This Week in Geek (15-21/11/20)


 "Accomplishments"

At home: After TNG and DS9, might as well continue with a daily dose of Star Trek actors, this time from Voyager, and featured in movies I haven't seen or reviewed yet...

 

When I saw Throw Momma from the Train in theaters back in 1987, my 16-year-old self didn't grab onto the overt Hitchcock references, as this is (and admits to being to) a comedy redress of Strangers on a Train. Billy Crystal is a frustrated writer who hates his ex-wife (Kate Mulgrew) and his dumbest community college student (Danny DeVito), who daydreams of murdering his abusive mother, gets it into his head to cross murders à la Hitchcock. Obviously, Crystal isn't really keen on killing anyone and never agreed to this. It might be a blacker comedy if the characters weren't so inept and the film treated as ultimately a lark, but a little too vicious and angry at times to really charm like it wants to. I do think people don't give DeVito enough credit for being a visual director. It's often quite subtle, but he'll throw visual gags in the background (like lead the camera to a random pig before revealing his own character, or cutting for the joke), and though he withholds the titular train for longer than seems credible, he offers images of trains wherever he can. And then someone gets hit with a frying pan. The tone could have done with a tweak, but still a pretty watchable movie from the era where Billy Crystal seemed to be in a perpetual midlife crisis.

 

Young Robert Beltran may be first billed on Night of the Comet, but it's really the two girls' movie (Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney) as teenage sisters who survive a comet that brings several kinds of apocalypse with it. In fact, I felt like the movie slowed down considerably once Beltran's character shows up and I didn't care about his subplot at all (and neither did the film, really). A subplot about survivalist egg heads is more interesting and becomes important, though it feels like each new threat just pushes the prior one out of the story, which at its worst, devolves into very stupid gun fights (somehow). My interest started out high, and dwindled as the movie went on. Its most famous ancestor is The Omega Man (though I like The World, the Flesh and the Devil in this category), and counts 28 Days Later among its descendants. Yet, it still feels like an oddity, in part because of its confused narrative, but being odd is a good thing, in my book. As a comedic take on this kind of story, it's all over the place, but not unentertaining.

 

Mortal Sins isn't the first time Christopher Reeve has worn the collar of a Catholic priest, but he wasn't a Father Brown wannabe in Monsignor, so this is completely different. His Father Tom takes confession from a serial killer targeting his parishioners, and spends the rest of the TV movie trying to solve the mystery of the man's identity to loophole the confessional's seal. There's an awful lot of rosary clutching about these so-called moral dilemmas, though what it mostly does is make the Catholic Church more concerned with rules than lives (well, maybe that's accurate, all things considered, said the lapsed Catholic). Reeve's Superman persona is in full effect, so we implicitly trust in his decency as he navigates various ethical quagmires (including a student who has a crush on him). Roxann Dawson-then-Biggs has a crucial role as an angry woman who's about to be cast as a Klingon. It's not an uninteresting mystery, with the Church a suitably intriguing setting for these events, though the climax is right out of the cliched thriller handbook.

 

Oh boy. Piñata: Survival Island (AKA Demon Island) had, on paper, some promise. Jamie Pressly and Buffy's Nicholas Brendon are nominally its stars, with Voyager's Garrett Wang getting an "and" credit, and the monster, an ancient demonic piñata, has a goofy charm, looking like a big terracotta Chucky. In execution, however... You know the drill, a bunch of obnoxious frat boys and sorority girls participate in a scavenger hunt on a deserted island, release a demon, and start dying at the hands of a monster that, once unleashed, changes modus operandi and looks a few times, at which point the awful CG effects run everything into the ground. Even so, one might wave bad fx away if it wasn't that the flick was so badly edited. The editor just doesn't know what's important! There are cuts inside the same shot, stupid inserts, murky demon attacks, important scenes left on the cutting room floor that makes the characters' lack of motivations even worse, and moments of clear padding, including an overlong prologue to explain the piñata's legend even if it comes up in dialog later. I also find it upsetting that the girl deaths are more sadistically gory than any of the dude bros'. But the movie's biggest sin, without a doubt, is having a piñata for a monster, and then not having the solution be to break it. In fact, the solution makes sense neither in real-world terms, nor based on the lore specific to the film.


Though it holds the promise of being a more comedy-minded version of Fantastic Voyage, Innerspace takes a good half-hour just to get going, during which you're meeting characters without really knowing why you are. Once Dennis Quaid's bionaut gets injected into Martin Short's ass, the biology seems more on point than in Fantastic Voyage, but his capsule's ability to affect the human system, especially but not singly because this "test mission" was supposed to be inside a rabbit, makes no sense. As a sci-fi adventure, it lets the comedy dictate what can and can't happen way too much. As a high concept entertainment, it isn't really interested in the wonders of being inside a human body, instead doing an arch James Bond shtick, with Short and Meg Ryan running from weird villains (Robert Picardo's Russian cowboy probably the most memorable). As a story, it's complete nonsense. And as a comedy, it's pretty unfunny, with broad, lame slapstick gumming up the works. The idea of Quaid acting as Short's inner voice and giving him the bravery he didn't have is interesting, and I could have done with a stricter marshaling of that theme. If this were a B-movie, I would probably be applauding how wacky it gets. But this is Amblin Entertainment. Someone really should have said something about structure, motivation and tone long before the cameras started rolling.


For a Michael Bay film, I thought The Island was pretty solid. Obviously, it looks slick, and the world-building at the front kept my interest long enough for me to want to follow Ewan McGregor's character through the obvious "rebellion from utopia/dystopia" brewing, and what seemed like mistakes (the laughably unsubtle product placement, for example), is eventually explained. With stories about a regimented society where you can win a ticket to the one uncontaminated "island", you know either the contamination will turn out to be fake, or the promised paradise is just a metaphor for death, or  both, so really, even if the script (or Bay) had been interested in actually digging deeper into the surface theme of the Top 1% vs. the bottom 99, it's not like that would have been very original. So let it all happen, and enjoy the crazy action scenes when they happen. If I give the film a higher score than I might have normally, it's because of the stars, all very watchable and making me believe in this reality - McGregor of course, Scarlett Johansson as his partner in rebellion, Sean Bean and Djimon Hounsou's heavies, Steve Buscemi as the Jo Blo ally, Ethan Phillips' conspiracy theorist, and Michael Clarke Duncan as the first "ticket winner" we see. It's shallow, but it looks cool, and has a better acting pedigree than required.

 

Down with Love is a crazy pastiche of '60s sex comedies - although a little more naughty than those - from the animated opening credits to the song at the end. In between, we get faux-Technicolor, split frame phone calls, zany gags, high camp, and the same knowing satire of social mores Mad Men would later make a meal out of, except played more overtly for laughs. Renée Zellweger has written a book that's going to liberate women, so Ewan McGregor's super-bachelor is going to make her fall in love with him to prove she's a sham, if he can avoid being seen with the various stewardesses he has on booty-call duty (the most substantial of which is a post-Voyager Jeri Ryan). It's all heading towards the hoariest of hoary twist (and then a few more), and by that point, you're either in for the long haul or you're not. Once you untangle the web of deceit, what the movie actually says is deeply wrong-headed, and it's completely valid to say it fails as a 2003 feature. However, as a parody of a 1962 film, it makes complete sense, and therefore is a winner. But it really depends on what you think the writers' heads are at. I've decided to say it's the latter and really enjoyed the retro look and feel of this unhinged romcom. Possibly a must for Sarah Paulson fans, as this is a fun pre-stardom role for her.

 

Is it me, or do Heath Ledger, Julia Styles and Joseph Gordon-Levitt look like they could be siblings? Something in the eyes and jawline. I dunno. Did I just ruin 10 Things I Hate About You for someone? This is the high school romcom that shows you can only adapt The Taming of the Shrew so far before its problematic aspects make you abandon ship and swim in another direction. 10 Things definitely uses the names(ish) and set-up of the play, and likes to reference Shakespeare whenever it can, making for a more literate script than most, but lovers of the Bard, waiting to see just how they'll handle certain scenes beyond that is a fool's game. You just can't have Ledger be as boorish or domineering as Petruchio, nor is Styles' Kat all that shrewish. It's mostly cute, with several romantic entanglements playing out for various characters, and a nice portrait of 1999 fashions, music, and casting. My favorite part by far is the dad played by Larry Miller who gets all the best comic bits of business as an obstetrician madly stressed about his two daughters getting pregnant.

 

Why is Netflix removing The Night Before five weeks before Christmas? Not a fan of "Hangover"-type movies, but I do like the three stars, so seeing it was my "last chance", I pressed Play on it. It's the story of three friends with a Christmas night hang-out born out of tragedy, but now they're older and for all but one of them, life has taken over and their friendship is in danger. Shenanigans ensue, some of which vaguely evoke A Christmas Carol or maybe It's a Wonderful Life and others, with plenty of fun cameos and fun performers in small roles as the three leads try to get to a secret party in New York which had been their Holy Grail. Michael Shannon's trash-guru and drug dealer is probably the highlight. I'm just not sure the movie knows what it wants to do. Though the Friendship with a capital F is obviously the theme, each character really DOES have their own shit going on, so this is a drug comedy/coming of middle age for Seth Rogan, a satire on sports celebrities for Anthony Mackie, and a romcom for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, taking place in a kind of parody of other Christmas movies. They decided to make a movie for the holidays and threw a bunch of gags together in what is a bit of a Frankenstein's Santa. Amusing nonsense that can be heartfelt at times, but doesn't really hang together very well.

 

Two young boys are sexually abused and have very different reactions to that trauma in Mysterious Skin, one becoming a teen prostitute (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the other blocking those memories and replacing them with a UFO experience (Brady Corbet). The twin narratives only eventually intersect, but what holds the film together is a sense of the fantastical, kids having re-framed their experience into something meaningful to them, whether that's disturbingly couched in happy memories of the events, or completely transformed into an alternate one. Both are escapes, and even the audience may get lulled into that security - I mean, I doubt there is a more beautiful film about pedophilia, and the beautification operated by the children's point of view is more shocking than the rougher, tougher parts of their adult lives. The film lets the job of judging the characters and what is or is not a result of trauma to the audience. It, itself, feels absolutely honest to the characters' perspective. Director Gregg Araki gives us something here that feels wholly original and thought-provoking.

 

Can you do a good comedy about cancer? 50/50 proves you can. Despite its topic, it's score like a comedy, cast like a comedy, and has comedy dialog and performances, but for Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character, it's all absolutely real and naturalistic, except perhaps the romcom tropes that inevitably crop up. Like a lot of Seth Rogen-generated material, at its core, it's about friendship, and this (or shades of this) happened to a real-life friend that inspired the film. Going into it without knowing the outcome creates real tension, by the way, so don't research it too much beforehand. The movie tugs at the heart strings, but never falls into melodrama, with Anna Kendrick turning in an at-once touching and amusing performance as a therapist in the early stages of her career. Gordon-Levitt is, as always, impeccable. And what a high-wire act. It could so easily choke you with heaviness, or be too glib about the disease, but no, I think they get it just right. Some tears, some laughs, just like real life.

 

A gorgeous-looking western, Jane Got a Gun is, on the surface, a simple enough base under siege story - indeed, Ewan McGregor isn't a very complicated, if monstrous, villain - but makes up for it with more complex character dynamics. Natalie Portman is Jane, whose outlaw husband is wounded and she must protect her family with the help of a reluctant gunslinger played by Joel Edgerton. He'll help because he's her former fiancé, but he's reluctant to do so for the same reason. Their story is told in flashback, adding layers to their relationship, and the awkward triangle it creates with the husband. There's an early call for the theme to be whether people can change for the better or worse, and that question is hopefully answered to the audience's satisfaction. And I like the line about letting the sun shine on stories other than the gunslinger's because I agree that there are plenty of other stories in the West (a female-led story like this one evoked Meek's Cutoff, for example). Question remains if the gunslinger's presence here actually allows the story to be something else. Not sure it does, though to me, it's all about Jane. If the film doesn't complete all its passes, its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.


Spielberg returned to Jurassic Park with The Lost World, which has some good-looking dinosaurs (both old and new) and makes good use of top-shelf animatronics to cement its reality. Jeff Goldblum also returns, with a new affable team you don't want to see get killed - in fact, he's probably the one hero character who normally WOULD die in a thing like this - including a daughter he suddenly seems to have (because the Jurassic Park formula requires kids in jeopardy). Different island, which gets discovered because Hammond's company didn't put buoys around it, and while the goodies try to snap pictures, big game hunters are trying to bag animals for a zoo or a wall. Spielberg knows how to fill a frame and create tension, which he sometimes extend beyond endurance here (the truck off the cliff bit lasts way too long, for example), but it's the script that really leaves a lot to be desired. There's no caring for the villains - is the big white hunter meant to be NOBLE at the end? It doesn't really work - big reveals are lame, and I really wish Julianne Moore's paleontologist would use a SHRED of scientific expertise to get out of problems instead of just doing the same action everyone does. Problems often generated by characters acting stupidly, I might add. And then after an anti-climactic ending, there's a brain dead fourth act that doesn't make any kind of sense (what ate the crew? what are those quiet suburbs next to the waterfront? why doesn't the kid care a dinosaur ate his dog?). I've gone on record saying the original J-Park dazzled you with fx so you didn't noting the huge plot holes. As this one plays out, we take the dinos for granted so there's no hiding the writing problems.


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