This Week in Geek (3-09/12/23)


In theaters: We're used to this. Middle-upper class straight white man gets attention for not doing very much at all, trades it in for the fruits of fame, eventually gets his ass cancelled, bristles at having been unfairly treated, exposing the fact that he was always a privileged monster. That's definitely an overlay in Dream Scenario, in which Nicholas Cage plays as awkward a normal person as he is capable of, a tenured university professor who becomes the focus of the world's attention when a large part of the population starts seeing him in their dreams. But when his anger at some of the things happening in his life leaks into the dreams, they turn to nightmares, with unforeseen consequences. It's an intriguing existential premise, well played and well shot (the dreams, especially), though the third act pivot feels like they didn't know how to end it. It goes a little Cronenberg, honestly, but I think it all tracks with the aforementioned overlay as there's real desperation to recapture something, both professionally and romantically. The movie has some genuine laughs (with special mention going to Michael Cera as one of his scuzzball agent characters), but of course a lot of pathos too (Julianne Nicholson is especially great). If you're programming some double features, I recommend this before Strawberry Mansion, as Dream Scenario could be its prequel.

At home: Gene Kelly's first film, For Me and My Gal, pairs him up with established star Judy Garland and though he's a little cartoony and can't keep up with her emotionally, it's nevertheless a quick star-making turn for him. The two of them meetcute over the title song (which is the best tune among a bunch of novelty songs, including one called Ballin' the Jack, cough cough) and off they go trying get their Vaudeville act on the Palace stage. He's the grifting opportunist, she's the purehearted girl putting her brother through medical school. I like how they fall in love. All this is happening in the shadow of World War I, so I probably shouldn't have been as surprised as I was when this 1942 piece turns into a propaganda parade in the third act. Kelly has to prove he's no coward and regret any of his attempts to dodge the draft so he can finally win Garland's hand. Oh, and buy war bonds, please. Sold as a tribute to the Vaudeville era, the film is soon coopted by another agenda, and while it's certainly stirring, it's also a bit of a Frankenstein's Monster as a result.

Hitchcock's British talkies feel like lighter entertainment than the American films he would be best known for, with their quirky characters and fast dialog, but that's kind of why I like them. Case in point, Young and Innocent taps into Hitch's interest in "the wrong man", one accused of a murder he didn't commit and must now solve before the coppers do the lazy thing and send him to the headman. Hitchcock has claimed a mistrust of the police since childhood, and in these pictures it's less because of corruption than incompetence, although you might say they go hand in hand. Thankfully for our hero, the chief constable's daughter is on the case and the pair - plus a cute dog - drive around the English countryside trying to find a crucial clue. A fun runaround with romance thrown in and you won't believe where the car ends up (Hitchcock loves to balance people over the edge, doesn't he?). But the ending, well... The audience knows more than the heroes in this case, so it's no much of a mystery, and when the film reaches its maximum run time, the jig is up, almost anticlimactically. But it's a good time until the awkward minstrel show.

Hard not to see inspiration for Scream in the first act of When a Stranger Calls, which builds suspense effectively as a young Carol Kane (almost unrecognizable in this genre) plays a babysitter harassed by a killer's phone calls. Seven years later, the killer has escaped from a mental institution and her own family comes under threat, but... not immediately. Instead, she drops off the face of the film so we can watch the first cop on the scene, now a private eye, try to catch the man (Krynoid-worshipper Tony Beckley in a great, even sympathetic performance) before he kills again. There's a whole unrelated person in danger, detective work, foot chases... It feels like it's part of a different movie. Finally, in the brief third act, Carol is back and she brings the FEAR. We're back in Fred Walton's world of suspense and everything WORKS. So it's really unfortunate that the film takes such a strange structural turn...

14 years after When a Stranger Calls, Fred Walton made what I was going to call a TV-sanitized sequel with When a Stranger Calls Back, but it was for Showtime, so it surprises with sudden nudity at some point. In a way, that makes it harder edged than the first. The movie starts much like the first one, with a babysitter being terrorized, but the details are intriguingly different. Not quite as scary, but five years later, she's a nervous wreck and the kidnapper (not necessarily a killer in this case) is breaking into her apartment to leave her clues. So she turns to social worker Carol Kane and her friend retired policeman Charlie Durning, the perfect combo to get her in a safe place and solve the crime. If the 1979 original plays at cop show in its middle act, this feels even more like a pilot for a show where every week, Kane and Durning help a young person out and catch their weird stalker. At least in this case, it's more classically structured and we don't lose sight of the particulars. It's also a pretty bleak vision that only warms you up because Kane and Durning have a nice friendship going.

When they make a Muppet movie, like uhm, THE Muppet Movie, it's like a time capsule of who was a recognizable celebrity at the time. 1979 feels extremely far away when the celebs are Dom DeLuise and Cloris Leachman, Elliott Gould and... Orson Welles!? But I'm a child of that decade, so these people were in movies, talk shows, Love Boat episodes, and of course some of them - Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Carol Kane, Mel Brooks - will never go out of fashion. Everybody wants to play with the Muppets, and that was as true when making their first movie as it is now. The movie presumes to tell the origin of the creature circus, through nonsense vaguely movie-inspired set pieces and pleasant songs - using "Rainbow Connection" (indeed, ORIGINATING it) as the key theme gives what is otherwise silly fluff a lot of poignancy - and I dunno, to me, it's all about Kermit making sure to tell Fozzie Bear he was funny after the screening. Piggy's right, he IS a good leader.

Mark Lewis's lo-fi documentary Cane Toads: An Unnatural History is by turns delightful and frightening, just like his subject. In the 1930s, Australian cane sugar farmers imported these big fat frogs from Hawaii to take care of their cane grub/beetle problem. Not only did it fail, but the invader species started eating everything in sight, reproducing in large numbers, and never found a natural predator. When the film was made, it was already taking over Australia. Isn't this the same country that had problems with invading rabbits?! Some people never learn. Lewis treats his subject like deadpan absurdist theater, showing us people who love them and people who hate them, even among scientists. How the toad has affected pop culture in the area. How cute it is. How creepy and dangerous it is. Some of the stories are almost too insane to be true. Fair warning, there's one shot of a toad eating another animal that once scene, cannot be unseen. It was shot during feeding time at a nature preserve - the film makers just watched as nature - or un-nature, as it were - took its course. Nevertheless, brr...

With Rat, Lewis does with the New York rat what he did for the Cane Toad, though there's less context to cover, because we all know what rats are and where New York is. Indeed, he's mostly concerned with having New Yorkers recreate their rat stories, presumably with trained specimens. If their traumas are real and not as overstated as I think they sometimes are, these people were pretty brave to confront their fears for movie magic. The rats do come off better than the toads though, less invaders and more encroachers (who you tell me, who's encroaching on who?), and Lewis recreates a "nature film" look despite our looking at sewer drains, urban environments and wall interiors. That's his specialty: Where the animal world and humanity converge, the "unnatural" history. And unlike Cane Toads, there's not a disturbing moment. Well, unless you have a history with mice and rats and this gives you traumatic flashbacks about your own home invasions.

While The Natural History of the Chicken continues Mark Lewis' exploration of animals and the people who love/hate/eat them (the real subjects of these nature documentaries, if truth be told), the chicken isn't as engaging a subject as cane toads or rats. Though there's an attempt to make them for of a nuisance by using the story of a cockfighter breeder whose animals bothered his neighbors, chickens are not generally pests, and so there's the frisson of past efforts is missing. There are still a lot of fun stories - one wonders where Lewis gets his human subjects, must be a lot of riffling through local newspapers - intercut, at least initially, with shots of the inhumane conditions chickens suffer in mass production farms. Especially when compared to the sweet free range birds who make up the bulk of the tales, acting "like people" whether they end up on a dinner table or not. Lewis once again manages to make people recreate key moments in their lives (which is absurd in and of itself) and shows how the same species (us) can see an animal as a pet and as food within the same culture.

More than 20 years after the first film, Mark Lewis returns to the subject of Cane Toads in The Conquest, and while the frogs have advanced on Australia, humanity hasn't made much of a dent on its end. While Lewis has to reiterate the historical context and biological realities for a new audience (he also revisits the little girl on the original poster, now all grown up), The Conquest largely new material. He's found goofy new talking heads to interview and has pushed the documentary to feature length. If you're only going to see ONE Cane Toads documentary, I still still say it should be the 1988 original even if this one is visually slicker. I'm giving them the same essential score though, because it could be an either/or proposition. The Conquest is more up to date and Lewis put his usual effort in. It's perhaps not as shockingly absurd. But despite this being the second go-round, he still gave a transplants invasive species a certain poignancy. Can you feel bad for an entire species that "didn't ask to be here"? I guess you can.

I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus and now I've got a really toxic relationship with Christmas, or You Better Watch Out (AKA Christmas Evil), in which a man sees himself as Santa - works in a toyshop, keeps tabs on the good and bad boys and girls of the neighborhood... So what happens when his transformation is complete? Will he be a benign, gift-giving saint? Or a dangerous slasher? A bit of both is the answer, but once the mechanics of the choice are engaged, things feel a more predictable. Still ends on a poetic moment though, so there's something to this. Like the toys his factory makes, the movie is a cheap affair, slowly burning towards its climaxes. It resists the temptation to slap dialog or narration over scenes where the man is alone, and just lets things play realistically, but as a result comes off as a little underwritten. A quirky choice for seasonal viewing - Hallmark audiences need not apply - but more interesting than most.

Though Beyond Tomorrow (AKA Beyond Christmas) has a synopsis that sounds like A Christmas Carol, its overt sentimentality prevents it from connecting to its premise properly. Or premises, plural. The talky front end lacks an engine, but three millionaires throwing wallets into the street to attract honest souls to their dinner party, creating an incidental meetcute for two of them, might have been enough to create an early hang-out film. But the old duffers die and become ghosts at the mid-point! Well, ok, ghostly shenanigans? Not really, as the movie is more interested in their eventually achieving Heaven, and there's some poignancy there. Problem is, it's pretty disconnected from what's happening to the two lovers on Earth. The ghosts comment, but they have very little agency. If they had to make sure they end up together, that's one thing, but God in this doesn't really care. And what happens on the mortal plane is such melodrama - sudden stardom, estrangement, an ex-husband with a gun... - that it begs for the ghosts to be active agents. Beyond is cute to the point of saccharine, but it does have its moments. Your sure won't know where it's going (derogatory).

Books: Seven years in the making, the Pan-Pacifica Sourcebook was the last Cosm sourcebook to come out for Torg Eternity, and it had time to gestate. When the Core Rules came out, I was stoked at the prospect of adventuring in Asia seeing as original Torg's lacklustre Nippon Tech Cosm had been completely rehabilitated with a horror vibe out of Train to Busan/Resident Evil, in addition to a stronger link to Asian action cinema which I had incidentally become a big fan of since AND the really quite clever idea that this was a covert invasion and no one knew or believed it was actually happening. Core Earth under corporate takeover. But then the pandemic happened and the Contagion aspect of Pan-Pacifica was dialed back significantly in the eventual sourcebook, keeping the idea of biological warfare to implement some rather crazy bioware perks that I'm not entirely onboard with. Genetic modifications to make you stronger or see in the dark, fine. But chest tentacles and the like just seems like the purview of Tharkold's radioactive mutations, you know? To remain covert, it seems to me the casual visitor shouldn't be noticing that they're in another world/time frame and this seems out of step with P-P's 5 minutes in the future feel. The book also includes a new martial arts system, which is pretty solid. Basically you spend Chi as Shock to create various effects, available to practitioners of different Paths. I was a little confused as to how to pay for it, but I think I have a handle on it now (perhaps an example would have helped, here?). Like Tharkold, there's a lot of variety in Pan-Pacifica - corporate espionage, martial arts, psionics, a new ascetic religion, bioware... - and part of that comes from there being a lot more countries in the alliance, while most other Cosms are more geographically contained. I've personally been holding off on Pan-Pacifican play because I was waiting for the book. Now it's got me rushing a bit to get to where it wants me to be to get the dates aligned with my Cosmverse with all the big changes made from the Core Rules version. Well... I think I might delay some of it to take best advantage of what was already there before flipping the tables on my players.


PT Dilloway said…
I might have to watch "Dream Scenario" because I'm always up for a Nic Cage movie and also I wrote something pretty similar back in 2005 that I published in 2012. I bet mine ends up better though obviously it won't make as much money.