This Week in Geek (22-28/11/20)


Working on something special made me realize Niven and Barnes came out with a FOURTH Dream Park novel in 2011, so I grabbed it (The Moon Maze Game). Meanwhile, I went and won a Han Solo print by the Yard Sale Artist himself, Jarrod Alberich, of the Action Film Faceoff Podcast; I'm surprised at how quickly it came through the mails.


At home: Judging from its viewing numbers, The Queen's Gambit is really good at making high-level chess at least emotionally understandable, and even though I once played chess regularly (until a nasty incident where a sore loser pile-drived me into the floor - true story), the strategies went well over my head. But it's essentially a sports movie in 7 episodes, and I don't know anything about sports either. Point is, once Anya Taylor-Joy's character starts going to tournaments, it gets quite addictive, and I especially like the subtlety of the psych-outs - what you could call the metaphorical chess game between the players - and how they never hang a sign on them. Your suspicion is the character's. Less subtle is the whole back story and how it becomes part of her cycle of addiction, and cared very little for this melodramatic element. Just stuff I've seen a hundred times in rock star narratives. If you know how a sports movie works, you can basically predict which matches will be won or lost - at least, before the final one - but that doesn't take away from the enjoyment. It's really about passion, discipline and obsession, has a nice sense of place and time (including a strong women's lib vibe that suits the '60s), and is very well played and shot thanks. Almost makes me want to get the ol' board out.

Johnnie To in some ways reinvents himself for Mainland China in Drug War, finding ways to use its different realities - rules and locations - to his advantage. It's perhaps less poetic than some of his other work, and more down-the-line in terms of morality, but I still recognize his style in the proceduralism he's brought to the occasional film, and in the way he stages his action in the most unusual places. Sun Honglei is an unflappable police captain and undercover work expert in an uneasy alliance with a drug manufacturer (Louis Koo) desperate to get his sentence reduced from the death penalty by helping him sting the rest of the operation. To creates a riveting procedural with suspenseful undercover moments, and cuts the pure stuff with high-octane action only later on, right into a deliciously ruthless climax no one saw coming. Ruthless is perhaps the word to describe the entire film. The characters are ruthless (on both sides), but the director is also ruthless with them and the subject matter.

Might as well complete the set and this week find movies I haven't seen featuring Star Trek: Enterprise actors, one a day...

As Clive Barker's attempt at supernatural Noir, Lord of Illusions has some merit. The convoluted plot, Famke Janssen as a presumptive femme fatale, and his recurring noir detective Harry D'Amour as active observer are all part of the genre, and there's pleasant enough friction between it and the crazy horror stuff. I'm always up for multi-genre. If it doesn't quite work, it's more because Barker is trying to write a novel for the screen - I had the same feeling about Nightbreed - despite the fact that it was loosely based on one of his short stories. There's just TOO MUCH to absorb and not all of it pays off. D'Amour's back story about an exorcism tells us this world is at an odd angle from ours, but plays it as tabloid nonsense and practically pointless one-frame flashbacks. In retrospect, it was probably trying to push for a D'Amour franchise, but over time, you get lost in the details. You could say it's kind of like The Maltese Falcon or its parody The Big Lebowski, but the film-making craft isn't on the same level (except in terms of gore effects). Obviously, there's a lot of imagination on the screen, things you've never seen before, etc. When the third act kicks in, it REALLY kicks in, and one CG skeleton excepted, that's really where the film gets exciting, both in terms of story (which before was at best intriguing) and spectacle. I do unfortunately feel that Scott Bakula was miscast however. His D'Amour isn't edgy, damaged or mysterious enough to really engage the way he's meant to.

People really don't like Sex Tape, huh? As a second-act sex comedy, I thought it was a fun, light entertainment, that actually managed a couple of strong laughs for me. I resent how it's really a picaresque, not so much building towards something as offering various episodes on the same quest, and by the end, coming to a resolution that wasn't gradual, but instead sudden, and low stakes at that. BUT! It has a fun relationship to explore between the leads (reminded me of Neighbors). It has a lot of amusing guest stars, including Jack Black and Jolene Blalock as porn gangstas dispensing porn wisdom. It has lots ass shots and side-boob, but doesn't feel immature to me, as there's something frank and sex-positive about the whole affair. Now, does it really understand how computers and the internet work? No, it's really goofy in that sense. And that internet porn site is surprisingly local. But buy the premise, and you buy the bit. Which is ultimately what a lot of the negative criticism is about. If you get distracted with how silly the situation is, you're likely to be annoyed more than anything. I simply didn't care, and had a lot of fun with it. To me, it was funny, warm, and full of people I wanted to watch.

Between the nonsense title and the kind of creepy DVD cover, Prey for Death looks to be a western/horror hybrid, but it's not. Connor Trinneer, looking more like the video game idea of a gunslinger than the real thing, plays a man soon to be hanged after his righteous murder of the men who killed his wife, given a second chance at life by a rich baron who wants to hunt the deadliest game of all and is looking to add a Wild West outlaw to his collection. Director Rene Perez has more than half a dozen credits behind the scenes, and several family names recur so you know this is a small production, which nonetheless is filmed in spectacular locations. Unfortunately, everything takes a little too long, padding making up for the very basic plot. The scene where the hunter decides to take a break to look at the scenery is as good an encapsulation of the film as any. Only Trinneer, and in her few scenes Nadia Lanfranconi, have any acting ability. Co-writer Robert Koroluck is a great big ham as the unconvincingly-British hunter and there's a lot of him, but the rest are more wooden than the frontier town. I didn't hate it, but my mind did wander in parts.

I don't think Robert Zemeckis's Polar Express is great to look at, but I wonder who his similarly animated Beowulf is FOR. It's too ugly and violent for the kids who might be drawn to animation whatever the quality, and most adults will resent walking the uncanny valley in which this takes place, so... video gamers who really really really enjoy cut scenes? It's really hard to get over the CG puppets, only vaguely resembling the voice actors, with their dead eyes. It certainly doesn't help that Beowulf isn't a guy you really root for, as he's just as much a monster as Grendel and his mom. But let's say we accept the look of the thing, is it a good story? Well, I certainly appreciate how close script writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery are threading to the myth, making more Viking Saga than Hollywood, and there are several exciting action set pieces. But with an effects spectacular, you really need a bit of that Hollywood manipulation, you know? As is, the characters feel archetypal, but not human. And lacking a truly human performance robs them of what spark the actors could have given them. (For the purposes of this Trek-watch, I should also mention that Dominic Keating has a smattering of lines as John Malkovich's slave.)

Leprechaun in the Hood, the 5th in the series, has a struggling rap group fronted by Anthony Montgomery steal the Leprechaun's pot of gold from gangsta agent played by Ice-T, releasing the Irish demon for more mayhem. Sometimes, the movie pulls gags that would have sat comfortably in Naked Gun, but only sometimes, the goofiness dissonant rather than funny. Absolute coherence is also missing. I was mildly entertained here and there, but there's a LOT of tedious faux-rap - and since the Leprechaun irritatingly rhymes all his lines, you just KNOW he's gonna rap eventually... and it's about as bad as you think - and an ugly, thoughtless transphobic streak. Better, perhaps, are the more absurd elements, like the lecherous preacher, Lep's zombie chicks, and getting high on four-leaf clover. As in Enterprise, Montgomery radiates decency, and the movie uses it. His acting here is generally well above the level required, and it's what ultimately makes the weird climax work.

Who thought it was a good idea to make Jurassic Park III so desaturated and low contrast? We're running through lush jungles and everything looks sandy brown. In a franchise that trades on the wonder of seeing photo-real dinosaurs, I must say that is a spectacular mistake, and saps all the excitement out. The dinosaurs look matte and lifeless, and the action scenes murky. At least Sam Neill is back in this one, and in an unfortunately small role, so is Laura Dern. A couple rope Dr. Grant into going to the second island to find their young stranded son (I'm telling you, BUOYS!!!) and what follows is kind of the same old routine with a bigger predator and smarter raptors. All these films, though billed as creature features, are really disaster films, and that comes with a certain formula, though in this case, greed only seems to be a major driving force, but really isn't. That's something. Still, I find it particularly ridiculous that on the one hand, the film agrees that dinosaurs aren't LIKE that because Hammond generically engineered "iconic dinosaurs", not the real thing, but also makes Grant seriously theorize that velociraptors were well on their way to sentience when the asteroid struck. In this one, they have a LANGUAGE. So yeah. Much could have been forgiven if Linda Park had had more than one line. Alas.

David Prior's AM1200 is a 40-minute Lovecraftian horror story in which a man (not John Billingsley) drives through the desert after the death of a co-worker (not John Billingsley) until he hears a strange and desperate call for help (from, yes, John Billingsley) on the radio. What follows is an efficient cinematic study in eerie silences and a story of hellish transmissions, that yes, feels of a piece of Lovecraft's oeuvre. I have yet to decide if the "monster" wasn't scarier when we didn't see it, but it's a cool visual, so I think it's fine, especially considering the film nevertheless doesn't give up all its secrets. Beyond the creepy supernatural trap shown, this is really about anxiety - the lead character's, the audiences, the whole mood of the thing. It's too Twilight Zone or Outer Limits to really be expanded to a full feature, so I'm glad it didn't try to double its length. I've seen some small SF tales like this one force themselves into a larger shape and just come off as insubstantial. AM1200 packs a nice punch at its length.

I think we're a little beyond calling out Top Gun's accidental-ish homoeroticism, but it should be noted that I (re)watched this (for the first time since the 80s) with a group of people, some of whom had never seen it, and without prompting, that was their immediate assessment. Thankfully, the LGBTQ+ community has its own narratives now and doesn't have to depend on homosocial environment narratives to find their due. Especially if that's going to be Top Gun, a massive hit in its day, but really kind of ordinary from today's perspective. Great stars, Tony Scott's glistening visuals are strong, and the use of real planes in action in the photography was exciting, especially on the silver screen. It's a bit like Jurassic Park - once you shrink the spectacle down to your TV screen, even if TV screens are much bigger than they used to be, your less immersed brain can better analyze the story and see its faults. Top Gun is really a string of romcom, sports and my buddy died clichés, with dogfighting interludes that are not all that exciting I think because they're mostly abstract training exercises. When Maverick called on the ghost of Obi-Wan to help take a shot, I laughed.

Japan's take on the 1970s' popular women in prison movies is Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, which stars Meiko Kaji in a revenger role similar to Lady Snowblood, though before she actually starred in that series. She brings the same quiet intensity to a woman betrayed and violated is sent to a real horror show of a prison where inmates are abused physically and sexually - it's really really exploitative and not for the faint of heart. But through it all, she is indomitable, fierce, and dangerous, and before the end, she'll have gotten the chance to take revenge on those who wronged her. What makes the film stand out is Shunya Ito's direction, stylized to great effect, his flashbacks beautifully surreal, but then the present-day prison sequences no less expressionistic in their approach. It was his first feature and he really threw everything into it. And yet, he would be asked to do two more. Somehow, #701 would get a whole series devoted to her story, and I aim to discover how.

In Jailhouse 41, the second film in the Female Prisoner #701 franchise, the "Scorpion" is back in jail and it's just as horrendously cruel as it was in the first (same warden, after all) and she gets violated again, necessitating some quality revenging. And I would say the set-up and the climax are of a piece with what we saw before and worth the watch. Unfortunately, the big middle of the film has the heroine escape with a sextet of inmates, each with their own story, which makes Scorpion feel like an observer. The lynch-pin of the situation, yes, and a dangerous observer who may turn on you, but still rather passive. And this one's almost too casually rapey. Director Ito pushes the limits of his visuals this time to phantasmagorical levels, as if to imply the Scorpion's madness through a kind of kabuki aesthetic. That's the thing about these movies - they're at once ugly and beautiful. The beauty wins out in the end, but I don't like this one as much as the first.

With Beast Stable, Ito directs a Female Prisoner #701 film that is stylish, but not stylized the way the first two were. I was expecting to check and find a completely different director at the helm. But it still works. Different sexual abuse, different cages, and the Scorpion out in the real world, a fugitive from justice, who chooses to avenge wrongs done to other women. Yuki, the inmate she was protecting in the first film, returns, in tragic circumstances. Our hearts go out to her. The villain is also a former inmate, though I don't believe we saw her in the other films. In fact, I feel like the villains are a little on the weak side, and when they get their just desserts, I'm not always sure what their role was supposed to be in the crimes avenged. Except for the one-armed man (also the focus of a brilliant opener, apparently shot in a crowd that didn't know what was happening) and the evil madam, and from the sequence in the storm drains to the end, it's delicious and yes, a little artier, stuff. Beast Stable had me worried, but its third act really brought it home. I especially like its inversion of the first two films.

Despite having the same screenwriters as the rest, the fourth Female Prisoner #701 movie does not survive losing Shunya Ito's direction. Yasuharu Hasebe includes a couple of artistic flourishes at the beginning and end, but given how the body of the film is energetic but not at all stylish, they seem like winks more than effort. The Scorpion has always done bad things to bad people, but here, does bad things to good ones who don't deserve it. The plot is as confused as her motivation, with a second act heist that's pulled for little reason, and a scheme by the main villain that's rather absurd AND includes the ugliest rape in the series - and that's saying something - all the worse for being needless and unbelievable. For this world to work, I think it really does need to be stylized, and part of the stylization is an extremity of cruelty and violence. But it has to be maintained. Here, we get the first man who isn't a sadist or rapist (because he's been castrated) and thus a good person, as well as an empathetic warden. These ground the film in a morality more realistic, but it just makes the extreme moments less palatable, even objectionable. You're better off stopping at the third film which, while open-ended, has a satisfactory and true ending. This story is just tacked-on in an effort to keep the franchise going, and is surplus to requirements.

The only real reason to watch BBV's The Airzone Solution is because it stars four Doctors Who (Pertwee, Davison, Colin Baker and McCoy) as well as Nicola "Peri" Bryant, Michael "Davros" Wisher, future Dalek voice Nicholas Briggs, and pre-stardom Alan Cummings! (Could also mention the synth music which is right out of 80s Who.) Baker shines early on as a sparkly weatherman, and turns out to be the protagonist once he starts receiving visions from beyond the grave leading him to a Dark Mirror-ish pollution-related conspiracy in near-future Britain. Doctor Who fans will also get a certain frisson from Baker and Bryant's love scenes. However, and this is a big however, despite its short run time, Airzone wouldn't know structure if it built a geometric shape around it. There's no telling who's a main character and who isn't until at least the halfway point, the supernatural lathered over strict SF doesn't make sense, the heroes don't know what's going on until the last few minutes so are only acting impulsively at the script's insistence, and Pertwee's role is surplus to requirements and just confusing. Recast this with non-nostalgic actors and you have a very boring affair indeed. But as a Doctor Who fan, I could enjoy it as a curiosity.

Role-playing: Back to Orange phase and household isolation, so our Savage Worlds Rippers moves over to Discord. I found a very nice bot (Savage Bot) that takes into account Wild Cards, wild dice, bennies and can do card-draw initiative - kind of impressive really - but it also meant a whole new learning curve for both the players and I. Not too elaborate a scenario then. As it was one of the players' birthdays this week, I decided we should resolve her outstanding subplot and have that kind Polynesian sailor she befriended get murdered (it IS a horror game, after all) forcing his shark god to enact bloody revenge on his assailants. Bit of tragedy, bit of shopping, bit of investigation, bit of fighting a giant shark man behind a pub. I would call that a day at the office for seasoned Rippers. And yeah, the Discord dice mechanics were quickly learned and ran pretty smoothly.



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