This Week in Geek (11-17/09/22)


At home: Elementary school is over and a group of kids find themselves sneaking into the condemned apartment building where they used to live. Suddenly, the building it out at sea, drifting to parts unknown and the kids are thrown into a survival situation. Then things get weirder still. The movie is Drifting Home - a play on words signifying the building, but also that sense of growing apart from others while necessarily moving closer to who you were always going to be (i.e. "home") - the director is Penguin Highway's Hiroyasu Ishida. While there are several relationships worth caring about, the heart of the film is the broken friendship of Natsume and Kosuke, the mystery behind which unfolds as the building-ship coasts along in what can only be called a housing afterlife. The theme of moving on is strong, and much of the drama stems from the kids having a difficult time saying goodbye to a former home and the memories they associate with it. But from the top view, it's also about letting go past trauma, or just simply, the Past with a capital P. They may only be moving on to Junior High, but it's still a big step. Sometimes, you need to leave childish things and behaviors behind. It's very charming, pleasantly original, and well characterized. I don't need to sell you on the technical quality of high-end anime, though in this case, I'm deducting some points for the Netflix (non HD) presentation, which seemed to pixelate some weather effects and such. Not too many points, as I bet the movie looks tons better in HD/not on streamers.

It's not wrong to compare Good Boys to Superbad, but by taking 6 years off the characters, an endearing innocence wraps the film in a warm blanket. The protagonists have a very nice friendship, but it's being tested by an early coming of age (which feels very modern) as puberty changes some boys' priorities. They are definitely "good boys" who want to do the right thing, respect authority figures, and have learned all about consent (so that kissing party they've been invited to is not gonna go down the way sex comedies traditionally went). But peer pressure is a corruptive agent, and the boys are soon making one bad decision after another, sending them on a wild adventure that forces them to break the rules. Speaking of rules, it still respects the rules of the genre, but the sex stuff goes over the kids' heads, they have an absolute "just say no" attitude towards drug use, and they use foul language, but not always appropriately. So while this is a very nice story of childhood friendships and how they evolve, and I think entirely appropriate for kids this age, the "sex comedy" trappings may or may not be every parent's cup of tea. Well, I think 6th-graders today are a lot more "aware" and like these particular kids than parents would like to admit. But Good Boys may only be good for older audiences who might respond to the incongruity between material and presented age group, or the movie's essential nostalgia for simpler days.

I love a good con movie, and Buffaloed combines the genre with a bit of financial tell-all (there's a Big Short moment, but I wouldn't say it's the same kind of movie), as our girl Peg Dahl (Zoey Deutch), a petty scammer who knows how to push people's buttons, decides that when she can't beat her family's crushing debt, she should join the debt collectors and put her skills to "good" use. It's a comedy and plays on extremes, but the whole debt collection thing actually is a racket, so the misdeeds portrayed are unfortunately quite real. Peg is not a very likeable person, but she is nevertheless a heroine (anti-heroine?) who you want to see succeed, so long as it's not at the expense of good people. A fun cast surrounds Peg and the bad guys are slimes who deserve all that's coming to them. The city of Buffalo is also well used and gives the movie a sense of place and an originality your garden-variety New York and L.A. movies can't aspire to. More amusing than incisive, perhaps, but certainly a good time in front of the television.

All through Extraction - which had Chris Hemsworth trying to recover the guileless teenage son of an Indian drug lord from a BENGLADESHI drug lord - I thought, this really feels like it was written with South America in mind. Come to realize at the end that the movie is adapted from the graphic novel Ciudad, so yeah, it was. But I do appreciate the change of venue, as it's one of the things that helps distinguish Extraction from the pack. It's certainly not its essential plot, nor even, at this point, its style of action. Because it's definitely inspired by John Wick, or perhaps more directly, Atomic Blonde (another graphic novel that the director, Sam Hargrave, worked on as stunt supervisor - he also did a bunch of Marvel films, so he's got the action cred). One particular sequence with no obvious cuts is pretty masterful, but as a whole corrupt city starts to grind down on Hemsworth and his young charge, it gets progressively less interesting, I fear. Extraction is action-driven almost to the point of proceduralism, which isn't to say the characters are cardboard figures, not at all, and in fact, this may be Hemsworth's most dramatic role in terms of what he has to show on screen, but it's also so linear that it's hard to do more than glance at more artful elements, like the transference between him and the kid. The unsung star here is Golshifteh Farahani as his mission ops controller. I wanted to see more of her.

I know it's hard to like later-day Van Damme, but I think 6 Bullets stands up. My three favorite Van Damme personas are (in no particular order): JCVD who laughs at himself, JCVD with contrived national origin, and sad JCVD. 6 Bullets is an example of the latter. He plays an expert at doing the things Liam Neeson does in Taken, going up against human trafficking rings to get kids out of such nests in Eastern Europe, but he's made mistakes, and he's tortured. Tortured and prone to big-picture mistakes, but immensely competent and cool while doing it. We're not gonna make believe this is an original story, but the action has its memorable moments, the parents of the girl come along and have something to contribute, and the story makes sense (which isn't always a given with direct-to-whatever action flicks. The title refers to a quote about human trafficking, but there's not a WHOLE LOT of gun action from Van Damme, who prefers knives in this one. Well good, because guns is the least interesting kind of action someone like JCVD can do.

Made with relative little means, outside the studio system, and looking like a special effects audition reel at times, Skyline has been described as Independence Day on a budget, but its closest analog is really Cloverfield - an alien invasion with giant monsters and protagonists who are NOT the heroes who will fight back, but doomed bystanders caught up in events, among then, 24's Eric Balfour, NCIS's Scottie Thompson, and Dexter's David Zayas. Though obviously derivative, it gets crazier and crazier and scores a lot of points with me for just how far it goes (also, for feeling like the Torg RPG). Folks, it's WAY better than most reviews would have you believe, or that "by the directors of AvP: Requiem" would have you expect. The first half hour is pretty weak - definite issues of clarity as to who these people are and why we should care - but once the invasion happens, it's a non-stop survival roller-coaster. And the effects? A couple of dodgy moments, but for the most part quite good, on ANY budget. The techno-organic aliens are interesting and there's good integration between the effects and the live action. I don't know what people are complaining about. Its writer would go on to write and direct two sequels, so there's definitely something to it, in a Resident Evil kind of way (i.e. it's insane, turn brain to the off position and enjoy).

Seven years after the original, Beyond Skyline ALSO starts with Day One of the Los Angeles invasion, but with Frank Grillo in the lead as a cop trying to protect his son and the small group that assembles around them during these events. Though audiences seem to give this straight-to-streamers sequel more of a pass than the original, I disagree. For one thing, the pacing is all over the map. The first half hour repeats many of the beats of Skyline, so quickly that viewers coming to this one first will fear they just had an aneurysm. I'm not even sure the timeline works and was always asking how much time had passed between set pieces (to be fair, I had the same problem with the original, to a lesser degree). We see more of the aliens, but giving them humanoid forms makes them more generic and leads to a lot of rubber suit fighting right out of the Guyver or something. The effects are, in fact, a lot dodgier than in the first movie. When it moves to Southeast Asia and Grillo pairs up with Laotian rebels (including The Raid's Iko Uwais), the action gets better, but then there's a magic blood plot point right out of a David S. Goyer script and my attention started to wander. As a director, Liam O’Donnell has even more problems with clarity than the Strause Brothers did. But the connections he draws between the two stories as a writer sows seeds of a third film...

If we label every entry in the franchise as derivative, Skylines (Skylin3s?) is essentially Starship Troopers, with Earth's forces now taking the fight to the aliens' planet. It's not bad. Now that the "starchild" (my word... well, V's) has grown up, she's a competent if reluctant heroine (The 100's Lindsey Morgan), and the mission also includes Alexander Siddig as a cold, calculating general. Back on Earth, Rhona Mitra is a gun-toting doctor fighting a plague that reestablishing the conditioning of the aliens' victims. Yayan Ruhian turns out to be the coolest recurring character, and no one saw it coming. Structurally, this is better than Beyond (Slylin2?) and much easier to follow despite cutting back and forth between worlds. It's mostly that the stakes, while spelled out often, aren't really all that clear. I have a friend who can't follow a film if there's a MacGuffin in play and we always tell her, it's not important, it's just a thing people want/need, a button they need to push, etc. I felt like her in this instance, so I guess sometimes it IS important to be clear about WHY characters are doing what they do. In terms of effects and overall action, it's better than its predecessor. Would I watch a fourth? Sure, in the same junky way I watched all the Resident Evils. There are just enough crazy moments to make it worthwhile for action SF fans.

One of the gooeyest horror schlock this side of The Boxer's Omen, Slugs will be admired by fans for its crazy gore effects. But let's not kid each other, while this flick is extremely fun to holler at - for the bad acting, the unmotivated conflicts, the characters' stupid decisions, the 80s fashions, even the terrible driving - it's often a big mess. Its mix of American and dubbed Spanish actors leads to some of the stupidest line readings, but also creates a world where certain characters are just never on location in Upstate New York where the action takes place. The music cues - oh my giddy aunt, the music! - appear to be pulled from free-to-use archives and change in tone with every scene (and don't really repeat). Early on, you do get the sense that this is a collage of vignettes - I almost wanted it to be new characters getting killed by flesh-eating garden slugs every scene, with no plot attached - so it's not just the music. It's the best kind of schlock in that it's fun to mock, but has real shocks (especially for the weak of heart... or stomach). But it's also not very good technically, except in the goo fx department.

Cat owners are going to like Inside the Mind of a Cat, but let's be real - it's a fluff piece. In terms of the information, it did update some of the research, but for the most part, it's stuff I, a veteran cat owner, already knew. For the most part, though I liked seeing some of the psychological experiments, it's all quite surface level. The main reason is that despite the title, it's not all about the mind of the house cat. Segments on physiology, history and America's Got Talent cat trainers are thrown in, along with lots of internet cat videos. Sure, it's cute, but it doesn't do what it says on the tin. For cat lovers, there's ample confirmation bias that they are the best companions, and that may be enough. I do recommend it for new or prospective cat owners. There's just enough there to give them quick insight as they embark on the wild and unpredictable adventure of having a still pretty feral creature in the house. I once saw a similar program on TV (there was one on dogs too, or was it a series?) that was much more insightful in terms of feline psychology, so sorry Netflix, you need to try harder to really get me on board.

Improv: This week, I was in and helped orchestrate an improvised slasher. Sang-Titre (a play on "sans titre" - untitled - and the word "sang" - blood) was an experiment in seeing if we could elicit fear during an improv show. Comedy is the old standby (and in the final result, there were a lot of laughs), but we didn't want to produce some kind of "Scary Movie" parody. It's harder to make people cry with improv, but still very doable. FEAR, however, is a bit of a holy grail. Now, obviously, I'm an old hat at long form improv, but even in a practised play, it would be difficult to show the kill shots that make a slasher a bloody slasher. And yet, we dared. So the audience walks into the cabaret-style space and are handed a ticket with the pictures of our six performers. One on side they must use a one-hole punch to perforate the face of the person they want to be the killer, on the other of the person they want to be the "final girl". All the while, eerie music/ambiance plays (like, for 40 minutes, the point is to make people edgy). The set shows the interior of a grotty cabin on one side, and a forest on the other. I play the presenter, sitting at a fire, setting it up as a camp fire tale, and I let the stars do their thing. One of the problems with a costumed killer is that 1) it would be over-obvious who it is from the body type and 2) putting the costume on and off is a bear, so I was to play the killer through the second act, until there are too few characters for it to matter. So here I am, running through secret curtained corridors to get to my victims, in three layers of cloakage, with a mask on in the dark. We had practiced each person's death to prevent dangerous movements, elbows to the face and black eyes, timed to a jump scare sting that included anxiety breathing, all to help the tech people cue the red lighting associated with the kill. Between the lighting and the sound design, we hoped the murders would seem more real, and hide the fact that our "gore" was really red ribbons (come coming out of fanny packs, etc.). Hard to tell if this was shocking to the audience, especially given that our only real thought was to make the deaths ironic in some way, which could be funny (and in at least two instances, deliberately was). The only scare I can truly attest to was a jump scare I engineered when I came in through the audience instead of one of my usual curtains slits, went behind someone, touched them and they jumped out of their skin when they saw "Death" standing there (before rushing to the stage to kill a character). But there WAS an audible gasp when the killer was revealed, so SOMEone was invested enough to get a shock from it. The last scare done, I returned to the fire to book-end the camp fire tale and added a more existential fear element, telling the audience they were actually responsible for the carnage, since their votes directed the killer's knife. So think about all the blood on YOUR hands. Hopefully, that gave people a bit of a chill. DID the experiment work? I'm still collating data, reaching out to people who were there to see how it worked on them, but early results give us shock and tension, but the jokes distracted from a real sense of dread or fear. Still, the show definitely proved itself as something that could be done with permutations over and over, with different characters, locations and solutions.