This Week in Geek (29/08-04/09/21)

"Accomplishments"


In theaters: So this comes from someone who hasn't seen the original Candyman, but liked 2021's sequel... Seems the main gripe fans have with the movie is that it too obviously checkmarks the story being about gentrification. I have a different take. All the horror buffs talk about the original Candyman being about that, so we can just take it as received wisdom and move on. The new movie expands the theme to include all manner of APPROPRIATION, which may, if you like, include the director's own anxiety at taking on an old franchise and making it her own. So yes, white people are scamming housing off the poor (along racial lines), using black art to elevate their own standing in the art world, cultural appropriation, etc., but there's the other side of appropriation too - each generation making the story of Candyman their own (quite literally), and the "monster"'s own endgame using a stolen baby. I will say the last pieces of the puzzle are less interesting than the lore that comes before it, but between the thematic underpinnings and the gorgeous mirror shots, mystical architecture (Chicago is certainly well used) and striking shadow puppet flashbacks forcing you to stay until the end of the credits, I think there's enough there to recommend Candyman (2021) unto itself. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Teyonah Parris (now of Aquaman and WandaVision fame, respectively) are great leads in any case, with Nathan Stewart-Jarrett providing some fun comic moments in an otherwise tense film.


At home: The Kitchen's opening sequence apes the style of blaxploitation films of the 70s (and is set in the later part of the decade), but unfortunately, doesn't push that enough in the main body of the film. It certainly could have. It has the grimy New York of the era down, and it's about three women who go on a rampage, taking over their husbands' protection racket when they're sent to prison, with plenty of revenges on destructive douchebags. But The Kitchen is undercooked at almost every level, not just the style. The protagonists' decisions are often ill-motivated or badly foregrounded. Conflicts tend to resolve in anti-climax. The black comedy works better in the trailer than the way it's edited in long form. There's a twist towards the end that comes out of nowhere. What works in comics needs beefing up in drama, and that wasn't done here. As for the three actresses on which this story hangs, they're all people I enjoy. Tiffany Haddish has the look, but I found her unconvincing, while Melissa McCarthy and Elisabeth Moss were at their usual strong level. In the end, though The Kitchen could have benefited from another pass, if you enjoy the cast, you'll find the movie at least watchable.


While my younger friends can all list off every species of Pokémon, I have only the vaguest memories of the cartoon show and never played the games (I'd say it was more like I was subjected to Pokémon Snap on a couple of occasions). So Pokémon Detective Pikachu makes me feel like other people must feel watching superhero movies. I don't really get most of the references and get no personal joy from them. I realize that when I'm watching comic book movies, I'm on an "Easter Egg hunt", which is part of my enjoyment. Not so here. I came for the absurd concept of Pikachu as a soft-boiled detective and so I wish the movie had leaned further into it. No explanations (just like there are none for the existence of these creatures), just Pikachu solving crimes kind of accidentally in a parody of Noir fiction. Unfortunately, it's more of a superhero narrative with cutesy CG animals, and requires an ending that undoes some of the magic, quite frankly. The father-son stories are psychologically thin and the world-building a little cursory, but Ryan Reynolds is funny as the voice of Pikachu and his half-improvised(-sounding) dialog coupled with the cute animation is the best part of the movie.


I haven't watched Neon Genesis Evangelion in 12-15 years, but Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone retreads material from the early episodes and revives some very clear memories. The animation is redone, yes? In some cases, exactly the same in higher definition/widescreen I guess. It very much feels like Anno is re-stating the set-up - albeit with more budget and special effects - before allowing himself to make the big changes over the next few films. At least, I hope that's the case because it just feels like I'm rewatching the old show at this point in the sequence. The old show, but rushed to include the necessary story beats. The "Living with Misato and Pen-Pen" stuff particularly suffers because it's cut so short. Shinji's introduction to Pen-Pen is one of my favorite bits, a rare funny moment in the series straight out of the original, but it's an odd tonal shift in a movie that has no time for this sort of thing. As of 1.0, Anno hasn't proven there's a need for remaking Evangelion...


With Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance, Anno starts to take the story in different directions, in small ways (Rei not taking Asuka's slap) and large ones (that would be telling), with a better integration of smaller comedic and character/world building moments than in 1.0. I hardly ever felt like I was watching the series redrawn. As badass as Asuka's entry into the film is, the introduction of new EVA pilots also helps shake things up. We're still deep in mech-fighting mode and the spectacle is gorgeous, with a most apocalyptic mood throughout, not just because of the destruction, but also what's happening in the kids' lives. If I resent anything about 2.0, it's that they back-peddle from the truly shocking "oh no they didn't!" moments. On the one hand, I don't want them to have gone so far; on the other, the cheat takes away from the power of the moment. Judging from Ritsuko's Biblical speech at the end, I have a feeling things are about to get DENSE.


Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo is where the path really forks in a new direction, with a 14-year jump that brings some strange elements to the fray, sadly sidelines Misato, and forces us to play catch-up for half the run time. As if Evangelion wasn't already a game of catch-up. It starts with a long action sequence that overuses CG animation, unfortunately - the textures just aren't right and I found it all a bit confusing - but things get better when we finally have time to breathe. In the previous iteration of the story, the psycho-sexual subtext of Shinji's being a momma's boy drives him to behavior and actions that fall in the territory of misogyny. Here, his sweet and charming relationship with Kaworu instead suggests repressed homosexuality. It's all going to go pear-shaped, of course, as Shinji hits his lowest point, self-enforcing his sense of isolation by refusing to listen to anyone else. Though I found the CG obnoxious, like bad 3D, I still appreciate Anno's willingness to take things to a different place, even if it means shocking the audience with a bucket full of ice water. I do wonder how this plays for audiences who have never seen the original series, with bombs like revelations about Shinji's mom being given brief whiplash-inducing scenes. Regardless, a necessary prelude to the 2021 finale.


A lot hinged on Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (man, these titles). First, on a strict plot basis, it had to explain itself - what was Gendo working towards and why, principally - and pay off all the characters (just how many, I wasn't expecting). It does that. Crisis averted. It also did much much more. Most appreciated is the time we spend in Village 3, showing us better than even in the series, just what we are fighting for. With an apocalyptic finale no doubt sure to come, the quiet before the storm is lovely, bittersweet, and a growth opportunity for the three main pilots. Though the franchise has always been about "growing up", INTO WHAT is what Anno's allowed to change. The original series' ending was oblique, The End of Evangelion's more literal (but no less surreal) version was angry, pessimistic, bleak. Anno is older, more mature, and doesn't want to tell that story anymore. The Rebuild is a tale of hope and redemption, of growing up into a better version of ourselves. Shinji, Rei and Asuka are avatars of that, obviously, but we see it in everyone. If Gendo's scheme is about seeking the evolution of the human race into divine forms, the heroes are rather angling for the evolution of the self. It's all quiet poignant and I found myself tearing up often, despite keeping a certain emotional distance through the first three films. The climax is both apocalyptic special effect like The End, and surreal meditation like the series, and actually subverts the interpretation that Neon Genesis is all in Shinji's head. With 3.0+1.0, Anno says goodbye to his world forever, and so can we, not like the angsty young nihilists we were when the story last ended, but like older, wiser people who see each of the two paths and dare prefer hope to despair.


The third in an otherwise unavailable trilogy made for Italian television, L'Automobile, like each film in the Three Women series, stars Anna "Mamma Roma" Magnani in the lead (which is intriguing in and of itself). It's a portrait of a modern Italian woman circa 1971, suffering a mid-life crisis that pushes her to buy her first car, and thus... freedom? Passion? Notice? As soon as she makes her decision, it's like everything on screen is a possibly anxiety about owning and driving a car. Everything. If you don't drive or own your own vehicle, this is the movie that confirms your biases about such things, and says you're probably better off. Magnani is unsurprisingly excellent, funny, but also a figure of pathos, putting up a brave front, lying to herself, but also someone we root for in her quest for a kind of individualistic emancipation from a woman of her generation's fate. Fun and at the same time a little heartbreaking.


Michael Haneke's first feature, The Seventh Continent, is a mystery for the audience, one that doesn't really include a solution. A family drops everything in order to emigrate to... let's call it Australia, but though there are echoes of a refugee story in the desperation and environment involved, they are only really fleeing the doldrums of suburban life. That's an explanation without being one. Haneke makes the motivations unknowable, his shots concentrating not on faces, but on objects, things being manipulated, more or less the way we see our own world (though today, it'd be a lot of screens) even if we don't acknowledge it. That focus will in fact pay off in the third act. Scenes are brief, mundane, and separated by oppressive black frames that last a little too long, indicating something sinister is actually going, keeping a steady nihilistic rhythm going. There's the unfathomable story that is literally unfolding, but Haneke also manages to evoke the self-destructive act of leaving, whatever the circumstances, giving his mesmeric shots more universality and potency.


With Lubitsch at the controls, Billy Wilder involved with the script, and cutey-pie Claudette Colbert starring, the only thing holding Bluebeard's Eighth Wife back is its outmoded sexual politics. Jealousy traps, consent problems, even a little bit of spanking doesn't quite play as well as it used to. Still, there are so many charming gags, well executed, that you can't help but have fun with it. Colbert is a poor French heiress (she was born over there and her French is actually quite good!) who falls for rich American stockbroker Gary Cooper, but feels pushed into a lop-sided marriage in part by her spendthrift of a father, played by a surprisingly-not-too-broad Edward Everett Horton. David Niven is also in it as a possible spoiler. So the question is, will Colbert find a way to equalize the relationship with a man she's shocked to find has had (as the title implies) seven failed marriages before her? Well, what do you think? The way they go about it offers some amusement, cracking dialog, and plenty of twists and turns.


50 Years of Action/1999: It's easy to tell The 13th Warrior was mangled by the studio, just from that opening laden with narration and brief shots that would have cost too much not to be full-blown scenes. I don't know what the original ending was like, but I do like Jerry Goldsmith's new score, so the changes weren't necessarily all bad. It does have problems with connective tissue and clarity, but overall, it's better than its reputation. Antonio Banderas plays a real-life Moorish poet who goes on a quest with a group of Vikings to defend a village from a tribe of animalistic men. He's a great observer figure, showing us the world of the Northmen through more civilized eyes - and it feels pretty legit, which is probably why it was alienating to preview audiences - but also getting his share of the action. In terms of that action, John McTiernan chooses immediacy over choreography and it works, keeping the mystery of the strange cannibals alive for as long as possible. At a greater length, we would feel the deaths of certain characters more, but we're unlikely to ever see the director's cut of a film that, rightly or wrongly, did so poorly (excepting the Justice League aberration).
Actual best from that year: The Matrix, Running Out of Time, The Boondock Saints

2000: Gone in Sixty Seconds lacks the raw power of the original Gone in 60 -  it's too slick for its own good, and therefore comes off as a prototype for The Fast and the Furious (it's even about family). It's watchable, but not particularly memorable except for that meme of Nicolas Cage getting ready, in part because once a deadline is given, there seems to be little urgency. Frodo-like, Cage's character wastes two of his four allowed days not doing very much at all. Assembling a crew, I guess, but it's not a breakneck speed. Too strong a cast means most of them are wasted - Angelina Jolie has the psychology of tissue paper, Rovert Duvall trades on his persona from Days of Thunder, Christopher Eccleston is ye olde British villain (saddled with a weird quirk), and Timothy Olyphant plays second banana to Delroy Lindo, who's great but written a little dumb. Also watch for Vinnie Jones as Cage's psychotic silent partner and baby Michael Pena showing up at some point. Kind of worth it to see all these people, some early in their careers. Could do without the racist jokes though. Could definitely do without those.
Actual best from that year: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Battle Royale; Mission Impossible 2

2001:  The Bosnia-Serbia conflict doesn't loom large in cinema, but No Man's Land by Bosnian director Danis Tanović feels like the last word on it. Not-very-good soldiers from both sides find themselves trapped in a middle trench together. One an all too impulsive Bosnian, the other a Serbian rookie in way over his head, their extended stand-off is mostly played as comedy. Then U.N. peacekeepers try to rescue them, journalists get wind of it, and the satire really takes off. Tanović evidently thinks the war was stupid and pointless, but even more so was foreign intervention and reporting on the conflict. Through his story, we find the whole thing quite laughable, but are also reminded of the tragic loss of life, so those laughs leave a bad taste in our mouths. Satire can be quite didactic, but the script humanizes everyone who gets a line, efficiently fleshing out characters so that it becomes impossible to know who will live, who will die, indeed who will be important to the story. In many ways an INACTION film, but with its novel setting and story and nimble juggling of tones, a war film that's easy to recommend.
Also from that year: Black Hawk Down, Shaolin Soccer

Books: One might expect The Sandman Companion by Hy Bender to be a panel-by-panel exercise in annotation of Neil Gaiman's landmark comics series, but one would be wrong. Bender offers a strong synopsis of every trade paperback collection, where he makes some critical points, then a small section on themes and things to look for, but it's not a nerdy dissection. The true value of the Companion is that most of its page count is devoted to insightful interviews with Gaiman himself, which is more annotative, as it were, than any of the synopses. As a Sandman fan from back then, but who has not read much of it since, I was surprised and impressed at how much of the comics came to mind as vivid memories reading the book. It's really as if I'd read the series again, while simultaneously making me want to reread it, or more strongly, the comics from this world NOT covered (the Death minis, The Dreaming, etc.). Feel free to skip the introductory piece on "what is a comic book?" which I can't believe are of value to anyone getting this book (shades of "What is a role-playing game?" in countless RPGs, but once that's done, it gets to the interesting stuff, fast.


Comics: Endless Nights serves as an addendum to Neil Gaiman's Sandman, featuring seven short stories, one for each of the Endless. My very favorite is the one about Dream, though going in, I expected it to be less interesting than tales about the Family members we knew the least about. But Gaiman takes us back to when the universe was relatively young, connects to DC continuity in quite unusual ways, and backwards-facing, shows us just how some of the Endless have changed over the eons. I expect I'll be dreaming about this world for a while, appropriately. I also quite liked Desire's erotic tale. In The Sandman Companion, Gaiman said if the series was about Desire, they would be the good guy and only through their antagonism with Dream do we perceive them as a villain. Their story feels like a promise fulfilled. Not unlike Desire's, Death and Destruction's tales are about human beings who meet an Endless, but they are less aware of being their, for lack of a better term, agents. Or "of that Realm". But when you take the Sandman series into account, Dream is allowed his Rose Walkers and Barbies, intimately linked to him, and so other people must walk the realms of the other Endless. Delirium's story is the hardest to take in, understandably surreal, but that's a bug as much as a feature. Despair and Destiny's chapters are portraits rather than stories, the latter one of my favorite (if all too short) pieces, a proper coda to... I was gonna say series, but let's just say "universe" and be done. Simple and elegant, in no small part thanks to Frank Quitely's art. Add this to your Sandman collection.

3 comments:

Bradley Walker said...

"As a Sandman writer from back then..."

Which issues did you write?

Siskoid said...

Hahaha, fan!

Toby'c said...

Funnily enough, the game Detective Pikachu was based on actually doesn't explain why Tim can understand him, aside from some very vague hints when Mewtwo shows up. The downside is that the game also doesn't resolve the mystery of Harry's disappearance, instead just kind of ending abruptly after the parade and Roger Clifford's arrest. Supposedly there's another game coming that will wrap things up, but we've heard nothing about that in over two years.

 

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