This Week in Geek (28/01-03/02/19)


In theaters: Joe Cornish made Attack the Block, so I was expecting good things from The Kid Who Would Be King. I got them. Pitched at a family film audience, Cornish offers another underdog genre story, this one making good use of Arthurian legend, and knowingly winking at other "chosen one" narratives. Kind of like a big budget episode of the Sarah Jane Adventures (not to namecheck Doctor Who directly), it has fun with its school setting, but also attempts a greater, Tolkienesque scope. The kids are engaging, and permission is granted for younger audiences to learn the spellcraft - it looks hard but achievable! - from Middle School Merlin (Angus Imrie delivers half the laughs, Sir Bedevere most of the rest). And it's got something to say about leadership, about nobility and the chivalric code, and about, well, Brexit. Why else would Morgaine suddenly have the power to return to plague Albion? It's up to the kids to save the world from itself... isn't that always the way? An aspirational success!

At home: I'm a sucker for Groundhog Day narratives, and Natasha Lyonne's new Netflix show, Russian Doll, is a good one. She plays the self-destructive Nadia who, the night of her 36th birthday, dies but keeps coming back to her birthday party. It's not "I Got You Babe" playing, but you get the gist. It could almost have been Happy Death Day: The Series - she tries to figure out why this is happening and it's a black comedy - but it has a more metaphysical bent than that. She isn't just looping, the universe is broken. That's where the title really takes its full meaning because it really is about going deep into her character to find the answers. This is a journey that works both as a comic fantasy and psychological drama, where arrested development and past trauma manifest in a science fiction formula. After the 8 episodes that make up the season, there is a resolution, albeit an odd one, but I wanted to see more of these characters and their world. Apparently, the show's creators pitched a three-season show, so while I don't know what would be next in terms of the topsy-turvy reality bender, I am totally up for it.

Winter Light, Ingmar Bergman's exploration of faith and doubt stars Gunnar Björnstrand as a troubled pastor, Tomas, just going through the motions and hearing nothing but silence from God. Set between two services, mere hours apart, this is an intimate and subtle piece that could have been done as a play. What most jumps out at me is Tomas' hubris, a function of the first Deadly Sin pride, and the reason he feels cut off from his own spirituality. In one telling speech, he admits that his naive younger self became a clergyman because he saw God as a function of himself, an ideal that seemed only possible to a young man. Now that he has suffered, he doubts, if not God's existence, then God's interest in humanity. Fact is, he's still interpreting God through himself. He tries to comfort a suicidal man, but can't because he is himself despondent. A woman loves him, but he hates her for reminding him of his dead wife. He rejects her love just as he rejects God's, indeed just as he rejects his idealistic self. If the Divine Spark is in ourselves, and each person their own God or echo of God (according to your beliefs), the Tomas' nihilism is laced with self-hatred, which he projects onto the people in his life and his God. Pride not as self-love, but as self-hatred. Does he, by the end, reconnect? Some have called the ending ambiguous. I rather think he continues to miss the point of the lessons he should learn through the course of the film. At the end, the cycle merely repeats. Or am I projecting my own attitudes upon it?

To sell newspapers, Barbara Stanwyck invents a "common man" who rails against society's ills and swears to jump off a building on Christmas Eve in protest in Frank Capra's Meet John Doe, his OTHER jump-off-a-structure Christmas movie. When the story catches fire, they need someone to play John Doe, so enter Gary Cooper as an earnest homeless man who needs the money, but soon finds himself at the head of a neighborly movement. One of Capra's better community-driven utopias, it nevertheless has a very dark streak, at once showing the best of humanity's virtues, and its capacity for selfishness and anger. It remains an incredibly relevant film about the power of propaganda, the misuse of media by corporate masters, and how the best intentions at the local level are flattened and corrupted at higher (political) levels. From what I read, it could have been darker still. Several endings were filmed. The one we get is more hopeful than others.

Thomas More standing up to Henry VIII getting a divorce is the crux of A Man for All Seasons, a film based on a play that at first is a little difficult to get into if you don't have the proper background in history and theology. But by the second hour, we've likely been charmed by More's wit and icy rhetorical style (which inject humor in an otherwise very staid and serious drama), and can appreciate his dedication to his religious convictions. We're outraged by the court's unfairness, touched by the effect of his political silence on his family, and mesmerized by the confidant acting from all involved. Even a bit part like Vanessa Redgrave's adds surprising subtext. I am somewhat amazed this was a hit play on Broadway - it's so intellectual and, in a way, old-fashioned - and that amazement extends to the film's success. But there it is. Sometimes, the world loves a moralist, and in this case, literally a Utopian (not that the film makes more than a glancing reference to More's satire).

Ernst Lubitsch's The Merry Widow suffers from a problem I have with many early musicals: Voices, women's especially, are in operetta mode and combined with the sound recording technology of the time, make some songs difficult to latch onto. That said, I really loved this screwball musical romance. Maurice Chevalier plays a cross between Don Juan and Bugs Bunny, and he and Jeannette MacDonald have great comic chemistry. The support players aren't bad either! I laughed frequently, and the music was generally nice, with plenty of callbacks to give the piece a coherent sound. Among the musical moments are some cool ballroom sequences, adding just the right amount of spectacle to this delightful - and at times impressively saucy - piece of silliness. And is it me, or is Chevalier the origin of the "hon hon hon" French caricature/voice? FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

I'm a big fan of Silk Stockings. Big. And that puts the film it's based on, Ninotchka, at a disadvantage. It's got Ernst Lubitsch on its side, but that may not be enough. Yes, some good comedy, but I think hampered by a lack of chemistry from the stars. Melvyn Douglas has always been just okay for me, while Greta Garbo plays the stern Soviet envoy he woos as if she were tired or bored through most of the film. I kept comparing them to Astaire and Charisse and finding them lacking. Silk Stockings has a more interesting plot about cultural exports, while Ninotchka has a more ordinary confiscated jewels story. It creates a pretty mean villain, but generally the musical keeps all the best bits and replaces the rest with memorable song and dance. But like I said, I'm quite biased. Ninotchka was thus of interest to me - my heart skipped when I saw the origin of the later film's title, like an archaeologist uncovering an artifact in the sand - but I have no need to ever revisit it. And I'm a little bummed about that.

The Party has this great cast, puts it in a small house, and lets us watch the characters pile on the announcements, both good and bad, on top of each other. It should be good, but it feels... unfinished. If we take it as pure drama or black comedy, not everything pays off. The A-plot is essentially a big set-up to a final punchline. It might do as an ending if the B-plots were similarly served. The one about the expecting mothers, for example, feels positively - and you'll excuse the turn of phrase - aborted. Thematically, all these stories don't really come together, so we might be right to think at least one of them is padding... padding in a 70-minute movie. From the title's pun and they way it starts playing Jerusalem, I felt it might be slightly allegorical. All the characters do seem to represent a different kind of person/attitude, but it doesn't quite work. Same goes if we look at the piece with a psychological filter. Seems to be part of the "one-act play" scaffolding, but it never completes the thought. It's too bad. It's got some wit, good acting, biting dialog, engaging drama, but the script might have needed another polish before filming.

In Duck Butter (don't ask, please don't ask), Alia Shawkat and Laia Costa turn a one-night stand into a pressure cooker relationship when they agree to spend 24 hours awake together, and indeed, the film collapses time just as they do, and we see tent-pole moments and consequences that would fit a, say, four-year narrative. That's a conceit, but within that conceit, there's plenty of truth. The interactions are well played, the feelings raw or distant as the moment requires, and no surprise given the Duplass brothers are involved (as producers and playing themselves), it doesn't shy away from being awkward. So by turns a comedy, by turns a tragedy, exposing the core of its two peculiar characters as we go, Duck Butter (I'm not kidding, stop asking!) also works as a lesbian romance, a subgenre that still holds some novelty even when it treads on material well-worn in straight romances. In this case, it speaks to its own reality and doesn't feel like a simple gender swap, as some might.

I was definitely not expecting Sunrise (A Song of Two Humans) to be so captivating. While I recognize Murnau's place among the greats of silent cinema, his Nosferatu left me a little cold. Jump ahead 5 years, and he's making a 90+ minute relationship drama, veering off its initial thriller foundation after the first act... It shouldn't have worked so well on me. Especially with that strange upended structure. But wow. No surprise, the film is technically very well done, with powerful effects to show the husband's guilt and ambitions. Sunrise's real strength is in making you care for the characters through emotional context, brought to life by George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor, enough so that 1) you forgive what seems unforgivable when SHE forgives it, and 2) you are desperate for the sun to rise on a happy ending and not a horrific one. On the surface of it, the second act seems to be dilly-dallying and being cute, but it's well-orchestrated to make you go "NOOO NOOOOOOOOO!" as you enter the third act. Movie fans will of course keep fanning the flames of Murnau's expressionistic horror films, but I'll be over here, keeping a candle lit for Sunrise.

Animal World is a Chinese film based on a comic that has the kind of crazy synopsis you won't believe COULD be made into a movie. You have your young hero who bonded with an anime super-clown when he was a boy and who sometimes hallucinates bad guys as monsters and his own violent impulses as the clown alter ego. You have him forced into a secret high-stakes rock-paper-scissors competition so he can pay his mom's hospital bills. The thing is cut-throat and run by none other than Michael Douglas, who you'd think would have filmed a day and collected his paycheck, but no, he's a sustained menace and looks to be in the sequel (cuz, yeah, it ends on a cliffhanger, though I think you get a complete story too). It's bonkers, with competing premises, but if you go with it, it's a lot of fun. I only wish I had a better handle on stats/maths so I could get how clever the protagonist is in his ploys to win the tournament. They expend some effort explaining things with visual aids, but a lot of it goes over my head anyway. Thankfully, all the solutions aren't mathematical.

Wu Jing directs himself in Wolf Warrior 2, a popcorn action flick that somehow became 2017's highest-grossing film worldwide and was sold to me as ludicrously patriotic with the U.S. as the villains Hollywood usually makes out of non-Americans. Sadly, it's not ludicrous ENOUGH. I really did want a tit-for-tat, reverse-nations 80s action that was all, like, "that's what it feels like, biatch!", but really, there are only a couple of Americans in this and they're bloodthirsty mercenaries with no nation (led by Frank "Crossbones" Grillo), working with one side of a civil war in generic Africa. China's relationship with this African country is pure propaganda, much like what the U.S. commits to film regularly, but that's it. While there are a couple of fun moments - a tank duel, fighting RPGs with bedsprings - most of the movie is people shooting each other, the most boring type of action for me, civilians mowed down repeatedly in an excess of violence. So when you get a proper action set piece, you're dead tired already. That's quite beyond the Wolf Warrior 1 flashbacks/emotional context, the cliched plot, and the brain dead dialog.

Bernard the the Genie has a Richard Curtis script, Lenny Henry and Alan Cumming in lead roles, Rowan Atkinson* as a smarmy and eccentric villain, a Christmas theme, and... the director of Leonard Part 6? I think you can guess at whose feet I'm going to lay this rotten egg. Well no, to be fair, Curtis here shows that even the hit writer behind Blackadder, Mr. Bean and Four Wedding and a Funeral was capable of a swing and a miss. There are some good jokes, sure, but a down-on-his-luck art gallery buyer who gets control of a cool-io genie who was bottled before Caesar was assassinated YET was one of Jesus' disciples? Come on, now. It's like a bad sitcom pilot. Atkinson is a highlight, Cumming shows a lot of heart, and Henry puts a lot of energy into his ridiculous fish out of water, but whatever might have worked I feel gets flatted by the inept direction. Blaring musical cues, awkward stunts, magic tricks Barbara Eden would sneer at from 25 years in the movie's past, bad pacing... It's not all the big names' faults.
Role-playing: BARD&D FINALE! - It was always going to resolve itself at a music festival on the Isles of Moonshae (from which one band member hails), with a "Satanic" band (the 3d6s) summoning a major demon, with the very real possibility of an Apocalypse in the Forgotten Realms (I could imagine several sequels from there anyway). When special guest Joelle named the festival Cockroachella as a joke back in episode 2, I knew what the demon would look like. She couldn't come back for the finale, but her character was there, as was Chalif's from episode 4, in spirit as an NPC if not in body. Benard (ep.3) and Nath (Xmas ep.) DID come back, so we had a full table. With an open-ended adventure structure, I was keen to find out what kind of solution the players would come up with. It involved the king of unicorns leading an army of animals, Ninja Sex Party's Danny as druidic rock god, and a three-song set designed to send the devil back to hell. The world is saved. The end... for now.
Set list - Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive (Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters), Sing, You Sinners (Duke Ellington, feat. Harlem Hot Chocolates & Irving Mills), Sabotage (Beastie Boys), Warhead (Venom), We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions (Queen), Around the World (Daft Punk), The Number of the Beast (Iron Maiden), La Cucaracha Metal Cover (Tommy Comer), You Gotta Fight for your Right to Party (Beastie Boys), Tribute (Tenacious D), Highway to Hell (AC/DC), Closing Time (Semisonic), La tribu de Dana (Manau), Dragon Slayer (Ninja Sex Party)

What's next for the role-playing group? Well, we need a hiatus because of other commitments, and are thinking of maybe doing a couple of Paranoia adventures in the in-between time. After that, I'm thinking of Torg Eternity, but we've actually talked about another series of our Doctor Who RPG, or potentially even resurrecting an old hi-octane GURPS series we called Warehouse 23. To be continued.


Kurt Onstad said...

Duck Butter?

Siskoid said...

What did I JUST say?

Madeley said...

Speaking of Thomas More, did you ever read Wolf Hall, or watch the BBC adaptation? I can't remember off hand if you've mentioned it.

Siskoid said...

No, but it looks like it has an amazing cast! I should check it out.

Siskoid said...

And Madeley, no Arthurian rant on my dime? Don't hold back on my account.

Madeley said...

Hah! I think my reputation for trawling round the internet in a huff and being a pain in the arse about Arthuriana largely goes without saying nowadays.

Definitely check out Wolf Hall, book and TV show, I think you'll get a real kick out of them. They're not typically my kind of thing but I absolutely loved them.


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