This Week in Geek (27/08-02/09/18)

Buys'n'Gifts

The Drama Deck required to play the new Torg: Eternity RPG took a bit longer than the books to get here, but I got it this week. Shouldn't this have been a boxed set? And podcasting pard Elyse gave me a couple books about the writing process, Sarah Stodola's Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors, and Roy Peter Clark's Writing Tools. Thanks!

"Accomplishments"

At home: I completely agree with a lot of reviewers that with I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, first-time director Macon Blair is channeling his friend Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) in terms of look, atmosphere, and basic plot (it's a fiasco story about a woman who ends her push-over days and joins forces with the neighborhood oddball to get revenge on the small-time crooks who broke into her house and stole her grandmother's silverware, in a woodland town). However, I do not agree that it could essentially be set in the same universe, because Blair's is a moralistic and karmic one. I'm reminded on Chinese crime thrillers like SPL or Johnnie To's entire filmography, where Fate (or guardian angels) is responsible for some of the more incredible moments. Essentially, this universe rewards those who do good, and punishes those who do bad, but it also requires you to be active. That's the reason Ruth's karmic balance is off at the start of the film. She's too passive. Once she takes a hand, even in her own affairs, things start to move forward, and her eccentric side-kick (Elijah Wood making a good low-rent partner for Melanie Lynskey's unlikely heroine) is in touch with something - a naive mix of Zen and Christianity - that helps her right the balance. It's all about people being in over their heads on both sides, and there's a lot of "happy/sad" humor in that, possibly my favorite tone for anything.

Enter the Void is the First Person Shooter version of The Holy Mountain where, ensconced in one young man's perception, we are privy to his last hour of life, and his death experience (as per the Tibetan Book of the Dead). Not a comfortable watch for every audience, the trippiness reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey at times, though perhaps more because it supports a four-act structure. The first serves as training wheels to get you understanding we really are in the kid's head so that later, you understand you're still in first person mode. No cheats - the sound design and blinking image sell it - but it can be tedious and disaffecting. If you're gonna check out, it's probably in the first half hour. The second act is the most impressive, finally letting us get to know who this character is, what his off-putting relationship with his sister is all about, etc. through clever editing as his life flashes before his eyes (and I mean that literally; people who have trouble with strobing is stay well clear of this movie). The third act actually straddles the second, but includes his trying to follow his sister in the present, unwilling to disconnect from his life, which leads to the fourth, a promised nightmare that forces his soul to reincarnate. What at first seems plotless slowly takes narrative shape, and I kept adjusting my opinion upward. At the very least, it makes you think about what you'd experience in that moment.

I know that not everyone agrees with me that Ang Lee made the better Hulk movie, but he did make the best Fantastic Four movie by a mile. It's called The Ice Storm. Ok, sure, it only uses the FF as a metaphor for the kind of family presented in the film, but still. FF fans take it where they can get it. If the metaphor works, it's in the idea that being adventuresome, when one is a parent, comes at a cost that one's kids may well have to pay. Set during Watergate, there's a sense that corruption in the White House is reflected in the family unit, and something unnatural in parents experimenting with sex and substance abuse, while their kids doing the same seems rather more natural. The title overstates the ice storm, but I suppose it acts both to "wash away" and "freeze the moment" (to take stock?) as the characters reach a crisis point in their lives. I've just piled one metaphor-driven interpretation on top of the other, and that's a problem from a critical point of view. Ang Lee may be layering too much, and it tends to flatten out his intent and turn the film into just an effective drama about families out of control. I say "just", but that's not a bad thing to be, especially when you have the cast to pull it off.

Now folks, welcome to my Peter Lorre marathon, courtesy of TCM... The Face Behind the Mask looks like it's marketed as a horror film, but it's really a crime picture, with Peter Lorre as a naive immigrant in New York whose life spirals downward after he is disfigured in a fire. The light humor in the first act evaporates as he turns to crime to survive, but he might get pulled out of the darkness by an unlikely romance with a poetic young woman. It's fun to see Lorre in a "heroic" and even "romantic" role, running on pathos, if nothing else. But while the story is all over the place, it's certainly never predictable, or if it is, not for long. A bleak pulp tale that keeps changing its genre, and somehow, Lorre manages to be great in each.

The Comedy of Terrors is as dark a comedy as they come, but despite its morbid content, it's mainly a vehicle for horror stars to do slapstick and shtick. That said, it's also incredibly literate, with florid language and more Shakespeare references than just that title (in fact, I'd recommend it as part of a double feature with Theatre of Blood). So you have Vincent Price as an irredeemable undertaker who would kill to get clients, literally. You have Peter Lorre as his long-suffering assistant who amusingly kind-of sort-of gets to play hero and romantic lead. You have Karloff as a dotty old preacher who doesn't know WHAT'S happening. And Basil Rathbone as a corpse who can't seem to die. Oh, and the cat actor totally deserves its credit at the top of the show, it's not just an inside joke because Jacques Tourneur directed it. Silly, but often clever, I smiled a lot. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Strange Cargo is a religious fable about a number of convicts escaping Devil's Island - as you do - one of them a Messianic presence who mysteriously acts as a catalyst for their possible redemption as the run and then sail away from hell. A bit on the nose at times, it's nonetheless the heart of the film. Somehow, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and their toxic romance are plugged into this story, and I'm not sure they ever comfortably belong. It already takes some gymnastics to get a woman on this trip, and though Crawford is good, her character attracts a series of creeps, and Gable's is one. Take a drink every time he calls her "baby" and I promise, you'll pass out before they get off the island. You'll need a stomach pump by the time they reach the mainland. So yeah, he's squarely in his "hard man" mode here, and his grace note isn't on par with what's given to other characters because his performance is so unashamedly two-dimensional. A picture I think would have been better without its star attractions, strangely.

All Through the Night is a lighter affair than most for Humphrey Bogart, using his trademark witty patter to good effect in the more comedic parts of what is essentially a story about small-time hoods versus Fifth Columnists. Bogart is surrounded by clowns doing a variety of shticks, and the way he gets wrangled into uncovering a Nazi plot feels mundane (his favorite baker is killed), but as the plot unwinds, a certain excitement builds, and the film offers a number of good action set pieces. Those moments are pretty much the only times the film takes itself seriously, so in the end, it might be true to say All Through the Night feels a little inconsequential and flighty. But it's amusing enough, not that the Nazi infiltration of America is anything to laugh at, he said with his 2018 perspective.

Widely considered the first American "film noir", Stranger on the Third Floor is nevertheless a minor work in the genre, but an efficient one that doesn't waste time getting to the point. Between Peter Lorre's sinister presence and the Kafkaesque nightmare sequence in the middle, a direct line is drawn between this film and "M", and thus to German expressionism as an ancestor of noir, as a journalist, feeling guilty about sending a potentially innocent man to the gallows on his testimony - with an assist from a satirically-portrayed court - is then witness to another murder, and this time he's the patsy! Well, the cinematography is great, I like the focus on psychological horror, and though Lorre is a top-billed day player, he still makes an impact. The resolution is a bit pat, but then this thing clocks in at 64 minutes and is a lean story-telling machine. While not as well remembered as other noir classics, it's in no way a stain on its history either.

Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment distilled into its essential crime story by Josef von Sternberg - as opposed to a multi-hour epic, as per the novel - works quite well as proto-noir, and manages to be a more intellectual work than most. Peter Lorre is Raskalnikov, a criminologist driven by poverty to commit a murder, and thereafter playing a cat and mouse game with a police inspector. Typical crime stuff, but the film's focus is really on the psychological changes that occur in Raskalnikov, how the crime changes him for better and for worse. It's not as simple as guilt, or fear of getting caught, it's more layered than that. This was Lorre's pet project, so he had to star in it (against the director's better judgment who felt he was miscast), but he's both its strength and its weakness. I think he gives a good performance, but he's at odds with the rest of the casting. He's the only one with an accent, for one thing. Even if own family sounds American. And he's more theatrical than anyone else too. So I dare say it's not Lorre that's miscast, it's everyone else.

In The Verdict, Sydney Greenstreet plays a disgraced Victorian police inspector who is forced to resign from Scotland Yard after the wrong man hangs for a crime. When a murder is committed across the street from his house, he more or less gets back in the game, though mostly to show off his replacement, with his friend Peter Lorre at his side. The two of them act more and more suspiciously, but are they just interfering with the investigation, or did either of them have something to do with the murder? That would be telling, but while the film is pretty good at creating herrings both red and regular-colored, I don't think it necessarily plays fair with the characters' psychologies, and thus with the audience. It tries to have it both ways with characters at once having a conscience and not. It almost works, mind, but I'm not sure it earns its final revelations.

The Mask of Dimitrios follows Peter Lorre as a crime writer trying to piece together the life of a dead master criminal, finding his steps dogged by a mysterious man played by Sidney Greenstreet who has his own reasons for finding "Dimitrios". While the two of them are great, and I'm certainly happy to see Lorre in the hero's role, the film promises better revelations about Greenstreet and Dimitrios than what we ultimately get. I definitely had a "that's it?!" reaction. Without a clever resolution, its structure's use of long flashbacks to tell Dimitrios' story just makes it feel like a series of barely connected vignettes. I recommend it for the principal actors and the noir atmosphere, but I don't think the novel it's based on makes for that good a film.

I'm not gonna hide it, I hated the first Fast&Furious film and found it one of the most boring things ever. On advice from friends, I picked the franchise back up with Fast Five and loved it from then on. But what about the intervening movies? Better get to them before Netflix pulled them! 2 Fast 2 Furious is already a big improvement despite jettisoning everyone but Paul Walker (and his boss) in favor of a new cast. Roman and Tej are introduced and will return in future installments (sadly Suki will not, I would totally have grocked more Furious Devon Aoki), and they're not the comic relief they'll later become. There's more of a sense of being part of a team in this one, and the car racing is a means to a better end, 2 Fast more of a buddy cop (buddy crook?) flick with amusing heist elements and a couple of crazy stunts the likes of which will become the norm by the fifth movie. Unlike the first movie, the car stuff is actually choreographed so I can understand the action, so that's a plus. It's all a bit thinly plotted of course, but to my surprise, it proved to be a pretty enjoyable, if undemanding, diversion.

Even Paul Walker isn't in Tokyo Drift, and audiences for a long time resented the attempt to turn F&F into an anthology series about street racers of all sorts, I think. Vin Diesel puts in a cameo but that's it. Instead of any cast member we would have recognized at the time, this one stars Lucas Black as the world's least convincing teenager, getting shipped to Japan to live with his dad after getting into too much trouble in the States. He soon gets into "drift racing", runs afoul of a Yakuza's nasty nephew, and gets mentored by Han, who we WILL see again. It's also Justin Lin's directorial debut in the franchise, and connects only slightly awkwardly with his later installments. Ignore Han and Dom's apparent ages though, and I think it works pretty well, with a later film giving meaning to Han's senseless death (but in a way that's completely divorced from these events). Otherwise, it's a return to the franchise's roots, with a focus on racing and macho posturing, though structuring it like a martial arts movie is a good wrinkle, perhaps inspired by the setting. In any case, Lin's direction has some fun flourishes, so I consider it a small notch better than the original.

Fast & Furious starts with a crazy vehicular stunt and a teamwork-driven gas heist, which made me wonder if the cool stuff hadn't started early than Fast Five. But maybe it was just proof of concept for what Justin Lin wanted to do with the franchise, because the bulk of the film is a more somber take on 2 Fast 2 Furious, with Paul Walker reuniting with Vin Diesel in a "buddy cop/crook" plot where the bad guy wants drivers, which allows them to infiltrate his organization easily. But there's little of the humor of that previous flick because it's all about revenge for the death of Diesel's lady (coming out of left field and later undone, this movie is weak on connective tissue) so you can't have too much fun. And yet, none of the principals really sell the grief. Lin's direction is energetic, sure, but there's a lot of repetition in the type of car action shown, and you just spend the movie wishing it'd be more like that opener. And future films would be.

The first Pitch Perfect was okay. The second... not so much. A lot of it about repeating the same old beats, so returning the Bellas to underdog status by disgracing them and putting them on an international stage, having a completely shoehorned acapella battle, introducing a newbie with different ideas (Hailee Steinfeld, what are you doing in this?), having Anna Kendrik save the day, etc. The same but slightly different is par for the course in a sequel, but a lot of what happens is plugged in without any real thought to how it could logically happen. How does the competition timeline work? How do the special guests at the end get there? Just how contrived IS that battle sequence? And then there's the humor, which falls flat through most of the film, either because it's offensive (and doesn't earn the right to be) or because it's delivered by the fatally unfunny "Fat Amy". There are some nice musical numbers, of course, but mostly the villains', which is a problem they did not seem to fix in between movies. Kendrick's subplot, while quite predictable, yields some rewards (in part thanks to a sometimes entertaining turn by Keegan-Michael Key), and her generally sincere performance, along with Steinfeld's, wins the the film another half-star.

Reads: Time to talk about another of those "romance novels" (really, 32-page leaflets) from 1940s Quebec, "Plus fort que tout" (Stronger Than Anything), this one about a girl whose father proves to be a killer out to get revenge on the people who sent him to prison in his youth. He makes good on his revenge, but then wants money from his victim's son, but she walls in love with the son, etc. Writer Jean Brétigny really wants to be writing a play because this thing is almost all dialog, bar the climax where people are racing after each other on a river. The pulp tale ends with the evil father dying, but not before he reveals our heroine wasn't his biological daughter, a strange turn that's meant to make us think her romance has a future because 1940s audiences believed evil was genetic or something. A rather slight tale with one-note characters, it's not even long enough to fill 32 pages, so we get three more stories (!) that might be at home in Weird Love. One has Diogenes' daughter, sick of living in that barrel of his, finding a husband through philosophical trickery. It's pretty fun. The next is an ironical tale of hotel rooms marketed as having been the sleeping place of celebrities - too short to really work. And the final one-pager is an unfunny joke about how hard French verb tenses are to learn. My favorite part, however, is the back cover which assures us all of this publishing house's products are certified clean and proper by a Catholic priest! Yes, even the part where Diogenes' daughter gets herself pregnant so her father will have to allow her to marry. Ancient Greeks, amirite?

0 comments:

 

Blog Archive

Category

5 Things to Like Activities Advice Alien Nation Aliens Say the Darndest Things Alpha Flight Amalgam Ambush Bug Animal Man anime Aquaman Archetypes Archie Heroes Arrowed Asterix Atom Avengers Awards Babylon 5 Batman Battle Shovel Battlestar Galactica Black Canary BnB 2-in1 Books Booster Gold Buffy Canada Captain America Captain Marvel Cat CCGs Charlton Circles of Hell Class Comics Comics Code Approved Conan Contest Cooking Crisis Daredevil Dating Kara Zor-El Dating Lois Lane Dating Lucy Lane Dating Princess Diana DCAU Deadman Dial H Dice Dinosaur Island Dinosaurs Director Profiles Doctor Who Doom Patrol Down the Rabbit Hole Dr. Strange Encyclopedia Fantastic Four Fashion Nightmares Fiasco Films Within Films Flash Flushpoint Foldees French Friday Night Fights Fun with Covers FW Team-Up Galleries Game design Gaming Geekly roundup Geeks Anonymous Geekwear Gimme That Star Trek Godzilla Golden Age Grant Morrison Great Match-Ups of Science Fiction Green Arrow Green Lantern Hawkman Hero Points Podcast Holidays House of Mystery Hulk Human Target Improv Inspiration Intersect Invasion Invasion Podcast Iron Man Jack Kirby Jimmy Olsen JLA JSA Judge Dredd K9 the Series Kirby Motivationals Krypto Kung Fu Learning to Fly Legion Letters pages Liveblog Lonely Hearts Podcast Lord of the Rings Machine Man Motivationals Man-Thing Marquee Masters of the Universe Memes Memorable Moments Metal Men Metamorpho Micronauts Millennium Mini-Comics Monday Morning Macking Movies Mr. Terrific Music Nelvana of the Northern Lights Nightmare Fuel Number Ones Obituaries oHOTmu OR NOT? Old52 One Panel Outsiders Panels from Sheena Paper Dolls Play Podcast Polls Questionable Fridays Radio Rants Reaganocomics Recollected Red Bee Red Tornado Reign Retro-Comics Reviews Rom RPGs Sandman Sapphire & Steel Sarah Jane Adventures Saturday Morning Cartoons SBG for Girls Seasons of DWAITAS Secret Origins Podcast Secret Wars SF Shut Up Star Boy Silver Age Siskoid as Editor Siskoid's Mailbox Space 1999 Spectre Spider-Man Spring Cleaning ST non-fiction ST novels: DS9 ST novels: S.C.E. ST novels: The Shat ST novels: TNG ST novels: TOS Star Trek Streaky Suicide Squad Supergirl Superman Supershill Swamp Thing Tales from Earth-Prime Team Horrible Teen Titans That Franchise I Never Talk About The Prisoner The Thing Then and Now Theory Thor Thursdays of Two Worlds Time Capsule Timeslip Tintin Torchwood Tourist Traps of the Forgotten Realms Toys Turnarounds TV V Waking Life Warehouse 13 Websites What If? Who's This? Whoniverse-B Wikileaked Wonder Woman X-Files X-Men Zero Hour Strikes Zine