This Week in Geek (23-29/10/17)


In theaters: Was Groundhog Death too on the nose? There's no question Happy Death Day is highly derivative of the Bill Murray classic, with a heroine who mysteriously lives through the same day over and over, getting killed by a slasher at the end, until she can "solve the day", or in this case, her own murder. But within that well-known formula, there are enough clever twists, well-tuned red herrings, amusing jokes, and even emotional moments to amount to a pretty fun Halloween entertainment (and PG-13 too, so it's not at all gory). I wasn't expecting that from the director of that Boy Scout zombie film from last year, nor from writer Scott Lobdell, responsible for many comics I dislike. So if the film's DNA is warning you away, don't let it. It's a perfectly pleasant popcorn movie, if not one with an entirely unpredictable structure. But then, is that something you associate with slasher flicks?

At home: If you don't mind watching the first episode of an open-ended TV series and then never watch another, Parallels is for you. A sort of Sliders for the 21st Century, youthful characters enter a building that jumps to a different parallel Earth every 36 hours, in the process discovering they have a connection to its inner workings and the mysteries of its creation. Dimension travel, like time travel, always gets my attention, but it's something that's hard to do justice to over the course of a single movie. Unless you're dealing with polar opposites (a single "Mirror" universe), the whole idea is based on infinite diversity, and you want to see as much of that as possible. But just as it gets good, just as the kids get a purpose and one character reveals a secret, it's over, never to be continued. Obviously, Parallels was a pilot that never made it to series, which makes it a particularly frustrating experience. A few years on, it doesn't look like there'll be a follow-up. Maybe I should just use it as the basis for a role-playing campaign and write my own answers.

With Season 2, Gotham goes off the continuity rails and embraces the idea that it need not neatly connect to any version of the Batman mythos but its own. Calling its arcs Rise and Wrath of the Villains, it brings forward a number of Batman foes before their time, and creates a couple of "origin events" for the weirdness to come in Gotham City (on the fence about taking the "Flash collider" path, but at least it's not all-encompassing). The season introduces some elements of the city's history I was never invested in in the comics - the Order of Dumas and Court of Owls stuff - and way too much of it is spent on an unstoppable villain who comes out of nowhere (Bane-like, you might say); I much preferred the mob war of the first season. So a step down, but a small step. Bruce Wayne's journey is a highlight, however, as he takes over the investigation into his parents' murder. The DVD includes all the little web adverts that teased the season, a butchered, Comi-Con panel, featurettes on Alfred and Mr. Freeze, and the best bit, one on the film noir look of the show.

Though made in 2013, the WNUF Halloween Special replicates a piece of video-taped local television from 1987 extremely well, give or take the amateurish ads for what are supposed to be television shows of the era. But it is, after all, a spoof of the kind of television that was regular fare back then, treated to look like an old VHS tape, with someone speeding the tape up through certain bits so it doesn't become too tedious. After a cheesy news broadcast that does set up some elements, we're treated to a live entry into a haunted house, à la Geraldo and Al Capone's vault, with similar delaying tactics and a jerky, tone-deaf reporter. But of course, this is a horror film, so there's something in there. There's a little bit of The Blair Witch Project in this, if that film had mostly been a comedy, and the found footage constantly interrupted by mock commercials (which are the best part, honestly). But the question that really intrigues, when you think about it is... who's the unseen character watching and fast-forwarding through it? I have my answer, I wonder what yours is.

Val Lewton's humanism shines through in Bedlam, the lurid tale of a woman institutionalized in the 18th-Century asylum for daring to speak out against its cruel treatment of patients, especially at the hands of Boris Karloff's apothecary in chief. Despite this being a horror film (or perhaps more of a thriller), the "scary madmen" are actually treated with some measure of sensitivity and grace. Anna Lee plays the heroine's role, and makes me realize Lewton's films frequently have strongly-written female characters leading them. Her Nell is witty but reckless, stubborn but not as brave as she seems, and the test of her moral convictions represents a real character arc. As with many of RKO's horror producer's films, it's not quite what you think you'll get going in.

The Leopard Man starts with an escaped black leopard that may be responsible for killing a young woman in a New Mexico town, but as the killings continue, the film's leads start thinking something else might be responsible. As with Lewton's other productions, the moments of terror feel like they could be right out of Hitchcock's filmography, showing just enough and never too much, and using cinematography to spark the imagination. The location is unusual, as are the characters, with what may be a conscious thread of the privileged denying responsibility for the deaths. Ultimately, this has to be ranked among Lewton's lesser RKO horror films even if the set pieces are among the strongest. Dennis O'Keefe in the lead is wooden and boring compared to all the female characters that are put in danger, and the resolution just isn't satisfying, I'm afraid, only teasing a better ending than what we actually get.

Isle of the Dead is based on Böcklin's painting of the same name (it's common of Val Lewton's productions to take inspiration from all sorts of sources) and can even be seen as the matte painting of the isolated Greek island. The plot, which isn't scream-inducing at all, regardless of what the poster says, concerns a group of people quarantined on the island during the Balkan War of 1912-13, and how, while some believe in the plague's scientific reasons, others superstitiously believe it is the work of a  vorvolaka, a malevolent spirit of folklore which may be residing in one of their number. Most of the film is a set-up to somewhat supernatural revelations, using atmosphere to create paranoia and taking its time letting us get to know the cast. While it captures the needed atmosphere only unevenly, it's a nice finish and a good use of a folklore you rarely see in movies.

Gaslight is about a woman (Ingrid Bergman) whose aunt was murdered when she was a child and who is now being driven insane by her husband (Charles Boyer) for reasons all his own, but that are obviously connected to that aunt. With a young Angela Lansbury as the trollopy, back-talking maid, May Whitty as the nosy but well-meaning neighbor, and Joseph Cotten as a possible white knight, there really isn't a wrong-footed bit of acting in the piece, but Boyer is particularly slimy, a textbook, abusive, manipulator of women (even if it's Bergman who took home the Oscar that year). The title evokes Victorian London and everything Gothic about the place - the fog, Ripperology - and we get that (in some ways, it borrows from Jane Eyre), but the gaslight is also a crucial clue that's part of Bergman's descent into madness, and the eventual resolution. Much better than its UK title, "Murder in Thornton Square", I hope you agree.

Doctor Who Titles: Full Circle (AKA The Haunting of Julia) stars Mia Farrow as a woman who, after tragically losing a child, moves into a haunted house, haunted by her own memories of her daughter, perhaps, but as the story proceeds (slowly, but surely), we may come to think there are other ghosts in her midst, and ghosts not so benign. One to watch attentively, because its resolution hinges on fleeting clues and ambiguities. Though the story is of interest, the production itself left me wanting for more, with lackluster "TV Movie" cinematography and a score that was pretty great when drawing on classical instruments, but annoyed when it turned to dated synths.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 4th Doctor and Leela try to help Julia and her friends from a potentially murderous ghost, but as with many Doctor Who stories, the death toll rises inexorably

Comics: With Pàng the Wandering Shàolin Monk Vol.1 Refuge of the Heart, cartoonist Ben Costa is obviously tapping into my interest in kung fu movies and Chinese culture/history. That the result is not entirely satisfying is unfortunate. As far as the story goes, following the doughy Pàng's journey after the burning of the Shàolin Temple, Costa very much wants to show his research, so it's initially very wordy, with footnotes to get us up to speed with the lingo. That said, his leads are charming and funny, and I'd want to follow them into volume 2. I also like the beautifully colored art (only Pàng looks like a simplified cartoon), whether it's the frenzied action scenes or the quieter, and often amusing, character moments. BUT, and it's a big but, Costa's layouts too often rely on following arrows from panel to panel, forcing the reader to read them in an order contrary to what's intuitive, and I don't think it's done for effect. Just confusing, a major mistake in what is otherwise a handsome graphic story.


Michael May said...

Glad to hear Happy Death Day is good. I'm looking forward to that one.


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