This Week in Geek (30/05-05/06/21)

"Accomplishments"


In theaters: Guy Ritchie's Wrath of Man combines a few of my favorite subgenres into a single film and I am there for it. It stars out as a procedural set in the tense world of armored cars (i.e. cash trucks), though the dialog has a theatrical quality that's no doubt akin to the director's UK productions, but seems more noticeable in an American setting (unusual for him). Our man Jason Statham has joined the fleet under false pretenses, as this is really a revenge flick. He's a badass, but knowing who he is and what he's after is part of the intrigue of the film so I'll so no more. And then it's also a heist movie, because Ritchie is interested in showing all sides of these events, so that your sympathies are mixed. The initial trick of showing a cash truck robbery from a fixed position inside the vehicle in the first scene serves the film well as new angles are revealed on it. Only once we have a complete picture can the action move to its natural (and dynamic) conclusion. Ritchie's outrageous and memorable characters are all accounted for, which provides some amusement even as the story gets darker and darker. A lot of people seem ho-hum about this one, but I was completely entertained.

 

At home: A year of isolation in the making, Bo Burnham: Inside is a reflection of what we've all just been through, filtered through Bo's idiosyncratic comedy genius. He may just be filming it in one room of his house - no crew, no audience - but you'll recognize his stage show magic anyway. He sets up a lot of lighting effects, meta-commentary on his process, and uses a happy-sad approach that makes you question what's authentic and what's calculated, and whether there's a difference. It's like a high-end throwback to his teenage stuff on YouTube, and many of the songs are about the Internet experience, an ironic note on how our self-isolation started long before 2020. A lot of Inside shows - again, whether documentary or staging isn't always clear - Bo break down as the project gets longer and more involved, the testimonials gets darker, and the show reaches a potent crescendo. Make Happy was so good, it was hard to top. In reality, this kind of comedy special was perhaps inevitable, a different enough delivery vehicle that it's allowed to stand on its own and refreshes Bo's usual themes and techniques. On a personal note, as an improv player who's had to figure out how to present shows with no audience and make them work, Inside was incredibly relatable too.


To be sure, Raya and the Last Dragon features some gorgeous animation - the environments, action scenes, atmospherics and use of different styles are all beautiful - but it severely undermines its world-building by giving all the characters a modern American idiom. Granted, you can usually expect a certain number of anachronisms in a Disney movie like this, and you might say it's a fantasy version of Asia (I can't really point to any single country, the vagueness a bit annoying honestly) so anything goes, but to use a line from the movie, "here's the sitch": Akwafina as the dragon could have acted like the genie in Aladdin - somehow out of her time - and it would have worked fine (in fact, she's great), but making everyone talk like 2021 teenagers doesn't. The climax has some good moments because they let go of that conceit. But then, despite its setting, this is an incredible American film interested in American things. It continuously hits us over the head with its message of trusting one another (to the point of becoming a drinking game), presenting a world of factions who don't and act against their own interests, precipitating a "plague" and deadly climate change. The plot, a quest for artifacts, is okay; the problem is really the script (written by 8 whole people). Redub the whole thing with more neutral speech and more subtle messaging, and you might have something.


Famed libretto composers Gilbert & Sullivan are at a creative crossroads in Topsy-Turvy, their most popular (nautical) work behind them and in a rut neither man is happy with. Director Mike Leigh takes an awful risk spending a long portion of the film in this era, because even though the production design is lavish, the spotlit musical numbers are, per force, stale and thin. But he uses that time to set up a large cast of characters (which include families and theater company) that will pay off, some resoundingly well, once Gilbert hits on the idea of The Mikado. That's really where the film picks and starts moving, where the numbers sing, and the theater procedural takes becomes most comical and dramatic. Lesley Manville, as Gilbert's ignored wife, is impressive and touching. The theater folk feel quite authentic (if you know actors and technicians anyway...), with Shirley Henderson showcasing talents I didn't know she had. I'm not sure if the film would have worked as well without all the foregrounding, but a lot of it is just texture detail that a more ruthless director would have jettisoned. Like the almost-cut Mikado song, it stayed in, and it's up to us to decide on its value. Since the movie got me in the end, and got me good, I guess I've got nothing to complain about.


Based on a novel based on the life and work of one of Japan's most celebrated artists of the Edo period -you've likely seen his work if you've seen any Japanese prints at all - Utamaro and His Five Women is a dissection of art for art's sake, and of its treacherous muse, beauty. That beauty, for Utamaro, lies mainly in the spirit of women. He wants to draw them, they want to be drawn by him, one even gets painted on. His art creates ecstasy in some, outrage in others, and there's a delightful subplot about a duel between artists with interesting results. But as celebratory as it is, the quest for beauty is also seen as a curse, one that leads people astray, and in the final moments of the film, shows itself to be amoral. Everything is a subject, no judgement is rendered, it's all gristle for the mill. I will admit I should have been quicker to learn everyone's names because I was often playing catch up with the stories - a lot of people are essentially dressed and coiffed the same and I wasn't always sure who they were talking about. The existing print isn't always in the best shape either. But it never lost me for long.


The beauty of what William Greaves does with Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (Take One) is that he plays the dummy director who either can't explain what he's trying to make (or its value) or doesn't actually know what he wants, to the point where his actors become tight balls of insecurity (i.e. Reality TV stars... in 1968!) and his crew discusses staging a mutiny... 4 days in! In so doing, he impishly turns what looks like an experiment in "finding a scene" into a documentary about process and the director-cast/crew relationship, exposing how people on set basically divide into two. Either they think they know better than the boss, or they toe the line and try to divine and protect his process. America in the the late '60s? It's interesting that I don't particularly feel Greeves' race is part of the problem anyone has with him, but he may be highlighting an attitude he's faced through his manipulative performance. This is only possible through the use of a camera crew that documents the filming, and another that documents THAT ONE, and it certainly gives ammunition to his supporters that there is a process at work, though others think maybe it'll just create an accidental film in editing. Maybe it did. How much Greeves "planned" or "incited" is up to the viewer. Regardless, I feel like the film becomes interested in something different after its climax, lingering on the tall tales of a homeless philosopher, which doesn't really work as an ending for me. Not sure how you COULD end something like this. Perhaps by finally pulling back the curtain, but Greeves never shows his hand.

 

Five cities. Five drivers. Five cab rides. Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth is sort of like Coffee and Cigarettes... on the road, prefiguring that film. These comic (or sometimes tragi-comic) shorts start in America (L.A.) going East (New York next), and whether because of novelty, or simply stronger stories, the European segments (Paris, Rome and Helsinki) work best for me, and I appreciate how we go into native languages (the credits doing the same is a nice touch too). It's usual for audiences to choose a favorite when dealing with anthology movies, and for me, it's the French sequence. Isaach De Bankolé is great as a proud driver from the Côte d'Ivoire who meets his match when he picks up a blind woman. Once you get used to Roberto Benigni's energy in the Italian sequence, it actually becomes quite funny (I'm not always keen on his hyperactive comedy - in fact, I rarely am - but here, it works). Helsinki ends the film in a more melancholy way, and I like the different color. Generally amusing driver/fare mismatches, I was happy to share the rides while they lasted.

 

Diablo Cody's script for Jennifer's Body takes off from the same point as Buffy the Vampire Slayer - what if the cheerleader were the badass/monster? (The heightened dialog is also reminiscent of the Buffy TV show, and of course, the answers are at the library.) Boys are the victims, not the saviors in this black teen comedy. Megan Fox is the prettiest girl in school who becomes a succubus after an encounter with a bad indie rock band; Amanda Seyfried is the nerdy duckling (if you say so) who is her best friend and the only one who can put an end to her rampage. Central to the story is the examination of a toxic friendship with a person who needs a sidekick to make herself look good. There's a bit of over-narration at times, but it's generally clever and fun. Karyn Kusama directs this like it's a McG production, which I think is part of the joke. J.K. Simmons brings some comic relief as an ill-equipped teacher. Watch for some random cameos like Chris Pratt and Lance Henricksen as well. I don't know where it got its terrible reputation, but it doesn't deserve it.


50 Years of SF/1998: By the writer of Scream, it's clear he was trying to pull the same trick with science fiction in The Faculty, with Clea DuVall's character a sci-fi fan who knows all the tropes. However, while one can believe a serial killer would adopt slasher tropes, it's much harder to believe that aliens would just happen to follow Body Snatcher tropes that a "fandom" could conceivably figure out better than a scientist could. There's an attempt at justification, but I don't buy it. Nor the proposed fix when the alien parasites can basically change a person's DNA. It's not quite spoofy enough to work as a spoof, but too spoofy for the lure of conformity as a metaphor to really work either. Rodriguez shoots it well enough, Elijah Wood is a dependable dark horse hero and there are a surprising number of name actors in it, but... It comes across as derivative of a bunch of other movies, to the point of cliché, not clever reference. And somehow Josh Hartnett's not an alien in spite of that haircut?! Watchable, but never gets better than Robert Patrick running like a Terminator.
Actual best from that year: Dark City

 

1999: With Brendan Fraser playing one of his naive fishes out of water, and Alicia Silverstone very much doing some shade of Cher from Clueless, Blast from the Past has, with age, itself become a blast from the past. What I like about it is that similar stories usually just show us the "fish" reacting to their new world as a gag that reveals something about the "water", but here, we get the full context and spend a lot of time with Fraser's character Adam growing up in his parents' fallout shelter. Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek are both fun as a family perpetually stuck in 1961 culturally, and they remain a concern even once Adam goes out into the supposed atomic wasteland for provisions. We know it's a romcom even if Silverstone's Eve doesn't want it to be ("as if!"), and she's very good at that. Dave Foley as her gay brother is likewise a charm. More amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, Blast from the Past is - and this shouldn't sound like a knock - very cute, and an easy, breezy watch on a slow afternoon. Give me this over Fraser's other fish stories.
Actual best from that year: The Matrix, The Iron Giant, Galaxy Quest

 

2000: When I was 13 or so, I read L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth. At more than 900 pages, it was a milestone for me (longest book I'd ever read) and it fairly captured my teenage imagination. I can't speak to the quality of the writing today, but I did avoid the Golden Rasberried movie as a matter of course. Even a cursory glance at the poster told you they'd screwed up the Psychlos. Instead of the cool, monstrous apes in breathing helmets that were on the book cover, was John Travolta with dreads and tubes up his nose. Finally taking a proper look at it today, I still think there's an exciting story in there - in the year 3000, aliens mine the Earth for resources and use back-to-the-stone-age Man as chattel, until one man uses education as a weapon to kick them off our world - but it's undersold by condensing a large volume into two hours (the dingy climax seems particularly ridiculous as a result) and Barry Pepper not being a particularly engaging hero. The Psychlos aren't just a sore point visually, Travolta plays the main one as a camp Klingon, never convincing as an alien. And make no mistake, he's a BIG problem. As the biggest star here AND as a problematic Scientologist, he HAS to be in the movie this much, which I think is why Psychlos have to look humanish and have their faces uncovered, and have to have their own scenes and subplots. Play them as faceless monsters only Johnny eventually comes to understand, and you might just about get away with it. But then, you'd need a director who knew what they were doing. The truth of it is that this is very badly shot and edited. Absurd unmotivated extreme Dutch angles, obnoxious wipes, and dumb slow motion compete to make a hash of things.
Actual best from that year: Happy Accidents, Pitch Black, Frequency

2001: When a movie uses the word Replicant in vain, you really shouldn't expect much more than exploitation. Michael Rooker is a retiring cop obsessed with catching the serial killer who always eluded him, and he gets that chance thanks to a genetic double of the killer, telepathically connected to the original. They're played by Jean-Claude Van Damme, because JCVD playing opposite himself has somehow become a trope since Double Impact. It's a weird way to do the "profiler/psychic" crime story, and as far as that goes, it's fine. The two leads are sympathetic once we get past the usual "buddy cop" conflict and the feeling that Rooker is essentially leading a confused child into action. The action scenes are unremarkable despite JCVD's talent. You know, I've given too much credit to director Ringo Lam over the years and let him coast on his Hong Kong work. His American stuff is the pits. Another promising Chinese director who loses all his energy when working in the Western system.
Actual best from that year: The American Astronaut, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

By rights, 2000 and 2001 should have been great years for sci-fi, but as you can see from even the "other films" that came out those years, it was slim pickings at the turn of the Millennium.

2002: When The Tuxedo starts with an animatronic deer peeing in a stream, you have every right to turn the thing off. But accepting this as a dumb spy spoof starring Jackie Chan as a naive cab driver turned chauffeur for Jason Isaacs as James Bond, it turned out pretty well. When it goes to for overt comedy, it stumbles, I agree, but when it's doing "comedy spies" (which I'm a sucker for), it's actually quite entertaining. Accept it, the premise is silly - Jackie inherits a high-tech tuxedo that allows him to be a super-spy capable of anything. He and Jennifer Love Hewitt, a rookie agent but brilliant scientist, must stop a threat to the world's water supply. She struggles with toxic masculinity at work - which is grating for us - but she's shown to be quite capable, so I think the movie's punching up. The action is correspondingly ridiculous and Jackie's as usual. Bonus half-star for how visual this thing is, with lots of gags to miss if you're looking at your phone. I'm not saying it's Citizen Kane or anything, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed it despite its opening shot.
Actual best from that year: 28 Days Later, Minority Report, Signs, Solaris

 

2003: Archaeologists + unnecessary cog Paul Walker are sent back to rescue on of their own in the 14th Century in... Timeline. Boredom ensues. There are two casting decisions I think we have a right to question. First, who thought Billy Connolly and Paul Walker made a believable father-son pair? But we don't know the mother, so we can just look past it. What I personally can't get past is the casting of non-French actors as some of the French characters, delivering everything from bad accents to completely indecipherable dialog. Even though the film is partly shot in France! I understand Michael Chrichton's novel set the story's battle there, but it's so generic and ahistorical that it could have been set anywhere. So as long as you're making changes for the screen (Walker's character was originally an archaeologist too, instead of simply a creeper who's been told no by the female archaeologist but uses the situation to snuggle with her anyway), why not change the cod Middle Ages along with it? I don't know if director Richard Donner had to contend with studio notes like "you've got to include this young rising star!" or "nobody will notice if the French is wrong, we're making this for 'muricans!", but that doesn't excuse notable continuity errors, plot holes (so what was the point of the guy appearing in the desert?), or the listlessness I felt even in the action scenes. The big problem of course is that I don't think Crichton is a particularly interesting writer. He writes premises ready-made for Hollywood, full of clichés. Before we go back in time, we're essentially told everything that will happen, so there are no real surprises once we get there. It's meant to be "clever", but it's just dull. There was promise in the present-day sequences when they promised a time travel equivalent of Apollo 13, but that soon devolved into shouting matches and I'm not sure what happens at the end there. A botch!
Actual best from that year: Save the Green Planet!, Code 46

 

Books: 1980 isn't prime John Brunner, but The Infinitive of Go shows the strong ideas are still there. It's just that at 154 pages, they don't have room to develop. The lead characters have invented a teleporter, though through some quirk of quantum physics, they soon realize it's more of a dimensional transporter. Psychological and philosophical ramifications are explored, and I could do with more exposition on the topic rather than more opaque conversations about the underlying maths. Still, Brunner creates a strong cast of characters, and I love the epigrammatic chapter openings. But just when it gets intriguing, The Infinitive of Go stops Going. The ending abruptly leaves off on an elliptical thought, and I'm not even sure how to interpret the characters' conclusions. Conclusions for them, vague questions for the reader. The book really needed a third act, or some kind of follow-up.


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