This Week in Geek (4-10/09/22)


At home: A Friday the 13th clone to be sure, The Burning still has its innovations, but also, some historical value. It's the first Miramax film (and if you're worried that "Story by Howard Weinstein" means the sexual politics of this thing are a little revealing, you would totally be justified - nothing too bad, fortunately, but still revealing), and among its stars, we find young Jason Alexander and even young Fisher Stevens in their first movie roles. Alexander in particular seems to be having a lot of fun playing a "teenager" and it sounds like he's ad libbing most of the way. If you want to think of this as George Constanza's origin story, I think you totally can. It is also Holly Hunter's first movie, but it's such a small role, I didn't even notice. Throw in some prime Tom Savini make-up effects, usually more gory on the male characters than the female ones (as well as an unusually large survival rate) and you've got a watchable summer camp anxiety movie, with a fun use of the camp fire tale, good woodland locations, and an atypical weapon.

A musical Noir starring Cyd Charisse? Yes, please. Party Girl turns out to be an uneven Noir, perhaps because it abandons the "party girl" for gangsters too often and for too long, but if Charisse is on screen, then I'm happy. She plays a Follies girl, older and wiser than the rest, in 1930s Chicago, who falls for the mob's star lawyer (Robert Taylor). Their love will make him rethink his career decisions, but it's the same love that could become his Achilles heel when his bosses don't appreciate the gesture. Taylor is quite good as the cool cucumber with a lot of tricks of his sleeve, but the most interesting thing about the movie is having Charisse punctuate the action with three musical numbers, each subtly referencing where she is at that point in the picture. Well chosen, well choreographed, and of course terrifically danced, these pieces are much more than the usual musical interludes that pepper other Hollywood films for the sake of variety. Between this stylistic flair and level of sexuality and violence, a little shocking for 1958, Party Girl does rise above the chaff.

I have no history with Barbara Streisand beyond her obvious iconic status. In fact, as I sat down to watch Funny Girl, I checked and discovered I'd never seen a movie she was in before. Here she reprises a role she made famous on Broadway, that of unusual Follies star Fanny Brice, who managed to turned most numbers into quirky comedy sketches, otherwise a self-proclaimed "ugly duckling" among the Ziegfeld girls. I've seen many "show people" musicals, and too often, the lead is at once conceited and insecure, but when the Follies are evoked, at least the production values are high, and Brice's comedy takes are very entertaining. It's when Funny Girl wallows in biopic elements (as off the mark as they might be) that it gets tedious for me, despite giving us some of the better songs ("People Who Love People", "Sadie, Married Lady"). Omar Sharif makes a suave gambler-about-town, but his marriage to Streisand's Fanny (cough) quickly turns to melodrama and takes us away from the stage AND from the humor. Starts off well, and I acknowledge its place in musical history, but Funny Girl too quickly turns into Sad Lady.

One of the many weird things about 1983's Valley Girl is that someone thought it made sense to capitalize on Frank and Moon Unit Zappa's "Valley Girl", which is apparently why this movie was green-lit. Deborah Foreman is sweet and cute as the eponymous character who goes for a young, free-spirited Nicolas Cage, but finds resistance in her group of friends and thinks of going back to her jerky old beau (Michael Bowen, who will have a long career playing creeps). Supplemented with a cool New Wave soundtrack that benefits for unusual choices (did 80s music get truly bad AFTER 1983?) and some amusing performances from the Valley Girl's parents, it's still a bit of a mess. It almost has something to say about peer "programming", but doesn't really (like, how is the "punk" Cage any less programmed by HIS environment?), and indulges in a "Stacey's Mom Has Got It Going On" subplot (no, really, how is this movie not the origin of that song?) that doesn't really go anywhere. And guys, we eventually need to have a conversation about the alternate reality presented in so many American films where High School Juniors and Seniors are overwhelmingly 18-year-olds.

Long before Rachel Talalay was a Doctor Who director of note, she made the frankly underrated Tank Girl movie. I can't claim to be an expert on the comic - I've read a couple of strips, nothing big - and the liberal use of Jamie Hewlett's artwork throughout is 100% cooler than anything caught in live action, but as a quirky, fem-driven, punk Mad Max, it's a lot of fun. I admit, it took me a while to accept Lori Petty in the role, her voice a little too babyish for the character, but once we're out of the somewhat bleak "origin" portion, and she played Tank Girl's insolence as a super-power more and more, I got into it. The girl power and female gaze of this thing would fit today's cinematic landscape, probably better than 1995's, and I love that they go for it and throw in a musical number. There's in fact a lot of musical cred to this thing, from the cool soundtrack supervised by one Courtney Love, to featured roles for Ice-T (who along with Reg E. Cathey, plays a kangaroo warrior) and Iggy Pop (as a perv). It might be worth it just for the many recognizable faces, including an early role for Naomi Watts. Tank Girl's tone is hard to nail down, with the first act a little violent for the cartoonishness that comes later, but it still left me with a satisfied smile.

Juzo Itami's last film, Woman in Witness Protection, is another bubbly crime comedy starring his muse Nobuko Miyamoto, this time as a famous, conceited actress who sees a violent murder and is placed under police protection lest the cult that's behind the crime try to prevent her from testifying. It's great fun, especially the evolving relationship between her and her two police bodyguards, one a fan, the other who doesn't see the point of movies. The Antony and Cleopatra elements are particularly amusing and well-integrated. And though the Miyamoto is playing the (literal) drama queen big, the caricature drops in more serious moments, as she gets deeper and deeper into the very real danger posed by these criminal zealots, so we know there's an act within the act; she's human. Comedy or not, when bad things happen, the movie is suspenseful and dramatic. Itami juggles tones with ease here, and provides even the smallest character with a personality and some distinctive quirks to make them memorable.

How did Hiroshi Teshigahara make Woman in the Dunes? When such a thought comes into my head at various points in a movie, you've already won me over on the technicals. Teshigahara starts by making a sandy beach into a sinister space, as only he could, then moves the action to a house absurdly built in a sand pit, where an insect collector is tricked into helping the woman living there dig to feed a factory somewhere in this village. The sand's erosive qualities acts as a corruptive influence, gets into everything, and creates a situation that's prime existentialist cinema. There are many filters to watch this through, including a supernatural one (if you told me the woman was a sand spirit/demon, I could be convinced). It's also the picture of a marriage of convenience, where the characters are doomed to dig themselves out of debt for the rest of their lives. Even keeping a roof above one's head is an ordeal in this universe. Beyond that surface, it can be about an human endeavor, and finding joy/life in an inescapable world built on cruelty, God's own insect collection. And lest I make it sound like it can only be understood from an intellectual position, it also works as a "mad village" thriller (The Wicker Man, etc.), but with an atypical location that must have been a real bear to shoot in. Needless to say, it looks AMAZING.

Despite its minimalism - stark, naturalistic conversations, sometimes assisted by a cheap camera zoom - The Woman Who Ran is a subtle and absorbing piece of Korean cinema. Kim Min-hee (The Handmaiden) plays Gam-hee, a woman who, during her husband's business trip, visits three old friends. Repetitions in each chapter act like poetic rhymes and make us double back to what we know, or think we know, of Gam-hee's story. If she is the Woman Who Ran, did she run from these friends, this life? Or is she running NOW? Clues wrapped in ironies lead us to wonder, given what we apprehend late in the film, what she was thinking in certain moments, no doubt comparing her friends' lives to her own. Each chapter includes an awkward door scene, none more cringe-worthy than the first (with the robber cat), so I particularly love that one. My favorite IRONY is when one friend questions whether her own husband is insincere, going around the country repeating the same things at book events, followed by Gam-hee repeating word for word something she used in an earlier conversation. It's all theater of the banal, but somehow resonates. What I first thought was inexpensive (not to say cheap) indie slice of life soon grew on me as the lead character was brought to life.

Before Crouching Tiger, Ang Lee was best know for Eat Drink Man Woman, a straight family drama in which a father considers life after his three daughters leave the nest, as its seems their lives and loves threaten to make them do. He's a chef, so there's lots of food porn, and perhaps a sense that the exact dishes say something about the situation, but I don't know enough about Chinese cuisine to make that call. And while food movies usually make me say "I'd try that!", not so much this one. There are branches of Chinese cuisine that are rather off-putting to the casual foodie. In any case, the idea of food is equated with that of love (family, but also romantic), as in, what do people NEED. Food, water, companionship. The three daughters' stories all track the later quest, each in their own context (age/job), with only the youngest daughter's a bit forgettable. But no matter the character's age in this, it's about looking up and assessing where you are in life and what you need to prosper as a person, then go get it. For some, it's easy; for others, complicated. Director Lee brings his usual sensitivity to a touching, if soapy, portrait of a family in transition.

RPGs: Played the back-half of the Aysle adventure in the Torg Eternity's Day One product, in which the player characters discover the "Land Between", a giant, diverse dungeon space that connects Aysle to our world and through which the Dark--I mean High Lord invaded Core Earth. There was a fun ally dwarf NPC to meet, evil Possibility-sucking priests to defeat, and a little girl with a special destiny to save, before going back to the surface where the "Dragon Slayers" had a destiny of their own. This chapter gave us a lot of opportunities to fiddle with magic, which I wanted to get a good handle on, and provided our first real "Disconnection" from the realm, a mechanic that takes away characters' special abilities (like access to magic) and that was important to me too before we get out of what I still call the tutorial phase. On the Forge side of things, this is where I taught myself flickering torch light effects and putting objects on the maps, the latter the more important skill. Now, it's rather easy to do fantasy with these online tools - everything seems geared to that genre - so future games are going to be more graphic work-intensive. But though fantasy is hardly my favorite genre, that ease of design made it fun for me, and I liked the strangeness that can go into a fantastical world (like the dwarf's dragon armor, the bone temple, etc.) more than the types of threats available (which suffer from my long-lasting D&D fatigue). Still, I think your group is more important than the setting.
Best bits: For the second session in a row, Player Pout was in my head, because he claimed an arachnophobia MINUTES BEFORE the group walked into a nest of giant spiders! We used it. Pout also did well learning a Haste spell mid-game, because that proved the superspeed key to defeating the villains in record time. The priests hopefully learned that building a temple out of bones and hanging it in the middle of a subterranean abyss is perhaps not a good idea - Players Will and Fabien took particular joy at pushing bad guys into week spots in the floor. Unfortunately, the One Ring wasn't used enough to push the thief to the dark(est) side.