This Week in Geek (8-14/01/23)


In theaters: Though it's got essentially the same premise as the Child's Play reboot, M3GAN is a much more entertaining affair thanks to a better realized "monster". The creepy robotic doll is more Ex Machina or HAL 2000 than she is Chucky, and it's so rare for monsters to show this much personality, these icons need to be cherished. Because M3GAN is totally focused on the child she is bonded to (in this case, the tragic Cady, played by Violet McGraw, who along with M3GAN, easily steals the spotlight away from nominal star Allison Williams), you're on her side when she judges adults harshly. And the questions she asks and conclusions she comes to also makes this a strong A.I. coming of age story (if not exactly an air-tight SF thriller), tapping into modern parents' fears about "screen time". And there's also a lot of humor, both in terms of characters and corporate culture, the latter element surely leading to sequels. Corporate greed is always a good reason for a monster - especially an electronic one - to rise from the dead. A lot of fun at the movies, and if you're squeamish, it's not very gory. And I definitely love M3GAN's 1960s nanny outfits. Nice touch.

At home: One of those inexpensive morality thrillers set up as "escape rooms" where diverse characters must solve a puzzle to survive - or in this case, get the job of their dreams - Exam works fairly well and has an ending that's less elliptical than some, and certainly less cynical. That's the thing about movies like this (Cube, Circle, The Platform, etc.), they tend to show just what the film makers think about humanity, good or bad. Colin Salmon administers the test and leaves the cast to figure out not just the answer, but the question, using logic (such as it is - there are always leaps of faith in these kinds of set-ups) and slowly revealed information about the world outside the exam room. Though some faces are familiar - most notably Gemma Chan and Peacemaker's Adar Beck - the test takers are unknowns (or were at the time), which helps keep thing unpredictable. Who is going to ace this strange interview? Who will outlast who? You can't tell based on the celebrity factor, and that works in the film's favor. Won't revolutionize the genre, but still quite intriguing.

Geez, they don't waste time building up Clubber Lang (Mr. T's iconic first role) in Rocky III, do they? While Rocky is busy being rich in the wake of the previous film, essentially trading roles with Apollo Creed, Lang is out there fast-forwarding through his own Rocky film before the credits even appear on the screen! If Creed let his guard down in Rocky II because he'd become a pampered success, what will happen to Rocky? But Lang isn't Rocky, he's a villain, as contrasted by Hulk Hogan's fun scene, as a wrestler who only PLAYS a villain on TV. We don't always think of boxing movies in terms of martial arts films - sports movies have different tropes - but this one is definitely a martial arts film (as are II and IV). Rocky is the best fighter, is beaten, and must learn a new set of skills/exploit the villain's weakness to win back his title. Might as well trade the United Artists logo for the Shaw Bros. fanfare. But like the best in the franchise, it's also a human story, about the fear of losing what you have and how Rocky' self-confidence is shaken. There's a tragedy in there too. I also enjoyed how the character's popularity in the real world peeped through the film world (the pinball, the Muppet Show, and ultimately, originating the statue that still stands in Philly). Plus, great music, adding Eye of the Tiger to the already popular themes.

Lau Kar-leung's The Lady Is the Boss starts with a school run by the master himself being forced to relocate to build a road (and you'd think that would have been more of a conflict), precipitating an inauguration to be attended by the grandmaster, now living in the States. Except it's his daughter (Kara Hui) who shows up and she has very modern ideas about how to make the new school prosper, ideas that eventually start a gang war. This is a rare foray into modern Hong Kong for director Lau, and he certainly makes the most of props denied him in historical productions (the bike fight, the bit with the cameras, the gymnasium brawl), but this is also one where he puts the comedy first and the martial arts sequences are rather few and far between (until the third act at least). It's amusing, but you can actually tell the Cantonese wordplay is meant to carry some scenes, and that just doesn't translate. Hui plays the reverse of her Young Auntie character - modern rather than traditional, but still a girl boss in a world of men - while Lau stalwarts Gordon Liu and Hsiao Ho are students who, in the final reel, get to play their most famous heroes from Lau's films - absurd, but fans of 36th Chamber and Mad Monkey Kung Fu will get a kick out of it. The Lady Is the Boss isn't a classic like those two films are, but it's still fairly entertaining.

Though I felt Fernando Di Leo's The Italian Connection was too sadistic and didn't use its American stars well, I wonder if part of my ambivalent reaction was due to the English dub. Caliber 9, part of the same thematic trilogy and also released in 1972, was much more to my liking... and in the original Italian. The story here is that over Ugo Piazza, a thief accused of taking his boss's money and hiding it, so when he gets out of jail, he gets consistently harassed by his former cronies AND the cops. Gastone Moschin is a real cool cucumber in the role, at odds with Mario Adorf (who stars in The Italian Connection) who is everything but, and in love with a beautiful dancer played by Barbara Bouchet (from Star Trek's "By Any Other Name"). Di Leo's direction is cool and stylish, and though there's a lot of violence (that Milanese mob doesn't mess around!), it's largely bloodless. Instead, he produces an incredible amount of tension by crafting a world where you can't trust anyone's motives, not on any side of the fence. Whether your suspicions are proved or allayed, it's a wild ride. I do think the cops blathering on about the system's innate injustices is too didactic, but I suppose this is part of the Milieu trilogy's theme of corruption. It is better served in Part 3.

Part 3 of the Di Leo's Milieu trilogy, Il Boss, moves us out of Milan and into Sicily for some real Familia business. Henry Silva is a ruthless, hardcore hitman climbing the ranks as power vacuums open up in the wake of a gang war. This one's violence is as sadistic as The Italian Connections, but you feel like it's all deserved, or at least, not so gratuitous based on the characters involved. Di Leo's theme of corruption reaches its apogee, with the systemic problems discussed since the first chapter getting more than lip service. We watch as everyone compromises their values, no exceptions. And yes, these are criminals and we should crack down on their activities, but what about the rich who abuse their power, often profiting from these criminal activities, are we never going to after them? Di Leo puts everything in context, weaving a web that one might - perhaps charitably - compare to The Wire. But politics are just a bonus overlay as you watch Silva be a badass and cold-heartedly deliver gangland vengeance on his enemies during his rise to power. Or will he eventually fall?

To tell you the truth, if all of Fernando Di Leo's movies are going be about corruption, for the most part take place in Milan, and start with a violent scene that shows how the bad guys mean business, I don't see why some are part of a trilogy and some aren't. Case in point, Shoot First, Die Later, which stars Luc Merenda as a maverick cop from a family of honorable cops, but whoops, it's a Di Leo film, so he's gonna have a big blemish on his soul that will make trouble come after him and his loved ones, until violent push comes to sadistic shove and he has to carry out some tragedy-fueled vigilante justice. We recognize the "cop on the edge" tropes, but the details are different, and I especially appreciate this as a father-son story. It also seems like Di Leo got a bigger budget for this one, because it includes not one, but TWO extended car chases, with lots of mayhem - indeed, I'd call the second one a car DUEL - and therefore more production value than his usual guys falling over, acting like they've been shot.

With its happy music and happy family opening, Kidnap Syndicate definitely doesn't start like other Di Leo films. It's on a slow burn. Luc Merenda is the father of a kid who gets kidnapped along with his rich friend, and the latter's father (a dubbed James Mason) wants to negotiate rather than pay the ransom, but you're just waiting for Merenda to take the law into his own hands. And waiting. And waiting. It does happen, but it's a rather bloodless affair (comparatively speaking), mostly predicated on some okay motorcycle action, with nowhere near the level of violence Di Leo's fans must have become used to (I was also disappointed and I'm just now taking an interest in his work). Yes, it does a fair job of showing the anxiety that comes with a kidnapping, and if the film isn't exaggerating, this seems to have been a problem in Italy at the time worth some exposure, but it lacked the energy required to keep my full attention. And I do have to say, there's one character who really didn't get their comeuppance and that bugs me a little bit.

If ever a movie deserved its title, it's Nude for Satan. Rita Calderoni probably spends 80% of the movie with at least one breast hanging out AND its first shot is of a naked woman running through the woods. Then, credits play over the Love Bug's headlights staring at you like Herbie is Christine, and it gets weirder from there. The story of this Italian art house erotic horror flick is that a man and a woman get into a car accident, the man brings the woman to a haunted castle for care, and then they're both visited by ghosts/satanic doppelgangers/dark natures, trying to draw them into sin. At this point, I should reveal that I watched the "Dutch hardcore DVD version" because 15 minutes into it, there's a jarring ghost orgy scene that is only the first of several pornographic "inserts", some of which will involve the main characters, cutting to unconvincing body doubles, choppily edited into the main action. I don't think the actual actors knew they were making THAT. But even without the inserts, there's still an awful lot of soft core shenanigans, usually as visions or dreams, and not much else happening. Nude for Satan holds a strange fascination just in the way it's shot and in the mystery of what it's trying to convey, but it's much ado about little.

RPGs: After a series of one-shots to introduce the world of the Possibility Wars, our Torg Eternity campaign is actually set to start (today, as of the publication of this post), and so the permanent continuing characters had to be created and finalized. Tying into that old GURPS Shiftworld campaign that took place on Core Earth over 60 years before, Pout is playing Simon Mann, a descendant of one of the original characters, but not Pout's own. He instead took his DNA package from the psychic character who turned out to be the Big Bad's illegitimate son. So not only has Simon got his great-grandfather's powers, but he was also trained from childhood to manipulate possibilities. And as per his family line, he's got a darkness in him.

Fabien is playing Lyaksandro Shcherbyna, a tortured soul from Ukraine, haunted by bad dreams (involving the Kikimora, a creature from his folklore) that will prove to be a connection to the invading Cosms (I won't spoil the secret here, but it involves a very rare thing - rare because we invented it - in the Infiniverse). He ran from the nightmares before Thakold showed up... right into the invading Cyberpapacy, who sold him a bill of goods he was eager to snap up. Though a Core Earther, he let the GodNet into his soul and was given a number of cybernetic mods as recompense. His faith in this new-old religion has also given him access to Miracles. But then he starts to see the dark side of this new realm and disabused, defects to the side of the resistance.

Though I pushed for Bert to reprise his life-affirming caveman from the Day One one-shot for this, he decided to go his own way... and somehow stumbled upon another player's way from another game completely. In my old DC Heroes game, our friend Goupil played a wrestler/local hero (with super-powers) based on a pro wrestler from his small region in northeastern New Brunswick. He was a lot of fun, but ridiculous. Turns out, Bert had the same exact inspiration for his Torg character, completely independently because he never played with Goups. And making THIS particular pro wrestler - Marcus Pain - connect to the Nile Empire on the eve of the Clash at Kheops event, making him a SUPER-wrestler (Super-Skill + Adrenaline powers) whose abilities increase when there's a crowd of NPCs to cheer him on, kind of recreates the same character (with different powers, however). Even the look Bert pegged for Marcus is kind of the same as Goupil's "Gaƫtan".

And finally, there's Marty's charismatic monster hunter/alchemist from Orrorsh. Ram Bhatt was a military man called to fight the invading monsters on the Night of Screams, transformed into a Slayer by the possibility wave, and the only one to survive from his unit. After that, no one wanted to serve with him, and he was drummed out of the service, eventually making his way to the ranks of S.H.I.F.T. where still, a curse seems to linger around him. You don't get out of Orrorsh without a few scars to show for it...