This Week in Geek (21-27/10/19)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: When I saw Zombieland 10 years ago, I said I was up for a(n unlikely) sequel. Now here comes Zombieland: Double-Tap! And it's much the same. Maybe the Deadpool writers have given it slightly more Deadpool humor, but it was already well on its way. What has also not changed is how much it feels like the episodic television show it was originally designed to be (as if a zombie show could last 10 seasons, nudge nudge). What's unfortunate is that a lot of its thunder has been stolen BY television shows broadcast since the original film. I was consistently reminded of both Ash vs. Evil Dead and The Last Man on Earth in terms of plot and tone. If at least it had acted like a series finale, but no, this time it has every hope of a Triple Tap, and refuses to fully arc its characters. Nothing really matters because despite all the opportunities for big change, we're headed for a reset button. Not to say there aren't good gags (both in terms of jokes and zombie killing), and I was happy to see Bill Murray integrated into the film - I was entertained - but it could have done with a little more ambition.

At home: Robert Wise returns to his roots with 1963's The Haunting, a horror film that is more evocative than showy, a slicker version of the kinds of movies he used to make with Val Lewton at RKO. Though it trades on the trope of spending the night in a haunted house, nobody needs to do it to get their inheritance or anything (though one of the characters is its heir). Wise suggests supernatural happenings without special effects, usually through the performance of the actors, in particular the disturbed Julie Harris character, whose creeping madness feeds the house's spirits (my only real complaint is our hearing her thoughts, which for the most part, feels unnecessary and old-fashioned). Claire Bloom is also great as a snarky, sophisticated woman whose ESP-assisted guesses are often right, and flip side of Harris' wallflower. But the real star is the atmosphere. Hill House is a wonderful and complex set, and Wise shoots it with odd angles, shadows, and diopter focus tricks. Beautiful too look at, it suggests more than it shows, so you do a lot of the work yourself. And that's a great trick.

Kuroneko (AKA The Black Cat AKA A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove, which idiomatically refers to a mystery that's difficult to unravel) is a beautiful-looking ghost/demon story by director Kaneto Shindô - deep pools of black and brightly-lit whites creating amazing atmosphere as he takes the samurai film down for its toxic masculinity. In the opening moments of the film, two women are raped and killed samurai, so once they've been empowered to kill all samurai as cat demons by the god of evil, we're basically with them. It's a folk tale more than a horror story. The horror comes from their demise, and what happens later when their son/husband comes home, having been press-ganged into the army and freshly minted a samurai, one tasked with the destruction of the "monster" decimating the samurai army. What follows is pure tragedy as loved ones are pit against one another, a nightmarish dilemma from which no one will escape, with brilliant cinematography and some weird moments of feline mimetism. Tense, sad, and wonderful.

After Afterlife unlocked Resident Evil's joys for me, Retribution is a real step back. More than any other film in the franchise, it feels like a video game, and not in a good way. I had high hopes after the first couple sequences because it really does feature some of the coolest fighting in the entire saga, but sadly, there's so much of it, it's tedious by the time the stakes feel real. Retribution has NPC-type characters giving the lead characters missions, computer graphics pushing scene transitions, characters that actively LOOK like CG puppets (with unnaturally smooth skin and anime hair), bad CG environments that make everything look like cut scenes, Alice and friends having to go through virtual battlefields like they're game levels... Even the idea of cloning characters from the first movie is a pointless exercise hardly worth bringing back some of those actors. I also feel like we deserved more of a story to explain how Valentine was turned, but then, Sienna Guillory is just as terrible in the role as a baddie. At least she gives a performance, unlike good-looking mannequins Li Bingbing and Johann Urb. Like a game, we just go from fight to fight until it's over, and I kind of feel like the "player" (director Paul W.S. Anderson) is pressing a button to avoid character development.

The Phantom Carriage is a Swedish silent film that could be New Year's answer to A Christmas Carol. According to a myth, whoever dies first in the new year must drive Death's carriage for that annum. The man selected gets a Scrooge-like chance to visit the people he's hurt, and perhaps make amends. It's a ghost story, but it's also a character study, and a moral fable. Our man David is extremely wicked, and when a saintly woman tries to help him sort out his life, his wickedness even makes her good deeds turn to vinegar. And yet, she persists. This is a story about forgiveness, and its lesson is that since it is never too late to repent, it is never wrong to forgive. Now, it is a little slow in the beginning (and not particularly fast even once it gets going), and it structured around several flashbacks, its structure at times confusing. We don't begin with a complete picture, but things start to make sense moving forward. The picture rewards your patience. And that's a neat folk tale out of which to make a movie.

Coralie Fargeat's Revenge is more than a slick, stylish (but not too stylish) rape-revenge action thriller; it's much more clever than that. Clever and angry, with a keen understanding of the non-consensual nightmare its protagonist, Jen, finds herself in. Also classified as a horror film, it soundly refuses to define what kind of horror film it is. Beyond the horrific nature of the violence done to her by a trio of poachers (think of the type of predation that entails) - including her married boyfriend - it's either a slasher film where these three monsters try to kill her, or it's a monster film where she returns as a an avenging spirit to visit their sins upon them. It's both and neither, switching between the two and never letting you crack its formula. Jen's resurrection is never defined as supernatural either, but Fargeat plays with horror tropes to evoke supernatural undeath, whether it's the wooden stake (which later acts as a "woody" that suggests the more voyeuristic of the three villains' hard-on), or the ant motif, or really, though it takes place in the Moroccan desert, a sort of Manitou avenger borrowed from Native American legend. Of course the level of gore also better fits the genre, as Jen savagely eliminates the trio in circumstances that evoke their crimes without putting too much of a button on it. For such a straightforward story, it's a surprising conversation piece. Extra points for the most absurd foot chase climax I've seen in a long while. And it's not the only thing I was seeing for the first time in this flick. Here's hoping Fargeat has more genre benders up her sleeve. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

At the crossroads between blaxploitation and horror is Sugar Hill, whose eponymous heroine calls on the powers of voodoo to avenge her man killed by mobsters. Mostly likeable, it's a thing of parts. Marki Bey is as sexy and badass as any of the genre's heroines, dressing up in immaculate white to gloat at each murder as if to dare the police to find a speck of blood on her person. The silver-eyed, cobwebbed zombies look really cool, and aren't the only way the villains buy it. The funk score is fun and its title song worthy. On the flip side, the effects are frequently cheesy, none less so than voodoo god/murder assistant Baron Samedi's introductory scene (he's more effective in urban settings as a ubiquitous grinning ghoul), and the movie goes out of a moment of bad taste. Still, Sugar Hill is kept alive by its unusual premise, and certainly by its star's smooth, magnetic performance slapping down pimps and bitches satisfyingly. Though I wish she'd had a longer acting career, something tickles me in the fact she went on to run Murder Mystery Cruises with her husband.

Flipped the Special Edition DVD of Doctor Who's The Ark in Space, an early Tom Baker story that's kind of a brightly-lit version of Alien. I've reviewed the episodes already (one, two, three, four). I just want to talk about the DVD extras here. Obviously, most of the stuff that was on the original release is here: A subtitle trivia track; a commentary track shared by Philip Hinchcliffe, Tom Baker and Lis Sladen; an enhanced CG option that replaces the exterior shots (it's nice); an unused title sequence for Season 12; the model shot footage (practical and CG); a vintage trailer; a photo gallery; space station schematics; a TARDIS-cam CG experiment; an interview with designer Roger Murray-Leach; and Tom Baker's promos for the Doctor Who Exhibition Blackpool (as Easter Eggs, one of which is at the end of the story rather than on the menu). The new material includes: The TV Movie compilation edit, which goes by so quick, you hardly know who these people are when they start dying; a making of documentary; a featurette on the Doctor Who novels; a Scene Around Six report about Baker visiting school children across the country; and soundless 8mm location footage from Robot's location work (the previous story). Missing are an interview with Tom Baker and the Howard Da Silva continuity announcements for the American broadcasts (so I guess I'm keeping my original DVD).

I need to clear my DVR and there are a bunch of middling Myrna Loy films on there. But Myrna Loy so... here we go. The Barbarian presents Ramon Novarro as an Egyptian con man in a fun opening sequence where he swindles a couple of foreign women of their riches, and then he sets his sights on the newly-arrived Myrna Loy. She will of course be more than a match for him, and though his ploys are clever, it's a strong story of resistance using Egypt as an exotic backdrop. The film ultimately fails because we can never trust the grifter's sincerity, even when he starts showing signs of actually falling in love with her. It's the performance. Everything he says and does feels like mannered melodrama, so he never seems honest, nor should Myrna ever fall for it. Sure, her performance is more natural and textured, and there are moments of genuine attraction, but the film does not earn its romantic ending, especially considering how brutish he is with her in the third act. I feel like a fourth act would finally show him running off with the money. Quite watchable until the climax where Hollywood takes over and you start grimacing. That's not good.

The Prizefighter and the Lady is without a doubt the worst Myrna Loy movie I've seen to date. If not for my interest in seeing her entire filmography, I would have bailed after 20 minutes, which is more or less what initial director Howard Hawks did when real-life boxer Max Baer was cast. Real-life boxer, but not real-life actor. He also has no real-life chemistry with Loy, and her underwritten character has no justification for wanting to be with him (especially when he immediately starts cheating on her) rather than the mobster she previously dated. Neither us sympathetic, and we really don't want them to be together, or for him to win the championship. In addition to a featured song sung by Loy with an unconvincing voice dubbed on, there's a gratuitous extended musical number featuring Baer (whaaa?), before we head into the no-less extended championship bout (and its dumb ending). It's all gross padding, but these sequences are, in isolation, probably the best parts of this picture. Well, except the tedious walk-ons by boxing bog shots of day, which go on forever. It's like an entertainment for couples who can't go to music shows or boxing matches on their budget. There's something for everyone! Except a compelling story.

Evelyn Prentice stars William Powell and, in the title role, Myrna Loy, a romantic duo that never fails to draw me in. It's a murder mystery and they play husband and wife, but this is nothing like The Thin Man with which they'd just had a hit. Rather, they are tender towards each other, but feeling estranged because Mr. Prentice is a big shot defense lawyer who's never home. His brush with adultery teaches him a lesson, but her own, more timid, gets her into hot water with a blackmailer, which culminates in his untimely death. It's all fairly ordinary stuff (and period-sexist to boot), aside from a few charming domestic scenes, until the courtroom climax where realistic procedure takes a backseat to top notch acting from the two leads. I'm so used to seeing them in fluff pieces, it kind of shook me to see them so invested in the drama, and Loy in particular was extremely touching. It's not a long film, so the two-act set-up doesn't make you wait TOO long for a great, heartfelt pay-off.

Parnell is a dreadfully boring biopic about the Irish politician who fought for Irish home rule in the Victorian era, and one of Clark Gable's more insipid roles that I'm aware of. The film portrays him as a Christ figure, complete with a falsely pious crucifixion at the end, but it's so on the nose, everyone's making speeches about Parnell being a god. I mean, come on. It's a tale of parts, and some certainly work better than others. The parliamentary hearing after Parnell is accused of sedition is about as good as it gets, while the love affair between him and Myrna Loy's scandalously married woman gets more and more melodramatic until Parnell basically has to die as it hits the ceiling. The two have proven chemistry, and very obviously, I'm watching this thing for HER, but her character is almost as wet as Gable's, if better played. All of the incidents, broadly speaking, happened - the timeline is simply collapsed for the needs of the film - but the attempt to give it romantic grandeur falls flat and is in severe need of a pacier rhythm.

Love Crazy is the title of one of William Powell and Myrna Loy's trifles, but it's also how I feel about the onscreen couple. And by the director of Libeled Lady too! In this one, they start out as a very cozy married couple, but on the night of their 4th wedding anniversary, things - a meddling mother-in-law, a sexy ex-girlfriend, and just plain comedy misunderstandings - conspire to break them up. Powell does a lot of a physical comedy in this, which is fun enough, but Myrna gets the best lines, even if her character keeps jumping to conclusions. I laughed out loud several times, but things get more and more screwball by the end, which doesn't work as well on me. The plot about Powell feigning madness to keep Loy from divorcing him is only actually funny because she keeps upping the ante to teach him a lesson, but it's really just a matter of two people finding thin excuses not to be together, which puts the picture in the "harmless" category. (So it's a shame that there are a couple of off-handedly racist jokes in there - again, no real harm done, but the movie shows its age.)

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize

For an action thriller heist movie with noir overtones directed by John Frankenheimer, Reindeer Games is a little dull, I have to admit, despite its all-star cast. Ben Affleck plays the down-on-his-luck hero with a punk smirk on his face, and Charlize Theron the femme fatale with pink-eye more persistent than Hammer Horror's Dracula. Gary Sinise is way over the top. Dennis Farina is underused. The bigger problem is that the villains, while dangerous, aren't very smart, which makes whatever cleverness the clever characters employ less of an exploit. It's as if an action hero à la John McClane walked into a Coen Brothers film. It doesn't quite work. Never mind the last minute twist-reveals (yes, plural), which require a massive infodump to make sense of. Maybe we just never quite forgive Affleck's cringy behavior at the beginning, and that impairs the drama. Some good ideas (why can't Affleck's Santa pass by my house some year?), but overall, less than the sum of its parts and remarkably ordinary as a result.

On the page, The Watcher is a fair thriller about an FBI agent haunted by the serial killer he never caught having to return to the case when the killer follows him to another city and forces him to be involved in a Riddler-Batman dynamic. On the screen, it looks like a TV pilot for a crime show where every week James Spader would profile and chase down serial killers in Chicago with his action-comedy guy pal Chris Ellis from the Chicago PD, and then tell his therapist Marisa Tomei about it, Sopranos-style. And look, somehow they got Keanu Reeves to play the killer, real Columbo casting there. Ellis is just about the only one with energy in this thing, and that includes the director, who shoots this like it's TV. Even when he tries for style, all he manages is cheesy effects that evoke the television of the era - polarized frames and slow-motion. Made a couple years later, I'm sure it would have had internal body cavity zoom-ins like C.S.I. Keanu is particularly bland as the killer, but the way he tells it, he didn't want to do the film and only did because "a friend" forged his name on the contract and he decided to do the work rather than fight a legal battle. The scam didn't end there, when the glorified cameo of the script turned into a time-consuming co-lead. And that, folks, is a story ultimately more intriguing than The Watcher.

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