This Week in Geek (1-07/07/19)

Gifts

My friends Marty and Nath got me the 5-Minute Marvel card game. Time to beat Thanos with Squirrel Girl, as nature intended.

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: I somehow managed not to see a trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home. Not online, and not in the movie theater despite my attendance record. I had not seen a single frame of this movie before I sat down to watch it. If I mention it, it's that 1) it's a rare occurrence for a blockbuster like this and 2) it makes me realize how being a comic book fan essentially pre-spoils you. The movie unfolds as if the audience doesn't know a thing about Mysterio, but of course, some of us do. How does this play if you don't know anything about the source material? I have no clue. Jake Gyllenhaal does a great job with him, at least until the script requires him to go a bit arch, and I like how MCU history was purposed to create and motivate the character. The Homecoming series still has a claim on having the MCU's best villains. My main beef with the first movie was that it had too much Iron Man in it. I'd heard the trailer leaned pretty heavily on that as well, and while it's true that Tony Stark's sacrifice haunts Far From Home through and through - it's as much a reaction to it as it is an Endgame epilogue that addresses the 5-year "blip" - it felt more natural and let Spider-Man breathe a lot more. Breathe but not rest. As an action spectacular, it bounces along quite nicely, has some fun cringy teenage romance, incredible visuals worthy of Mysterio, an international scope, and feels of its day (i.e. it's Spider-Man vs. Fake News). Could do with less of Peter's doofy teachers however (I thought this was supposed to be a school for over-achievers?). Plus, some crazy crazy crazy mid- and end-credit scenes.

Look, I'm probably never going to not like a Richard Curtis script, so Yesterday worked for me despite the evident remix of elements from across his career (especially Nottinghill and Love, Actually. As ever, he is interested in relationships between celebrities and normal people, and with popular music, of course. The conceit here is that a space-time event erases a number of things from history, including the music of the Beatles. You can't look at this as a proper "what if?" because there's not much of a butterfly effect, but it's well-played for comedy in the first act, and as (totally stealing from my friend Marty here, because it's a brilliant observation) a metaphor for impostor syndrome later. I don't really think the film manages to meaningfully answer the question as to whether these songs have power outside their original context, it just assumes they do, and that's fine. Yesterday means to be a loving tribute to the Beatles' music, and to their inherent message of love. Himesh Patel is a fine comedy star, generating great pathos and selling his character's moral dilemma. Lily James is a treasure who lights up the room. Kate McKinnon is hilarious as a too-close-to-the-truth record company villain. And good on Ed Sheeran (himself an unlikely star, physically, so he probably relates to Jack Malik's story) for laughing at himself this much. Director Danny Boyle gets in his own way sometimes - this is a small, indie-type story and works best when he lays off the camera tricks - but Yesterday still stands as a charming almost-musical. And best use of Google in a movie?

At home: Plot-wise, Always Be My Maybe doesn't stray very far from the tried (and tired?) and true romcom formula, aside from casting Asian leads (I find it ridiculouss how progressive this still is for Western cinema). In fact, it's very Richard Curtis with the whole "can I love a celebrity and can a celebrity love a shlub like me?" element. But I'm not here for the plot. Romcom plots may have "com" in mind, but they're not, by themselves, funny. This movie has a lot of what I call stealth comedy, i.e. jokes you don't see coming, and that the actors and director don't lean hard into so you GET IT. A lot of chuckles around the room throughout, and at one point, I completely lost it for a good minute straight, and it's not any joke you probably remember. At its best, Maybe lampoons celeb culture (Keanu Reeves is having a great year) and trendy restaurants, which really tickled me, and while Randall Park isn't much of a singer - Ali Wong's character seems to think so, but I can't tell if it's her crush talking, or if the movie believes it - Hello Peril's (I JUST GOT THAT!!!) style grows on you, and here are a couple of very fun songs in there that should end up on my playlist.

Nightmare Alley is Carnival Noir with Tyrone Power playing the role of an unscrupulous mentalist-huckster who eventually hits it big, but has trouble maintaining his empire. He's great in this, bringing a searing intensity to the role, and he's well supported by the likes of Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, and especially Helen Walker as a psychologist who may be better at manipulation than he is. The sparks fly in their scenes and make me question just what was really happening. Did she hypnotize me in those moments?! Apparently a bible for a certain kind of grifter, the film isn't always as clearly structured as I would like and contains my pet peeve - badly interpreted Tarot cards (the literalness kills me). But it's only real problem, I think, is the tacked-on hopeful ending, apparently mandated by the studio (who else?). If it ended a minute later, it would feature one of the best end-lines in all of movies. As is, it's kind of lost in the suits' fear of a movie ending on a bleak note. I saw that note coming a mile away, mind you, but I still bristle at having been robbed of it.

As Noir, The Glass Key has something going for it, chiefly how wonderfully violent it is. Alan Ladd's escape from the thugs around the mid-point, after being beaten to a pulp, has a visceral feel, and I like the most interesting villain in the film has to be William Bendix's gleefully sadistic and unhinged henchman. But it's all a bit too convoluted and difficult to follow for my tastes. It took me a while just to get my bearings as to who had what skin in the game, as we follow people who SUPPORT someone in an election, but not really the campaign itself. And though he has a fun scene here and there - like calling the cops on the mobsters right in front of them - Brian Donlevy as the hard-nosed D.A. framed for a murder he didn't commit (or did he?) gives too cool a performance, so it seems like nothing, good or bad, affects him, putting the audience at an emotional remove from the film. A fragile thing, tone. You could almost call it... a glass key.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is one of the better entries of the Showa era, but that's largely due to Jun Fukuda's direction, as I don't think there's ENOUGH Godzilla in it. The human story is crazy though, and keeps our attention as defined by a lot of dynamic, hand-held camera work, mod editing choices, and cool sound design. This is a Godzilla movie that's learned a little something from the exploitation films of the early 70s, so it's pretty violent, with blood spurts and everything. Some of the style gets into the kaiju action - I'm always impressed by how much the guys in the suits must have suffered - but those sections have a harder time breaking the mold. When the big GZ is on screen, it's awesome. And Mechagodzilla is a worthy foe for sure. Unfortunately, we're also sadly saddled with King Seesar, a big lion dog with droopy ears who proves to be pretty wet for this kind of action. His job is to loom large in a prophecy, then get his assed wooped. But a lot of fun nonsense regardless.

Master Ozu, you get me every time! I thought Passing Fancy would leave me tearless, given that it's a silent film and as much comedy as it is melodrama, but with Ozu, you can pretty much bet character will bawl their eyes out at some point, and so will you, though not necessarily at the same point. In this one, a single father takes an interest in a homeless girl and gets her a job, and while he develops feelings for her, she falls for his best friend who doesn't care for her. And then there's his kid, who feels neglected as his dad goes through this. The one-way triangle successfully hides who and what is a "passing fancy", and the film builds up your sympathy for the characters through infectious smiles in the first half. Our protagonist isn't a particularly good father, but he's trying , and there's a real sense of community between the characters that triumphs over the angst. That's what I found most touching. On a technical level, pre-war Ozu uses a much more mobile camera, but he still keeps it low even if it means cutting off heads. I'm not sure about that choice, but one I AM sure about is the way he starts scenes technically inside the previous scene, the way we might with sound, except with interstitials. It feels bold and modern, within the silent genre. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Kon Ichikawa's Her Brother (or Younger Brother) is an extremely well-shot family drama set in 1920s Japan, and therefore examining the mores of the time/place, but I feel it resonates beyond its setting. Of the two siblings at the center of the story, the brother is favored by the father and can do no wrong, while the older daughter is expected to be good, help around the house, and endure various indignities. Though notionally old-fashioned, these are familiar family dynamics regardless of gender. The stepmother is a particularly interesting character, having brought ardent Christianity in the home and yet too easily rejecting her husband's children for their failings, especially the teenage boy's propensity for delinquency. The daughter is thus the stronger maternal figure in the story, but one that is undervalued by the rest of the family. Like many post-war Japanese films up through the early 60s, it's about examining one's place in the family or society as traditions start to change. In that context, the final scene is devastating.

The very quickly irrelevant Terminator Genesys starts like a reboot of the original film, seen from the point of view of Kyle Reese. When he gets to 1984, we realize the timeline's been changed a couple times while he was heading there so now Sarah Connor has been raised by an Arnold Terminator, there's a goopy T-1000 hanging around, and Skynet's gonna come online in 2017, thanks to a new breed of machine that tries to do what the T-1000 did for the franchise in T2, but meh, I don't think you can make us lose our minds over CGI anymore. I like a good timey-wimey story - and the film is self-aware enough to give Matt Smith a small role - but this one's initially a little too confusing even for fans of the franchise. And while in isolation, the action set pieces are exciting and I can see where the jokes should land, the movie lacks the energy and chemistry of the first two films (never recaptured except perhaps in The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series, which I consider the only further sequel worth a damn). I think the Terminator franchise's mistake is thinking fans love the concept, when it's actually the original characters we liked. Emilia Clarke has a passing resemblance to Linda Hamilton, but it feels like she's faking her grit and emotion. Jai Courtney as Reese is nothing like Michael Biehn, and turns in a generic hero performance. Similarly, I find Jason Clarke's villain just okay. Arnold is perhaps the highlight as "Pops", but he's given a lot of boring techno-babble. Genesys isn't too bad in that it updates just what might bring about Skynet in this day and age, but it should really lean into it if it means to be at all chilling, or tense even.

Set time machine to 2029. Keywords: Robot assassins. The year 2017. Kickass female heroes. The sentient Internet. Tech that only works when you're nude.

I remember when Ghost in the Shell came out in 1995, it was sold as the next Akira. I didn't see it then because I'd also heard I shouldn't believe the hype. Real late to the party here, but I think both statements are true. On the one hand, it has that level of technical mastery, though laden with primitive CG animation (still turns out well), and while people always praise the animation on these things, I want to give a shout-out to the background artists because that stuff is just as amazing. There's also some great sound design. And like Akira, the story can be a bit obtuse. That's where the hype stops being true. I find the philosophizing on the nature of identity delivered in the most boring terms and tones imaginable. The story just stops so characters can deliver speeches. No, not speeches, TEXT. Don't get me wrong. It understands that cyberpunk has an important existential component. I just wish it were less on the nose about discussing that angst, as the visuals tell a better story than the dialog does.
Role-playing: Kicking off Season 2 of our BarDnD - music is magic - campaign, and kicking it off BIG. First, had to integrate Vincent's tea-leaf reading bassist to the group, a marriage of convenience to enter Forgotten Realms Idol (why would I kid about that), a competition for 4-person bands held by a Red Wizard in Thay with an Eastern tour culminating in an Imperial performance at the very ends of Kara-Tur on the line. Of course, before they can win the contest, they've got to contend with a Red Wizard who melts the living statue they adopted back in Season 1 into a ginormous mech-sized living statue bent on destroying his rival's contest. A fantasy mech that can only be destroyed by METAL (if you know what I mean). And when it was all over, I sent 40,000 Mongol warriors after them. It's not gonna be a quiet trip through the Orient. The group really impressed the judges and came up with solutions I hadn't expected. That's a win. Now we have to wait a while before playing again as the other weekends in July are VERY booked up. Oh well, can't be helped.
Set list - Gates of Arabia, Down with the Sickness (The Disturbed), Jessica's Song (GBB), Patio Lanterns (Kim Mitchell), Under the Sea (The Little Mermaid), Daffy Duck the Wizard, Hero (Nickelback), Prince Ali (Jonathan Young), Love Is All You Need (The Beatles), You're the Best Around (Joe Esposito), I Believe I Can Fly (Me First and the Gimme Gimmes), Fame (Irene Cara).

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