This Week in Geek (26/07-01/08/20)

"Accomplishments"

At home: Richard Stanley's adaptation of Lovecraft's Color Out of Space, though set in the present day and told in immediate terms (as opposed to someone piecing it together post-hoc), feels pretty true to the original short story. An alien being that is incomprehensible to human senses, essentially a color (is pink scary?) that distorts bodies and minds, hits a family living in the New England boonies, and then crazy stuff starts to happen. There's so much weird stuff in this thing that I don't know if it can all be justified, so some of the happenings seem right out Stephen King's random bag of tricks (a bloody sink?). There's also a teenage girl playing at being a witch and an old caretaker who seems to know what's going on, before the Color even has a chance to arrive. But it creates a textured world that creates investment in what will happen to these people. The most compelling element is that the mom (Joely Richardson) is a cancer survivor, so the film explores the theme of the body's betrayal, and of the family unit as a "body" that can also betray you, the Color's transformations shown in that context. The mom's final fate is also the most effective and disturbing bit of horror. The least compelling thing for me was Nicolas Cage starting out very restrained and likable, and then losing his temper and mind until he became some other movie's Nicolas Cage (from the half you know I mean). This is meant to be the first in a shared universe trilogy, and I'm intrigued to see more. It's very fare for Lovecraft's stories to be adapted so successfully, even if I think they're hardly meant for a visual medium.

The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an undisputed classic. Part 2, made 12 years later, has director Tobe Hooper working within that decade's slicker aesthetic to create something that's just as demented, but not as satisfying. The sequel starts like a more conventional slasher thriller - give or take Leatherface attacking a moving car with his chainsaw - starring Dennis Hopper as a vengeful connection to the earlier victims, and Caroline Williams as the scream queen/radio DJ who means to help him. But once we move to the cannibal family's new hide-out, it's the grandest of all Gignols, a Goonies adventure dressed in gore, and Williams screams her head off almost consistently through the last act. It's a very believable scream, but through overuse, goes from disconcerting to simply annoying. Similarly, there are a couple of very broad performances in the film that are very irritating. The giggling frat bro dies early on, but "Chop Top" lasts a long longer and is intolerable. That said, Hooper is the kind of horror director who feels a deep need to show you things you've never seen before, and that's as true here as in the original despite it being a derivation.

I loved Anna Biller's The Love Witch, and A Visit from the Incubus, a 2001 short dressed up as a Technicolor western is certainly of a piece with that film. Vibrant, almost extreme, colors. Retro graphics and frame ratio. It's the presentational acting that gives me the hardest time here even if I accepted it in The Love Witch. There, it had more time to get under my skin, or perhaps it was just better done. Here, it's like people reading their lines and acting woodenly on purpose. I find Biller impressive, a one-woman show writing, directing, acting, singing, building sets and making costumes... She does it all. A Visit from the Incubus is the story of a woman who gets raped by the devil on a nightly basis, and eventually manifests from her dreams, tries to interfere with her new career as a saloon showgirl, and gets blown out of the water by her act. In owning her own sexual power, Biller's Lucy McGee ceases to be a victim and emasculates her would-be harasser, though there are more disturbing conversations to be had about that ownership possibly, but sex positivity for Biller seems to be a change in perspective that makes all the difference. Fun song too.

Vincent Price is after a stolen million in The Bat, but is he also the supervillain KNOWN as the Bat? A convoluted and not at all airtight story proceeds from there in a big ol' mansion, with a large cast of suspects and potential victims. It's hard for me to care about the plot, I gotta say. The MacGuffin is boring and there are plot holes and red herrings that make me frown. And the mystery isn't very hard to solve for the audience. What I do like is the characters. Price is of course great. Agnes Moorhead and Lenita Lane make a great comedy/detective double act (Moorehead plays an Agatha Christie type). Werner the butler with a past has a great, dry delivery. The rest of the cast is mostly made up of pretty faces and/or characters in service of the plot, but no one stands out as a problem. The Bat is a bit stagey and could have benefited from more of a Noir approach to the film-making. As is, the Bat is just a masked guy whose body type might give away the game. The camera just doesn't know it's a mystery (or a horror film, for that matter).

A low-level goal I've set for myself is seeing the Roger Corman/Vincent Price Edgar Alan Poe adaptations. If I hadn't, I should think I would have bailed early of The Raven, a horror comedy tangentially based on the famous poem. I'm not against giving one of these a comic touch. After all, Vincent Price can certainly do comedy, and the celebrity cast is a draw. Unfortunately, I have a hard time with broad '60s comedies, with plonky music stridently telling you "THIS IS AMUSING, ISN'T IT?!" and silly gags like people making goo-goo faces when they get hit over the head. I did like some of the low-budget ideas in the sorcerers' duel, but found the film mostly tedious, full of dead air between lines, and less than amusing. Price is hapless when I want him to be clever. Lorre (as the bird, though he spends most of the time as a man) is obnoxious. Karloff is about equal to himself. And baby Jack Nicholson isn't exactly foreshadowing his future work. So with all due respect to its fans, more a turkey than a raven for me. That same year, the three headliners would also star in The Comedy of Terrors for Jacques Tourneur, and THAT one I loved, while most people never really mention it. Go figure.

I think Robert Bresson just isn't for me. Case in point, I had the same problems with Mouchette as I did with Pickpocket. On the one hand, Bresson's plots are meant to be depressingly realistic - he's basically filming people as they live, and isn't particularly interested in conventional structure, resolutions, etc. On the other, I find the acting completely unrealistic - a lot of dead faces delivering cold, unemotional dialog. And though I might respect his craft, I just can't help but find the approach and the result rather boring. Mouchette does pick up in the last act, mind. This is the story of a teenage girl forever outside society, hated by her school mates, knocked about by her father, tending to a dying mother, and then things get worse when she might have witnessed a murder in the woods. Mouchette is an unapproachable character constantly pushing back against the world, trying to escape its norms, cutting through the forest rather than using roads, being mean to people who are kind to her, and in the end, her final escape is a sort of unearned poetic moment marred by a noticeable loop shot. I dunno. It doesn't really work for me. Purely from a personal sensibility, I could also do without shots of animals being trapped or shot, then suffering on screen for the gods of cinema. So Bresson is off my list of must-sees. For now, anyway.

I think sometimes you just want to see Burt Lancaster do a bunch of acrobatics, and he (and to some extent Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida) does enough of their own haute-voltige in Trapeze to make you believe it's ALL real. A pretty lavish circus drama, the film's story isn't all that fresh, however. I don't know about 1956, but by now, the whole "reluctant mentor eventually invests too much into talented protégé" tale of hubris and ambition is old hat. So perhaps it's up to the love triangle between the men and a ruthless vamp who puts her own needs above those of the act. Mileage may vary on that. Personally, I found the romantic twists and turns less and less justifiable and would have been content with "Lola" being more of a villain. Also, Lollobrigida and Katy Jurado (the nicer gal pal horse trainer) were styled so similarly as to be confusing, which didn't help me get into the personal relationships. That said, the circus work is strong, and the theme of purity, and of doing things well as its own end, did resonate with me.

I like a good journalism film, and Park Row takes us back to the frothy era of newspapers trying to compete each other out of business, as a maverick newspaper man (Gene Evans) gets fired from a rag he hates and endeavors to start his own, more ethical, paper in 19th-Century New York. This is a fictional story and they throw everything at it, with the Globe essentially inventing a lot of the things we take for granted about the business, and its publisher getting into a violent war with his former employer (despite a weird romance brewing between them - I think Mary Welch manages to sell it, and it's a great shame she died so young, never having made another film). Though it's more than a hundred years out of date, so to speak, Park Row still speaks to today, not just with its concerns about how media is used to sway opinion (sometimes unjustly), but in the way it portrays cutthroat business practices. Though it has some nice, touching, Sorkin-like moments of utopian writing in it, I don't think the film ever really makes the point that unethical (Darwinist) business and journalistic truth are at odds, and that's because the Globe doesn't seem that much more ethical to me. Both papers are in it to increase circulation, it's just that one is more nefarious than the other. But I do love all the nitty-gritty details about printing presses and so forth. It's a world that feels very real. -30-

Jacques Demy made one American film before swearing off Hollywood, and that's 1969's Model Shop, which I was surprised to find out was the continuation of Lola's character from his first feature. What?! Here I thought the trilogy was Lola - Les parapluies de Cherbourg - Les demoiselles de Rochefort, but no, Model Shop is #3. The even crazier story behind this film is that Demy wanted Harrison Ford for the male lead, but the studio went "who the hell is that?!" and forced him to take Gary Lockwood coming off 2001's success. It's the sad, quiet story of two people who love L.A. but are about to separately leave it, and their somewhat desperate attempt at having a human connection before it's all over. For Lockwood's George, Vietnam looms. For Lola, a string of disappointments (we do find out what happened to Frankie, Michel and the kid in the original film) has led her to a job posing for boudoir photos in the title shop so can go back home. The giggling, flighty coquette of the the first film is gone, replaced by a tired, jaded, older woman, and in a way, this is a story both about a first love and a last love. The question Demy fans may be asking is whether he brings his intense color palette to this film. In the boudoir, it's like we're back in Cherbourg, because it's a fantasy. Elsewhere, Demy goes for a more pastel, washed out look, complete with (very) faded flowery patterns. I get it, it's a world fading from view, where the characters are not properly integrating, but though it makes thematic sense, it's just not as visually striking. I must say that trading French ports for the over-used Los Angeles is a step down, just a lot of beige and dark green on location. I don't think the film is a failure, though it's really made for French audiences who might have a stake in this world. A sequel to Lola is not what the American market was begging for, surely. But for fans of Demy's work, it has its joys and sadnesses.

There's no real reason for On Moonlight Bay to have the title it does, except that they use the song (and that it's from the period presented, i.e. the 1910s). I wouldn't even call it much of a musical - it's at least back-loaded - more in the same vein as films like Life with Father, with Doris Day doing her blooming tomboy thing as ably as usual, the romcom plot the only real thread to follow in what would otherwise be a series of vignettes. I was surprised at how much the kid brother was featured, but looking into it, the film is loosely based on Tarkington's Penrod stories, which ARE about a 12-year-old boy. Wesley gets into all sorts of trouble, but the movie is smart enough to connect his shenanigans to his sister's story. It's still a bit messy in terms of plot, but you get a bit of period nostalgia, a bit of comedy, a bit of music, a bit of romance, a silent film spoof, a bit of daydreaming fantasy, and a bit of growing up and it's all rather pleasant. I like Doris Day movies, but they are generally fluff and this one's no different. But sometimes you want a piece of cotton candy, y'know?

Though the world of Zatoichi's Revenge is nothing new in Japanese cinema, it is slightly darker, or at least more vicious, than what we've seen from the Zatoichi series to date. Trying to visit an old master of his, Ichi finds he's been murdered and his debts are being paid by his daughter sold into indentured servitude. In fact, the action mostly surrounds human trafficking, with a corrupt and brutal yakuza boss essentially loan sharking and scamming people into have to give him their daughters for his brothel (including a very young girl who befriends our righteous blind swordsman). There's a lot of hand-held camera work in this one, leading up to a long hand-held fight sequence impressively done in a single shot, and the Spanish guitar in the score is more suited to westerns than samurai films, but works very well. We're on the tenth film of the series here, and the production is still finding new fight and gambling gags to entertain me with. And ways to make the stories feel personal to the hero so that we care.

They are making so many Zatoichi films every year, that some are bound to feel more like filler. Zatoichi and the Doomed Man is definitely self-contained and feels like one of the less memorable chapters in the series. It's not devoid of charms, however. Breaking from tradition, it doesn't start with a proper teaser - not even a poetic teaser like the last few, which I might call cinematic haikus - rather starting in medias res and setting up the mission Ichi doesn't really want to undertake before moving to credits. It keeps its "haiku" for the end, the dry soil imagery of the beginning surrendering to images of ocean waves reclaiming the sand. An image of Ichi's endless battle against corruption and injustice, surely. It keeps coming even if he wants to deny it. In this one, he's sometimes saddled with a comedy grifter who, in a coincidence of Dickensian proportions (you can't tell, but I'm making a face), turns out to be connected to the man Ichi is unsure about wanting to help. Yakuza aplenty to get themselves slices. Some nice fight scenes in the fog, and other cool tricks, but this one fails to make the story personal to Ichi, so like him, we sort of want him to get the hell out of there and never see these people again.

In Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, our blind swordsman befriends a chess-playing samurai and for a while, they share the road. What feels more like a crux of the film, however, is the plot about a little girl hurt during one of Ichi's brawls, which makes him heavily indebted to her and her caregiver. The best fight in the film by far, the one under the bridge, works because of his desperate attempts to keep hold of hard-gotten medicine for the girl. A third plot about a vendetta will lead to the climax of the film, but I'm not sure how well this works - was the greater good actually served? Ichi is sort of crashing another film here, almost. This is also Ichi at his most mistake-prone. He slips and falls a lot, he gets caught cheating at dice (this seemed to be a repeat of gambling sequences in a past film, but turns out to be an extension of what we usually get), gets a run of bad luck, and runs into a post. Did they feel they went too "Daredevil" with the character and are pulling him back? Or is it part of the chess theme to have him make missteps?

I absolutely loved My Neighbors the Yamadas, Studio Ghibli's first fully digital film that nonetheless looks like quick, watercolored sketches on velum. I would say nothing the studio has made is anything like it, except that its director Isao Takahata evidently used the same techniques for the equally beautiful (if less cartoony) Princess Kaguya. Based on a comic strip, Yamadas leans hard into its source medium to present less a story than a portrait of the title family, with more short vignettes (situation to punchline might even be only a few seconds) than short stories (like the early bit where they lose a child at the shopping mall), sometimes punctuated by pithy haikus. Observational humor falls into a certain mundane realism, but the style allows for incredible flights of fancy and images you won't have seen before. The opener where the family is explained through child logic is absolutely beautiful. At the end of the hundred minutes, I felt like I knew each of the family's five members, and that I was, not their neighbor, but one of their own.

Every time I watch a classic Disney movie, I have to admit to myself that I only imagined I'd seen it before. The Wonderful World of Disney (and its French-language equivalent) loom large in my childhood, and that program showed a lot of clips, but rarely ever the full features. The Jungle Book is like all of them. You have the big song and dance numbers running through your head and you think, yeah, I've seen it. Then you watch it and there's a British elephant army, Beatle-like vultures, and a cast member appears to be killed... Whaaaa?! I think my whole generation (pre-VHS tapes coming out of the Disney Vault) is due for a rewatch of all these old classics. The Jungle Book is fairly plotless, being a picaresque assembly of Mowgli meeting different characters as he pushes his way home. The main villain shows up late after being talked up a lot. The reason he accepts his fate is very last-second. It's more about the charm of each individual set piece and the strong animation (the kid really does walk and move like a kid that age). I like how the Disney films of this era let the sketched pencil lines show up in frame. I like the grittiness of that. You can tell someone DREW it. We don't get that so much anymore due to technical advances.

Podcast partner Bass and I covered an issue of the Steel comics series recently, and we sort of convinced ourselves to watch the Steel movie before the next episode. Well, guys, IT'S REALLY NOT THAT BAD! Obviously, it's no Iron Man. Or it's Iron Man on a TV budget, made by a TV director. So Steel is not gonna fly, and he'll have to lean heavily into the "street" elements from his series. I always felt the character should be one of DC's big guns, and in the comics, relegating him to fighting street crime in Washington DC (albeit, with a plot similar to this one where the gangs got super-guns) was a waste. In the movie, they don't really have a choice. Let's get it out of the way, Shaquille O'Neal is not a good actor nor a strong screen presence. He's still watchable though, and I did like the basketball joke the first time they did it (the gag goes on too long and ends on a ridiculous sequence with a 20-second fuse grenade). Generally, I like the comedy beats, whether it's grandma's soufflé, or whatever. The best part of the movie for me was X-Files' Annabeth Gish as the "guy in the chair" - there's something to a superhero movie where the heroic cast is mostly black, with a disabled woman in the #2 role - who's really the heart of the story. Richard Roundtree is in there in a mentor capacity as well. Judd Nelson and the other sneering villains, there's no getting behind, and I admit that when Shaq puts the costume on, the movie gets worse and not better, because it looks kind of stupid. If I'd seen this in a theater, I would have been angry. On a TV set, taking it as superhero exploitation in the style of The Guyver or various attempts at superhero TV show pilots in the '90s, it's perfectly fine.

Foxy Brown and Pam Grier are both a whole lot of woman, and though this sex'n'violence exploitation movie can get very nasty - we don't need our heroine force-addicted to smack and raped to justify her revenge, yo - its parts are better than the whole, and I came off enjoying it a lot. This thing's got Foxy throwing furniture at black belt lesbians, killing fools with coat hangers, torturing corrupt judges, and running gangsters over with a plane. I find Kathryn Loder's creepy bordello Madam interesting, and what Foxy does to revenge herself on her is too delicious to spoil. Now sure, Grier isn't always up to the task of delivering her speeches in the number of takes allowed, but she's always affecting anyway, and she sports a lot of great looks and is better supporting than usual. Antonio Fargas (playing her brother) has a speech early on that sums up why the focus of these things is always on crime, and I'm always happy to see Battlestar Galactica's Terry Carter in anything. Funky beats, pretty people in various states of undress, and whack violence - the exploitation genre at its best.

Pam Grier's first women in prison movie is The Big Doll House, but it isn't HER movie. It's not anybody's movie. It has an ensemble cast and lots of little stories going on that resolve with an attempt at escaping the Filipino prison (are these things all in the Philippines? I feel like director Jack Hill, Grier, Sid Haig, etc. once spent a summer there filming a dozen of these). So it's a bit of a hodgepodge of the usual tropes - you've got shower scenes, and food fights, and some mud wrestling, and the evil lesbian captain of the guards, the warden looking for love, the snitch, the girl whose man (a revolutionary) is waiting for her on the outside, the new girl, and the junky (Brooke Mills, who I thought gave one of the most interesting performances - but you also have some truly weird stuff, like a torture dungeon that looks like it was cobbled up by a mad scientist. Also not sure about Pam Grier singing the theme tune. The ending is almost objectionable, but is then interrupted by wild action, but finally heads for a dubbed-in punchline that falls a little flat. All that to say that there's always something going on and it's never boring, even if it does allow your attention to wander just as its own does.

Weaponizing the Street Cents-like consumer advice skits from his days on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, master of deadpan Nathan Fielder created a business makeover reality show pastiche for Comedy Central called Nathan for You, using his awkward persona to help business owners with just the craziest ideas. Over his four seasons and 30+ episodes, Fielder did go beyond the makeover and tried his hand at the dating show, the live stunt, and the reunion with a lost love, expertly sending up those genres with his crisp understanding of reality TV's vocabulary. Chugging the program inside of a week, I laughed a lot and couldn't believe some of what I was seeing, Fielder creating problems for himself that he could only solve in the most extravagant and impractical ways. But there was more going on under the surface. Fielder's real interest is to put a camera on something and see what happens. I don't even know how you "script" or even "improvise" something like this. Faced with strange suggestions and a needy, awkward host, the people he helps, or hires to help, or simply interviews as a matter of course, expose something of themselves, often accidentally. Because they have expectations about these kinds of shows, it affects their reactions, certainly, but if Fielder defies those expectations, what happens? I surmise that a lot of this kind of material is caught on camera on straight shows, but just isn't shown. Fielder thrives on the odd conspiracy theory a guest might mention, on those sad silences, or moments where the guest makes him look bad. Along the way, there are hoaxes that got picked up by the mainstream media, recurring "characters", and somehow, the thread of Nathan's own loneliness and quest for love. The last episode, Finding Frances, is emblematic of the show without actually being straightforwardly funny. It's even sad, and strange, and taps into that odd kind of documentary where the film maker loses track of his subject and discovers things about himself. Or makes us think that's what's happening. Because if Fielder is trolling the people on his show, and the media, and the world around him, well, he's probably trolling us too. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Fiasco: Played a game with my occasional Diceless Gamers club (Chalif, Clo and Fred), this one based on a playset called Sins of Anarchy's Sons. Bikers! Set in the north of our province, this became a story of competing clandestine weed growers and pushers (motorcycles and weed, could it be more foreign from my experience?!) with a ridiculous scheme to put the grow op on a fishing boat. I went for the idiot of the story, a wannabe biker who was laughed at for using a dirt bike (his nick name, "Motocrosse" is actually a lewd pun in French, an equivalent non-pun bring Motowank, I guess). His big brother is Biker Dave, he's in the Dirt Devils, and maybe he can get me in. Over Johnny Tightlips' dead body, of course, though he's got his hands full dealing with Eddie Burnt Out Burns, my marijuana chef who he thinks is behind the rival operation. In the end, my stupidity put me in a hole with a molotov cocktail, not unlike the one that torched my boat (and that's a New Brunswick inside joke to boot, it HAD to happen). This is the first time I played online, and we'd adapted a GoogleDoc playmat for that purpose. Works real well for keeping track of everything. Still feel seeing people's faces might have given some of the performances more oomph. You gotta overplay it when it's just your voice. I also tried out a different Aftermath scheme, but I'm not yet satisfied. Results make more "sense", but are maybe not as entertaining. I'll keep fiddling.

2 comments:

Charles Izemie said...

Re: On Moonlight Bay and the name being rather tangential (if that) to the plot: Aren't we facing the same sort of thing as with all those films taking place in the 50s that have taken their names from early rock'n'roll and/or teen music songs of the era? After all, what I'd call the long Edwardian era or La belle époque (from Jack the Ripper to WWI) held a somewhat similar place in the 1950s popular consciousness as the 50s themselves came to represent – supposedly innocent days of gay and carefree fun. (For those chaps who grew up to be powerful filmmakers.)

After all, they had already used Shine on, Harvest Moon, Ev'ry Little Movement and They Didn't Believe Me don't really work, and Hays Office would have had a fit if a studio had suggested Ev'rybody's Doin' It...

Siskoid said...

Yes, though here it seems to imply a geographical location that doesn't exist in the film.

I guess we could say Moonlight Bay is a metaphor for being in a romantic spotlight, then it works.

 

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