This Week in Geek (4-10/06/18)


In theaters: A hop, a skip, and a throw from the John Wick universe, Hotel Artemis features an art deco hospital for criminals, that has its busiest night in 2028 during America's biggest riot. Slimly plotted, it may leave you wanting more, and yet, still tells a number of stories thanks to a large and very recognizable cast. Jodie Foster as the hardened nurse, Sterling K. Brown as the bank robber whose last score goes wrong, Sofia Boutella as the sexy assassin, Dave Bautista as the gruff orderly, Charlie Day, Jenny Slate, Jeff Goldblum, Zachary Quinto... Every time a new character shows up, he or she gets a cool reveal, and generally, just enough personality and back story to make them memorable, if not always completely original. The actors play to type, which fills the holes. Make no mistake, this is about world-building, first and foremost, and the characters can sometimes feel like a means an end, but it's still a fun ride while it lasts.

Adrift is a competently made survival-at-sea movie, the true story of a couple who, back in the 80s, were hit by a hurricane while sailing the Pacific, amazing in that it didn't end in total tragedy. The film starts us off in the proverbial and literal deep end, and weaves in flashbacks to we can appreciate Tami Oldham's status as metaphorically adrift before she falls for the sailor who will affect her fate. The survival stuff is much stronger than the romance, which feels very typical, but the element is necessary to make sense of what goes on during the weeks spent on the drifting boat. But then, the typical is where the movie is aimed at. It doesn't always trust its audience (and shouldn't, I guess, judging by the confused notions overheard in the theater), and uses things like showing us footage of the real Tami in the end credits, a biopic trope I've come to despise as trite and jarring. A tale of survival worth telling, and not badly told, but a little obvious.

At home: The traumatic flashback has been a tried and true superhero trope since at least Batman, but Netflix Marvel calls it what it is - PTSD. And the first season of The Punisher leans hard into it by making it about the veteran experience. Frank Castle dreams of his family being killed, but this is essentially a metaphor for combat trauma. The season is filled with other veterans, dealing (or not) with their own experience - some become heroes, some villains - and even the non-soldiers can be said to explore this theme at one point or another. In the mix, we get the introduction of the hacker Micro, some decent conspiracy stuff, and, well, let's keep the review spoiler-free. Given my lack of interest in the Punisher, historically, it was a surprise that I liked the interpretation so much when he premiered on Daredevil. This is more that a continuation, and I dare say this may be my very favorite Netflix Marvel series. Castle's humanity is at the forefront in a way that isn't true of most Punisher stories (in any medium), the themes are very strong, and you don't feel like the show is mucking about for the length of an act just to get to magic number 13. To those worried about extreme violence, I'd say it only gets gory in the last three.

John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 deserves its cult status, taking DNA strains from different 70s exploitation films and crafting, for the space of 90 minutes a number of memorable characters and moments. This siege on a police precinct in the middle of being shut down, in which cops, staff and prisoners must cooperate to survive, is less crime drama than it is horror movie. The street gangs descending on the station might as well be rage zombies. That is their only character, and they don't get a single line. And the heroes don't have too big a character arc either. It's not about that. It's about one night of hell. But Carpenter gives us just enough during the build-up that we're invested by the time they're thrown into dire circumstances, with lively performances by relative unknowns and dynamic camera work. The editing could have been tighter in places (part of the shoot-em-up feels like a shooting gallery montage, but there's a pay-off), but lots of bare bones fun.

An early film by Spike Lee, She's Gotta Have It revels in an old-fashioned look and sound to tell a palpably modern romance. The jazzy music tracks, the black and white cinematography, the presentational acting, and even the movies referenced, all speak to an early time. Lee is tapping into classic cinema. His subject matter, Nola Darling, a young woman with three lovers, each desperate to be her only one, upends the Hollywood formula suggested by the format, however. Nola is no slut, or giddy thing who doesn't know what she wants. She's a free feminist spirit. This IS what she wants. And loving her means loving that part of her too. Impossible? Told as a series of testimonials intercut with actual scenes, this lively film finds its comedy in that conundrum. And its larger truth as well.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is an amazing musical about identity, how it is created, copied, rejected and embraced. On the surface of it, it's the story of a transgender rock star from East Berlin tracking her former lover who has stolen all her songs, and it's told mostly in a series of performances and monologues (which lead into flashbacks). But the very entertaining surface, full of crazy glampunk, dry humor and fun songs, is only one of many levels the film has to offer. Its flirtation with androgyny is obviously inspired by the rejection of traditional gender in everything from Rocky Horror to David Bowie to Queen to Poison, and suggests that rebellion is as essential as anything in rock and roll. Imagery pulled from both the Bible and Greek Myth intimates that we are all partly male and partly female, which eliminates the need to label it. Hedwig and her paramour Tommy Gnosis are but two halves of the same soul, a statement that may make sense of the odd ending, but then, the gender theme (and that of Berlin and its wall) can also be used as a symbol for wholeness, or un-wholeness, so long as we feel we need another person to feel complete. With its comical songs and energetic numbers, you wouldn't expect this to be such a thinker, but it most definitely is.

In 1984, Toho brought back Godzilla after almost 10 years, or 30 years, seeing as they ignored every film but the first. In this timeline, Gojira was never a hero kaiju fighting off a series of villainous ones. (An American version called Godzilla 1985 even had Raymond Burr reprise his role as a journalist who cuts in and explains the action, at the cost of actual footage, from the 1954 original). The fully Japanese version, also called The Return of Godzilla has a fairly good human story, with characters trying to put an end to the monster's rampage (although one female character seems retrograde even for the 80s), but in terms of effects, there's not ENOUGH of a jump since the previous 1975 effort. Godzilla's face and neck are more mobile thanks to animatronic technology, and the miniatures bigger in scope, but the quality is much the same. If you'd told me this was made in the 70s, I would have believed you. The recent and much ballyhooed Shin Godzilla perhaps owes more to THIS version of the story than it does 1954's. Its procedural qualities, how subtitles are used to introduce a wide cast of characters and organizations, were all taken to the next step in Shin. The best part by far is how the film uses the Cold War and Japan's fear of being caught in the middle to update Godzilla's metaphorical ground, with both super-powers making an appearance and threatening to destroy the monster themselves, Japan be damned. Smartly done. If only the monster action had felt like as much of an update.

Last year, Toho launched a Godzilla anime trilogy. The first chapter, Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, has strong premise, but sadly, not much else. What's exciting: The monsters have won. Humanity leaves with some nice aliens to find a new home. After 20 years of searching, they go back to Earth which is, thanks to relativity, tens of thousands of years later. Of COURSE, GZ is till there, somewhere. From then on, it's just a big fight between anime hardware (ships, flying bikes, mecha, etc., the things anime does effortlessly) against a musclebound notably CG Godzilla. This, more than anything, makes me give the movie a failing grade. The look of the monster just clashes with the rest of the animation, and it should be your STAR. The film does end on a doozy of a cliffhanger, but before we get there, it's equal parts technobabble and tedious explosions. Maybe Part 2 can reverse the trend, but I don't know...

The Bank Dick is a 1940 W.C. Fields vehicle about a lovable drunk (what else?) who gets no respect, but a whole lotta luck. This is fairly late in Fields' career, and he does look a little tired, but there are still some neat Vaudeville tricks, humorous banter, and I guess okay slapstick. Not sure they had a complete movie in there though. The main action has Fields' character accidentally foil a robbery, then becoming bank detective, getting his future son-in-law into trouble, and having to hide it from an over-zealous bank examiner. There's some joy there including a truly farcical chase scene.  And check out Shemp Howard as the fairly straight bartender! But the stuff where Fields also accidentally becomes a film director feels tacked on at best. Comes out of nowhere, and disappears just as quickly, making an inconsequential last-minute return. Some of The Bank Dick works, a lot of it doesn't, but I could think of worse ways to spend an hour and some change.

James Garner effortlessly fills the shoes of the title's hero in Support Your Local Sheriff, a western comedy about a lawman whose wit is as quick as his draw, with equally fun performances by the likes of M*A*S*H's Harry Morgan as the town mayor, the iconic Jack Elam as the deputy, and Bruce Dern as an outlaw whose family want him back after he's arrested. The only comic turn I don't quite believe is Joan Hackett's love interest, a weird mix of frontier feminism, Much Ado About Nothing romance, and odd slapstick comedy. But this, and the on-the-nose comedy score, are the only failings of an otherwise wonderful send-up. Garner has as much charisma as his character, controlling situations with nothing but essential cool, and the town's cowardice and vice make for light, but well-conceived satire. I'm going to keep an eye out for the spiritual sequel Support Your Local Gunfighter, that's for sure.

Books: If you know Philip José Farmer's particular fixations, then one of Time's Last Gift's twists will become obvious long before the end. But it's not really THE twist in the tale, there's more, until at the end, Farmer may have tripped himself up. I won't spoil it, but there's an easy fix to the way time travel works in the story to avoid one particularly confusing paragraph. ANYWAY! This is the story of a group of scientists who go back to 12,000 BC to study the Magdalenian era, with lots of nice extrapolation of what life might have been like for primitive man. This, as much as the intrigue surrounding the expedition's mysterious leader, makes the book a fair page-turner, even if it can feel like an elaborate set-up for the final chapter punchline. Its actual weakness is character psychology. The dialog is so stiff, it hides emotional content, and makes some of the character development - especially the romance - largely unbelievable. Not one of Farmer's greats, but certainly of interest to SF fans interested in the soft sciences.


Tony Laplume said...

Support Your Local Gunfighter is great, rest assured.

Siskoid said...

Looks it!


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