This Week in Geek (9-15/12/19)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: With Parasite, Bong Joon-ho drops the science-fiction metaphors of Okja and Snowpiercer to craft a much more subtle and layered film about inequity and class struggle. There are many surprises in this one, so even talking about its themes may prove to be a spoiler, but I'll do my best... At the start of the film, we're introduced to a poor family who very entertainingly con their way into a rich family's house because they're desperate. The wealthy Parks are, surprise, good people on the face of it, but privilege is an innocuous, oblivious evil, and the audience is presented with two kinds of "parasite" on society, the poor AND the rich, who are toxic to one another. Upper and lower class are fabulously represented through verticality and observational pathos, and the more extreme elements of the story portray how the poor are made to turn on each other because they've been sold on the dream that they too can achieve fortune. On the flip side, the rich have built unassailable fortunes on the backs of the poor, what's bad for the underclass, good for them, no matter how sympathetic they may play to "the help". Some lines cannot be crossed. Great cinematography, and memorable performances too. I especially like Cho Yeo-jeong's gullible young mom and Park So-dam as the slick grifting daughter. Best film of the year, they say. I'm not sure I can argue. It's definitely a film for our times.

At home: The Report takes a procedural approach to the Senate investigation of the CIA's torture of terrorism suspects, a potentially dry if worthy subject, enlivened by hard-to-watch flashbacks to torture being used, and the protagonist's growing frustration with the Agency and government's brazen undermining of his investigation. At this point, I could watch Adam Driver - apparently the busiest man in movies right now - watch paint dry and probably have. More importantly, I've BEEN him in this movie. University politics are a micro-cosm and the stakes nowhere near as high as Washington's and this particularly issue's global consequences, but the dynamics are often the same, and if you come to care too much, if you have an overdeveloped sense of ethics, you will grow frustrated to the point where you are the least popular person in the room. Been there, had to get out. I found The Report very relatable in that sense, even if it's remorseless in its proceduralism (no private lives and distractions for these people). I feel like this is the counterpoint to Prime's Jack Ryan series, as if the streaming service needed to exact a penance for glorifying the agency that committed these war crimes. While it's at it, it takes a shot at the overrated Zero Dark Thirty and pays ITS penance as well.

It famously took Terry Gilliam forever to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, so it's natural to want it to be a masterpiece. It meanders too much for that, but since it's based on the most famous picaresque of all time, it probably SHOULD meander. And some might wonder at what the film would have been like with some of the people originally cast, but Adam Driver is a thousand percent superior to Johnny Depp, and Jonathan Pryce is as perfect for the role of the errant knight as John Hurt was. If people are looking for signs of the film's long gestation and frustrations, it's been embedded in the plot. Driver plays a "brilliant" commercial director who has clearly lost touch with his humanity and his art. Filming a Don Quixote-starring insurance television ad in Spain, he's reminded of a student film adaptation of Don Quixote he'd made there long ago. Striking out to find the shoemaker he turned into an actor, he finds the old man now believes he is Don Quixote, and so the parallels with the book begin, with Driver taking on the role of Sancho Panza in a series of episodes inspired by the book, though he has his own Quixotic streak to worry about as he reconnects with the things he has lost. A lot of that is the director's and the film's journey, and perhaps a personal avowal of his own negative temperament. Things I particularly like: The bit with the shiny knight; that's a clever throwback to Gilliam's Holy Grail film. And that some of the key episodes evoked are from Volume 2 of Don Quixote, which I consider a very early example of meta-narrative, often ignored or forgotten in favor of windmills and so on. But they're in here too, because of making a movie (or any creative endeavor) isn't like tilting at windmills, I don't know what it. Masterpiece or not, what Gilliam finally managed is twin adaptations of the book and his efforts to adapt it. One that might grow estimation as time goes on.

Noah Baumbach is really THE voice when it comes to presenting New York artist families, but The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is not my favorite of the lot. I just feel like a lot of the actors are playing to type, especially Dustin Hoffman as the patriarch who isn't doing anything particularly new here. Adam Sandler got a lot of praise for his work, but that's because the bar is set so low. He's nevertheless pigeon-holed as a loser with anger management issues (though I do enjoy that, as the frustrated unheralded member of the family, his scenes always get cut off mid-shout). No surprises from Ben Stiller either. But lower-tier Baumbach is still better than a lot of less-well observed comedy-dramas. Hoffman's siblings are brought together by circumstances and for perhaps the first time, deal with the issues they had growing up. It's a very compassionate film, about the unconditional family love, yet honest about what is very conditional "like", and what it means to live in the shadow of a parent, its positives and negatives both. I wish I liked it more, but Baumbach's cinematic world has given me more interesting takes on these themes to revisit.

It Happened on 5th Avenue is low-rent Frank Capra to be sure, but though the comedy is sometimes a little hokey, it was still an amusing Christmas picture with a lot of heart. You just have to buy into the idea that the wealthy characters don't call the cops as soon as they lay eyes on the squatters living in their summer mansion. Not an unimportant demand these days, but in the spirit of the holiday season, for me? Indeed, since it features a rich Scrooge reconnecting with simpler days when money wasn't the be-all and end-all of his existence, it's more than the just a question of Christmas Eve being celebrated during the course of the film. There's definitely some satisfaction at the millionaire being forced into doing manual labor and other indignities that are just normal for the middle class, never mind the poor. That works today perhaps even better than it did in 1947. At the center of this holiday silliness is Victor Moore's professional bum, an imp that's discovered the key to good living and means to impress that wisdom on his new house mates, the Santa figure that will ensure you get the romantic, professional, or ethical fulfillment you crave. Perfectly pleasant.

In 36 Hours, Nazis try to make Allied spy James Gardner believe amnesia wiped the last six years of his life to get him to reveal everything he knows about D-Day. A well-constructed period thriller that possibly owes more to the anxieties of 1965 than those of the 40s, echoing the Soviet's training camps/fake American suburbs and the fear of brainwashing. In fact, I've seen plenty of Mission: Impossible episodes that aped the bad guys' complicated scheme. The film shows its research (or the book's) with plenty of references to what the intelligence services were keeping an eye on at the time, often as throwaways. Not subtitling the Germans adds verisimilitude, but some conversations go on long enough for us to think we missed something important. Happily, there's real depth to the characters, with our hero able to be very ruthless indeed, while the Germans are allowed a full range of attitudes and motivations; only one is a straight villain, and even he has an interesting perspective. Bonus points for using some character actors pulled from the era's television, like James Doohan, Alan Napier and John Banner. I do think the third act is too long, like it doesn't know what its climax actually is, but those sequences also have things to recommend so what am I griping about?

The title "Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II" is misleading because it's not a sequel to any other Heisei film, the 2 is just there to differentiate it from the Showa-era MechaGodzilla confrontation. Also, it doesn't do justice to the fact that it's also Rodan's Heisei introduction, or the inclusion of a cute Baby Godzilla (so Son of Godzilla II?) that ISN'T Minilla, and is actually the closest we'll ever come to seeing Godzuki in live action. A lot of monsters and a lot of action. Violent, explosive action. Definitely the most savage yet, and I'm putting that in the positive column. It does beg a lot of questions about Godzilla's biology, introducing a secondary spinal brain to the Mythos and making us wonder how Rodan is actually related to the Godzilla family, and whether GZ is female or hermaphroditic and asexual, or what. The characters take it in their stride so we don't get the answers they refuse to seek. At least MechaGodzilla's origins are connected to the time travelers from a couple of movies back, which is good justification for Japan suddenly having that tech (but don't think about it too hard). Huge fun, fierce fights, a cute baby, psychic kids who sing into the monsters' heads, super combining mech robots... We can indeed say the winner... is life.

All the psychic stuff embedded in the Heisei franchise to date comes to a head in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, when G-Force decides to implant a telepathic receiver in the back of Godzilla's head to control him. And not a moment too soon because SpaceGodzilla is about to hit Earth, and Mothra's fairies warn that without the King of Monsters, the planet won't survive. But military types are really itching to use their new Chicken Mecha, it splits, combines and transforms and everything. Cue a lot of scenes in various cockpits (yes, that's a pun). Baby Godzilla's gotten pretty big, and is under threat as well (getting bad Minilla vibes, guys). While you could pretty much watch the Showa era movies in any order, not so with the more interconnected Heisei. I'm not sure the characters themselves could keep it straight, and many of them have been in the other movies! Anyway, the best part of this chapter is SpaceGZ's origin story, which is complete nonsense, grafted onto more nonsense, then sent through a black hole only to come out of a white hole upon a supernova. The monster's pretty cool, but ultimately, the final fight goes on too long, to the point where the mech pilots themselves think so. And when it's all over, they pour on the cheese and push a happy ending while Fukuoka burns behind the camera. Still provides a nice dose of insanity, but a step back for the franchise.

Humanity should be banned. We caused the radiation that made Godzilla, and our answer to the 1954 original was the oxygen destroyer, which in turn mutated plankton into Destoroyah, and now (1996) they fight in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. We just can't be trusted with capital-S Science. For the last couple movies, I've been wondering what they'd do with Baby Godzilla, whose only two possible fates seemed to be either dying a hero's death or replacing the old man. This is the movie where the answer's revealed, but the question hangs in the air the whole time, so I'll keep mum in this review. Destoroyah has a lot of new tricks and three Pokemon forms, and the big GZ threatens to go thermonuclear and explode the planet's atmosphere unless he's stopped, so the stakes are really high on this one, and there's a real sense of a climactic ending to the current cycle. Goodbye, Heisei era, you were big, bold and offered a lot of bang. I'd just have liked this finale a little more of the editing were better, but it's messy. Monsters are toppled and suddenly standing, wounded and suddenly fine, and there's often a beat too many in reaction shots.

When the lost continent of Mu resurfaces (figuratively) to threaten the world, only Atragon, a combination submarine-rocketship-drill can save us... IF an old warmongering Japanese Navy captain is willing to let the new, peaceful Japan use it! Ishiro Honda gives us another fun spectacle that's admittedly more Thunderbirds than it is Godzilla, with shades of Mothra, what with the people of Mu singing songs (perhaps interminably so) to summon their "god" Manda, a sea serpent that's much ballyhooed, but doesn't amount to much. What I especially liked is the comparison made between Mu and Japan, two empires in decline, and how waging war to regain that empire is ultimately a losing game. The captain learns that lesson in time, but Mu does not (though I still like their defiant queen, played by Tetsuko Kobayashi. But make no mistake, the film is also about Japan's technical supremacy. The new Japan won't wage war, but be wary of attacking it; it still has teeth. Extra points for Mu sporting Egyptian ware, scaly silver wetsuits, AND anime-colored wigs. Honda knows his ancient lost cultures.

From the title alone, you know Big Ass Spider! doesn't take itself seriously, and that's one of the reasons it succeeds where a lot of CG-monster B-movies fail. Oh, it's definitely the TV Movie version of a giant monster film, with Greg Grunberg playing an exterminator who doesn't care how big the bugs get, he's gonna go after them and show the army what's what. The comedy is also very "TV", and Grunberg's character's jokes aren't the most appropriate, but I found myself enjoying Lombardo Boyar as the comedy sidekick. The CG isn't blockbuster level, obviously, but the movie does a lot with what it has. Like it refuses to downscale its ideas because of money. And when the monster's not on screen rampaging, it knows enough to cut for comedy, throws a bit of improvisational banter at us, and takes us to the next level of ridiculousness, until our unlikely hero wins the day and gets the girl. Big Ass Spider! knows what it is and everyone involved has fun with it. It's schlock, but it's entertaining schlock.

With the Godzilla franchise in good health, Toho decided to go after some of that Gamera money with Rebirth of Mothra, a kaiju film aimed at younger kids. Like a Gamera film, kids are the protagonists, and everyone trusts them to save the world, and the parents aren't nearly worried enough that their children are riding the backs of giant monsters. The villain, the fairies' evil sister Belvera, is particularly broad as if the actress doesn't respect children's intelligence. Since both sets of fairies have little mounts (the small Mothra confusingly called Fairy is incredibly cute, did it immediately go on all the kids' birthday gift list?) which are used to stage a kaiju battle in the family's living room. The green screen is often terrible (as it is throughout the movie), but in the end, I decided I liked the sequence. It's just fun. Of course, the movie asks us to believe the tiny dragon's breath can be blocked by a tennis shoe, but later destroys a bulldozer. But this is a kaiju film where the monsters can pretty do anything, and when Mothra has to face "Death Ghidorah", she rains down as many special effects as she can. The battles are pretty good, with lots of aerial action and explosions, but more sensitive kids may be upset at the small amount of monster gore, and of course, the title implies a sad moment for Mothra. (No, YOU'RE crying!) The new Mothra - I'm calling her Green Mothra - has even more special effects at her beck and call. As an eco-fable, which this is, it's quite on the nose, but also provides a quick fix that is the absolute wrong impression to leave with kids. Overall though, I thought this was an entertaining if silly giant monster movie. I find Mothra, even Green Mothra, irrepressibly endearing, what can I say.

The mushrooms are radioactive and over-sized, but Matango is not the giant monster movie you would expect from Godzilla's father Ishirō Honda. It's not even really the monster movie the American title "Attack of the Mushroom People" implies (the alternate title "CURSE of the Mushroom People" is perhaps closer to the truth). Matango has more in common with The Heart of Darkness than it does those kinds of films. A Gilligan's Island set-up leads a group of castaways to an island where you shouldn't eat the mushrooms lest bad things happen, but the monsters are really the people, slowly descending into madness as hunger and despair take them. Some of the characters were rotten before they even got there, like the misogynistic guy who thinks women shouldn't take ocean voyages because they're cursed. So the mushrooms are a metaphor for moral decay, a "mold" that corrupts the human soul. There ARE traditional monsters in this, but if you wanted to say they're just part of the protagonists' imaginations, I wouldn't try to argue with you. A bleak horror-survival film, quite atypical of Honda's usual filmography.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
Charlize's next movie was The Italian Job, which I've reviewed before, and I don't think I have anything new to add about this fun but unambitious car commercial/heist picture, so let's move on. *tears out in his over-powered Cooper Mini*

If you somehow thing Charlize Theron's transformative performance in Monster comes down to hair and make-up, think again. She even moves differently. Real power house. Patty Jenkins could not have told the story of Aileen Wuornos, the first female "serial killer" as sympathetically without her. Because yeah, Wuornos was a murderer, but Jenkins and Theron make her pathology understandable, perhaps even justifiable. Here's a woman who never stood a chance, broken by life experiences and unable to free herself from a narrative steeped in literary naturalism. For her, killing comes like an accident, and to her surprise, it's liberating, it's a rush that, like a drug high, can never really be recaptured. In fiction, this might have turned into a legitimate vigilante story. But it's real life, and it's not that glamorous. It's tragic. And Monster is a love story too, a toxic one, but that's where the focus is, as it motivates the character's actions, and why her disappointments hurt so much and push her to extremes. The direction is perhaps unspectacular, but it does the job and Jenkins knows to stay out of Theron's way, as it's all down to the performance. Will she finally start getting cast in roles other than the weeping beauty from this point on?

Mike Mills' adaptation of the coming of age novel Thumbsucker probably doesn't know what to jettison, because it lacks focus. Or at least seems to when you compare it to similar fare. It's just that where a normal coming of age story more or less ends with the character, uhm, coming of age, we reach that moment at the end of the first act. And then, in a way, again at the end of the second, because what this is really about, is the fact that - as Keanu Reeves' kinda brilliant post-Matrix new age life coach orthodontist intimates - there are no definitive answers, and feeling stuck, finding the key to personal growth, etc. are not things that end with your high school graduation. Case in point, the lead's parents. Tilda Swinton's starstruck nurse and Vincent D'Onofrio's competitive loser have both failed to grow out of their teenage disappointment, a single incident essentially informing their immature adult behavior. So while an adult sucking their thumb is upsetting to watch (more so than chewing one's nails and other coping mechanisms), it is no different than other characters' compulsions (including Keanu's quest for cheesy Pop Truth). They're all pacifiers to deal with anxieties stemming from lack of control or satisfaction. We get a little lost in the wider canvas, but the film is worthy for showing the coming of age story has an ugly side, and many scenes are, in isolation, possibly greater than the whole.

Next up for Keanu was Constantine, which I have reviewed before. Now that we've had a proper (British) John on the small screen, can I let go of my disappointment at his Americanization? Definitely, I liked this a lot better than I did back in the day, as a supernatural superhero/Matrix riff with lots of style and cool effects.

7 comments:

tomg said...

I absolutely loved Parasite! It is the kind of movie you need to watch again to find things that you missed the first time around.

Brendoon said...

I'm so pleased to hear Quixote finally got made! I'd missed the news somehow.
I look forward to seeing it.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed "Matango," which has inspired a number of friendly fungoids in my roleplaying campaigns.
BTW, the era is "Heisei".

Shougo B'Stard said...

While it sounds like you have your kaiju month planned out, I'm curious if you ever saw the movie Daimajin? I think it's a cool twist on the kaiju movie -- it's a period movie, and the kaiju isn't the typical enlarged animal or alien or whatever, but more like a golem. I think the movie is decent and well-made, but it has a couple of skippable sequels.

I'd also like to recommend a show called Ultra Q, a B&W television series from the '60s that's like a mini-kaiju movie each week. It was a smash hit, one of the reasons being because it was movie-quality kaiju extravaganzas on the small screen. Mill Creek has recently released a nice and affordable Blu-ray set of the series, which is considered the first entry of the superhero Ultraman franchise. (Don't let that deter you, because it doesn't have anything to do with the superhero. Though it would be interesting if you did get into the franchise!)

The show is obviously inspired by shows like The Twilight Zone, which it's often compared to, but it's far quirkier. (It IS a kaiju show aimed at the family, afterall.) The main characters are a reporter, her pilot/aspiring sci-fi writer boyfriend and his comedic co-pilot, and they investigate or are pulled into strange (mainly kaiju-related) situations each week. The show is made by the company started by Eiji Tsuburaya, the legendary special-effects wizard behind Godzilla and all of those classic Toho guys.

Siskoid said...

Brendoon: It's free to stream on Popcornflix.com right now, though that may depend on your region. Hopefully it works in NZ.

Anon: Yes seems either my fingers or my spellcheck kept changing it to Hensei, which would be an entirely different kind of Godzilla movie.

Shougo: Both Daimajin and Ultraman were on my radar when I planned out the month, and it came down to availability and the themes I ended up giving each day of the week. Hey, gotta save something for my kaiju cravings in the future, right?

Brendoon said...

Thanks Siskoid! I'll search it out.

Tony Laplume said...

It's the first part that's meta-narrative, filled with asides about how various sections found their way into the text.

 

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