This Week in Geek (3-09/10/21)


In theaters: I was as surprised as anyone that I enjoyed the first Venom movie, and perhaps even more that I thought the second installment - Let There Be Carnage - would be even more entertaining. Especially given that Carnage is to me a toxic byproduct of 90s comics, which I had no interest in. Venom 2 plays out as a black comedy, with Eddie Brock and Venom a funny double act, and as quirky a romantic-ish couple as Eddie and former fiance Anne are. Superhero plot gotta plot - with contrivances that nevertheless can be chalked down to "ironic fate" - but the best bits can be found in the Odd Couple stuff, where Eddie is just trying to live with a well-meaning (!!!) Venom, and where the symbiote tries to live a life apart. Oh, an that mid-credits scene, a real whopper. Helped along by a cast that's punching well under its weight - Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Woody Harrelson and Noamie Harris, whaaa?! - the second Venom provides a goofy fun time at the movies.

At home: Marvel's animated What If...? episodes surprised me by not all being apocalypse scenarios, which was the stock and trade of the comics series, even leading me to believe there would be follow-ups, possibly even in live action given the multiversal bent of the MCU's next phase. Well, there were, but not in the way I expected. We didn't know it, but we were watching one long story, a little bit like the MCU through to Endgame in microcosm. Great finish, though liking any give episode will depend on the individual viewer. Some I found exciting and/or fun, some relatively dull, but my experiences at times differed from friends'. I even ended up liking the Marvel Zombies one, for its dark humor. A nice surprise was how many of the original voices participated - it means this is Chadwick Boseman's last hurrah as T'Challa and it's a good one - and the missing cast is generally well emulated. It does show when an actor doesn't really do voice work normally. The art style is excellent for action, a bit less for facial expressions, though that varies (as do the likenesses). What If? was one of my favorite series back in the day (volume 1 anyway) and I was happy to see it done for the MCU continuity. That they managed to surprise me with their twists is a small miracle.

When you've trained up for some costly superhero movie, I think it makes sense to follow up with one or more action flicks before you lose the muscle memory. And that's what Mary Elizabeth Winstead did with Kate. Fresh off Birds of Prey, here she is in a neon-drenched Tokyo taking yakuza out even as she dies from an irreversible poison. It's the 2020s action version of D.O.A. and that twist is at least a little different from the half-dozen other female assassin movies I could have watched instead. It seems to be using the same template as the recent Gunpowder Milkshake (there's a kid to protect and the heroine gets absolutely destroyed physically), but isn't as imaginative in terms of the universe. Netflix really does seem to order movies in bundles based on what's currently getting the most hits, doesn't it? But derivative or not, it's quite watchable, looks cool, has good action scenes (though the early CG car chase worried me), and Tokyo is well used as a setting, harking back to proper yakuza films. I give it a thumbs up, but you've seen it all before.

I think Muppets Haunted Mansion is a little too obvious and at the same time, too plotless to become a perennial classic, but it still delivers on what the Muppets do best - fun jokes and heart. Gonzo and Pépé must spend the night in Disney's Haunted Mansion and for the most part encounter various guest cameos and spooky movie tropes until time runs out, and while Gonzo is a great character to hang a tale on - he's so guileless and earnest - you sometimes wish it had been more of an ensemble story. still Pépé the King Prawn gets a good subplot, not to say half the screen time. The trick here is that this is essentially the kind of Halloween special the Muppet Show would have done, with a ghostly Muppet Show right in the middle, a Laugh-In ballroom scene, and Statler and Waldorf even getting the last word. That's where the special shines brightest. On a personal note, NuKermit still doesn't sound like Kermit to me. On a universal note, RIP Ed Asner - this appears to be his last role.

The first of the final 10 episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine begins the 8th season with a real gut punch. The show not only acknowledges the pandemic (which I haven't seen a lot of in any media), but more crucially, everything that's happened in the last couple years re: exposing corrupt and violent police forces, the NYPD among them. So how does a workplace comedy ABOUT the NYPD react? It would have been easy to ignore current affairs and get on with the laughter, but it wouldn't have been in character for such a diverse and, I'll say it, aspirational show. So they address it directly and with lasting (though rather vague) consequences, and then we get on with the laughter. A shorter tenner that has a lot of returning faces and that happily ends on the Halloween heist, a great tradition and no better end point. If the comedy was showing signs of fatigue in the previous season, the race to the end at least reenergized the writers and cast, and not just in terms of the humor - it also has something to say.

50 Years of Horror/1973: We remember The Exorcist for the late-movie possession stuff (probably even if you've never seen it), but there's a lot more going on in this horror classic. Max von Sydow playing old Indiana Jones in Iraq. The Ouija board stuff. The attempts at curing Regan through medicine (which actually made me squirm a lot more than the supernatural elements in the second half, in part due to their familiarity). That's what's so interesting about late 60s/early 70s horror films. While there are remnants of the old Gothic monsters, film makers aren't as censored (even just the language would have been pretty shocking, especially coming from a 12-year-old), but more than that, they don't know the formula yet. So The Exorcist is a bit more procedural as a result of teaching the audience how this kind of story works, and being unusual works its favor. Top shelf cast playing it straight too. Ellen Burstyn and von Sydow are Oscar-caliber actors, and while Jason Miller isn't a household name, we easily get absorbed by the plight of his priest-psychologist. And yeah, there's all the before-its-time upsetting possession stuff.
Also from that year: The Wicker Man, Don't Look Now, Theatre of Blood

1974: Hammer horror meets Shaw Brothers, literally, in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a crazy mash-up that also happens to be Peter Cushing's last appearance as Van Helsing. He's good in it and there's no reason the Van Helsings can't fight vampires all over the world, so it works in concept. Because it is also Hong Kong made, David Chiang shares the hero duties, and HK cinema rules apply to him and his family or martial arts fighters (Chiang even gets to do a Roadhouse throat rip). The vampires are culturally different, which is interesting, though there's not enough "hopping vampire" stuff for my tastes. In terms of action, Lau Kar-Leung was one of the choreographers and I can easily tell which sequences he worked on  - the best ones - though he's still in the service of co-director Chang Cheh here, so the violence is more sadistic, which I suppose fits the horror mold. Where the film fails is at the plot level because there's a weird contrivance to get Dracula to China, but use the European actor sparingly. I bet of Christopher Lee had agreed to do it, he wouldn't have transformed himself into a Chinese character. So no idea what's going on with that, but enjoyed kung fu stars palling around with Cushing and destroying the undead with a variety of weapons.
Actual best from that year: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas

1975: Dario Argento's Profondo Rosso - Deep Red - reminds me of his Bird with the Crystal Plumage, honestly, with a foreigner obsessed with following bizarre clues to catch a serial killer even as his connection to the crimes makes him the object of police suspicion. This time, David Hemmings is the man, a pianist and neighbor to the psychic whose odd clues he follows, and he's partnered with Daria Nicolodi plainly having fun (and a source of both comedy and paranoia) as a Feisty Journalist(TM). There's a clue early on that I caught, but didn't really process (a freeze frame just then might have ruined the mystery for me), so the solution felt satisfying, though to be honest, the plot is a bit of a jumble. Because some of the information comes from psychic impressions, getting from A to B is sometimes a little surreal and hard to follow (but then, so are most of the A-game Noirs). But the set pieces, the gory kills, the strange imagery, the odd insert shots, the Hitchcockian tricks, are all quite effective. Bit of a warning about the animal cruelty, not all of it fake. Oh, and I should also mention the music because I love what Gaslini and Goblin are doing here, possibly an inspiration to John Carpenter's scores.
Also from that year: Jaws, The Rocky Horror Picture Show

1976: In Le locataire (The Tenant), Roman Polanski casts himself as Rosemary (sans baby), ill at ease in his new apartment, surrounded by strange and sinister people. Rental paranoia is one of his things - see also Repulsion. The twist here is that he picked the Parisian flat off of a woman who committed suicide by throwing herself out of the window. This is a haunting, but an entirely psychological one, as living in the woman's shadow causes Trelkovsky to become more and more like the doomed girl through a growing obsession with her life. Trelkovsky's lot in life is to be bullied and brow beaten, and it's this lack of strong identity that causes him to lose himself and teeter off the edge of madness. The shift is a little abrupt, I'll admit, but whether done in by isolation, obsession - or do we want to imagine something more supernatural at work? - The Tenant delivers on quality anxiety rooted in a common experience (or don't you have neighbors?), leading to a crazy ending. It's about the voiding of self; the horror is existential.
Also from that year: Carrie, The Omen

1977: Kind of a Mexican (but English-language) version of Suspiria set in a grotto-based convent, Alucarda is a B-movie fever dream about Satan, possession, and, well, naked girls, but it's much more than that. The relationship between the title character and new arrival Justine can only exist in the Devil's realm because it's wrong by the Church's standards, Catholic orthodoxy painted as a death cult in opposition to Satan's embrace of life and its pleasures. My favorite part of the phantasmagoria is the nuns' habits, which look like blood-drenched bandages, essentially because they flagellate themselves all day, but with more than a little evocation of menstruation. Personally, I was rooting for the Satanists all the way through, even when it spins out of control into undead attack territory. Alucarda has two weaknesses - there's too much screaming and swooning, and the ambivalent figure of the doctor doesn't have a consistent motivation - but with one foot into surrealism, it's more captivating than an exploitation movie would normally be.
Actual best from that year: Eraserhead, House, Suspiria

1978: You've heard of slow burns, well Romero's Dawn of the Dead isn't THAT. We start in crisis mode and we hardly ever leave it. The apocalypse is in full swing, and we'll end up following a couple of television news people and a couple of deputized undead hunters. The eventual setting is a classic, the movie having fun with "mall zombies", but I'll admit I was a little tired of zombie-killing gags by the middle of the picture. There's so much of it, I'd almost call this a procedural. It's when it asks "what then?" that it gets interesting for me. How do you survive and even thrive during a zombie apocalypse once society has well and truly broken down. It's in that only "slow burn" portion that we really get to know the characters and care what happens in the action-packed third act. An often-emulated classic, but it still retains much of its power.
Also from that year: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Halloween

Books: I had resisted the 1990s volume of TwoMorrows' American Comic Book Chronicles because, well, I not only lived through that decade as a comics reader, but it was the time when I bought and read the most comics, to the point of addiction. At the end of the decade, I had to give the hobby up for financial reasons... and that's sort of a mirror of the whole decade, actually. The comic book market had its highest highs in the early 90s, and one of its lowest lows at the end. A lot of the industry's problems can be put at the feet of mismanagement at Marvel, a tale better told in Howe's The Untold Story, but here we get a fuller context. I did lose faith in the authors when it came to synopsizing convoluted 90s storylines, - in so far as I've done a deep dive in Zero Hour for a podcast and that story was completely misrepresented, so what else got bungled? - but I'm sure they're on more solid ground when it comes to the behind the scenes stuff. Overall, I enjoyed the trip down memory lane - it's almost a comedy routine to have all the special chromium covers nerdily referenced in the first half of the book - but it needed a bit of proofreading when it came to what's happening IN the comics themselves (or perhaps even better, spend less time on that).

Paul Leonard's best quality as a Doctor Who writer is in his creation of non-humanoid aliens and their points of view, and that's the best part of Dreamstone Moon, even if I'll always struggle with a bit of cognitive dissonance when humans are made part of a very sci-fi society out in the stars in the same time frame as The Dalek Invasion of Earth (which is really just the fault of the show's aesthetic at the time, I realize). This novel asks the question: "How many times can characters choke on lack of breathable air as a cliffhanger before it becomes a joke?" The other "joke" of course is that Sam and the Doctor have to keep missing each other to extend her adventures without him. Cut the "I want to kiss him" stuff (NuWho didn't really invent this) and this is a pretty good take on Sam Jones, consistent with what went before. The Doctor eventually shows up, but doesn't really become the lead. As far as the plot goes, the reader feels well ahead of the characters for most of it, but may find conclusions have been leapt to. So a pretty standard adventure, enlivened by a lot of local color and intense action/disaster scenes.


LiamKav said...

Yeah, I still can't get over NuKermit. I've never had a problem with any of the other voice replacements... Piggy and Fozzie post-Frank Oz have always sounded fine to me, and with Kermit even though I could tell the difference between Henson's Kermit and Whitmire's Kermit is was close enough that it never bothered me. But Vogel's Kermit just sounds like everyone's bad impression of him. (And I've got nothing against Vogel... He also does Uncle Deadly who I absolutely love.)


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