This Week in Geek (18-24/12/17)


MisterHarry, my main partner on the Doctor Who RPG sourcebooks, was nice enough to send my the Dalek Dice Game. Thanks, man! I WILL EXTERMINATE YOU ALL!


In theaters: Star Wars - The Last Jedi may wink at elements The Empire Strikes Back (a roguish gambler, the Imperial Guard, training with an old Jedi master), but has more in common with Rogue One, and that's a good thing. The Force Awakens had entirely too much "tribute" that turned into replication, while this feels fresher by turning left instead of right and confounding expectations. Like the previous film, it's funny and exciting, and when it comes to Luke and Leia's roles, emotional as well. I like how the stakes are relatively small in this, and yet far-ranging. In terms of pacing, it may feel like "one damn thing after another" and the side-trips mostly pointless (I'm waiting for someone to compare it to the bloated Age of Ultron, so I'll say it first), but there's a point to the pointlessness. This is a story of attrition. The more the Rebels lose, the darker the situation gets, the better they can bounce back in the last film. It's darkest before the dawn, and the film achieves that without doing a beat-for-beat replay of Empire.

I've also written a longer essay on the film's themes, called The Last Jedi, Nerd Rage, and What the War Is Really About. Check it out for more.

At home: The first season of The Good Place starts with a big mistake. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) arrives in "heaven" (or the Good Place) despite having been a horrible person. Now, she has to hide that fact and play along lest she be sent to the "Bad Place". Ted Danson is the wide-eyed angel who acts as caretaker, the other main characters being her neighbors, her assigned soul mate, and the Good Place's walking, talking database. Usually, a high concept show, especially one built like a sitcom, would eventually expend its good will and run out of fuel. The Good Place smartly takes the world it's built around its fantastical concept, and allows various twists, turns and revelations to change the status quo every few episodes (correctly identified as "chapters" of a longer story). Keep you finger on the freeze frame too, the tally of people's sins and accomplishments goes by too quickly to catch all the jokes. Amusing and full of surprises, a good twist on the "horrible person tries to change" TV trope.

It's entirely probable anime fans will tell me there's no real call for a live action version of Erased, a 12-part serial about a manga artist with the power to time travel, since the animated version came out just last year. That may be. Haven't seen it. All I can say is that it worked for me with real actors and locations (a snowy industrial town). Normally, the protagonist Satoru only hops a few minutes back, so he can right an impending wrong. This is presented as a given. But when he mother is murdered, he's sent back to the 5th grade to stop an apparently related crime against neighborhood children. Despite the dark elements, the story comes off as hopeful, as Satoru goes on to change the lives of his class mates and his. The child actors are very engaging - more than their adult selves - which made the later part of the serial weaker for me than the first half. Some padding at the three-quarters mark too. The destination may be weaker than the journey, but Erased is still a charming story of friendship and the impact one has on others.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale from Finland proposes to tell us the truth about Santa Claus, going back to some of the legend's more terrifying Pagan roots to the way we see him today. It is balls-out crazy, but always takes its ludicrous premise seriously, so you have to take it at face value too. It may be a black comedy, but the characters don't know that. On the surface, the film plays as one of those children's adventures, with a young Finnish boy from a bleak, tiny town as its protagonist. He notes all the clues, does all the research, but will anyone ever believe him that the original Claus has come down the mountain to punish the naughty? Rare Exports starts out slow and quietly tragic, but by the end becomes a ridiculous ride that makes you throw up your hands in surrender and laugh.

Though I'll always prefer Zathura for its stronger thematic underpinnings, the original magical board game movie (and book) Jumanji is still a pretty fun adventure. Sure, some of the CG creatures have aged badly (the monkeys especially), but because it's all a "game" anyway, they can look like cartoon artifacts, it doesn't really matter. The kids (including a young Kirsten Dunst) are good, Robin Williams is contained, and the comedy comes from surprising places (the first line of the film is plain dark comedy, and the almost immortal cop car is great fun). I'm not that keen on the way Bonnie Hunt's character is written, just a little too entitled considering the circumstances, but the film has a surprise ending I didn't see coming. The story IS rather built on metaphorical quicksand, however, perhaps because it deals with two separate groups of kids. It gets good when the game's effects mirror reality (the kid who rejects his family is exiled to the jungle, for example, and the bickering causes a stampede of the animals they use as play pieces), but then there's another creature or disaster to deal with and it feels a little like the movie is on shuffle.

The Spanish film Smoke and Mirrors doesn't really earn its original title - The Man with Thousand Faces - but is nevertheless a slick biopic at the crossroads of the con game and spy thriller genres. It follows former spy Francisco "Paco" Paesa through the 1990s as he hornswaggles a corrupt Minister in exile and keeps the authorities back in Spain thinking. It's possibly one of the longest cons every committed, and at least inspired by true events. Director Alberto Rodríguez has an eye for color and makes the narrative move at a lively pace, but - and this might be because I didn't know a single thing about this current affair (as is probable for most North Americans) - I was at times wondering just what was happening and who was who. Eventually, the confusion is dispelled, but there's a wealth of detail here that could have fueled a mini-series easily.

The Netflix original, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, has some interesting directorial flourishes, but they are at odds with how remedially "TV" it all feels. It's the story of two teenage sisters who decide to rob the trains passing behind their house in order to pay for their mother's lawyer after she has a violent meltdown at work. What follows is what you might expect from a straight-to-video release aimed squarely at pre-teens (the one twist on that formula being that it condones theft). And like a lot of TV/video movies with that target audience, it doesn't know how the real world works. That's the real frustration here. The actors are fairly likable, the capes are well thought-out, the visuals occasionally inspired. But its take on school, and on the law, are strictly out of a cartoon. It's too bad.

In The Lookout, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a young man you suffered brain damage in a car accident and today has trouble putting things in sequence (memories, tasks, etc.). He nevertheless has a job at a small bank as night janitor. A gang of would-be bank robbers (led by Matthew Goode) try to manipulate him into helping them pull off a heist at that very bank, which of course leads to complications. Can Gordon-Levitt's character get the better of them with his condition? The heist and its consequences are, in a way, secondary to the film's true focus, a character study on a very specific kind of brain damage, and how to live with it. Gordon-Levitt is, no surprise, excellent, and he's well paired with Jeff Daniels as his blind (but perceptive) roommate. Sometimes you'd like one movie to get out of the other's way, but generally, it works.

The French noir film Rififi has an extended, almost silent sequence that details a jewelry store heist in detail, and on that basis alone, should be of interest to caper film fans. It's particularly interesting to see the thieves work out how to get around a high-tech (in 1955!) security system in clever low-tech ways. But that's just the second act. Getting away with the loot is a whole other story, and the film balances well the thieves' love lives and gangland enemies into the mix. The title song gets a cool number too. My one complaint, and I don't think I can excuse it because of the era, is its casual misogyny. We're told - and shown - that hard men slap their women around, and those women like it. It's not even necessary to the plot! Makes it rather difficult to care about some of these guys, you know?

Diggstown (also known as Midnight Sting) sees con men James Woods and Oliver Platt, along with the help of aging but willful boxer Louis Gossett Jr., go up against nasty fight fixer Bruce Dern in the small southern town he basically owns. The scam has to be fairly clever, because Dern's character is a ruthless scammer too, and there's a point where I thought they might have lost the plot and thought they were doing a straight sports movie. I'm not sure if they missed a trick, or tricked me into believing they had - I was looking at the wrong hand, so to speak. But the set-up definitely has enough variables to keep the tension up. Con game movies can sometimes be too clever for their own good. Cool and intellectual, but lacking in emotion. Not the case here. But do watch out for that TV-movie quality wailing guitar soundtrack.

2015's Heist has a spectacularly generic title, especially given that the heist is only a small (if necessary) part of the story. Most of the film takes place on a bus, hijacked by the thieves in their botched escape from the casino owned by Robert DeNiro's nasty gang boss (so the original title, Bus 657, is probably better). Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the only "good man" among the thieves, trying to keep the others (including Dave Bautista) from shooting hostages, and trying to negotiate with the cops (one is notably played by Gina Carano). It's a fair entertainment, with some neat tricks pulled by both the hero and the villain, but less than memorable. The ending chucks logic (or ethics?) out the window, but works emotionally. It all depends how much nitpicking you want to engage in with an action thriller of this sort. I dare say, little.

Can 1999's The Thomas Crown Affair be as fab as Steve McQueen's 1968 original? Well, that's a hard ask. The newer flick, starring Pierce Brosnan in the role of the millionaire who steals only to entertain himself, chances things up by making him an art thief, and Rene Russo is smoking hot as the insurance investigator who turns out to be his match both in the cat and mouse game and the bedroom. Denis Leary is also good as the cop on the case. But here's the thing: Despite the slick capers and the onscreen chemistry on show, there's a lot of time wasted on sequences that run too long, usually when Crown is at play, or at love. There's a sex scene in particular that goes on so long, it becomes gratuitous, and it's followed by an extended date/vacation that feels like they just sent the actors sight seeing and used all the footage. Onscreen, the characters, in a glider, soar. But the film itself sags all through the middle. Shame.

Doctor Who Titles: End of the World is a SyFy original about nerds like you and me (except not, I don't believe in their hobby for a second) surviving an apocalyptic event (as far as these things go, it's techno-babbly solar flare/EMP disaster) and trying to save the world using their obsessive knowledge of disaster movies. They're lucky, because movie logic dominates, while tight plotting does not. There are several instances of something being important until they're suddenly not, and the characters don't always seem to take things seriously enough, wasting time at the worst possible time, or if they're villains, being obstructionist for no reason. J.J. Abrams' BFF Greg Grunberg and Eureka's Neil Grayston pull off neither the required gravitas of the situation, nor the camp humor of the genre. Like every self-respecting B-movie, it nevertheless has a "big name" in Brad Dourif, and in B-movie fashion, he probably filmed all his bits in a day and a half. Oh well.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... Move over, video store losers, here comes someone with REAL experience. The EMP apocalypse will be taken care of.


Toby'c said...

I still prefer Jumanji to Zathura by a wide margin. Partly out of nostalgia - it was the fourth movie I ever saw in a cinema - but mostly because I just really don't like Danny and Walter.


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