to see call-backs for when the two Kings meet again.

I've hated Minilla in every appearance I'd seen him in, so I'd avoided Son of Godzilla, his origin story, like the plague. After a series of booster shots, I gave it a shot and... liked it? Minilla really is a pathetic creature, which at times gives him, well, pathos, though there's a big part of me that totally wanted to see him get eaten by a bigger monster. His kiddie shenanigans, I could do without, but the sort of nature documentary struggle to survive after birth stuff works pretty well. Godzilla's not the best father - they're reptiles, what do we expect? - but there are some sweet moments between them, including a really very strong ending. The better creatures overall are Gimantis and Spiga, as these big bugs require some fine puppeteering to pull and have pretty cool fighting ability besides. As for the scientists on this Monster Island prototype? They're just okay. I wish we'd gotten more of the Heart of Darkness stuff that seemed to be going on with one of them.

Kung Fu Panda 3 isn't as funny as the previous installment - which I think is the best of the series - relying entirely too much on "you look funny" comedy (whether it's Panda fat jokes or crooked teeth or whatever), but it is epic in a way only the craziest wuxia can be, with beautiful Spirit World sequences and great stakes for Po's China. See, there's an ancient and forgotten master who's going around stealing other masters' chi and turning them into jade zombies... It can get pretty nuts, though I do think they could have gone further with it (why so few masters actually used?). From the epic to the personal, we also have Po meeting his biological father, a subplot that could have felt hackneyed had it gone to a sinister place, but no, between Po's two dads, there's good commentary on the pitfalls of fatherhood, and Kung Fu Panda really is the most emotionally satisfying Dreamworks franchise for me (bonus points for integrating Po in the DW logo). Part of it is that I'm a big kung fu cinema fan, and one of my favorite tropes used to good effect here is the idea of using every day things and accessories to do kung fu (what I refer to as "chair fu"). The slapstick wasn't so great, perhaps, but in terms of action, setting and atmosphere, I loved it.

Chaplin's first full-length film as a director, The Kid is a sweet blend of comedy and melodrama, with a baby essentially delivered on the Tramp's doorstep, so he has to raise him in the ways of the street. It's very cute, and a little poignant as you wait for the boy to be inevitably ripped from his arms by social services or the regretful mother. There's a neat fantasy sequence reminiscent of similar (but less relevant) fare in Sunnyside, that's part of the film's commentary on Christian values, in particular, charity. I can't help but see a subtle criticism of Christian hypocrisy in the early scenes - and perhaps that's always been implicit in the use of the Tramp persona - followed by true examples of it in the way the mother behaves, informed by how she was treated. While Chaplin is equal to himself as a performer, it's the eponymous kid who is a nice surprise. Young Jackie Coogan is both affecting in the dramatic bits, and able to do Chaplin-style physical shtick. Later films would have more technically mastery, but The Kid takes a few steps in that direction, and is about the lovable characters anyway.

Trancers was fun enough that I want to see its 5.5 sequels even if I expect quality to drop off very quickly. I've certainly seen worse Terminator rip-offs! As an Empire/Full Moon production (didn't Tim Thomerson also play Dollman for them? I had a comic adaptation), it is cheaply made, but doesn't take itself too seriously, so it's easy to forgive the flaws. Jack Deth is a cop on the edge in the best action movie tradition forced to Quantum Leap 300 years back to our time in his ancestor's body to stop an equally leaping villain who has the ability to turn people into hypnotized zombies who heat up and disintegrate after they're killed before he kills the ancestors of all his rivals in the future. Helen Hunt, early in her career, is his pretty rocking Gal Friday, and a nice surprise. And it's a Christmas movie too. A lot of B-movie charm, propped up by fun comedy bits (Deth never really getting to sleep with Lena, the way one of a baseball player figures into it, the other future cop's leap) and also attention to detail (Lost Angeles, stuff like that). And by changing the time-threatening robots to something else, it avoids a lot of the pitfalls of "rip-offs". FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Set time machine to bounce between late 20th and mid-23rd Centuries. Keywords: Jack Deth. Trancers - not really alive, not dead enough.

So let's just watch the entire saga, shall we? In 1988, four years after the original film, Full Moon came out with Pulse Pounders, an anthology release that featured 25-minute sequels to both Trancers and The Dungeonmaster. The Trancers short, City of Lost Angels, isn't really required watching going into Trancers II (1991), but it's a diverting "where are they now?" starring four members of the original cast, including Helen Hunt and Alyson "we're watching her grow up in these films" Croft (probably my favorite character). An assassin breaks out of jail in the future and goes down the line to the 80s to take revenge on Jack Deth (as you do), and it shows Jack in danger of losing his touch. He's way too trusting. Still, there's an amusing use of time travel that makes for a good punchline. I wonder, do we have this to thank for Full Moon resurrecting Trancers a few years later? If so, then it's smile-inducing fluff that will lead to more of the same. Thanks, City of Lost Angels.

I'm actually surprised Trancers II (The Return of Jack Deth) still stars Helen Hunt, but 1991 is a year before her star-making role in Mad About You. Glad she's here even if the timey-wimey resurrection of Jack's wife kind of turns her into a jilted lover. I miss the energy she brought to the part in the original from 7 years earlier, and Megan Ward as Alice is nowhere near her in acting ability or charisma. Along with Hunt, there are a lot of returning characters (again, Alyson Croft, now a teenager, proves a favorite) and call-backs, and that's all very satisfying. There's a new trancer-maker in town, and I think the film's greatest sin is having Jeffrey Combs as a second-tier villain instead of being the creepy main guy. I mean sure, Richard Lynch can out-creep most anyone, but Combs feels completely wasted. Trancers II isn't as gritty and noir as the original, but it's still got some crazy fun stuff going on, enough to keep the ball rolling. Now can anyone try and remember Jack has to procreate himself into existence or is that no longer an issue?

Trancers III: Death Lives, is the end of the line for Helen Hunt (she probably did a day's work), and she will be missed. 1992 is the year she gets big, and you can tell she's way too good for this shlocky series. We've also lost McNulty, and that's a shame, and they've changed the method of time travel, which I don't think is for the best either. In most ways inferior to the preceding Trancers films - Charles Band is no longer directing and there's a more definite straight-to-video feel - it has a couple things going for it. One is that Jack Deth goes back to the origin story of the trancers, and it helps make sense of the whole psycho zombie trope. The other is that they've gotten Andy Robinson to be the father of the trancers - a Dr. Muthuh (yuck yuck) - showing Full Moon still knows a creepy villain is a better villain. One could still do without the sex stuff he gets up to with his trancers, but it works in that context. Otherwise, the action's not great. But they've decided to through an android shark-man into the mix, and Jack is able to look into camera pointedly, so it's bonkers fun despite its failings.

With Trancers 4: Jack of Swords, I can no longer consider this a time travel series. Rather, it does what a lot of B-movies were doing in the mid-90s and goes to Eastern Europe to shoot a low-budge sword and sorcery movie with Jack Deth as a fish out of water. It starts out well enough despite jettisoning almost every character we know (Jack is now the only survivor of the first two movies), with a bit of world-building and the teasing of new trancer-less paradigm. But then he winds up in a magical dimension where Trancers are aristocratic vampires with names ripped off Shakespeare, feeding off the peasantry. Only Jack Deth can give them hope, even if his gadgets all wrong wrong in this space. There are still a couple of good one-liners, and the character's humor shines through, but this really isn't want the franchise should do (i.e. Army of Darkness Lite). If it had been a one-off, perhaps actually in Medieval times, it might have been something (with future installments taking place in the Old West or Nazi Germany, etc.). Rather, it ends on a cliffhanger, so we'll have to suffer through a second chapter of this. Watchable still, but tedious when Jack isn't on screen, and unable to find a creep to play the villain, they instead went with a douchey fitness instructor. Oh well.

Trancers 5: Sudden Deth is the second part of Jack Deth as Ator and the story has finally run out of steam. To think this cheap fantasy two-parter was written by then-respected comic book writer Peter David. His greatest hit here is probably the pun Tiamond (time diamond), as the MacGuffin of the piece. The rebels are still fighting the vampire trancers, but Jack is also on a quest to get home to his dimension and time. Cue some DnD encounters, which I don't dislike, and the villain from the first film, which I don't care for. I'm really not a fan of Jack's pliant love interest in these last couple films either. When Jack eventually gets back to the future, it's to a schmaltzy happy ending of sorts, and I can't help but think the character deserved a much more satisfying "final chapter". There WOULD be another Trancers film in the future, but this is at least it for Tim Thomerson's portrayal of the hard-as-nails "Future Cop". He just barely saves this one from rock bottom, but it dips damn close, largely because this isn't the kind of movie we want to see from Trancers. Scorpion King, maybe. Trancers, hell no!

8 years after the last one, 18 years after the first one, there's an attempt at rebooting the franchise with Trancers 6 (Life After Deth), bringing the premise back to its roots (Quantum Leaping into an ancestor), with new villains creating a new breed of trancer. Had this been a success, it would have spawned more, I'm sure, because the ending suggests it. In this one, they cleverly use old footage of Tim Thomerson to make Jack Deth jump back into his and Lena's daughter in the year 2022. Great! Zette Sullivan has the unenviable task of giving a full-on Thomerson impression for the whole of the movie, which wouldn't be easy even if she had more than a couple screen credits. What kind of saves her is that 99% of the cast is made of worse actors than she is. Not quite comfortable in the part, she initially gives off a Melissa Benoist as a Kara/Supergirl vibe, but as Jo Deth, doesn't have much range. Overall, we could definitely use more humor, because while they resurrect the premise, and attempt to resurrect the character, give or take a couple scenes where Jack struggles with being a woman (is this supposed to be a pun?) they don't really manage to resurrect the tone that is crucial to the series' cult appeal.

2 comments:

Charles Izemie said...

Mind you, Chaplin wasn't Jewish.

He did of course play a Jewish barber in The Great Dictator, but that was after loads of people (including the Nazis) seemed automatically to assume he was Jewish himself, probably aided by the fact that Chaplin appears to have been the least anti-Semitic person imaginable.

While gentile, he was an Englishman, though, and that's one of the reasons why the Tramp remained silent to the end: Chaplin never mastered the American accent. (Neither did Stan Laurel, but in Laurel's case that merely added to the comedy.)

Siskoid said...

I have corrected the suggestion that he was, thanks!

 

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