This Week in Geek (2-08/05/21)


At home: From the people who brought us Spiderverse, The Mitchells vs. The Machines has a similar vibe while enabling a more free-form approach to multi-media animation that fits both the comedy and the central character, a girl who makes movies with her phone. So there's an objective reality, there's a phone filter reality, and there's the world of the imagination represented by drawn elements, oh and maybe a bit of anime/Samurai Jack type action too. At times, there's so much on the screen, you know you'll want to watch it again at some point. While on a family road trip, the Mitchells, identifying as "weirdos" become the only people on Earth able to resist the machine apocalypse precipitated by what can only be described as a new iPhone release. It's Terminator, but informed by current tech culture (and do I love Olivia Coleman as this world's Siri? Of course I do!). There's a nice statement about the value of family, and that of letting your freak flag fly, but a lot of belly laughs as well. The dog (and the movies he stars in) is a definite highlight, and the robots are great too. If I can't give it the full 5 stars, it's that 1) the little boy's voice sounds like an adult's doing a voice, and 2) Sony putting out a "tech companies are dangerous" message is disingenuous.

I love me a space mission procedural, and Stowaway stars people I want to watch on any given day like Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim and Anna Kendrick on a mission to mars that goes lopsided when a man (Shamier Anderson) is found to have accidentally been aboard during take-off. They can't turn back, but now face never arriving due to lack of oxygen. It's a technical procedural, with strong-seeming science, but also an ethical procedural, jettisoning the usual paranoid thriller treatment this story would normally and instead honestly asking what spaceflight professionals would do in such a situation. It's like Apollo 13, but we don't see the ground crew. In fact, once we've left Earth's atmosphere, the outside chatter disappears and conversations with mission control are strictly one-sided. The isolation is total, and in such situations, what is your responsibility towards your fellow man? Isolation, kindness, sacrifice, using science to solve problems... definitely a film for our times.


Philip K. Dick was a prolific writer, not just of novels but of short stories as well. I've read a fair few, and yet, probably only one that was adapted into Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams for television. It's obvious that this one-season anthology show was greenlit in the wake of Black Mirror's success, but the world-building and conspiracy vibes of most episodes would make them entire series in today's entertainment landscape. There's a good variety to these 10 stories, showcasing Dick's main themes of questioning reality, what it means to be human, and general paranoia, and a retro-SF feel that was prevalent in his stories - spaceships, futuristic cities and mutant powers - though in the choices and then adaptations, they actually say something about today's concerns. Some tales might remind you of Black Mirror, sure, but mostly Outer Limits, or occasionally, The Twilight Zone. For the most part, they have big-name actors - impressive - and are all worth the 45-50 minutes. The strongest for me were "Real Life" (with Anna Paquin and Terrence Howard), "The Commuter" (with Timothy Spall), "Autofac" (with Janelle Monáe), and "Kill All Others" (Vera Farmiga). "Safe and Sound" is a good example of taking a Black Mirror premise and subverting it with Dickian tropes. Sadly, "Crazy Diamond" (with Steve Buscemi) never quite comes together despite the more ambitious world-building, so it the weakest entry.

50 Years of SF/1978: Brian De Palma dressed Carrie up as a spy thriller to make The Fury, giving Amy Irving from that film a chance to BE bullied rather than be the bully. She has psychic powers that include - for that horror vibe - blood telekinesis (haemokinesis?). It's notable that this is 3 years before Scanners. She might also be able to track Kirk Douglas's son, a powerful psychic himself, snatched from his father by a super-secret government agency. Douglas pulls a Taken and is actually pretty cool as an agent on the run evading death squads as he tries to find his son, at odds with an equally cool John Cassavetes. Andrew Stevens as the son is actually the weak spot, one of these hairdos from the late 70s-early 80s, strictly television movie quality. It's a shame because even the bit parts have interesting casting. This is Daryl Hannah's first film (as one of the catty school girls) and an easy-to-miss Jim Belushi's too (as a beach bum). A young Dennis Franz, only on his second film, plays a nervous cop. Overall, this is a case of two genres clashing, but it's pretty entertaining nonetheless. Douglas most of all. Good score from John Williams too.
Actual best from that year: Invasion of the Body Snatchers


1979: Don Coscarelli's Phantasm is a big bag of "what the hell am I watching?" and normally, that wouldn't be a problem. It spawned a number of sequels (impressively using the surviving cast into the 2000s), and though none of them are subtitled Phantasm: The Explanation, I'm sure this tale of an alien(?) undertaker turning people into slaves eventually pins down its mythology. To me here, it's a collage of ideas. Halloween's music, Argento atmospherics, heck, they even steal a scene from Dune... though the crossbreed of horror and sci-fi is most analogous to Hellraiser. What sinks Phantasm for me is the acting. The emotions are way off, and the actors often just seem like improv players blanking on what to do next. There's some stylish imagery - the disembodied finger, the killer ball, and so on - but I felt so disconnected from the whole, disjointed thing, that I'm in no hurry to sample the follow-ups.
Actual best from that year: Stalker, Alien, The Brood, The Visitor, Mad Max


1980: A production that's a lot closer to Dino De Laurentiis's later Conan films than to Star Wars, or even his own Barbarella, Flash Gordon is pretty true to the comic strips and '30s serials, and that may be one of its Achilles' heels. I know a lot of people love this movie, and I might too but for two problems. First, the studio-bound production design - the costumes especially - is fake and silly. If this had been made in the '50s or '60s, it would look amazing. In 1980, it's at best an attempt to emulate a bygone genre without updating it much at all for current-day audiences. Kids who would have seen it in the '80s could have nostalgia for it. Seeing it for the first time in 2021, I find it irredeemably dated. The more important problem is Sam Jones as a the lead. Another one of those hairdos who can't do much beyond looking earnest. If Flash were played with a minimum of guile, his feats would look like more than plot points. He's dull as dishwater. Dale has surprising fighting ability, which is good, until it's used in a veritable pillow fight. Yes, the movie achieves a kind of camp, but it also has some tonally abject moments of grotesque violence. Zarkov is way too central as well, what a spoiler this guy is. So it's really in the hands of the antagonists. Max von Sydow is a little awkward as Ming, and his daughter Princess Aura only wishes she could be Pamela Hensley's Princess Ardala from Buck Rogers, but Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed (his first shot at playing Yrcanos - Whovians know who I mean - surely) are great. In fact, Hawkman Blessed is the best thing in here. Did his "Who wants to live forever?" inspire the Queen song used in ANOTHER movie soundtrack the band did? So I get it, but I'd put it in the same category as Masters of the Universe, something vaguely amusing to watch with other people, shouting out famous lines, and of course singing along to the Queen tune.
Actual best from that year: The Empire Strikes Back

1981: Outland probably didn't need to be set on Io, as it's essentially a cop drama about Sean Connery investigating drug-related deaths in an outlying mining station. It could have been set in the Great White North or on an oil rig, for example. But seeing as it IS set on one of Jupiter's moons, they (eventually) make the best of it and give us a finale that makes full use of the deadly alien environment. This is definitely a movie informed by Alien's success, with industrial spaces, financial concerns, and gory violence, but it's a more grounded, human story. I like Connery's motivation, going up against a corrupt system for personal rather than ethical reasons (and yet, it's not what I just made it sound like), but the real MVP is Frances Sternhagen as a cantankerous doctor who is called to help our hero in his hour of need, whether she likes it or not. And maybe she likes it. Explosive decompression is silly and unscientific in this movie, but the effects are generally good, especially the compositing in "space walk" scenes. It won't change your life, but Outland is a well-constructed SF thriller.
Actual best from that year: Escape from New York, Time Bandits, Mad Max 2


Jean Arthur is always so good as a woman who takes this in her stride but still looks hard put upon, and in Easy Living, that's still true even though those things are people showering her with expensive gifts for no reason she can discern. It starts with a rich banker (comic belligerent Edward Arnold) throwing his wife's fur coat out the window and onto our heroine and goes on from there. A madcap series of coincidences and misunderstandings follows. The Preston Sturges script is full of fast patter and makes up for the more dated physical comedy, which I find a little broad, thanks. I'm not sure the stock market subplot makes sense (or is legal, I should say), but this is pretty typical for the era. Regardless, what carries us through is Jean Arthur's charm and energy, and it's a shame the the character's light needs to be extinguished by marital concerns soon after the film. It was 1937, what can I say? The romance has value if only for that one moment that can be read two ways, as to whether or not Easy Living broke the Hays Code or not!


Based on a true story from only 4 years before - so still in the swing of the phenomenon - 2003's Calendar Girls has British National Treasures Helen Mirren and Julie Walters head a cast of middle-aged+ women who decide to make a (tasteful, amusing and body-positive) nude calendar to raise money for a local hospital. (Penelope Wilton, as usual, is a strong assist.) The structure is a little loose, taking its time, then nipping subplots in the bud when it goes to breakneck speed, which is either because true stories don't follow formulae, or to represent the feeling of the sleepy village turned media circus. Director Nigel Cole may well be purposeful because he's otherwise clever - I really like how the cinematography puts the characters in veritable postcards and creates the tableaux they themselves have rejected as "twee" for their association's annual calendar. But in any case, in large part due to its 5 or 6 main "Girls", the film is funny and it's touching. But truthfully, who's ever going to want to move on from January ;).

AKA My Dinner with Tom Noonan, What Happened Was... is a real two-hander and a master class in how to keep things interesting and visual without really leaving what amounts to a single room. Everything, even the clutter, seems posed and relevant, and despite the close confines, the people in this space are often visually separated, highlighting their isolation. Essentially a very awkward date, the quite wonderful Karen Sillas and actor-director Noonan himself reach out for one another, but attempts at vulnerability and honesty come across as creepiness and an insurmountable misunderstanding of the other. The food looks weird. The stories they tell are alienating. Their insecurity off-putting. It's a heightened sense of what a first date is actually like, and some budding relationships never escape this feeling even weeks or months in. Which is to say, I find this very relatable. Other people are a whole other country and you're there without a road map. An intimate hidden gem!

The eponymous diamond in The Hot Rock is one two African nations keep stealing from one another, and maybe it's cursed to be so because Robert Redford and his crew need to stage, not one, but SEVERAL complicated heists to get it for one of those countries. It's an amusing idea, though having so many heists in one movie (some might argue, WASTING them) means they can sometimes be rushed. I did enjoy it, but took its time getting its hooks into me. The first heist is heavy on prep, and then we just assume they've done their homework, I guess. Redford is very serious, so the levity comes from, well, almost everyone else - George Segal, Ron Leibman... Zero Mostel! Oh, and watch for Christopher Guest in his first movie role as a cop. Ultimately, I felt the movie bailed out a scene too early, as I really wanted one last double-cross to put a cherry on top of this triple-decker sundae, for closure's sake.


Books: There's almost 30 years between the last Foundation short story, and Asimov delivering Foundation's Edge, a novel that takes place at mid-point between the two Galactic Empires (we're never gonna get there, are we?). Perhaps understandably then, the early chapters recap the history of the series quite a lot, but even so, the novel feels a little padded, with a lot of recaps of earlier chapters in later chapters, catching characters up on information you already know. Maybe if I hadn't read it so quickly, but then it has the same conversational style as the short stories, so fast-reading is built-in. You heard me right, even if it's a novel, Asimov has maintained the idea that everything is told through conversations, people making deductions, etc. Not to say there isn't INCIDENT, but that's how it's filtered. The story concerns a duel quest for the long-long cradle of life (Earth) and a power that might controlling galactic events even beyond what the Second Foundation's been doing. The ultimate solution is a little bonkers, and there's a streak of Niven envy, perhaps, in Asimov's attempt to connect this series with some of his other works (including his robot stories). I recognize the weaknesses, and yet I was engrossed. And as the novel is really just part 1 of a two-part story, I'm heading straight into the next one.


Matthew E said...

The Hot Rock! I found the movie to be just all right, but it’s based on the first of one of my favourite series of books, Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels, which are hilarious. Redford was miscast; I always thought Steven Wright would make a good Dortmunder. And you’re right: they ended the movie one heist early.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

THE FURY was filmed in Old Chicago, this clever yet failed attempt to have an indoor domed amusement park and shopping mall combined. I was there a few times, there weren't really many rides (and you can see that in the film), but it was just in a bad location. The place closed with the building staying up until fairly recently. I feel bad that, as the suburbs grew west, this place would have gotten much more business now.

So this makes the second film where Belushi played in a mall that was torn down.

Rolled Spine Podcasts said...

I'm fond of Cronenberg, but I could never fully embrace Scanners because it was all done earlier and better in The Fury. Plus, Scanners stole glory from Dawn of the Dead's O.G. headshot, and I was introduced to Michael Ironside through V instead. Glad you liked Outland. I need to see both it and Escape From New York again since it's been decades.


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