This Week in Geek (23-29/05/21)



In theaters: When I grow up, I want to work in Monster Mythology Development, which is an actual credit in Godzilla vs. Kong. These films are at their best when they're bonkers, and no worries, GvK gets us there several times, not least of which in its gonzo "mythology development". I knew very well that this had to be a Marvel-style throwdown in which the two "heroes" eventually teamed-up against a third opponent, but it still didn't cheapen their battles. Whether you're Team Kong or Team GZ, I think you got your due, and I've seen several versions of the third monster by now, and this one has perhaps my favorite justification for its rampage. Godzilla's my boy, but Kong is such a sympathetic figure that he makes everything better. He's got a better supporting cast too (Rebecca Hall and the little girl - are engaging, which is a rare thing in these movies). What I'm really happy with though is how clear the monster fighting is. The other two Godzilla movies in the franchise have been rather dingy, but here, even if it's night, or we're underwater, or there's dust flying around, the action is crystal clear. Very well done. But as with the other movies, the human stories aren't as good. The villains are especially dumb and one-dimensional, the comedy trio of conspiracists rarely funny, and plot convenience takes precedence over science and common sense. But giant monsters leave giant plot holes, that's often par for the course. So sit back, relax, and don't think too hard about whether the monsters are changing sizes based on the fight environment (they almost had an explanation for that which wasn't any goofier than in 1962's Japanese King Kong vs. Godzilla, but didn't seal the deal)... You know what you're here for and you'll get.

At home: 50 Years of SF/1991: Wim Wenders and Solveig Dommartin (Wings of Desire) reunite for Until the End of the World, and at nearly 5 hours, it's hard to decide where to begin. Set at the turn of the Millennium in a lo-fi near future (that now seems like a side future, almost recognizable), the first part of the epic takes us on the heroine's quest across four continents to find the man she loves/who stole her money (William Hurt), himself on a quest to capture images meant to be transmitted to his blind mother (it'll take three hours, but Jeanne Moreau, coupled with Max von Sydow are worth the wait). Though Wenders plants "future tech" in his world, he mostly lets the locations do the work, finding places that evoke futurism or the postapocalypse, according to where we are in the story. It's often been said that the future is another country, but sometimes, another country is the future (or the past, which could be a future). The film is also very personal because it asks a film maker's question: How do you represent the world? What is the artist's or scientist's responsibility in the preservation of reality? He, himself is doing it by traveling extensively and capturing sights we're unlikely to have seen before. His characters are obsessed with remembering the world, whether through recordings, science-fiction machines, writing or dreaming. And he shows us three "ends of the world". During cinema's longest road trip, we see moral collapse, a world of indolence, mistrust and casual criminality. Once we get to our destination, there is societal collapse, and what a small group of humans might do with a second chance (second chances is a leitmotif). And finally, a collapse of the self into narcissism (and this is easily the oddest part of the film). There's a 3-hour cut of Until the End of the World, but I don't know what they got rid of that I would find superfluous. You can't easily reduce this to plot mechanics because so much of it is about aesthetics. No surprise, it looks gorgeous, and it has a great "adult contemporary" soundtrack too.
Also from that year: Terminator 2, Star Trek VI, The Rocketeer


1992: I don't know why it's called Split Second, but that's the least of this movie's problems. It's chief problem is that it's incredibly derivative. They obviously wanted to make Blade Runner, and I'm not just saying that because Rutger Hauer's in it, though it's damning that it was written with Harrison Ford in mind. Hauer plays a cop on the edge - the VERY edge - tracking a serial killer in the far away year 2008, but that killer is essentially a Predator, even if it looks like an Alien and, absurdly, acts like the Zodiac killer when we're not looking. Is it me or did the movie play it like love interest Kim Cattrall (off Star Trek VI because she still has Valeris's haircut) was the creature in disguise? Everything points to it until the movie decides to make her a damsel in distress instead. The other about-turn is that while Hauer IS so extreme a character as to evoke action film parody, Split Second doesn't really become OVERT parody until rats start spilling out of everything and everyone gets the biggest possible gun. I'm certainly happy to see a flooded future London instead of an umpteenth gang-filled future Los Angeles, but despite the general oddness of this Frankenstein's Monster, it all feels like formulaic direct-to-DVD stuff. Not without entertainment value, but more as a train wreck than anything.
Also from that year: Alien3, Universal Soldier, Memoirs of an Invisible Man


1993: Apparently, Body Bags was going to be an anthology series that was reworked as an anthology movie, so mileage varies though producer John Carpenter seems to gave fun laying the gallows humor quite thick as the crypt-keeping "Coroner" (Tobe Hooper shows up in the framing sequences briefly, as is responsible for directing the third segment, Carpenter the rest). In fact, watch for cameos by Sam Raimie, Wes Craven and Roger Corman too. There's no doubt in my mind that "The Gas Station" is the strongest segment. Truthfully, I could have watched a whole film of Alex Datcher (who was in an episode of TNG around this time) working the night shift and getting scared than any given guy or noise was the slasher on the loose, even if it never came to anything. A great representation of what women tell it's like to walk alone at night. "Hair" is the obligatory science-fiction piece, and rather silly, with bouncy jazz music to pointedly remind us this is a comedy. It's okay, though it has the best cast with Stacy Keach, David Warner, Sheena Easten and Debbie Harry(!). As for "Eye", though it has the virtue of starring 90s-stache Mark Hamill, it's the old evil transplant story, and I could see everything coming a mile away. While I only really care about the first of this trio of gory camp fire tales, it, the interstitials and the stunt casting are enough for me to recommend it.
Also from that year: Jurassic Park

1994: After the success of Coppola's hoary Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein couldn't be far behind. Coppola produces, Branagh directs and casts this thing as if it were one of his Shakespeare adaptations (many of his line readings, in fact sound cribbed from various other performances, some yet to come). And I'm afraid it's rather quite dull. The film just tries to fit too much of the novel in its 2-hour run time and as a result consistently feels rushed. It's a case of this happened, then this happened, then this despite a strong focus on the Victor-Elizabeth love story. That, at least, pays off in a horrific grand finale. I wish I could say Robert De Niro was worth the wait as the Monster, but he's not very expressive behind that make-up. Again, it's the last 20-30 minutes that does all the heavy lifting. That, and a final Promethean image which I thought was a clever play on the novel's subtitle.
Also from that year: Timecop, Generations, Stargate

1995: Kevin Costner has a knack for making tedious versions of films I like. Waterworld is obviously Mad Max on water, and he's not exactly riveting in it, nor is it devoid of padding, but it's not all that bad. A famous flop that spent more money than it could ever recoup, I can still give it props for building all those structures on water and achieving several involved (and exciting) water action set pieces. We don't see a whole lot of those because they're extra complicated, so successfully making a movie that's almost entirely waterlogged is an achievement. Its biggest problem for me was the choice of music, believe it or not. If you're doing Mad Max (and I'm sorry, but you are), the music should rock a lot more, punk maybe, or some strange concoction these people might have produced. Instead, they give us grand, sweeping orchestrals that evoke wonder and swashbuckling. The dissolves preferred by the editing also make it seem like they thought they were making a shipwreck romance like The Blue Lagoon or Black Beauty. Which is of course at odds with the jet ski pirates and Dennis Hopper cartooning it up with his orange-skinned villain. And well, it takes much too long for us to like Costner's Mariner. He's a badass, fine, and grumpy, okay, but he's soon being violent with his love interest and throwing a little girl overboard, an attitude that only goes away in the third act where magically, he's a father figure and someone to love as a different formula takes over. So in the end, it's not a nautical disaster, sometimes it's even good (certainly before the girls board his sailboat), but after everything done, I can only call it okay.
Actual best from that year: Twelve Monkeys, Strange Days, Screamers


1996: While Escape from New York is iconic, I think that had more to do with the character of Snake Plissken than the film itself, which I'd found sluggish as an action flick. 15 years later, Carpenter's fixed that bug in Snake's return in Escape from L.A., which is PROPERLY nutty. Snake is such an extreme character, he was begging for an even more extreme plot and gets it on the 2013 island of Los Angeles, a massive prison camp for "undesirables" (Carpenter was only off by a few years, really). Awesome miniatures work, terrible 90s CG (but not too much of it), and a pretty great cast too. I can even forgive the side-excursion with the plastic surgeons because Bruce Campbell's in it! It's not meant to be taken seriously (a basketball death trap?!), so don't. And if you liked Snake's final solution in the first one, you should grok what he does in this movie. Truly, this is a man who has no f***s at all left to give. None. I rate it about the same as the original, but for different reasons, and personally, I had more fun with it.
Also from that year: First Contact, Independence Day, Mars Attacks!


1997: When I first saw Event Horizon back in the day, I was expecting a straight science-fiction movie, not a haunted house story in space, so I was miffed and rejected it. Over the years, despite Paul W.S. Anderson having directed it (and his being known for making garbage, albeit FUN garbage around half the time), people have remembered it fondly to me. So was I wrong? Well, it starts off well enough, with casting that's actually gotten better with age (Sean Pertwee, Jason Isaacs) and a mystery that's at least grounded in some kind of physics. That the gravity drive looks like it was designed by Clive Barker is an early sign that this is gonna get rather loopy. So the ship's gateway sent it to Hell, and Sam Neill (whose character, named after Peter Weir looks like, should be a lot more upset that people he knew are decorating the walls) goes crazy. I don't dislike the Lovecraftian flavor, and the outer space survival action is my jam, but the blood-drenched third act kind of wastes everything the movie had going for it, turning it into a slasher flick. So I can see why it left a bad impression on me, and though I appreciate it more now, it doesn't help the climax any.
Actual best from that year: The Fifth Element, The End of Evangelion, Gattaca, Cube, Contact

I have to admit I'm often disappointed with Charlie Chaplin's early shorts. For film historians, they can be interesting, so for example, The Rink shows off Chaplin's rollerskating prowess which he'll use to better effect in Modern Times. And while it's true that his full-length features can also preface the crux of the matter with only slightly-connected set pieces, these delaying tactics eat up more of the total screen time. So in The Rink, there's an awful lot of restaurant business before we get anywhere close to a skate. And then, well, there's a lot of wide-shot gliding, but the gags aren't too abundant. But what actually turned me off this one is how broad the comedy is compared to his better efforts. The Tramp is a cartoon character and that's what makes him fun usually, but here, everyone is. Heavily drawn eyebrows and men in drag and crazy beards... and a lot of pratfalling besides. I get it, the year is 1916 and audiences aren't jaded by simple slapstick, but more than a hundred years on, I struggled with it.

Seijun Suzuki's Take Aim at the Police Van is his answer to to such noir films as The Maltese Falcon or The Long Goodbye, where you're drawn into a suspenseful quest into the underworld, but have really no clue what's happening from moment to moment or how things are connected. The script even mentions some of the mystery authors emulated. Our "Sam Spade" figure is a disgraced prison transport driver who becomes obsessed with finding out who shot his van and prisoners, and why. There are a few more murders along the way, so something being kept quiet, and a femme fatale at the center of it (the rather intriguing Misako Watanabe). Suzuki isn't as stylish here as he'll eventually become, but the opener is clever, and he his the streets with jazz. The final train yard sequence is happily filmed at night, showing how much better this is than the frequent day-for-night in the rest of the movie.



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