This Week in Geek (14-20/03/21)


Doctor Who's animated version of Fury from the Deep just came out in Canada so I nabbed it to go in my complete collection, don't ya know.



At home: I'm a big fan of Brit Marling's productions, mysterious little indie SF films lie Another Earth and The Sound of Her Voice. Then I got wind of her television series The OA. I refused to read anything about it, and though it looked suspect that there were only two seasons, I hoped it was on purpose and not some cancellation that would rob me of closure. Only after I was done did I dare. But I'll tell you, friends. It was meant as a 5-season story, and yes, Netflix pulled the plug on it, but it does work as only two. The ending of both seasons are elliptical, sure, but not unsatisfying, and the Homeric reference gives it a structure akin to epic poetry, with Season 1 acting as in medias res and going back, then proceeding forward in Season 2. I don't want to say too much because the mystery, and never knowing where it's going, is really part of the enjoyment, but what if Flatliners were done right? What is that people see in near-death experiences? Where do they GO? The series expands the limits of the universe in a lo-fi science-fictional way (and indeed has a better handle on the topic than most filmic and televisual SF), with strong acting, scripting, direction, etc. Marling is great, and Jason Isaacs gives us another terrifying wolf in sheep's clothing  (I may never trust one of his characters again). Season 3 would have been completely bonkers and looks like Netflix was scared of it. Aborted but still worth your time.

Somewhere between Timecrimes and Groundhog Day - the visual similarities with the former are a little annoying - Triangle unfolds without you knowing any of that as a group of friends end up on a deserted cruise ship after a storm capsizes their sailboat and then things start going into slasher territory. I like Melissa George as the shell-shocked, sometimes axe-wielding heroine at the center of events, and there may be something to the notion, often touted by the other characters, that it's all in her mind (so a fugue more than a loop?). In may be the only way to reconcile some of the things that happen, and the time loop could be a representation of her child's strict routine - he's evidently on the spectrum - in which she feels trapped and frustrated, and therefore guilty that she even has these feelings. Triangle is well shot, very colorful, has - ehhh - some obvious CG, but also some pretty amazing images pertaining to the loop. It's one you may want to rewatch once you think you've got a handle on what's happening, but I can't promise your diagrams will make sense afterwards because we're not seeing the whole, potentially infinite picture.


A Czech dinosaur movie from 1955? Yes, please. Karel Zeman's Journey to the Beginning of Time is an all-ages adventure (so long as they can read subtitles, though I take it the American release is dubbed) in which four boys get into a small boat and go down river... into prehistory! Their ultimate goal, living trilobites in the Silurian Age, but we'll see them go through various episodes of the Walking With series before they get there. I love the fantasy of it. We don't need a rational explanation of how this is happening, it's fueled by childish imagination. Fantasy, but also researched (even if the research is dated in spots), Zeman recreating ancient creatures with a combination of traditional animation, stop motion, and practical effects, and the kids sometimes delivering educational exposition. It's not the fastest-moving film in history, but it has a real sense of wonder and just enough danger to keep things interesting on a Boy's Own Adventure level.  I would have eaten this up as a kid.

If Journey to the Beginning of Time was inspired by Journey to the Center of the Earth, Invention for Destruction is a loose-ish adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Karel Zeman had a thing for Jules Verne. And it's spectacular. Zeman has essentially brought Gustave Doré engravings to life, not only animating drawings of vehicles, but giving everything an incredible black and white, thin-lined look, and half the time, I'm not even sure how he's done it. It's like someone made Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow... in 1958! I was entranced and fascinated even if I knew the essentials of the story. After seeing his dinosaur movie I was thinking of him as a Czech Harryhausen. After this, I see why he's actually referred to as a latter-day Georges Méliès. There's the same scope of imagination, and while Méliès might not have known any better in terms of what was possible on film, Zeman does and still goes for broke. If Terry Gilliam wasn't inspired by this guy, I'll eat my hat.


Definite proof that Karel Zeman was an influence on Terry Gilliam is that they both made a Baron Munchausen movie! The Fabulous Baron Munchausen uses similar techniques as Invention for Destruction, though the coloring and style of humor (this is his funniest feature) make it seem like an early silent film (and one of the great ones at that). To get us into Munchausen's fantastical world, Zeman first lands a man on the moon in 1962 and has him meet various lunar visitors from literature. And then he becomes the Baron's companion (and sometime romantic rival) through the rest of the film. It's a wonderful little conceit that ties the stories to the present day. The Baron, as ever, an outrageous figure, a tall tale in human form, and Zeman's style is perfect for it. Though I like the look of Invention better, Munchausen is more inventive, intricate and original (also, naughtier) and love the note on which it ends. So much imagination on show.

There's no doubt when you watch the film version of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom that it started life as a play - in particular how people go into monologues - but some of the talkiness is mitigated by the musical numbers which are terrific. I know August Wilson isn't that kind of dramatist, but it almost wants to be a musical at times (there's one song that could be diagetic). In any case, this is a story about stepping on other people's shoes, which happens literally, but also metaphorically, in several ways. At the top level is the White Man theft of Black Music, but in the small niche afforded black performers (itself a niche for the success afforded African-Americans), everyone's jockeying for position, pulling on the blanket, call it what you will, stepping on each other's shoes. But that's only because someone has decided not to give everyone space that's readily available. That said, you're watching this for the performances. Everyone's good, and Viola Davis is a powerhouse, playing Ma as a terrifying prima donna, except the no, not prima donna - the motivation is different. In his last role, Chadwick Boseman is giving everything he's got, and it's almost hard to watch, knowing the state of his health. It's the kind of high-energy performance you might give if you didn't need to leave anything in the tank. All safeties off.

The frame isn't as precious in Joint Security Area as it is in later Park Chan-wook material, even if there are at least SOME beautiful and clever shots, but perhaps that just wasn't called for. His drama/mystery set in at the North and South Korean border is too immediate and mobile for that kind of posing. It seems something happened at the border resulting in the deaths of two North Korean soldiers and a Swiss national played by Lee Young-ae (Lady Vengeance) is called in to investigate and keep war from breaking out. But none of the survivors on either side are talking. What secret might they be hiding? The procedural detective story and realpolitik are absorbing, but it's when we go back almost a year to see how these events were set up and ultimately played out that we get at the meat of things. I'm loathe to say much more since I am recommending "JSA", but it gets to the heart of the Korean divide, a people with the same blood, history and culture who have been rent apart by political forces. Worth watching for the look at one of the most famous borders today, but it's got much more than that to offer.


You might call Crying Fist "Rocky Squared". Two down-on-their-luck boxers - one young, one old - live lives of abject misery and our only hope is that their paths eventually cross in the ring. And then what? You've built sympathy for both. Both are living through that arc where winning the fight means more than just winning a prize or medal. It's everything. So who do you root for? You KNOW only one can win, and so even if there's a cathartic victory, there will also be a tragic loss. That's where director Ryoo Seung-wan positions his audience. It's an interesting place to be. Korean-style boxing looks faster than what we see in American movies, or perhaps it's the weight class, I don't know, but when we get to The Big Fight(TM), we're allowed into the ring for long, intimate shots that look all the more brutal for their real-time length. It's a good boxing movie, but not immune to melodrama and therefore, occasional cheesiness. Still, a worthwhile journey.

Save the Green Planet! is a bleak and bizarre comedy about a young man who kidnaps a corporate mogul because he believes him to be an alien, from a race that should soon arrive and destroy the human race. Just how much of his story is true and how much is demented delusion? It can actually be read several ways, and the film toys with your sympathies too. It's probably the choices I make, but Korean cinema seems to be where movies go to avoid predictability. In this case, the line between comedy and tragedy is very blurry and a tightrope walker might well fall off of it. Will the Green Planet be saved? Does it need saving? Does it deserve to be saved? Through all the blood and lo-fi sci-fi collages and quirky supporting characters, the movie does achieve a certain poignancy. It's certainly worth getting to the end just so you can examine your feelings about it. See you somewhere over the rainbow!

So I'm going into The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie knowing it's not gonna remotely respect the Alan Moore comics it's "based on". I mean, that was based on characters from literature that had fallen into the public domain, so really, all the producers did here was license the name. They otherwise could have used all those characters, give or take certainly additions by Moore (Mina's red scarf, Hyde's look - pretty silly on film - stuff like that). So it's the dumbed-down Americanized version, with Tom Sawyer as American plug-in (he's not LXG material and mostly useless) and entirely too many gun fights and car stunts for make this feel like the original. But even as Victorian X-Men, it's merely watchable. Every time Nemo's giant submarine navigated the Thames, the Scene or Venice's canals like there was room for it in there, it took me right out of the film. There are lots of action movie clichés besides, and because we haven't really lived with these Cliffe's Notes characters for any length of time, the twists and mystery villains don't really really mean much, or at worst, are a predictable element. But yeah, it's okay if you don't factor in some kind of adaptation anxiety/disappointment. But just okay.


Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Siskoid: we had some kid shows in the 60s here in Chicago. Aside from Bozo, there was Garfield Goose, but on the Ray Rayner Show, all kinds of crazy stuff happened (look up Diver Dan).

I believe I saw JOURNEY TO THE BEGINNING OF TIME in 25-30 installments, I can't recall. Yes, it was dubbed, and set in Chicago because, you know. Kids. They were at the Museum of Science & Industry, and the dream involves the boys going to Lincoln Park (on the other side of the city) and rowed a boat under a bridge viaduct. On the other side: dinosaurs.

I think I learned the whole story about it being Czech sometime in the 90s, when a bunch of us writers were talking about growing up and we ended up talking about the serialized shows.

Siskoid said...


I'm kind of always on the lookout for time travel movies and I'd never even heard of it until it popped up on the Criterion Channel. It's amazing that there was essentially a "local version"; I wonder if other cities did this.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I've never heard of Journey being presented in any other way in another city. I'm a writer and have been to a lot of conventions in different cities. Often, things like this pop up in conversations, like, what made you want to write, etc. I'm sure part of that is because of how long ago that was. I would say I was watching this as early as 1965 and again a few years later when the entire thing was run again. Some of the writers as old as me (61) remember the show/film, but not transformed into Nashville or NYC.

To give you an idea of the really weird stuff I saw as a kid, there was also these stop animation shorts by Centaur c 1954, "The Three Dwarves" (or Hardrock, Coco, and Joe", and this freakish thing "Suzy Snowflake" which I swear is about alien abduction. Both of those are on YouTube now. There was also this hip, swinging cartoon of Frosty the Snowman. One day I'll find the time to sit and watch as many YouTubes of "Diver Dan" as I can.


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