Monday, April 17, 2017

7 Days in May | Love vs Fear and the Master of Kung Fu

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

I've been cautiously curious about this one. Both Ethan Hawke and John Travolta are actors that I like in certain roles, but I've also experienced annoyance at some of their roles, so I'm never sure how I'm going to react. And all I knew about director Ti West is that he's made a few horror movies that I had no interest in. By all accounts, In a Valley of Violence was a straight-up Western - not a horror movie in a Western setting - so I wasn't sure what to expect.

Fortunately, it's a pretty good movie. Hawke plays a drifter with secrets and a really cute dog. He's passing through the town of Denton when the local bully picks a fight and Hawke humiliates him. Unfortunately, the bully is also the son of the town marshall (Travolta), so things escalate. It's a familiar plot, but Hawke is good as the troubled soul who just wants to be left alone. And Travolta's character is surprisingly reasonable and not at all at the level of wickedness and corruption that I expected him to be. He's perfectly willing to let Hawke go, but is trapped by his loyalty to his less intelligent son.

Taissa Farmiga is also a highlight as a young woman in town who takes a liking to Hawke's character, but Karen Gillen is less impressive as her sister. I usually like Gillen, and her character had the potential for some complexity since she's in love with the bully, but Gillen plays her without any empathy, which means that she didn't create any for me either. She's pretty much perfect for her boyfriend though, since James Ransone plays the bully with no complexity as well.

Back on the positive side, Burn Gorman shows up as a priest who is fairly complicated. He's just not in the movie enough. So I like some of the characters and the action is pretty compelling. In a Valley of Violence isn't doing anything revolutionary, but it's a good, Saturday afternoon, B-Western.

Gojira (1954)

Some friends of ours know that David is a huge Godzilla fan, but don't know anything about the King of Monsters themselves. So they invited us over last weekend for lunch and an introduction. In hindsight, I don't know if Gojira is the best introduction for everyone, because there are some substantial barriers to entry, depending on how you feel about black-and-white and subtitles (we couldn't bring ourselves to show them the English version with Raymond Burr).

i don't know if it's accurate to say that our friends "enjoyed" it, but they at least had their curiosity satisfied and we spent some time at the end talking about the movie in its historical and cultural context. So the purpose of the viewing was achieved and honestly, I don't know that our friends didn't like it. Or if they didn't, why not. The word "interesting" was used, though, and I never take that as high praise.

I still love it though. There's some goofy stuff, but there's also some truly horrific and powerful imagery and I'm always touched by the film's discussion of science and how it's applied.

The Hollow Crown: Henry V (2013)

Since I rewatched Kenneth Branagh's Henry V a couple of weeks ago, I was ready to move on in the Hollow Crown series and see how it handles the play. Branagh is brilliant and jaw-droppingly inspirational in his version, so it would be foolish for Tom Hiddleston to try to top that. Wisely, he understates his performance, which robs power from key speeches, but makes Hal a more relatable character. It's the right way to go. Hiddleston's version is still inspirational; just in a different way.

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)

We've been watching Firefly lately for an upcoming episode of Dragonfly Ripple. If I'm going to talk about something on a podcast, I'll save my thoughts for the show and not write about it here, but I bring up Firefly because seeing Alan Tudyk made me really want to watch Dodgeball again.

I always have fond memories of Dodgeball, mostly because it's ridiculous and has great cameos. And of course: Pirate Steve. But watching it again, I'm reminded of its many problems. Some of them are dated and unfunny jokes, but there's also structural stuff, like having Pirate Steve disappear from the climax for no good reason and then clumsily rejoin the movie for the very end. Or worse, the way that the heroes' victory is glossed over and explained in a way that makes it sound sure even though it's totally not.

Still, a lot of the jokes and visual gags are still hilarious and I like the overarching message about inclusion and not being ashamed of who you are.

Zorro (1957-61)

I finished Season 1 and it was pretty good, if not entirely satisfying. As I said last week, Zorro's victories had been getting smaller as the Eagle grew in power, but the hero upped his game for the finale and pulled out a decisive victory.

However... it's also apparent that Zorro's victory wouldn't have been so decisive if the Eagle hadn't grown impatient and tried to stage a final coup before he was ready. His allies knew it was a bad idea and withdrew, but he insisted on moving ahead alone, which was a bone-headed play and led to his downfall more than Zorro's skill.

Still, it's a strong run of almost 40 episodes, even if it doesn't perfectly stick the landing. I haven't mentioned him before, but one of the MVPs of the series is Don Diamond as a late addition to the cast. He's brought in as a foil for Henry Calvin's Sgt Garcia; someone for Garcia to boss around, but who doesn't follow orders so well. The two of them are hilarious together and bring a needed, lighter touch to the show just as it's starting to look rather grim.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-93)

When the show was originally on TV, I always preferred the older of the two Young Indys (Sean Patrick Flanery). Now I remember why. The younger Young Indy (Corey Carrier) had adventures, but they were generally about his learning how the world works: coming to understand things like art, love, and freedom. Flanery's adventures are about his coming to understand himself.

The first episode I watched this week is a transitional one that has him in Princeton. His mom died three years earlier, so it's just him and Dad. Indy's in high school and dating the daughter of writer/book packager Edward Stratemeyer (The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, etc.). Trying to borrow an automobile for the prom leads him and his girlfriend on an adventure involving Thomas Edison and some spies, which also calls into question the tactics of people like Stratemeyer and Edison who benefit from the work of their nameless and unthanked employees.

The episode's not preachy about that, but it does open the discussion. So while there's still an educational element, it's more sophisticated than what's going on with the Corey Carrier stories. And since Flanery is better able to run and fight and propel his own adventures, the action is also ramped up.

That's also true of the second episode, which was originally the second half of the series premiere. The two-hour premiere was divided into two parts, one with the Carrier Indy and one with Flanery. Connecting the two parts was a story about a jackal sculpture that was stolen from a dig in Egypt. Since the parts are now separated by the way the DVDs are chronologically packaged, the Carrier half ends on a cliffhanger that isn't resolved until years later by Flanery. I like that and the Flanery half does a good job of reminding viewers of the earlier adventure so that the jackal doesn't just come out of nowhere.

What this episode is really about though is the complexity of war. On Spring Break, Indy visits relatives in the southeastern US and accidentally gets caught up in the Mexican Revolution. (There's some weird serendipity working here since I also recently watched 100 Rifles for Hellbent for Letterbox and that also deals with the Revolution, as does The Son, which I'll talk about in just a minute.) Indy joins Pancho Villa's army and is all on board at first (leading me to question how much he was really into Nancy Stratemeyer). He thinks that he's fighting for a good and important cause until he meets an old farmer who sees no difference between the various armies who all claim to be fighting for him, but all steal his chickens in order to do so.

Disillusioned, Indy joins another let-down rebel, a Belgian named Remy Baudouin, in deserting Villa's army to join the fight against Germany overseas. The US hasn't yet entered World War I, but Indy is convinced that there must be a cause worth fighting for and expects that he'll find it in Europe. That's a journey of self-discovery that I'm eager to see.

The Son (2017-present)

A Western TV show starring Pierce Brosnan sounded too good to be true and it turns out that it was. Brosnan plays the patriarch of a cattle family near the Texas-Mexico border. The ranch isn't doing so well, so Brosnan's character wants to convert his land to oil drilling, but he's not sure there actually is any oil and his son who technically runs the ranch is against the idea. It's all family drama; sort of an historical Dallas. Not exactly what I wanted.

And since this part of the show is set in 1915, during the Mexican Revolution, there's also a good supply of timely commentary on modern politics. The white people in Brosnan's community are fearful that the Revolution will spill over to their side of the border, so relations between Anglo and Hispanic neighbors are getting tense. If you don't get enough of that on the news, this may be the show you're looking for.

There's also a more Western part of the show. Interspersed with Brosnan's family drama are scenes from when his character was a boy in the 1840s. His family was attacked by Comanches and he was taken prisoner, so part of the show will be dealing with that. I'd find it more to my taste if I didn't hate the person that kid grows up to be. I don't need to see how he got there. Gonna pass on the rest of the series.

Underground (2016-present)

We started Season 2 of Underground and it's still amazing. It's also still a show that refuses to let me get comfortable with a status quo. Characters die suddenly and shockingly, other characters that I thought were gone make surprising reappearances, and still others go unexpected places and do unexpected things.

What speaks to me most though is the show's consistent theme of sacrifice and compassion; often for people the characters have no prior relationship with. Where The Son is emphasizing the horrible things that people do out of fear, Underground displays the beauty of acting out of love, even when those actions bring suffering. It's not an easy or light show, but it's uplifting all the same.

Shang-Chi: Master of Kung-Fu Omnibus, Vol. 1

I'm 99% sure that my very first Marvel comic was the inappropriately numbered Master of Kung Fu #17. It was only the third appearance of Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu (and son of Fu Manchu), but his first two appearances were in the anthology series Special Marvel Edition starting with #15. When it was clear that he was popular enough for his own series, Marvel just continued the numbering from SME. As far as I knew at the time though, Shang Chi had been around for at least 16 issues before I discovered him.

I wasn't huge into martial arts as a kid, but I very quickly fell in love with Shang Chi. Even more than Batman, he was a relatable hero that I could aspire to be like. I'd never have a Batcave, but I reasoned that if I learned and practiced enough, I could be like Shang Chi.

It wasn't his fighting skill that attracted me most though. It was his cooly stoic demeanor. I wasn't able to fully understand that until reading this omnibus and immersing myself in Shang Chi's personality, but I love him for the same reason that I've always loved Ferdinand the Bull from the children's book. These are both characters who are comfortable in themselves and unshaken by the chaos around them. That's something that I valued a lot as a kid and still do.

I didn't have the ability to keep up with Shang Chi's adventures when I was younger, so it was only in later years that I heard about his globetrotting spy era under the legendary pencils of Paul Gulacy. As a big James Bond fan, I've always wanted to read those stories, so between that and revisting my childhood hero, I was super eager for this series of omnibuses collecting the entire series.

One volume in and I'm not disappointed. Shang Chi is every bit as inspiring as I remember and almost every adventure collected here is a winner. He battles with his father's minions in New York, Florida (hello, Man-Thing!), and the jungles of the Amazon before reaching détente with his dad and joining a team of international spies. It's all beautifully drawn and mesmerizingly written stuff. The one story that didn't work for me is the final, two-part tale in the collection, which is maddeningly surreal and impenetrably enigmatic. That's explicitly the point of it, so I'm not even really faulting it. It was just the single section of the almost 700 pages that didn't work for me on every level. I'm going to take a break and read some Man-Thing (more on the subject of fear) before diving into the next volume, but I already can't wait to get to it.

Batman, Illustrated by Neal Adams, Vol. 1

Neal Adams was a revolutionary get for DC in the late '60s and helped them compete with Marvel's more sophisticated style. It's too bad that the writing was still aimed straight at kids. These stories are all gorgeous, but they're also full of the most ridiculous motivations, coincidences, and plot twists imaginable. That can be fun from a certain point of view, but the childish simplicity of the scripts is jarring next to the innovation and maturity of Adams' art.

Jam of the Week: "Madman" by Sean Rowe

Sean Rowe's deep, baritone voice mixes beautifully with the easy, chill groove in "Madman." And there's hand clapping. I've mentioned before how I like me some hand claps.

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