This Week in Geek (11-17/11/19)


Podcasting mate Amelie needed me to help her dad unload his Dan Cooper comics, so I did her a solid and bought the whole lot. 37 books! Dan Cooper is a rip-off of Buck Danny (which I read from the library as a kid), a jet pilot hero that's Canadian though the comic is actually Franco-Belgian (Buck Danny was American, so it's COMPLETELY DIFFERENT). They are in perfect condition because her dad has military discipline. As she's telling the books have never even been opened completely flat, cat jumps on box and starts scratching at spines. They're mine now.


In theaters: Can you win an Oscar by making Rebel Wilson give a restrained performance? You ought to. All joking aside, Jojo Rabbit is a Hitler Youth comedy for our times, Moonrise Kingdom by way of The Great Dictator. Kids being indoctrinated by the alt-right with YouTube content need to see this, as its 10-year-old lead comes of age through critical thinking. And for adults trying to understand just how innocent children CAN be indoctrinated, it is a well-observed exploration of the innocent mind, blind hero worship, and how games and imagination play a role in character building. Taika Waititi, both as director and in the role of the boy's imaginary friend Adolf Hitler, is precariously perched, but manages a perfect tonal balance. His Nazis are very funny, but you also understand that they are monsters. One of my favorite things is the relationship between the boy and single mom Scarlett Johansson. In a normal film, a child with an overactive imagination is usually misunderstood by their parents, but here, the mother fuels her son's imagination, a necessary escape in a time of hardship and war. She's warm, funny, and imaginative herself. This may be a strange family film, but it works. Eccentric, funny, touching, meaningful, charming, horrifying, inspirational, absurd, and gorgeous to look at. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Doctor Sleep is a terrible name for a movie, especially for a sequel to The Shining, and it wasn't a great title for the novel either. In fact, the way it's plugged in the film made me wince. That said, I have little else bad to say about the film. The golden '70s aesthetic director Mike Flanagan developed for Ouija: Origin of Evil is well-used here, and the picture looks gorgeous across the board. Flanagan pleasantly melds elements of the movie AND book versions of The Shining in his tribute to Kubrick and King, trading (as the book does) horror for supernatural thrills. The difference, for me, is that in one the protagonists are under threat and you're scared with them, while in the other, it's the monsters who are scared of the protagonists hunting them. Honestly, I didn't think it would work. Doctor Sleep seemed to me King's cruel trolling of fans begging for a sequel to his first hardback bestseller - you wanna know what happens to Danny? Well, he's an itinerant drunk and there are vampires who drink the Shining and Professor X should start his School for Gifted Youngsters before all the kids with super-powers get eaten. Hrm. But it works. The movie is on the long side at 2½ hours, but there's a lot to get through, setting up the villains, contemporary Danny, and the super-Shiny Abra he must help. There's just enough of the Overlook in my opinion, no actor gives a bad performance (though the necessary re-casting of Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson is perhaps distracting), the vampires getting their asses kicked is quite satisfying, and the theme of addiction is well used to give Danny an effective throughline. I liked it a lot more than I thought I would, which probably means Stephen King fans are gonna hate it ;-).

At home: Jack Ryan's second season on Prime Video trades the Middle East for South America with what is essentially a murder mystery. The whodunit is pretty obvious, but the whydunit is what keeps the momentum going. After two seasons, I still don't know what to make of John Krasinski in the role. He still cuts an odd figure for an action star, and the show doesn't really care about character development (that one guy keeps marrying the same woman? ok), and even in terms of plot, it's a lot of Jack Ryan disobeying orders and people letting it slide cuz he was right once, last season. But it does something right because it made me paranoid about South American instability and strongman tactics in election time. Though it's fiction, it really does feel ripped from the headlines, five minutes in the future. Oh and there's a Tim Horton's joke, which tickled my Canadian funny bone. Never wearing out its welcome at 8 episodes, I'm up for more, but the show's gotta figure out how to better motivate "shifting loyalties"; it too often seems like characters are helping Ryan because the script told them to.

The Toys That Made Us made a third season! While their planned The MOVIES That Made Us seems redundant to me as, unlike the toy world, there's PLENTY of information available on the making of popular films, there's a hint in this foursome of the approach they might take. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and wrestling action figures are episodes that also delved into the properties themselves and how they became pop culture phenomenons quite beyond their toy lines. I guess that's going to be their take moving forward. How films (and beyond that they might decide to do series about TV, comics, etc.) become a part of pop culture. And still, the best episode is the one about My Little Pony, which was an original idea. The personalities involved make it a hilariously absurd episode that gave me the giggles, and I'm going to go ahead and say it's the best episode of the entire series. And for those who thought some of the humor made toy pros looks stupid through editing, I don't think anyone is particularly doofysized this time around. They're getting the balance right just as they're ending this phase of the project. Hopefully, lessons learned here are applied to the next.

So I'm correct in thinking Hooper is the inspiration for The Fall Guy TV series, right? Essentially a mid-life crisis film where the title middle-aged stuntman played by Burt Reynolds feels his age and thinks of retiring, especially with Airwolf's Jan-Michael Vincent coming as a new breed of stunt performer. So it's psychologically appropriate that Hooper is acting like a big kid, shouting YOLO at the sky, and risking his life for One Last Stunt(TM), though the film hardly gives you a sense that he's ever been any different. Worse, perhaps, is that though everything points to a tragic ending, Hooper never really learns a lesson. What he says he'll do, he does, and the foreshadowing is merely audience manipulation. As a stuntman movie, it provides a lot of "gags", as the in-story director's vision becomes more and more elaborate and dangerous, but you also know guys are doing it for real (a blooper reel in the Jackie Chan style reminds you in the credits sequence if you forgot). You also realize there's movie fudging involved - there's stuff here that WASN'T done for real the way the in-story stuntmen are doing it, and the director putting people in real danger is more lampoon than industry criticism - which I found distracting. I'm not entirely enthusiastic, but maybe if it had more Sally Field. She's funny, touching and sexy in this, the complete package, and at odds with the macho shenanigans of her co-stars.

River of No Return is a pretty ordinary western adventure - heroes including manly man, womanly woman and kidly kid go down river and face dangers including rapids, pumas and nasty prospectors - I essentially watched for two things. One was the Alberta locations, the other was Marilyn Munroe, both gorgeous (though director Otto Preminger is better at shooting the former than he is the latter). I like Marilyn's early career before she was relegated to playing out of breath and someone bubble-headed vamps. Her showgirl has a hard edge and an easy way with a song. Unfortunately, her acting sometimes veers off into melodrama, and she's certainly not helped by Robert Mitchum's smug performance or the scene where he almost rapes her yet keeps on being a viable romantic partner, according to the movie. Heck, they chose that scene to put on the poster! Come on, 1954 Hollywood! At that point, I mentally disembarked the film's raft, though I let the rear-projection adventure run its clichéd course.

In his first directorial effort, Caged Heat, Jonathan Demme makes the case that women's prison exploitation movies should work the same way blaxploitation does, i.e. have its characters endure (in this case) misogyny, and get badass revenge on behalf of their peeps by the end. The prison in this case has a repressed (female) warden who thinks of the inmates as sluts - the implication is that they are in jail for being sex positive - and a doctor who likes to drug, undress and then lobotomize the girls under his care. Every other man is a perv. Problematically, the audience is complicit by virtue (is "by vice" an expression?) of its voyeurism, because Demme couldn't avoid the high nudity quota these movies require. But the satire still works, even if the acting and production values are lacking. Demme seems to be using the flick as an audition tape, enlivening the action with camera tricks, dream sequences, and odd music (the score sounds like mostly jaw harp). It doesn't all work, but it's raw and dynamic and kind of fun in a trashy way.

Though it has moments one might consider over-the-top (the bowling alley, the climax), Black Gunn is closer to They Call Me Mr. Tibbs (perhaps I'm thinking of it because of Martin Landau) than it is later, full-on blaxploitation movies. It's pretty laid back and reasonable and therefore, a little generic and boring and an action picture (which I've also said of Shaft). People are free to think that finale is the bee's knees, but a big American-style shoot'em-up is super boring to me. As a drama, about characters, it's a lot more successful. Jim Brown is a great presence, naturally, and I like his speech about his name's origin and how it ties into the genre. He has a kid brother, played by Battlestar Galactica's Boomer, Herbert Jefferson Jr., who is involved in Black Panther-type political action, which gets him into trouble with white gangsters of course. Italian bombshell Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball) is an exotic choice for a crucial role. Watchable, but I wish I found it more memorable.

With exploitation director Robert Hartford-Davis at the helm, I thought The Take would be a blaxploitation movie with Billy Dee Williams in the lead and was up for it! Turns out it's just a cop movie, but Billy Dee is still the awesome, so okay. He plays a smooth cop on the take who's decided he wants to get out from under his boss-mobster's thumb. Out of the life entirely? Nah, not really, which I guess is more realistic, but it does make for a less satisfying character arc for Sneed (which is a terrible name for someone as cool as Williams is in this). He's working for both sides of the law, but ultimately, only for himself, and navigating difficult waters what with his also-bought cohorts looking over his shoulder. Some pretty good action scenes, the crime du jour turns out to be more interesting than advertised, a furious pace, and a magnetic lead make this quite watchable for what it is, but it quickly evaporates from your mind, except maybe for a hankering to see more of Billy Dee Williams.

1948's The Woman in White takes Wilkie Collins' brick of an early novel (I don't mean for him, I mean in the history of novels full stop) and manages to keep it contained at 1h49. This results in a couple of clumsy info-dumps and skips in time, but for the most part, the strong cast, gorgeous literary language, and Gothic atmosphere keep the film on the rails. The weakest part is the love story, which tends to melodrama, and which suffers some unnecessary changes from the book that really smack of Hollywood politics. The best parts usually have to do with Sydney Greenstreet as the genial yet sinister Count Fosco (no slow burn here), who is practically given mental powers in the way scenes are shot (totally in line with the Gothic), and John Abbott as the hilarious uncle whose nervous disposition out nervouses Vincent Price's turn as the similar patriarch in House of Usher (also shout-out to his long-suffering servant Louis). The twinning of Eleanor Parker is impressive too. Subtle differences in make-up (?) made me wonder if they were too actresses, especially during the scene of Parker at her own bedside. This version of The Woman in White has some flaws, but its qualities more than make up for them.

High Pressure is a 1932 William Powell vehicle, and indeed, it's a bit of a one-man show. He's lively, smart and funny. Everyone else is either just okay, unfunny, or terrible. Lookin' at you, Evelyn Brent! For a movie in which chemistry is actually a plot point, the two romantic leads certainly don't have any. Brent looks like she's sleeping through her scenes. Powell plays a con man who gets into business with more fortunate souls, lives large off their money, until he can sell the bogus company for a profit. But it's like they don't really want Powell to be that much of a rascal, so it's all a bit muddy. The best version of this is that he's playing everyone for fools and the chemist was in his pocket to begin with. Then it might make sense if he felt guilty about some of the people he bilked who didn't deserve it. But the film gets confused about his criminality and so we're denied a real con man movie payoff. Oh well. Powell is still fun to watch, talking circles around everyone else.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize

Turn-of-the-millennium Keanu's type-casting seems to be "unlikable", but it never really sits well with him, so when he becomes a better person mid-movie, as he does in Hardball (and previous to that, Sweet November), it feels more natural, and you can't quite explain how he ever was that much of an asshole to begin with. In this sports flick, Keanu is a gambling addict with a leg-breaking amount of debt, who agrees to coach a little league team in the bad part of town to make enough cash to make his big bet. The kids will melt his heart, the attractive teacher will give him something else to live for, yadda-yadda. You know the drill. The movie's structure is a bit of a mess, resolving plot points sequentially instead of building to a crescendo, so it feels like it's about to end and keeps going a couple more times. I still found myself liking this. The kids are a fun group - oh look, baby Michael B. Jordan! - well-differentiated and likeable, and the film pulls at the heartstrings by not painting over the fact they're living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, baseball their only escape.

There's a lot of hate for John Herzfeld's 2 Days in the Valley, and there's a lot of hate for his 15 Minutes, but I liked both. So sue me. Like the previous film (which gave Charlize Theron her first speaking part, and she seems to repay a favor here by appearing in a bit part), 15 Minutes is a caustic crime comedy with lots of plot threads tying themselves up in a knot by the end, and filled with big stars, some before they were stars (like Vera Farmiga). As the title suggests, it's about fame in the television era. Two Eastern European scumbags start filming their crimes so they can become famous, while on their trail are a slick celebrity cop (Robert DeNiro) and a fire marshal of the edge (Edward Burns) - I would basically watch a bunch of movies about the latter - are on their trail. There are of course the journalists chasing the story, questions of ethics addressed and unaddressed (leaving some for the audience), and charred-black comedy (given the savagery of the crimes). Some plot points are predictable, but for the most part, it's a wild ride and you don't know where you're going to get off. Unexpectedly entertaining.

The Matrix Reloaded re-evaluated... Nope, still think it's probably the weakest piece of the franchise. Just a MacGuffin race that goes like this: We need this. Extended action scene to get to it. Character gives an extended philosophical speech that boils down to... We now need this. Repeat. I watched it with podcasting mate Elyse and she boiled it down to this: It's Waking Life with action set pieces in between each conversation. Yep. That's it. And it might have worked if everything weren't sooooo overdone. Every action scene takes too long. Every discussion takes too long. The rave in Zion, too long. Running through corridors, why is this taking so long? If the philosophy is supposed to make us think, it never lets us because we immediately have to sit through loud extended action. It's all so tedious. Even the world-building pushes the limits of my patience. Show Zion, yes, of course. Create an entire culture of rogue programs inside the Matrix? And they're ghosts and vampires and stuff? Enough already, that's too much to digest in one go. Oh and let's tie into alternative media by introducing characters from the video game and Animatrix that really don't bring a whole lot to the story here. Gooey CG is the least of the middle movie's problems even if that's what a lot of commentators at the time got stuck on. For me, today, it's how Neo and Trinity have absolutely no chemistry. There's a lot of cool stuff in Reloaded, don't get me wrong, but it's choking on padding to the point of frustration.

Big Finish Doctor Who Audio: John Dorney's The Burning Prince proposes a side-trip for the Fifth Doctor WITHIN Arc of Infinity, and I'm not sure I buy it. It is just too bleak a story for it not to leave a scar on the returning Doctor - like Warriors of the Deep bleak, but worse - at the end of Arc. And the conceit means he has no companions for the duration, so it feels even darker. Here are a bunch of guest characters, now bad things will happen to them. As the story goes, there's a pyrokinetic prince (not a spoiler, it's right there in the title, though the story maybe thinks it's a surprise) set to marry a princess from another world to stop a war. Except the wedding party crash lands on a planet filled with ravenous monsters, obviously due to sabotage, and the Doctor is right there in the middle of it. Davison has some good, pithy lines, and the story manages some fair twists. It's also a big action roller-coaster, which isn't easy to do on audio (and impossible to do in the televised Doctor Who of the era), but director Ken Bentley manages to make it work. I'm not really gonna remember this one in a week's time though.


Unknown said...

All useful reviews, once again. Cheers Siskoid!


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