This Week in Geek (14-20/11/21)


In theaters: If you thought The Grand Budapest Hotel was the most Wes Anderson movie Wes Anderson ever Wes Andersoned, think again. The French Dispatch is so rich in both dialog and imagery, it's going to become a freeze-framing favorite. The film presents the last issue of a writerly American magazine based in an imaginary French town in the 70s, the work of its staff behind the scenes, but also the articles as short films, recalling Jacques Tati and Chris Ware and God knows what else. If you're a French speaker, you'll even get jokes non-bilingual audiences won't. The whole package is a cinematic delight and one of the best anthology films I've ever seen. At one point, I got the giggles, and though it was triggered by a line of dialog, it was really due to an accumulation that had been building since the beginning. Funny-sad, since it's a movie filled with a strange nostalgia, and clearly a tribute not to journalists, but to writers, especially those stylists who have worked in journalistic avenues. True voices. This is where the humor is most subtle and ironic. Frances McDormand's character, for example, has this terse, two-words-a-sentence style, but somehow fills reams and reams of pages. Jeffrey Wright's has an ironclad memory when it comes to remembering his own texts, but none when it comes to other things, second-hand mnemonics that puts doubt on everything he says. And I bet there's a lot more to dig up on repeat viewings. The French Dispatch is a stylish bullet train Wes Anderson fans will want to take again and again until every compartment has been fully delighted in.

At home: In the year where we get a big budget Dune adaptation, it's interesting that we also got a Foundation television series. The trailers looked gorgeous (and indeed, that's true of the series), but despite producers' claims that they'd finally found a way to tell that story cinematically, questions remained as to how it could be done. I guess the answer was to put the books in a blender and broadcast something completely different. I'm not too precious about adaptations; I only ask that the spirit of the original be part of the equation. In this case, while Foundation is a perfectly fine science fiction series with big ideas, its desperate need to keep a fairly intact cast ends up, I think, making the books' OPPOSITE point. Seldon may have put things in motion to subvert history, but he's still a predictor rather than a mover and shaker (at least if you're not gonna use the Prelude books). Even exceptional individuals are doing what they do within predictable social movements, which doesn't give much power to exceptionalism - I'd even go as far as say, what with the Mule from later stories - is a dangerous thing for human history. Here, not only is exceptionalism "good", but it's genetic in nature. Which makes no sense because the failing Empire is represented by an Emperor that clones himself and sits on three generational thrones, as manifest genetic destiny. I suppose this is writer-producer David Goyer's obsession with "magic blood", something you'll find in most of his work. Following the Emperor(s) as their world crumbles is interesting, but complete invention in regards to the books. Someone pitched this at the height of Game of Thrones fever, perhaps. To keep actors employed, the show also introduces Fate as a force quite outside what psycho-history should be able to do, which again, shows a misunderstanding (or wilful ignorance) of the root material. Collapsing the timeline seems wrong-headed when you're supposed to be telling a 1000-year story (Asimov himself barely broke 500 himself). Salvor Hardin's original solution to the first Crisis is referenced as an evil of the Empire, while the show does something else entirely. And I would have thought a homogeneous Empire was part of the book series' point, abandoned for a more interesting setting, I'll admit. So it kept me interested, and often because I wanted to see how elements would be mixed in, but is it really Foundation? Probably not. in other words, the "unfilmable" story remains unfilmed.

Lin-Manuel Miranda directs Jonathan Larson's tick, tick…BOOM! with the same creativity he brought his big screen adaptation of In the Hights, and it's no obvious thing. The musical was a biographical monologue with Larson himself as the star, often sitting at a piano, with other performers on stage to fill out the music. The adaptation uses that as a framing tale, spinning the stories out into their own realistic, or sometimes fantastic scenes, paying tribute, the same way Larson does aurally, to the music of the late 80s and early 90s. Andrew Garfield is great as Larson himself, trying to get his first musical made - the prescient science-fiction fable Superbia - and experiencing the moments that will inevitably lead to his one big hit, Rent. Though for Miranda, the second-hand means he's working in the genre of biography, his subject is also his writer working in the genre of autobiography, but as filtered through musical theater. The music is fun, the story is poignant in its honesty, and when Miranda wrangles some Broadway luminaries for cameos, theater nerds couldn't help but smile. I'm not a particular fan of Rent myself, but seeing this has made me more appreciative of it.

50 Years of Horror/2011: Michael Biehn writes and directs himself in The Victim, a cheaply-made indie horror-thriller that has his woodland cabin life disturbed by a terrified girl running from murderous crooked cops. While not without interest, especially in the third act (I've always liked Biehn when he's on edge), the first act is a bit disjointed and even at 82 minutes, the movie's got quite a lot of padding - driving around to music and so on. The girl's flashbacks seem to promise a twist, but simultaneously voids any of the more interesting turns the story might take. There IS a twist, but it's not exactly unpredictable. And then there's the goofy curtain call in the credits, covering not just the actors but every job on the movie. In a way, it's kind of like a small DVD extra. On the other, it quickly undoes any chill you might be left with.
Actual best from that year: The Cabin in the Woods, Fright Night, Detention

2012: In Antiviral, Brandon Cronenberg has made one of the palest movies in existence. Pale-faced actors movie through sterile white spaces, maybe with a bloody red accent. It's stark, but it's cold, like its story that engages intellectually, but not necessarily viscerally. In this wonky dystopian near-future, celebrity culture has gotten to the point that there's money to be made from viruses that have coursed through a star's body. This, and other ways to "commune" with celebs (not to say "consume" them) are available both legitimately and on the black market. Our protagonist works for both and gets more than he bargained for when a deadly supervirus comes along. I suppose the metaphor here is that celebrity culture is a sickness, toxic for both the star and their fans. If obsession with celebrity was already seen as a disease ravaging our culture in 2012, we didn't know how bad it would get. Antiviral's take on it isn't as scary. As a movie, it's intriguing and original, but I did find the world-building a little oblique at first, and it's far more about the ideas than any of the characters.
Also from that year: Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Maniac, The Battery

2013: Ben Wheatley's A Field in England is an oddity built of oddities. Shot in moody black and white, it tells the tale of four deserters walking away from a battle during the English Civil War. Then a fifth man shows up and his sorcerer's ways peg him as devilish and things get really strange - actors in unmoving tableaux, a man dragged out of nowhere with a massive rope, and a beautiful wizarding battle using optical effects and strobe-editing (worth the price of admission just for that). So what's happening? It's a Wheatley film, so we're unlikely to all agree on a single explanation. Certainly, there's a pervasive sense that we're in a kind of Purgatory where souls cyclically purge sins such as cowardice, pride, gluttony and lust. Is Whitehead's master an astrologer, God Himself, or the sin that governs his actions? Or is none of that important, it just happens to be a thought I had early on through which I interpreted the proceedings? But even if you're not looking for (or at least finding) answers, A Field in England still has some stylish moments, nice music (I like the soldier's song), humor, and some excellent, literary dialog.
Also from that year: Stoker, The Conjuring, Oculus, The Purge

2014: Once upon a time, Kevin Smith and his producer Scott Mosier improvised a most ridiculous body horror movie on a podcast, and seemingly on a dare, made the damn thing. Tusk is that film. At first one of Smith's shock jock comedies, it begins with a high-profile podcaster flying to Winnipeg to get a story he and his partner can gracelessly mock (and allow Smith his loving comedy tribute to Canada), but he stumbles on a madman with a twisted relationship to walruses. Some atmosphere starts to set in. Unfortunately, what happens next IS a ridiculous riff on body horror flicks like Human Centipede, but it doesn't really work tonally. If played entirely straight, it might have achieved a kind of art house splendor. As is, the cheesy earnestness of some scenes feels like a mistake. And while I know Kevin Smith loves his dialogues, there's just too much talking in this, often to repeat information the audience already has. Every conversation needs pruning. And then there's Johnny Depp, nearly unrecognizable as a French-Canadian detective, a silly caricature who wastes a lot of our time. His flashback to meeting the killer grinds things to an unforgivable halt. I'll give him points for trying to do something like this, but Smith needs a more ruthless editor than... (checks) himself.
Actual best from that year: What We Do in Shadows, It Follows, The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Spring, Zombeavers

2015: The Final Girls is a fun dissection of the slasher genre, as five young people get pulled into a cheesy Friday the 13th clone called Camp Bloodbath and have to survive armed only with knowledge of the plot and horror movie tropes. Often clever if also a little wonky at times, the movie surprises by having some heart too. It could have been just a high concept horror comedy and been fine, but the stakes are more personal thanks to Taissa Farmiga's character having lost her mother, who plays a character in the movie. Is this really a chance to hang out with her mom again, or for that matter, to change the script and somehow resurrect her? Not that the movie ever takes itself too seriously. I'd put this on a double-bill with Happy Death Day and enjoy the wild ride.
Also from that year: The Witch, Bone Tomahawk, Crimson Peak, Krampus, The Lure

2016: I wasn't a big fan of the first one - it was fine - so I like The Conjuring 2: European Vacation more, even if it has some of the same weaknesses, which a lot of Stephen King also shares. These kinds of hauntings often play out as one creepy gag after another when I just want the movie to get on with the plot. And in this case, there's quite a lot of that, making the movie bust the reasonable 2-hour mark. I suppose since this is based on a documented haunting, James Wan wanted to get it all in there, but we've also got to follow the occult investigators in parallel, long before they arrive in London. If I still like this better than the original is mainly because I am better invested in the haunted family, and even kind of resent the Warrens swooping in to save them. Though I'm totally into their wholesome married romance. Not the first time Wan has given me a movie with just a little too much going on, with some threads at odds with the overall story, but what works, works well, at least in isolation.
Also from that year: Train to Busan, The Love Witch, Ouija: Origin of Evil

2017: There's a difference between twisted and convoluted, and I think Jang Hang-jun's Forgotten manages the first without falling into the second's trappings. Over the course of its run time, you have to adjust your interpretation of what's happening several times, but you never get lost. You might grieve for one iteration of the story as it becomes another, but the intrigue sustains your interest. I think the trick, when compared to twists that make audiences groan, is that here they are really pivots. Not a climax shocker, but something that sends you into another half-hour of story (and then it happens again). Avoiding spoilers, we can talk about the atmospheric set-up, as an anxious young man moves house with his family and is soon hearing things bump in the night. Even we, the audience, find a certain oddness that translates as anxiety, an outsider feeling that makes the protagonist question who his family really is, whether they're on his side or not, and whether his whole life is a lie. In fact, does this movie belong in the horror, thriller, or tragedy aisle? Hard to categorize and difficult to predict.
Also from that year: Get Out, Happy Death Day, It Comes at Night, Revenge, It, Dave Made a Maze

2018: After the Raid movies, I wouldn't have expected Gareth Evans to make a slow-burn horror film (though he did contribute to one of the V/H/S anthologies), but that's what Apostle is. A perpetually grumpy-faced Dave Stevens infiltrates an island-based cult to rescue his abducted sister, rails against religion generally, and finds there may actually be something supernatural going on. Then turns get violent and it's a bit of a slaughter show, not quite on par with what's been promised. The way I describe Stevens' performance is pretty much how I see the whole film, as one-note, with deviations either jarring or silly (as when Evans uses some of his Raid kinetics for a few seconds here or there). The participation of interesting actors (like Michael Sheen as the island prophet, and Sing Street's Lucy Boynton has his daughter) enlivens what is essentially an undercover agent story, but the third act feels like the writer-director got bored with his take on Wicker Man and had to turn it into an action movie.
Actual best from that year: A Quiet Place, Hereditary, Annihilation, Suspiria, Halloween, Mandy

2019: Whether the supernatural stuff in Saint Maud is really happening or just in the protagonist's mind is a matter of what you want to (or can) believe as an audience member, which mirrors the exploration of Maud's own faith in a way. She's a zealous at-home nurse caring for a dying hedonistic dancer (is it just me, or could Jennifer Ehle play Meryl Streep in a movie?), a set-up that invites corruption in a Black Narcissus kind of a way. Narcissus is actually a good mythical figure to bring up in this context because Maud falls into a particular Christian trap, that of Pride. Though her relationship with God is nothing short of rapturous - with libidinous undertones of lesbianism and masochism - her belief that God has a Purpose for her with a capital "P" and that she might be this dying woman's "saviour", is pure hubris. Writer-director Rose Glass has looked at the Lives of the Saints and Martyrs and asked, what if these kinds of stories were to happen today... Would we interpret them as testaments to faith, or delusions of a diseased mind? Though stylistically in the same vein as most "serious" horror films these days - desaturated tableaux and thrombing music - Ross has a couple new tricks up her sleeve, like when the movie essentially speaks in tongues. It may be too "psychological" for most people's horror section, but it certainly delivers quality disturbia.
Also from that year: The Lighthouse, Midsommar, Us, Little Monsters, It Chapter 2, Ready or Not, The Dead Don't Die

2020: Christopher Landon tries to repeat the success of Happy Death Day with Freaky, exchanging Groundhog Day for Freaky Friday in his slasher mix and... It's okay fluff. The thing about body swapping movies is that I find their believability hinges on the actors being able to give one another's performances. And Vince Vaughn as a teenage girl is about as believable as Kathryn Newton being the perpetually bullied high school loser (though she can definitely play a psycho killer). Despite a couple of gory moments, Freaky is really more teen comedy than horror film, and the stakes feel pretty low when you realize killing off any of Newton's friends would be unbearable, and that only bad people are going to die. So when there is a particularly bloody moment (and there are some very good kill gags, mostly loaded up front), it's at odds with the tone (as is, for example, the rapey band of jocks). Watchable? Sure. In a middling Buffy episode kind of way.
Actual best from that year: His House, The Invisible Man, Possessor, The Night House

Role-playing: FINALLY! Almost 20 years in the making! I return to my GURPS Shiftworld story, with two of my four players returning and eager to see how the story ends. We've been talking about this in my Let's Roll podcast, but in short, Shiftworld  is a concept by which the world around the Player Characters mysteriously changes genres and eras around them, and they find they have several sets of memories, remembering other parallels, but also full histories of whatever new reality I throw at them. How is this happening is what will be answered in this final act, which will play out over the coming months. For this first chapter, I didn't want us to feel overwhelmed with rules, and also had to reintroduce the lost Spade brother to the continuity. Awkward mechanic Willie Jay (or really, his player Bebert) had left town first, breaking up a trio made up of his older brother, upright citizen Johnny and his roguish younger brother Virgil "Ace" Spade. We'd sent the character off to "Canada" while the campaign was doing Steampunk stuff, which over the shifts had become other destinations. We pick things up in GURPS Time Travel where the brothers are temporal agents and Willie was sent "downtime" to the Mid-Permian Period to study primeval Earth. At the start of the adventure, Bebert had to bide his time until Pout, playing Ace, got to him. The downtime station is not responding, the brother who breaks all the rules enters the time tunnel to see what's up. Well, the Archenemy from the start of the campaign who'd died at the end of Act 1 is back, somehow, and he was experimenting on Willy... and after a quick fight with a stray dimetrodon, the boys "clock back" to the present, except that they're caught in a shift while in transit and find themselves in Mythical Greece. The twist: Willy's ability to properly shift has been taken from him, and while Ace is now a Greek hero (reconfiguring his character sheet pending), Willy still has his Time Travel mind and none of his high-tech skills apply! The rest of the session was spent staring at maps of the Aegean Sea to translate Willy's anachronistic clues into this new world view, but it's all Greek to him! Can he recover his lost essence? Stay tuned!