This Week in Geek (2-08/07/18)


I re-upped on Godzilla shirts this week, cuz you can never have too many. I have four right now, and I probably could do with more. And well, the date of my birth passed by and some friends did get me a couple gifts, as people do when they are bound by friendship. Art-Girl got me the second volume of the Lone Wolf & Cub manga and MADE me a d20 key chain (help me convince her to get an etsy or whatever people get when they're good with their hands), and a pie, that's right, a pie with my handle on it.
Nath gave me a bundle of Quebec romance "novels" from the 40s, quotation marks because they're each about 30 pages. We share an interest in vintage books, but is this supposed to get me working on the Lonely Hearts podcast again? And Amelie made that Picard/Troi cake from our episode of Gimme That Star Trek again. Scrumptious of course.


In theaters: Upgrade is on the face of it a cyberpunk techno-thiller, but gets into vigilante territory fast enough that I might call it an oddball superhero movie instead. Whatever its DNA, it stars Tom Hardy lookalike Logan Marshall-Green as a man who must deal with a confrontation with criminals that leaves his wife dead and himself a quadriplegic. This is the future, so he's offered a cure, a chip that will restore his mobility so he can hunt down the perpetrators. Of course, the chip may have ideas of its own. I wouldn't say Upgrade was predictable, because it has several twists beyond those I easily guessed at, but that doesn't really mitigate the feeling that it feels predictable. That said, its take on violence is gory, but also interestingly shot to fit the situation. It doesn't look or feel like what we've seen before. Most reviewers I've read have compared it to a Black Mirror episode, and I can't argue with that. That's totally what this is. And there are better Black Mirrors, but also some that are not as good. Let that be your guide if it helps.

At home: Mindhorn is the name of a (fictional) high-concept British cop show from the 80s, set on the rather rural Isle of Man. 25 years after its heyday, its down-on-his-luck lead actor is called in by the Isle of Man police because a deranged alleged murderer will only talk to Mindhorn! An amusing retro premise that fulfills its mandate reasonably well, with the pathetic lead properly deluded about his talent, or at least projecting it, and his hard man persona good for some chuckles as well (more Sledge Hammer than Life on Mars, let's say). As the film goes on, the actor's and the character's lives mesh and become one, until it's possible to actually evoke Mindhorn. It's fun, and not violent or gory the way other retro stuff like this tends to be. And good use of location. The plot won't astound anyone, but it shines in its more ridiculous and deadpan moments. Plus, good cameos and an original song. I was into it.

The Eagle Huntress is a documentary that follows a 13-year-old Kazakh girl from Mongolia called Aisholpan on her journey to become the first female eagle huntress in her region. This is a tradition going back generations, a patriarchal one, and the film is more or less divided into three sections - her capture and training of an eaglet, her participation in a festival competition, and an actual mountain hunt under grueling conditions. From the first scene, in which a different hunter releases his animal after its allowed years of service, something gripped me. While the film glosses over a lot to shape it into an underdog narrative, and has over-obvious music, there's something incredibly poignant about it. A combination of Aisholpan's natural, easy relationship with this wild animal, and her family's unwavering support, I think. Whether you're looking at the feminist aspect, the sports movie second act, or the tense survival tale in the third, there's a sweetness about The Eagle Huntress, and for the fain of heart, mercifully little animal violence. It might have been a stronger documentary if we'd seen more eagle-on-fox action, or Aisholpan struggling with her bird in training (it seems a little easy), but it would not have made it a better family film. It strikes the right note for its message by avoiding anything too distressing (if indeed, anything like that was shot).

There is no doubt in my mind that Run Silent Run Deep's DNA is all over the later, best-remembered submarine movies. So on the basis of film history alone, it's worth watching. In practice, I did find it a little old-fashioned in the beginning, but it certainly went to exciting places by the end, both in terms of its "based on a true story" plot and pretty good model effects. On screen and off, this is a battle of wills between two leaders. Burt Lancaster plays the young commander who was just passed over to make room for Clark Gable's older man out to avenge his previous sub, sunken by a Japanese destroyer. In real life, the two actors clashed probably more than their characters (Lancaster was also producer), and Gable, here near the end of his career and indeed life, apparently resented his character being put out of commission at a crucial point in the film. As you watch the drama unfold, it's difficult not to see real life intrude, but it gives the action another layer, and that's for the better. The movie also does a good job with verisimilitude, with cramped sets and a cast trained to be submariners to make it look authentic.

Das Boot (The Boat, in German) is surely the gold standard of submarine movies. Where other films might show you what it's like to be on a submarine (or U-boat, same difference), Das Boot goes further and makes you feel like you're THERE. The way the camera glides from compartment to compartment, it never lets you forget the environment's claustrophobia, and the character of a war correspondent helps the procedural come alive and make sense, but also makes it very personal. We get to know the submariners well enough that we care what happens to them, especially as the film moves from war film to disaster movie in the third act. Not until the end do we find out if this is to be a story of triumph or tragedy, though we hope for the former and dread the latter throughout. Das Boot is on the long side, and structurally, features two distinct missions (which does work as a dichotomy and pushed the docu-drama part of it), but it does a lot more than you'd expect even with that running time. It's claim to the title of best submarine movie ever made seems secure.

1951's Cry Danger does not revolutionize the film noir genre with its plot - a man who was framed for a crime gets out of prison and tries to get the true culprits - but it distinguished itself through its humor. Dick Powell, in the lead, puts his dry delivery to its best use, rapid-firing snappy remarks that sting as much as zing. He takes everything with a sort of "of course", but is never defeated. Life is against him, he knows that's just par for the course. And he's not carrying the film alone. The trailer park setting with its unreliable proprietor, the drunk sidekick and his pickpocketing girlfriend... There's a lot of humor to be had there too. But it's not entirely without noir viciousness either, and some scenes pack a necessary punch. I feel like noir stories today are more like this than films from the 40s, though Cry Danger is unlikely to get any credit for it. Given its sometimes limited availability over the years, I'm not gonna cry foul, but it's a fun watch.

If you liked Now You See Me, you'll probably like its sequel. If you thought it was on the wrong side of suspension of disbelief, NYSM 2 crosses further into that eye-rolling territory. On the face of it, I would rather a heist movie that stars stage magicians used more believable stage craft. As presented, the NYSM universe is frequently silly. The sequel enjoys itself, but perhaps a little too much, its more amusing or exciting scenes last wayyyy too long (the card hand-off is a prime example), though it can't be accused of not giving the characters from the previous film lots of stuff to do (except for Isla Fisher who is replaced by the annoying Lizzy Caplan playing, what, Kat Denning?). Daniel Radcliffe is a fun, but underutilized villain in this as well. Sadly, the film goes off the rails at the end as the bad guys just stand there and take it, and then we get twist reveal upon twist reveal going back to things from the first film. I don't know about you, but this whole "Eye" business is one of the most half-assed and unnecessary pieces of world building I've seen in movies, so anything related to it makes my eyes gloss over. I'm afraid we've sunk below "dumb fun" with this one, but with tighter direction, it might have seemed almost clever.

I was drawn to The Infiltrator because of Bryan Cranston and John Leguizamo, but as with any biopic/true story movie, I have to brace myself. I tend to find them informative at best, haphazard at worse; it's rather rare that the writer and director successfully turn true events into a movie that works as ITSELF. Especially if it's going to take place over a space of time. In this one, a Federal agent infiltrates the Colombian drug cartels on the money laundering side of things. There are the usual undercover near misses, and schemes you won't believe happen but sure they did. Haphazard and meandering? Somewhat, but not egregiously so. Cranston is given a good acting showcase by also focusing on his marriage which is in its own jeopardy because of his job. It gets to the personal issues of the work and doesn't stick to the purely procedural. And it does get a couple points for style, the 80s-ness of it. Better than average, and on par with American Made, a similar (though more charming) biopic about the same topic (indeed, its lead crosses threads with this one's).

So we're looking for something dumb to watch on Netflix. We hit upon The Vault, which is described as "a bank robbery goes wrong because the thieves didn't account for the vault to be haunted" and James Franco is in it, probably for, like, 5 minutes. I say "why haven't you pressed play already?!" and we're off. The result of that wonderful premise is a mixed bag, mostly because it sets up a family drama between the robbers that it only confusingly explores, and hits the reveals a little too hard (we're usually several steps ahead of the characters), but it does the job. It's got a good heist goes wrong fiasco vibe going in the front part, and the ghost story features some sometimes unsettling imagery. It respects its own rules, and does the best it can with its limited budget. It does have lulls, but that's useful for hollering stuff at the TV. This is definitely that kind of movie. And Franco? He's in it a lot, but you can tell he spent the weekend filming reaction shots. Like that one song they paid for, the film makers didn't waste what they had. (And regardless, the movie really belongs to its actual leads, Taryn Manning and Francesca Eastwood, who remain watchable anchors.



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