This Week in Geek (1-07/11/20)


"Accomplishments"


At home: At 8 half-hours, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg's Truth Seekers isn't a big investment, and rewards its audience with a humorous take on the spooky television trend we've gotten of late. Frost is a wi-fi installer who moonlights as a ghost hunter for his YouTube channel. His nerdy boss (Pegg) saddles him with an assistant just in time for supernatural activity to ramp up and in short order, a small cast assembles around him, including his dad played by Malcolm McDowell, the assistant's cosplaying, agoraphobic sister, and a girl haunted by ghosts. Each episode kind of has its own little story, but as it's all part of a greater tapestry, where each mystery is actually part of that grand scheme. It's funny and plays with horror tropes in a clever and fun way, but there are still some real chills, threading that genre needle quite well. My one complain, really, is that the ghost effects have a video look that maybe sends my mind down the wrong path, but it might be part of the whole wi-fi theme, I'm not sure. It's an interesting new visual, it just tweaks horror iconography in an odd way is all.

We'll see where this takes me, but I decided to watch one (as-yet-unreviewed) movie starring (or directed by) a different Star Trek: The Next Generation star this week...

 

The Hollow Crown, the recent prestige television event staging the Shakespeare plays that are part of the Henriad in actual locations with primo actors, starts with the poetically beautiful Richard II. Ben Wishaw is great in the lead, juggling cold menace and wet self-pity, though one gets the sense he was mostly cast because he looked like Christ. In the play, Richard does compare himself into Jesus (and his betrayers to Judas), and the production here leans into that HARD, conjuring images from the Gospels or, at a pinch, from the Lives of the Saints. There's a necessary irony there, the king's hubris leading him to martyr himself in a way that betrays a certain showmanship. Certainly, not something we'd see in current-day politics (cough, cough). Rory Kinnear has the less showy role of Henry IV, but he does a lot of heavy lifting, playing him as a true patriot awkward and disturbed by Richard's dramatics, and you could do a lot worse than Patrick Stewart as de Gaunt eulogizing England. The Hollow Crown's first chapter is a great showcase for actors, even if I sometimes feel the direction is a little cheesy - wonky close-ups, slow-motion, etc. - and all the stuff with the Queen pretty disposable.

 

After Star Trek First Contact's success, I wondered if Jonathan Frakes would trade it into a big career as a film director. Alas, all he seems to have been offered is genre kid fare like Clockstoppers. I mean, it kind of fits. Star Trek Insurrection had a (difficult to accept) subplot about people so relaxed they could slow down time, so he had experience with this particular effect. And yes, a whole movie could be built around this idea, I just wish this one had a better understanding - at the script level - of what that meant. I guess the scene at the rave is the most problematic one, since it shows us both real time and "hypertime", and it just looks like it makes people invisible rather than super-fast. Hey maybe it's both. Whatever. But to tell you the truth, Clockstoppers is still goofy fun. I like the sweet teenage romance between the leads more than the plot with Michael Biehn as a cartoon villain, and it was fun revisiting the music of the era (the pop alternative of the late 90s, early 2000s) thanks to the soundtrack (felt like the clock had indeed stopped) - better than the score which I found ugly and one-note. I don't lay it all on Frakes, but maybe the magic of his Star Trek oeuvre is contingent on working with an expert team both behind and in front of the camera, which probably isn't the case here.


According to the biography The Aviator is adapted from, Howard Hughes was suffering from pretty extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder, which explains his sinking millions and millions into both movie and aviation projects that, due to what at the time would have been considered "eccentric perfectionism" (fueled by unlimited funds), very nearly destroyed him. We're in good hands with Scorsese, obviously, and he's assembled a stellar cast (even if I'm unimpressed in terms of likenesses - I never see Cate Blanchet as Katharine Hepburn, or any of the Hollywood celebs portrayed, really, and it's especially tough to tell the stars from the normals, when even small parts are being played by Jack Donaghy (sorry, Alec Baldwin) and Brent Spiner. It's a well put-together film (the plane crash is especially well rendered, and it didn't feel nearly three hours long), but it's still a bloated biopic (I always wonder if we really need ALL that biographical detail for the story to WORK). Its spectacle is perhaps even distracting. A lot of the aerial stuff looks cheesy and fake, and every time someone new shows up, you're thinking "OH, Jude Law, or Alan Alda, or freakin' Gwen Stafani is in this", which pulls you out of what truth can be taken away from it.


I can see why, TV movie or not, The Midnight Hour is a fondly remembered Halloween movie. It's silly nonsense a lot of the time - even before the sudden musical number - but it's fun nonsense, and I think more than a little what Buffy the Vampire Slayer would have felt like had it been made in the '80s. A bunch of adults playing high schoolers - among them Shari Belafonte and LeVar Burton! - open a Hellmouth on a goof, and release a variety of undead types on their town on Halloween night. Depending on any given kid's experience, what ensues may be a ghost story paying tribute to Grease, a camp vampire movie, or a rampaging monster flick, and you're really not supposed to take any of it very seriously. Where I think it goes wrong is the epilogue, which abandons all plot lines but one, and fails to answer some important question and rob us of the happy ending the tone as up until then promised - or even a clear, bleak ending that would have acted as contrast or Twilight Zone point d'orgue.

 

The problem with Jagged Edge is that there are few ways for a courtroom thriller to go. There's a formula that makes every twist predictable, at least within a certain margin of error, and the viewer is probably juggling a couple of possibilities at all times, so none can be called "surprising". In this one, Jeff Bridges is accused of murdering his wife , and Glenn Close is his lawyer, his rather unprofessional lawyer because, by movie rules, she has to fall in love with him. Is he a master manipulator, or is the D.A. as lazy and crooked as her history with him would suggest? It's quite watchable, but ultimately, courtroom TV shows have token over this genre and I feel like I've seen it all. When I heard Close's character was "Teddy", I immediately felt like I'd seen this before, but it's so retroactively generic that I'd forgotten all about it (unless there are other movies with a female lawyer called Teddy to confuse me). I find it a little laughable that, in fear of speaking the title out loud, no one is able to say the murder weapon had a jagged edge, forcing themselves into strange turns of phrase like "a blade with jags on the end". (Michael Dorn has a blink-it-and-you'll-miss-it role as a lie detector expert.)

 

Part of East New York is being terrorized by a classic multi-ethnic street gang in Death Wish 3, and Charles Bronson arrive, 10 years after his original vigilante rampage, to set things right. And now it's the 80s, so the movie leans hard into absurd violence, so it looks and feels like Escape from New York, fender benders make cars explode, the score is a mix of exploitation funk and weird science-fiction stings, and even the casting tends to be odd, with a young Alex Winter assaulting Marina Sirtis in West Side Story brown face. To me, big shoot'em ups are a rather tedious, and the finale here goes on a long time, and tonally, I resent such things as rape gangs when the over-the-top violence is trying to get hoots and laughs. Charles Bronson is somehow calm and serene through all this, a soothing presence on screen to balance the mayhem - he looks a little like my stepdad in this, so I'm perhaps responding to that as well - and in the final analysis, he's what keeps the movie afloat. It's certainly not the shoddy love interest subplot. Eeech!

 

Hadn't seen Stand By Me in ages, but I haven't forgotten just how influential it was at the time. There's no doubt in my mind that it spawned The Wonder Years, and of course, most of its young stars went on to memorable things - Wil Wheaton (who didn't grow up to look like Richard Dreyfuss), tragic River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Slider-in-chief Jerry O'Connell, and here a teenage Kiefer Sutherland. But it's not anchored in the time it was made. It's a universal coming of age film with a so strong a nostalgic streak, the boys' adventure manages to evoke Vietnam despite taking place before it (this is where I learned about leeches, and unrelatedly, the dangers of pie eating contests) as part of its theme of mortality. You'd think 12-year-olds wouldn't be thinking about death, but I think that's where the present-day author comes in, imbuing the tale (in a postmodern way) with that tone, as much as the events themselves. After all, these are boys who go searching for the dead body of a missing kid, the protagonist instinctually drawn to it by the death of his own brother. Death is in fact prevalent in Stephen King's tale, whether it's the death of people, eras, friendships, or innocence. Powerful, memorable, thoughtful, touching... just a great film.

 

I've never played the video game, but Dragon Age Redemption (written by, and starring Felicia Day as an elf assassin) feels like a tribute to the kind of fantasy show that littered television in the 90s - Hercules, Xena, Sinbad, Conan, and others - featuring a balanced D&D party of characters midway between cod-Tolkien and wink-at-the-camera sass, fighting Buffy/Angel demon types. Obviously, most of this must be down to the game (designs, abilities, character types). Frequent interruptions to infodump using cards betray that perhaps this was originally meant as a web series (like Day's The Guild), and are quite awkward in the longer (still only 50-minute) narrative. In a normal movie, you'd have to include scenes that explained these elements, either overtly or, preferably, subtly. And you know what? In most cases, they're there. The explanatory cards just aren't necessary, though I suppose they might act as promotion for the game. As a story, nothing new here, but as far as faux-D&D adventures go, it's not a bad example (though it did make me realize how much tabletop role-playing is tropey - now I'm self-conscious).


Books: I'd been sitting on the second half of About Time 8 - this volume of the Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who covering 2007's Series 3 episodes (from The Runaway Bride to Voyage of the Damned and including The Infinite Quest and Time Crash) - for a while, namely because I don't find as much joy in these later volumes. The behind the scenes stuff is more boring and less mythical than for the classic series, and the authors have traditionally been more down on NuWho that the original flavor, as is evidenced I think by various "out of universe" essays in this volume questioning how the series gets MADE. But picking it back up again a year later, I got into a good groove with it, and since 1) the second half of Martha's season is the better half, and 2) we are in agreement as to how badly treated her character was, rather started enjoying myself. There is no more complete series of guidebooks than About Time, both in amounts of in-universe trivia, detecting influences on the stories, and critical thought, and we usually get very interesting big picture essays, in this case the likes of Why does every forget about the aliens?, How many times has this story happened (about Human Nature)?, and Which are the most over-specialized Daleks? I even quite enjoyed the nitty-gritty explanation of cricket and why it's the perfect sport for the Doctor to have played. On to Volume 9!

Role-playing: Star Trek Adventures ep.3 part 3... What the hell just happened? I thought this was going to be an episode of R&R, creating a status quo aboard ship, with some light plotting, but all of a sudden, there's a hellmouth on a star, and then the Borg and Jem'Hadar simultaneously attack in a way that can only be psychic illusions (KILLER psychic illusions at that), and I just don't know anymore. But it's not my specialty. I specifically created a character that didn't have to indulge in technobabble (as it's an element of Star Trek I can hardly stomach) so all of this is above my pay grade, as it were. Time to think hard until it all vanishes. And I just now noticed the mouth on the image above provided by the GM. Just shows how distracted I've been this week. One wonders why...

1 comments:

Mike W. said...

Yeah, Stand By Me is one of my favourite movies of all time. I think in the original story, there's a line at the end about the Narrator going to the doctor because he's had some problems lately ... I can't remember exactly what the symptoms were, but the implication was that he had cancer. So the "death" theme was really there in the original short story (which also mentioned the older gang beating the living shit out of the kids instead of just forgetting about everything).

 

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