This Week in Geek (16-22/12/19)


We had our gift exchange this weekend and my friends are of course the best. Among the more geeky items, I got a Mothra shirt, Hawkeye and Star Trek related cups, geeky fridge magnets, and two used and rather rare in the wild role-playing games, i.e. the old FASA Star Trek game, and my much sought-after Skyrealms of Jorune!

In theaters: So I saw the new Star War and genuinely liked it about as much as I can like a Star War. You know me, I'm not the biggest fan, but I do like the third trilogy's cast (including the way the older characters are presented) and they finally get to work as a unit in The Rise of Skywalker, and it's even expressed in the film's theme. Now, I was afraid Abrams would break The Last Jedi's promises, and he did, but the pill went down more smoothly than I thought it would. He makes a liar out of the previous script, but doesn't jettison the meaning behind those now somewhat pointless revelations. In short, JJ will always play things too safe, and though there are sacrifices made, he always comes short of shocking. But while he definitely uses the Return of the Jedi template, I did not get the sense of deja vu The Force Awakens gave me. The plot is clunky, but not as clunky as Last Jedi's, and it does things we haven't half a dozen times in the franchise already. That's a plus. A few too many new characters, preventing everything from paying off, but I'm not that bothered. To my surprise, I quite liked Threepio in this, where I normally find him annoying. He gets all the good lines. It's no Endgame, though of course that's what it wants to be, or perhaps no Star War can resonate with that strongly, but it judged its fan service well (there was only one scene I thought really too cheesy to exist) and ended on exactly the right scene/moment/shot. All in all, The Rise of Skywalker had all the stuff I go to see these movies for: Strong spectacle, funny character moments, and lots of super-powered action. I wasn't bored or frustrated with it, and I'm going to give it the same score I did The Last Jedi (albeit for different reasons).

Jumanji The Next Level's first act is a little slow to start, but once the game gets going, it brings the same level (ha) of fun, laughs, heart and action-adventure as Welcome to the Jungle. More of what you liked the first time, plus new players, new avatars, new abilities, new creatures, new environments and a new quest. It's again pretty cleverly done, and while some of the new players are willfully obtuse in the beginning, which wears a bit thin, mostly the information recaps are handled with humor and efficiency. I thought the last trailer had spoiled way too much, but no, still quite a few surprises. Like its predecessor, it's about growing up, getting older, but now the kids are college age and, true to life, what they'd thought they'd figured out in 12th grade, they realize they hadn't in young adulthood. Life is a series of levels and every time you think you've won, it just sends you to something you're unprepared for. Danny DeVito and Danny Glover play the senior version of this, just as much the seekers in their post-retirement world. And this time, a sequel is teased much more overtly. If they keep making them this fun, I'll keep my appointment to the movie house.

If you've seen the Mr. Rogers documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood won't really tell you anything new about Fred Rogers. The story is really about the cynical investigative journalist who interviews him for Esquire magazine and how his life is changed by meeting a genuinely good person. The Lloyd Vogel of the film is a fictionalized version of Esquire's Tom Junod, with more extreme family problems to bring the drama in sharper focus. What's absolutely true to life is Mr. Rogers himself, brought to life by Tom Hanks with no small measure of subtlety, in particular a seething temper always kept under control. Director Marielle Heller recreates the children's program itself to create a soft video frame tale for the movie, presented by Mr. Rogers, and hokey model shots to build transitions and dream sequences. Personally, I found the Vogel story extremely relatable, and it pushed some buttons, but Rogers' amazing grace had the effect it did in the documentary - I wept for long periods and being in a crowded movie theater, had to keep from noisily bawling a couple of times. There are some astonishing moments of humanity in this. Not a dry eye in the house. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

At home: Klaus is a very charming animated take on Santa Claus' human origins, with just the right whiff of the supernatural to fit the Christmas legend, its addition a lazy postal worker sent to an isolated northern island where he must insure a large number of letters in a year. His partnership with a reclusive toymaker takes us in a direction you can well imagine. The little town is initially better suited to the Addams Family or a Tim Burton cartoon than a Christmas story, but it has a "character arc" as much as the postman and Mr. Klaus. It's its own character and I liked living there for the span of the run time. The film speaks to the communal power of Christmas and replaces the lead's selfishness with the proper spirit. There's a lot of cartoon comedy, but the ending is quite touching too. And it looks quite nice, a hybrid of 2D and 3D animation, highly designed and beautifully lit. There are a lot of Santa movies, but this one brings a fun, fresh perspective to it.

If you're a fan of Deep Space Nine, What We Left Behind is the big reunion tour and you will weep. If you're a Trekkie who at least watched it, but it didn't necessarily turn your crank, the documentary will at least tell you why you should give it another chance. If you've never watched DS9, it's gonna be a massive spoiler and you probably won't get it. I am in that first category, and whatever weaknesses the doc has - producer Steven Ira Behr as host/interviewer can be awkward, it can be uneven, etc. - I easily dismiss because there's so much there that's of value. After all, if you're me and you've seen the show several times, read the companion books, and watched all the DVD extras, you gotta put in extra effort to tell me something I don't know. What We Left Behind isn't content with talking heads (though of course, there are those) and goes for humor (the songs, the end credits stuff) and what I would call "stunts", in particular getting the writers room together again to imagine the first episode of a Season 8 that could be made today. There's a self-pitying tone early on which rang false to me because I was in at least three households that bleedin' LOVED Deep Space Nine, so it never seemed to be the unloved "middle child" of Star Trek to me. But I guess it was never embraced by the public in the same way as TNG, and the doc tries to set the record straight about the show's impact, while also looking in the mirror at its shortcomings. Unlike a DVD extra put out by Paramount, it's allowed to question studio decisions, mention disagreements on set, and read angry fanboy letters of the day. Behr is passionate about his old show, by turns bitter and bemused about its reception, but also quite honest about the experience. Watching it at this point was all the more emotional given the recent losses of Aron Eisenberg and René Auberjonois, who seem to go out of their way to say something tragically prescient, arrgh! The DVD includes lots of bits taken out of the film, several are pretty fun, but I don't think we miss them. There's also a discussion on how difficult making 20 minutes of DS9 clips HD was (but they indeed do look great, I'm gonna sob when I watch the show in SD again), a photoshoot put to music, and an intro from Ira.

Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries uses a road trip to an old man's home town as a time travel story, where old Isak Borg is physically overtaken by memories, sometimes participating, sometimes observing, and though I say memories, sometimes they are complete imaginings of moments important to his life where he was not present. In such moments, the people he loves are idealized, and those he does not are demonized or caricatured. And when we're in the past, there's a kind of formalism to the shots that you'd associate with Hollywood, a clever way to present nostalgia's rosy lens. The film suggests that all memory is fabrication, a story we tell ourselves, that's been rewritten, edited, maybe even recast. Bibi Andersson plays a flighty girl in the present day who just happens to be a dead ringer for Borg's love-that-got-away - they've even got the same name - and though technically one doesn't inform the other in terms of sequence, we might infer the Sara of decades ago only looks like that because today's Sara reminds Borg of her. And so it goes in a film where we're shown dreams and memories as they impact the present. There's something intriguing about the notion of what we nowadays jokingly call revertigo being a positive force. Borg reconnects with his past and through the power of nostalgia, becomes more empathetic of the people around him, and a better person as the film progresses.

A pre-code vehicle for William Powell, Lawyer Man has Powell and Joan Blondell going for it, but is otherwise a disappointment. I mean, who makes a court room drama with no court room action? Like the drunk hobo in the movie, we're always in the court house, but not really in the court ROOM. Though romance is part of the film's DNA, nothing really comes of it - Blondell remains the long-suffering secretary, the fatale-ish dame has other plans, etc. - in favor of a rise and fall and rise of a principled lawyer seeing his faith betrayed by the system turning himself to dirty tactics, and... Well, at 72 minutes, it's so pacey, it felt like you couldn't track the evolution of the character. It certainly didn't help that every important female character of the film seemed to be taking fashion tips from Blondell. I had a hard time telling them apart (I now understand you, my face-blind friends!). So there's charm and humor and chutzpah, because the two leads are full of that good stuff. But they're ill-served by this freight train of a plot.

Been missing The Creature from the Black Lagoon for years every time I might have caught it, so I was kind of scared to be disappointed with it. I'm not. It's totally deserving of its reputation. The underwater shooting alone! Ricou Browning, as the swimming version of the monster is quite amazing, and director Jack Arnold is excellent at creating a geography for what is in many ways a tospy-turvy world. As for the human cast, they're mostly macho jerks, so good thing Julie Adams is there are fellow scientist who doesn't get the credit she deserves. She has a nice girl next door quality, very natural, and so iconic, I've seen her reaction to the monster paid homage to all over the place. Some say the monster is unusually shown compassion, but the scientists disrupt its ecosystem and if they don't want it dead, it's because they want to study him in captivity. So I'm totally on his side. In fact, the most horrific moments are when HE'S under threat. That oil lamp blast is just about the most shocking thing I remember seeing in a Universal monster film.

I broke my rule against watching Roland Emmerich movies with 1998's Godzilla, a film I do not believe I'd ever managed to get through before. And boy, it was worse than I remembered/imagined. Let's get the whole "that's not Godzilla" conversation out of the way first. I would not mind a redesign (this one is a mutated iguana) if it still acted like Godzilla, or played Godzilla's iconic role. It doesn't. It's the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, running after individual humans, and its babies are ineffectual velociraptors (I mean, they snap at people but never bite them because... no reason or impediment). Emmerich has no CLUE what Godzilla is about. For him, it's an excuse for his trademark destruction porn, and yet, the military destroys more landmarks than the monster ever does. Plot holes abound in this thing, and Godzilla uses it to get from point A to point B instead of sensical geography. He's spawned in the Pacific, but shows up in New York. He's Batman, able to double back behind helicopters and hide in plain sight and no one ever notices. In fact, they keep losing this monster that's as big as a building in New York's sewers and subway system. It's just dumb as rocks. Maybe worm expert Matthew Broderick can explain; he's got a good handle on crypto-lizard behavior too. There's really no caring for the character subplots, boring, cliché-laden, screaming cartoons, some very badly acted indeed (Vicki Lewis is an early offender). There's an extended revenge riff against Siskel and Ebert, likely for their having panned earlier films, and along with YET ANOTHER instance of throwing the French under the bus (like in ID4), it makes me think Emmerich is a vindictive director indeed. Tonally, this boring, over-long turd also gets low marks, with uplifting "wonderment" music over images that should inspire terror, and making Godzilla look pitiful in its death throes before everyone starts cheering its demise. It feels sadistic, but of course, there's no intent behind it. Emmerich has no control over his intent, beyond spectacle. And that brings us to the CG. Wow. 1998 was too early for a full-CG creature to rampage in New York during a rain storm. It's awful even for its time, with low integration of live action and visual effects. It's a long 130 minutes to get to the only good thing about this flick - Puff Daddy's "Come with Me" track. But I can find that on its own somewhere, right?

If Godzilla 1998 failed with its CG monsters, the Japanese response, Godzilla 2000: Millennium, goes for a CG/practical hybrid. The CG is even worse than in the American film, but there's a lot less of it as the ropy CG UFO turns into Orga, a good old suit-monster in the climax. Millennium marks another reboot for Toho's kaiju star, this time without more than a passing reference at an origin. The 1954 film happened, Japan is on alert, everyone knows who he is, just move on. Efficient, but it's still a little jarring. The monster redesign is gnarly (those dorsal fins!), but where the effects and story aim for realism, I find his face to be a bit too muppety to be believable. I was reminded of that evil rat in Return of the Jedi, or a Ninja Turtle or something. With everything I've seen, I think I can safely call the Heisei Godzilla the best of his designs. Millennium does have some unusually good human characters, a dad and daughter combo running after (or away from) the big GZ in a van, and a no-nonsense anti-GZ officer especially. They all get into well-choreographed danger and I felt like watching them more than I did the giant monster action. That's a rare thing for the franchise. Unfortunately, the kaiju stuff doesn't quite hold the same interest and feels a little fake and slow. Trying to make sense of it, the human characters spout some pretentious hogwash at the end, but I don't really buy it. An inauspicious beginning for the Millennium era; only way to go is up!

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus has perhaps the stupidest dialog of any Godzilla movie, ever, and that's saying something. If only it were its only problem. Shot on what looks like video, with terrible effects (it's not just the CG either) and hard plastic monsters, it just looks terrible and amateurish. Does it even fit the Millennium timeline established in the previous film? Godzilla 2000 seemed to go out of its way not to give GZ an origin. GvM starts with a fun little news feature on the history of Godzilla, and I'm not sure it actually connects with Millennium. It's the best part of the movie. All downhill from there, even if the premise is insane, and I like my Godzilla premises to escape from the nuthouse. See, they're going to kill Godzilla with a canon that shoots black holes in this one (yep), but the weapons test revives a bug monster from prehistory (that this kid and this one old dude seem to know all about, which is dumb) and maybe that'll interfere with their plans. Cue one or two of the worse-shot battles in GZ history, though I'll give them props for creating a monster with an interesting life cycle. But the writing is atrocious. Gotta be one of the worst live action (see what I did there?) Japanese (and what I did here?) Godzilla movies of all time.

1962 is a little early for Ishirō Honda to start thinking "what haven't we done yet?" and coming up with a giant walrus, but wisely, it only appears as a third act complication. He's not Gorath. Gorath is a rogue star that's headed for Earth, and black-hole style, is sucking everything up in its gravity well. The solution is obviously to put thrusters in the Earth's antarctic ass so it can dodge the oncoming threat. And if it awakens a giant monster, well... Like a lot of Honda films, it's got a lot of meetings between scientists, and is rather procedural about its near-future (but too ambitious) space program. There's also an amnesia subplot in there that could easily be jettisoned. Some cool pay-offs, but it's a little dry. Before Armageddon and Deep Impact, Toho dared dream bigger, and it's hard not to smile at the film's scientific triumphalism and belief that the United Nations would indeed unite Earth. And I mean, it's got a kaiju seal. I'm not made of ice.

Based on a novella by Stephen King, The Mist today gives us some strong Cloverfield vibes, and though that franchise's sequels are a patchwork, they still feel like they were partly inspired by this film. There are plenty of monsters, as an ecosystem anathema to our own comes rolling into a small New England town, but the biggest is still Man. Trapped in a supermarket under siege, the large cast is always on the verge of splitting into factions and turning on its itself. Of particular interest is Marcia Gay Harden's religious zealot who, in a horror flick, might be making real points, even if clues point to a science-fiction explanation for what's happening. I really loved it as a tense survival film, filled with characters who are unequipped for these circumstances and keep making mistakes. The wrong decisions lead to tragedy, but something as simple as slipping on something as you try to swat a giant fly might create terrible consequences. Some of the monster effects are on the gooey CG side, but the story is too strong for it to matter much, and besides, the interaction with the live action elements is well done. It's really bleak though, perhaps even too bleak for its own good. But can't deny it packs a punch.

Rebirth of Mothra II was, more me, a net improvement on the previous film. It's still a kids' movie, with ropy green screen (but far less of it), cutesy creatures (including one that has magic healing pee), and silly slapstick. But no dubiously competent parents, and Aki Hano's performance as the "bad fairy" Belvera is so reigned in that I thought they'd swapped out the actress. In this one, the eco-fable moves to the ocean for some pretty neat underwater action for our girl Mothra. The final battle is particularly insane, and you won't believe where it actually takes place. The kids get to be adventurous, but also compassionate, as they tangle with unscrupulous critter hunters on their quest to find a treasure inside the newly-risen lost city of Mu, the civilization that originally created Mothra's opponent. The city benefits from a fun Aztec-inspired design, and I generally like the children's take on an Indiana Jones adventure. So yeah, for a kids story that kept me engaged, and some very cool battle sequences, I'm gonna go ahead and say I liked 2 better than 1.

Grabbers is a fun creature feature set on an Irish isle beset by tentacled monstrosities from space, with Coupling's Richard Coyle an affable, damaged lead who must try to stem the tide while mostly being drunk. It many ways, it's a bargain basement Edgar Wright movie, most similar in content to The World's End (which came out a year later!), though of course, not as accomplished. And yet, it's still a lot of fun and plays its beats for comedy. And if you have to fight an alien invasion while piss drunk, you might need both movies (the threat is completely different). It has a strong sense of place, but could also happen in any small sea-side town, I'm taking notes, I am. You don't live in a fishing village? Add Attack the Block to your marathon. The Grabbers are cool and their biology is well thought-out, but the film is driven by its characters and hangs on their insane plan to keep the small town out of harm's way during the attack (just don't ask where the kids are, that's just too big a plot hole for me to fill right now. Ed.: Ok, somebody pointed out you see them leave the island at the top of the show, crisis averted). A nice little modern B-movie for your collection.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize
Recently, I've found myself bailing out of Peter Sellers films. There is a point where I just cannot stand his pathetic slapstick characters. Perhaps if I knew more about the man, it might rekindle my interest? The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is not to film to do that, let me tell ya. What a dreary, depressing biopic. It's practically a hit job. I'm not saying it's wrong about Sellers, but he had a certain kindness in his eyes that I don't think Geoffrey Rush brings to the fore. At its most positive, the performance is lunatic; for the most part, his Sellers is a terrible human being. Normally, a biopic that uses the artist's idiom and goes into flights of fancy would be my thing. Here, there are lots of bells and whistles, like Sellers/Rush usurping roles from other actors to speak to camera with the words he might have wanted them to say(?) and moments where film and reality merge. I just don't buy the film's point about Sellers sacrificing his own personality/maturity for the sake of his characters, and once that fails, the tricks lose their appeal. With a great cast (Rush, Lithgow, Theron, Emily Watson, Stephen Fry and more, all fully engaged in the material, I wish I could like this more, but I found myself disliking the real Sellers more and more. So you won't catch me doing a Pink Panther marathon anytime soon. If you're a Sellers fan, maybe you shouldn't watch this. And if you're not, why would you want to?

In 2005, Keanu Reeves lent his simmering intensity to the role of Narcissus in a short art film called "Echo", so it's really about the nymph who fell in love with Narcissus and withered away until she was only a voice repeating what you say. Even if you're aware of Ovid's story from The Metamorphoses, and I am, I'm not sure what the film is doing most of the time. Can you really tell the story of Echo WITHOUT dialog? The whole point is that she's a chatterbox later cursed by Hera to become a parrot, and her failure to communicate with Narcissus leads to tragedy. I recognize some images from the story translated into art house imagery, but for the most part, it's just an oddity on YouTube, that happens to surprisingly co-star Keanu at one of the heights of his popularity. He's not miscast, to be sure, but he's also not in it much. Too artsy for its own good, this one.

I loved Waking Life and its experimental animation style, so when Richard Linklater decided to do another film in that style, I was up for it. Where Waking Life had an anecdote about Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly adapts one of his books wholesale. It's not its most "out there" in terms of science fiction, but as the card at the end will attest, it's one of his most personal ones. Keanu Reeves stars as an undercover cop who's so undercover he has trouble distinguishing between himself and his suspect, his identity slowly fragmenting thanks to the drugs he's been taking as part of his cover. We're on the trip with him thanks to the animation which, while not as gooey as Waking Life's could be, is still dream-like and slightly askew. A number of well-known faces inhabit this world, including a very twitchy (and hilarious) Robert Downey Jr., idiosyncratic to a fault. The movie may be worth it just for him. In the end, it's Dick, so there's a big juicy twist at the end, but the scenes leading up to it have a better metaphorical grounding in what's happening to Reeves' character than strict plot necessity, which puts A Scanner Darkly ahead of many of his stories. It may seem at times like it doesn't know where it's going, but it definitely does.


Brendoon said...

Thanks Siskoid, another good batch of reviews. The "Another Good Day" review was particularly enticing I can imagine Tom Hanks doing this particularly well. The Star Wars review sounds like what I'd expect from a SW film, a much more balanced review than from the bitter-fan-with-expectations reviews that seem to rise to the top.

Andrew said...

The key to enjoying 1998's Godzilla is to watch it with the Rifftrax commentary. But it's hard to think of a movie that might not be improved with Rifftrax.

John said...

If you haven't read Ebert's review of the 1998 GODZILLA, it's worth your time. Some really good zingers, and as anyone except Roland Emmerich might have guessed, he was pretty pleased to have inspired a character in a Godzilla movie.

Siskoid said...

So he did catch it! Awesome.


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