This Week in Geek (16-22/08/20)

"Accomplishments"

At home: While the second season of The Umbrella Academy repeats some of the larger structural elements from the first - save the cheerleader save the world again, the recalcitrant heroes coming together late in the game - there are a couple reasons why I think I liked it better. It's not as angsty as the first, nor does the plot feel as ripped out of X-Men, for one thing. We now know the characters are able to give them their own side-stories that aren't all wrapped up in their daddy issues, yet cleverly connect to the main story. And I really like the setting. Dallas in the days leading up to Kennedy's assassination is a time rife for social commentary and historical drama, connects to plot points from the first series, AND leans into the mid-century Americana aesthetic of the Commission that acts as antagonists for the Academy. Visually striking, with some of the best needle drops on television, and a really crazy high-stakes finale. You could say that of the previous season too, but I found this one more absorbing.

Not quite as filthy as the Garth Ennis original (how could it be?), Amazon's The Boys is still a take-down of superhero narratives full of ultraviolence and sex. A pitch black comedy about celebrity misconduct, where the stars are corporatized superheroes and the P.R. machine works double-time to make them look like heroes. The show focuses on that world though the eyes of up-and-comer Starlight, who has yet to become corrupted by stardom, but really this is the story of a group of renegades who have lost loved ones to the "supes" and want justice/revenge/to uncover the bigger conspiracy behind the company that owns them. The first episode is a bit of a difficult watch, as one female character is fridged and another sexually assaulted, but for the most part, The Boys works well. The show's equivalent of the Justice League is so powerful (and amoral), you get real tension simply from having them on screen. It's like they're weapons always about to go off. The stakes are high, the odds are impossible, so you're always wondering how the protagonists are going to get out of whatever trouble they're in, and that's a good thing.

Though it has a less open-ended resolution than The Old Guard, Project Power nonetheless feels like another Netflix would-be movie franchise built on a high-concept action premise that, if it gets enough views, could spawn another go. This one's about a Big Pharma conspiracy to test a drug on the streets of New Orleans, that gives you super-powers for five minutes, or if you're not so lucky, makes you blow up. The production has access to a collection of cool effects and three protagonists whose stories will dovetail in time for the finale, and the structure thus feels like this was originally written to be a TV show. Between this and the enemy's agenda, it is very much The Old Guard. What saves it from being too generic are the three leads. Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Dominique Fishback are people you want to watch, and though the first two characters, on the page, are as stock as stock can be, the actors are able to bring something extra in their performances. Not bad, but not particularly memorable either.

Sleight seems to promise superhero street magician action should come a lot sooner than it actually does, and while a part of me wishes it had, I was nevertheless quite satisfied with this gritty crime drama, with an unusual protagonist thrown into situations he can't control. Despite the mysterious powers (some tricks are explained or explainable, others are not, but that's part of the game - this is all still better than Now You See Me at a fraction of the budget), Jacob Latimore's Bo seems a naturalistic hero in the literary sense, unable to get out of the muck no matter what he does. Some of the other characters' characterization is a little, hum, slight, but the performances are generally good, and co-writer and director J.D. Dillard teases out the information as needed and lets things remain just ambiguous enough until then so that you're invested in the answers later. Ultimately, it's all about how far you would go to achieve your ends, whether in magic or in life, two ideas that are pretty well one in Bo.

Adapting a Terry Pratchett novel is, like doing so with a Douglas Adams one, an effort that requires a narrator of some kind because so much of the humor and non sequiturs and embedded in the prose. Good Omens uses God (I was gonna say the Voice of God, but that's an entirely different character) and it's perfect. Not just narration, but visual illustration to keep it from getting boring, and there are many novelistic touches like asides and chapter cards (and its few stumbles are novelistic too, like the prolonged epilogue). And yet, the surviving co-writer Neil Gaiman has not been too precious with the material and allowed significant changes to be made, like an extra final twist and fleshing out of elements that were more in the background of the book (one of these "fleshing outs" leads to the longest cold open in television history, so long it made me laugh out loud). This story of a Bungled Apocalypse is full of memorable moments, it knows its Scripture and has fun with it, and it looks pretty great. But ultimately, it wouldn't work if you didn't believe or invest in the unlikely friendship between a lazy demon and a gregarious angel who simply don't want the world to end cuz they enjoy it so much. And you do. You so do. Tennant and Sheen are just marvelous, and well supported by a cast of villains and zanies. Amazon has passed on a second season, but the producers and cast are still interested. Sure, we'd be way off the book, but given the chemistry between the characters, it'd still be worth doing.

As Romancing the Stone riffs go, Vibes is quite the odd duck. And I think I like it because it's so odd. Cyndi Lauper(!) and neurotic Jeff Goldbloom are psychics who get roped into a treasure hunt in the Andes by a fast-talkin', joke-a-minute Peter Falk, as other more nefarious parties also converge on a psychic MacGuffin in a lost city... See what I mean? The romance is cute (I guess I'm a fan of Cyndi Lauper as a screen presence, I can admit it). The comedy is light and beyond the ridiculousness of the premise, you can see the actors working overtime to include little bits of physical business here and there, appreciated. And the psychic powers are well used to get the heroes out of (and into) trouble. Actually shot in Ecuador, I do think Vibes would have benefited from better cinematography, but it often feels rather televisual and the backdrop sort of fades away. That's too bad. Making it feel more like a movie would have enlivened the seen-it-all-before treasure hunt plot.

I've been known to reward odd movies for simply having the balls to get made (see above), but they have to be legit. Howard the Duck has too much money behind it to access that category, though on paper, it might have. The tone is so all over the place that you're constantly asking who they made it FOR?! (Other than producer George Lucas who, with this movie, showed the first signs of not knowing what he was doing, which would evolve into Prequels Lucas.) It's about a cartoon duck, essentially, and the human characters are broad cartoons (Tim Robbins is particularly annoying), but it also has all these sex jokes and situations to appeal to some idea of a 13-year-old in 1986. And yet, we did have some laughs through the first part of the film. The water fowl out of water concept isn't too original, but if this had led to a completely different storyline from the comics, like Howard running for president, it would have had some kind of consistency. Instead, it goes into action sci-fi and totally loses the plot (which must be why everyone is always re-stating it). Every sequence from them on is overlong by a factor of 10. How long is Howard in the plane? How long must he drive around the lab/warehouse before he can shoot the overlord? It feels interminable, and every obstacle in the heroes' way is resolved so easily as to not matter. But I get the sense Lucas was behind the scenes going "spend MORE money, MORE!!!!!", and sure, the film has plenty of cool effects it neither needs nor deserves. Never mind the epic adventure music totally unsuited to goofy scenes of Howard "fighting" mobs of badly motivated antagonists. What this reminded me most of is the Masters of the Universe movie, though in reverse. He-Man's a big epic hero stuck in a Courteney Cox teen comedy. Howard is a funny animal trapped in a big SF blockbuster. It's just not what you signed up for.

Amazon Prime's The Tick remixes a concept that was never consistent from version to version anyway (the only characters from the comics or any other version of the show used are the Tick, Arthur, Dot and the Terror) and offers a less cartoony though no less amusing (even funny) long-form story about a family's Destiny with a big D, with characters that allow the show to compare comics reality (of different eras) to our own in a comedy format. Comedy, but not without action and thrills, no matter how absurd things get. The best thing about the show is the joy it takes in word play, and its two main delivery devices are the Tick himself, a blank slate who says things all wrong in an old-fashioned bombastic comic style, and Overkill, a 90s grimdark anti-hero whose tortured metaphors lead him into rhetorical dead ends. The first season is Arthur's origin story and culmination of his obsession with the villain who killed his father and the City's heroes. I actually prefer the second second for the laughs and world-building, as Arthur and the Tick are invited into the community of superheroes. Sadly, there won't be a third, tough I could have continued to watch this for a few more years, but though you can see where it might go, it doesn't really end on a cliffhanger. We're  left with a few mysteries, but we can let our imagination roam. Chief among these, I imagine, is where the Tick came from. I have my theory, but there's onscreen evidence that contradicts it, so I'll shut up. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

There have been a lot of bad people cut down in the Zatoichi series. The ones in Zatoichi and the Fugitives take the cake, almost more agents of chaos that will do bad things for the heck of it. Indeed, the title fugitives aren't yakuza and don't feel bound by that code. And yet, there's also a bad yakuza boss in this  who allies himself with the band of thugs, and he's really no better. They all have it coming to them, and do, in spades - this is one of the most visually violent films in the series. And it's rough on Ichi too. It's perhaps a good thing then that he befriends a kind local doctor played by Japanese cinema royalty Takashi Shimura, who lends a lot of gravitas to the family story at the heart of the film. Director Kimiyoshi Yasuda affects extreme close-ups and jarring zoom-outs to create interest in the frame - it feels very cinematic - but over-eggs the pudding when it comes to the music cues which are, by turns, syrupy, Americanized, or just overdone. Let the cicadas act as soundtrack, I don't really need any more.

There's no denying that 19 films deep, the Zatoichi franchise has some repetitive elements - namely, crooked yakuza, gambling sequences, maidens sold into indentured servitude to rescue, and climactic battles with cocky samurai - but in Samaritan Zatoichi, at least, I feel like they still find new wrinkles, and I am still watching eagerly. A yakuza massacre happens very quickly in this one, and the theme is that of the immense responsibility Ichi feels towards his victims' loved ones. In this case, that's a man's sister who the evil boss wants to force into debt so he can gift her to a local magistrate as a bribe. She and Ichi thus have a complicated relationship since he is both her brother's killer and her protector. In terms of set pieces, there are a number of new bits, like Ichi on a horse, or fighting from inside a straw mat, or a comedy bit involving disguises, but also what might be the longest duel he's had with a swordsman who wants the girl for himself. The Zatoichi films are formulaic, sure, but there is some play within that formula, and part of the formula is strong cinematography.

2 comments:

Drinkplentyofmalk said...

'Chief among these, I imagine, is where the Tick came from. I have my theory, but there's onscreen evidence that contradicts it, so I'll shut up.'

Okay, you can't just say that and expect to get away with it! Please share, I'm genuinely curious.

Siskoid said...

My take: That the Tick is actually a manifestation of Arthur's mind.

The contradicting evidence: That he scored a Category 0 in the test.

 

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