This Week in Geek (30/10-05/11/22)


Got myself TwoMorrows' Team-Up Companion by Michael Eury, thinking it may come in useful for the FW Team-Up Podcast.


In theaters: Produced in the death throes of the Synderverse, Black Adam has many of the hallmarks of this dull-as-dishwater take on the DC Universe - that old color palette, overuse of slow motion, characters chosen to line Geoff Johns' pockets with trade paperback money, the destruction porn in which countless must die unseen and unacknowledged, and less forgivable, the moral is that heroes SHOULD kill and that those that don't are a little hokey. Worse, it accidentally(?) presents middle eastern people as preferring brutal violence to any other solution - even the university professor who doesn't want her kid to learn violence cheers Black Adam on (but then this is a movie where many things happen because the script says they should, and you're left wanting an explanation). Robbed of his best asset, Dwayne Johnson has no twinkle in this and it's up to the Justice Society to provide the character humor and charm (they succeed). The DCEU playing catch-up means mainstream audiences will find the JSA largely derivative of MCU characters even if half of them predate Marvel's, but they also do push these adaptations nearer the MCU than is needed. Dr. Fate's time-play is closer to Dr. Strange than he ever was in the comics. Hawkman being on par with Black Adam thanks to a super-metal invites comparisons with Black Panther (Ninth/Nth Metal predates Vibranium, but Hawkman isn't Superman-class in the comics), Atom-Smasher with Ant-Man, and Amanda Waller with Nick Fury... And what is up with all the heroes acting under the direction of the DCEU's most despicable Amanda Waller?! When the JSA is essentially accused of Imperialism and American Interventionism, it's absolutely correct, but it's also a smear on their characters. And I thought we were done with the trope of the stupid annoying kid who causes a bunch of problems - kid, you're no John Connor even if you've ripped off his T2 arc. As a comic book reader of a certain vintage, I care about the JSA and not a jot about Black Adam, but the DCEU is so morally bankrupt, it's always going to leave a bad taste in my mouth no matter how many characters I like, actors I like and pretty pictures it throws at me.

At home: I love the way Barbarian starts. A woman goes to an Airbnb and finds a man already staying there, victim of a booking screw-up. They decide to be room mates for the duration, but can she trust him? Everything is designed to raise your hackles up, especially if you're a woman, and I wish this had been the movie. Not that I don't appreciate the pivot, or indeed, both pivots, but it does suddenly become something else. Ultimately, while Barbarian has a very strong creep factor, and has original ideas, it's just trying to say too much at the same time. There's the #metoo movement, the different safety perspectives of men and women, Detroit as a decaying America wrapped in the devolution of the star creature, the wages of the Reagan era's sins, motherhood and thus perhaps a notion of female support vs male "support", and as a friend of mine pointed out, a possible play on ever more corrupted levels between the stories within the structure. How does it all fit together? Not as well as it wants to. I like all the parts separately, but kind of wish it had been three different films.

In his introductions to his Cabinet of Curiosities, I find Guillermo del Toro a little stiff and missing his twinkle, which possibly wasn't necessary to mention except that it mirrors the lack of energy of many of the anthology's pieces. There's a general sameness since most of the stories have a Lovecraftian feel, monsters, 1920s setting, etc. - two of them are even adapted directly from Lovecraft short stories, and it does them no favors to be presented back to back. Lovecraft need some added fizz to work on the screen, because so much of it about things that can't and shouldn't be described, so it's often a bit disappointing. Several tales start out pretty great, have name directors, cool actors, etc., but then fail for lack of a good twist (or punch) ending. Most of them are slow burns that die down to embers rather than flash satisfactorily. But there are some blazing successes. Graveyard Rats is a fun creature feature. The Autopsy (easily my favorite) fires on all cylinders. The Outside (by A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night's Ana Lily Amirpour) is a comedy outlier and shines by its being completely different. The Viewing (by Mandy's Panos Cosmatos) has a great 70s New Age vibe. And that's half of them! Pickman’s Model is really the only one that outright bored me. My summation: They suffer from being watched in sequence, but one episode every once in a while when you only have an hour to consume a one-off story should stretch out the lack of diversity until you don't notice it.

A dark children's story, Ann Turner's Celia juxtaposes its story about growing up in a small Australian community with a fairy tale, which I think is pretty on point. It is set in the 1950s where little Celia's dark imagination and macabre games are informed by the horrors of childhood, namely things happening in the adult world that have cruel consequences for her - the communist scare, measures against the rabbit plague (tough on a kid who loves rabbits, and on an audience who loves animals), a dad with a wandering eye, and the death of a beloved grandmother. Let's throw in a sadistic rival kid gang in there for good measure. There are a number of harrowing moments in the film, sitting casually among scenes of happy childhood and all the more upsetting for it. A chronicle of childhood trauma. Horror-adjacent at best, but that final sequence really does give you a chill as it asks what trauma can really lead to - perpetual victimhood, or something else?

The Brits have their evil villages courtesy of The Wicker Man and Hot Fuzz, and in America there's Potters Bluff in Gary Sherman's Dead and Buried. Some segment of the population is killing travelers who dare wander into the coastal town, but they turn up alive later - what's going on? James Farentino is the cop who's trying to figure it out, a native son recently returned to give back to his community. The solution feels a little glossed over, but the twists are right out of a Twilight Zone episode. Which is perhaps why it sometimes felt like it was a "television-strength" story, despite having some pretty original, gory kills with the help of make-up effects master Stan Winston. It still has a nice paranoid atmosphere throughout, and if I was generally unenthused, the third act revelations both puzzled and delighted me. A fun twist on the formula.

Cluzot is the French master of suspense and comparisons to Hitchcock are, I think, appropriate in the case of Diabolique, which is considered his masterpiece for a reason. He manages in this to make things suspenseful that normally wouldn't be. The set-up: An abusive man shares two women who have becomes each other's support system, and they contrive to murder him and get away with it. That they succeed is no spoiler, but then his body disappears and you're left wondering if we're dealing with the supernatural, or some man-made scheme. Will your always evolving suspicions prove correct? But man, Cluzot puts you on the edge of your seat with the smallest details - an open bottle on a table, a window looking out on a pool, just the volatile husband's presence in those early scenes - you're constantly worried by something, not unlike these women are as their meticulously-planned crime starts to fall apart. Cluzot's other great film with muse and spouse VĂ©ra Clouzot, The Wages of Fear, felt a little long, but Diabolique is just the right length, extending its suspense and mystery just the right amount. It doesn't prey on your patience, but on your innate paranoia.

The Long Kiss Goodnight started out a little rough for me because the opening credits give the (early) game away. So I won't hide it here: Geena Davis is a Black Widow type who lost her memory some years ago, bought into her cover, and is both a school teacher and a mom in a small town. Then she starts to remember and takes off with Samuel Jackson on a road trip that puts her in the crosshairs of her old employers who are now up to some nefarious tricks. It's a comedy with a lot of people getting killed, with its closest tonal analog Die Hard, as it also happens around Christmas time (oh, Shane Black wrote this? explains it). If the initial surprises were already spoiled, I got more and more into the over-the-top action pieces and Davis' journey as a spy who has to deal with years of "someone else's" baggage, and ended up a fan of it. Davis, as usual, can easily play the sweetheart, but has a lot of fun as the damaged, lethal badass, and the bad guys are so evil, you want them to die horribly. (Not-really-a-spoiler: They will.) While there is some boring shoot'em ups early on, the injection of humor means a lot of the action is more novel and entertaining than that (give or take a couple of dodgy effects shots). It's also got good music and I love a slushy, wintry genre movie.

John Frankenheimer's Seconds has a sad old banker accept an invitation/get railroaded into a new life as plastic surgery miracle Rock Hudson, but is he going to be any happier living his "dream"? From the beginning, the direction creates a malaise - the camera is never where you think it should be, using very modern tricks (for 1966!) like being affixed to the subject, rolling too low, coming in at odd angles or too close, and hand-held to give it an anxious feeling. Things settle down when the banker gets his second life, but soon the camera work start to spin out of control again, visually representing the lesson our man is learning. It's a paranoid thriller in the same way Franz Kafka's works are, where the protagonist is never allowed to really understand what's going on (at least, until it's too late). Like Kafka's stories, it's a property that makes Seconds cold and clinical, because you too are outside an understanding, but that is part of its power. Star Trek connection that gave me an extra shiver: Realizing that the sexy dame in this is played by Salome Jens, the creepy Founder Leader in Deep Space Nine. A very niche reason for raising an extra hackle - which Frankenheimer couldn't have devised - but there you go.

I watched Pumping Iron on the recommendation of the Podcasta la Vista, Baby! podcast, and I'm glad I did. The documentary follows some of the bodybuilders competing in various events in 1975, most prominently one Arnold Schwarzenegger, as he prepares for his last competition before heading to Hollywood. The up-and-comer set against him is Lou Ferrigno, so you're likely to recognize a couple people. Some insight into the sport (though the technicalities aren't too comprehensible to the outsider), but it's the culture that's really in the movie's cross hairs. At first, it seems like a very gentlemanly activity, with lots of support between practitioners (and it can be), but the movie then shows us its dark side, with winners playing mind games to ensure they keep their place. It makes Ferrigno the victim to Arnold's cocky trolling, but you can't help but feel that Lou's backstage dad is screwing with his head just as much. I came out of it with a better appreciation for the sport, if no sudden interest, but it's the people - hero, villain and neutral - who made the experience as absorbing as it was.

Books: After seeing Bullet Train - The Movie, I became very interested in reading Kotaro Isaka's novel, but was afraid that it would be essentially the same and feel redundant. And so it appeared at first, but the differences mount up and each version stands on its own as a distinct work. For one thing, the movie has more action, while the book has more conversation. For another, the movie morphs the story to fit its unusual casting and it makes a huge difference. The movie is also quite concerned with creating a vast conspiracy to explain how so many assassins as on the same train, but the novel instead turns it into the intersection of the unluckiest person in the world and the luckiest, and Fortune obviously has a hand in the proceedings. So several of the characters are quite different (and I take it we can count on Isaka to create offbeat characters regardless), and the train - by which I mean the story - is heading in a different direction. Even if you've seen the film, there will be surprises. One thing that is certainly the same is Lemon's obsession with Thomas and Friends, and it's even more annoying in book form when we're privy to the character's thoughts. But being in Ladybug's and the Prince's heads is quite fun, so there's a balance. A different kind of satisfying.