This Week in Geek (31/05-06/06/20)

"Accomplishments"

At home: When Trump unveiled his Space Force, we all laughed, and certainly, all the news bites about seemed ridiculous. Steve Carell took the absurdity and ran, in his Space Force playing the four-star general at the head of this new branch of the armed forces. But his brand is dosing self-importance with heart, and so he kind of makes you believe in the need for a thin orbital line defending America's interests in space. Huh. Very much at the heart of the comedy is the non-romantic Sam and Diane dynamic of Carell and John Malkovich's head scientist, confronting two visions of space. But for a 10-episode season, there are way too many characters to cater to. In particular, I would have jettisoned the family stuff, which is surplus to requirements. There's something intriguing about the wife's unmentioned crime, but the daughter... ugh. What is an 18-year-old doing in 11th grade, first of all? 18 going on 13 judging from her bratty attitude. At first, it's maybe so an obvious Russian spy (yes, this is totally Trump's America) can try to date her, but he soon fades into the background and her omnipresent B-plots become less and less useful. There are plenty of base personnel to follow and who are better characters, is what I'm saying. We even get to know politicians and the other Joint Chiefs, and somehow, Space Force keeps it all straight. It's good world-building. But it's a work-place comedy, and the home stuff just isn't as interesting.

I feel a little weird reviewing (Thomas) Middleditch & (Ben) Schwartz's three long-form improv specials (on Netflix) because I myself am a long-form improv expert (I play short-form too, but my heart is in the long form). So I come at it from someone who's been there. First of all, all three episodes are funny, the two guys have great chemistry, and their premise - having a short conversation with someone in the audience to draw inspiration from that collection of details (which doesn't really get any better than the first episode's absurd wedding party) - is fruitful and fun unto itself. The big challenge is that there are only two of them, and they have to play every character, never letting who's who at any given moment stop them from getting to the next scene, so identities are more fluid than I expected. The same character may be played alternatively by either comedian. As a player, I find Ben Schwartz the most like myself, trying to make sense of the progressively more baroque stories as suggestions pile up, and fixing plot holes and strange inconsistencies in an entertaining way; I feel like his role is to keep it all straight. Also impressive to me is how they keep the stories at the same length, possibly with the help of clocks we can't see, but even so, pacing is probably one of the hardest things to do in long-form. All three specials are fun and different, and the laughter is contagious, whether coming from the crowd or the duo (because they break character fairly often to react or corpse, which is very "improvy", or at least consistent with free-form shows, but a mistake in "theater games"-style improv; I tend to prefer character integrity myself). In terms of weaknesses, I will only mention their obsession with naming characters and then promptly forgetting those names. It happens in every show, and maybe they know this will lead to laughs and is thus part of their shtick, but at times, it's a little bit like quicksand and it sinks the story, if not the comedy. Well, I'm up for more if they have it in them.

I remember when Mazes and Monsters was broadcast back in the day (1982), but I wasn't yet a D&D player (actually, DungeonMaster, not until 1985 I think), so what it adds to "D&D panic" isn't what concerned my mom some years later (I was asked about possible ties to Satanism instead). What the movie is actually concerned about is D&D turning into an obsession that makes teens go off the deep end and mistake fantasy for reality. Not that they ever say D&D, of course. The fictional M&M, as it is played, doesn't seem to have any products not home-made, and while dice rate exactly one mention, you never see a polyhedral on screen. I don't know how the book did it, but they are really trying their best not to get a letter from Gary Gygax's lawyers, looks like. It makes this "highly popular" role-playing game feel completely unrealistic. Anyway, as the characters are introduced, I immediately identified the real culprit of the "madness" - these were all over-privileged kids used to having their way and whining about parental units who didn't understand them. Privilege was going to go to their heads. And at first, that's pretty much it, until Baby Tom Hanks starts to hallucinate, and though I get that he's resolving a childhood trauma, there's no real explanation for his breakdown (they really don't want to diagnose him), so the movie seems to say role-playing drove him mad. Kind of. It's not quite as harsh as all that, but where Mazes and Monsters missteps is in poorly motivating a lot of the character turns, introducing things that don't pay off, etc. So role-playing is both dangerous and healing, but it doesn't really convince either way. And the cheesy music had me rolling saving throws every time we got a romance montage. Oof.

What I love about Night of the Creeps is that it's pure cinema. It opens on weird aliens who look like giant babies jettisoning a dangerous experiment from their ship. We won't see these guys again, it's just a crazy opener. The test tube falls into a 1950s B-movie, and a quite well realized one, shot just like the better examples of the genre (despite the Ed Wood references, it's not amateurish like that). Alien parasites are released, but they won't become a problem until contemporary 1986, which is ALSO a movie reality - a Porky's/Revenge of the Nerds-style frat comedy full of partying teens looking to get killed and possessed by the gross alien worms. And as the bodies pile up, a hard-nosed, catchphrase-talkin' detective (Tom Atkins) clearly from another type of '80s movie, starts taking an interest. It's a big, fun movie mish-mash with a lot of texture and comedy, an evident love of low-brow films (the characters' names are all obvious homages too), and some lovely (so to speak) creature effects. I feel like sometimes people avoid movies with trashy titles, and it's probably the case with this one. It should have been as well-known as the movies it spoofs. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

The promotional art for The Guyver had me thinking (and falsely remembering how I might gave caught it mid-stream on late-night TV) that Mark Hamill was... THE GUYVER. He's not. Some generic kid is. Instead he's a hard-boiled CIA cop with a big mustache and a cigarette in his mouth, and I like that too. At a guess, this American-made manga adaptation is riding the coat-tails of the live-action Turtles movies, pitching a slightly more violent version of guys in monster suits doing kung fu. Screaming Mad George may co-direct, but his style of creature effects is definitely present. The man has worked on Big Trouble in Little China, Predator and some Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and here works hard to make each "Zoanoid" different from the rest, visually and in terms of personality, with the Guyver hero suit being cool and functional. But when a movie starts with a glossary, it may be in trouble. It's a goofy story with a number of fun moments and even surprises, but the wall-to-wall action can get tedious, and the acting is mostly under-par. Watch for a couple of Re-Animator alumni to enliven things up. There is one moment that I can't explain and have to mention though. At one point, the heroes climb over a wall and you can see a lighting rig and a stagehand waving them down. I thought, major oops! Then the Gremlin-looking Zoanoid played by Jimmie Walker (who's rapping is surely the cringiest thing in the movie) jumps the wall and into... a movie set?! He's given notes on his performance and the action continues. It really looks like they noticed the problem and crafted a whole scene around it. Very weird. But then, yeah, weird is why you would watch The Guyver.

Dead End Drive-In is a gorgeous-looking, colorful 80s dystopian film, kind of like Mad Max set among Australian strip malls. The plot is slim, but there's a lot of world-building going on. One of the bad things that can happen to you in this world is getting stranded in the eponymous drive-in, which serves as a kind of concentration camp for the dregs of society (or at least, the youth culture). One kid refuses to stay in there, though everyone else has given up and is doing Lord of the Flies (or perhaps just 1950s high school, I thought of Grease at times), which activates the film's action. Generally, I can do without fire fights, but the car stunts are pretty cool. The director has said the drive-in is a metaphor for 80s junk culture which the characters feel imprisoned in (or not), but that feels remote and abstract. It would be a more universal statement to say all youth feel trapped in the mundane of their specific era and either embrace it or escape it. 35 years later, in our world of stay-at-home streaming, we could say we've imposed the drive-in one ourselves, and of course literally, the world going to hell in a handbasket, fascism, internment camps... this story could have been dreamed up today.

I enjoyed Quanta because I generally enjoy scientific procedurals and hard SF, but it definitely leans back into the former in terms of what's interesting about it. While there is a science-fiction element in the communication from space and how it affects the researchers and subjects of an experiment, it remains under-developed and leaves you wanting to know more. The focus is actually on the scientific method, and on the dangers of scientific ambition. The younger man is impatient and wants to use social media to become famous and share discoveries as they happen, which jeopardizes the work (and also motivates the hoary old trope about experimenting on oneself better than most such stories do). The older scientist isn't any less hungry even if he tries to follow established procedure, and it will lead him to make his own mistakes. The movie also asks whether we should do a thing just because we can, treating science as an amoral pursuit, so it's all about ethics in science, and succeeds on that basis even if it's not completely convincing as a complete SF story. And though a small indie film (out of Australia), it has style and an atmospheric score that never lets it feel cheap.

What if Timecrimes was a comedy out of New Zealand? It would be Mega Time Squad, a fun, somewhat stylish romp filled with stupid criminals at the very low end of the scale (more or less "playing" gangsters in the small town of Thames, NZ), in which a young not-so-tough steals a demonic Chinese time travel bracelet that allows short hops back in time and creates a gang of himselves. I'm not going to pretend to really understand how the paradoxes work here, it's just a crazy device that triggers the action and Johnny's bid for gangland supremacy and thinking maybe he CAN get the girl. Without it, you would still have a pretty hilarious dumb crook comedy that lets the air out of prideful balloons by subverting all the macho tropes we associate with such stories. But because it DOES have a time travel element, it's just more unpredictable and will appeal to fans of several genres. In terms of tone, it's not that far from the sense of humor showcased in the works of Taika Waititi or Flight of the Conchords, or even Peter Jackson. There must be something in the water over there. Can I have a drink please?

The Infinite Man really is an Australian Timecrimes for relationships. A man uses a time machine to fix his ailing relationship, creating doubles of him and his girlfriend that complicate matters, in ways that only someone with an eidetic memory and OCD-like attitude could wrap their brains around. He just happens to be THAT guy, and the movie approaches Primer-like complexity at times (but is nowhere near that opaque). I even think that while it manages a closed loop and looks like the Fixed History theory of time travel is at play, it's "Dean"'s controlling nature that prevents divergences. I scanned back through the movie afterwards to look for clues and the various layers of time ARE different, and could have been more different still. The Infinite Man is definitely strong on theme, exploring the idea of trying to recapture a moment, being forced to by anxiety, doubt and self-loathing, and the pointless attempt to control the variables in a relationship. Dean is pathetic, but not unsympathetic; we only get to understand Lana through the more complete picture of the moment gathered on different time trips (which says something about Dean's inability to listen); and there's comedy to be had with the bizarre ex-boyfriend character, Terry. My one real gripe is the method of time travel, which distracted me for a good two-thirds of the film because it seemed to evoke a trip through memory rather than physical time (and the dreamy camera work seemed to confirm that).

Hammer Studios' version of H. Rider Haggard's She (A Story of Adventure) isn't the first film adaptation of the 1887 novel, but it's the first I've seen. Immediately, I was taken by how much of it turns up in OTHER stories - the Mummy movies, DC Comics' Hawkman, and most pointedly, Marvel's She (and thus Warlock), who is eventually given the name Ayesha, just like the immortal queen/goddess of the book. One of the things a Haggard adaptation has to do is deal with all the walking around, and I hoped Hammer would be more adept at that than MGM in their King Solomon's Mines 15 years before. Alas, the first half of the film does have rather boring walks through the desert, but it picks up once the protagonists reach a fabled land where Antiquity still has hold, mixing Egyptian, Roman and African styles. The crux of the story is one of the party being lured by Ayesha to become her equally immortal consort, seeing as she believes he's a reincarnation of her long-dead lover. I say lure because though Ursula Andres is undeniably beautiful, I - and the film! - much prefer Rosenda Monteros, so She has to do with threats and dream-casting. Bit of a slow pace, but a great cast (Lee, Cushing, Cribbins...), vivid locations and sets, and an unusual story.

Since it is in the public domain, I also checked out the very first adaptation of She, Georges Méliès' The Pillar of Fire, which amounts to about a minute's footage of a woman dancing in a fire. It's actually pretty cool, great tints, great set, cool effects, and the dance creates a lot of visual interest, which is what early films were after. And you know what? Méliès cracked the problem of all the walking around in Haggard stories!

Seeing as it was once named one of the greatest Korean films ever, Ki-young Kim's The Housemaid (1960) probably loomed large at home, so I am not surprised at all that Bong Joon-ho acknowledged it was an inspiration for Parasite. There's a similar upstairs/downstairs quality, where the "good folks" of a house can still be bad when they act on their privilege, and a downstairs villain who we can nonetheless empathize with, and it's also about unsavory elements being brought into a household under the guise of a servant. Otherwise, it's a very different film, part melodrama, part suspenseful sexual thriller, part Greek tragedy, in which a piano teacher experiences a nightmare when girls from within and without the household become obsessed with him and threaten to destroy his family life. The unhinged housemaid is adept at manipulating and blackmailing, but gets more than she bargained for (which is where the audience's empathy comes in). It's an unpredictable story where a simple look or hesitation creates tension. By all means, ignore the last 30 seconds (or enjoy them for their oddity), which were a reaction to the film's true ending being "too intense". It's terrible.

With The Crush, Alicia Silverstone came on the scene with real star power, able to sell herself as the cute girl next door, the vamp, and the ugly sociopath. Between this and Clueless, she should have had many more prospects, but her star seems to have shone rather briefly. Now, I'm not gonna try to sell you The Crush as anything other than 90s trash, one of many thrillers about dangerously obsessive women to come in the wake of Fatal Attraction, BUT having not seen it since it came out, I can at least say it's memorable. I remembered a lot of moments from the movie - the wasps, Silverstone's seductions - but it still held nutty surprises like the carousel in the attic, and look, Tara from Buffy as the long-suffering best friend. I really wish they'd made more of the irony that Elwes' character works for a scandal magazine given what happens to him, but it's just not that kind of movie. The Crush still goes the extra mile by being relentlessly weird, and what one viewer could term stupid and unbelievable (I mean beyond Cary Elwes' terrible American accent), I would claim is the reason the movie is enjoyable. It also needs to be. It's what reminds us it's a crazy genre movie, not reality. As we much, today, acknowledge the role of pieces like this in the promotion of the toxic narrative about "false accusations".

1943's A Stranger in Town is just light comedy, but I liked it. Frank Morgan plays a Supreme Court Justice who needs a break from the court room and takes a fishing vacation, except he keeps being drawn back into court so he can own a corrupt small-town mayor's agents. The trick is that they don't know who they're dealing with. Taking an interest in a young lawyer and mayoral candidate's career just makes the court room and political arena more appealing than the river bank. Its fun to watch to watch Morgan lead his crew into cleverly using local laws to get one over the bad guys and town grifters, and making passionate speeches about America for the better part of an hour. He also plays match-maker between his protégé and secretary, but that's a pretty useless as a plot device, a little bit of awkward romance that doesn't really have much space to develop. But Hollywood gonna wood, and it's not in the way or anything, just trite and pointless.

After directing her screen debut, Romance on the High Seas, Michael Curtiz doubles down on Doris Day with My Dream Is Yours (Jack Carson also returns with a bigger part). Unfortunately, it's just not as strong a story. Carson is a talent scout/agent who discovers Day, maybe falls in love with her a little bit, and tries to sell her to venues, shows and sponsors, we've seen this sort of thing many times before. I can't even say the songs are particularly memorable even if they do their best to sing them often, so yes, refrains might become ear worms for a couple days, not even the Bugs Bunny number this movie is probably most known for. But Doris Day has good comedy instincts and is always a charm to watch, and both Carson and Eve Arden are pleasant to watch as her handler team. There's a terrible romance subplot where we feel like we're supposed to root for the jealous alcoholic Bing Crosby wannabe in her life, but the movie gets on side and ends appropriately. More than appropriately, sweetly. Cute, but for forgettable stuff.

With a title like 5th Ave Girl, you expect Ginger Rogers to be embroiled in a working girl plot in an advertising firm or something, telling the men of the office what's what. But no, it's just an address, and the first of several disappointments suffered in this story of a rich man who feels ignored by his family and hires a woman to pose as his mistress to get their attention. Well, it's a comedy premise, but it's played like a drama. Ginger has all the quick patter of a comedy heroine, but a downcast expression for most of the film. Her retorts are bitter and sarcastic. She and Walter Connolly (here not doing his usual double takes) are just about the only sympathetic characters in the film, as everyone else seems to speak only from toxic privilege, from the businessmen talking about the disaster that is the 44-hour week, to the socialist chauffeur who sounds like a first year sci pol student and who, no worries Commie hunters, will betray his own ideals by the end. So never mind the family itself. It's hard to root for the leads to succeed (especially the terrible romance forced on Ginger in the last act). For a while, it tries to make a point about the haves and have-nots, in particular Ginger's stance on money, but I'm not entirely sure what the movie thinks its point is.

If Myrna Loy hadn't been in The Animal Kingdom, I would have bailed early. Not to say Leslie Howard and Ann Harding don't deliver on the acting as well, but their characters are less lively, I might even call them dreary at times. But I've got it into my head that if Myrna Loy is in something, then I want to see that thing even if it's not very good. It's just that The Animal Kingdom is dull as dishwater. There's something to the pre-Code breathlessness of some scenes, and I certainly respect the picture it paints of a man who can't let go of a former love to truly respect his new one, stringing two women along by his weakness rather than perfidy. I've seen it often enough. But despite the title, there's really no "animal magnetism" to either Harding or Howard, as both feel like effete cold fish. I still struggle with the comedy(?) subplot about the boxing butler, a pawn to make Loy's character seem to ask Howard give up too much, but truth is, with Howard calling Loy an "object" from their very first scene, the wife here is treated appallingly, and that's not helping anything.

Ripped from the headlines, 1937's Black Legion has a pre-cool Humphrey Bogart join a secret society of hooded clansmen who go after immigrants (first and second generation, it doesn't matter to them) to make America great again. You know the type unfortunately. Bogart gives a strong performance as a guy who's down on his luck, but really made his own, and who believably lets the rhetoric work on him. He'll come to regret his choices and risk falling down the hole he dug for himself. It's a well-told tale, albeit a simple one, with little insight for the modern viewer. However, Black Legion has one small plot point that I find very valuable, and it's the idea that for the upper echelon of the hate mongers, it's all a big con to sell uniforms, books and weapons. Not saying they don't believe the rhetoric, but for them, it's an opportunity for profit, made on the backs of the poor slobs they indoctrinate. An important lesson to anyone who would believe in the sincerity of their particular cult's message. And definitely a film that speaks to this moment in world history.

One of the more obvious inspirations for Blazing Saddles, Dodge City stars Errol Flynn as a rather too sophisticated cowboy, but somehow it works. He's engaging, as are his sidekick played by Alan Hale and Olivia de Havilland's headstrong (but unfortunately not action-ready) romantic interest/newspaper woman. I won't remember the main villain by tomorrow, but the real threat is the town itself. Dodge City is so lawless, so violent, that it was almost a parody before Mel Brooks reimagined it in his spoof. The bad guys are merely its natural organisms, until enough is enough and Flynn decides to play Wyatt Earp and clean the place up. The movie is indeed quite violent, and there are a lot of innocent people who don't deserve their fates, but I don't know what it is, whether the bright colors, Flynn's persona, or the boisterous set pieces, the film manages to feel fun and playful through all the carnage. An amusing footnote: At the end of the movie, Flynn's character is invited to go clean up Virginia City next. The next year, Michael Curtiz and Flynn did in fact team up on another western called Virginia City. Strangely (but perhaps not, as I'm sure there's a new love interest etc.), it's about a different character.

Looking at Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times for the first time in decades, I got to wondering if images of mechanization make up some kind of sub-genre in silent cinema, in which Metropolis and Tati might figure. But of course, what we remember of Modern Times, the giant cogs and Charlie being put through various machines, is only a small part of the film (the first 20 minutes and a bit towards the end). So striking are those images that we tend to forget Chaplin eating enough raw cocaine to make a bull O.D., his rollerskating blindfolded, his fantasy home, and actually giving voice to the Tramp. And we might, but shouldn't, forget Paulette Goddard, who as the Gamin(e) is the perfect female version of the Tramp, looking very modern in this somehow - I think her simple, ragged black dress is a classic - she is gorgeous and interesting and with Chaplin quoting himself at the end, gives the Tramp a kind of closure. Modern Times' theme of mechanization is only part of the picture, or if it's stealing jobs, it goes hand in hand with the Great Depression, causing the unemployment that has the Tramp trying this job and that (as per the usual structure of his films) and in what seems modern indeed, getting beat up by cops and arrested for no other reason than innocently walking through an organized protest. Sigh. I find there's value to making silent films in the talkie era (here, 1936), as it allows for some spoken dialog, sound effects, and more interesting synchronized music. Modern Times uses all of these to great effect and stands as one of Chaplin's greatest works.

The National Theatre Live presentation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus has Tom Hiddleston getting really dirty in the lead role - the staging includes blood, paint, water, dirt, and ripe tomatoes - a human sword, always direct and to the point, eschewing hypocrisy and pageantry to his own detriment. Coriolanus is, as the play's poster intimates, all heart, by which no kindness should be inferred, but rather that he acts on the moment, never lies, speaks his thought... that heart is on his sleeve, and at the end of that sleeve, a hand with a blade in it. He is a great war hero who resents the hungry mouths of Rome for only contributing in the negative, and a paltry politician because he's incapable of hiding his feelings on the matter. He is quite simply a soldier to the core and has no role to play in times of peace, so much so that his own declaration of peace late in the play completely undoes him. With all the war stuff, I thought for sure the play would use the National Theatre's huge spinning stage, but no, it's all done on a small, grungy stage, a lot of the action within a rectangle drawn in blood. The battles are well-realized with lighting and pyrotechnics, and the fight choreography immediate and realistic (the direction for the filming is generally excellent). Hiddleston does a great job with one of the Bard's most ambiguous and underwritten leads, as do Mark Gatiss as his witty father figure, Deborah Findlay as his creepy domineering mother, and Hadley Fraser as his homoerotically-charged nemesis. Billy Piper lookalike Birgitte Hjort Sørensen made me want to see more of Virgilia (a small triumph) and the Tribunes are actually well drawn as ruthless political maneuverers, the true opposites of Corolanius. This is a passionate, violent, at times rancidly funny, incredibly topical interpretation of the play, though I do think the ending is a little abrupt thanks to a crucial cut. A small stumble right at the finish line, but it probably won't bother audiences who don't know the play.

Role-playing: We played Rippers on a bit of a time crunch, so since the scenario will have to be told in two parts, I won't say too much here. The Amazon Lodge gets involved with a Thuggee plot, but not all is yet revealed. There's value in that forced break however, because a certain hand-out requires puzzling through, and puzzles are such an inefficient use of a game session. Instead the players have a week or two to examine the clue, figure it out, and keep themselves invested. I have no idea if I have puzzle solvers in the group, I'm gonna find out.

6 comments:

LondonKdS said...

I think of Dead End Drive-In as a punk cover version of The Prisoner.

Siskoid said...

Legit!

tomg said...

Under 'She' you mention Marvel's character and associated it with Adam Warlock. But wasn't that character named 'Her'?

Siskoid said...

Yes, that's Marvel's joke. "Her" was a deliberate reference to "She".

Andrew said...

"Batman and Robin" gets a lot of blame for tanking Alicia Silverstone's career, but a quick check of the IMDB shows that she's had pretty consistent work for a couple of decades now. No starring roles since "Blast From the Past" but plenty of short-run tv shows and supporting parts, which are nothing to sneeze at. Plus voice acting, including Queen Marlena on the upcoming "Masters of the Universe" revival.

Either the jobs did dry up and she's been taking what she can get, or else somewhere along the line she decided movie stardom wasn't what she actually wanted. Either way, good on her for persevering.

Siskoid said...

Yes and I admit it's kind of a thrill to catch her in anything. (One I remember is The Killing of a Sacred Deer.)

 

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