This Week in Geek (19-25/05/24)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: It's a mouthful, but Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes continues the modern franchise's unbroken string of quality films starring your favorite apes. Well, in this case, we're generations after the previous film, so a new cast has to be introduced, but we warm to them pretty quickly (and AGAIN, the orangutan is a highlight - there was a Michael Dorn quality to his voice, and then I realized it was Peter Macon, fans of The Orville will now how I crossed my wires there). Noa is a chimp in the Caesar mold from a hawking clan, whose people is forced into slavery by an ape king who wants to get at a human bunker and its advanced weapons. To free them, Noa has to team up with a human girl who hasn't succumbed to the virus and who ALSO needs to get into that bunker. A lot of world-building, taking us forward, but also harking back and foreshadowing elements of the old Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and of course strong action pieces with absolutely perfect photoreal creatures. I like its moral shades of gray. No matter what victories humanity ekes out in this, our hearts are with the hero apes, and therefore an interesting ambivalence as to our own fate as a species. Apes together strong!

At home: Alex Rider spends part of his third season in Malta, which gives it an exotic feel, infiltrating SCORPIA without the Department's help. It's largely about finding out who his father was and therefore what his legacy is, but perhaps thankfully doesn't go the full hog on the usual bloodline clich├ęs. There's an interesting threat that probably wouldn't pass a science test, which gives the Dept characters something to do (when bureaucrats aren't standing in the way), and Alex's friends Kyra and Tom are a highlight, running spy games as best they can, and threatening to ruin everything with their meddling. The problem with the show here is that everyone has to think Alex is the most important person in the world. SCORPIA wants to turn him even though he'd make a terrible assassin (there's another reason that belongs to the spoiler file). The Department keep bringing him up even if he's supposed to be out of the game. Alex, Alex, Alex, Alex. Yes, we know what show we're watching.

Not the strongest Grisham adaptation, The Pelican Brief solves its legal mystery early, but withholds the information from the audience. Denzel Washington's reporter therefore seems to do pointless things while we wait for him to meet Julia Roberts' brilliant law student who's cracked the case wide open with instinct and research. What works in a novel doesn't always work in a movie. The editing here is often a hash, characters disappear for too long or are introduced too late, and the ending is anti-climactic exposition. There is a certain frisson to be had 30 years later, with this yarn of political corruption, the murders of Supreme Court judges to restructure the Court before an election, story ideas that could have been had today. And certainly, the all-star cast gives better performances than the material demands. I do question why the movie is so needlessly in love with Julia Roberts' character, though. That cheeseball ending. Come on now.

A sunny noir if there ever was one, Out of Time stars Denzel Washington as the police chief of a small, coastal Florida town whose affair with a married woman takes him to the brink when she dies as a result of foul play, and he's named as her insurance's beneficiary. He has to investigate, while also covering up his own connections to the murder while his estranged wife, a high-profile police detective from the Big City, is on the same trail. And it's great - give or take the unconvincing casting of Eva Mendes as the wife; Sanaa Lathan is much better presence as the other woman - until a very stupid ending ruins the whole thing for me. There's one ridiculous twist too many. There's an unearned happy ending. And while John Billingsley provided fun comic relief as Denzel's buddy medical examiner throughout, the kind of comedy they make him do at the end is dumb as rocks. What a waste!

A young Denzel Washington is the eponymous police chief of a tiny Caribbean (but American) island where everyone knows everyone in The Mighty Quinn, a charmer of a detective story where the setting does a lot of the heavy lifting. Denzel's vacillating Jamaican accent aside, he's great in this as one of two local legends, of the kind only small isolated places can spawn. The other is the island's Bum Eternal, suspected of the murder of a rich white businessman, or at least that's what the privileged a-holes want Quinn to think. This happens now, while his marriage is in trouble? Director Carl Schenkel isn't a recognizable name, but he has a lot of fun staging this thing, with cool but not over-stylish shots, an evident sense of humor, and a lot of music. It's always great when the titular hero gets a song of his own. The Mighty Quinn is kind of like a blaxploitation film on vacation, with reggae airs instead of dirty funk, and it's a lot of fun.

Look, there's no beating the original, but if you're going to remake The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (as 123), then yes, by all means make it a completely different movie. Tony Scott's saturated look and stylish smearing (I get that trains=movement, but he's really in Michael Bay territory here) gives life to a dumbed down version of this story about a subway train hijacking. The proceduralism has been thrown out the window in favor of impossibly big computer screens and John Travolta acting crazy, and New York City's first responders are determined to be an inept as possible. Denzel Washington is of course strong in the Walter Matthau role, even a little shlubby, and they're reaching for something very interesting with the moral dilemmas he's forced to solve. And then it all ends with him running around New York with a gun, chasing the bad guys, which is just the dumbest outcome. So yeah, the first adaptation has not been dethroned, but rather turned into a frequently entertaining popcorn action thriller, which can be enjoyed on its own terms.

I suppose I learned about the Mexican kidnapping craze in Tony Scott's Man on Fire, back in the day. Denzel Washington, in his second of 5 films with the director, plays an ex-CIA agent who hires himself out to a family for cheap to protect Lupita (a young Dakota Fanning), a precocious and friendly child who inevitably gets kidnapped. When it all goes tits up, our man embarks on a violent revenge spree that's too relentless for the film's own good. There are so many moving parts to this ancestor of Taken that the number of revenges balloons to the point of grim excess. It does create a pervasive sense of paranoia, but makes the movie too long and you want to disconnect from the horror show somewhere in the middle part. But the connection between Washington and Fanning is built up well, and a sunburnt Mexico is perfect for Scott's over-saturated photography. And I always felt that Radha Mitchell (the mom here) should have been a bigger deal.

By the time 90s movies tried their hand at cyberpunk, it was both too early and too late. Virtuosity falls into that category, presenting us with an ill-defined future where they train cops with an AI programmed with 150 serial killers. It of course gets out of control and slips into an android body to wreak havoc on Los Angeles as a former cop convicted of revenge murder (Denzel Washington) is let loose to help catch the monster (who shares memories with the man who killed his family - PHEW!). The 1995 CG is kind of fun in the virtual reality moments, but mostly, the film resorts to boring shoot'em ups for its action beats. A young Russell Crowe gives a very big performance as the SID the lunatic AI, so big it may be more annoying than entertaining. Crowe is certainly having fun, and can we really call it fake when he plays an AI? I'm on the fence here. Not on the fence about Kelly Lynch though, who is often terrible as Denzel's Gal Friday whose sweet young child inevitably comes under threat. Had Virtuosity had more money and directorial backbone, I think it could have been something, but alas.

A much better action thriller than one might think from the stock title, Ricochet stars Denzel Washington as a maverick cop, then maverick D.A., on his way to maverick mayor, whose most notable arrest comes back to haunt him in the form of an insane John Lithgow whose plans to destroy his humiliator's life border on the supervillain. For Daredevil fans, this is Denzel: Born Again. Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, Razorback) directs this thing with an eye for the novel and unusual, and I can safely say it contains scenes I've never really seen before - the initial arrest, the arm wrestling, the parole hearing, and Denzel Washington flashing his willy at the Bionic Woman -  despite the essentially formulaic nature of the genre. Everyone is clearly having fun with the material - they even let Kevin Pollak do his Captain Kirk impression. Which is sort of at odds with just how dark the story gets, but I don't think it's a deal breaker. Lots of energy on the screen counts for something.

The movie Daniel Espinosa hopes to be remembered for instead of Morbius, Safe House is a pretty solid spy action thriller in which Ryan Reynolds plays a CIA safe house keeper itching for more action and gets more of it than he ever bargained for when Denzel Washington's renegade agent is caught and brought there. Seeing as Denzel's character is a master manipulator (but is he nonetheless righteous?), I imagine an alternate universe where this premise was used for a claustrophobic, one-location thriller. Instead, it goes for a more formulaic chase through South Africa, with Reynolds trying to keep his "guest" safe from unknown assassins, and himself safe from the guest. Lots of strong supporting players, violent fight scenes and stunts, and Reynolds doesn't undermine the tension with his trademark humor. Safe House is borderline bleak as the green rookie gets an eyeful of the true face of intelligence services, and wonders if he'll get burned because he really quite expendable. Better than it's given credit for.

I haven't checked the numbers on this, but I think maybe Ridley Scott is generally at his weakest when he's doing biopic. Or perhaps it's the genre that brings me down. American Gangster, though it stars Denzel Washington as a mostly unknown, but very successful, early 70s organized crime figure, has me more interested in the cops involved, actually. I just find all the crime stuff pretty rote (the ups and the downs, the internal politics, the flashes of violence, etc. can be found in all the big American crime epics) in spite of the cleverness of the operation, and any attempt at "Robin Hooding" such crime figures, no matter how much they love their moms, usually rings hollow. Russell Crowe as New York's (well, Jersey's) one honest cop is more interesting, and I'm into both his attempts at figuring out a mystery for which the audience already has the answer, and his rivalry with the corrupt cops from across the river (represented by Josh Brolin). Big, big cast, especially on the African-American side of things, but you you gotta work extra hard to make these "based on a true story" things sing high notes for me.

Two things that tend to radicalize you: Oppression and Education. Both come together in The Great Debaters, a dramatized true story about a segregated African-American college in the 1930s spawning a successful debate team that would go on to debate white colleges (not specifically Harvard though, that's part of the dramatization). Denzel Washington plays their teacher and directs with great sensitivity, rendering a multiple coming of age story that's steeped in radicalization. The word "radical" is often used as a derogatory, but it need not be. It merely means that one's ideas buck the mainstream, and when the mainstream is an oppressive system, people are right to resist. And a debate team is a great place to explore that, since it's about exploring ideas, dissecting them, and getting to the point where you can speak with authority, convincingly. The movie is a little manipulative at times - for example, I doubt all the issues "resolved" were specific to this theme, and there's no accounting for Washington's sudden presence at the end - but it makes you care about the characters (their parents too) and the power of education.

Back when Apartheid was at its height as a global hot button issue, we got Cry Freedom. Biko's story takes place in 1977, the film was made in 1987 (South African Apartheid would only end in 1991), but it's amazing how much of Biko's language about racial equality and self-determination sounds like the way we speak about it today. Talk like white privilege and cultural genocide feels more of the "now" than they did in the 80s (but maybe it's because I was 16 when I first saw the film, which still influenced my values about racial equality as I recognized at least one argument I integrated as my own). Denzel Washington is great as Biko - this could almost be a compare/contrast performance to his landmark Malcolm X - but since the adapted book is by a white man, it's really a white man's story. There's a deep irony to a black story being told through the lens of Kevin Kline, his family, and his less than credible accent, an irony the movie seems to be aware of at times, but it's nonetheless another affront to the native Africans this is supposed to be about. By the time we've made a complete switch to the White Messiah who will bravely get the story out, it's more like Cry Me a River than Cry Freedom.

Pretty usual for an 80s historical biopic, Glory is a black story as told through the Messianic white character who wrote the history (in this case, through letters). It's something Denzel Washington's almost too modern black activist might have called out, and that hurts the picture in retrospect. Unfortunately, the problem is compounded by casting Matthew Broderick as Colonel Shaw - the man in charge of the first black regiment in the American Civil War - and I have a hard time buying him as any historical personage. Washington gives a strong and varied performance - and got his first Oscar for it - but props should also go to a very young Andre Braugher as his counterpart, an educated New England soldier who character arc is almost opposite. He hardens where Washington softens. Needless to say, Morgan Freeman and Cary Elwes are good too. The Civil War is from an era where, because of technical limits, they had the dumbest strategies - the whites of their eyes, indeed - but director Zwick manages to make the main battles reasonably exciting. The film takes the Rebels' perfidy for granted, and so doesn't spare the Union any criticism. It comes off as just as bad or worse, but for their cause. Well made and all, but I can't get very excited about it.

In the shadow of the Gulf War, a (fictional) woman is set to receive a Medal of Honor for combat (posthumously) for the first time. If the story of her Courage Under Fire (that's the title) can be cleared by a benched armor unit commander played by Denzel Washington. His story is fairly compelling - after a friendly fire incident and being under review himself, he becomes obsessed with getting his report on the fallen chopper pilot right, just as he feels his own culpability should come to light. Through interviews with the men who were saved in the incident, he finds discrepancies that soon turn into a Rashomon situation. So it's a little difficult to get a handle on Captain Walker, whose character changes from telling to telling, even if she weren't so obviously miscast as Meg Ryan. I'm sorry, but she just growls her way through a heavy Southern accent through every flashback and with her trendy haircut never really seems to be the person she's portraying (except when she's at home with a small daughter). And that undermines the whole affair.

Flight is the movie that isn't Sully. I say that because at one point I expected a water landing before I realized I was watching a different film. Robert Zemeckis' movie isn't a biopic like Sully is, but it plays like one. There's a terrific aviation accident at the top of the film, with an impaired pilot (Denzel Washington) at the controls, but in the consequences, Flight, no matter how well acted, becomes just another movie about alcoholism and the 12-step-program. We've seen this a million times, and though the movie tries to be memorable - John Goodman's boisterous pusher, the aviation setting - it never quite lifts off after the first act. Part of the problem is that it's way too long and could have sacrificed its subplot about the pilot's romance with a drug addict on the road to recovery, and perhaps concentrated more on the investigation, the hearing, and so on. Or just gotten us there faster. I don't think Zemeckis meant to give us a movie that felt like a delayed flight.

Does Awakenings count as a baseball movie? No? Ok, I guess not. Penny Marshall delivers a well-made "true events" medical mystery with an emotional foundation, but despite some strong performances by all involved, it never really avoids formulaic tropes. Lilting music signals a "heartwarming" period piece. Robin Williams offers one of his then-trademark dramatic performances, with very little comedy this time (Dr. Sayer is no Patch Adams), as a neurologist who initially has to convince the hospital and its donors that people with a very specific kind of catatonia are worth saving, among them Robert De Niro's character. At the end, we're supposed to take solace in the fact that while the true life stories didn't all end happily, at least the shy Sayer came out of his shell, a kind of upbeat irony. Like I said, the performances are unimpeachable (Julie Kavner is the secret MVP), but 35 years on, it doesn't distinguish itself a whole lot from similar fare.

My Companion Film of the week features Louise Jameson... While Doctor Who fans of a certain age might get a naughty thrill out of seeing Leela as a randy wench, 1972's Disciple of Death is otherwise a train wreck. This folk horror tale stars Mike Raven - worst of the bad actors on show - as a smarmy Satanist who turns virgins into his pale-faced slaves, but wants the love of newcomer Marguerite Hardiman for... reasons. In the third act, there's an attempt at something other than dull and obvious tropes by sending the parson and Hardiman's lover on a quest to meet a Jewish sorcerer and obtain magic items to fight, by that point, a demonic "dwarf" that casts spells at them, but the film doesn't survive the tonal break. They really should have led with that. As for the overuse of Bach's Tocatta and Fugue in D minor, it's what finally made me check if Disciple of Death hadn't been covered on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (it hasn't, but it gives big Mano vibes without being as inept). How do I contact the Satellite of Love about this?

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