This Week in Geek (13-19/06/21)



In theaters: Where most American lit is really about the failure of the American Dream, Lin-Manuel Miranda still seems to believe in it, which makes him something of a utopian. His first Broadway hit, In the Heights, is, like Hamilton (which "Easter Eggs" in a couple of amusing ways), an immigrant's story, or several, really. The younger cast each have their dreams, for themselves and their communities; the older had a dream, communicated it, now dream for their their kids. As with his Crazy Rich Asians, director Jon Chu creates something lush, sensual and vibrant, and it's that energy that carries you along as much as the songs and dance numbers. Because it's a musical, he's able to have more fun with it - he certainly makes an effort to do something you never could have on stage. But it's the all-Latin cast (some faces recognizable, others quite fresh) that really endeared me to the picture, the several leads giving a very touching performance (I thought about naming names, but we'd be hear all day - it's pervasive). When Anthony Ramos asks if you want to take a break (surely where the interval goes in the stage play), you really, really do because you should feel destroyed at that point, but the film barrels on and you just have to tell yourself you'll sob at home later. Ultimately, this is about caring for your community - so it's released at the right time in history - and about how you can preserve your heritage while still living for the future.

At home: How many cars did Volkswagen end up selling because of The Love Bug? I was a fan as a kid (saw the Monaco one at the drive-in, and somehow remember the TV series even if there were apparently only 5 episodes), and I still am now. It's goofy, it's silly, but you don't even have to be good at anthropomorphizing to think of Herbie as alive. There's just something about the Bug's shape. Amusing things I would not really have spotted as a kid include how the romcom tropes are overtly used for a man and his car (though Michelle Lee is good as the proper human love interest), and though I could not possibly have seen Dean Jones as Bobby in the original run of Company, I still belted out into songs when it was clear he wasn't ready to get married, and then was. It's pretty funky that someone thought Mary Poppins' Mr. Banks would make a credible race car driver too. Trigger warning: Things get dark at a certain point and Herbie tries to commit suicide. Wasn't expecting that. But on the whole, the joy of these movies is seeing an adorable car brave the dangers of free-for-all races where people are invited to cheat and try to murder the competition. That last one is basically Death Race 2000, but with the Disney guarantee that nobody can die.

There are no rules in the racing anime Redline except that if somebody has an idea that's too insane to put in the movie, then it has to go in. Though our rockabilly hero's pompadour is impressive, he's pretty normal in a universe inhabited by weird aliens, kaiju monsters, crying soldiers, superheroes, magic-using mecha pilots, and more. Redline is the greatest race in the universe, pitting elite racers in gorgeously-designed vehicles against one another in a virtual warzone (a planet that doesn't want them there or media attention on their military installations). The animation of a high level, and though it's kinetic as all get out, you're never left in the dust - the action is always understandable even if it's a little like staring into fireworks at ground zero. Completely ridiculous, extreme in every way, harking back to exploitative 80s anime movies I saw as a youth, mostly in a good way (I could do without the gratuitous T&A, for example). If you like the better Fast and Furiouses, you'll love this.

It only makes sense to compare Copie Conforme (AKA Certified Copy, though I would have thought Carbon Copy a better translation) to the Before movies if they're all happening at once. When are we in the relationship between Juliette Binoche's character and William Shimell's? It seems to shift. The question of whether a facsimile is as good or better as an original is a central theme and a path to puzzling out what's going on, or I should say many paths. Director Abbas Kiarostami is known for playing with reality and the film can be understood as a cinematic game of replacements - the stranger becoming the absent husband and father, at first as a diagetic game, then turning into absurdist truth. Clues may also lead you to an unspoken relationship between then, former lovers (with Binoche as mistress), which asks whether a facsimile of love, marriage, commitment, is as good as or better than the real thing. Is nostalgia a "copy"? Whatever the truth - and it plays on several levels - the third act is quite touching and adds to the ambiguity with an ending that plays entirely on a face. What do we glean from the expression? Interpretation (of art, of value, of meaning) is one of the themes of the film, and we're joyfully asked to do as much work as it does.

16 years after Jackie Chan's subversive portrayal of Wong Fei-Hung in Drunken Master, he roped director Lau Kar-Leung into making DM2 AKA The Legend of Drunken Master, which has his drunk folk hero fight Westerners who are robbing China of its cultural artifacts. This is definitely post-Once Upon a Time in China and follows its Wong Fei-Hung playbook, i.e. a huge finale where the hero is as much fighting industrialization as he is the bad guys. It does seem unfortunate that Jackie and Master Lau clashed during filming to the point where the latter left the project, but it seems obvious why. The climax, while savage and spectacular, doesn't feel like Lau Kar-Leung's work - it's a little too sadistic for that, and uses wirework - but is only slightly tonally off the rest (which has a lot of broad comedy and tough but essentially bloodless fights). Now, when I think of Jackie Chan, I usually think of stunts, but this may be his last pure martial arts film and he shows he has the goods. On a side-note, fun to see a young Andy Lau in a minor role you think's going to be more important.

I know Chang Cheh's output tends to be bloody and sadistic, but Masked Avengers is potentially the bloodiest, goriest of all. I've seen slasher films with less blood! A large cast of characters is assembled to finally get the region rid of masked assassins who kill entire bloodlines with their trademark tridents. But will they start trusting Philip Kwok's character, a former Masked Avenger who's out to stop them too before they're all killed? There is so much carnage, you're not sure they will! There are really TOO many characters, to the point where the reveal of one of the Avenger chiefs doesn't register. Most of their functions is to die terribly at the end of a fork, so how am I to know who to get attached to? Still, the kills are inventive - they really make the best of that one weapon - and the finale, in the villains' booby-trapped lair, showcases a very high level of martial arts. The insanity of the last reel certainly earns this Venom-powered flick a big bump.

50 Years of SF/2008: Imagine there are people in the world who can teleport a will and Samuel Jackson really, really hates them and hunts them down. That's Jumper. I can't fault the effects and action in the film, the spectacle is pretty strong. I CAN fault, however, the casting and the writing. Though there are some good actors in it, the main jumper (David) and his belle (Millie) are first cast as teenagers, then re-cast as young adults who are less engaging. Mr. Liman, I think the same actor can play 17 and 25, truly. We end up with Hayden Christensen and The O.C.'s Rachel Bilson, two people I could hardly find more boring. They do okay, to be fair, but only okay. As for the script's weaknesses - signed David Goyer, so not surprising, unless we're talking about the stunning lack of a blood-related MacGuffin - they mostly amount to the jumpers being selfish dicks who, even given the opportunity for heroics don't take it. We're almost on the side of their hunters. Yes, David DOES care about his loved ones, but that's not exactly selflessness. The trick to teleportation is doubtless jumping into plot holes, but some of these only come from the film's confidence it would spawn a franchise. The final twist in nonsense because of it. Crazy teleporting fights it is then!
Actual best from that year: Iron Man, Blindness, Cloverfield, Pontypool, Wall-E

2009: From the writing team that gave us Catwoman, The Net and Terminator 3... Doesn't exactly inspire confidence in Terminator Salvation, does it? While I lay plenty of responsibility at director McG's feet, as he did deliver an often-confusing monochrome actioner filled with underdeveloped characters, the problem mostly comes down to premise. If there's value at all in doing a non-time travel Terminator movie set after Judgment Day, then it has to be John Connor's yet-to-be-written victory over Skynet. Why were we fighting to keep Connor alive in all the other films? Show us. What NO ONE asked for is the story of how Connor met Kyle Reese (and as a punchline, how he got that scar). EVEN LESS if it's gonna entail John Connor playing second fiddle to a cyborg with a heart of gold (Chekhov's heart, as it turns out, which isn't a spoiler because I've never seen so many circles drawn around a script item in any movie ever) who gets into way more action than he does. We're supposed to care about this character's redemption arc, but his back story is as underdeveloped as anyone else's. There are a few cool action set pieces, but it's telling the wrong story.
Actual best from that year: Moon, Star Trek, Mr. Nobody, Timer, District 9

2010: Having seen and enjoyed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time animated film from 2006, I was skeptical of the love action Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time from 2010. Feeling I had forgotten enough of the details of the previous film, I went for it and... I shouldn't have worried. It's really a sequel to that film, featuring the daughter of the original character who goes back in time to her mother's school days. It's actually more complicated than that. TGWLTT was a novel first, and since the 1970s, there have been many, many television and film adaptations, so it would be more true to say this movie is the sequel to the NOVEL, it doesn't necessarily connect exactly with the anime. At this point, "young person goes back in time to their parents' youth" is almost a subgenre in Asian TV and cinema. There seems to be an interest in nostalgia and things "retro" fueling it, and correspondingly, Time Traveller takes its time to experience the era (early 70s Japan) and sometimes comes off as sentimental. Be that as it may, it's a sweet story that earns its tearful ending. And I don't think I've ever seen such a silly time travel sequence in what is otherwise a serious movie.
Actual best from that year: Inception, Monsters


2011: Sure, I'm in for the robot fighting, but Real Steel's set-up is frustrating to say the least. The formula is painfully obvious from the off, but they set Hugh Jackman's character so far back at every level that he can't possibly "arc" with any measure of believably. He's so bad at fighting robots AND at the business side of things, you can't believe he's in this racket at all (he's played more like a gambling addict, but there's no real commitment to that idea). He's such a terrible father, his parental turn isn't credible (to stay with the gambling addict parallels, he STILL only acts appropriately when things are going well). And while I can suspend disbelief to the point where these robot matches make sense in the world as presented, it definitely bugs me that they keep teasing the underdog robot's independence, but never pay it off. It's like they different writers had different ideas about "Atom" - is his special thing that he's a Robot Rocky, that he can shadow box, or that he's sentient? Depends on the moment. Do we ever understand why the cartoon villains want to buy it away from them, for that matter? The premise is dumb fun in a kids' movie way, but think about any of its moving parts and you'll find the script's a real mess.
Actual best from that year: Melancholia, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Source Code, Attack the Block, Another Earth, Manborg

2012: That a production company dares call itself ORIGINAL FILM and remake Total Recall is one thing, to also let that movie have a huge boner for Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick connection or not, is really pushing it. Jettisoning Mars, which WAS in Dick's "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale", makes me think this started life as an entirely different movie that then got nostalgia grafted on. Certainly, it commits the #1 sin of any would-be mind-bender, and that's showing scenes in which the protagonist does not feature. That tells us what objective reality actually is, and if it turns out we're wrong, then the film cheated. With that playfulness gone  - and indeed the Arnold-driven goofiness of the 1990 adaptation - Total Recall is reduced to another bog standard sci-fi actioner. Worse, director Len Wiseman brings to it everything I dislike about his Underworld movies (plus a number of the cast, who don't fall in that category. Trying to get more CG than it's worth on less budget, his idea of action is dingy and fake-looking even when it doesn't need to be. Once the secret agent stuff takes hold, it's pretty relentless, but instead of being drawn in, I was bored. It's not about comparing to the 1990 version, because I can totally accept a more serious version of this Dick story. This uses a Dickian premise, but blows it trying to confound expectations, or because the script wasn't really into it.
Actual best from that year: Looper, Dredd, Safety Not Guaranteed, John Carter, Robot & Frank