This Week in Geek (12-18/09/21)


In theaters: According to the Internet, James Wan's Malignant is either brilliant or terrible. I'm going to settle for "fun" and recommend it to people who enjoy the kind of cult horror films of the 80s, where a bonkers premise is taken to term with insane twists, the ones that give you laughs among the scares. I could name some movies that share DNA with Malignant, but that would probably spoil plot details. Seeing as the movie keeps you guessing - remix of other movies or not - I'd rather not. Personally, I don't mind it when a horror flick gets goofy, and this is probably my favorite of Wan's horror films I've seen. My favorite bit nevertheless has to be the Pixies riff used as the monster's theme. We're talking about an overused song that, given this new sound, almost hidden inside the score, gives it new life. (It's also a clue which is why I don't name it outright.) Somewhere bubbling deep in the background is the fear/guilt of pregnant women - one gives birth to a deformed child, another struggles with miscarriages - feeling there was something wrong with them in some way. But that's DEEP in the background. I've never felt Wan was especially in control of the themes evoked by his films, and this one isn't any different. Ultimately though, this is a movie about bangs.

At home: Filmed at the height of 80s big hair and somehow exorcising the style with class, Working Girl could actually have been edgier (and thus better) by having some of the lies told towards the end be the truth. It's just a little too black and white and devoid of moral dilemma in its climax. A race to a happy ending, while from a mainstream perspective quite satisfying, makes the whole thing a bit inconsequential. Mike Nichols has his moments of flair, but we're generally very far from the cleverness of The Graduate. We're here for Melanie Griffith generating pathos as a secretary who wants more for herself. Sigourney Weaver has the funnier character, though supporting cast member Joan Cusack got my only real laughs. Harrison Ford's comedy mostly falls flat, but I like the humor at his expense, portrayed as a beefcake with a pheromonal aura women can't help but notice - it's fun. Working Girl is a good-hearted working class fantasy filled with watchable stars (and one unwatchable day player), and an amusing sitcom premise.

I don't know how much of John Waters' Cecil B. Demented is autobiographical, at least at the philosophical level, but this tale of cinema terrorists who kidnap a terrible mainstream actress (Melanie Griffith, I mean she's played by Griffith, not that it's THAT meta) and force her to be in their anti-mainstream movie often seems to espouse the values inherent in such Waters films as Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. Obviously, it's taken to extremes and the cinema-ready streets of Baltimore become a battleground. The satire is a lot of fun, and even MORE fun for movie nerds who will get all the references and maybe share in the sentiment a little bit. After all, Cecil's weird, horny crew aren't monolithic in their tastes - they're just against movies as fast food, in the end. So unite, fans of film history, fringe cinema, foreign films, "filth", mumblecore, genre films, and the indie scene! Say it with me, DEMENTED FOREVER!

Everyman Steve Guttenberg doesn't want to blow his affair with 1987 Isabelle Huppert (the voice is unmistakable, but I'm not used to seeing her work from this era), so he pretends he witnessed a crime in her place. That's The Bedroom Window, a fun Hitchcockian premise signed Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential). Ill-equipped to make a statement to the police, Guttenberg becomes obsessed with confirming details of the witnessed assault, getting himself and his loved ones into hot water, and a bit of action too. It's got enough twists and turns to keep you entertained and some nail-biting sequences for protagonists in over their heads, as their plans keep going awry. People are generally down on Guttenberg, but I liked him as a normal guy with a shit-eating grin who gets a little more than he deserves (both ways). Among the supporting cast, you'll recognize a lot of faces - Elizabeth McGovern, Carl Lumbly, Wallace Shawn, Maury Chaykin and Mark Margolis among them - which should compensate.

Brian De Palma's riff on Rear Window, Body Double, is a bizarre experience, and that's a plus in my book. The difference between period Film Noir and Neo Noir is that Hollywood has moved on and what used to be inference can go full smut. So Everyman Craig Wasson is a down-on-his-luck, claustrophobic actor, but more importantly, a peeping Tom who witnesses a murder, but what did he see exactly? The murderer is at times just as inept as he is, so Wasson "with a porn actress as his guide", might just win the day. De Palma uses low-rent Hollywood as a backdrop to good effect, and injects horror movie elements into the piece (I didn't think I'd see the Driller Killer!), and proposes a story that could be a fantasy from top to bottom (that "Relax" video sequence alone...). The conversation the film seems to try to have about equating sex and violence in Hollywood's more exploitative markets is slightly undercooked, but I guess we can draw our own conclusions. A Weirdo Watchlist classic.

So at some point was Brian De Palma planning to make movies about every unsung job in the movie business? Body Double is one, but three years earlier, he put Carrie alumni John Travolta and Nancy Allen in Blow Out, which also starts and ends with a horror B-movie (and what a terrific ending it is too). De Palma seems to revel in doing schlock, then repurposing it for a more serious film. In this case, Travolta plays a sound man who inadvertently records a car accident/assassination involving a presidential candidate. From there, we take the thriller route as capital-T They try to cover up just what happened. The film plays with sound quite well, since it's such a concern for the lead, and that's not to say it's not a very good-looking Neo-Noir film as well. John Lithgow appears as a terrifyingly practical assassin. They do say you should write what you know, and De Palma certainly knows film-making. It's that nitty-gritty that makes these films so interesting.

In many classic Noirs, the convoluted plot keeps the detective hero in a reactive state, never really knowing what's going on until it's too late. In later Noir films, that convention is sometimes made overt. The Big Lebowski is a comedic example. I dare say Night Moves is a more dramatic one. Gene Hackman is an essentially blind detective, always caught flat-footed even though he thinks he's on top of things. That's as true in his turbulent marriage as it is in a more complicated case than he expected, tracking down a teenage girl who's run away from her home in the Hollywood Hills. Questions and answers are part of a private eye's life, but there are few questions for which everyone has an answer, or a truthful answer at least. Ironically, Hackman's character is a student of chess and is particularly intrigued by how someone might fail to foresee their opponent's tactics (be careful of those "knight moves"). And we're with him, frankly, also thinking we know where it's going and generally failing to predict the film's next move. That said, can someone explain to me why 1970s cinema is so interested in older men having sex with underage girls? Writers and directors who saw Lolita at an impressionable age? In this case it's Melanie Griffith in one of her earliest roles, but it doesn't matter that she's 18 in real life, it's still ick.

When C.S.I. premiered, I remember some media buzz about William Petersen's casting being a big deal. I didn't know why, but after watching Manhunter, I get it. It was a kind of stunt casting. Here he is as a broken FBI profiler in Hannibal Leckter's first movie outing (again relegated to manipulating events from a jail cell). While you can't beat Anthony Hopkins' iconic performance in Silence of the Lambs, Brian Cox offers a smart, dangerous Leckter (original spelling), he's just not in it enough to really compete. After all, the real threat is an entirely different cannibal killer played by Paul Noonan who manages to be creepy and sympathetic, which is no mean feat given the material. But the real star here is director Michael Mann who never fails to fill his frame with interest. The procedural vibe could have been quite dry, but the lighting, use of unusual locations, etc. really give Manhunter a slick sheen that elevates it beyond most thrillers. I also love how William Blake's poetry, art and philosophy are woven into the killer's modus operandi, but hardly addressed in the film. Blake was one of my specialties in university and I see it very clearly (in particular how the crimes refer to sight). Based on the novel Red Dragon, of which there is also a (Hopkins)adaptation - I don't imagine it can be better than this.

50 Years of Action/2007: Even before the first carrot-related kill, you know Shoot 'Em Up is a spoof of hyperviolent action flicks, and I have to admit it's a lot of fun. Clive Owen is a trickshot expert who won't use his hands to do anything if he can use a gun instead, and has a combination of several cliched action hero origins, on the run with a baby marked for death and the hooker/wetnurse with a heart of gold (Monica Bellucci), from both a series of bad guys, some led by Paul Giamatti. This black comedy doesn't waste time getting you from one insane action set piece to another, through a universe that seems John Wick-adjacent. Owen's "Mr. Smith" is even followed home by a dog at the end. When it comes to gunplay, I need to be able to call them "Gun Fu". If they fail that litmus test, I find them incredibly boring. Shoot 'Em Up doesn't just past the litmus test, it gets recruited by the CIA right out of high school. Ridiculously fun in spite of its orchestrated ugliness, like something Garth Ennis might have written.
Actual best from that year: Hot Fuzz, The Bourne Ultimatum

2008: As Pineapple Express begins, the 1940s marijuana experiment and Seth Rogan's process-serving montage both have promise, but then the movie completely forgets the former and doesn't really pay off the latter, becoming an exercise in Rogan and Franco enjoying smoking up for the camera. The pace evidently calibrated by someone with a body high, the film is interminable, filled with dull improvised conversations and people gratingly shouting at each other. Nothing happens for the longest time, and the villains aren't any more active (and why NOT connect them to the 1940s sequence?!). By the time the action plot elements strike, they seem out of place, bantering cartoon characters overlaid with a buzz-killing bloody massacre. It's just noise and I checked out FAST. Normally, while I don't enjoy stoner humor, I like Seth Rogan's movies because they have a lot of heart. In this case, I couldn't get behind the bogus friendships or the objectionable romantic relationship between him and a high school student. Now maybe if  An extremely annoying film.
Actual best from that year: JCVD, Ip Man, Red Cliff

2009: I love Accident's unusual premise. A group of hit men, led by Louis Koo, are in the business of staging convoluted accidents for money, a technique that makes it near impossible for authorities to even think it was murder. But when things go pear-shaped and they lose one of their own in an ACCIDENT, Koo's character goes over the deep end trying to find who is using their own techniques against them. In a world where accidents may not be accidents at all, paranoia reigns. Or to put it in Chinese terms, if you manipulate Fortune, she might take that as a slight. I'm particularly impressed at how little dialog there is in the film, letting us draw our own conclusions (both right and wrong) through the character's eyes, showing rather than telling. It certainly makes for a quieter film than the opening sequence would have you believe, but a deeper one too.
Also from that year: Inglourious Basterds, Sherlock Holmes, Black Dynamite

2010: 1915, Norway, a brutal boys' reform school. This is the setting for the true events fictionalized in King of Devil's Island, a surprisingly engaging "prison" drama that acts as a contest of wills between the island institution's governor and a difficult new resident who sees himself as a whale struggling with harpoons in its hide. I say "surprisingly" because movies about unfair suffering feel largely all the same to me, and so does this one until the midway point where things get more tense and focused. Reaching the point where the island's population will snap under the pressure of unwarranted cruelty, will the boys escape or revolt? History has already decided the issue, but our lack of knowledge makes its an unpredictable affair. The climax had me on the edge of my seat. Bonus points for the beautifully stark Norwegian landscapes and some overall excellent performances.
Also from that year: Scott Pilgrim, 13 Assassins, Norwegian Ninja

Books: I've been systematically supporting Kickstarters that reprint Golden Age "Canadian Whites", and the freshest of these is Mr. Monster: The Original Adventures of Doc. Stearne by Fred Kelly (with much thanks to comics historian Rachel Richey for making it happen). Comics readers from the 80s may remember Michael T. Gilbert's Mr. Monster comics, but not realize the character predates those comics by a decade. Indeed, he started life in those exclusively Canadian comics as action archaeologist Doc Stearne, getting into costume only in time for his last (and a rarity, full-color) adventure. That amounts to only about 50 pages of fairly primitive comics, very much reminiscent of Jon Stables' Brok Windsor strip which also had an Inner Earth type story. To make the page count, we get lots of extras. Gilbert supplies an afterword, and there's an interview with Kelly himself, recorded just before his death in 2005. Several of Fred Kelly's pages from other strips are included, often showing greater technical mastery than what he was able to put in Doc Stearne. And there's a handsome art gallery in which artists of today give their takes on Mr. Monster. Ultimately, that's my favorite part because it lends one to dreaming about Mr. Monster comics yet to come.

There's an awful lot of launch code confirmation porn in the 8th Eighth Doctor Adventure, Option Lock, as Justin Richard seems intent on writing a nuclear war thriller that may or may not star the Doctor. We spend an awful lot of time in situation rooms with Russian generals and American presidents. Oh, it's fine. Richards' prose moves at a fast clip, with short pithy scenes that flow into one another quite well, but I still resent it when we move away from the Doctor and Sam who are Da Vinci Coding their way through a mystery that will explain what's happening on the world stage. He does write a fun pair, it's just that they're stuck in a plot that requires them to do recaps every so often. If you're a quick enough reader, you really don't need them, and I often felt ahead of the Doctor. So I'm ambivalent about Option Lock. Great Doctor and Sam, but also a lot of padding, as if Richards took a TV script and lengthened it.


Toby'c said...

I'd argue Red Dragon is the better adaptation by a wide margin, albeit for reasons no one else ever seems to care about. At the risk of spoilers, what clinches it for me is that Manhunter cuts the book's climax while leaving in too much of what was meant to lead up to it, making it feel like wasted time in retrospect. I also vastly prefer Ralph Fiennes to Tom Noonan, though I'm a bit more conflicted on some of the other performances.

Siskoid said...

I lost faith in the franchise after the ridiculous Hannibal (the movie, not the TV series), but I have a hard time believing Brett Ratner would put out a film more satisfying to me than Michael Mann did.

Fred Melanson said...

If I remember correctly, I based my warehouse 23 character off of Clive Owen from sholt'em up

Siskoid said...

Wish I'd seen it back then!


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