This Week in Geek (28/03-03/04/21)

"Accomplishments"


At home: What if folktale icons like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy were the Justice League? That's what Dreamworks' Rise of the Guardians is. Fantastical and kid-friendly though the premise may be, it's a superhero narrative, with the undisciplined rookie (Jack Frost) having to find what makes him special in among more established heroes as they fight a hope-destroying scheme by the Boogeyman himself, Pitch Black. Directed by Peter Ramsey, now of Spider-Verse fame, based on William Joyce's Guardians of Childhood books, Rise also has a great cast, and proves quite inventive in tying all these figures together, maybe just a few steps away from Nightmare Before Christmas. Extra points for bits of weirdness like Russian Mob Santa  and Easter Eggs with legs. It's often funny and clever, has a good message about not letting fear run your life and putting something positive out in the world, and the action scenes are worthy of good superhero spectaculars. If no one seems to talk about this one, I think, is because of the insipid title.


In Věra Chytilová's Wolf's Hole, 11 teenagers go on a ski trip/course and get more than they bargained for in what really feels like a slasher film set-up. Or is it a social experiment conducted by the creepy crew of this cabin on a mountain? And then things start getting a lot weirder, in a lo-fi kind of way. While it's done on the cheap, the mystery of it keeps you watching (I don't like the strange electronic sounds meant to denote a disturbing feeling, but then I never do). Calling the top of a mountain a hole, and evoking wolves without giving us werewolves is part of what's intriguing. The girl with the dog isn't just an irritating character, but played by a horrendously bad actress as well, which knocks out half a star. However, there's more than enough there in terms of atmosphere and theme to recommend. And that theme is definitely a Czech one, a reflection of the Soviet influence where the good citizen is meant to inform on others and so on. Wolf's Hole is a repudiation of that political philosophy dressed up in horror tropes.

 

The first WolfCop movie was fun, but tried to play it as if the small town of Woodhaven was in the States. Another WolfCop is more fun because it accepts the fact that it takes place in Saskatchewan and leans into it, HARD. Same with the insane premise, the outrageous gore and the coarse humor. Another WolfCop (it's the same WolfCop, just Another movie) has Lou Garou and his friends go up against the alien Shifters again, but this time the baddies are getting into beer and hockey, and that's OUR stuff, you monsters! We get WolfCop riding a snowmobile on pavement, Canuckophile Kevin Smith as the smarmy mayor (ok, he's a weak spot), and Gowan calling the hockey game. GOWAN! It's not just wall-to-wall maple leaves, we also get skating Frankensteins, a plot to impregnate humans with alien spawn, and ridiculous sex scenes between animal people. And it's a Christmas movie. It's silly, often juvenile, and quite amusing. WolfCop will return, we're told, and in fact MUST return. Why isn't this a TV series already?


Sonny Chiba is a journalist with wolf powers in Wolf Guy (AKA Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope), but that's really secondary to the story until the third act in this schizophrenic crimesploitation flick. It looks and sounds gorgeous though (give or take those weird electronic sounds meant to denote disturbia), with its grainy 70s look and wild guitars. Very tangentially connected to the manga-turned-earlier-movie about a high school werewolf, we might imagine a similar character as an adult, coming across strange murders committed by an invisible tiger. Investigating the curse, our coin-throwing hero will meet various under and overworld figures because this one goes right to the top! It'S gory, it's full of gratuitous nudity, our boy's animal magnetism gets all the girls to fall for him, Shaft-style... but whoa that plot! Plots, plural?! Don't get me wrong, I love how bananas this thing is - it's gonna be fun throwing a synopsis into conversation - but the structure is off-putting. Things aren't established in a normal way (including the lycanthropy), so it feels like you've been thrown into the middle of a franchise, or like it's one of those TV show compendiums.


Takashi Miike's love letter to the Japanese TV superhero tradition which we best know as Super Saiyan/Power Rangers/Ultraman, Zebraman is a strange hybrid of the mundane and the fantastical. Most of it is shot in cinema verité, as we follow an unassuming third-grade teacher who remembers and fanboys over a failed 1970s superhero show. But somewhere out there are aliens who turn into a green slime that can possess people, and the show turns out to be a kind of prophecy of things to come. Miike gives us a Super Saiyan pastiche (the show and the protagonist's dreams), and a more modern slick approach (but are these any more real?), but most of the film is in a bric-a-brac, made-my-costume-myself, loser narrative. Not that Miike feels any kind of need to parse out what's real and what isn't. It's all real, even when the realities contradict each other. It certainly doesn't shy away from the weird and the ridiculous - and certainly the cheap effects cooperate there - but still tells a human story about finding self-respect.


If Blind Fury shows anything, it's how good Shintarō Katsu was in the role of Zatoichi. Rutger Hauer is good in the American adaptation, but he's not as convincing in those "bumbling" moments where he lets someone believe his blindness is a real impairment. Katsu was able to somehow make you believe in both the character's clownish innocence and his sly cleverness. There's too much talking and explaining in the American version, possibly. What rankles most for me isn't the attempt at doing a modern-day adaptation, because you do get some amusing set pieces like Zatoichi (not his name) driving a car or chopping up a crooked roulette wheel, but rather that they turned it into a cheesy 80s action movie. The movie tries to ape a lot of tropes from across all the Zatoichi movies (though the plot is mostly that of Zatoichi Challenged), but rarely does it achieve the same visual flair or poetry. The villains are uniformly terrible send-ups of typical henchmen, stuntmen who have never taken an acting course in their lives, and the finale where Hauer must fight another swordsman feels forced. Blind Fury isn't without its pleasures - mostly that it's bonkers, unless you believe a blinded soldier would walk out of a Vietnamese jungle with a samurai sword and Daredevil's powers - but it falls quite short of the original source.

 

Liam Neeson keeps making these dumb revenge flicks and I keep watching them hoping for a Cold Pursuit, but more likely to get a Tak3n, I realize that. Honest Thief was pretty much a waste of my time, though at least it eschewed revenge for "protecting what I have", a sort of proactive revenge, you might say. There are some clever con-like moments that harked back to Mission: Impossible (the series) for me, and they don't let his girlfriend be an absolute victim. But it's still mostly a string of clichés, with very little acting involved since the characters all get to explain their motivations (slim as they might be) in big speeches. There's no subtlety, and unless you're afraid of missing a perfectly ordinary action scene or two, you could basically never look at the screen and always know what's happening. A movie made with people doing the cooking with a movie in the background in mind. I was happy to see Robert Patrick and Hamilton's Anthony Ramos in something, but they really deserved better.


The Parallax View is a very paranoid thriller that has Warren Beatty as a journalist investigating the assassination of a presidential candidate and uncovering a conspiracy that's bigger than even that premise (in the shadow of the Kennedys) would seem to indicate. Director Alan J. Pakula is still two years away from making All the President's Men here, and while he doesn't exactly bring that film's "all the pieces matter" sensibility -  truncation of the novel it's adapted from might be the reason why it feels so much like we're moving from set piece to set piece - he makes up for it in tense atmosphere.  He lets moments play out in real time, he brings the sound way up on incidental noise while forcing us to listen to whispered dialog, making us witnesses and detectives like the characters in the drama. The brainwashing montage is incredible - not least because Kirby's Thor features prominently - and that ending would be talked about along with the most famous of 1970s dystopia movies', if only it had been science-fiction. Surprisingly, there's a lot of action too! Don't trust anyone. Except me when I tell you to see this.


The first animated feature, 1926's The Adventures of Prince Achmed, is a wonder to behold. A tale from the Arabian Nights, Prince Achmed's story also intersects with the better know Aladdin for extra star power, but the real star is director/animator Lotte Reiniger. She was, put simply, a visionary and a genius. I'm sure I've seen her work before. She worked  on through the 1980s and I think I remember her fairy tales on TV when kids' shows needed animated shorts. Her world of expressive silhouettes, animated rather than puppeteered, never felt so grandiose than in Prince Achmed though. Looking at it, you don't quite know how it was made, how she and her team managed the special effects or the precision of the acting. The frame is teeming with fantastical figures. What a joy it was to then watch the documentary feature on her life and seeing the articulated figures used in the film, still intact. Some insight on how the film was made, but it doesn't lose its sheen as a sort of magical artifact, somehow alive and organic in a way few animated films are.


Improv: [Repeat of context: I've done a lot of long-form improv in my life - it's kind of my thing - but we'd never done it in a proper theater with only professional actors, and a small government grant allowed us to put on three different shows to prove that improv was more than instantaneous sketch comedy, it's really just a form of theater. I serve only as "artistic director", which means I plan the minimalist set design and premise, present the audience with choices that "prove" the actors had nothing prepared, and help the actors coordinate actions (coach them, you might say) back stage. This trio of plays had an extra difficulty: It all had to be done with social distancing, which was my starting point in terms of subject matter.] The second such play was "Cages - a captivating and completely improvised mystery" in the style of such films as Cube, Circle and The Platform. The four actors can only play in a 3x3 "cell" (marked with blue tape on the ground) and have been given a basic attitude by the audience, via some props. One is chained and dangerous. Another has a plan and a heavy-duty spork for building tunnels. A third has been there longest and crazed, marks time on a small black board. Coming into their lives is a newbie, all innocent-like with her stuffed animal. What are they doing there? A robotic voice calls them to various examination and interrogation rooms from which they never return unscathed. I had some fun creating these sound clips and playing as if on cue (but of course, there are no cues, it's all improvised), envisioning the voice as that of the Computer in the Paranoia RPG, or possibly the announcements in the Portal video game. This was theater of the absurd and ambiguous to the last, the actors leaving it to the audience to decide what it was they experienced. On a surface level, the characters were being tested, and their inhumanity exposed in a moment where they actively contemplated eating one of their own, failed and were released with that knowledge. On a psychological level, everything may have taken place in the newbie's mind as forces eroded her core innocence, the ultimate cage, herself. On a socio-allegorical level, everyone was in a cage of their own making, and the prison a society where individualism created barriers to connection. You could make a case for each, or for all of them simultaneously, or for other interpretations, especially given the fact different actors had different meanings in mind. One more to go, Corridors, but that's not until late May.

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