This Week in Geek (24-30/09/18)

Buys

Twelve Torg Eternity adventure scenarios in 80 pages, that's Delphi Missions: Rising Storm. Initially listed at too high a price, I found a copy 50% off and couldn't resist. Also, I got Carry On Sergeant on DVD, for reasons that will become clear tomorrow.

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Eli Roth abandons gore porn for an Amblin Entertainment spooky supernatural movie based on kids' book with The House with a Clock in its Walls, a fun enough romp set in an animate house, with Jack Black and Cate Blanchett as good witches and Own Vaccaro quite good as the orphaned boy who comes to live with them and gets embroiled in an evil magician's plot to reboot the world. Unfortunately, I'm a lot more interested in the kid discovering this world of magic than the plot mechanics of the third act. Once the villain is revealed, it all goes downhill. And tonally, while this is more spooky than scary, the more "frightening" elements are at odds with the juvenile poop jokes aimed at younger kids. Thank the spirits for Black and Blanchett then, because it's their timing and chemistry that saves the show's comedy. Roth gets a lot of help from his three leads there, and not much from the rubbery effects.

Assassination Nation is part The Crucible, part Eighth Grade, part The Purge, and a touch of Kill Bill and lots of style. A feminist tract for our times, technologically and politically savvy, embracing its status as an exploitation flick, but having something to say about that exploitation. When a hacker starts leaking what's on everyone's phones in Salem, it brings on a modern witch trial where misogyny manifests (among other ways) as a victimization of the victim, as the film demands we question whether what triggers the "good people of Salem" is actually bad. If the movie takes it to the insane extremes of the horror and revenge genres, it nevertheless feels like it's not THAT far from reality. This is the Western World as a powder keg where everyone is holding a match (their phones), and though the fempocalypse that's in the offing pushes us into film fantasy, it's still too close to our world for comfort. Subtle, it's not. It's aggressive and it's in your face and that's just what society's doctor ordered.

At home: An early crystallization of the now tired romcom formula, It Happened One Night put 1935's five Oscars on its mantle (including the big four). I don't know enough about 1934's eligible output to say if that was justified (I'd have thrown everything at The Thin Man myself), but the story behind the scenes is to me almost more interesting than the "heiress on the run falls for journalist helping her" stock plot. Apparently, director Frank Capra was handed two of MGM's most difficult stars so they could be taught a lesson in humility, having to play in a low-budget picture with limited sets and costumes. Well, Capra's not gonna make a bad film, obviously. Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable have great chemistry, and some fun scenes to play, but it's how Capra tells this story that really puts it over the top. Because Colbert's character is married, even if she's heading for an annulment, there can't actually be hanky-panky through the film. They sleep with a sheet hung between them in the room. Somehow, that makes every intimate scene, every sweet glance, every near miss, even just Colbert alone in front of a talking sheet, surprisingly sexy. And how Capra finally consummates their love, well, that's just a great visual punchline that breaks every romantic movie rule.

If Mamma Mia were a heist movie instead of a musical, it would be The Love Punch. A third act romance with Pierce Brosnan (but with the ever touching Emma Thompson who is the #1 reason to watch this) at a romantic location (Paris instead of Greece), bog standard direction, the characters kind of bungling the genre tropes, and the actors obviously having a fun time, which may or may not translate to the audience. It's that formula. I'm a sucker for con/heist stories (even if the movie initially buries the lede) - and for Thompson! - so that helps, but the script takes a lot of shortcuts, glossing over some of the more difficult aspects of a heist so that four seniors with no justified backgrounds in thievery can accomplish their goal. They're not very good at it, so they're either super-lucky, or have unexplained talents. They make a joke of it in one case, but it's usually puff piece nonsense. Not unpleasant, but it's not going to stay with you.

I'm usually up for a spy comedy, but though Keeping Up with the Joneses has its moments, it's not a very good one. It coasts on its affable stars, but the script isn't particularly funny, and the one actor who should bring the laughs, Zach Galifianakis, mostly comes off as pathetic and boring. He's not a comic LEAD. Isla Fisher, I guess is the lead, but she's not given enough comedy to play, nor do I buy her as a true suburban contrast to the glamorous spies next door either. John Hamm and Gal Godot are oddly in the better position to make me smile as spies out of their element. If I have a sense of déjà vu, it's that this feels exactly like that episode of Chuck where Chuck and Sarah move to the suburbs to expose a spy ring. The characters are sort of switched around, but it's essentially like that. I love Chuck, but I expect more from a stand-alone movie than I do a TV show. And yet, but for the big name stars, this could be a TV pilot.

Badly-reviewed when it came out, Neill Blomkamp's flawed Elysium has actually gotten better with age, I think. It's science-fiction metaphor for the divide between the haves and the have-nots (the 1% live on a space station) resonates even more in 2018 as the orbit becomes the ultimate border wall. The largely Latino cast also speaks to the current climate in America, and the film includes scenes of children being ripped from their parents. It could do with more world-building, as we know little about Elysium itself except that they have magical healing technology, but that's ok. We're in fable territory here anyway, and our POV character comes from down below. No, the problem with Elysium is that it wastes its premise on an action movie (and in the process, also wastes Jodie Foster, since she's the non-action villain). The action beats aren't bad, but they eat up a lot of time and make you forget what the film is really about. It should be a conversation piece, but you come out of it dazed by the violence more than anything.

I have this joke about The Mighty Ducks. Whenever someone asks me to describe a film, I'll say, for example, it's Mamma Mia meets Leverage meets The Mighty Ducks. I always put The Mighty Ducks in there, as many movies have an underdog element anyway. (If the movie is pre-1992, I use The Bad News Bears instead.) But see, I'd never actually SEEN IT. Not that I haven't seen the formula, because it is a very formulaic movie, and it definitely didn't invent its formula. It's The Bad News Bears with hockey, or Slap Shot with kids, but it's a large percentage of every sports movie ever made. We might question whether handing a bunch of Peewees to someone convicted of a DUI is a good idea, but it's otherwise acceptable family fare, with a good lesson about sportsmanship, and a few fun strategies on the ice. I just can't believe these kids grow up to be an NHL team...

Based on a true crime story, 1974's Macon County Line is set 20 years prior, in Georgia, where two drifters were caught of in the crossfire of law enforcement after the brutal murder of a Deputy Sheriff's wife. Because of the true crime aspect, the film's structure is wonky, meandering at first, then almost existential and random in the third act. Such is life, and on that score, the film succeeds. Its vérité plot, flawed characters (there are really no heroes in this thing), and background details all help make this more of a docu-drama. But not visually. Visually, the lack of a proper budget forces director Richard Compton to evoke rather than show, and with interesting shots, he fakes production value. An efficient thriller probably made in the shadow of Deliverance and other pieces of Southern Gothic from the early 70s, it may feel a little thin at times, but the plot's lack of justification is rather the point.

How many movies are there called The Bodyguard? This one is a 2016 Chinese film directed by, and starring, Sammo Hung. It is also called My Beloved Bodyguard. It could have been Sammo's Unforgiven, seeing as he plays an aging security services agent, struggling with the onset of dementia, yet still entirely capable. Andy Lau as a supporting role as the criminal father of the young girl Sammo has to take care of, and the location, on the Russian border, is definitely new and intriguing. Sammo is touching, but extremely understated, some will say to the point of not giving any kind of performance. And unfortunately, there's a lack of balance between the sentimental family story and the obligatory action. The former is so predominant, action fans will be impatient, while drama fans will find the latter obtrusive. That action is well choreographed, no surprised, but too many effects (including ugly juddering slow-motion) are laid over it. The kid is obnoxious. The narration unnecessary. The ending confusing. I'm afraid this one is a bit of a mess, too bad.

Going in, I was wondering if Norman Jewison's adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof was justified in its three-hour run time. Well, though you could have trimmed some dances, I suppose, it totally is. Topol is magnetic in the main role of Tevye, that of the very traditional patriarch of a family of Russian Jews, confronted with evolving times just before the Revolution. The changes come mostly from love - the loves of his daughters defying tradition, and him defying tradition from his love of them - but the story takes on a more sober and epic bent as the community faces forced exile. He and his community must adapt to survive, and this ode to tradition becomes an anthem for the Jewish people's resilience. Everything is about embracing change as a way of holding on to one's identity, and that's as relevant today as it was when the movie was filmed, or set. Great songs throughout, with good use of culturally appropriate melodies, but I particularly love Jewison's direction, especially the way he sets up Tevye's conversation with the audience and with God. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

A piece of 80s cheese, Splash (AKA The Shape of Water: Origins - no, really) follows the formula a lot of 80s fantasy films do, whether that's E.T. or Short Circuit - person befriends fantastical creature, fish out of water (in this case, very literally) shenanigans in domestic setting, creature is found out by authorities and there's a big race to get the creature to safety/home. It's all pretty familiar, but not unpleasant despite some whopping plot holes and silly illogical jokes. I generally like Tom Hanks in this era, and it's especially fun to see him hard put upon by John Candy as his slimy but well-meaning brother. Eugene Levy gets the unenviable role of the comedy villain continually punished with slapstick violence, and yet, eventually finds the character's humanity. Daryl Hannah's mermaid is sadly underwritten however, a male fantasy (though a self-possessed one) who doesn't have much of a personality. A very early film for Ron Howard, he manages to avoid dated mores for the most part and gives us some interesting shots and background jokes. So yeah, not a great film - its main claim to fame is that is made "Madison" a popular name for girls - but an amusing diversion with affable stars.

A sequel no one asked for, Splash, Too is a TV movie made four years after the success of the Hanks/Hannah original. When I found out about it, saw that it was - like many TV movies - on YouTube, I decided I had to see it. And really, curiosity is just about the only reason to do that. Four years after the events of the feature film, where we were told Alan could never return to New York if he chose love, the couple returns and attempt a normal life in a Los Angeles suburb, only a short drive away from NYC. Off-brand Alan looks more like Jim Carey than Tom Hanks and all the wigs are terrible, but it doesn't really matter because the characters are all very pale copies of the 1984 originals. Alan's a sexist douchebag who wants Madison to stay at home and cook, putting her in the crosshairs of a sitcom nosy neighbor. A lot of the domestic stuff - and indeed the subplot that is Alan's entire reason for coming home - is jettisoned in the third act as the mermaid tries to save a captive dolphin (he and the giant turtle in the opener are the real stars here), and leaves one wondering if this was meant to be a pilot for a show where a boy and his mermaid wife solve crimes every week. The villain here has none of the Eugene Levy's humanity, and the laughs are sparse indeed (some scenes might actually provide them if the score didn't interfere with their tone). Seem hardly worth the trouble of making a new tail for an actress and teaching her to swim with it.

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