This Week in Geek (6-12/06/21)

"Accomplishments"

 

In theaters: Plunging us into the same world where the danger of the smallest noise becomes a moment of tension, A Quiet Place Part II takes place seconds after the first film, give or take the prequel prologue that restates the stakes. But if the original expressed what a parent is willing to do to save their children, the second is about letting those children come into their own. The postapocalyptic tropes are recognizable - the dregs of humanity turning on each other, a pilgrimage to the one safe enclave, etc. - but Krasinski has put a fresh coat of paint on it. His character's absence is only partially filled by Cillian Murphy as a reluctant hero who has lost everything, including hope. Really, the hero of the piece is Millicent Simmonds's Regan, who has the most of her father in her. Like I said, the kids step up. With the family split due to circumstances, the film ably cuts from one set of characters to the other to keep the suspense going, beautifully keeping two action set pieces alive without ever losing pace or tension. Felt I was watching a master class in structure and editing. If you liked the first one, there's no reason you won't like the second, even if the bloom of discovery is necessarily off the rose.


At home: There's a certain cognitive dissonance to seeing the Marvel flip card at the top of a direct-to-video movie like 2005's Man-Thing, but nevertheless, this is something that exists. As a swamp-based creature feature, it's okay if unchallenging and about 20 minutes too long - new sheriff vs. robber baron vs. monster. As a MAN-THING movie, it ignores anything that made the original unique and interesting, so it's a total miss. I sort of get it. They probably wanted to get away from the similarities to the Swamp Thing, which had already been rendered in live action, so that's likely where the idea to make Ted Sallis a Native shaman, murdered so the bad guy can put oil rigs on tribal land, comes from. Fine, I don't need him to be a scientist. Though it does beg the question as to why the story takes place in Louisiana rather than the Florida Everglades, since that's Swamp Thing's backyard (it's actually shot in Australia, you can hear some accents slipping). It's the rest that's maddening. No one "burns at the Man-Thing's touch". He's not an empathic creature drawn to violence so much as killing good and bad people alike, even former friends (if he's truly Sallis, which isn't clear, so the stories' natural pathos is absent). The Nexus of Realities is name-dropped merely as a mumbo-jumbo explanation for the monster's rise rather than the source of further weirdness or for a "guardian" to exist. And instead of putting those crazy roots on his face, they're elsewhere on his body, acting as nervous tentacles. So even the look isn't right. As if the movie knew its place in cinema history, the bad guy's name is Schist and things take place in Merdeau county (lit. "Shit Water"), but it's too unkind to itself. It's fine hicksploitation (by which I mean ordinary but watchable), but misses every opportunity to make a live action version of the comic book stories. I don't think naming characters Mike Ploog or Gerber (some of the people who worked on the book) is really paying them proper tribute.


Terry Gilliam's controversial 2007 film Tideland explores a little girl's imagination as refuge from the terrible things happening in her life, among them, the death of her junky parents. Jodelle Ferland is quite quite good as little Jeliza-Rose, and I quite like her relationship to her collection of doll heads, her interactions with animals, and her vivid Frankensteinish dreams. Some audiences will rightly feel squeamish by her "romantic" relationship with a lobotomized man, as we still have an adult actor kissing an underage girl, but it doesn't go too far even if it threatens to and is supposed to represent more of the Jeliza-Rose's imagination - what a little girl might think is romance and marriage. It's still gonna put people off. Tideland is a horror film where the protagonist refuses to believe what she's experiencing is horror, becoming a kind of Alice-figure in a prairie world (look at you, Saskatchewan!) filled with garbage and strange people. The theme of refuge, whether it's in imagination, ambition, madness, drugs, or masturbation is all over the place, but the images are often very personal to Gilliam, to the point of opacity. So we look on - we may be charmed or repulsed or both, but we stand apart from it, a bit like someone telling you their dream.

 

50 Years of SF/2004: As far as I, Robot's credits go, "suggested by Isaac Asimov's book" is a bit misleading since the screenplay started out as its own thing and only later was given the book's title, which precipitated the addition of the Three Laws of Robotics and insertion of the Susan Calvin character who appears in some of the stories. And yet, big dumb action blockbuster elements aside, it's not unlike an Asimov robot story. The Three Laws are discussed, and a mystery pops up regarding how the machines can misinterpret them or find loopholes in them. When Asimov expanded the universe to novels, they were detective stories. And that all still works, it's just draped in more action set pieces than Asimov would have ever written. And I don't dislike that hybrid at all. Asimov would have made it all conversations and not very cinematic, while the original sci-fi blockbuster script might well have felt thin on the science-fiction side of things. I, Robot manages more than Will Smith cracking wise amidst spectacle by adding a layer of thoughtful SF, asking questions about sentience. And it's STILL a big dumb blockbuster and there's nothing wrong with that.
Actual best from that year: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2046, Primer

2005: It's absolutely a B-movie, but the time travel comedy-thriller Slipstream nagged me by being too good for its bad parts. There's certainly some directorial flair on show, but then also some pretty terrible use of slow-motion. The characters are quirky and sometimes even funny, but they keep making stupid mistakes to keep the plot going. Rewind... What I think is actually the problem there is that the action choreography is simply horrendous, so people just stand there shooting and getting shot even when there's cover available, or don't know where to go or how to move or how to get to the next bit of plot without looking like deer in the headlights. But with Sean Astin in the lead, with Vinnie Jones (Snatch) and Ivana Miličević (Casino Royale) just as central, we have a likeable cast making the best of a silly script about a handheld time machine they hope can reverse a bungled bank robbery of which they were either victims or perpetrators. I had fun with it, even if some of that fun took the appearance of me shouting at the screen in frustration.
Actual best from that year: Zathura, Serenity, War of the Worlds

2006: The DNA of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies is all over James Gunn's Slither - interesting musical choices, heroes doing the cool thing and comically failing, Michael Rooker... If the premise is nothing new, it's because it's a tribute to all those old B-movies where SOMEthing falls to Earth and starts taking over a small town. Walking the line between homage and spoof, though it still has visceral rape imagery to sustain the horror, Slither brings a fun freshness to the old tropes, with truly bizarre body horror transformations and a very weird love triangle between the monstrous Rooker, police chief Nathan Fillion and the girl that got away from the latter, Elizabeth Banks. Fun cast, fun reinterpretation of an old familiar story, disgusting gore, even a post-credit scene. What else do you want from a movie like this, Killer?
Also from that year: Children of Men, Paprika, The Fountain, A Scanner Darkly, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, The Host

 

2007: While not quite as raw as its borrowed opening would lead you to believe, The Signal is still pretty raw, a sci-fi horror story about a signal from space(?) that drives people mad (usually violently so), and it's on all the phones and channels, precipitating a social apocalypse. The lead characters are the three points of a love triangle, and each of their stories are told by a different director. For me, it doesn't get any better than the first segment (or "transmission"), a taught horror-thriller that's all about the feeling a woman gets when alone in a creepy underground parking structure and/or a toxic relationship. The second segment is a big tonal change as it turns the film into a black comedy, and it's probably the least effective as a result. In Transmission III, the story comes to a close in hallucinatory fashion, Lovecraftian paranoia mixed with a refusal to too obviously tell you what's happening. The Signal keeps some secrets to itself and that's for the good. Now who's up for some senseless carnage? Wait--did I say that?!
Also from that year: The Mist, Sunshine

 

If you read this blog, you already know I'm spending every Wednesday in what's left of 2021 reviewing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Surprisingly or not, I'm actually done watching and writing, every review scheduled through the first week of January. But having "flipped" the DVD set, it fits into this week's "achievements", so I should say a few words. Normally, I'd stick to DVD extras since I'm going to review the series, but there are none. I can at least confirm the original versions of each episode are what's included, so the theatrical release of the pilot and the double-length episodes have not been split in syndicated halves. But also, no alternate takes or deleted scenes this had created. So we're left with the two seasons (or one and a half, owing to a writers' strike) to speak on their own behalf. As you'll discover over the next year if you keep reading, Buck Rogers is the goofball cousin of the late '70s Battlestar Galactica, amusing and wearing its campiness on its sleeve through the first season, then a big wet Star Trek rip-off in its second, after a producer change. Like Space 1999 before it, a "retool" of the show for its second go-round throws continuity out the window and embraces science-fantasy elements that hamper more than help, unless we're talking about getting help reaching cancellation. But it can still be a lot of fun reviewing that sort of material.


Books: To help me in this journey, I'd gotten the Buck Rogers TV Companion, the value of which is in the many interviews with cast and crew it contains, but I've got to tell you - it's very badly written. Typos, random capitalizations, redundant language, and lots of FACTUAL errors too. The synopses of each episode look to have been written from memory SOME TIME after having seen them, because they don't match what's actually on screen, sometimes confusing what's happening in one episode for the events of another. Comments culled from multiple interviews with the same person will repeat the same information within a paragraph or two, and that first interview's information was already in the main text! Even the most basic of editors could have fixed these problems, though perhaps at the cost of 100 pages (yes, it's THAT redundant). Maybe someone published the first draft by mistake? That's how it reads, sadly.


Chronologically the last of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series (the other two are prequels), Foundation and Earth uses the same characters as Foundation's Edge (who I do like), but more or less jettisons what made the Foundation stories unique - psychohistory - in favor of a quest to find the lost Earth. Don't get me wrong, it's as much a page-turner as the other books are, though unreasonably padded with redundant conversations and debates (his characters must dissect every decision and thought, as usual). It's still a fairly pleasant space opera adventure - it certainly has more action than any previous, but I can help but be disappointed with the ending. The sin was committed in Foundation's Edge, but exacerbated in this later volume: Asimov's insistence on connecting the galaxy of the Foundation with his robot novels turns the final revelations into something I'd call fanwank if the author wasn't doing it. The switch from short stories to novels is perhaps the culprit, but I do wish he'd continued to skip forward until we got to the promised Second Empire (in whatever form that would take) as predicated by the original premise.


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