This Week in Geek (23-29/08/20)


At home: I wasn't that keen on Denzel Washington's first Equalizer movie - it was just okay. The Equalizer 2 is about equal in terms of watchability of the actors and action scenes, but wastes the Equalizer premise, relegating the "man who helps the underdog" idea to ongoing subplots, and instead focusing on tired old action tropes. While McCall helps people here and there (as in the teaser), this is mostly a revenge film where our man tracks down the bad mercs working for the Conspiracy that caused one of his friends' deaths, and while there are some new wrinkles (a finale in a hurricane for example), the film never escapes its chosen genre's clichés, and even doubles down on them. Washington is a fine, cool badass, but the story structure is clunky, and very little feels fresh and new. Because in the end, the world really didn't need another merc revenge conspiracy movie, or if it did, there was no reason to put the Equalizer stamp on it - was this Just Another Action Movie(TM) script lying around that they edited to fit the character?

What happens to the working class when there's no work? Mike Leigh's Meantime is a fairly bleak portraiture of a particular council estate family in Thatcher's Britain, faffing about, shouting at each other, and generally hurting each other's feelings because there's nothing else to do. Notable for very early work by Tim Roth (as a mentally challenged young man) and a seemingly fully-formed Gary Oldman (as a twitchy, demented skinhead), what is most striking about the film is the depth of the characterization. The most sympathetic characters are actually quite condescending and patronizing; they mean well, but also get something out of it, and that thing may be multiple things layered in. The toxic family environment is fueled by despair, and if you scratch at the anger, you'll find love there, and a certain rejection of society that could be misinterpreted (and is). Leigh sometimes follows leads into ancillary characters' lives to what seems like dead ends, and the music might seem only strangely suited to the material, but the more I think about the film, the more of its subtleties I grasp, even in the elements I at first thought were wonky.

What Mike Leigh manages in High Hopes is to drawn a comedic picture of class warfare in Thatcher's Britain, by slyly sticking to characters who actually aren't that far apart in the class system. We follow three couples who have an old woman with undiagnosed Alzheimer's connecting them. Her son and his girlfriend (a lovely and magnetic Ruth Sheen) are working class, not to say working poor, and though they rant against the class system, they are without a doubt the most comfortable "in their place", reaching for working class ambitions and finding contentment in the little things. I love their relationship. Then there's the daughter whose husband has his own business and she fancies herself upper middle class, but she's a terrible poser. The actual upper middle class neighbors are too, but you have to wait for the film to lift the upper crust enough to see it. One of the film's explorations is just how one's place in the class structure affects one's capacity for empathy and charity, and boy were the political and social discussions still relevant to today. I did at times feel some of the more extreme characters were caricatured, but the theme of "posing" actually does cover that rather nimbly.

Mike Leigh's Naked is not always an easy film to watch, on account of the sexual violence, but wow, what a powerhouse performance by David Thewlis! Now, I wish I knew how much of Naked was transposed from Homer's Odyssey (which is namechecked), because the film seems to vaguely bridge the gap between the epic poem and Joyce's Ulysses, with Johnny as an unrepentant Odysseus trying to avoid his fate as per Tennyson. Is Sophie his Circe? Is Louise (a young Lesley Sharp, very striking in this) his Penelope, and therefore the landlord right out of American Psycho the suitors? How about the security guard and the woman across the street as Scylla and Charybdis? Or is the latter a Siren? There is no one-to-one, as it's all very twisted, but it might be interesting to explore the evocations. What it amounts to is a Ulysses who spends his time sparring with strangers using hurtful words and playing at finding what buttons to push. You do reap what you sow and Johnny's universe (the city, the sea, Poseidon - ok, I'll let it go) deals him a worse and worse hand as we move through the narrative. It's one he deserves, and in a sense, one he invites, so adept at rejecting social norms that he will reject his own salvation when it comes, as well.

A period flick signed Mike Leigh? By its title and subject matter, it feels like Vera Drake is a biopic about some landmark case involving a woman who practiced illegal back street abortions in post-War England. It completely hornswaggled me as it's a well-researched fiction and defied my expectations. Period or not, it's still Mike Leigh, so it's about people, subtle acting, and raw emotion. Imelda Staunton is shockingly good in the title role, just about the kindest person on Earth nevertheless chastised for her attempts to help young women in trouble. I love how the rest of the cast was kept in the dark as to her activities until essentially, the actors playing the cops show up at the door (indeed, Staunton didn't know her character would be arrested either). Leigh's improvisational experiments yield the most powerful scenes. His interest in the class system also creates a momentary subplot in which Sally Hawkins plays a society girl who gets into "trouble", but has very different recourse, ironic contrast to what happens in the main story.

The Golem (How He Came Into the World) is a 1920 piece of German Expressionism, about a Medieval rabbi who animates a clay figure to protect his people from an antisemitic king, but also to make him do the shopping (Frankenstein's Monster never did that, though this film looks like a clear influence on James Whale's 1932 classic). Let's just say that while it does have some interesting effects and good performances, it's not exactly the most exciting horror film to come out of the era. Even without the Golem, the rabbi seems to be a pretty powerful wizard who you might think wouldn't need a magical servant, and in the end, beware what you ask the monster to do as it could come back to haunt you. What's perhaps most intriguing is the set design, which affects vaginal openings and womb-like chambers, as if commenting on the creature's unnatural origins. How should we then interpret the ending where little children are the cause of the Golem's destruction? Little blond children outside the ghetto at that. I have a hard time getting a handle on what the film is saying about the Jews, or who it is siding with. There are probably some postgraduate theses about this somewhere.

I've seen the 2011 staging of Company with Neil Patrick Harris so often, any other version is going to seem strange, but Sam Mendes' small-scale 1996  production for British television, starring Adrian Lester in the main role, carves its own corner by making it explicit that everything is more or less happening inside Bobby's head, whether as memories or as ghosts goading him on. A dingy apartment, an inebriated night of self-reflection and self-loathing, a crushing loneliness driving the action. I don't think the voices are all that strong, though the soundscape is also impaired by the space and means of recording, perhaps, but the production makes up for it with intimate acting. Lester cuts a melancholy figure and allows his voice to crack during his songs. Sheila Gish as Joanne is more shouter than singer at times (recalling Elaine Stritch's breakdown performance in the original cast documentary), but she also puts acting before singing. I could name others, like Sophie Thompson's Amy or even Paul Bentley's Larry (a  character one hardly ever talks about). The focus on intimate performance rather than on the music is at least interesting, and brings a lot of revelatory nuance to a play I knew by heart.

The Great Performances version of Company (2008) starring Raúl Esparza in the lead worried me at first. The sober cocktail wear, the deadpan Bobby, and the first couple's relationship being much more tense than what I was used to all made me think this would be a very caustic, cynical adaptation. But it fully won me over in short order. The conceit of having each character play an instrument and doubling as the orchestra is something I still can't wrap my head around in terms of casting and arrangements, an achievement unto itself (and actually adds another layer to Bobby's situation since he doesn't carry one). This is the most delightful version I've seen, musically. The dialog and lyrics are so crisply recorded, I'm hearing individual voices much more clearly, and hearing certain illuminating lines for the first time. Heather Laws is the fastest singing Amy I've ever seen and a total joy. It's all quite sharp, only sometimes cuttingly so, and while the minimalist staging I found sometimes a bit odd, this is one I'd be happy to revisit on occasion. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Loosely based on No, No, Nanette, Tea for Two is an ordinary Doris Day musical that really hangs a whole lot on a single song getting play on repeat (three guesses as to which one). The premise, which they take entirely too long to embrace (only in part because of the clunky book ends), is a silly one - to finance a show in which she will star, gets into a bet with her uncle who holds the purse strings to see if she can answer "no" to every questions she's asked, as he's trying to make her stop spending the money he doesn't want her to know he lost in the stock market. It's the Great Depression, but no one's really trying to not make it look like 1950, and the comedy is really broad at times. The one performer I want to watch is Eve Arden, whose snappy, sarcastic repartee is just the best. A couple of dance moments are pleasantly athletic. But generally, the plot, emotions and music just don't get a rise out of me. Wait for it... not my cup of tea, I guess.

The Wind Rises may be Miyazaki's ultimate expression of his fascination with human flight, a biopic about the engineer who created the Zero fighter plane used in World War II. Though he's obviously created more imaginative worlds, this one may yet be his most outstanding achievement in terms of animation. Just beautiful. There is so much detail in every shot, it's hard to imagine how many man-hours were poured into the film, and even something as simple as a man sitting at a drafting table feels like an improbable amount of thought went into it. As presented, it's a leisurely, lyrical romance about a boy who dreams of airplanes and seeks a sort of perfection akin to art. It feels very pure. Which is why I have misgivings about the film and where Miyazaki puts his focus. The truth of the story is that Jirô is building engines of war. Not that that's his fault. The film contains bombing imagery, unsympathetic Germans, etc., but refuses comment about war. The pursuit of a dream, whether it be creating the perfect plane, or the perfect anime, is clearly the theme, but in the quest for aesthetics, no ethical questions are asked, and I find that troubling.

After putting out 2-4 movies a year through the '60s, the Zatoichi took a break in 1969, and so had to(?) be brought back in 1970 by star Shintarō Katsu's production company (their first Zatoichi installment since Outlaw) with Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo. The oversatured blacks I didn't like in Outlaw are back; though it's not quite as gory, it's still pretty bloody; and there's a new wrinkle, the celebrity team-up, with guest-star Toshiro Mifune playing a shade of the kind of bedraggled samurai he played for Kurosawa. Watch for more of these in the series' last leg. With two big chambara stars sharing the screen, it's no surprise this is the longest film in the series at almost two hours, and as such, it has one of the most convoluted plots. There are many villains, sub-villains, allies, sub-allies, and characters with shifting loyalties in this quest for hidden gold, and you're forgiven for losing the plot at times. Not without its joys given the talent involved, but Ichi returning to his home village should have felt more personal.

I was stoked to see Zatoichi's original director, Kenji Misumi, come back to the franchise in Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, and it's certainly one of the most beautiful to look at, with wondrous natural photography, revealing animal shots, and weird dream sequences. The script, however, is all over the place, which makes the film sometimes feel disjointed, and it never really coalesces into a proper whole (the title is almost an enigma). We get some frankly odd characters - the psychotic samurai, the gay pimp who wants to become a yakuza, the blind boss, the ambiguous honeypot - and I feel like they're (like the imagery) memorable in a way that the story is not. Many of the action scenes come off as silly (the bath house fight, for example), despite the amount of garish blood involved, but perhaps it should be lauded for going over the top, an example of exploitation film making that nevertheless can claim to be arty.

Ichi's second crossover was Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman, and I thought, okay, the One-Armed Swordsman is going to be a "type", possibly a "rip-off" of what Hong Kong cinema was doing, so I was surprised and enthusiastic to see Jimmy Wang Yu, THE One-Armed Swordsman actually in this flick! Basically, the Chinese opera is in town, and so is Wang Kang (originally, Fang Kang) and he and Ichi become uneasy allies (and uneasy only because they don't speak the same language which leads to tragic misunderstandings). In terms of action, this is the craziest yet, with lots of violent gags and Ichi in top form, while the Swordsman is flying around wuxia style. I'm not always sure they know how to shoot Chinese martial arts, and Wang Kang is treated like Ichi, visually, but the Japanese have a better handle on cinematography than the Shaw Brothers usually did, so this is a lavish-looking finale for an iconic Shaw's character (I say finale, because the franchise then went with another actor as the NEW One-Armed Swordsman). There is apparently a Chinese print of this film that gives Jimmy Wang Yu more attention and a more triumphant ending, but it seems to be lost to the ages.

Some classic MST3K movies, regardless of comedy commentary... In the dingy and turgid Castle of Fu Manchu, yellow-faced Christopher Lee threatens to make audiences fall asleep. Master Ninja II is another clunky smash-up of two episodes of The Master, proving the writing and Timothy Van Patten's performance only got worse over time (and yet, it's more coherent than the first one). Marooned is a dry space mission procedural that actually predicted the Apollo 13 mishap (give or take a lame deus ex machina); you'd think being butchered by Film Ventures International into Space Travelers would tighten it up and make it more exciting, but you'd be wrong. Time Walker (AKA Being from Another Planet) - IN MOLD VISION! - might just prove Harry Belafonte wasn't into nepotism as this space mummy dud introduces his daughter Shari. Annnnnnnd I don't think Attack of the Giant Leeches knows what leeches (or excitement) look like.

Books: Just finished Jack Kirby's The Demon Omnibus on the week of his birthday (Kirby's, not Etrigan's) and I don't think I'd ever read more than the first issue of the horror-ish series the King was talked into doing (being charitable with DC here) when the Fourth World started to tank. Reading all 16 issues (and a little more as there's a few pages and panels that were originally cut for ad space back in the day) really put my assumptions about the Demon to task. I thought Morgaine Le Fay was a bigger concern, for example - the Phantom of the Sewers gets more play - and that there would be no rhyming except for the incantations to bring the Demon into our world and out. I certainly didn't expect each story to read like a House of Mystery tale, but they did. Early on, Merlin acts as narrator, like Cain or Abel. And even after he's gone, stories take a sort of ironic EC Comics (if we're to give credit where it's due) turn in the way the villains are punished. Very interesting read. As a bonus: Original pencils for covers and random pages.

Role-playing: We had a missing player this week in our Star Trek Adventures session, and it just happened to be the person whose memory we were in - what to do?! Our GM decided to take him out of the reality, allowed us some action (dice rolls were NOT on our side), then shifted us to our relative future, in the middle of the Dominion War. As a player, I knew more than my character, but it didn't really matter in the story. Good cliffhanger, but it could have been called several times. It was one of those "one damned thing after another" plots where you kept jumping from the frying pan into the fire, back into a frying pan, then the fire, and on and on. Certainly exciting. As a group without a commander (the Acting Captain was the one missing), we quickly fell into a "point person" command structure, where I gave orders in security matters, the Ops officer in technical matters, the Doctor in medical matters. I think Starfleet must be a little like that. My big bit was still doing the start-of-session "log" recap, which I did as friendly correspondence with a former captain. This is a conceit I built into my convivial Bolian - he keeps in touch with dozens of people. Each time I get to do it (we're on a rota), I'll be writing to someone else.


Allen W. Wright said...

I saw Doyles Sweeney Todd in Toronto, which used a similar conceit to his Company. Works not bad. And I’ve seen Raul Esparza on stage in person a few times, including Brecht’s Resistible Rise of Umberto Ui in NYC back in 2018. He gave a great performance, and a voice behind me said “I am really worried about Raul. He just threw himself into that part.” As we were leaving, I turned around to glance at my companion, I noticed the person in the row above us — undoubtedly the speaker of that comment — was his former Law and Order co-star Mariska Hargitay. (The other time I saw him in at concert in Toronto where he performed Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Soliloquy from Carousel, and delivered a better performance than Hugh Jackman who sang that song when he visited Toronto shortly before.)

Green Luthor said...

It feels like there should be a "Zatoichi Goes to the Fyre Festival" joke in there somewhere. :P

Siskoid said...

Seemed about as pleasant.


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