Some Odd Bits of Heroism

End of Summer is always a tumultuous time.  I’m married to a teacher who runs her own private school, so there’s that madness; though I’m not on faculty, I work at a community college, so there’s that. I’ve finally gotten hallway knowledgeable about where the various classrooms are, and can direct panicking students with a fair degree of certainty. I was unprepared, however, for the woman in the parking lot waving her parking permit at me and shouting that she could not find a parking place. I may look fairly authoritative, but I see nothing about me that implies I can bend the laws of time and space or possibly lift an offending car out of what might be perceived as her God-given slot.

So in also trying to get last week’s Crapfest moving, I was rather lax on the movie-watching front, and when I did actually watch something, it was pretty undemanding.

Undemanding movies have their place.

I started out with Machete, which I have been meaning to watch for a very long time.  As you’re probably aware, Machete started out as one of the joke trailers in the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino Grindhouse. Actually it seems like all those trailers will be getting movies in the long run, so that’s not such a surprising thing. What is surprising is that Machete would have been a better entry in Grindhouse than either Planet Terror or Death Proof, and this is coming from one of the few people who will admit that they enjoyed Death Proof.

Machete puts Danny Trejo’s character from the Spy Kids movies in an entirely different light, as an ex-federale turned indigent day-laborer in Austin. He gets sucked into a complicated plot to ensure ultra-right wing and anti-immigrant politician John McLaughin (Robert De Niro, no less) gets re-elected, ensuring an electrified fence on the US/Mexico border with holes controlled by Mexican drug lord and deadly Machete enemy Torrez (Steven Seagal, again no less).

It’s the casting that gives the movie half its fascination; besides De Niro and Seagal, there’s also Don Johnson, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, and Lindsay Lohan as the drugged-out daughter of Jeff Fahey, and Fahey segues us into Rodriguez’s dependable repertory company: Cheech Marin, Tom Savini, and, of course, the redoubtable Danny Trejo, coming full circle from go-to badass villain to badass good guy.

Machete gleefully embraces the drive-in tropes of the movies it emulates. Like Rudy Ray Moore in his movies, the scarred Machete, because he is the title character, automatically becomes the sexiest man alive; no woman can resist him! Trejo, at 66 years of age when this was filmed, had to be pretty damned amused.

The whole subplot about immigration and illegals is actually pretty cogent and about as Ripped From Today’s Headlines as you can get; like Rodriguez, I live in Texas and this script pokes at several sore spots. There is also plentiful violence and some nudity, so like I said: perfect drive-in flick.

This was followed up by Superman vs The Elite, the latest animated movie from DC  Universe, which I had put off purchasing until I could find a used copy. It’s an unusual choice for DCU, which tends to hew to origin stories and event comics. This one is apparently based on a single issue of Action Comics: #775, “What’s So Funny about Truth, Justice and The American Way”.

The Elite is a supergroup based on The Authority, a supergroup comic originated by one of my favorite writers, Warren Ellis, and Bryan Hitch. Like Alan Moore’s Miracleman, it was a superhero comic taken to a logical extreme; The Authority operates without directives or ties to anyone but themselves. Started as a Black Ops crew, they went independent when their original organization was defunded by the United Nations, and they are the only group with the skill sets and wherewithal to handle several world-threatening events. They also have no compunctions about killing bad guys.

Mark Millar’s subsequent run on The Authority was ugly and brutish, but still within the comic’s mission of subverting the Justice League/Avengers paradigm. Millar took the book in an increasingly political direction, as The Authority started getting proactive about making the world a better place. I grew disenchanted with the series and left.

Superman vs The Elite compresses that whole thing, and honestly, not too well. The title conflict is pretty well laid out and executed, but the trigger events are cardboard cut-outs. One of the flashier villains, The Atomic Skull, has no apparent plan beyond strolling around Metropolis and reducing people to cigar ash, which he does twice. There’s a war between Bogustan and Upper Faketopia, but a terrorist attack that is The Elite’s first big test seems very vaguely connected.

The main event is fairly well done, and concludes everything, in defiance of comic continuity where The Elite, under new leadership, eventually merged with the JLA for a while. But the main thing I took away from Superman vs The Elite is how much I miss the Superman/Lois Lane marriage jettisoned, like so much else, in DC’s New 52 re-booting. That relationship just worked, with Lois providing a much-needed foil and human perspective, and turning into one of the better, stronger female characters of the early 21st century.

So: generally entertaining, but empty, and in specific: phooey.

I had gotten Superman vs The Elite at the local Movie Exchange. Not a place that I frequent, though I’ve gotten some good buys there, on occasion. I mainly troll for cheap Criterions, but usually the management is knowledgeable enough to know when they’ve got something special. Out of print movies can be priced as high as a hundred bucks or more.

So I got a couple of discs that were savings, but not huge, but three others that I was really pleased about – the best being the three disc Sherlock Holmes Collection for $5.99. This is all five of the surviving episodes of the 60s BBC Sherlock Holmes TV series, starring Peter Cushing as Holmes. I had two of these episodes as a gift from my friend Parker, who had gotten duplicate discs from Amazon UK back in the day, and they were not interested in him returning the dupe. I have a region-free DVD player, and really enjoyed that R2 disc.

Like I said, Movie Exchange is usually pretty knowledgeable about such things, so the $5.99 price tag was a bit of a surprise. (now that I check on Amazon, that’s pretty typical for used copies) Then I noticed the store-generated label, which read “SHERLOCK HOLMES – MATT FREWER”. Ah, that explains a lot.

I decided to break into the set with its two-part adaptation of “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, a version I had not yet seen. “Hound” has to be the Holmes story most adapted into movie form. No surprise there, as it’s a hell of a great story. But it is also a story in which the supposed main character – Sherlock Holmes – is absent for two-thirds of the story. It’s Watson’s chance to shine, and sometimes he does. Not so much in this case. Nigel Stock is a Watson in the Nigel Bruce mold, though not as weighted toward comedy as was Mr. Bruce. In fact, in the 1939 Hound of the Baskervilles with Basil Rathbone as the Great Detective, Bruce’s Watson becomes a pretty dynamic character, until Holmes shows up, and then the good doctor just sort of deflates. In similar circumstances, Stock’s character remains steady, if a bit petulant .

I’ve grown so familiar with “Hound” over the years that the primary enjoyment for me in watching these adaptations, besides the quality of the Holmes and Watsons on display, is watching how the various versions take apart and rearrange the elements of the story.  The BBC version hews closer to Doyle’s original than most, though it cuts the ending short by Holmes revealing the killer twenty minutes before the actual end of the story! I guess that really cuts down on the problem of an exposition-heavy conclusion, but it’s rather disorienting all the same.

Jeremy Brett remains my favorite Holmes, but Cushing is, as you would expect, very good in the role.. There is no feeling of him simply hashing over the Hammer movie version of a few years previous, and if he is not a Homes for the ages, he is a very entertaining one. I look forward to the other four episodes in the set, even the ones I’ve seen before.

My viewing encompasses a very wide range of what we accept as “heroism” in the movies. I’m not sure of how many cartoon bad guys Machete kills, but it’s a lot; Superman, of course, refuses to kill even literal cartoon bad guys, which is the whole point of Superman vs The Elite; and then, of course, we have Holmes, who generally defers to his ex-Army roommate to handle the wetwork (and even then, Watson shoots to wound, unless you’re a Hell Hound). That’s a very wide range of heroics in pretty violent genres, and it is pretty telling that at this point in time, Superman’s noble stance seems as out-of-place as Holmes’ intellectual detachment; like it or not, we’ve been living in the age of Machete for most of my life, and likely yours, as well.