This Week in Geek (26/09-02/10/21)

Buys

Seeing as I'm almost done reading my current volume of TwoMorrows' American Comic Book Chronicles, I went and purchased the only one I was missing, covering the early 1940s. On the e-front, three issues of Pyramid magazine (bonus reward for a Steve Jackson Games Kickstarter), severely covering Fantasy, Modern, and Sci-Fi role-playing material.

"Accomplishments"

At home: Seth Green's directorial Changeland gives off a vibe not unlike Garden State, which is to say it's a soundtracky sad comedy where the main character feels like he's underwater. His marriage has fallen apart, but he planned an Anniversary trip to Thailand well in advance, so he goes with his best friend and tries to get his head in order. Breckin Meyer seems the perfect friend to bring, because he's the fun-loving type who won't let you have a bad time, but one of my triggers is the kindness of strangers, and there were so many moments like that, random encounters that squeezed my heart for all it's worth. It's a slow burn, this journey of self-ownership, but it pays off. Early on, you may wonder if we need yet another boat tour, and whether Southern Thailand is getting a tourism ad for free, but it can't be said the place isn't beautiful. Green and his cinematographer Patrick Ruth certainly know how to shoot it, but are good with the little things too. It's a visual film, and part of the appeal is going with its flow, which not coincidentally, is exactly the lesson the protagonist must learn. And what about all those street cats!


A cute, charming, family-friendly fantasy, Miss Minoes (pronounced Minouche, as in, Kitty) is a cat turned into a human being (specifically, Black Book's Carice van Houten) and who ends up helping a wimpy journalist find stories thanks to their small town's cat network. It's of course got a cat-hating villain, a perfumer who is the Dutch equivalent of Cruella DeVille, and woe be to a journalist (or pet) who gets in the way of the town's rich, connected benefactor. Van Houten gives a touching performance and her all playing cat mannerisms, and while I normally hate it when they make animals talk or express with CG, this one is more subtle than the pablum I'm talking about. In large part, that's because it appreciates and understands cats. They have limited facial expression, but a lot of body language. And different morals, so none of that Disney personification stuff. The truest exchange in the movie is when humanized Minouche expresses guilt at having done something wrong and her fellow cat asks her what guilt is.

If you're going to give the world another zombie movie, you need to give it a new spin. Blood Quantum posits a rage zombie plague that only Canadian Natives are immune to, and though the opener is more traditional, and even sluggish, things pick up when society has more or less fallen. The acting can be uneven, not every moment works (the animated interludes for example), and the metaphor of white culture as devourer pretty on the nose, but director Jeff Barnaby's gore moments pull no punches and there's actually some historical depth to his story. Purposefully set in the early 80s and shot in very specific communities, it's a fantastical reimagining of riots and government raids that happened in those same communities at the time. One of these is in my home province of New Brunswick (and the characters are of the principal First Nation here), which of course endears me to the film further. I feel like that topsy-turvy credits sequences is the wormhole that takes us to that other reality. The reason for the plague is ambiguously left up to us (scientific or supernatural?). And the samurai grandpa is truly the best.

From the off in Thief, you know you're in good hands. As usual, Michael Mann makes wonderful use of lighting and locations - in this case, a wet nocturnal Chicago - wait, did I say "as usual"? You're telling me this was Mann's first feature film?! Well, wow, his visual style is already there. From the first couple shots. And though I'm not sure I like the love interest (it's too aggressive and reminded me of Rocky's), it's a pretty great heist story too. James Caan plays a safe cracker who, having been raised by the state and spent his 20s in prison, is impatient to get his life in order and secure what he sees as a kind of freedom, one where he calls the shots and no one else. That leads him to the opportunity to do "one last job" and ally with a top level gangster to make it happen. Along the way, he'll be asked to compromise his vision and thereby lies a tragedy in the making. As much character portrait as crime thriller, Thief is another one of Mann's riveting, glossy experiences.

Good ol' Larry Cohen. The Bob Haney of B-movies. Chronologically between It's Alive and Q the Winged Serpent, God Told Me To has a bit of the weird baby stuff of the former, and the police procedural gone weird of the latter. And you don't know where it might be going from one moment to the next. Even discussing which genre it actually belongs to would be telling. The initial premise has a strong 1970s vibe, with lone gunmen confessing that God made them do it - this has only become more relevant and distressing over time - and the only cop who seems to see a connection between the various slayings is compromised by his own faith. I really would have been interested in a movie where God really is the guilty party, but this isn't it. Like I said, expect twists and turns, and then more twists and more turns. It's one of those movies I give bonus points to for bizarre originality.

While certainly not the first British science-fiction comedy, Hyperdrive (or at least, the one season - of two - available for streaming here) is interesting for being a precursor to several of today's American shows. And Frye's Theorem of British Comedy is in full bloom. It's a Trekkish spoof like The Orville and - canon or not - Lower Decks, but those shows have a wisecracking hero surrounded by fools and zanies (Mercer and Mariner), whereas Commander Henderson of the Camden Lock (a ship that cleverly looks like London's radio tower, as seen in Doctor Who's The War Machines) is a British hero through and through, always ending up with egg on his face. In fact it seems like the whole of the British presence in futuristic space is a bit of a joke. Though I love Nick Frost and Miranda Hart as performers, the show never really crosses from amusing into outright funny for me, and the reason may lie in its overt caricatures. It's hard to find a real heart to the show when its characters are so often motivated by their particular recurring gag, or with such silliness as the "augmented" Sandstrom doing a kind of pole dance in the back to make the ship go. Episode 6 is as close as it gets to striking the right chord, so I'd be interested to see the second season, if it is ever made available to me.

50 Years of Action/2017: A Taxi Driver - no, not THAT Taxi Driver - fictionalizes the life of an unlikely Korean national hero, a cabbie with his head in the sand who, in the wake of the country's 1980 military coup, agrees to bring a journalist to a university town where riots meet military action. He just doesn't know what he's in for and will learn a big lesson in politics. Song Kang-ho (from Parasite, and indeed, most Bong Joon-ho films) stars as the hapless driver, and it's through his performance that the film manages to easily to shift its tone from light comedy to some pretty heavy material as a shameful piece of South Korean history unfolds (director Jang Hoon's The Front Line is an equally masterful historical film, but this is more of a high-wire act). Yes, it does commit the ultimate sin for biopics in the modern era, of showing one of the real participants for a rather saccharine last moment, but it doesn't impair what went before too much. (No really, why do audiences need "confirmation" of a story's reality beyond the "based on true events" card, especially in these Google-happy days?)
Also from that year: Baby Driver, Logan Lucky, Atomic Blonde, Dunkirk, John Wick 2

2018: With a title like Peppermint, you'd think a movie would be Certified Fresh. But no. 12%. So why watch it? Well, sometimes you just want to see Jennifer Garner killing bad guys with extreme prejudice. She's basically a female Punisher who, having lost her family to gangland action with no hope for justice from a crooked system, trains up and returns 5 years later to extract her pound of flesh. It's nothing you haven't seen before, but it's a satisfying if unnecessary entry in the genre. The plot is very thin, and there are times when you wonder where a motivation comes from, or how someone got out of a tight scrape. Answers: From the script and, they just do. I checked, and it seems like every crap action movie of the 2010s was written by people who worked on either an Expendables or a Gerard Butler Has Fallen. As if that were a plus on your CV. I've definitely seen worse, but Peppermint has no ambition. Throw in the bad optics of a white lady mowing down Mexicans in Trump's America  (or having to) and it drops even lower in value.
Actual best from that year: Mission Impossible Fallout, Shadow

2019: While I have loved Donnie Yen's Ip Man films, Ip Man 4: The Finale is easily the weakest of the lot, though I will still express my love of his portrayal of Bruce Lee's famous master as a cool, collected fighter with an underplayed sadness. And of course, the fight scenes are great, that's a given. Master Ip is nearing the end of his life, struggling with health issues and having lost his wife (who was one of the best things about the previous film), with raising a difficult teenage son. He travels to 1964 America to find a school for his boy (and meet up with his former pupil), and encounters grueling examples of racism there... and that's where the movie falls apart. While it's hard-coded into these films that Ip Man will have to fight some non-Chinese powerhouse (it's a Fists of Fury riff), it seemed to make more sense in the politically chaotic China/Hong Kong of previous films. The "white devils" in this one are all overreaching, disobeying orders from superiors, etc. without any sense there might be consequences. And there's the fact that all the English-speaking parts are terribly acted (or badly dubbed into "American"), not uncommon in HK fare, though also explained here by the fact that England doubles for California, so most aren't using their own accents. It just clashes with the more subtle Chinese cast, somehow finding themselves facing exploitation villains from the early 70s.
Also from that year: 1917, The Gentlemen, Hobbs & Shaw, John Wick 3, Guns Akimbo

2020: While the stated premise of Unhinged had me first thinking it would be an updated version of Falling Down, it was really more of a "you pissed off the wrong guy" action thriller like The Hitcher. An out-of-shape Russell Crowe is the title epithet, a killer on the run who just killed his ex-wife and means to extend his revenge spree to a woman who was rude to him at an intersection. A mix of road rage, mental instability, and movie trope-itis provides the "motivation" for chasing the woman down and showing her what a bad day is really like by going after everyone and everything she loves. Most of the action is thus vehicular, with a Die Hard 3/Speed  kind of villain, pushing the heroine until she can outplay him and fight back. Caren Pistorius as the woman is a fairly forgettable Mama Bear, but we do feel her stress. In the end, one wonders what the contrived Unhinged is trying to say, because yes, don't be rude to other drivers, but the movie would have you follow that edict out of FEAR for what could happen. I've been in situations involving an absurdly angry stranger and being reasonable instead of rude has absolutely no effect. Because it's not about your behavior, it's about theirs.
Also from that year: Jiu Jitsu, My Spy, The Old Guard, Bad Boys for Life

50 Years of Horror/1971: Feels like people may resent early Argento for not being big horror spectaculars, but I quite like The Cat o' Nine Tails (his second feature) even if it can almost better be categorized as a crime thriller. In fact, the way Argento builds paranoia in the audience and/or the characters puts me in mind of Hitchcock, it's a lot funnier than you'd expect (also HItchcockian), and the killer has a proper motive. So what makes it horror? Perhaps the NATURE of the killer, but more importantly, the way it's shot and scored. The kills are visceral in a way that go beyond a thriller's requirements, the killer is shot like a monster (i.e. POV or secretive close-ups), and Morricone's music is on the disquieting end of the scale. Just the use of a little girl as a main character makes it more upsetting. I dare say the solution to the mystery sought by two journalists, one active, the other blind and retired (Karl Malden dubbed in Italian), is pretty secondary to the intriguing atmosphere. Needed more actual cats though.
Also from that year: Let's Scare Jessica to Death, The Velvet Vampire

1972: Just a bit of EC Comics-inspired fun, Tales from the Crypt has five disparate people get lost in the catacombs where the Crypt Keeper shows them their fates, each taken from a classic comics story and wrapped in ironic comeuppance for misdeeds and cruelties. Joan Collins is in the Christmas-centric one and I could have done with it being longer - she was in the craziest horror flicks in this period! Peter Cushing gives an endearing performance in the third story, which packs the most ironic punch. And the strange tale of a home for the blind on the brink of revolt makes for a great finale even if I would have trimmed some of it (the building takes forever). The other two tales are thinner, though not without their pleasures. All in all, a fun little anthology with several recognizable British faces.
Also from that year: Season of the Witch, Sisters, Frenzy, Dracula A.D. 1972, Blacula

Books: In the early '90s, Julian Barnes tried to explain British current affairs to readers of The New Yorker in a series of humorist pieces collected in Letters from London. A large proportion of the book is about the House of Commons - the fall of Thatcher, and rise of her successors, as well as scandals involving minor MPs - but also such British moments as the opening of the Chunnel, the Lloyd's financial disaster, and Royal Family gossip, among other things. I've been a fan of Barnes' novels since, well, exactly this era, but have only really been discovering his essay work recently. And I love it. British news distilled through perfect words, witty asides, and the thematic control of, yes, a novelist, is sort of how I want to get all my news. Alas. Barnes takes no prisoners, offering amusing personal observations along with the socio-political commentary, with just the right dose of historical irony. The fact that the essays begin near the end of a long Conservative rule does seem to speak to the present-day United Kingdom (and observers). I don't know that it makes me feel better about my Anglophilia though...

With Legacy of the Daleks, John Peel confirms that his interest is mostly in fanwank, though compared to War of the Daleks, the continuity is more focused (post-Dalek Invasion of Earth), at least until you factor in the Master's presence and how it connects to other stories. Some readers might have been excited that Sam is now "lost in space" and absent from this story, but I feel like writers were just getting a handle on her, and shunting her off to "grow" off-stage is taking the easy way out. If your excitement is more about the Doctor finally being reunited with Susan, we don't really get that here. I think she has more dialog with her grandfather in The Five Doctors, and that wasn't much at all. Still, we do find out what happened to her after she left the TARDIS - same for Earth in that era - and that's all very interesting. It's just not the satisfying reunion readers wanted. The Daleks themselves would have done better being excluded entirely - their "legacy" an artifact they don't need to be present for - because they are useless Hartnell-era models you can push into walls. And I was often distracted by the Doctor being so down on the human race - that's just not the Eighth Doctor! Readable, but ultimately disappointing.

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