This Week in Geek (9-15/05/21)

"Accomplishments"


At home: A blend of samurai legend and King Lear, Ran (which means revolt or chaos) is a feast for the eyes, with incredible use of color and a heath more blasted than any in England. It's even more impressive when you know the director's eye sight was failing, and needed assistants to frame the shots according to his fully-painted story boards. There are battles in the background of Lear, but I never really think of them. In Ran, they are among the most memorable tableaux, so are unlikely to leave me any time soon. Instead of daughters, it's sons who inherit castles - two sycophants who fail to give their father the respect he deserves, and a "Cordelia" who is rejected for his honesty. The Edmund of the story is here the wife of the elder brother, a wicked avenging spirit who preys on the men's weakness so she can revenge her family, defeated by "Lear"'s. As it turns out, the evils visited on Lord Hidetora are those he visited on others to get to his exalted position in the first place, so in some ways, she's the hero of the piece (but not quite, as anger and hatred have destroyed her moral character). The blasted heath of the play, here a volcanic plain at the foot of Mount Fuji, is suggested to be the result of Hidedora's war-making. Tragedy, murder, madness, as in Shakespeare's original, but the scope is more epic, and the theme of the abused parent is given extra layers of ambiguity.

 

While Western audiences might think the title Awe! refers to an interjection - as the film is gasp-heavy - in Telugu is means "They are" and more properly refers to the ensemble cast of seemingly unrelated characters finding themselves in an improbable "food court" (an assembly of restaurants), participating in vignettes that tonally cover camp comedy, melodrama, horror and science fiction. But while the first half is fun - a talking fish, a Morse code romance, shocked conservative parents... - the film gets darker and darker until the surprise climax. Now, I won't be spoiling the ending, but while it does explain much of the weirdness in the film, I do resent it. It's a little too on the nose (which can also be said of certain preachy moments in the middle of the story) and other endings occur to me that would have been more ambiguous and somehow satisfying. A time travel solution, for example, or reincarnation as a link between the scenes. Because while it in retrospect is makes sense, each sketch had enough value that I wanted them to have more closure, instead of falling prey to the bigger story.


DEA agent Steven Seagal retires after his partner's death and goes home to his family in Marked for Death, but the "life" won't let go of him and he's soon embroiled in a turf war between Colombian and Jamaican drug runners which puts his family at risk. This is classic Seagal - whatever that means - with fairly good action beats (he's less showy than other action stars, but the film benefits from his grounded approach) and the great Keith Davis to pick up the slack in terms of screen presence. Seagal likes to say the other action stars aren't real fighters, but someone should ask THEM if they think he's a real ACTOR, s'all I'm sayin'. In any case, the real draw here is the voodoo stuff. It's ambiguous whether the magic works is just a function of the villainous Screwface's cult of personality, but it gives a unique cachet. The accents gets a little thick, not to say indecipherable, but I love the sort of shadow culture presented here. And though director Dwight Little doesn't have the best CV, I felt like the neon cinematography was good, definitely earning the redness of the poster. Marked for Death is exploitation, don't get me wrong - if you're a woman in this, chances are you're going to have to show some flesh - but it has more style than most pictures at this level do.


50 Years of SF/1982: An artifact from when the Halloween films were supposed to be a thematic anthology, Halloween III: Season of the Witch probably gets ignored or trashed because it isn't a Michael Meyers flick. Or maybe audiences find the awkward mix of science-fiction and horror tropes not to their liking. But I tend to give films extra points if they're a little bit bonkers. I think this fits the bill (but look away now lest you be spoiled every surprise)... A coven of immortal witches is selling Halloween masks chipped to spawn gross bugs from the wearer's head during a television broadcast with the help of robots and stolen pieces of Stonehenge. A couple of quality gory moments along the way, and Carpenter synths accompanying the action, plus a covert cameo from the Halloween Queen herself, Jamie Lee Curtis. Better than its reputation.
Actual best from that year: Blade Runner, Star Trek II, The Thing, E.T., Tron

 

1983: Cronenberg dilutes his style into Stephen King's in The Dead Zone, and aside from the obvious Canadian locations and ancillary cast, doesn't really have any of his trademarks (or few). Christopher Walken wakes up from a coma with an upended life and precognitive powers, and from there helps various people by preventing tragedies or solving crimes. No doubt a quirk of the novel, but it's an episodic structure that - ignoring the climax - lends itself better to a television show (so no surprise it eventually became one). Not to say the events are interconnected, but we don't exactly feel propelled through the narrative. Walken is as watchable as ever, with an able (and unhinged) assist by Martin Sheen, and the visions are well handled, but it's Cronenberg doing a generic horror film. Doing it well enough, but it doesn't create a visceral experience.
Actual best from that year: Return of the Jedi, Videodrome, Brainstorm

1984: Repo Man is such a punk movie! From the opening music to the angry punk protagonist to the final credits that dare scroll in reverse, it's punk as hell. Note the authority figures all coming across as terrible caricatures, or the ridiculous no-name non-brands giving the finger to product placement (though it's uneven because the locations can't escaping branding). And I'm there for it. Repo man Harry Dean Stanton takes Emilio Estevez under his wing, initiating a comedy about "valorous" car thieves working for the system, while a weird Men in Black/UFO story develops in the background. These intersect thanks to a very special car with a bounty on it, and if you've only heard about Repo Man, it's probably in connection to the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction - the idea comes from this car. Well, while everything is played more for comedy and weirdness, it's obvious Tarantino rated this film highly. It's not just the glowing MacGuffin, but the surf music and the messy violence; there's even a Mexican stand-off of a sort. A wild eff you to movie conventions and a trunk load of fun.
Actual best from that year: The Terminator, Starman, Star Trek III, Buckaroo Banzai, 2010

1985: The way we're supposed to understand Weird Science, I guess, is as an adolescent fantasy. It's sex obsessed, it confuses computers with magic, and if they reference Mad Max in the first reel, mutant bikers are gonna show up in the last. At no point do we "wake up", but it's a trip of the imagination - an immature imagination that comes up with cringy moments (which is to say, sexist, racist and homophobic ones), which can be understood except that a grown man actually thought this stuff up. A 25-year-old woman macking on 16-year-old actors (who are supposed to be 14-15 in the story) is... unpleasant to watch. My vague memory of the movie was that it took place in college, but no, high school freshmen. And while I give I freely gives points to a movie that indulges in the bizarre - the boys' computer basically breaks the universe, complete with Crisis in Infinite Earths red skies and a quantum genie to help them through puberty, among other weird effects - I take almost as many away for some of the broad comedy. Why is Anthony Michael Hall doing voices? And though I know some people feel this is peak Bill Paxton, he's just the cartoon extreme of a repellent character. If it works at all - and I will venture that it does - it's thanks to Kelly LeBrock, who not only looks the part, but is so confident, so impish, so damn KIND, that she sells her role as a guide in a coming of age story rather than a "sex object". She's great in this. The DVD has a retrospective featurette where cast and admirers wax the film's car, and the pilot of the TV show... Ok, a few words about this. I can't believe 1) it premiered 9 years after the movie (who cared by this point?!) and 2) it lasted 5 seasons! The pilot is such an obnoxious, unfunny retread of the movie in 22 minutes, with everyone doing an imitation of the film's characters, it's just junk. Never mind that the further you get from 1985, the less acceptable the premise is.
Actual best from that year: Back to the Future, Re-Animator, Lifeforce, Brazil, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, The Quiet Earth

 

1986: Surely, The Fly must be the first Cronenberg film I ever saw. Watching it today, it feels like a series of traumatic flashbacks, as much of its body horror I could recollect even decades later as if I'd JUST seen them. That's a credit to the film's power to make you squirm, but also to its detriment as a rewatch. It's almost TOO indelible. And it's not just unpleasantness either - Geena Davis was just as memorable to me. What strikes me as interesting now, however, is the whole subplot with the creepy ex-boyfriend, which gives the story a certain internal mirror. In both cases, Geena's boyfriend turned into a monster over time and therein skulks a metaphor. A solid creature feature, The Fly is only a remake in name and basic premise. Having Goldblum running around ranting about "the flesh" and the aforementioned "relationships are horror" vibe are Cronenberg through and through. If I have (and always have had) a criticism of this film, it's that once the make-up goes on Goldblum, it stops looking like him very quickly. I wish I could still see the actor in there, it would have made the last transformation that much shocking.
Also from that year: Aliens, Star Trek IV, Short Circuit, Chopping Mall

 

Ricky Gervais's 2008 HBO comedy special Out of England made me laugh a lot, though there are some definite lulls where he's punching down, and it sounds more like a rant than him affecting a character (like the fat shaming bit). Generally, when Ricky is being offensive, it's outrageous and in character. Which is to say it sounds like he's playing his character from Extras after he's made it big, thinking he's a good person, but putting his foot in his mouth and coming across as the worst possible person. And no matter the topic (disease, war, etc.), it's because he's playing a character that it works at all. You have to punch UP at the kind of opinion you're lampooning. He's actually quite good at making these thoughts and reactions seem improvised, like they only occur to him there, on stage. The prepared punchlines of course belie that. One of his stock techniques is to put on little sketches where he does all the parts, and in this we better recognize the type of humor from his shows. Some real outrageous gut-busters and well-orchestrated surprises throughout.


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