This Week in Geek (6-12/03/17)


At the movies: Logan is a violent postapocalyptic western tragedy that posits a satisfying enough end to the X-Men saga without actually killing the franchise (it's set in 2029, leaving plenty of space, though for my money, it really didn't need to), while also providing a base for future stories, perhaps with the eye-catching X-23 taking on Wolverine's mantle in the wake of Hugh Jackman's retirement. Despite its place in X-Men history, it feels unburdened by the weight of the the other films' tortured continuity, referencing events in the saga's gaps without overtly explaining them. And that's a good thing. Despite the straight-forward storytelling, the film does feel very "current", evoking as it does the Mexican border, refugees trying to cross into Canada, and so on. And that's proper for an X-film. Mutants should always stand in for minorities. Still, the movie isn't quite as rich as it might have been. It seems to want to say something about GMOs and redemption (very disparate subjects, but still), but doesn't quite get there. There's a point where it sort of becomes a murder show and somewhat repetitive. It's still the best Wolverine film by a mile, and one of the X-franchise's Top 3.

DVDs: Where I thought John Carpenter's equally high-concept Escape from New York was paceless and dull, his Big Trouble in Little China really, really, REALLY hits its mark as a high-octane, even relentless, action flick. I compare it to the Indiana Jones films, where you're always in the middle of some climax or other, but instead of Lucas' Saturday Matinees, Carpenter takes his cue from Shaw Bros.' kung fu flicks - and those crazy fantastical ones at that! Kurt Russell is perfect as the badass trucker with all the cool lines and a John Wayne drawl, who is nevertheless in over his head, in actuality the sidekick to local heroes. The way Carpenter constantly undermines Jack Burton as a "hero" is pure, and delightful, genre subversion. As with most of the director's work, there's great care given to world building, and though the film takes place in the 80s and has some 80s fashions, it doesn't feel dated. That neon temple is keen! Even Kim Cattrall's odd comic book delivery has its place in this weird collage. Rollicking good fun.

Y Tu Mamá También sits somewhere between the documentary and the novel, but it's also the portrait of a generation of Mexican youths, and a snapshot of the Mexican countryside. It often feels like a documentary because it feels so raw, real and improvised (the sex scenes especially). We're just along for the ride as two horny bros take a cousin's wronged wife on a road trip, hoping to sleep with her. What will happen to her and to their friendship sneaks up behind you as you settle in to simply get to know these characters in a leisurely pace. But there's something of the novel to it too, the one stylistic choice of note regular freeze frames so a voice over can tell us back history or what would happen later, perfectly capturing, I think, the notion that this is a moment in time, a stolen season as it were, at once informed by what went before and informing what comes after. A pivot in these characters' lives.

I kind of expected Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to be something of a precursor to some of the aspirational political fictions I love (The West Wing, for example), and in many ways it was. But Jimmy Stewart's idealistic junior Senator is really the lone good man in a huge corrupt machine that almost destroys him, and so it really isn't one of those utopian stories where civil servants really want our best interests. Alas, the film's right-minded patriotic sentiment hasn't lost its relevance. I wish it had. But it seems more needed than ever. And so Mr. Smith must keep going to Washington to remind us of of what's right. Only the character tends to be naive and cheesy, the movie isn't. It actually does a good job of vulgarizing what the Senate does and how it works (or doesn't), acts as effective satire at times, and provides a killer political climax (though also a bit of an abrupt ending). Hasn't lost its teeth!

I knew Lady Snowblood was one of the inspirations for Tarantino's Kill Bill, but I didn't realize just how MUCH. At times, it felt like Kill Bill was really a remake of this 1973 Japanese classic. The basic plot, the structure, the music, and archetypes are generously borrowed from this film. Though in some ways, it's more epic, or perhaps I should say operatic. Snowblood isn't just an assassin bent on revenge, she's a demon brought into this world to carry on her mother's vendetta. This maverick blood-drenched masterpiece has so much stylish flare, it hurts, the forced contrast between snowy white purity and bloody red at once shocking and beautiful. As with much of Asian cinema, Lady Snowblood takes no time at all to make you hate its irredeemable villains and thus appreciate the carnage visited upon them by the heroine. Your hands and conscience are clean, watch with glee.

Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, juggling a large cast of characters dealing with racial tensions on an extremely hot day on an inner city street, has been called ambiguous by some, too obvious by others, but I think neither hits the mark. Rather, I'd call the film ambivalent. It's not merely saying racism is bad, because we know that, nor is it necessarily striking for a deeper, hidden truth. What it does, despite the funky stylistic choices like direct addresses to the camera, is present every day racism with all its textures and levels, its clichés AND contradictions, with humor and drama both. The racism fueled by simple irritation and misunderstanding right up to the explosion of violence and hate crimes of the end of the film. How one can like a person from another ethnic group, and yet be prejudiced against the group. How some people are very much the cliché hateful people would make of a certain race, without necessarily being examplars of that race (why else would Lee give himself the role of Mookie, the lazy pizza delivery boy whose girlfriend accuses him of being a deadbeat dad?). Point is, it presents us with realities, and by presenting makes us ask questions about racism in our lives and points of view. If you're looking for something profound, you'll find it in yourself, if you dare look.

Mel Brooks' original 1968 version of The Producers, about an unscrupulous theater producer actively trying to put on the worst show possible so he can "lose" money and bank all the investors' checks, only to have the whole farce blow up in his face, is at times quite clever and funny, but generally too shouty for my tastes. There's just so much loud zaniness I can take, and The Producer at times blows that particular gauge. Gene Wilder's quieter accountant is thus more my speed, and there's something quite joyful about his performance, the producer's con played out like a seduction, and its achievement a kind of post-coital contentment. And of course, there's some loopy fun to be had with the production of "Springtime for Hitler", bad taste reconfigured into a hilarious if accidental send-up of the Third Reich and its theatrical regalia. But some of the comedy is perhaps a bit broad, at least in the acting, by today's standards.

Patrick Swayze is America's best "cooler" in Road House, an 80s action flick that narrowly avoids sounding dated thanks to a soundtrack mostly supplied on set by the Jeff Healey Band, and which through more crazy on the screen than you can swing a punch at, until by the third act, it's all gone off the rails in what I can't decide is the best or the worst way. If I put my Asian Cinema goggles on - and the movie at least hints that I should by showing me Swayze practicing tai chi and ripping throats out with his fingers of steel - then I have to respect the movie's over-the-top choices. It's just that as far as "rich land owner terrorizes citizens who dare stand up to him" plots go, the contemporary American setting sort of makes it hard to believe. And even a western's nasty oil baron wouldn't go to such needless extremes to teach people some lessons. In the first act, it's at least interesting as a manual for bouncers; in the second, you're just enjoying Sam Elliott kicking ass and finding out even the lawyers in this town are bar room brawlers; by the third, the concept of the law has gone right out the window. It's hard not to follow it out, but I can't deny it's a lot of fun no matter its flaws.

Netflix: The Fabulous Baker Boys takes place in the dying embers of the lounge scene, when two pianists, brothers played by Beau and Jeff Bridges, add a gorgeous but messy singer (Michelle Pfeiffer) to their act so it can survive, and as it turns out, thrive. But this third element is destabilizing enough it highlights their arrested development and creative differences. Above all a character study, Pfeiffer's acts as the catalyst that tests the two other leads, but she often steals the show (and sings her own songs, and beautifully too). Interestingly, some of the real-life brothers' actual conflicts inspired some of the scenes in the film, which presents a battle of egos between the "responsible one" and the "popular one", which really does feel true to life, whatever family you belong to. An excellent retro soundtrack, cracking dialog, and memorable characters. I don't need to ask for more.

In This Is the End, Canadian actor Jay Baruchel visits his friend Seth Rogen down in Hollywood on the eve of what appears to be the Biblical Apocalypse, and ends up trying to survive it in James Franco's house along with other Superbad-etc. alumni. It's got its moments, I'll admit that. Baruchel is sort of the voice of the audience, an outsider who thinks these celebs (or the parodies of themselves they've agreed to play) are terrible people, the fantasy-adventure elements are well realized and though a bit glib, the ending has some guts and heart. But of course, this crew can't help but roll around in their own bodily fluids and lame drug humor, which hardly ever resonates with me. The second act is especially aimless and disgusting, and has you rooting for the death of certain characters just so you don't have to endure them anymore. Oh well.

The time travel romcom Kate & Leopold has one great character and one terrible one (plus a perfectly acceptable supporting cast), which makes it hard to love and difficult to hate. Hugh Jackman, as Leopold, is the real winner here, stealing every scene as a paragon of virtue, old-fashioned in his code of honor but open-minded when it comes to contemporary human rights. He's earnest in everything he does, charismatic, always watchable. Not so Meg Ryan's Kate, an umpteenth advertising executive (possibly the most common job for romcom heroines) who is just incredibly unlikable, mean to everyone including her leading man, to the point where it's difficult to fathom why he would fall in love with her (but for a dearth of pretty girls in his home time, it seems). He's a figure of romance, and she's just too cynical to buy into any of it, and while I can see where that conflict would keep them from getting together initially and keep the film from being too hokey, her turn just doesn't work for me. They just haven't done enough to justify her choices in the later half of the movie. At least the time travel paradox stuff is acceptably done, as far as these things go.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, Big Trouble is always rewatchable for me. I liked Mr. Smith well enough, but I suspect real life politics has no Smiths; it's full of people like Claude Rains character (or worse).

I saw The Producers a few years ago and expected it to be absolutely hilarious, but it fell a bit flat for me ... I think Young Frankenstein is way funnier. Road House is pretty stupid but has some cool fight scenes. Lady Snowblood sounds cool; I'll have to check it out.

I've seen mixed (but mostly positive) reviews of Logan. I'm way behind on my X-Men movies (I think the last one I saw was First Class), but you're not the only one speculating about the future of the franchise:

Maybe another reboot is on the horizon?

Mike W.

Anonymous said...

About "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", I find it to have more of a toxic message than anything, as demonstrated in US politics year after year. A huge number of us believe that all politicians are corrupt, and the solution is to elect non-politicians. Well that cynicism just keeps people from differentiating between good public servants and bad, and that hurts the good ones. And as for non-politicians, well, look how well prepared they are to perform the many tasks and balance the competing interests that public servants have to.

"Parks and Recreation" does a much better job, I think: you've got Leslie Knope as a go-getter among mostly bored bureaucrats in Pawnee, but she's no outsider to politics, she believes in good government and has dedicated her life to it. And, when you get to government levels above Pawnee Councilman, other public servants seem to be just as invested in public service. There's Ben and Chris of course, but even when we glimpse other politicians higher up they almost invariably want make the country a better place.

Basically, if you watch P&R, you learn to vote in more Leslie Knopes and fewer Councilman Jamms and Bobby Newports. And that's a message the US needs to learn desperately ... and unfortunately didn't learn before November 2016. Instead we sent Mr. Smith to Washington and it turns out he wasn't actually Jimmy Stewart.

Siskoid said...

The Tea Party's full of Mr. Smith, I agree. But the current situation is as if they put Jim Taylor in the White House.

Toby'c said...

I haven't been able to see Logan for myself yet, but from what I'm hearing, I really have to wonder how satisfying an ending to a saga can be when it kills off nearly all of the regular characters between movies while basically rendering all of their accomplishments regarding human-mutant coexistence entirely pointless.

I had similar complaints about Days of Future Past retroactively making the efforts of the first trilogy doomed from the start, so to see the same mistake repeated is honestly kinda infuriating.


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