This Week in Geek (19-25/09/21)

"Accomplishments"


In theaters: A small police station in the Nevadan desert (in the aptly-named Gun Creek) is under siege after it puts a man with a price on his head (Frank Grillo, fresh off Boss Level with the same director), as everyone wants to kill Teddy in this tight little "Precinct 13" comedy thriller. Gerard Butler is pretty great in this, perhaps showing that the rest of his career is the result of script failure (or, of course, agent failure). Toby Huss, as the more psychopathic hitman, is having a lot of fun and so are we. But my biggest props go to Alexis Louder who, despite her small size, has great presence, and makes for an awesome straight arrow cop - the hero of the piece. But really, even the bit parts tend to have a personality and some fun moments. Director Joe Carnahan evidently has a love for 1970s trashy exploitation films and has made a witty one. Pleasant twists and turns, though I'd have liked a line of dialog here or there to justify some of them, but ultimately, loads of fun (that may or may not be a gun pun).


At home: Various anime studios produce shorts, nine in total, for Star Wars Visions, and... it's a mixed bag. There are undoubtedly some stand-outs - The Duel looks like a black and white chambara film and has some of the best action ever done for SW, period; and this may be controversial, but The Twins is beautifully balls to the wall insane, reimagining the twins of destiny (Luke/Leia) as an epic space anime with a side order of Splinter of the Mind's Eye (if that means anything to you). In the middle of the pack, we get solid episodes like The Ninth Jedi (but it seems to beg for a continuation, are there more Visions in the future?), T0-B1 (a cute Astro-Boy riff based on a double pun), and Akakiri (visually beautiful if nothing else). But by the middle of the series, you may well be tired of lightsaber battles and seeing Star Wars as a samurai picture. The best stories are the ones that go full Elseworlds and can't be put somewhere in the chronology, though I'm afraid Tatooine Rhapsody's rock band tale doesn't work for me (poor music and confusing story-telling). But I did long for more episodes that at least tried to go different routes, or heck, even something based on space battles, smugglers, cantinas... You know, the REST of the Star Wars tropes. A little editing of ideas at the top of the project might have avoided that redundant feeling.

Hiding behind a rather generic title, Patriot is not the Clancyesque thriller I was expecting. Instead of a slick Jack Ryan type whose plans always come together, Michael Dorman's John Tavner/Lakeman starts the show as a broken man, sleepwalking through his mission, bearing enormous guilt for his actions, and lives in a world where mistakes are often made, snowballing into a huge cock-up that takes us through two seasons (or 18 episodes) before things are resolved(?). And he would have bailed out of the intelligence service if it weren't a family affair. Writer Steve Conrad spins an achronological web of causality and coincidence, with amusing (and amusingly sad) characters who are all in over their heads, following the theme of taking something from A to B (which is why the pipeline company John must infiltrate is so well chosen). Great use of music as well, with our man John having a sideline as a folk singer, and especially good performances from Terry O'Quinn as the warm but ruthless father, and Kurtwood Smith as the company man/foil for our hero. This is a perfect series, in my opinion, but for one thing. A lot of the action takes place in Luxembourg and Paris, two French-speaking locales, and they went and hired a Swedish actress to play the main French speaker in this. To my Francophone ears, it's all wrong. Viewers of other ethnic persuasions won't see (or hear) it, of course, so enjoy this send-up of the spy thrillers that have by now become formulaic.

Ian McKellen is an old grifter taking advantage of greedy businessmen and lonely widows alike in The Good Liar, but he may have met his match when he tries to steak Helen Mirren's fortune. If he's not what he seems, neither may she be, and we're kept guessing as to what kind of film this will be. Will it take a comic turn, or a tragic one? Will the criminal be redeemed through love, or will revelations make them impossible and/or undesirable? We're in safe hands with the two leads, as you can well imagine, giving performances that prey on our natural sympathies. I'm a big fan of con artist stories, and this is a good one, but I really do prefer the first two acts and their cat and mouse game, than the revelations that necessarily come in the third. The resolution is satisfying, but the "truth" of what's really happening comes by way of a large spoonful of melodrama, which is hardly my favorite genre.

Every few years, Tsui Hark tries to reinvent the wheel, and frequently succeeds. I'm not sure his work in the late 90s really did however. It was the era of Time and Tide, Double Team, and Knock Off, nonsense action flicks that essentially act as proving grounds for experimental techniques. In Knock Off's case, there's entirely too much bad 90s CG and video toaster effects, hampering our enjoyment of story where the MacGuffin is, uhm, explosive jeans. Van Damme is Hong Kong's knock off king trying to go legit, but a CIA plot makes that impossible. I can't believe I'm gonna say this, but Rob Schneider is more than the comic relief sidekick here and I actually find him palatable. Career high? Anyway, if it's all quite ridiculous, like a parody of a normal Van Damme picture, the final, extended action set piece is really quite good. The direction calms down and let the high octane finale play out without all the tricks and it's spectacular. One wonders if earlier action scenes didn't quite work, forcing Tsui Hark to go crazy in the edit bay...

50 Years of Action/2011: On paper, Warrior should not have resonated with me. Boxing movies often all feel the same to me, and making this about mixed martial arts doesn't make the story all that original. Its appreciable naturalistic style certainly confirmed I'm not the audience for actual MMA events (despite that being my actual initials), with grating "sports commentary" like that of wrestling, only more bloodthirsty. The movie contrivance is that two estranged brothers - a war hero and a down-on-his-luck physics teacher - are going to end up fighting each other in the final, one a killing machine, the other a natural punching bag, but the story is so well front-loaded with character drama that it somehow plays out as a family crisis writ large. And its resolution packs a punch. It helps that both men have qualities you want to root for, and that they are tragic figures each in their own way. The fighting is well done, which of course is a must. Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte mumble a lot so I was glad for subtitles, but I was generally surprised at how much I liked this.
Actual best from that year: The Front Line, Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol, The Raid, Fast Five

2012: Let's be clear. I was watching The Expendables 2 for JCVD (who is barely in it and by virtue of being the villain - Jean Villain, in fact, because the nomenclature in these films is high camp - he can't be too cool or effective) and, to some degree, Jason Statham, the action hero who is still relevant even now. I wasn't a big fan of the original, and this one is much the same. It's got action gags of note here and there, a good line from time to time, and Stallone gives himself some haggard, soulful stuff to say, but it's no longer enough just to bring every iconic action star ever into the fold for a potential audience squee. In fact, they sort of go in and out and of the story based on their availability rather than any kind of story logic. The banter is largely unfunny, call backs to catch phrases, etc., the nadir of which is Chuck Norris telling a well-known Chuck Norris joke. Oof. I cringed rather than cheered. As for the action, I felt quite disconnected from it, as I often do when it's just senseless machine guns and CG blood spatter.
Actual best from that year: Skyfall, 21 Jump Street, Dredd

2013: In the category "can't believe they're still making these", Olympus Has Fallen tastelessly trades on 9/11 anxieties by presenting an attack on the White House (director Antoine Fuqua's only stylistic flair is for America Under Attack imagery), and only super secret service agent Gerard Butler can pull a Die Hard and get the president out alive. You know when I say "buy the premise, buy the bit"? Well, it's really hard to buy the premise here. There's no way a well-armed Korean army would park itself on the White House lawn that easily, and it's lazy writing to ask us to believe it could. Worse, the only way the villain can make his super-villain plot happen (and yes, I think this would work better as a superhero movie) is for high officials to make decisions they never would in real life. Not even a matter of debate and circumstance, it's nonsense. Now, you can still make that work, but if the rest of the movie lacks any kind of humor, is often needlessly violent, and its action sequences are, for the most part, boring and murky, well... Wasted a strong cast's time, and ours.
Actual best from that year: Fast & Furious 6, Man of Tai Chi

2014: In for a penny, in for a dime. I'm not really willing to invest a whole pound in The Expendables 3, you understand. By the writers of the Gerard Butler Has Fallen series... oh boy. But huh! While it's a pretty simple plot, it's loads better than the second movie, and I may even prefer it to the first (if only because the action isn't just people shooting in the dark). When evil Mel Gibson decimates the team, Stallone has to recruit some young blood, which seems to defy the premise so you know the old guys are going to return. Happily, there isn't a lot of generational conflict and to tell you the truth, I feel like the new people are more differentiated that the old ones, and though Antonio Banderas' character is a little loopy, he's got a bit more depth than expected. There's an elegiac quality to the movie that gets to the core of the concept - what's it like to have all this experience, but not be as sharp or relevant anymore? The kids are more like a Mission Impossible squad, and they mock the shoot'em up style of the 80s. They have every right to. Rather than just throwing a bunch of old stars together for nostalgic value, Ex3 acts as commentary on their era and is the better for it.
Actual best from that year: John Wick, Kingsman


2015: Do they really have hockey games on Christmas Eve? Run All Night says so, and who am I to disagree with Liam Neeson (or his vehicles)? It IS Christmas Eve, and he plays a boozing, haunted hitman whose estranged son (Joel "Rick Flag" Kinnaman) gets caught in the crossfire when Neeson's boss' son misbehaves. Neeson must use his particular set of skills to protect his family not only from Ed Harris' mob, but cops, both crooked and legit, who also get in on the action. That action is fairly grounded, but still exciting and dynamic. And the mood ironically more sober than much of Neeson's B-level output. It's never going to revolutionize cinema, but it works as a story of different fathers and sons, and what one generation leaves to the next. Shame about the CG-assisted transitions, which break the style and look silly.
Actual best from that year: Ip Man 3, Mad Max Fury Road, Mission Impossible Rogue Nation, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Furious 7

2016: Jason Statham is back as super-prepared hitman Arthur Bishop in Mechanic: Resurrection, brought out of requirement by hook and by crook, having to kill three international weapons dealers under pain of seeing his new girlfriend Jessica Alba killed. The movie is aware that its plot is unambitious, but that doesn't excuse its set-piece-to-set-piece structure. And since the targets are all bad dudes, there's really no moral teeth to it. So what saves Mechanic 2 is that the kills and action gags are entertaining and unusual, and Statham scores a lot of points just through his presence and athleticism. Bonus points for Michelle Yeoh being in it, even in a non-action role. Points off for Tommy Lee Jones who I feel is always playing the same character. And null game for Alba who seems a bit wet for the former solider she's supposed to be playing. Shame about the horrendous green screen stuff.
Actual best from that year: The Nice Guys, Free Fire, Keanu

Books: Clearly a post-Vietnam novel, Poul Anderson's Fire Time (1974) questions the validity of war - or certain wars - by giving his story twin conflicts, both among locals on planet Ishtar, and in the wider universe between humans and another alien species. The war out there affects things "at home" in a way that pushes the characters into difficult choices. But that's almost an excuse for world-building. In Ishtar, Anderson creates a planet under stress from a three-star system, and imagines how life might have evolved there. We're often in the Ishtarians' heads, but there's little succor from the human characters because the future is an alien place too. We're halfway through the book and still getting expository bits about the planet and its denizens, or else the side-war and ITS locales and participants. No wonder he dedicates it to Hal Clement (the hardest man in hard sf). And yet, once I got my bearings, I wanted to learn more about this intriguing world and see its protagonists safe and successful. And I was kind of sorry to leave Ishtar behind, some of its mysteries unsolved.

There have certainly been clunkers in the Eighth Doctor Adventures before, but Book 9, Michael Collier's Longest Day, is the first I actually dislike. No, not dislike - HATE. It blows a potentially intriguing planet that's subdivided into different temporal zones on very boring dual plots. The Doctor and Sam, once separated, have adventures that really don't have much to do with one another, though both are populated with characters that have alien-sounding names so that it takes 100 pages just to get them straight. The women, Sam included, are essentially there to be assaulted or called "bitch" (along with some nastier things). Oh, and eventually the aliens from one plot walk into the other to massacre everyone and make sure it was all very pointless. They're the bugs on the cover, a rare instance of the series actually showing you a scene from the book. The killing and the temporal effects are all in service of Collier's cod-Lovecraft or Clive Barker material, the type of body horror I always felt was the weakest trope of the preceding New Adventures. Technobabble resolution. And to add insult to injury, it can't easily be skipped, because it starts a little arc that sets up the next few books. So have I thrown the book out the window at any of the various points where the impulse took me, I would have been a little confused moving forward.

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