This Week in Geek (16-22/04/18)


In theaters: I plunked my fair share of quarters for Rampage back in the day, and though video game movies are rarely ever great, it's really my love of giant monster movies and the hope that the Rock would also grow to giant size that made me want to see the movie. All I really required of it was that it be fun and have crazy action moments, and it was, and did. The way they integrated the video game's premise was pretty clever (i.e. didn't seem too forced), the giant hero ape was emotionally affecting, the giant monster action exciting, and the tone had a light touch that makes you want to go along for the ride, no matter how ludicrous. It's not gonna win any script-writing awards, but above average in its category. The door is open for Rampage II, but they've also set up a way to get this team into other "high concept popcorn movies based on properties that may or may not be viable" if they want to. And that's really what I want them to do. If you told me Battleship (to name a past example) was in this universe and starred these guys (in the same way they might be building the Godzilla/Kong universe with MONARCH), I'd be totally into it. I'm going to be spending some of my daydreaming time thinking about what those properties might be.

Indian Horse tells an important story, one Canadians need to be confronted with, about the treatment of First Nations in Canada, specifically how young Natives were ripped from their families and "reeducated" in Catholic "schools", a cultural genocide policy that was still partly in effect as late as the 1990s. Based on Richard Wagamese's novel (a Native author who went through this himself), the film tracks the ups and downs of a Native boy who shows great talent at hockey, and gets opportunities to move up in the world thanks to "well-meaning" white men. Indian Horse eventually rejects its White Messiah element, as we are forced to ask whether the better life Saul is offered is really only a better life for a white man. It upends the dreaded White Messiah narrative by making it part of aggressive assimilation. And for that reason I'll forgive its third act melodrama and over-reliance on flashbacks. Even so, I would have recommended the film based on its cinematography alone. Perhaps no surprise from a maverick camera operator like Stephen S. Campanelli, here directing his second film, but the way he contrasts the beauty of the natural world with the brutal and oddly-fitting world of the white man is incredible and perfectly manifests what Saul is going through. Campanelli knows how to give tiny moments resonance, and creates shocking transitions that transcend the expected tropes of films that, by having to show hardships and atrocities, can too easily become a horror show simply designed to make people gasp and shake their heads before returning to their homes and going about their business as if the problem were all sorted. I don't think Indian Horse lets you off the hook in that way, however. Canadians probably like to think systemic racism is something only our southern neighbor does, but we know better, don't we?

At home: The original Lost in Space had iconic elements or else we wouldn't remember it so well, but it's plots were frequently silly and camp. No different from other Irwin Allen shows, really. I wasn't able to finish the movie when I caught it on TV, just lost interest. So Netflix's new Lost in Space series is, to me, the most watchable version of the franchise yet. While not really on the same level, I was reminded of the Battlestar Galactica reboot in the twists and permutations it gave the original concept. We still have the Swiss Family Robinson crashing their Jupiter saucer on a planet that then tries to kill them, though many more colonists survive the event. The robot is alien, which builds the world of Lost in Space more than what the original allowed. Parker Posey is the new Dr. Smith, and a very different character. And of course, the family dynamics have been updated. A rollicking good ride that can be summed up as "one damn thing after another", which is a good way to build a survival story. The dangers are logical, the solutions clever, and the effects excellent across the board. As a break from the wilds of the planet, the show uses a flashback structure to develop the characters' backgrounds, which sometimes felt disjointed, I admit. But this is definitely bingeable, and unlike some other Netflix fare I could name, it doesn't waste time. Every episode is full of daring, tells a complete chapter, and through the course of the 10 episodes, I think we get properly invested in the family and see each member of the cast grow in your estimation. (I see it all the time, some people want the heroes to be likable and functional from the start, and lose patience with shows that use their first seasons to get the protagonists to that point. Lost in Space is of that ilk.)

Isao Takahata's last film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, is based on the legend of a tiny princess fallen from Heaven, found in a stalk of bamboo, raised by a kindly couple, and eventually brought to court to become a noblewoman. Utterly charming, it very much plays as myth or fairy tale. Its gorgeous distinctive look - a sketchbook filled with watercolors - is perfect for the subject matter too. Not only for its picture book quality, but because the beauty of nature is an important theme, and the film, like a nature artist, takes the time to sketch flora and fauna into its narrative. Nature must be at the center of the film because it's the reason a heavenly princess would want to experience earthly matters. Kaguya's happiness fades when she finds her way to the court. After all, isn't that what she in part escaped? Earth isn't the opposite of Heaven, but a middle ground, where the aristocracy, reaching for the celestial, becomes its mirror. Or near enough. All the while, losing sight of things that are more true and more beautiful. And given Isao Takahata's recent passing, there's something elegiac and more profoundly sad about the ending.

Gamera vs. Jiger is probably the best Gamera film since the original despite having a lackluster antagonist and barely any plot on the human side of things (unless you count what looks like an extended commercial for the '70 Expo). Jiger looks vaguely like a triceratops, but lays eggs inside other kaiju like an insect, it's called up when a giant cursed whistle of a statue is ripped from the ground, it's got all sorts of powers that don't really fit together, and because of its stiff four-legged stance, it's hard to see inside the destruction of a model city. Even so, there's no lack of giant monster action, and for the first time in at least four films, no need to pad things out with clips from previous chapters. Of course it's a Gamera movie, so the kids are the real human stars - here they pull a Fantastic Voyage on their monstrous friend and find Jiger's weakness while the adults gawp stupidly - that's par for the course. You either go with it, or you don't (and if you don't, avoid Gamera movies whenever possible).

Things to Come is not H.G. Wells' most subtle work, and as a film, it makes for a demagogic experience. Made in 1936, it almost eerily gets things right by having a second World War start in 1940, but then of course goes on a different track as the war drags on for decades and destroys civilization. It is then rebuilt by reasonable scientists and engineers and 100 year from the the film's "now", this new society launches its first ship into space amidst controversy. So it's difficult to follow characters for any length of time, if you can really call them characters. They are mostly sermon delivery devices there to make socialist points. But then this is a symbolist work, taking place in a place called Everytown, and as time grinds on, the montages owe a lot to Eisenstein's own demagogic films. When the film really shines is the special effects, combining models and live footage in a spectacle of a quality not seen since Metropolis. But bold visuals aside, it's more a lecture than a story.

In the town of Suddenly, not a whole lot happens until... you get it. This 1954 noir stars Frank Sinatra as a would-be presidential assassin who takes over a small town household to stage his crime as a train carrying the POTUS is set to make a pit stop. Sinatra is pretty much the reason to watch this, thoroughly a bad guy, but one with a big mouth. And where there's so much hubris, there's weakness. His hostages, including the wounded town sheriff played by Sterling Hayden, might just be able to exploit it. Hayden is a bit disappointing, his butch delivery working in tandem with his stiff upper lip to drain the emotional credibility from his character, but the rest of the cast is good, and the solutions to problems, both the baddies' and goodies', are well thought out. It starts off quietly, with subplots about church dates and broken televisions, but that's part of the conceit (judging by the title); it soon turns into a tense, claustrophobic thriller. It could have gone a bit further with the pacifist mom, however. Her arc is tepid where it should have been central and gut-wrenching.

David Lynch's John Merrick biopic, The Elephant Man, is very much shot like Gothic horror films, in lush black and white, creating suspense until the "monster" is revealed, but of course, the sideshow freak who captured Victorian society's imagination was nothing of the sort. So if this is a monster tale, the monsters are those who seek to exploit him (and there's an interesting scene in which his doctor - played by Anthony Hopkins - examines his own soul and motives). Through his stylistic conceit, Lynch puts us in the mind of those revolted by deformity who habitually came to gawp at Merrick, and taps into the more tragic of Universal's monster films. It's hard to keep one's composure, empathy for the man under the monstrous body drawing moistness from one's eyes at various points in the film. This may be Lynch's most straightforward film, but that's why it's so emotionally affecting.

Though a Stanley Baker vehicle (ha!), Hell Drivers includes in its cast Patrick McGoohan (who makes a great villain), David McCallum, a young Sean Connery, and William Hartnell (just not enough of him!) so a must for this geek. It tells the noirish story of an ex-con trying to make good by exposing his ruthless bosses' racket at the gravel-transport company where he works. It's mostly about driving trucks at dangerous speeds on country roads, as the drivers compete for who can make the most runs in a day, and that's where the interest lies. There's a lull in the second act as the film services a romance subplot, but I think I can forgive it because it also manages to spend some of that time building up the various characters. It unfortunately also includes some shaky sets (no, Hartnell isn't in those scenes). But the movie is bookended properly, so if you'll pardon the expression, it's a truckload of fun.

Doctor Who Titles: Damien Odoul's Le souffle (released as Deep Breath in English, though literally meaning "The Breath") is a French black and white indie picture about an idle youth spending time on his uncle's small farm. As a slice of lice, it felt a little boring, especially when we spent time with the adults and their impenetrable French argot (non-French speakers may have the benefit of subtitles). But Odoul is also a poet and by the second act, shifts gears to reveal some of the film's poetics, sometimes intercutting the action with surreal images. And once you clue in, there's an awful lot to unpack. There's definitely lamb/wolf phraseology in the film, with our teenage boy associating with the latter, wanting to be gansta and to lose his innocence in order to avoid or ignore his feelings of abandonment and humiliation. The breath of the title may be the breath of life - as death is certainly a theme - but manifests in the heavy breathing of anxiety, fear, drunkenness and violence. There's also a play between the crude world of the farm, and the heightened society of the "castle" where the kid's girlfriend lives, something he can yearn for, but never quite reach. Fair warning, the film begins with the onscreen butchering of a live animal, and the boy's cruelty to several barnyard animals while not life-threatening, is still something that could have been faked, but wasn't. For some, this will be reason enough not to watch the film, and I would not blame them. 2001 is too late for refusing to compromise on that part of one's vision.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 8th Doctor, Fitz and Anji don't know it, but the Bad Wolf meme is acting up in the rural French area they're exploring...

Listen is a Danish short which can be found on YouTube, about a communications breakdown between the police and a Muslim woman wearing a burka begging them to do something about her abusive husband. The catch: The translator filters the experience through her own religious background and sides with the husband. In this very simple drama, with some moments repeated to multiply the points of view, we are witness to the systemic misunderstanding and injustice immigrants can face, where even allies may pass one another by without truly seeing what's going on. A powerful indictment of the treatment of women in the context of misogynist orthodoxy.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 12th Doctor and Clara are in Copenhagen on some other business, but the presence of the TARDIS' translation circuits changes the life of a woman without them ever knowing it.


Anonymous said...

David Lynch's version was pretty good, but this is my favorite treatment of the subject:


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