This Week in Geek (21-27/02/21)

"Accomplishments"

At home: I have some good friends watching the whole of the X-Men movie franchise, and I love talking movies, so I decided, what the heck, let's watch the few I haven't seen. And the reason I haven't seen them is because they're at the bottom of the barrel. So that explains that.

After Apocalypse, I swore off X-Men movies, but Fox was about to do the same. Dark Phoenix is, in the end, the last installment, and while not as ludicrous, boring and bloated as Apocalypse, it's not not quite a winner. I could have been. It started well enough. Jean Gray's origin. The new timeline's bright mutant future having compromised Professor X. A cool mission in space. Fastball specials. I was ready to say the film's biggest flaw was that I just don't find Sophie Turner compelling in the role. But as Jean loses control and starts being hounded by aliens for her new power (this is basically a waste of Jessica Chastain, because these villains are generic and dull), I started to see the bigger problem. It's natural for X-Men movies to want to do the Dark Phoenix Saga. It's one of the most touted and reprinted stories in the X-Men canon (in fact, this is the movies' second go at it). But it's a very involved storyline that needs to be set up early and build over several chapters for it to work, and these movies aren't really prepared to do that. Making it an intimate, psychological story about how to deal with trauma is fine for some other psychic-gone-wrong movie (isn't that New Mutants, actually?), but it misses the point. The story was a "Saga" because it was epic, and remorseless and devastating. The movie doesn't stick the landing on any of those levels and the third act is particularly tedious as a result, even withholding the trademark Phoenix effect for most of the picture, so it's not even committing to strong image-making. Better than I expected after the last one - and there's one mutant cameo that made me smile - but the franchise still seems to limp to the finish. Which is actually a good epithet for most of the acting, limp. It's not just the franchise that's tired, it looks like.


It seems to me X-Men: The Last Stand had everything required to be a success. It has the a lot of the original cast (almost all superior to later models), a theme that resonated with what the X-Men are all about (the idea of a cure that could be pushed on mutants), Kitty Pryde as  one of the X-Men, Kelsey Grammer as the Beast, and the promise of Famke Jansen as the Dark Phoenix. Alas, on this first try at the latter, it's a big misfire. Doing away with the Phoenix Force in favor of a hoary old split personality trope that makes Jean turn into a vampire is boring, and her story is forgotten for much of it in favor of the frankly better cure story. Whether because they wanted to get rid of some characters, or those actors wanted out, there's a real sense of taking out the garbage in the most unceremonious fashion. The deaths are ugly, some of the sidelining tone-deaf, and much of it completely reversible in a presumptive X4. Doing Juggernaut like that was a mistake, but a small one compared to the rest. Give or take the usual plot hole - if you know what powers are in play, then some of the action should go in other directions - I still think much of it works, and we might even have forgiven some of its trespasses if a further film had healed some of the damage as seemed to be the intent. So it doesn't do Last Stand any favors that they basically decided it didn't happen (except when it did, as in The Wolverine), and it now works within neither established timeline.

 

Hugh Jackman is so great as Wolverine, he even elevates the worst X-movies he's in. But is X-Men Origins: Wolverine really a stinker? Nah, man. It's biggest sin is screwing up Deadpool, but since the movie quickly went to the non-canon aisle (probably more because of the White Queen showing up in First Class), it doesn't really matter (AND enables some jokes in the Deadpool movies). It suffers from prequelitis, in that we know where many of the pieces need to end up before the first X-Men film, but that's a given. Not sure we needed other X-Men at the periphery, for example. It's otherwise a fine Wolverine movie. It's got tragedy. It's got good action pieces (I'm into ridiculous versions of historical events in superhero universes). It's deepens his relationship with Sabertooth and uses a cool opening montage to do it. It builds on the world by adding a bunch of known (and frankly, to me unknown) mutants. I've decided this one is at least as good as The Wolverine, for different reasons, which puts it in the middle of the road, Marvel movie-wise, but not roadkill.


A cold war movie without a cold war? Tony Scott did with the Navy what he did for Top Gun, in Crimson Tide, which is to say a shiny, atmospheric military recruitment film, though it's a much better film. I'm not sure we ever really believe the film could end with nuclear holocaust, but creating a situation where it could happen in the Clinton era at least puts some doubt in our minds. But nuclear war is really an abstract, so the real conflict is between the charismatic captain played by Gene Hackman and his intellectual new XO, Denzel Washington. When their submarine's orders are garbled, it turns into all-out war between two warrior philosophies. Obviously, we're on peace's side, but Hackman never quite stops being sympathetic. If it's anything, Crimson Tide is an ode to professionalism in the face of adversity. I remember going to see this in the theaters because everyone was on a Tarantino high at the time, and he'd reportedly punched up the script. They're really the weakest parts of the script, calling attention to themselves as the XO suddenly pulls out fairly expert comic book knowledge or uses Star Trek to motivate the crew. It just doesn't feel like that kind of picture. But a tense and exciting submarine movie in the tradition of The Caine Mutiny? Tony Scott was born for this kind of stuff.


The year before Stephen Sommers was tapped to make The Mummy, he made what is possibly his best film, Deep Rising. Famke Jansen seems headed for Die Hard on a Cruise Ship, but the situation turns into more of a Poseidon Adventure and then a big, silly creature feature with plenty of gore, but comic gore. The fact that the movie doesn't really treat itself seriously and plays the action for the humor (as did Die Hard, to be fair) means we can take the level of violence with a chuckle and a smile. And with some many terrorists in the mix, there's really only one character that doesn't deserve their death. Jansen goes from glamorous pickpocket to grungy monster hunter, but the nominal hero is Treat Williams who has a sort of TV star presence here, but gets the job done. The further we go, the more absurd the action gets and that's what I want my B-movies to do. You know what you are, so lean into it, hard. Deep Rising does, and scores an extra half-a-star for that smirk-inducing ending.


The story of an enduring friendship, Stan & Ollie threatens to be the duo's version of Limelight, but even in their pathos-building descent from glory, they still find some success, and the conflict between Laurel and Hardy, despite being over-stated by the film, isn't really very explosive. Well, you know me and biopics. It's at least interesting that they present the two stars' lives - or at least it's final chapter - as if it were one of their movies. There's a lot of banter, comic double acts spring up all around them, and there's plenty of slapstick. As the tragic music swells over their actual Music Hall performances, it's really hard to see their WORK as anywhere as funny as what's happening behind the scenes! Is that a problem? I'm not sure. Obviously, Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are excellent in their respective roles - I hardly ever think it's them - but if I'm giving the film a good report, it's really thanks to Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda (the latter especially) who play their wives. They are their own comedy team and very funny, but I also love them as observers and fans of their husbands, and the subtle understanding only the two of them could share. HAND OUT SOME BELATED SUPPORTING ACTOR AWARDS!

 

Jacques Tati introduces us to his trademark character in Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, an early feature (1953) in which he's still perfecting his style, but it's practically all there already. While the summer holiday town is really the main character and doesn't need Hulot to be in the frame or even part of a joke, the film's central gag is that Hulot is a quiet, unassuming man (a silent film star in a sound picture, essentially), and yet he makes a lot of noise and creates disturbances through his obliviousness and clumsiness, thereby generating a good measure of empathy as he draws the ire of locals and vacationers alike. He's like the boy Denis, whose mother keeps shouting at him when things go wrong, because there's a fair chance it's his fault. He just didn't bring his mother along. Watching this movie is a lot like reading a series of 4-panel comic strips and 1-panel cartoons in your daily paper over the course of a summer. Visual gags, set-ups and punchlines, all quite amusing. And though it's a little slow and meandering, like a summer town, it ends on brilliant fireworks climax that had me in stitches, showing what Tati can do when he extends the comic strip to a full-pager. From there, a grace note, and it's back to the city to await winter...


Tati's undeniable masterpiece is Playtime and I won't try to deny it. As we follow the timid and clumsy Hulot to a trip to the big city, as well as groups of tourists from Britain and/or America, it feels like Paris is posing for Tati, like it's all part of an elaborate production design. Paris as a science fiction model or matte painting. And of course, some of it IS a grandiose set, but not all. Tati finds visuals that are amusing, interesting and resonant in "nature", so to speak. The satirical confrontation between natural and artificial (i.e. modern) he showcased in Mon oncle and will again in Trafic is here at its best, as it makes a very interesting point about modernity's erasure of specificity. This big city is Paris, but it could be any modern city. All the buildings are the same, all the furniture, and Tati amuses by creating a lot of situations where one thing is taken to be another, one person for another (including a number of twin Hulots). The joke is interchangeability. In the modern world, the difference between an office, a store or an apartment is merely functional. The restaurant too new to be opened is an amazing space and that sequence could itself have been the film and still ranked among Tati's best work. Immaculately staged chaos, and very funny. And for all the gags and visual invention, it's the young woman who wants an authentic travel experience and only glimpses the great sights obliquely that makes the film as poignant as it is. I think she does get it, at the end, because modern genericity might well lose its struggle against specificity, in the PEOPLE, if not the spaces they live in. Just a wonderful picture, top to bottom.


I think it's easy to dismiss Parade as a lesser work. It was shot for Swedish TV in three days and, on the surface, seems no more than a circus and variety show on video. And granted, because of the speed of production, it's less precise and dirtier than an actual FILM by Tati, and the dub can be awkward, but it's real, legitimate Tati. The notion is that everyone in the room is a potential performer, whether among the set builders or even the public, and early on, Tati plays with the outlandish fashions of the 70s as interchangeable with those of clowns and acrobats. While the circus and Music Hall acts (including Tati's own prowess with physical comedy and mime) have a pleasant comedic vibe, it's behind the scenes and in the audience that you'll find Tati's trademark gags, here as usual begging your patience until that recognized face suddenly becomes a character and jumps on stage. Though the third act is noticeably weaker than the rest, I found a lot to love in Parade, the interactions with the audience particularly charming, amusing and out-right funny. Tati sure knows how to set up a surprise.


I would have been very surprised if Aaron Sorkin hadn't acknowledged at some point that Tanner '88 had a strong influence on The West Wing, and in fact he did. Written by Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau and directed by Robert Altman, the 11-episode mockumentary follows a candidate on the campaign trail during the actual Democratic primaries, with both staged and spontaneous appearances by the real people involved. I'm never fooled as to this being a real documentary because there are recognizable actors in it and the cameras are allowed in place they never would, but it WAS shot on the periphery, and I did wonder if some real candidates DID think Tanner was real and if so, how they did it. So I don't exactly resent all the realistic cross-talk and noise you get in many scenes, but if some elements are going to say "yeah, it's fiction", then maybe it didn't need to be so extreme. I'm saying this far in the future where faux-documentary and found footage are common tools in the box though. Tanner '88 remains an influential piece of television that has a lot to say about the electoral process, and Michael Murphy is perfect as the somewhat befuddled Congressman who sees his campaign spin out of control. Criterion's presentation also has the Sundance Channel's 2004 recap/intros where some of the characters get to muse on the events of the series, and they're pretty fun.