This Week in Geek (30/08-05/09/20)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Tenet is... Inception meets Memento. There. Done. All kidding aside, what Nolan has made here is a time travel puzzle movie that won't surprise fans of things like Primer, Timecrimes or Moffat's Doctor Who too much, but that still puts incredible images on screen. The locations feel fresh and new, when things blow up it feels like it's all done in reality, and the way time-reversed elements interact with forward-moving elements could make you as giddy as those topsy-turvy sequences in Inception. But it's a very intellectual film, by which I mean I was never truly emotionally involved in events where the characters are MacGuffins looking for MacGuffins. In Nolan tradition, Nolan offers a lot of exposition to explain the rules of his world - though to be fair, a lot of it is still nonsense - dovetailing into pretentious philosophy when he feels like it. I was much more interested in John David Washington as a quick-witted superspy - his dialog made me smile and laugh - and would totally give the Broccolis permission to cast him as James Bond (Brit or not). R-Pat is fun as his sidekick too. Tenet is well made, to be sure, but almost everyone is a cipher, at some remove from the audience.

At home: From the pages I've seen of Ready Player One, the book is a nigh unreadable series of pop culture lists, so I was expecting Steven Spielberg's adaptation to make it watchable, but not much more. As predicted, he knows how to make a glossy picture with rousing music and stand-out effects, but when the text showed through, I tended to roll my eyes. And I mean, do you like video game cut scenes? I can't stand it when they go on too long, and this is basically Video Game Cut Scenes: The Movie. The references are slapdash anyway - often meaningless - which is a bug from the book he couldn't fix, and indeed, leaned into just as hard with his own choices. Two come to mind. It's Spielberg's idea to have the kids walk into The Shining so he can reproduce his favorite shots, but making it a killer video game really has nothing to do with the film. And on a more personal note, that isn't any design of MechaGodzilla that's ever been put to film, and you really shouldn't score MechaGodzilla with the Big G's theme music. It just isn't done. Most of the background referencing is so quick as to be unnoticeable. Not sure it was worth paying for all those licenses (if they did). But this is a story where the kids are all obsessed with pop culture from the 80s, even though they haven't even been born yet. When they decided to pay tribute to Saturday Night Fever, one of them says it's old school and I actually shouted at the TV set that it was ALL old school. Add a cartoon villain and characters standing around looking dumb when time is of the essence and well... I won't deny it's a watchable little ode to Free Internet, and less stupid than what I know of the book, it's still just dumb old entertainment in a slick and pricey package.

Venommmmm Venommmmmm... So yeah, Venom. Can he work without the Spider-Man baggage? I think they found a way, giving the symbiotes a space invaders objective and Eddie Brock a more crusading spirit - still a loser, because he doesn't know when to leave well enough alone, but no grudge against Peter Parker or whatever. Mostly played as horror, though the more gory moments are actually off-screen, it's a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde story, and the relationship between Brock and Venom is the highlight of the film. You have to wonder where the symbiote gets its personality (from Eddie himself? I wish it were addressed more), but their inner/outer monologue is rather fun. The one big flaw is the underwritten turn for the character, when he goes from malignant monster to anti-hero, but Eddie and Venom are the only fleshed out characters in a crowd of underwritten characters (played by a lot of actors I feel interested in however). The initial action makes Eddie a kind of Plastic Man, if he were made of black rubber, with lots of fun action gags, and that doesn't really go away when he goes full Venom. So yeah, a lot more fun than I thought it would be - big dumb fun - and though I can't hack Carnage in the comics, I'd still be down for a Venom/Carnage throw-down in a sequel. I'm as surprised as you are.

Despite committing the sin of overusing sad piano, Seat 25 is a sweet little indie sci-fi film out of Britain, about a perfectly ordinary woman who gets selected to fill "Seat 25" on Earth's first colonizing mission to a presumably (but no one can be sure those efforts worked) terraformed Mars. And it's really not about the mission to Mars, but rather about Faye making the decision to go through with it, and leaving husband, family and job behind. Could you do it? What kind of person would? The story is very much couched in the feeling of isolation that is assumed of Mars, but still very much present here on Earth, not just for Faye, who has always felt a little out of place, but for others around her, whether that's the neighbor who prefers to live in his young daughter's fantasy world, or a sad widower just fired from his job she befriends. Can Mars be any worse? Told with some wit, it's also a celebration of the ordinary as something potentially precious that you can't entirely leave behind because it is a part of you. The mission leader's line about the first step into the unknown is true whether we're talking about going to space or just walking out the door. A good use of science-fiction as backdrop for telling a simple human story.

A decent cast, nice effects, some atmosphere, realistic space mission science... So why doesn't The Last Days on Mars do much for me? Well, principally, I think it blows its intriguing "life was found on Mars" premise on clichéd zombie movie tropes. I couldn't think of a duller proposition. The threat of bringing back an invasive infection or alien parasite/predator from another planet is nothing new, but I can name examples with more interesting monsters (Alien chief among them, but even Screamers has more ingenuity). Heck, I feel like Doctor Who remade this with a more interesting cast in The Waters of Mars and I still didn't care for it much. So even the bleak ending wasn't much of a surprise, but I somehow liked that third act better than the rest. First act - a bit slow and procedural. Second act - the zombie stuff we've seen many times before. Third act - things go from bad to worse to worst in a pleasant (if that's the word for it) way. So while Last Days isn't a complete dud, it's not a must-see.

I have to wonder if 1959's The Angry Red Planet wasn't an inspiration for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby when they created the Fantastic Four (perhaps even more finding that one of the movie's alternate titles was Journey to Planet Four). The crew of the rocket is  very similar indeed, and as the story begins in medias res, one of the crew members is transforming into something. But largely, this is about a mission to Mars - a very very red Mars, strikingly imagined - with lots of giant monsters (usually, posters for these kinds of movies are pretty symbolic, but not this one) and absurd science. Whereas I find a lot of science-fiction B-pictures of the era rather talky and dull, this one has a lot of incident and charming effects, the flaws kind of papered over by the so-called Cinemagic process that posterizes everything in that red filter. The monsters are a little goofy, but imaginative, so again, charming. No prizes to hand out for scientific accuracy to be sure, but in terms of its genre, you could do a lot worse.

Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, Pam Grier, and Joanna Cassidy are all performers I'm interested in, but they're not very well used in John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars, a movie that looks and feels like 90s direct-to-video, but was actually released in 2001. Even if it were from the 90s, I'd still have called it about 10 years out of date. It's a big shoot-em-up in a Martian mining town, with macho guys and gals fighting possessed Martians with a Mad Max meets Rob Zombie aesthetic. The effects are almost charmingly ropy. The nature of the threat would be interesting if the characters didn't keep making stupid decisions mandated by the script. And even so, I might have found my joy in lowered expectations (or if it leaned into the sense of fun the end moment has) if it weren't for the editing. Favoring distracting fades, with the occasional silly wipe, the story is told in flashback, then has the audacity to flashback within the flashback... And what's the point of a matriarchy if men are still going to be brazen harassers? Ugh.

The way Zatoichi at Large begins, I had every expectation this would be an Ichi's Greatest Hits type episode, recycling and remixing elements from more popular films in the series (starting with the classic baby delivery plot). But I don't think it goes where I expected it to, and face it, most Zatoichi films essentially reuse the same handful of tropes anyway. It's all about HOW they're twisted and presented. While not a favorite among Zatoichi fans, to me this one has some of the best cinematography in the entire series, director Kazuo Mori integrating visual symbols of wandering and being out of place among the lush environments - the field in the opening, the glittering anamorphic river, the hellish climax, and the pink lens flares of the ending. The third act is truly exciting, not just in the action sense, but as film making. Maybe I'm the only one impressed, but that's perhaps because I've stopped thinking of the series' installments in terms of plot, which is a losing man's game. Not a big fan of the traditional-sounding theme song, but otherwise, all in.

Shintarō Katsu takes a shot at directing himself in Zatoichi in Desperation, and proves to be quite an inventive film maker - perhaps this is what happens when you don't have many opportunities and just throw all your ideas into the same film - offering up a Zatoichi movie that looks quite unlike the others but is still of a piece with the rest. Edgy handheld well serves what must be the bleakest chapter in the series yet. It almost sets itself up to be the last, letting the audience believe this is it for their favorite blind swordsman. Haunted by an accidental death on the road, Ichi is desperate to make amends and save the victim's daughter from a life of indentured servitude, but it's no easy task when the local yakuza turn out to be among the most evil the series has produced, with a couple of subplots seemingly only there to showcase their cruelty, not entirely connecting with the main story. Powerful anti-triumph. Katsu also allows his effort to have frank sexual situations, which also sets it apart from most of the canon. A strong entry very near the end, making it kind of surprising Katsu didn't direct more than three movies total.

Ichi goes back to his home village in the last installment of his original film series in Zatoichi's Conspiracy, and it's not the same village we saw in Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, which feels less and less canonical the more I think about it (the sword-cane was all wrong). White skies and barren trees are witness to a wistful reunion with the people he knew, even as they struggle against a conspiracy between yakuza and magistrates to fleece the local villages out of their resources (with the color white a recurring motif leading to a rice-showering climax. There the sense of an ending without the film really being one. Shintarō Katsu goes on to play the character in over a hundred episodes of a TV series after this, before returning for one last big screen hurrah in 1989 (it must be some kind of record). It is still amazing to me that 25 Zatoichi films of pretty uniform quality were released between 1962 and 1973, sometimes 4 a year, while Katsu was also starring in two other film franchises that did the same. Though many plots felt samey, the series at least goes out on something that feels different and taps into the character's trademark poignancy.

I should have left well enough alone... The thrilling possibility of a proper ending for, or at least a late-career meditation on, Zatoichi made me watch the 1989 film, co-written and directed by Katsu. There is a certain melancholy to the film in that, in his 50s, Ichi is still getting up to the same old scams, but the movie is more concerned with nostalgia than it is making any kind of statement about the aging anti-hero. Katsu's direction is much more conservative than it was in Zatoichi in Desperation, though it sometimes achieves an intriguing phantasmagoria and does something with the windblown motif of the character. But as with the other entry co-written by Katsu (Fire Festival), it is a disjointed mess. Quite beyond the indulgent use of imagery that is supposed to evoke many of the other chapters for audiences who haven't seen the films since they were in theaters, the plot vanishes characters it introduces as important - most notably the female boss Ichi has a bizarre romance with - and I was frequently asking who someone was, why they were doing what they were doing, and just what was happening. Ladle on 80s synth music and an egregious English-language theme song, and I'm reaching for the aspirin. And it ISN'T an ending for the character - there may have been hope to turn it into a modern-day series - so no added relevance. Katsu is as good as he ever was - this character is his second skin - but he didn't really advance the character any since he'd last played him ten years prior.

Animal House is the prototypical frat movie, and that's not a subgenre that's aged very well (movies like Neighbors basically make them antagonists instead). Part of it is the celebration of overdrinking, part of it is the frequent lack of consent in sexual situations, all of it played as a joke. And of course, frats seem to be about organized bullying, whether that's internal hazing or elitist frats vs. blue collar frats. At the time, I think Animal House got away with it because the story was set at a remove from when it was made. It was saying, hey kids, you know how your dad is always on you ass? Well, this is what he was like in college. Today, the past is a bit of a blur and that statement may be lost on us. We're left with a watchable enough college comedy made up of vignettes where Delta House gets up to various shenanigans while the villainous Dean of Students tries to get them closed down. I like a good anti-authority story as much as the next guy, but I like it better when there's a positive place to put those energies. This is just goofing. I liked some of the visual gags. John Belushi seems central, but he's just a a kind of classic Fool floating around. But this wasn't the university experience for me, so the story didn't really do it for me.

I am on team Ann-Margret through most of Viva Las Vegas, a better character when she resists Elvis than when she eventually falls for him - funny, a crazy dancer, and a top quality burster of testosterone balloons. Now, an Elvis movie is kind of like a Beach movie. They're effervescent puff pieces, just silly excuses for the leads to sing and dance and have fun. Even so, there's a big tonal problem at the end of the movie that makes it lose whatever points Ann-Margret scored to get it over the average threshold. See, this is ultimately a car racing movie, even if Ann-Margret's character is somewhat desperate to prevent Elvis from putting his life in mortal danger in the Las Vegas Grand Prix (to the point of caricature). And the racing sequences are well done, give or take a little undercranking of the camera, but Ann-Margret was right! This race actually has tragic consequences, but egregiously smash cuts to the happy ending without addressing them! So no matter how good the leads are, or how catchy the songs, you still end on an unacceptable note and a WTF?????? Still, a better tourism video than most.

Alejandro Iñárritu's first feature film was Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch), which starts with a couple of young men racing away from gangbangers and getting into a car accident. From there, the wheel spokes branch out to tell three powerful stories of love and loss. In the first, "Can Do No Wrong" Gael García Bernal is in love with his mean brother's wife and uses his dog to raise the money he needs to run away with her. Fair warning: Dog lovers will find the dog fighting element harrowing, even if movie magic is used to realize it. In the second, the model who is also in the accident suffers through recovery, made more complicated by her little dog getting lost under the floorboards of her and her lover's new apartment. The third concerns a mysterious hitman and the daughter who believes he is dead. What they have in common is dogs who mirror the protagonist's condition - one combative, the second trapped, and the last a killer on the mend. Dogs and complex emotions. Though "anthologies" like this normally ask you to pick favorites, I can't here. I found each one riveting, and this despite the spending a long time in the first. I never resented switching. Iñárritu juggles things so well, you can hardly believe he's just starting his career. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

The original 1974 Gone in 60 Seconds is a dynamic action indie, directed by and starring stuntman H.B. Halicki - so don't expect a master class in acting anywhere in this - about a crew of very well-organized who have to get dozens of pricey cars in a short amount of time to fill an order. It's Grand Theft Auto: The Movie. The film is a little but plotless, filled with vignettes really, showing the nitty-gritty of the car theft game (I love that kind of procedural stuff), and different situations that might arise. And once that's done, we get to a 40-minute chase sequence which I believe is still the record(?). As with the rest of the film, there's nitty and there's gritty, and it feels rather realistic - more a game of attrition in real time and real geography than outright spectacle (not to say there isn't some of that too), with real consequences for other drivers. None of your Hollywood empty car-filled highways here. The result is surprisingly tense and exciting. I watched the version that's currently available, which apparently had to replace all the music from the original, but the steady funk score thrummed along pleasantly enough that I wouldn't have guessed something was amiss.

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