This Week in Geek (25/04-01/05/21)


After finishing Book 3 of Foundation (see below), I know I'm gonna want to get to the end, so I got the three later books I was missing (Earth, Prelude and Forward). I've also gotten TwoMorrows' American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1990s, completing my collection of those volumes (at least, until they put out another).



At home: According to Jiu Jitsu, a Predator-like alien came to Earth ages ago and taught our ancestors jiu jitsu (#NotJiuJitsu) so we could give him a fun fight every 6 years. Set in Myanmar and making full use of Tony Jaa's stunt team, it could have been fun. Unfortunately, director Dimitri Logothetis doesn't really know how to shoot the action. Only Tony Jaa himself holds my attention and he's maybe fifth on the call sheet. His fights are more spectacular, last longer without cuts, and that's where Logothetis allows himself more creativity (like the bit where the camera is a fighter's point of view. Otherwise, not all the hits actually hit, and it feels rather limp as a result. The actual protagonist is Alain Moussi, and he can't act his way out of a paper bag. Nick Cage enlivens things up as a mentor figure who's kind of lost it, but he's not a convincing fighter. The story gets points for the sci-fi remix of the well-worn fighting movie genre, and for Jaa's action, but I know what a good martial arts flick looks like and this isn't it.

I think the Muppets are never as delightful as when they star in a literary adaptation. Their Christmas Carol is of course a classic. Muppet Treasure Island is another. Maybe it's because it gives them license to go darker, in deference to the original material. Treasure Island is probably the darkest they've gone, with murders happening through the first sea shanty, and jokes about death ("in a kids' movie?!") occurring with some frequency. If the audience (whatever its age) can take it, it's because the Muppets being treated like actors - and Gonzo and Rizzo playing themselves and breaking the fourth wall - lets you know it's not "real" and no harm is actually done. I mean, this is a version of Stevenson's classic that includes rats playing shuffleboard and using the island as a resort. If the two wall-breakers are definitely the highlights, props to Miss "I can't believe they found a way to include her" Piggy is probably even funnier. Tim Curry as Long John Silver is - I'm gonna say it - relatively restrained, so you can believe in his relationship with Jim, but also obviously LOVING it, which he always does. If you're looking for a treasure on the island, it's him. And fun songs too, whether it's the sweet ballads, the sea shanties, or Caribbean music. We're due another Muppet Classic adaptation... but what should it be?

Hitchcock's Notorious is a spy thriller filtered through a love triangle that makes everything more difficult for the protagonists. You really don't have to ask me twice to watch Ingrid Bergman in a movie, even if her accent's gonna be a little muddled (is it me, or is she doing "Hard American Dame" in the first scene? - well, I know people who switch to a British accent when they're drunk, so maybe). She's sent into a nest of Nazis who have scurried to South America based on her treasonous father's associations, meant to seduce Claude Rains, which is a problem because she and Cary Grant have (naturally) fallen in love. So she can do the deed, Grant patriotically rejects her, and from then on, it's all heightened emotions and edge-of-your-seat film making. I found myself gripped watching a wine bottle slowly slip off a shelf, or leaning in at insert shots of keys and cups. And man, Hitch is really pushing at the Hays Code's limits in this one. Bergman is not-not... Notorious! Oh sorry, how did that song come into my head? While the plot can sometimes be a little abrupt on some points, it's Hitchcock being Hitchcock and working with a stellar cast, so I can forgive it.

While no Hitchcock movie is going to be bad, there are definitely modes or genres that he's best suited to. Based on the novel, Under Capricorn has some strong cinematography and a mobile camera exploring the space, which is atypical of the era, but it's high melodrama, with revelations coming in long speeches rather than visuals. I didn't care much for Marnie either, to tell you the truth. It's also a period piece (set in Australia when it was still a penal colony) and like the earlier Jamaica Inn, its attempts at suspense are hampered by a script that reveals too much, too soon. At least it has a theme, that of sacrificing oneself for a loved on, which everybody does, often at cross-currents. Ingrid Bergman is good as a woman suffering from mental illness. Joseph Cotten simmers. Michael Wilding I've already forgotten. The MVP though is likely Margaret Leighton as the Iago of this love quadrangle, the vicious gossip who really wants the gentleman of the house for herself. You want to walk through the screen and give her a good slap, and that has to count for something!

In Spellbound, Ingrid Bergman gets to play a psychoanalyst who thaws out when she meets Gregory Peck, a man suffering from amnesia and accused of a crime he doesn't remember, but feels sure he committed. What follows is part whirlwind romance, part detective thriller as she desperately tries to cure him and solve a wholly psychological mystery. The dream imagery inspired by Dali's paintings - and announced in the opening credits - is an interesting component, and Hitchcock gives himself license to get a little surreal at time. Amazing final shot too. I like it. Between those flights of fancy and the unusual detective story, there's plenty to keep one's attention, but there's also some suspense because we don't know what happened and what Peck's character might do next. And then there's Bergman, who sells both the romance and the fierce intelligence of her character. There's some chauvinism on show in this 1940s world which CAN pinch, but I'm not complaining too much because it seems realistic and doesn't stop Bergman from forging ahead.

50 Years of SF/1974: Though essentially best known for Sean Connery running around in a red diaper, I'll give full marks to Zardoz for its ambition, a dystopian SF film by way Jodorowsky and in the vein of 70s musicals (Tommy only comes out the next year), but this is no Holy Mountain. It LOOKS interesting, and it's obviously ABOUT something, but it's at once too opaque and personal to director John Boorman, and not enigmatic enough. On the face of it, it's Campbellian - a primitive man (Connery) discovers knowledge and kills his god, sending him spinning to "civilization". That civilization of hedonistic and effete Eternals (the satire of communes has passed its expiration date, but I think we can relate with the general feeling) is stagnating because it has lost touch with their primal selves... or something. It's just not quite clear what the film is trying to say exactly and who it is attacking. If the Wellsian Eloi, then why make the "Brutal" hero a mass murderer and rapist? And if the film is generally misanthropic, well, ouch, you hurt my innate humanism. Ultimately, while Zardoz is intriguing, it feels like a symbolism for symbolism's sake and never really comes together for me.
Actual best from that year: Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla


1975: In terms of premise, it's the science-fiction equivalent of Rosemary's Baby. In The Stepford Wives, a woman is also moving to a new place where the people are strange, and her controlling husband soon follows suit. Filled with an anxiety about losing oneself in a marriage and becoming an accessory to a successful husband, Joanna (Katharine Ross) makes a good feminist hero, bristling at the vapid subservience of the suburban wives around her, and trying to figure out the mystery of their "conversions". This is one of those movies that has since become iconic ("Stepford Wife" has passed into the English idiom), so the mystery's solution is well known. To the film's credit, it doesn't matter. There is such great care taken with with themes involved that there's plenty of interest along the way. Knowing what we do, an early scene with a teddy bear takes on great relevance, for example, and the set dressing is always thoughtful too. One of the great paranoid sf thrillers of the '70s.
Also from that year: The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Death Race 2000, Rollerball


1976: Westworld is such an enduring 1970s SF icon, everyone tends to dismiss and ignore its sequel, Futureworld. Nevertheless, it's got a pretty strong cast, with Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner playing dueling journalists invited to tour the new, refurbished, hopefully non-lethal theme park. Danner is especially fun to watch. While the "ooh! aah!" discovering ____World is out of the first film, it really has its own story to tell. Westworld was a disaster movie that turned slasher. This one is a detective story and a paranoid thriller actually more Stepford Wives than what the original offered. That said, it's got problems keeping its rating to merely watchable. First, it oversells Yul Yul Brynner's participation - that he shot any new scenes at all is total fan service and surplus to requirements. Second, it kind of ends on an extended shoot-out starring Fonda, which I find boring and interminable. Danner has her own action climax and it's shorter, cooler, and better shot (pun not intended). But for what it is, a sequel that uses the same world without retreading every little plot point, it was pretty watchable.
Actual best from that year: Logan's Run


1977: Anyone who knows me knows I can't stand the conspiracy theory about the faked moon landing. Set 5 minutes into the future, the astronaut thriller Capricorn One doesn't believe that either, but it arranges a set of circumstances where it might be politically convenient to stage a MARS landing. Now if only the astronauts, led by James Brolin looking his most Gil Gerardest, would cooperate. I know there are no roads in space, but I kept wanting this movie to PICK A LANE. It's a procedural that becomes an action thriller. At times (surely the best of times), it's about a journalist following a conspiracy (Elliott Gould being very bantery with various characters); other times, it's a survival picture where the astronauts try to evade the Men in Black and cross the desert (opportunities to create close parallels to the Martian landscape, but they don't do anything with it). There are some impressive but quite occasional stunts, but the film is rather turgid and slow otherwise. Plot holes abound. And I'm sorry, but what they seem to suggest with the abrupt ending is complete nonsense. (Or maybe it's supposed to be about a feeling, and okay, but there's no indication elsewhere that the movie is at all expressionistic.) It's watchable, don't get me wrong, but such a mess.
Actual best from that year: Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Books: Since the Foundation stories were written over decades, you can actually see Isaac Asimov grow as a writer. While I would never call Asimov a stylist, the stories in Second Foundation open many chapters with some style and are the better for it. This one concerns the search for the Foundation's back-up, first by the villain of the previous story, then by Foundationers who don't like the idea of super-psychologists running things behind the scenes. The twists, the turns, and the surprise revelations pile up, especially in what Asimov at the time considered the very last chapters of his story (even if we're only a third of the way to the Second Empire), so much so that the author is also playing the role of master manipulator - he's with the Second Foundation! - making you look here while he's doing something clever over there. When it all started falling into place, I had to grin. I had my cake and ate it too as I was proven right on my guesses, then pleasantly surprised I was actually wrong. Though there are more books ahead, I think this may well remain my favorite of the lot.


Doc_Loki said...

Interesting that you should compare The Stepford Wives to Rosemary's Baby, given that Ira Levin wrote both the original novels on which the films are based.

Siskoid said...

Should have done my research because I didn't realize!

Andrew said...

I for one would love to see the Muppets lean into the whole corporate synergy thing and start taking on the Disney Animated Canon. Kermit and Fozzie as Robin Hood and Little John (with Sam as the Sheriff hunting the Merry Men just to put an end to their weirdness), Pepe as Sebastian, Walter and Janice as Prince Charming and Cinderella with Swedish Chef is the Fairy Godfather ("hurr-de-durr bibbity-bobbity bork bork bork!). Animal as Stitch is too obvious to work, though.

But that's just me.


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