This Week in Geek (28/10-03/11/19)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: In pre-show interviews, Robert Eggers said this of The Lighthouse, that he wanted to make another film about misery, but this time make it a comedy. I joked that if this was going to be a comedy, it would be like that one Ingmar Bergman comedy (Secrets of Women). And I didn't know how right I was (though as a horror film, it also has shades of Bergman's Hour of the Wolf). There are funny moments in it, as might be expected of any Odd Couple type situation, but this is very much a Bergmanian existentialist drama about man's struggle with God. As an exploration of that dynamic, it's bloody brilliant. Rich and textured, it goes well beyond simple Christian allegory, though Man having to toil and suffer to win an unattainable "light" is definitely the first layer. It also has Pagan resonances, at once Odyssean and Promethean, and more than a touch of folk superstition with its Kraken and merfolk imagery, and its ancient curses made true. It's Melvillian too. The Man/God dynamic can also be seen as a son/demanding father story, or as generational strife (Boomer/Millennial), and still works. Or if you want to say it's all psychological and nothing is real except maybe the last shot, that's fine too. There's no one answer, they're all true. The mirror between the characters certainly adds that extra dimension. To me, it all comes back to the same question no matter how you cut it: Why do we worship these asshole gods? (For gods, substitute parents, traditions, generations that sell themselves as successful, your own ego). And all of that is quite beyond the technical aspects of the film which remind you why it's called the Silver Screen. The black and white photography positively shimmers, and the square frame isn't a gimmick to make the film look like it was made in a bygone age, but rather to make the lighthouse and its lonely island as claustrophobic as possible. Eggers has made a film that, while livelier than The VVitch, stands next to it in a diptych. Both show how one's conversation with God is filled with pitfalls and temptations designed to make you fall. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Got the chance to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in a theater space, with a live 8-piece orchestra, and it's a nice experience, if a potentially distracting one. When the film got slow - and Caligari is OFTEN slow, especially for such a short film - you tended to watch the musicians instead. But yeah, Caligari, an undisputed German expressionist classic, is an obvious inspiration on latter-day cinema. In a modern context, Tim Burton stole his entire aesthetic from this one film. It may also be the first puzzle movie, with twist reveals inviting reinterpretation on subsequent viewings. In fact, a lot of the stuff I initially felt were problems - the over-extreme picture book sets (though I like them, especially how practical shadow and light are painted on the sets, it made me wonder if they were covering some kind of budget or logistical problems), the flashback and further flashback structure, the redundancy of the other Caligari - were actually part of the game. This dark, demented tale of killer somnambulists starts off slow, yes, but once it gets going, it gets more assured in terms of rhythm, effects, and story. So yeah, it deserves its place among the classics of its era.

At home: Paul Rudd in an existential Netflix dramedy co-starring... Paul Rudd? I'm up for it. Living with Yourself has him play a man who's lost his mojo at home and at work, so he dares try a rejuvenation treatment that - I guess I don't want to say too much - results in his having to deal with his cloned best self. That wasn't supposed to happen. I don't want to call the tone inconsistent, and would rather use the term tonally complex. The stuff with Rudd(s) and his wife (a charming turn for Aisling Bea) are dramatic and absurd, while characters existing outside this dynamic tend to be funny high-concept lampoons (the FDA investigators are particularly amusing). While the few episodes we have in the first season double back on themselves a lot to cover the different points of view, it gives us a strong portrait of the three leads, and manages to explore themes of self-loathing, self-sabotage, aspiration, nostalgia, impostor syndrome, and personal baggage. The title would seem to suggest conscience as well, but it doesn't really hit that note. The two Rudds are close enough to sometimes be indistinguishable, which is part of the narrative and quite realistic, though it may confuse at times. Generally, I felt like the direction and script could have been tighter, but I'm enjoying the recent trend of treating television series as little novels, and letting the story grow out of the premise, not wallow in it. You don't know where this is going and there's a joy to that.

I can't exactly dislike Hammer Horror's The Gorgon, but it's a confused little movie. The monster is from mythology, of course, but is also just the SPIRIT of the creature millennia dead, and also, makes its host transform on the full moon like a werewolf. Uhm... Structurally, while it does a good job of setting up a mystery - who and what is the monster? what is Peter Cushing's pathologist's own secret? - there are just too many investigators coming to town, one after another. A man dies petrified, his father comes a-looking. He dies, his OTHER son investigates. While he's doing so, Christopher Lee in bad hair'n'beard shows up to help, almost as an after-thought. Get it together, movie. And it might all have worked out if the monster's ultimate appearance had been more impressive. I do like the climactic fight, but there's a lot of "stand way over there so people don't see how bad the snake hair is". A lot of promise, but ultimately disappointing despite (and this is germane to my interests only) the participation of Patrick Troughton as a cagey copper.

There's something satisfyingly political about The Plague of the Zombies, with its local lord bleeding the population dry to get a zombie work force (pretty much literally). André Morell and Diane Clare are good as the father-daughter team who investigate a strange rash of deaths in an English village, Clare playing an especially strong character for the type of film this is. Hammer did right by her, at least until she had to succumb to the black magic. I like seeing Jacqueline Pearce too, though her character doesn't fare as well. Plague was made at a time when zombies were still connected to voodoo, which gives the film a certain exoticism. There are a number of effective macabre moments - which isn't a given - and when you're a little ahead of the characters, the tension builds nicely. Its one real failure is abominable day for night in the first two acts' exteriors. I say day for night, but there's no process. Just night scenes shot in bright daylight. Actual cinematography kicks in during the third act, which is mostly played in interiors, but also has good exterior photography.

It's Last Chance High for Resident Evil, using The Final Chapter to finally create a background for the Umbrella Corporation, the T-virus, and Alice herself. Well, better late than never. Her return to the Hive in Raccoon City is pretty exciting, though there is a point there, in the dark, where I couldn't tell what was happening or care about who was dying. It's better than the bad chapters, not as good as the best ones, a fair finish that wins the day by belatedly doing some world building. Some good action sequences (for non-epileptics anyway), especially early on, but in the end, just okay. It's just marred by too many problems to get a better report from me. The insane cliffhanger from the previous film is ignored with a few lines of dialog covering what might have been its own film (were they forced to skip to the end?). The action is frenetically edited within an inch of its life. The countdown to humanity's extinction is complete nonsense, though it might an acceptable use of a trope if they didn't return to it so frequently. And the ending lacks the epic grandeur the film promises, while also being a bit of a cop-out.

Halloween... I saw the original at the start of the month, and skipped to the end 30 days (and 40 years!) later, jumping over the middle films now all usefully labeled "urban legends" (that IS a fun trick to ignore pieces of a franchise yet keep them "in continuity"). Anyway, while you can't take away the iconic power of Carpenter's first opus, I think I liked 2018's just as much or more. First, it's a gorgeous-looking movie, slick and sumptuous. Second, it makes the slasher victims likable or at least interesting before they meet their untimely ends at Michael Myers' hands, and very effectively too (who knew podcasting could be so dangerous?). And third, I like that it's about a survivor's trauma. Laurie Strode hasn't come out of her brush with death unscathed. It turned her into Sarah Connor! Michael is finally back and she's going to kill him or die trying, which leads to a satisfying reversal at the end. There's a turning point nearing an act change that hinted at a sort of dead man's gun way to continue the franchise, but they back away from it. It's for the best for the Strodes story, but might still have been an intriguing avenue to explore. So good, visceral fun, both as slasher movie (a LOT of people die) and as a "badass woman takes back control of her life" revenge flick.

Because of the title, I kept confusing House on Haunted Hill with The Haunting of Hill House, and watching the former, it really did feel like they put the former's source material (the Shirley Jackson book) into a blender. It came out that year so it's just about doable, depending on the timelines. Ghoulish fun at any rate. This is the prototypical "stay in a haunted house for a night" movie which spawned the cliché, and it goes overboard in terms of just how many insane murders were committed there. So is the house haunted, or is it all an elaborate hoax? Or both, as if the house invited murderousness? It's not as purposefully ambiguous as all that, but the question is worth asking. Among the cool cast of characters, Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart are especially great as the couple who hate one another... with a smile. Elisha Cook Jr. is pretty fun as the consistent doomsayer. And while I appreciate the Skeleton as Himself, he's pretty silly. I don't think seeing him hoisted on pulleys in the theater thanks to the Emergo system would have changed my mind. Did anyone get a bony toe in the eye, back in '59? Emergo survivors! Let me know!

Definitely a contender for a double-feature with John Carpenter's The Fog, The Living Skeleton is a jazzy Japanese ghost story where things are not always what they seem, about a modern-day pirates being visited by a vengeful spirit three years after they killed the passengers and crew of a ship. A little hard to follow at times, and with a lot of cheap unconvincing effects (but some that do work, I admit), the film really triumphs because of its atmospheric cinematography and the director's willingness to add some New Wave touches. The third act reveals (plural) send the film spinning into WTF territory, and we're suddenly in a B-movie serial that impinges on the spooky tale that was being told. It says something about the film's technical qualities that this doesn't sink the whole enterprise. If the finale didn't have such strong visuals, I don't think I'd be recommending it at all. It's a real high-wire act and I'm not sure it really works, so put me down as admiring it, but not loving it.

1968 Japan's Goké, Body Snatcher from Hell, is a wild suspense-horror-science fiction hybrid that presages, I think, a lot of the doom-and-gloom downer sci-fi of the '70s. After being briefly hijacked, something in an eerie red sky makes a plane crash down in a quarry (calling it like I see it). What follows is a pressure cooker survival story in which the survivors aren't on the same page as to what to do, especially once they are stalked by a vampiric alien blob that's taken over the hijacker's body (one of the film's weaknesses, since it just trades a villain for the same villain). The film has a strong humanistic streak, but its bleak message is that the human race isn't humanistic enough, and because of that, all will be lost. The small sample of humanity in the plane includes some pretty nasty characters, in fact, and the shadow of Vietnam overtly darkens the picture. At its best when dealing with the claustrophobic struggle of the human characters, Goké manages some nice sci-fi/horror thrills along the way. The ending feels a bit long, but is well worth it as the film's final word on our species' failings.

Tony Scott made a horror film, The Hunger, and no surprise, it's sumptuously lit and shot. Quite beautiful. Its vibe initially reminds me of the later Only Lovers Left Alive, as the story of two immortal vampires and how such long-lasting love manifests (that, and there's a strong rock'n'roll feeling to both films, in this case partly caused by casting David Bowie). But as it turns out, only Catherine Deneuve's vamp is a true immortal, her converted companions only lasting a few hundred years before accelerated decrepitude turns them into living corpses. So this is the story of the end of one relationship, and the start of another (Catherine chooses Susan Sarandon as her next companion - things get positively Sapphic). The theme of possessiveness runs through the film. Once hers, the vampire's lovers remain a part of her, and while she paints this forever love in romantic terms, there's also a horror to her never letting go. Metaphors ready for dissection. I do think they don't make enough of Sarandon's research into decrepitude - it's just a plot means to a plot end - but I like The Hunger for its stylish look, cool cast, and interesting take on the vampire romance genre.

When I was in 11th grade, I reviewed movies for a public-access television youth-centric show, and Hellraiser was one of the first films I covered. I remember it well because it almost caused us to lose the cinema's obliging us with free admittance. See, the way our rinky-dink show could show a clip of the movie back in 1987 was to have a cameraman go up to the projection room and film the screen square on from that angle. In Hellraiser's case, something went wrong, and we lost or never got the footage. So in our teenage wisdom, we decided to reenact a scene (a hammer murder scene - look, the prop was handy and we didn't remember any dialog). I'm not sure our shenanigans were amusing. I know it definitely wasn't to the theater owner who called to threaten to cut us off. This was my first time revisiting the film since then, and it's remarkable how many of its squishier images always stayed with me - the maggots, the aforementioned hammer killings, the skinsuit - while the story itself and all the Cenobite stuff I remembered almost nothing about. Wouldn't have recognized Andy Robinson then either, but glad to have him along as both a wuss and a creep. Clive Barker's twisted imagination is both a feature and a bug. A feature in that his Cenobite hell and the puzzle box used to access are weird and original. A bug in that we only brush against his mythology here in what is otherwise a good but straightforward "dude returns from hell and needs blood to rebuild his body" story. In other words, the Cenobite Mythos stuff detracts from the horror tale by being too unusual for its own good. By the end there, it's just a little too much about finishing  a Rubik's Cube and becomes silly.

Flipped the DVD of Doctor Who's Terror of the Zygons, a very late release for the Tom Baker era, not sure why, especially since a lot of the extras were evidently taped before the new series premiered (the way they're talking). If you want to know what I think of the Zygons' debut, there are of course reviews from 2012-13 (episodes one, two, three, four), so let's talk about DVD extras here. First is a deleted scene you can watch integrated into episode one's director's cut or by itself as an Easter Egg (the other Egg is exhibition messages from Tom Baker). Mark Ayres moderates a commentary track populated by crew only (the producer and writer, in addition to various technical positions). There's a making of, a photo gallery, a trivia subtitle track, which is all pretty standard. Tom Baker and Lis Sladen each get a featurette where they tell stories about their time on Doctor Who. The UNIT Family's last stories are covered in the third featurette about the era and characters. There's a Douglas Camfield director retrospective that doesn't limit itself to his Who work. And the release ends with a vintage Baker interview for a news program on location in Sussex (fake Scotland), and an episode of the docu series Merry-Go-Round in which Elisabeth Sladen visits an oil rig in the North Sea. You can also listen to the isolated score, but I admit I never do.

I saw Paycheck almost 15 years ago, and remembered almost nothing from it, except that Affleck was in it and that he rode a motorbike. Almost like I was given the memory removal treatment myself. Did not bode well for a rewatch, especially considering how unvalued the movie is. John Woo does Philip K. Dick isn't the most obvious fit, and in fact, Wooisms always feel a little out of place in an American film, maybe because he's not allowed to go full style in them, I dunno. But I'm going to defend this one. Yes, it's often silly, but I can't like explosive squibs and random doves and slow-mo and quick zooms in Woo's Hong Kong films, and pan them when the same action takes place in a generic 5-minutes-in-the-future city played by Vancouver. I can't like Dick's stories and complain about the crazy science and thin characters. They're elements of each man's style, and I'm a fan of both. I like the idea of reverse engineer reverse-engineering the clues he's left himself after a three-year dose of amnesia. I like the tricks one might do if they had foreknowledge of the future but only the simplest of resources. And damn it, I like the ridiculous action set pieces. Very cool cast as well, several actors before they made it big. The epilogue is terribly cheesy though, I can't possibly give it a pass, but otherwise this is a lot better than I remembered (or as the case may be, didn't).

Jim Jarmusch elliptically discusses the artistic process in Paterson, elliptically though its characters are artists living in a New Jersey town known for its famous artists. But that was from a bygone age, and today, the city looks run down, an industrial town whose industries have closed. Paterson is the city, and it's also the name of Adam Driver's character, perhaps not coincidentally a bus DRIVER (Jarmusch, you scamp) who is also a poet, but doesn't see himself as an artist. He's like the city, functional and blue-collar, and walking around with a sense that his art is no good, and therefore just a lark. It's just one small part of the apparently accidental twinning leitmotif that runs through the film (seems a little girl extra had a twin and Jarmusch decided right then and there to include both sisters and integrate the idea of identical twins into the movie, they recur almost eerily, to the point where one might ask whether Paterson himself had a brother who was the marine in the bedside picture), a theme that also includes the way each day feels the same in key ways, being consistently asked to make duplicates of his notebook, Golshifteh Farahani (as his girlfriend Laura) having physical and name doubles that resonate, etc. That's mostly texture. The real crux of the film is showing artistic souls at work, principally Paterson - the way he observes his ordinary world, what he might do without his outlet, where inspiration obliquely comes from - but also his opposite number Laura, who bounces from one artistic endeavor and interest from day to day. One is focused and shy, the other all over the place, but enthusiastically confident, but both support each other entirely, despite their awareness of the other's flaws (if not always their own). It's really rather beautiful, and having been involved in the art community, it's all quite true to life, I assure you. Also, great dog actor.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize

The Yards is paced like a biopic, though it isn't one even if it's based on a true 1980s scandal, and could essentially be summed up as Mark Wahlberg looking stunned or sad for two hours. He has a right to since the plot is so wretchedly gloomy. Even a bright spot like Charlize Theron's character eventually gets blotted out by the relentless darkness that inhabits this world for no real reason. It's depressing to the point of being dull. Basically, Marky Mark plays an ex-con who really wants to get on the straight and narrow, but through a family connection, finds himself embroiled in municipal corruption and in way over his head. Could have the makings of a thriller, but instead, the movie goes for social naturalism, pseudo-"true story" tropes, crime picture clichés, and soon becomes melodrama. My eyes rolled in my head at every further tragedy beyond the first few. This is a poor use of a very strong cast that also includes Joaquin Phoenix, Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunaway and James Caan.

"The story of Carl Brashear, the first African-American U.S. Navy Diver, and the man who trained him. " Uh-oh, is Men of Honor going to be a White Messiah movie? I guess it helps that Robert DeNiro's character is such a screw-up, but Brashear still needs that mentor figure to pull him through again and again. And part of that is because DeNiro's Sgt. Major Sunday is such an obvious composite, the kind of character that pops up in different roles just so the biopic doesn't have to introduce a new Navy guy in every act. A real-life story of determination and overcoming odds, but it's incredibly syrupy (I blame the score, mostly), and it sticks to formula. I don't think we really get at what makes Brashear tick. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays him as an earnest man, but not a complex one, and it just seems like he got a good pep talk from his dad one day and it made him driven to a fault. It almost seems like their wives (Aunjanue Ellis and Charlize Theron) had a bit of an arc, but it was cut from the film. They're wasted here understanding or pushing their men, as the plot requires. After Aunjanue Brashear becomes a diver, it feels like it should be over, but there's a supplementary act, and more obstacles (and Navy jerks) to overcome, until the melodrama threatens to swallow the film whole. Sweeping music, tears, be inspired, yadda yadda. Perfectly fine, but perfectly ordinary too.

Role-playing: BarD&D Season 2, episode 5... It's time to put the Buddhist values the previous three episodes have drilled into our characters to good use. Can they navigate the Six-Fold Path, a series of moral tests in the shape of D&D encounters? Why yes! They were remarkably good at doing the right thing. Except Black Philip, as usual letting his low Wisdom lead him astray and into non-existence. He returned later in a phantom band, giving the Tragically Imps a medley challenge, kind of sort of designed to accelerate their song choice skills (it worked). This was the culmination of the First Act of Season 2's novel-length adventure, with a springboard into travel with the Tuigan army and a new background sound. Also: Figuring out and expanding on the leader's ear worm, getting lots of magical treasure and XP, and oh, capturing a dragon's soul in a big prism, can't forget that. It's time to stop being Buddhist monks and start being Mongol horsemen, at least as far as my NPC stylings go. There's a lot more shouting, I have to admit.
Set list - Phur (AKA Fly, Anu), Trust in Me (Scarlett Johansson), Don't Stop Believing (Journey), Trust Hurts (Lizzo), U Can't Touch This (MC Hammer), Fight Fire with Fire (Metallica), Relax (Frankie Goes to Hollywood), Come Together (The Beatles), 500 Miles (The Proclaimers), Blinded by the Light (Manfred Mann's Earth Band), Yuve Yuve Yu (The Hu).

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