This Week in Geek (5-11/09/21)

Buys

Just got the Mr. Monster collection I Kickstarted a while ago - featuring the original Golden Age stories of Doc Stearne that led to the creation of the superhero that hunted monsters (plus a wealth of extras). I'll review it soon.

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: While Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings had the potential to be the Black Panther for Asian people, I do wish they hadn't so forcefully tried to turn it INTO Black Panther. The story's different, but giving the character an extended family and an "Asian Wakanda" was just a little too familiar (or perhaps I'm reacting to borrowed Iron Fist riffs). So everyone's been after me to judge the martial arts in the film so let's address it - they did a pretty good job of it. In fact, I rather like the first half more than the second where big CG nonsense takes over. It seemed clear to me that the film was paying tribute to Chinese action cinema by emulating various styles. There's a wuxia sequence that's beautifully balletic. There's the Jackie Chan-type bus fight that's a real pleasure. When we get to Macau, it feels like a Hong Kong crime thriller. Even that fantasy climax is a slicker version of something like Zu Warriors or Young Detective Dee. In other words, it morphs into a superhero epic, and a large part of me certainly resents the change. It's a martial arts movie, it should have ended in a big (human!) throwdown. That said, I'm never not gonna like Akwafina, here playing the action-comedy version of her character in The Farewell. Same goes for Michelle Yeoh and my favorite actor of all time Tony Leung - they do a lot with what little they're given, Leung more or less stealing every scene he's in and far more sympathetic than you'd expect from a Fu Manchu/Mandarin derivative. The MCU loves to cut the tension with comedy, and it's a mixed bag on that front. Simu Liu and Akwafina have good character moments, but Ben Kingsley, though he does have some amusing lines, tends to grind an already exposition-heavy movie to a halt with his shenanigans. Mid-credits sequence connects the movie to THE NEXT BIG THREAT(TM), with a meta-welcome to the MCU for the characters. None of these can stand alone, obviously. So not a favorite in the line, but then I've been spoiled by watching way to much Hong Kong cinema.

At home: I don't necessarily think I can give it a full review, but the "Marvel One-Shot" All Hail the King prefigured, back in 2014, Trevor's eventual inclusion in Shang-Chi. Disney+ has been pushing it as a prologue. It's fun enough, especially the 70s style, but the best part is a surprise cameo by another Iron Man villain (mid-and-later-on-in credits sequence).

I will freely admit that The Great Magician's climax seems to pitch into broad comedy and that it's a shame, but I still quite like this offbeat story about a stage magician trying to rescue his love from a tyrannical warlord in 1920s China. Like a good magic trick, it doesn't go where you think it will (and not just because of the tonal shift), and nothing is as it seems. A bit convoluted at times, but that's part of the trick's diversion tactics. Plus, it's quite fun to see Tony Leung doing slight of hand (it's not all special effects, folks!) and the magic show elements are entertaining. Equally watchable are Johnnie To stalwart Lau Ching-wan and Cloud Atlas' Zhou Xun. So I can't stay too mad at the silly ending that's at odds with the romantic thriller preceding it (but not one without humor - it's not completely out of left field), because it's all stagecraft, you know?


High-end brothels in 19th-Century China were euphemistically called Flower Houses, and so Flowers of Shanghai is about the life of courtesans, or "flower girls", at that time. There are several stories to follow - the emancipation of one of them is instructive if more divorced from the others - but generally, it's a patient dissection of how toxic relationships are when there's money involved. Jealousy still exists, but it can be fueled by business concerns, and when that business is your own self, emotions tend to be complex. Though the main characters have to be Tony Leung's dissatisfied but quietly suffering Master Wang and his desperate escort Crimson, played Michiko Hada who is sadly dubbed in Chinese (the only technical flaw), the surprise hero of the piece is the peacemaking uncle who realizes men must bear responsibility for a system that exploits women. Comprised of scenes done in single shots with limited camera movement, the tableaus are lit in a golden light that is at once opulent and sickly, and we never leave the confined of the Flower House, beautiful rooms suffocating their characters. As sad as it is gorgeous to look at.

Tony Leung gets a cool introduction in Tokyo Raiders (and I want to track down other Raiders films even if they don't exactly have a great reputation), a comedic thriller in which his private eye teams up with Kelly Chen's jilted bride and Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin's interior decorator (at least until all their identities are questioned, oooh, mysterious) to look for Chen's Japanese fiance who has disappeared. Despite some rather frenetic camera work and editing, this was a lot of fun, honestly. The action sequences are inventive, borderline ridiculous, and the three leads real charmers, each in their own ways. It's also nice to see a Hong Kong crime caper unfold in a different city. I also love the Latin score. You might think it has nothing to do with China or Japan, but it has the perfect energy and coolness factor for this flick.

I really like the story of how The Eagle Shooting Heroes was made to bolster the finances of Wong Kar-wai's Ashes of Time, using the same cast (as directed by Wong collaborator Jeffrey Lau) doing a parody of the same material Ashes is based on. I like the story quite a bit more than I do the film itself, and could only imagine if every film came with a panto version wit the same stars. That would be ridiculous, but I bet pretty fun/cathartic for the actors. Of course, two more dissimilar films could hardly be imagined. Eagle Shooting Heroes exchanges a golden monochrome for vivid colors and an esoteric quality for energetic wuxia and broad slapstick. I'm sure part of the joke is that Louis Cha's original novel is convoluted, but it essentially means the story is hard to follow. I tended to zone out during talking scenes, though I can't help but enjoy Tony Leung sending himself up to this extent. Where the film shines is in the dynamic and absurd action sequences, which would look ridiculous even in a high-octane superhero movie. It's delightful and though played for comedy, visceral. Points off for a homophobic streak throughout, which is common of Chinese comedy granted, but there's a tedious amount of it.

50 Years of Action/2002: Had I done a little research before hand, I would have known to expect Jeff Lau's "nonsense comedy" from Chinese Odyssey 2002, especially since past movies using that brand were led by Stephen Chow. I actually resent the slapstick and broader gags here, because I firmly believe the film would have worked better without them. First, the cross-dressing misunderstandings work as situation and character humor, and some breaking-the-fourth-wall moments can be amusing (not so the anachronisms though). The twin romances are touching, transcending the silliness, thanks in no small part of the actors playing it (mostly) straight. Tony Leung and the irrepressibly cute Zhao Wei (from Red Cliff) are particularly good as one of the "commoner" brother-sister combo. And the movie has sumptuous Taiwanese-style photography - it's just gorgeous to look at. As far as classifying this under action films, nah man, it's pretty slim on that element (but I never minded).
Actual best from that year: Hero, The Bourne Identity, The Transporter

2003: What if Blackadder were a secret agent is kind of the question Johnny English answers. A Bond spoof that well illustrates Stephen Fry's theory of American vs. British comedy. Johnny doesn't laugh at the fools around him, he IS the fool. Rowan Atkinson has made a career of playing that archetype, after all. So Johnny dreams of being a superspy, gets his wish when all the real ones are killed, but spends most of his time trying to cover his mistakes. I generally like Atkinson playing suave only to have the situation dribble on his shirt, as it were, but the humiliations were a little too well telegraphed here to really hit, and the physical humor often fell flat. Natalie Imbruglia's performance as a Bond girl is fine, if generic, and John Malkovich as the villain has some fun, providing an appropriately ludicrous evil plot. And I do like Robbie Williams' comedy take on a Bond song - it's better than some of the one's we gotten. Ultimately, it's fine, just a little obvious.
Actual best from that year: Kill Bill Vol. 1, Oldboy, Ong Bak

2004: I really wish D.E.B.S. had a better execution, because I love the premise. I don't mean the manga-like Spy Academy for Charlie's Angels per se, but that it's all background for the gay ladies' dating scene, and the forbidden love between a goodie superspy and a criminal mastermind. Heck, Bond was always bedding bad girls, this is a lot more wholesome than that. It's rather sweet, but it's shot and scored like a television show (pretty good soundtrack though, but then, the similar Chuck had great tracks throughout). There's a lot of bluescreen and the action choreography is terrible, and that's a shame. Once you get what this is really about - the core relationship, but thematically, the lies we tell others and ourselves, the deceit inherent to LGBTQ+ life - you sort of file the lack of means under irrelevant-to-enjoyment. The fact that the agency's higher-ups use a teleport will bug me until I'm in my grave, but extra points for the very funny Holland Taylor as the Academy schoolmistress.
Actual best from that year: Kill Bill Vol. 2, The Bourne Supremacy, House of Flying Daggers, The Punisher, Born to Fight, Cellular

2005: Shot with a beautiful palette of black, white and blood red, A Bittersweet Life is, if I'm not mistaken, director Kim Jee-woon's first collaboration with Lee Byung-hun who then starts appearing in all his films (The Good, The Bad, and the Weird; I Saw the Devil). Lee is pretty much perfect as a mob enforcer who fails at a certain task and is hunted down by his employer, cool and collected, even restrained, in his day to day, but fatally prone to letting emotion overwhelm him. Usually it's rage, but what triggered his fall from grace? Peppered with brutal fights, this story of heroic bloodshed, like director Kim's others, moves organically and its plot is therefore hard to predict. Throw in some perfect frames - which is really a constant in high-end Korean cinema - and you've got a sumptuous, beautiful, violent picture.
Also from that year: The Protector, Kill Zone, Seven Swords, Sin City

2006: While Snakes on a Plane is guaranteed to do exactly what it says on the tin, I was still curious as to how that premise would be set up and then how it would play out. A hybrid between disaster movie and closed room actioner à la Die Hard, it necessarily spends its first act introducing all the passengers and crew, in addition to Sam Jackson's FBI agent guarding the witness the bad guys are trying to kill with a ludicrous snake bomb (you read that right). I was unamused by the opening volley, which had a lot of CG snake action, and the venomous reptiles initially going for dicks and tits. I was thinking, oh so this is the level the movie is pitched at. Well below the belt. But in the second half, things look up. Obviously, the plot isn't suddenly waterproof, nor the characters well written, but it becomes about how to survive a plane full of snakes, and the problem-solving kept me invested until the end. It's not meant to be anything but a dumb B-movie, and if you don't bail early, it turns into a fun enough ride.
Actual best from that year: Casino Royale, Fearless, DOA Dead or Alive, The City of Violence, Hana

Richard Ayoade spent 5 years (9 seasons) going on 48-hour vacations with celebrity guests as Travel Man, a comedy travelogue presenting some 48 cities, most of them European, and rating them as tourist experiences. Ayoade's persona is just about the least equipped for sociable travel - anxious, awkward and queasy - but I am there for it. I am definitely a fan of his verbose comedy, and more often than not, he achieves a kind of chemistry, or at least amusing interplay, with guests largely culled from Graham Norton's couch (at least, to these non-British eyes), with the occasional odd duck like Paul Rudd or John Hamm. Like Ayoade, wherever I am, I like to take things in to their fullest - especially the food tourism - but I don't really like the process of getting there. (It's obvious he enjoys this more than he lets on, but I appreciate him speaking to the annoyances of travel.) I had a lot of fun and laughed frequently on these journeys. Post-lockdown, someone else is due to take the reigns of the show... and you've just lost me, Channel 4.

The plane people meet the plain people in Broadway's Come Away Home, a bouncy musical at about 100 minutes, based on interviews with the people of Gander, Newfoundland, who welcomed passengers from almost 40 jetliners when international flights were diverted the morning of 9/11, and the guests themselves. Despite the breakneck pace, you get the sense that they were stranded there for weeks, not a few days, but if you've ever been stuck somewhere because of a storm, a pandemic, etc., you'll agree that it does feel way longer than it actually is. And the play, wearing its sentimentality on its sleeve, makes the point that they WERE stranded there longer, in that their thoughts and hearts, a piece of them, stayed behind. It's a 9/11 story, but not a particularly heavy one, relying on the humorous clash between the local yokels and more urbane travelers. The songs are fun, for the most part, with some more touching numbers when the tragedy is evoked. I love Newfoundland myself, and its spirit is well-represented. I'm guessing the first question at the casting call was "how are you with accents?".

The extended version of Wong Kar-wai's contribution to 2004's Eros, The Hand takes place in 1960s Hong Kong, one would imagine just a couple doors down from In the Mood for Love. Gong Li and Chang Chen even feel like Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung analogs, though the characters and relationship are different. Wong Kar-wai's idea of eroticism is the world of touch rather than sight. Touch activating a young tailor's apprentice's passions for a distant prostitute, something he can only really experience vicariously, through the caressing of her clothes. While it might only have emotionally bloomed at feature-length, it does manage to evoke sense memory, and of course, every Wong Kar-wai/Christopher Doyle collaboration is to be cherished and looks amazing. While the frames within frames aspect of In the Mood for Love tended to keep people apart, here they are more often than not mirrors, turning people onto themselves in images of vanity or inwardness that keeps external love at bay. Gong Li, doll-like and doomed, has her face frequently obscured, her emotions unknowable, and in that distance we find the man's fantasy of her.

Books: The way a book series like the Eighth Doctor Adventures is set up, there's really no way for Alien Bodies to immediately have an impact on the style of the very next book, Peter Anghelides' Kursaal. So with respect to its predecessor, it's a very traditional Doctor Who story, with a monster that infects people to reproduce (on a leisure planet, no less), and evidently means to be a werewolf tale to thematically accompany Vampire Science. Well, Anghelides writes with some wit, and for the first time, I feel like Sam Jones is fully integrated into a book. That is to say, she has her own voice, isn't undermined by would-be companions preferred by the writer, and even carries a lot of the action. In many ways, she does better than the Doctor who makes some huge blunders in this one. Kursaal is certainly action-filled, and like a big action flick, could be accused of just being a string of set pieces, several of which could he excised without changing much of anything. While it can't help be pale compared to Alien Bodies, it's still a solid trad story.

Though it contains other stories and essays, people will want to read Spider Robinson's Time Travelers Strictly Cash for its four Callahan's stories. This second round of drinks features that ol' Crosstime Saloon that might just be in your area (it feels American in one tale, then makes references that sound closer to the author's own native Nova Scotia), but only if you need to share your pain. The first story brings that trademark empathy to the fore and is really quite touching. The stories that take place on Tall Tales night are replete with puns and there lies my biggest complaint - some of the ones that serve as punchlines I JUST DON'T GET! I stare and stare and stare at the closings sentence, but it's death to me. I sound it out, but deafinitely can't hear it. Oh well. And the fourth story unusually includes a villain that isn't embraced or redeemed, though upon reflection, I guess they are, sort of. Okay, not *I'm* doing it. Four stories is all it took to make me pun automatically.

3 comments:

daft said...

I did think when Richard Ayoade gave up terrestrial travel, it might have been for the sake of inter-dimension exploration. Who knows, given present circumstances, it still might happen... :)

Siskoid said...

Haha, more likely, the pandemic put an end to it, he went looking for something else, he's in fact just scored his own game show, and now unavailable, a 10th season has been announced with a different host.

It kind of makes me sad to see him do this sort of stuff, honestly, because the two films he directed were terrific.

daft said...

Unfortunately, no matter the plaudits, the indie films don't pay the bills. :|

 

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