This Week in Geek (9-16/02/20)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), or as the WB, in panic mode, now wants to rename to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, is a hell of a lot of fun. And since the WB screwed up the marketing, let me do it for them. This is essentially DC's Deadpool 2. You have a fun anti-hero who narrates the action and it's definitely HER story, and various other characters joining in on the fun (the way X-Force did in DP2), so it might have worked better, in terms of selling the movie, if it were a pure Harley movie that backdoored the Birds of Prey. Not to say they don't play a big part (except Huntress who is a bit of a mysterioso throughout, cute take, but it's really not her movie), because it really does play as an ensemble film where various characters converge through the convolutions towards the climax (I think whoever compared it to a Guy Ritchie crime movie had it right). Ewan McGregor makes Black Mask a fun mercurial and pathologically narcissistic villain, and I kinda dig his loathsome right-hand Zsasz too. I'm not sure the movie makes the Birds of Prey themselves a viable IP, though Rosie Perez as Renée Montoya is pretty great and I'd be interested in seeing where they think their version of Cassandra Cain would go (more Black Bat or Orphan than Batgirl, I imagine). But as a Harley Quinn movie, big love, guys. The roller-skate action alone! Fun soundtrack too.

At home: An early silent tragi-comedy from Yasujirō Ozu, Tokyo Chorus might just be the first movie to feature a sequence with urinals in cinema history, I don't know. The film follows a family man who takes everything rather lightly (and has since school), but his light-heartedness is tested when he loses his job, not only creating hardships for his family, but shaming them in the process. The picture elevates his temperament, however, and going with the flow, his best trait, is what will eventually save him. I find it interesting that a Japanese film would show the dangers of losing face, but also deflate the importance of that cultural imperative. But of course, ego isn't a Japanese invention even if they have a ritualized manifestation of it, so the lessons here are universal. What is beneath you when the welfare of your family is at stake? I can't say Tokyo Chorus touched me as much as some of Ozu's other films did, but the anti-authoritarian wage slave protagonist who stands up for what's right was definitely relatable.

Yasujirō Ozu's Tokyo Story is a beautiful, quiet piece about intergenerational strife from the Japanese master, centered on elderly parents visiting their children in the big city, children who for the most part think it's a bother. Ozu is incredibly good at understatement. We might, from a dramatic standpoint, think of the children as villainous in their neglect and lack of respect, but they don't do anything we've never done to our parents (and that their kids aren't doing to them). What's more, the parents kind of take in their stride, with a vague sense of disappointment tempered by acceptance of their place in the cycle of life, never really showing irritation or even boredom. In contrast, their widowed daughter-in-law, played by the wonderful Setsuko Hara with her trademark smile, shows the most duty. She hides a secret, but like everything that's gone before and that is slowly teased through the course of the film, where resentments might hide, and behaviors might be explained, it's all again understatement. Ozu finds universal emotionality there and avoids overt melodrama. It's all so touching, and I know I've said this of every Ozu talkie I've seen, and about half the silent films, but I frequently wept, and not just at the things that hit close to home. Everything in his films is calculated, right down to the rhythmic thumping of a ceiling fan to make you feel time is running out on all our lives. I was lucky enough to be gifted the Criterion edition of this film on DVD. I also contains an expert audio commentary (which gets pretty technical), a retrospective by various directors from across the world (some seem to have directed themselves so good their pieces are, the English speakers are the most boring), a two-hour documentary on Ozu that goes from cradle to grave and speaks to the people who knew him, and an interview/retrospective with Chishū Ryū who starred in many Ozu films and more besides. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

I know a lot of people rate Stagecoach highly, but it left me pretty cold, honestly. I recognize its influence on later westerns - everything from Lucky Luke to Hateful Eight has poached from it, even Doctor Who's The Space Pirates has someone doing Andy Devine's cartoonish yokel voice - and maybe that's part of the problem. It's all so familiar without really being the best example of this story. John Ford has essentially put all the western archetypes on the same cramped stagecoach (or in various cramped way stations) to see what happens. Unfortunately, John Wayne is among them and True Grit aside, I cannot stand him. He's such a bad actor (and not a great person), and this movie propelled him to stardom so it has a lot to answer for. Some strong stunt work during the Apache attack, but generally, had trouble getting into it, and I thought of bailing out of it several times (as I've done before with other John Wayne classics). Pretty prescient, however, to have the banker character say the USA needs a businessman as president. He was as wrong in the 1800s and in 1939 as he is today.

I used to watch The Saint on TV when I was a kid, but I can't claim clear memories of the program except for the animated calling card stick figure opening. 1997's movie version is fine, but not particularly memorable. Val Kilmer is fun in the role, and I like the Young Indiana Jones type origin story, but the gentleman thief is co-opted by an action spy thriller narrative, with a ludicrous MacGuffin, a cartoon version of Russian politics, and Elisabeth Shue as a movie scientist (if you know what I mean). In fact, she isn't just badly written, but her character's presence pushes the movie into romcom territory, and it's far weaker on that level than any other. I just don't believe the romance anymore than I do the politics and science. The script misses a couple of opportunities for good grifter stuff, and is on automatic when it comes to predictable call-backs and such. Well, at least Coupling's Kate Isitt is in it in a tiny part (and Emily Mortimer is a small, but oo-la-la role). That's good for something, right?

I'm gonna go ahead and give In & Out a positive review, but it's kind of dated. I say "kind of" because no way would teenagers these days react like this to a teacher being outed (at the Oscars no less - don't worry, it was the 68th Academy Awards, so Matt Dillon only stole Nicholas Cage's place in the timeline). But there are parts of the U.S. where maybe a teacher could get fired for being gay, or where people would be very awkward about this indeed, so it might ring true, I don't know. If it works it's that the cute cast is quite charming, and director Frank Oz delivers a lot of good jokes that have nothing to do with being gay, and even some, like the audio tape that teaches virility, that work very well too. At times, it challenges stereotypes, but ultimately leans into them, so yeah, I have somewhat ambivalent feelings towards it now that I probably didn't in 1997 when it came out. Ultimately, no harm done. It's just not ambitious enough to truly be controversial. And Lauren Ambrose is in it in an early role. That's good for something, right?

When Worlds Collide is an at-times stodgy scientific procedural about a pair of celestial objects on a collision course with Earth, and how the world responds to this extinction level threat. Within the bounds of what seemed reasonable in 1951 (or perhaps 1932, I haven't read the original book to compare), the George Pal production does a pretty good job of figuring out how some part of humanity could "jump ship" to the rogue planet flying past in the last moments, even though that planet itself crosses the line in terms of believability. Not so much that the event could send it into a stable orbit conducive to life, but that it's magically welcoming to HUMAN life, and that it looks like a fanciful painting. Especially after the realistic procedural stuff. I do find it interesting that the movie puts more stock in the ability of billionaire businessmen than governments to carry off the project - did Elon Musk see this and identify with one of the bad guy? - because yeah, it doesn't make those rich guys heroes, quite the opposite in one case. The dark side of human nature is exposed in those last moments, which is certainly more interesting than the 50s-isms, like the nepotistic romance and the bombastic dialog delivery.

Deep Impact started life as a When Worlds Collide remake and even kept the same date of the apocalypse, but people really only remember two things about it. One is that it came out the same year as Armageddon, though it's the thinking man's version (and thus, did not do as well). The other is that it featured Morgan Freeman as the U.S. President and along with President Palmer on 24, helped normalize the idea of an African-American in that position. Maybe you remember Elijah Wood on a bike. Definitely forgettable is Téa Leoni, droning through exposition, unconvincing as a journalist/news anchor. Overall, the film smartly imagines what would happen if (in this case) a comet were to head for Earth, updated to the realities of 1998, with a bit of disaster movie effects and a streak of optimism. The large cast of recognizable faces tells many stories, personal and epic, of varying interest, definitely better at the procedural stuff and the astronauts' mission than it is at the sappy melodrama of Leoni and Wood's stories.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize

The Whole Truth isn't gonna shake your world or anything, but it's a fairly good mix of procedural courtroom drama and melodramatic shocks and twists, a mystery that unfolds through testimony intercut with flashes of memory, and gets into the psychology of defense lawyers and witnesses. It keeps a number of balls in the air when it comes to the mystery's solution. Elements of it are easy to guess, but you're not quite sure which of your guesses is correct. Does it earn its final twist? Not sure it does, though it works okay. Keanu Reeves is solid, as is Gugu Mbatha-Raw, his "bullshit-meter" and our audience identification figure. Courtroom dramas can feel like television because there's little production value on the screen - few locations, and little action - which is why there have been so many legal dramas on TV. The Whole Truth doesn't escape that feeling, but we're not being asked to go see it in a theater. At home, it's a perfectly fine example of the genre that has you parsing truth and lies to figure out just what happened in the murder case, like a kind of psychic jury.

Snow White and the Huntsman is one of those mostly monochromatic fantasy spectacles that tries to make a fairy tale feel realistic and gritty, which is largely silly given the story. If you've every wanted to see Snow White wade through human effluvia and eventually become Joan of Arc and fight in an epic battle, then this one's for you. It really wants to be Lord of the Rings, or The Hobbit I guess, what with all the fantasy dwarves. That said, I don't think it's actually bad. There are moments of wonder, and an impressive cast, which is perhaps why it disappoints in the end. There are too many interesting actors among the Seven Dwarves for them to get so little play, and if there's a romance between Snow White (Kristen Stewart not yet owning her power) and the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth doing Scottish Thor), it's quite cursory. Charlize Theron is gives a good OTT performance as the evil queen, but has strong quiet moments as well. Overall, the movie tries to pack too much into its runtime, so we flit from episode to episode and some things get lost in the process. It may not be the Snow White movie anyone wanted, but putting that aside, it's a pretty okay fantasy movie.

Her next project, chronologically, was a series of Funny or Die skits collectively known as Charlize Theron Got Hacked. These 2-minute bits are meant to be actual material stolen from her phone. They mostly make her seem like she's insane, and the later ones are definitely better than the earlier ones. Had I not been doing a CharlizeWatch, I probably would have bailed before I got to my first laugh.

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