This Week in Geek (11-17/07/16)


DVDs: The Mask of Zorro may have been made in the late 90s, but it feels like a classic swashbuckler film, fun, funny, cheeky, sexy, and action-packed. Zorro's pulp origins are translated as well as they are in an Indiana Jones film (and perhaps that's no surprise with Spielberg producing). I have some misgivings about Anthony Hopkins playing the original Zorro - flashbacks of his black-faced Othello for the BBC - but Antonio Banderas is absolutely perfect as his replacement, and quite rightly, this made Catherine Zeta-Jones a star. The swordplay, horseplay, etc. is great, the score is memorable, and the movie doesn't take itself too seriously (just seriously enough). A good time, and I'm sorry to hear the too-late sequel didn't recapture the quality. The DVD includes a strong director's commentary, a good making of, deleted scenes (but not a sequence seen in the making of), a music video, photo/design galleries, and some marketing bits for The Legend of Zorro.

Made famous by GIFs pulled from MST3K (Gamera swinging on a bar, for example), Gamera vs. Guiron sends a couple more kids on a space adventure, this time to the secret planet in our orbit on the opposite side of the Earth. It's a planet with luscious brain-eating babes and the knife-faced monster Guiron, a sweet fellow who cuts up Gyaos like they're made of butter. Gamera is too-hardshelled to be outright massacred like that, but it makes their eventual fight (and I mean eventual, it takes forever for her to get there) kind of dull and repetitive at times. There's some clip show padding once again, but far less than in the previous film in the franchise, but that's not much comfort when other kinds of padding abound.

Netflix: The Invitation is a slow-burning thriller built around a dinner party, where one guest starts to believe the hosts have a dangerous ulterior motive. The first act keeps you guessing (is this a horror film? just a thriller? a straight drama?), and even once you sort of know what's going on, the protagonist's paranoia still makes you question it. This is where I think the movie lives. If you've ever felt apprehensive at a social event (not to say anxious), then it will seem familiar. Believing every small innocuous thing is somehow humiliating or sinister. If you don't connect with that, then you'll have trouble liking the film, as I don't think the characters, despite the diverse cast, are very sympathetic. I don't mind films where the characters essentially talk philosophy all night (Before Sunrise, Coherence, The Man from Earth), but I'm not sure that was the best element in the film. In any case, the third act fails to have the courage to stay with what WAS most interesting and devolves into more standard fare, give or take an ambiguous final twist I sort of didn't really clue into immediately.

Despite Tom Cruise's evidently overrated performance as a cold-blooded killer (I remember a lot of buzz about it, but I don't think there's anything there - perhaps the hype machine made some noise about his taking on a villain's role?), Collateral is an effective thriller about a cab driver (Jamie Foxx) whose car and self are hijacked by a hitman for a night. Foxx's character rises to the challenge in interesting ways, even if certain moments are a little underwritten, in my opinion. The underlying theme of nihilism vs. idealism is nevertheless well explored while giving us action and tension in goodly amounts. And if there's something director Michael Mann is good at, it's creative a lush and beautiful urban landscape, his Los Angeles shot in such a way as to elevate the entire film (an editing nom at the Oscars for an action film is no real surprise, but Foxx got one for acting, which I think is in great part due to getting the film noticed as more than your average action flick).

I'm not gonna lie - I'm a ridiculous person when it comes to Doctor Who connections. I indeed watched Tower Block because Sheridan Smith was its star and because she's one of the 8th Doctor's audio companions (also, Being Human's Russell Tovey was in it, and the script was penned by a Who alumn). The premise is actually fun. The residents of the top floor of a tower block set for demolition is under siege by a sniper for what he perceives are the entire floor's wrongdoing. They're trapped and must get out, and like the best disaster movies, there's just no way they're all gonna make it. An interesting batch of characters, stock types maybe, but fresh enough for this viewer, and how they think themselves out of the situation is plenty satisfying. So it's unfortunate that we don't quite understand how the situation can happen in the first place. The geography is just a dubious enough to leave a question mark over your head all the way through. When you look at it closer, yes, I think it makes sense, but that should have been made clear from the start. Still fun.

13 Going on 30 is Big meets Freaky Friday, with some charming retro 80s elements. You probably know the story - a young girl wishes herself thirty, flirty and thriving, and wakes up in her adult body, having skipped 17 years in the blink of an eye. Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo are eminently likeable, and it's all rather sweet. If you ignore the fact that Jenna got the world of 2004 right, it actually works as a fantasy, where she gets everything she ever wanted at 13, realizes what the cost would actually be to become that person, and makes her whole life better using her 13-year-old ideas and values. But of course, you can also take it as shown, and that's good too, with more smiles than laughs, perhaps, but also some romance, touching drama, etc.

I was drawn to Man Up because Simon Pegg was in it, but it's really Lake Bell who kept my attention with a performance so rich and funny, you'd think this was her stand-up material or something. It's not. Bell isn't even British. It's a complete comic role that would normally have been offered to someone better known as a comedienne than an actress, and it blows everyone else in the film out of the water. Pegg respectfully stands aside and plays the ingenue while she gloriously makes a complete fool of herself. It's been a while since I laughed so hard. And yet the premise is pretty simple, as far as romcoms are concerned. Boy goes to meet his blind date, finds the wrong girl at the meeting place, doesn't know, and she decides to play the part on a lark. Except they hit off, but then the relationship is built on lies. Man Up nevertheless manages to be clever with that premise, give it tons of heart, and is also honest about its two aging romantic leads. Loved it.

The Big Short explained the 2008 housing market crash so that even I could understand it, and made Margin Call, a procedural about that same crash, much easier to understand. Not that you need to. I do love immersive films that give you just enough information to carry you through a specialized environment, but are really about character dynamics. This is such a film, presenting us with corporate types who are as human as we are, not caricatured sharks and wage slaves, on the eve of the crash. An incredible ensemble cast breathes life into the material, among them Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, and Jeremy Irons, and it gets to the point where you root for at least some of them. Boardroom tension, ethical ambivalence, the sense that writer-director J.C. Chandor doesn't judge any of them... All contribute to your understanding and thus, empathy. A neat trick given the people this is based on are reviled.

Tangerine has many things worthy of my admiration. On a technical level, it was shot on an iPhone, which is amazing considering how gorgeous and slick it looks (and some great cheap music cues liven it up as well). Its subject matter is equally worthy, as it looks at a day in the life of two trans prostitutes, one of whom wants to take revenge on her pimp/boyfriend for playing around while she was in jail, and as a side-story, the cab driver who has been known to cheat on his wife with them. It uses real trans women in the roles, and the film doesn't shy away from the cruelty of their identities and profession. At times funny, at times sad, the film nevertheless gets rather screechy at times - Sin-Dee isn't a very nice person, she seems to come right out of a Maury Pauvich episode - but it does end on a grace note. Tangerine will reward your patience, I think.

In Grosse Pointe Blank, a hitman (John Cusack) returns to his home town for his 10-year high school reunion for one last hit (maybe) and to renew ties with the girl he stood up for the prom (Minnie Driver). Joan Cusack, Alan Arkin and Dan Aykroyd complete the excellent cast. It's an action romcom with a great 80s(ish) soundtrack (something Cusack seems to always makes sure they get right in the films he pens), with tons of memorable lines and moments, and enough sweetness and humor to make the murder go down smoothly. On the second level, it's about coming back to your roots after an extended leave of absence and feeling like you never belonged in the first place, and yet feeling you left your humanity there somehow. If you're an ex-patriot like me (at the simplest local level, you understand), you'll know what I mean. Ending felt a bit rushed, but that's a small quibble.

Oscar Pool Stash Forced Watch: I've got this whole box of movies I won during out annual Oscar pool, and I always promise my fellow participants I will watch each and every one before the next Oscars, no matter how bad, and post the results here. Only the very worst ones will go back on the pile for next year's winner. Been far too long since I made a dent in that pile, so let's get to it.

The Sandlot is a charming piece of nostalgic Americana, and because it's told by the adult version of one of the kids who, over the course of the film, spends a summer in the early 60s playing baseball and retrieving a ball from the monstrous dog behind the fence, the cornball elements are sold completely. Of course it's an idealized childhood with a fantastical creature and crazy contraptions! It's how the story is told, embellishments and all. And I quite like films that pull a Munchausen without overtly saying so. The Sandlot is a film for the whole family without being only for kids, and it's filled with memorable scenes, characters and dialog. Entirely pleasant. The DVD includes a promotional featurettes, all the trailers, and oh yeah, a cover that kind of spoils a key element. Who designs these things?
#OscarPoolResult: Stays in my collection.

Five shlock horror films by the director-writer wife-husband team of Tommy and Todd Brunswick, made between 2001 and 2009, are collected on one disc called "Super Pack Madness". Let me just take this one as a whole. Biker Zombies from Detroit starts us off on blurry video that screams amateurishness (despite a bold meta moment in which Tommy Brunswick defends the medium to a film school snob), a homemade movie in which bad actors murder a script that nevertheless had some pretty good lines. Its plot about Satan taking bad people and turning them into biker demons that might fit a remedial episode of Buffy or Angel, is dull as dishwater, and you're left taking more interest in the romance between the two leads, a plot that really has nowhere to go. After that, Tommy Brunswick takes over as director and things get noticeably better. Lurking Terror is a hicksploitation film where the cannibal hillbillies are cursed to be killed by a beast living in the woods. It's cheap and not entirely focused, but as a horror B-movie, it's not too bad. They Must Eat is sort of an extended Twilight Zone episode in which a bullied warehouse worker inherits the responsibility (and thus power) of feeding ghouls living in his basement. Things go terribly wrong, but you nevertheless feel for the guy. Little Red Devil is the best looking of the films, and benefits from the presence of "name actors". Dee Walace and Daniel Baldwin really go for it, though neither is the main character (alas) in this tale of a man looking for his lost girlfriend and finding out just what it could cost him to find her. Sometimes hard to follow, and with at least one rubber mask that almost destroys any atmosphere it might have generated, this one has some interesting twists, better than usual editing, and for once, isn't about eating human flesh. And we get back to exactly that with Evil Offspring, the most recent of the films and yet, the very worst. Remedial in every way, this is more or less a remake of Lurking Terror, with a monster that keeps a family of hillbillies under its spell, but the main villainess is a terrible actress on par with some of John Waters' most joyfully bad films. Grating, obnoxious, confusing, and offensive, all in the extreme.
#OscarPoolResult: While I did mildly enjoy a couple of the films, there's really no call for me to ever watch them again, so I'm putting them back on the pile for someone else to "enjoy".


snell said...

The difference between great (Mask Of Zorro) and really not great (Legend Of Zorro) has rarely mean starker, and everything was the same except the screenwriters.

Anonymous said...

I was always fond of "The Mark of Zorro", with Frank Langella and Ricardo Montalban. Here's a clip where you can see the dashing Zorro and the foppish Don Diego; Langella nails both of them.

Siskoid said...

Oh that's a nice one!

Anonymous said...

God I love Don Diego's foppishness as done by Frank Langella -- it's perfect.

And the best thing of all is, this was a made-for-TV movie, meaning your parents wouldn't have to take you to a theater to see it.


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