This Week in Geek (16-22/05/21)



At home: If Nomadland looks like a documentary into which a name actress has crashed, it's because that's exactly what it is. Chloé Zhao took Frances McDormand on the road with the most minimal of crews, where she could pose as a transient worker and interact with real "nomads" who, for the most part, don't know she's an actress. I'm impressed by the experiment and find the conceit interesting - it's true to say that Zhao's "people in spaces" approach yields some beautiful photography, and the film must really have come together only in the editing bay - but it pulls a Titanic. Let me explain. While McDormand is excellent at simply listening and reacting (in fact, playing her own personality in these scenarios), her character's story comes at the cost of scripted material. You can immediately tell when the person you're looking at, or rather, listening to, is an actor delivering lines, and when it's the real thing, and that disconnect hurts the film. As in Cameron's Titanic, real people and stories, touching; scripted actors, meh. My own feelings kept switching from hot to cold, and that's unfortunate.

Though I've watched and enjoyed every Danny Boyle movie, I'm only getting to 127 Hours now because, well, I'm less interested in "true stories" and biopics than fiction, and forgotten Boyle directed it. So James Franco plays a real-life thrill seeker who gets his hand trapped under a rock in the desert and survived and escaped in the requisite number of hours, and in terms of knowing what happened, well there was no avoiding it, so this one came pre-spoiled. Still, Boyle knows how to shoot it, in tight shots and extreme close-ups, as if with a camera phone, giving you the proper claustrophobic feeling. When we see light, it's blinding. When something is gross, it's disgusting. We're in that space, but more importantly, in the character's head space. That also allows the film to give us some visual respite from the tight canyon with imagination and memory, some hopeful, some dark, some bizarre as Franco becomes delirious or panicked. And though the conclusion is foregone, it's still interesting to see what a capable person does to survive in that situation, with what is at hand (sorry).

Safety Last! So shouts was is ostensibly Harold Lloyd's best remembered film - that shot of him on the clock is an enduring image of silent cinema - though I perhaps lied The Freshman better. In this one, Lloyd leaves a fiance behind to strike it rich in the big city and lies to her about his success there. In reality, life is hard for a department store clerk who's blowing all his cash on fancy presents to keep up the lie. Well, of COURSE she's gonna show up out of the blue. She's my main problem with the film, which otherwise has some brief racist caricatures we have to deal with. It's clear that she can't respect him UNLESS he's well-to-do, and his well-to-do persona is a jerk on par with the managerial jerks he works for. That makes me dislike her - I audibly groaned - undermining my investment in the story. But then there's that final wall-climbing sequence and everything is forgiven. It was so well-made it gave me vertigo. So while it was full of all the sorts of gags the rest of the movie prepared us for, it also kept me on the edge of my seat. Safety Last goes from amusing to delirious in that last reel.

50 Years of SF/1987: I'm sure that for an entire generation, Spaceballs is beloved. Seeing it at my age, at a time when Star Wars jokes are already overdone, I find it kind of a drag. As a teenager, I was a steady ready of Mad Magazine, and no matter how much it helped me craft my sense of humor, I think I'd be a little bored by the same material today. And this is a movie that feels like one of those Mad Magazine movie parodies, with its silly pun names and even the way the sight gags are established. The "Mel Brooksian" bits, where the characters know they're in a movie, are the best parts, but I don't think you need a lot of sci-fi cred to see where a lot of jokes are going. And as much as I liked the John Hurt cameo, it's part of an extended epilogue that's just there to fit in a couple of other genre jokes; I was kind of done with the story at the one-hour mark. And it might all have worked with a more charming lead, but Bill Pullman making "comedy faces" is no Cary Elwes, if you know what I mean. There are some good gags here and there, but all the anachronisms end up making the film look tatty and cheap. An over-obvious parody that's rarely better than okay.
Actual best from that year: The Terminator, RoboCop, Predator


1988: It happens a lot. Music video directors make a movie, usually a genre movie because they have a handle on effects. But I don't remember seeing a movie where a music video director (in this case, Julien Temple) wore his usual work on his sleeve more than Earth Girls Are Easy. And I think that's the decoder ring for this weird little movie (based on a SONG of the same name). Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum are back together again, with rising stars Jim Carrey (the true template for these aliens) and Damon Wayans, the latter three aliens who crash into her pool during difficult times with her cheating fiance, and get salonned into specimens worth dating. Whether it's score, soundtrack, or the occasional full-blown musical number, Temple treats the material like a music video, so the movie takes an fun, experimental approach to effects (with a crazy plastic universe and colorful "love touch", to name two examples) and has an anarchic rock'n'roll spirit. The humor is kooky, everyone's horny, and on the whole, I let myself be charmed by it.
Actual best from that year: Akira, They Live, Welcome to Frogtown, Alien Nation

1989: I don't know if the crew of underwater station DeepStar Six should worry so much about the monster they've loosed from a cave, when their own installations and security measures are so stupid - easily reached "flood" buttons, computers that spark at the hint of moisture, a computer that tells them to explode abandoned equipment, causing shockwaves that could destroy the base... DS6 is the THIRD underwater movie to come out in 1989 and surely the lesser one (and still, that Frankenstein's shark movie, The Meg, decided to steal from it). Basically, a bunch of TV faces try to survive creature attacks, and it would be fine if formulaic if only the creature made sense. But neither its size, nor the way it gets itself into final scare position are believable. The saving grace for me was Miguel Ferrer's energetic performance as the jerk who will doom us all. It's a trope, but he does it better than most and has a great meltdown.
Actual best from that year: The Abyss, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Tetsuo: The Iron Man

1990: I'm not a fan of the first Predator, it's only... fine for me, and Predator 2 is also... fine, but I may actually have liked it better. This one trades the jungle for gangland L.A., and I wonder if they had the vague intention (Cloverfield-style) to set each movie in the franchise in a different genre. Predator 1, a war film. 2, a crime thriller. Something must have been in the air in 1990 because Marked for Death also had voodoo-practicing Jamaican posses (did the alien's dreadlocks give them the idea?). The level of violence in this is a little absurd, with open warfare in the streets, weird movie gangs stalking the subway system, and a child playing with a toy Uzi. But Danny Glover (the maverick cop) is more human than Arnold so once the man-on-alien action ramps up, the jeopardy feels more real and is less of a shoot'em up generally (despite a lot of bullets getting expended). The final sequence suddenly opens up the world (with an Easter Egg suggesting the possibility of Aliens vs. Predator) and I think that's where it betters the original, taking it from sci-fi slasher to something more flexible (not to say the franchise took the hint).
Actual best from that year: Back to the Future Part III, Darkman, Total Recall, Tremors

Well, having opened that door, might as well watch everything I already haven't...

If you're looking to make dumb but exciting action sf, you could do worse than go with writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but Alien vs. Predator works for me. First, it LOOKS quite good, with nice locations, echoes of The Thing, and perfect shots of the two alien killers going at it. Sanaa Lathan is an engaging pseudo-Ripley that even a Predator can respect, and though there's always forgettable cannon fodder in these things, some of her team mates ARE memorable, in particular Lance Henriksen playing the man Bishop was modeled after, Ewen Bremner from Trainspotting, and heck, the "hero" Predator itself. And this is bonkers. Anderson throws everything at it including historical revisionism (everything gets contradicted by Prometheus anyway, or much of a connection to the Dark Horse comics of the same name, for that matter), someone wearing an Alien skull as a shield, and an Alien Queen. I wonder if they were still treating the Predator franchise as a "genre mash-up" even at this late point (14 years after P2), because this is Lara Croft meets Predator (meets Aliens). A bit of fun and excitement.

When you make a movie, but don't want anyone to see it... Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem surprised me by picking up on Anderson's end tag and setting itself immediately after the first AVP, but it's all wasted potential. If every Predator movie to date has been in a different genre, this one is a slasher. You've got a woodland town, horny/jerky teens, and sadistic gore porn. But that's part of why it's boring. Alien and Predator were both slashers with a science-fiction twist. Making it an overt present-day slasher is subtractive, not additive. In any case, this is an extremely dingy picture, smothered in colorless darkness, presented in fast cuts and extreme close-ups... and THEN it begins to rain. Two questions battled for supremacy in my head: What the f*** is happening? and Should I tap out already? When your hook is a Predator-inspired Xenomorph, you'd think it would be a good idea to SHOW IT CLEARLY MAYBE ONCE, but no. And since the Aliens and the Predator really play the same role, there's no real value to having both. It's a waste of a team-up, and none of the human characters are interesting either. The absolute nadir of, count 'em, TWO popular franchises.

No matter what, Predators (now plural!) has an insane cast, one that will either ensure you're disappointed with the formulaic script that wastes it, or that the material is somewhat elevated by it. It's a bit of both, truthfully. This one tries to evoke the original, with various "predators" (criminals and military personnel) dropped into an alien jungle, in fact a  hunting ground for alien predators. The natural locations are kind of the main advantage, and unlike the previous effort, everything is well lit, even in interior scenes (wow, the bar's gotten pretty low, because that's not a feature, it's merely the lack of a  bug). Adrien Brody and Laurence Fishburne give interesting unhinged performances, but the other unhinged characters are strictly by the numbers. I think they miss a trick too when it comes to introducing a second Predator sub-species, i.e. making one of them female and suggesting some kind of mating ritual at work. Instead, it's just aliens vs. bigger aliens and that's boring. Overall, Predators is fine, but doesn't really escape its formula (nor its apparent need to spawn a sequel that would never come).

In The Chess Players, Satyajit Ray creates a truly full entertainment, using two chess games of unlimited scope. It's a comedy thanks to two obsessed players who indolently meet every day, ignoring their wives at their own peril, and thus encountering all sorts of obstacles to their daily games. The play is often a mirror of what's happening at a much higher level, as this is also a historical drama about the British Empire's annexation of an Indian kingdom, and a massive take-down of colonial policies and attitudes. Colonialism not just as an aggression, but as an erasure of culture and history. Very often in Asian films, white Anglo characters will be played by locals with little talent, badly looped afterwards. Not here, Richard Attenborough is the face of the Empire, and Tom Alter is also great as his translator. So the Brits don't drag the piece down. Just to be safe, Ray also throws in some animation and a few musical numbers. A lovely, colorful, and by turns amusing and tragic epic that uses chess as a metaphor for dueling agendas.

Queen's Gambit was fiction, but Queen of Katwe is the real thing. Phiona Mutesi has a lot to overcome in the accident of her birth. A girl from an Ugandan slum is not expected to become an international chess champion. Having the virtue of being filmed where it took place with a mostly African cast, this family film achieves a vibrancy and authenticity, where misery mingles with hope. I often found myself smiling or feeling moved. I do wonder if the real Phiona used "Queening" as a routine checkmate strategy, because in my (relatively limited) experience, it isn't a move that's easy to achieve (though maybe in aggressive play, it is). Is it a real biographical detail, or meant to convey the theme of achievement, of the pawn becoming the queen. Incredibly well supported by key actors like David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o, who have never struck a false note in their lives (Nyong'o as the mother desperate to protect her children from disappointment is especially strong), the kids nonetheless have a lot of star power and are a fun, affecting group.

Comics: I'll be doing a podcast about Greg Rucka's Checkmate series very soon, and I realized I'd never gone past the first year of stories, not for lack of interest, but likely money, so I endeavored to read all 31 issues from volume 2 of the series, plus (and this made me grumble a little), 3 issues of Outsiders with which it crossed over. Checkmate was a book that wore its DNA on its sleeve and perhaps consequently, was really designed for people who were already invested in the DC Universe. In particular, the DCU of the late 80s (which works out great for me). It's equal parts original Checkmate, Suicide Squad and Justice League International, and so long as the "Royals" had to tangle with Amanda Waller, one of their own cheating the system, there was a nice "chess game" going on even within the organization itself, as well as with its enemies. Well written, full of realpolitik and surprise guests, my only complaint is that if feels unfinished. It completed its long-running plots, but when it changed writers after issue 25, the incoming Bruce Jones ignored half the "pieces" and was really more into telling his own monster story. It was not Checkmate, whatever it was, and since Rucka and his collaborators did such a good job of making it seem like the organization was deeply rooted and intertwined with the rest of the DCU, its disappearance as a title (I would argue, even before it was cancelled) leaves a gaping hole.

Improv: This week my improv troupe presented its last of three shows, Corridors - 4 completely improvised destinies - an improvised two-act play with the following conceit. Each performer had a corridor (delineated by tape on the floor - inspired by COVID rules) to play in, and the audience decided what genre was associated to each corridor, whether Tragedy, Comedy, Suspense, Melodrama and Absurdist. Then, at the mid-point, the audience would switch the genres around and the difficulty would be to justify the tonal switch in each of the characters' lives and of course, bring the story to a successful finish within the newly appointed genre. Perhaps the most interesting bit was that he Melodramatic character shot the Tragic one at the end of Act 1. The latter then became Melodrama, so suspended himself in the moment of death, continually reflecting on his life. The murderer was, in his case, now trapped in the Theater of the Absurd and managed to reverse the death... just in time for an angry Suspenseful character to shoot him in the back. Let's just say the Absurd kind of took over everything, but then, improv is an absurd proposition to begin with.



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