This Week in Geek (18-24/04/21)



At home: The MCU sets up yet another film with Falcon and the Winter Soldier, carefully waiting for the end to announce Captain America 4 - well good, because it left, not to say generated, a lot of loose ends. (It just hit me that the title almost accidentally evokes The Falcon and the Snowman, and there are similarities there...) Strong action beats, but what's most interesting is the exploration of what the mantle of Captain American MEANS, as a question hangs over the the six-part series - who will be the next Cap? All three leads (Sam, Bucky and Walker) have taken up the shield in the comics, after all. Which American ideals must be represented? I think they make a good choice (though not a fan of the new costume), and the final speech(es) gave me the right feels. Of particular interest is what it would mean for a black man to wear the stars and stripes when so much of American history is erasure of Black achievement. Bucky's counterpoint - a man trying to make amends for the wrongs he's done - makes him an interesting symbol for another facet of America. What doesn't work so well for me is the way characters are introduced in the series structure. In the middle there, it just feels like they're bringing in guest star (returning and new) after guest star. While it's not uninteresting to catch up with various characters, or build upon what the "blip" did to the world, it felt a little loose for me, especially in a contained series. The banter didn't always work for me either, and felt overlong and indulgent. On the action front, starts better than it ends; in every other way, ends better than it started.

Part of a seemingly endless series of shows based on Black Mirror premises, Made for Love stars the absolutely worthy Cristin Milioti as a woman whose tech bazillionaire husband has not only kept her locked up in his compound for a decade, but also implanted a chip in her brain so he can spy on her at all times. He thinks that's love. The first season concerns her attempts at emancipation from this toxic, possessive relationship, with the high-tech premise and absurdly out-of-touch behavior of Billy Magnussen's Byron Gogol (whose stylish "g" logo looks like handcuffs) create a hightened, but recognizable "bad relationship", while her dad's blow-up doll takes up mirroring and counterpoint to the situation. The dad is Ray Romano, by the way, whose post-sitcom career brings me a lot of joy. Even if it's not as much as a mind-f***er as it promises to be, Made for Love has something to say, and it's good. I do feel like it would have packed more punch as a single mini-series. A late complication creates a need for a second season - and that "ending" is totally in keeping with toxic relationships - so hopefully we get one.

After Dunkirk, the British government commissions a movie about the event, meant to bolster the people's resolve. Their Finest is a fiction, based on a novel, in turn inspired by a real-life Welsh film maker who wrote propaganda films during the war, usually uncredited, but that adds an intriguing layer seeing as the film within the film is also only "inspired" by the true events its meant to portray. Filled with big names even in tiny parts, it's really Bill Nighy who captivates as the over-the-hill prima donna. The man is a treasure. This last part of the Dunkirk/Finest Hour trilogy has its share of drama, and deals well with the theme of women struggling to be seen, but also great moments of levity. Its opinion of actors is amusingly low, and war or not, the pressures of getting a film to the right market creates frustrations for its writers. In some ways, just a good enough period drama, its ultimate achievement is how powerful the film within the film is, cod 1940s style and all. Have a hanky ready, I don't know how it's possible, but there it is.

Surely one of the great food films, Tampopo's main story - about a widow struggling to keep her husband's ramen restaurant going, who gets help from a trucker and various members of the community - in supplemented by vignettes about people's relationship with food. These range from the amusing to the occasionally tragic to the completely absurd, especially the one that opens the film about a gangster who equates food and sex. A couple of moments with live animals aside, this is entirely delightful and yes, I had to stop mid-way to make myself something to eat. You almost have to. Not something pre-fab. You want to cook it yourself. It's not so much that the film makes you hungry, but that it makes you want to get your hands right in there. The main story isn't about a magically talented cook, but someone who does the work, with the help of some quirky friends (love the gourmet tramps). I didn't realize there was so much industrial espionage in the ramen game. The story also has a samurai film/western overlay - strangers come to town and help the community - but it's subtle, and can only really be felt in retrospect.


Sondheim and Lapine's challenge in adapting what was originally an epistolary novel is well met in Passion, a musical, but certainly not musical comedy. This is a sad one, in fact a fierce portrait of the ugly side of depression. Fosca is an unattractive woman in a century where a woman's opportunities are largely tied to her beauty, but also one that's always sick, mentally more than physically. She falls into obsessive love with Giorgio, a soldier garrisoned on her cousin's estate, but his heart belongs to another, a married woman in Milan. It's not going to go well. Not quite an opera - there's spoken dialog - Passion doesn't really have very many songs as such, more a kind of sing-song quality, so singability isn't really where its strengths are. Rather, the original cast's recording is all about Donna Murphy as Fosca. A powerhouse performance that must have left her drained every night. Dehydrated, certainly. It's called Passion, but it could have been called Selfishness, the selfishness that came come with depression, but also with love, as Giorgio and Clara are no less guilty of it. And then empathy as a kind of love. The resolution requires it from the characters and from the audience, because it psychologically quite complex and a less open-minded audience member could come out of it refusing to accept the outcomes. I've read that Sondheim only felt the piece came together some years later with a more boyish, innocent Giorgio, and I'd have liked to see that. I too am uncertain as to whether or not Jere Shea is too old to portray the character arc. But surely, a Passion without Donna Murphy must be a lesser Passion...

Canadian director Daryl Duke's low-stakes Christmas heist, The Silent Partner, stars Elliott Gould as a boring bank teller working in a Toronto mall bank (so you can well imagine the Christmassyness is HEAVY), who becomes aware that a Santa Claus is gonna rob the place. For reasons not particularly explored except the normal ennui on a bank job, he manages to trick the robber (Christopher Plummer) and take the money for himself. That's the set-up to a tense fiasco-in-the-making as the robber won't take this lying down. The key element is that Gould's Miles Cullen is a chess player, and tough he loses control of the game several times either through bad luck or his opponent making bold moves like taking his queen, is he in fact smart enough to win the game? And there lie the joys of this picture. The move-countermove structure keeps things alive. There's also a small role for John Candy in here, so completists, to your streaming machines!

Xavier Dolan meets David Cronenberg is a hell of promise to make on a movie poster, but Closet Monster almost fulfills it (heavily leaning on the Dolan side). This coming of age/coming out drama set in Newfoundland is truthful it its approach, but also has moments of gory magical realism and in its lighter moments, a lot of whimsy. Watch, or rather listen for, Isabella Rossellini doing one of her patented Green Porno voices as the hamster Buffy. Closeted by a combination of childhood trauma and parental homophobia, would-be make-up effects artist (that Cronenbergian connection thus part of his world) Oscar is about to grow up, and it's not going to be easy. Beyond the LGBTQ+ themes, there's a more universal overlay, that of parents being easy with stock encouragement like "you can do/be anything", but then being the thing that holds you back, sets limits, and disapproves of your choices, or indeed, your identity which is quite beyond your control. This is a good-looking and inventive picture, filled with homegrown actors (I always love to see Mary Walsh and Joanne Kelly in things, for example).

50 Years of SF/1971: I don't think I'd ever made it this far in the original Apes franchise, though it's possible I'd caught parts of Escape from the Planet of the Apes on French-Canadian television as a kid. The apes in a contemporary setting? Rings a bell. After Beneath - which I did not care for - I felt little compulsion to keep going. But Escape is actually pretty good! Revealed/retconned to have survived the second film, Zira and Cornelius take the time warp back to the 1970s for their own fish out of water story. To the film's credit, there's no overt attempt to mirror the 1968 original with what might have been trite call-backs, and instead tries to show what would actually happen if intelligent apes from the future landed on the Earth of today (50 years ago). It gets a bit tropey in the third act, but I do like that an escape is required, once again playing with our own world also being the "Planet of the Apes", and there's tension in the fact that it's the '70s, and '70s SF did not like happy endings. Not sure what to think of the notion that the intelligent apes only really exist inside a time loop - those physics are wonky. Plus, some joy at some of the actors cast in small parts throughout - M. Emmet Walsh, William Windom, Ricardo Montalban(!).

Actual best from that year: A Clockwork Orange

1972: Taking on the editing challenge of adapting a novel in which the lead character is "unstuck in time" and experiences life out of sequence, Slaughterhouse-Five cannot possibly achieve Kurt Vonnegut's breezy irony, but it tries its best. The film has some excellent cuts between moments - something books have a harder time doing - though the aging make-up of the day does make the acting a bit stiff at times. You can definitely say Billy Pilgrim isn't really moving in time, that it's all in his head, as the story is at least partly about PTSD. He doesn't "remember" moments, he relives them. And while people are always trying to make him forget through various means, the message is that we have to confront and accept those moments to get past them. Repression is not an option. Vonnegut also builds in a larger allegory, with America denying the bombing of Dresden, a crazy Nazi Captain America, and so on. Nations must also confront their misdeeds and traumas if they wish to evolve. He might as well have written that today.

Actual best from that year: Solaris

1973: Futurama can sleep soundly knowing it's still the funniest comedy about someone being frozen and waking up in the future. Its granddaddy, Woody Allen's Sleeper, itself stealing the premise from Buck Rogers, fails to get any laughs from me. For some reason, Allen has chosen to make a comedy like Buster Keaton would have in the silent era. Physical gags with wonky music, even a couple of fast-forward Benny Hill moments. From Keaton (Buster, not Diane, here in an early role), I could have liked it. Here, it seems decades out of date and anyway, can't maintain the conceit. We eventually have to have dialog, and Allen is in full stand-up comic mode, almost never saying anything he means and trolling the future people with every line, for no reason. Similarly, the bizarro-future is just a topsy-turvy version of ours where junk food and cigarettes are good for you (we just got it wrong, see? Jerry Siegel would have been proud.) Very tedious. Things pick up in the third act when the plot mechanics of deposing the future's Orwellian leader take over, and suddenly, Allen's character has a motive and actual drives and emotions (so to speak). But there's a lot of shenanigans before we get to something meaningful.

Actual best from that year: Soylent Green, Fantastic Planet, World on a Wire, Westworld


Though it came out a year before The World's End, The Watch is essentially the American version of the idea. A group of blokes, some of them struggling with midlife crisis, fight off an alien invasion in the suburbs. Given the relative results, it's not a flattering comparison. The problem really stems, I think, from the four leads essentially playing their stock character. Ben Stiller is neurotic mid-life crisis guy who has relationship issues; Vince Vaughn is a manic with low impulse control; Jonah Hill is the ultimate sidekick, an angry but submissive man-child; and Richard Ayoade is the eccentric nerd. We've seen all this before, but it's not lack of originality I'm decrying, it's that this is used as shorthand to allow the performers to basically improvise what are supposed to be funny conversations. They're not, because they're obvious improvs, people riffing off each other, with no thought given to actual character motivation. This is the kind of stuff you would say jokingly, knowing you're joking, and then laugh, but these guys think they're serious. It's nonsense. Once I've disconnected from the movie, well, how am I going to ever accept all the pee-pee jokes and lame "guns blazing" solutions. Yes, sure, let's advocate for armed citizenry and NOT treat that part of it as a joke. Falls very flat for something written by Rogen and Goldberg, and directed by The Lonely Island's brain trust.

Books: Thematically coinciding with the release of his second film, The Double, Richard Ayoade interviews Richard Ayoade in Ayoade on Ayoade: A Cinematic Odyssey. It establishes Ayoade's brand in terms of comedy books, spoofing high-brow critical thinking about cinema while also heaping loads of self-deprecating humor on top of it. In this case, he also satirizes the whole interview process, the kinds of questions you get, the artificial nature of those "conversations", in bizarre mises-en-scène featuring himself and himself, one a clueless journo, the other an eccentric douchebag. The big lie of course is that Ayoade doesn't know what he's doing, as both Submarine and The Double are astonishingly good films, but the send-up refuses to acknowledge that. If Ayoade writes his own hit piece, that's almost nothing compared to the "voices" he gives other people in his work life. Everyone in the film industry is a complete idiot. While the book is wryly amusing, has fun with language (taking things too literally is an Ayoade thing), and certainly dips into the absurd, one feels there may not have been enough juice in the idea for a whole book. The interviews give way to long appendices that, while connected to different parts of the text (the footnotes are adamant you should read them when they tell you to read them), break the overall style of the piece.

Book/Film combo: It's pretty obvious that the only reason to watch the wretched Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle (that's a plane joke) View from the Top is as a companion to reading Richard Ayoade's Ayoade on Top, which deconstructs it Cahiers du Cinéma style. Did all the A-listers in this thing lose a bet? Why does Rob Lowe have, like, a single scene? Did he owe Joshua Molina for replacing him on The West Wing? One thing this cabin crew confidential can't claim is that it knows a damn thing about the airline industry. None of it feels real - especially the bad wigs - nor can we believe Gwyneth as a Nevadan the way she says her state's name. In an apparent state of panic to try and make it "work", the director has slathered on over-obvious voice-over and an obnoxious number of just as obvious needle drops (several of them cheap covers!). I might need surgery to get my eyes back to the front of my face. Michael Meyers is in this as the worst sort of caricature, no doubt ad libbing himself into cross-eyed unfunniness. It's like he's in a different movie... and it's not any good either. View from the Top doesn't even know what its self-actualization message is (except, self-help books will save your life), as it surrenders to romcom clichés (there's even Christmas action). Its best note is perhaps its last one, and not just because it makes you think it's over, because it's not - please suffer through this blooper reel before you disembark. Ayoade on Top better be worth it...

Spoiler: It is.

Ayoade on Top treats View from the Top as an unheralded classic, turning its weaknesses back onto itself and declaring them strengths. It is a book dripping in irony, and while I will agree you do not have to see the movie for it to work, it's a good companion. It's better with the full context even if that context must be endured. Indeed, the ironical author's goal of putting View from the Top on the map is achieved. The movie, better forgotten by all stars involved, will forever be relevant as a prelude to this very funny, literate book. Ayoade's style is in full bloom - silly literalism, cod-academic verbosity, personal asides that get him well off-track (a mixed metaphor, surely) - and for me at least, part of the charm is that I appear to have a lot of the same cultural baggage. Well not the Swedish-Nigerian heritage, I mean in terms of what films I have seen and books I have read. 90% of the references were meant for me specifically. The proof is in the salted nuts: I laughed and/or giggled a lot reading this, and I was sorry it was over so quickly.

Ok, back to books: Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard is the faux-autobiography of a fictional painter, one of the Modern Expressionists who might gave been in Pollock's circle. A failed one. Convinced by a new friend (frenemy?) to write his memoirs, he embark on a literary journey that is at once slapdash - recursive, redundant, structureless and that he admittedly turns into a diary - and completely riveting. How WOULD a painter WRITE? In this case, not from one corner to the next in sequences, but a little bit here, filling in details there, etc. and so if this book is about anything, it's about Process. The painter's, the writer's, the process of life itself. A mirror of his own work, he goes from copyist, to trend-follower, to erased has-been, to raconteur, keeping at arm's reach the secret he's keeping in his potato barn/studio (the root of the title, referencing the pirate's secret room). In Vonnegut fashion, the prose is breezy, the leitmotifs abound (compare art erasure to the Armenian genocide, for example), and the tone ironic. I'd been too long since I'd picked up a Vonnegut; I won't do that again.



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