This Week in Geek (1-7/10/18)

Gifts

Sometimes, you have a guest come on a podcast and they've gotten you a present. So it was with Christian Essiambre (on Catégorie Libre) handing me "Turning Pro", a book I'm sure will come handy some day. And at a distance, many thanks to Anj of the Comic Box Commentary blog for some signed comics that took about 7 weeks to get through the U.S.-Canada border. All the sweeter for getting here late!

"Accomplishments"

At home: Full disclosure... I played World of Warcraft for a while (around the time of the first two expansions), mostly to fit in with people in the office. I soon discovered I could never "raid" with them because our home lives didn't align properly, so to me, WoW was a grinding game more than anything else. Fine for what it was, but I was never obsessed. Still, trust me when I say I know who the Warcraft movie was for. People who ARE obsessed, who have read the tie-in novels, who might actually read the infodumps provided by the game. Personally, that all bores me to tears and I scroll through as quickly as possible. Read enough of that kind of generic sword & sorcery as a teen, it seems tedious now. Warcraft: The Beginning (to use its full, and entirely too hopeful title) takes us back in time to before the war, with orcs meeting humans for the first time. As a representation of the game, in which you might be a member of the Alliance or of the Horde, the movie gives you both. There are human and orcish heroes, and both are threatened. But once we got a Murloc burbling in a swamp and an overhead view that seemed to reference the old Warcraft strategy games, I felt like I'd gotten I needed for this enterprise. And people who haven't played Warcraft don't even have that. Beyond the initial set-up, there are a lot of thinly drawn characters and fights with special effects and I quickly lost interest. It's an origin story for something I don't really care about. And it overreaches. It is so effects-heavy that a lot of it looks fake. The hero Orc isn't bad, and pretty expressive all things considered, but a lot of CG characters aren't (the golem is total crap!). With a whole world to play with, it seems director Duncan Jones just forgot to fill it with anything but stock characters, especially on the human side. What a letdown after crafting a couple of promising science fiction gems (Moon and Source Code).

Not one of Hitchcock's greats, Suspicion nonetheless offers a very Hitchcockian formula. Before becoming a thriller, it spends some amount of time as a romance. As the plot moves forward, our heroine played by Joan Fontaine becomes more and more suspicious of her husband (Cary Grant), his money problems seeming to push him more and more inexorably towards murderous solutions. Hitch is of course good at creating unease and that sense of suspicion in us, the audience, but as the red herrings pile up, I sort of resent him for gaslighting us. Whatever the truth behind Cary Grant's spendthrift cad, he's creepy from the beginning. It is perhaps Hitchcock's greatest triumph here that he manages to make the era's most affable romantic lead truly scummy. I want to punch him in his stupid cleft chin every time he calls his wife "monkey face". I really do. Suspicion gets you to feel things, but it also seems either like it's cheating or not offering the right resolution to its set-ups.

Carry On Sergeant*, the first of the "Carry On" comedies, is a gentle and conventional boot camp comedy that surrounds William Hartnell - reprising the kind of role that made him famous, that of a drill sergeant - with a bunch of zanies, the last squad he will ever train. If only they could be a good one... Smiles are too be had, but not many laughs, not that the gags are badly constructed, but modern audiences will find the pacing full of dead air. Some shticks are better than others, in particular the hypochondriac's, though one might have affection for the general's son who only wants to be a serviceman, or the clumsy but verbose intellectual. I say affection because this is the kind of comedy that is above all endearing. It harks back to simpler times, and its heart is in the right place. The DVD includes a commentary track that's a lot like the older Doctor Who ones (old actors with vague memories wondering who's still alive), some trivia slides, and behind the scenes photos.

You'll Never Get Rich has the slimmest of plots: To escape scandal, Fred Astaire joins the army, but his showbiz life follows him to boot camp where he has to put on a show for the men with the help of his philandering producer and his leading lady, the blazingly beautiful Rita Hayworth. Make no mistake, she's the principal reason to watch this. She's vibrant and spirited, and she dances up a storm. The tap and ballroom in this are very strong, but as a musical, the movie is a bit limited. All the song and dance numbers are part of the story, not of a heightened reality, so they're never implicitly there to reveal how the characters are feeling. The misunderstandings are nothing special, too much of the story hangs on a caddish producer and hasn't aged well, and don't ask me to explain the appeal of the soldier who can't be understood when he speaks. What is that? Is it supposed to be funny? But that Rita Hayworth...

You Were Never Lovelier is the follow-up to You'll Never Get Rich, more of a proper musical this time with Astaire (Robert) and Hayworth (Maria) falling in love during a dance and singing songs to get their feelings out. It's also got more of a plot, as Maria's father tries to trick her into getting married so he can move on to the next daughter down the line, and Robert accidentally becoming the man all those secret love notes are ascribed to. It's got a strong romcom structure with parental meddling insuring the needed emotional pendulum. The dancing is very strong from both leads, Astaire handing himself one very athletic solo number for god measure, and while I wouldn't call any of the songs particularly memorable, they're all sweet, just like the romance. Rita Hayworth is so lovely - once again - it's a real wonder Astaire never got to work with her again. He was wont to say she was his favorite partner, and they do make a good pair. Oh well. She brightens up the screen with or without him.

On the surface of it, The Postman Always Rings Twice is quite similar to Double Indemnity - a film noir in which a man and a woman plot to kill the latter's husband. In this case, however, the romance (between Ginger Rogers and John Garfield) is less arch and more believable, supported by a longer set-up. More interestingly, these two people, Cora and Frank, are ill-equipped to commit murder, both in ability and morality, and much of the intrigue stems from how difficult they find it. Great performances from all involved too... So what the heck happened in the third act? Answer: Too much. It's like the movie (and/or the book it's based on) doesn't know what to do with itself. It seems to head for one ending, then makes a sharp turn, then another... Even accepting the idea that films of this era HAD to punish the guilty, it could have found a way to get there without all those convolutions. Noir can certainly support a lurid ending, but I wish they'd picked one and gone with it.

And now some Spooktober selections...

If you're a fan of Disney's animated Hunchback of Notre Dame, don't go reading Victor Hugo's book to see how it all came together. 1939's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is your one-stop shop for that. Very OBVIOUSLY the inspiration for the animated film. It's got very similar deviations from the film, the same iconic look for Quasimodo, and I don't know if it's something to do with the score, but I often felt like the characters were going to break out into song. If I were a Disney writer/lyricist/animator, watching this would have struck an immediate chord. It SHOULD have been a musical, essentially. Most RKO pictures I've watched were cheaply made, so I was surprised to see the grandiose sets - they built a full-scale Notre Dame and a Medieval village on the lot?! - and cast of hundreds. It looks good, has a nightmarish quality, enough that I'd call it horror-adjacent. But it does hit on its themes a little too bluntly, with several scenes very directly telling us this is a time of change, bla bla bla, like someone wanted to show they'd read the Cliff's Notes, but then never really resolving that theme at the end. If the Church is on its way out, so to speak, and Reason on its way in, why is the Church's sanctuary the thing they save? Stop it with the speeches and let us come to our own conclusions, movie!

Spanish director Víctor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive has to be part of the inspiration for Pan's Labyrinth. It just has to be. Set during the Spanish Civil War, it stars a couple of young girls who, after seeing Universal's Frankenstein, reimagine him as an immortal spirit and come to believe he resides in an abandoned barn. For the older girl, the world of spirits seems an excuse to give in to dark impulses. For the younger - whose eyes will SWALLOW YOUR SOUL, gosh - it is a mystery she herself creates in trying to understand death. Certainly, there's a lot of tension in the film just from the girls putting themselves in odd kind of dangers, both physical and spiritual. The film operates like poetry, with images overlapping and resonating, but does not easily give up its secrets. It's gorgeous, quiet, intriguing, at times eerie, purposefully lyrical, and for all its art and spare image making, still captivates. Del Toro fans would do well to check it out, but it's a recommendation I extend to all true cinephiles.

What are the ghosts we make ourselves? I think that's what the very literate I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House explores. Ruth Wilson (from Luther) plays Lily, a jumpy live-in nurse just contracted to take care of an invalid horror writer in an old house with a possible secrets inside its walls. Lily's imagination goes into overdrive - about a patch of mold, about one of the woman's books - and one might say that Lily is, in fact, haunting herself. Oddity, isolation, fiction, anxiety, uneasiness... they all build towards the makings of a horror story, one that's cleverly recursive. With its florid narration and well-drawn, claustrophobic setting, the film is a triumph of atmosphere. The one thing I heard about Oz Perkins' first film, The Blackcoat's Daughter, was on the order of "What did we just watch?!". With this second effort, I think there's some of the same lingering mystery, but whatever WTF moment might be in there is earned and should make for a lively discussion afterwards. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Hatchet is a throwback to '80s slasher films, but with an ample dose of comedy thrown on top, starring a lot of faces you know from TV and other B-movies, and probably some you don't. In B-movie tradition, the biggest stars in the cast are day players. But they're also part of the initial joke, which is that it keeps jerking your chain as to what kind of movie we're in, and what the lead monster/killer will be. I surprised it didn't turn out to be a monstrous red herring. For the first half hour, you may well wonder if you're not watching a Girls Gone Wild video as well. The casual nudity is on par with the gore - over the top, because that's what slasher flicks are like. Either way, it may not be to everyone's tastes. But it's entertaining enough for what it is, the Louisiana bayous providing a moody backdrop for a hicksploitation/horror hybrid, with sometimes amusing characters getting picked off one by one by a relentless threat. Warning: It does end a bit abruptly. I thought the TV had gone out for a second there. More bug than feature from a narrative standpoint, but there's nothing here to take too seriously regardless.

Michael Curtiz's 1933 effort, Mystery of the Wax Museum, has an intriguing two-toned look where everything is green or peach, an early color process that wasn't ultimately pursued, but it looks great on a movie that's on the verge of expressionism, with sets half-way between Universal Horror and Gotham City, and a bizarre and lurid storyline. Remade as Wax Museum and later, House of Wax, the original tale is more pulp mystery than it is horror, but that's a question of what it focuses on. Yes, we have Fay Wray screaming her head off in the last reel, but the movie really belongs to a fast-talkin', give-no-quarter, banter-to-the-death journalist played by Glenda Farrell. The wisecracks fly in her every interaction, making for a surprisingly funny movie about a disfigured grave robber who casts his victims in wax. And the mystery isn't as obvious as you might think either, with false leads, several suspects, etc., but that's what prevents it from being a pure horror film. In horror, we'd be following the monster or the monster's victims; in a mystery, we're really looking at the detective. If the chills are few, it's worth watching for the look and the dialog. Also, if you're making a list of New Year's-themed movies.

Mark Duplass returns as his super-stalker Aaron in Creep 2 and to succeed, the film had to surprise and not just be about another victim of the same modus operandi. And it does succeed on that score. It even works as a stand-alone film for those who haven't seen the original. First, Aaron is struggling with the mid-life crisis of a serial killer, and that in itself is a worthy premise. His motivations aren't exactly the same, and his frustrations might as well be those of any film maker producing a sequel. Second, he may have met his match in his videographer, a woman this time, somewhat more impervious to his usual "friendship trap". The first film had an intriguing set-up I felt was eventually wasted on slasher tropes. Here, the secret is out of the way, but it makes the movie more unpredictable. It's not about a big third-act turn. It's about an evolving psychology. And that gives Creep 2 the edge over the original, even if, one the whole, the first movie had creepier scenes.

Role-playing: BARD&D Episode 3 - Rock Out! In this more action-packed scenario (as promised), the band does not get to its destination, but is instead waylaid on the road by Orcs who are in the business of enslaving musicians and making them perform for the Underdark (also, recording the shows on "eggs" that can be played back - oh magic!). In the dungeons under the mountain and on stage, they are joined by The Venomads, a Necro-Bard (I had to invent the Kit) with two animated skeletons who play black metal (we popped Benard's RPG cherry, thanks for coming Stephan!). The dice fell in the players' favor during the show, driving the Orcs into a frenzied mosh pit of hundreds, and allowing for an escape in the chaos. Some dangerous delving later (through cave maps found and repurposed... took me back to my teenager years where every adventure was basically my populating old dungeon maps), they tricked Orc bouncers into playing tic-tac-toe for a chance to leave - that allowed me to play the "dumb orc" for all the comedy I could wring out of it - and indeed left. But then the whole angry army showed up on the rocks above the pass, and one last musical number was needed to create an avalanche that swallowed up the Orcs and cut the kingdom of Cormyr off from the North. Oh well. On to Suzail...
Set list - Welcome to Hell (Venom), Badaboom (Van Canto), Black Metal (Venom), For Those About to Rock (AC|DC), Destroy the Orcs (3 Inches of Blood), Destroy Everything (Hatebreed); Bonus tracks: Big Daddy Caddy (Amok), Any Way You Want It (Journey)

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