This Week in Geek (15-21/07/19)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Replace the surfer with a competitive swimmer, and the shark with alligators, and The Shallows becomes Crawl, summer 2019's B-movie darling. It's perhaps not as psychologically resonant as The Shallows, but it's meaner, leaner, more exciting, and I like it more. Somewhere at the crossroads between creature feature and disaster movie, we could put it in the category of survival film very easily, the daughter-father team having to survive a hungry alligator farm in the middle of a hurricane, and it's always one damn thing after another, even when you think you're entering epilogue territory. The CG alligators aren't always perfect, but the hurricane is amazing. It's really too bad that the heroes shrug off their wounds so easily (when other characters are pretty much one-bite lunches), because their solutions to problems feel very real. If you accept their semi-imperviousness, then you're in for an edge-of-your-seat movie experience.

At home: Without the live narrator silent Japanese cinema traditionally used, A Page of Madness is a little difficult to follow, especially the meaning of certain flashbacks. Let's just say I read the synopsis on Wikipedia afterwards and found Teinosuke Kinugasa's early film was a lot deeper than I realized at first viewing. Set in an insane asylum, it is the story of a man who gets a job there to break his wife out, but he may find though the institution is a terrible place, the outside may not be the place for her. The reason for her madness, is hinted at and seems much more awful than the film's synopsis would have it, but you can't trust anything you see. Not only are we often in the inmates' head space, but the third act is made of the man's visions, several alternate takes on what he might do to get her out. A disjointed fever dream, Kinugasa uses editing and camera tricks to create bizarre effects - I really don't think it gets any better than the opening rainstorm sequence, personally - that film makers today could do worse than study and steal from. I saw it on TCM with a pretty great soundtrack too. And intended story be damned, the fact this exists as visuals alone (no interstitial text) means you can lay your own interpretations on it, so if I kind of like some of my own more than Kinusaga's, well, it's part of the experience.

Dreyer is, as ever, concerned with the state of the soul in Vampyr, but that's far more literal than usual as he brings the supernatural into it. A talky, but almost devoid of dialog, it looks and feels like a silent film. This early vampire tale uses a book about vamps almost as interstitials, explaining things the modern-day audiences of course knows (give or take a few details), but between the occult-obsessed lead's actual use of research and his looking quite a lot like H.P. Lovecraft, you almost expect an Elder God to show up as the Prince of Darkness. Vampyr is all mood, with wonderful bits throughout, whether it's the disembodied shadows dancing through a house or Gray's vision of his own corpse's point of view (tapping into the existential dread of the undead concept, a soul trapped whether outside, or worse, inside the body), there's some great imagery. But the characters are definitely in service of the ideas, with Gray led less by naturalistic motivation than vampiric fascination (their hypnotic power or his own obsession?), he seems to sleepwalk through the film. Dreyer draws a line between interest in the occult and an actual threat to one's soul here, a shadow of his other films about witchcraft (The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath, principally), the horrific subservient to the philosophical.

Alone in the Dark is a fun and unusual slasher film with a great cast, about four violent patients who escape their satirically progressive mental institute to attack the new resident psychiatrist and his family at their home. Dwight Schultz is the poor doctor, and perfect to bring the proper anxiety to bear. Jack Palance and Martin Landau are perfect as two of the maniacs, and Donald Pleasence has fun with his role as the unorthodox psychiatrist who heads the hospital. As a slasher film, it knows how to create tension, using the genre's predictability to good effect. What I perhaps like most of all is how it goes out of its way to show the madness in the rest of society. The riot when the power goes out, the punk band's mosh pit, everyone's little phobias and anxieties... And in the end, the "sane" characters resorting to slasher violence to protect themselves. I can't decide if the pedophile character is a good idea however. It makes you squirm, sure, but in a movie that's really a black comedy that says everyone's got issues, it feels exploitative and a little tone-deaf. But generally, this is a hoot and a half, albeit not one that takes mental health very seriously (but has any slasher film?).

While I enjoyed Mystery of the Wax Museum, I have to agree with most audiences that 1953's House of Wax is the best iteration of the story, trading fast-talkin' reporter detective stuff with more lurid and violent horror. Hey, it made a horror star out of Vincent Price, so we owe it no little measure of respect! It tickles me that House of Wax is a big 3D spectacular when the eponymous museum showcases "three-dimensional tableaux", and give or take a couple of moments, the 3D-ness isn't too gimmicky. Price's wax sculptor is shown to be benignly mad even before everything goes up in flames, and remains a tragic figure even once he goes on his killing spree. He's helped by a young Charles Bronson as a mute Igor type (called Igor, which is also a reference to the original film's villain), unlikely as it may seem today. There's some silly humor, tense nail-biting scenes, spooky dummies lurking or melting, and a great performance by Price (of course). While the original was a good mystery, as its title suggested, this second remake's focus is squarely on thrills and chills, and it's a lot of fun as a result.

The always dependable hard man Tim Thomerson is... Dollman, a cop from another planet (though I want to say dimension given Arturus is like a future Earth police state, which would account for the ridiculousness of the premise too), who crashes in the Bronx, but finds he's only 13 inches tall compared to everyone else. Director Albert Pyun provides some cool shots and Thomerson is great with the one-liners, but the movie loses a lot of energy once Dollman gets to Earth, despite featuring Kamala Lopez as a girl next door who doesn't mind beating up on drug dealers. Well, that gets her into trouble with the more violent elements of the gang and our hero must intervene. Sadly, what Pyun has absolutely no idea how to do is create the effect of Thomerson being small that anyone else. Practically no shots where he's with a normal-sized person, or giant props, or even camera angles to would suggest there's a real size difference. They are so few, you quickly forget about it. My other question is about the alien villain and the human villain undergoing some kind of transference towards the end - it's suggested, but nothing comes of it. What gives? This one coasts on its crazy premise and Thomerson being cool, just don't expect a strong plot, good effects, or clear line readings.

Full Moon's Bad Channels is completely bonkers, which in my book, is a good thing. In the middle of a shock jock's marathon radio stunt, a fungal alien takes the station over to broadcast songs that make girls in town think they're in hair band music videos, then teleports them into bottles, just one foot tall. Everyone just thinks this is a "War of the Worlds" type thing, but one intrepid reporter believes her eyes and ears. Ridiculous, but that's what makes it good. And though nothing is outright recognizable, the original music is kind of fun (Sykotik Sinfoney and D.T.I. mostly, but the score is by Blue Öyster Cult, and of course Full Moon's house band Joker has some supporting pieces). A fun alien invasion movie that certainly doesn't take itself seriously, but still manages to do something new with the genre. An end credit scene shows that Full Moon certainly knows how to link its properties. Shrunken women? Yeah, Dollman shows up. Move over MCU, Full Moon were the trendsetters.

Here's a drinking game. When David Goyer wrote the script to something, finish your drink if the McGuffin proves to be blood. In the case of Demonic Toys, it's got a demon trying to get himself born, so I guess it makes sense this time. The demon currently haunts a toy warehouse and has perverted a bunch of creepy toys, creating some pretty cool horror imagery, and I really like the unusual resolution, which also comes with some commendable stop-motion animation. (Full Moon so rarely has the budget for something this well done.) Structurally, it does make you wait the length of an act for even a hint of horror. It starts off as a cop movie, agreeably led by Tracy Scoggins, whose new pregnancy may be the demon's gateway into our world. Demonic Toys builds its mythology quickly and efficiently, and though it's a crazy B-movie, it does work as a metaphor for pregnancy anxiety, especially given the police officer's situation. Some characters act very stupidly indeed, but for the most part, this is a nice surprise, providing horror and humor alike.

Dollman vs. the Demonic Toys is a sequel to Dollman, Demonic Toys AND Bad Channels, but not one that fits very well. Bad Channels in particular. They decided to retcon which girl is still shrunken so she can play opposite Tim Thomason, and I agree, Melissa Behr isn't just the most gorgeous presence but had the best character. Except, she was instrumental in the defeat of the alien, so it doesn't make sense. Dollman fares better, in that director Charles Band is much more interested in showing what it's like to be a foot tall. There's LOADS of giant props, life-sized evil toys, and camera work that makes you believe in the size difference. This is what the original Dollman should have been like. The plot, however, is all Demonic Toys, with Tracy Scoggins recruiting the doll people to help her stop the demon's return once more (just go with it). The demon is sidelined in favor of the evil toys (some returning, some new), but in any case, having Dollman in the story pushes it away from horror and into action flick territory. At barely an hour (much less if you remove all the flashbacks to the previous three films), there's only really time for a couple fights, and some unfortunately rapey jeopardy for Nurse Ginger, as Scoggins more or less disappears from the script. Good thing Thomason and Scoggins are involved, because otherwise this would be a pretty forgettable mash-up.

If Jubal is the Othello of westerns, it does feature an envious Iago (Rod Steiger at his vilest) and an eventually jealous Othello (Ernest Borgnine a crass step away from Marty), but the hero of the piece is Michael Cassio (Glenn Ford), and Valerie French's Desdemona is far less loyal to her lord. In fact, quite the opposite. It's really not a direct translation of Shakespeare's play. But it holds up, give or take a couple of underwritten characters - neither Felicia Farr's homesteader nor Charles Bronson's gun-tossing ally have any real motivation to become Jube's hyper-loyal besties. The character of Jubal himself is a tragic figure, hounded by bad luck (or really, bad people with bad intentions), and he's never stood his ground. Trusting someone is hard for him, and the movie's drive is how he gives that trust and loyalty only to have his heart broken. The strong cast creates a tense drama out of an atypical western story, though I must say the ending felt a bit abrupt.

There are two standard reasons to watch Baby Face, and they're standard for good reason. One is Barbara Stanwyck in the lead role of Lily, a woman who gets sold on Nietzschean philosophy and embarks on a life of getting what she wants by using sex to manipulate men. She's smoldering, commanding the screen with a look and a smile, pitched just so. The other is that there's a thrill to be gotten from pre-Code movies that deal with subject matter you don't associate with old Hollywood films, and Baby Face has a lot of suggested sex, and some violent moments besides. What's most adult about it, however, is its moral ambivalence. The censored version the public originally saw had warnings about her chosen lifestyle up front, and a "learned her lesson" epilogue, but the original rediscovered in the early 2000s makes me wonder what the script thinks of itself. Lily sleeps her way to the top, but eventually meets her match and risks actually falling in love. At some point, love must win over selfishness (or Nietzsche's self-reliance, but it's the same thing... a modern version might use Ayn Rand instead), but even if we're meant to then think, ah, Lily was wrong and now she's paying for it, there's no literary naturalism sending her back to the gutter. Her exploitation of herself and of men is still shown to be effective. There's also the matter of the black character in the story, the best friend who only plays at being the maid in white company, which feels progressive, but her scenes get more and more servile until she's made irrelevant. Here again, I wonder how much thought was actually put into this, or if it's just trying to push unwritten cinematic rules as a much as it can. I'm not entirely convinced either way, but Baby Face is certainly a strong conversation piece, made just before the Hays Code came into effect, and certainly one of the most influential to the Code's design.

With Devi (The Goddess), Satyajit Ray creates an intriguing exploration of the power of faith, telling the story of a young woman who's life and marriage are turned upside down when her father-in-law decides, after a dream/vision, that she's an incarnation of the goddess Kali. Set at the cross-roads between tradition and modernity, the film takes both points of view. Does Kali work through Daya, or are the so-called miracles she performs have an explanation rooted in scientific fact? Does Kali the Destroyer lack the mercy Daya herself has, or is chance as blind as certain characters' faith. Where does faith end and hubris begin? Sharmila Tagore as Daya is extremely effecting, sweet and tragic, someone you want to watch, utterly sympathetic. Ray uses surreal imagery sparingly to give the story a mystic allure without breaking its realism. Given the music is strong (albeit not as strong as in his first opus Pater Panchali), it's a real shame that background noise in scoreless sections is so warbly. I imagine we're hearing monkey howls and other jungle noises throughout, but it's not clear that's it. Just noise on the tape, or sound design meant to put you on edge? I can't tell, but it makes for a noisier experience than I want it to be.

Diverge is an indie take on Twelve Monkeys, at least in terms of premise, with a man having to go back in time from a post-apocalyptic future devastated by a super-virus. In Twelve Monkeys, history is immutable, but in Diverge, it's changeable. Not only that, but the protagonist stands to undo something he himself did in the past that unleashed the pandemic. I gotta say, this is a better postapocalyptic movie than it is a time travel story. The stuff in the frozen wasteland around New York is evocative despite (or perhaps because of) its near-silence. Once we get to the present and the mechanics of the plot take hold, the film is far less self-assured. You don't feel the protagonist is older than his past self. Off-the-rack costuming is unbecoming. And the acting is middling. That said, it's not a bad evil corporation plot, and doesn't exactly go where you think it will. It's just maybe at odds with the slow pace that was probably necessary to pad the film out to feature length.

Set time machine to the 2020s. Keywords: Post-apocalypse. Wasteland. Getting back to one's love.

Since A Boy and His Dog is based on Harlan Ellison novella, you expect a certain cynicism. Director L.Q. Jones doubles down on that cynicism, perhaps in the name of black comedy, and unbalances Ellison's finely-tuned original, pushing it into the realm of obnoxious bad taste. And it's pretty dull besides, which is probably the worst sin. But yeah, you start with a Mad Max prototype starring a young Don Johnson who has a telepathic bond with a dog who helps him find girls to rape. That's the premise. Somebody should have warned me before I pressed play. As it plays out, it's consensual when he does hook up with a girl, so ok. The dog has some charismatic moments, but his voice actor kind of doesn't. After watching these two assholes run around the desert, sometimes coming across a pack of idiots scrabbling around in the dirt (yeah, it's not Mad Max quite yet), the kid finds his way to an "advanced" underground society where things get more boring, if that's possible. The 70s were big on dystopian SF, but this is a collection of weird elements for their own sake, with annoying chatter over public speakers, and a waste of Jason Robards whose character doesn't even care when the kid and the girl make their escape, so why should we. The dark ending is out of the novella, but not the final punchline, which Ellison is on record as having disliked. I think I do too. It's bad enough the film doesn't have any likeable characters, but it flips their attitude from amoral survivalist to just evil. Misogyny abounds from the concept on down into the muck where the film finally crashes. I like oddball SF as much as the next guy, but Jones can't carry these weird concepts off. Despite some early shots that recall spaghetti westerns, the result is cheap, tawdry, and mean-spirited.

Gaming: Out-of-town friend Chalif came a-visiting and brought his game of Microscope with him, a story-telling game that involves building a world through interconnected time periods, events, and (role-played) scenes. We were joined by Fred and Clo in creating a "flat Earth" steampunk-ish world where Overearth mounted an expedition to see what was on the other side of the plate, and disrupted the lives of Underearthers for centuries thereafter. The game is called Microscope because you're looking at hundreds of years, really, but zooming in where your interest takes you, each round having a different player choose a focus that guides everyone's choices for a time. I went with big concepts that could be applied to any period (like Misunderstandings or Ironies), but other players might pick a historical figure or an entire period. The history of Over/Underearth is one of exploration, exploitation, and eventually, rebellion (time to plug up the hole!), filled with relatively silly characters (because we can't help but be ourselves), and in the end, I kind of lesson about cycles (thanks Clo!) and the ant metaphor that actually sparked the idea for the word. I guess people use Microscope all the time to build campaign settings (I could easily see our game given the Savage Worlds treatment, for example), so it was fun and we were at times clever. Thanks Chalif!

2 comments:

Simon said...

I got to see Page of Madness about ten years ago in Philly, and it was extraordinary. The theatre hired a narrator and a japanese instrumental ensemble to provide live musical accompaniment, both of which really helped make the experience resonate more than watching it at home.

Siskoid said...

Wow, that sounds awesome.

 

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