This Week in Geek (11-17/07/21)


In theaters: Filling in Black Widow's back story while also giving her a Civil War-era swan song AND setting up a new Widow in the process is a lot to ask of a single MCU entry, but for me it worked. The sense of family that Natasha got from the Avengers actually stems from another constructed family in Russia, and as a unit, I thought they were fun and charming. None more so than Florence Pugh's Yelena - and you know I'm more excited about Pugh than I am the MCU - as Nat's bratty sister (if you think about the plot MacGuffin, it makes sense that she would be a stunted adolescent). She can do the action, she can be funny and cynical, but it's when she gets emotional that I completely embrace the character. Abandonment issues are at the heart of the film, along with a big dose of sisterhood (far more than "family"). The movie's action is quite a bit more gritty in the first half, eventually expanding to things only superheroes could do, and maybe we miss that Bourne Identity energy by the big climax, but not overmuch. Could have been a little trimmer, but a repugnant villain, a global adventure, fun new characters, even some twists and surprises, go a long way justifying the length.

At home: You know that bit in the Avengers when Hulk slaps Loki around, how we laughed? Well, it's sort of defined the God of Mischief ever since. He's mostly been comic relief (Thor 2) or a punching bag. The Loki series essentially has him as both, which is a problem. I'm all for such a character eating humble pie, but that's almost all he does. As a path to redemption, it's a little one-note. I've made my peace with these MCU series being geared towards setting up future movies (and in this case, a second Loki series), but I've started to wonder how those movies are going to play for people who don't watch the shows. Loki introduces the next Thanos, but I guess we got Infinity Stone recaps pretty often, so I can look forward to people explaining this apocalyptic plot line again and again in the film so no one's lost. Hope it's not as tedious as the long exposition we got in episode 6. Thing is, knowing that it's a piece of a larger design means I can foresee the twists - if X, then Y, Y being stuff like Multiversal Madness and What If - but I did enjoy Loki nevertheless. The TVA is a cool idea (if derivative of The Umbrella Academy's time agency) and it was fun that the show didn't feel the need to include it in every episode and let Loki free-range a bit. The Loki variants were good too, especially Sylvie, a fine addition to the larger MCU cast. And who doesn't like Owen Wilson in this?

Not just Tom Hiddleston, but Hugh Laurie, Olivia Coleman and Elizabeth Debicki star in John le Carré 's The Night Manager, a taut thriller that really benefits from the 6-part structure. Or else in a movie, one imagines they would have collapsed much of the actual hotel manager stuff, and truth be told, I'd watch Hiddleston fighting evil as a refined concierge on the regular if I could. International enforcement exploits his weakness for abused women and he has to go undercover, which is also helped by the longer format, tension rising with each chapter. I like how his handler tells him to adopt an identity that would scare even her, and it's exactly what happens. The best change from the book is probably casting a very pregnant Coleman as the novel's LEONARD Burr, as it ramps up the tension on her end as well and makes for a more unusual intelligence officer. And as this was le Carré's first post-Cold War novel, it easily fits the oligarchic world of today and comes off as extremely topical.

Leverage returns with 8 new episodes (and 8 more on the way, date unspecified) with Redemption, and though there are things I miss, it's the same feeling the show's always had. Fans will feel right at home. What do I miss? Well, the new opener is a little cursory - at the very least, I'd like the "positions" to be stated there - but that's a minor point. The loss of Nate Ford is actually well executed (and honestly, without getting into the real-world reasons for it, Hutton was my least favorite of the bunch), but Hardison is a bigger piece to go missing (Aldis Hodge at least did 2 episodes). That does mean new characters, and the new Hacker and... hm, I'm not sure what to call "Our Mr. Wilson" exactly (the Inside Man, à la Hustle?)... help bring the Redemption theme to the foreground. Noah Wyle is a lawyer who helped billionaire douche bags ruin the world and can't take it anymore, while Aleyse Shannon brings a younger perspective to the aging crew and has something to prove. Without changing the tone, the show's redress takes aim at corporate evil doers of the current era, and there's a lot of joy to be had in how recognizable they are (and a wish for Leverage Inc. to really exist). A new villain group is set up, but I guess we'll have to wait a bit longer to see them properly taken down. Well, I'll be there for the back eight.

Fear Street doesn't end on 1666, but rather on 1994 part 2, returning to where it all started (and which was probably the best part over all). Going further and further into the past with each installment seemed like a zero-sum game. 1978, for example, felt like we were watching foregone conclusions given what we were told in Part One. But what if there was a crucial like in the lore handed down from generation to generation. The heroine from the 1994 has a bit of a Quantum Leap into the life and memories of the witch at the center of events, Sarah Fier, and we learn the truth. And as we learn the truth, the so-called lore makes more and more sense. There's a fun re-use of the two previous casts as the Puritan village, and then we get down to ending the curse and defeating the Devil... in a mall... dressed up for a black light party... and it's a whole lot of fun. The classist setting set up in 1994 lives off the aforementioned lie and stands in for privileged society's lie about whatever lower class you care to name, principally, that hardship is deserved and inherited. The trilogy doesn't hit us over the head with it, but it's pleasantly there.

In Lady Macbeth, Florence Pugh a young bride, a prisoner in her cold, disinterested husband's house, so she's going to take what freedom she can. The title evokes one of literature's best known murderess, so it won't be long until Katherine has blood on her hands - it's not just about it taking place in Scotland - but our sympathies are probably with her at the outset. The Patriarchy is getting what it deserves, after all. But things get more complicated and the casting of some of the collateral victims is of particular note. This is what happens when one minority group feels its struggle is more important than others' and willingly steps on them to get ahead. Katherine's fight for freedom is meaningless if it comes at such a cost, if she becomes the majority rule that then oppresses and destroys. Pugh is of course pitch perfect, and the film never shies away from silence or stillness, painting a 19th-Century tableau with pain, lust, rage and betrayal. By not over-explaining itself, it's richer than it would seem on the page.

Florence Pugh in a John le Carré adaptation directed by Park Chan-wook?! The Little Drummer Girl sounds like an odd cocktail, but I love all the ingredients so... This six-part mini-series also has Michael Shannon as an Israeli spymaster using half-retired agent Alexander Skarsgård to recruit Pugh, a stage actress in for the role of her life in late '70s Europe. It's an undercover story, with our lead posing as a terrorist's girlfriend to infiltrate a Palestinian cell, her loyalties tested along the way. A slow burn that gets deep into how a cover story is constructed (a "fiction" as they call it) before sending Pugh on her way. Tension builds not just because of the terrorists and what they might do, but wondering how far her handlers are willing to go as well. While we can't exactly be on the side of terror, the Palestinian characters nevertheless tend to be sympathetic and emotionally, we're in the same boat as Pugh's character. Director Park throws out one of his trademark artistic shots here and there, but to stay in le Carré's world, he tames his craziest impulses, his best ideas usually coming through the editing. That's probably for the best, though part of me really wanted to see what he could do with the material by going full Chan-wook.

I've little interest in a Braveheart sequel, but with Florence Pugh in the mix, I still watched Outlaw King. The story of Scotland's Medieval hero-king is a rousing enough underdog story, and the English kings of the dead (Edwards I and II) are properly dishonorable tyrants, but the movie is just... fine. One might ask (and I do) why a Scottish actor isn't playing the Bruce, especially considering Chris Pine's performance is earnest but only okay. The battle scenes are of interest and make good use of the period's catalog of tactics, but there's just not anything special or truly memorable about the film. Things happen as per history, an unlikely "equal" relationship develops between king and queen, and history is compressed, Hollywood-style until we get to the inevitable exposition cards. The biggest surprise for me is that the director of Hell or High Water would pick this as a project (and drag Pine along), then not really do anything interesting with it.

50 Years of Action/1971: I understand what Le Mans is trying to do - all you to soak in the atmosphere at the day-long racing event, people communicating with looks rather than words, etc. - but even as a racing procedural, it just doesn't have enough character and story to make a satisfying film. This Steve McQueen vanity project is little more than racing footage with occasional scenes for actors to play, and I'm afraid "the specter of another accident happening" doesn't give us much to go on. Characters have stated motivations, then get in a car and that's it. McQueen doesn't speak until we're 45 minutes in, and doesn't have any kind of meaningful conversation until at least an hour (and even that's debatable). I just couldn't make myself care about the stakes, the implicit danger, or any of the character we spend a few seconds with. I'm sure the people involved didn't set out to make me feel the tediousness of a 24-hour event (boiling it down to people driving around in circles until their cars fail), but that's exactly what they've done.
Actual best from that year: Vanishing Point, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, A Touch of Zen, Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman

1972: Henry Silva and Woody Strode are gangsters assigned to find whoever's been scamming the organization of drug money by traveling to Italy in The Italian Connection (La mala ordina), and they're plenty badass (an uncharitable reviewer might just say stone-faced), but the second act makes it clear Mario Adorf is probably the bigger star in Europe as the hitmen disappear, and his framed pimp on the run gets all the action and emotional beats. Silva and Strode are basically the hitmen from Pulp Fiction, enough so that I went to check if they were indeed Tarantino's inspiration. They were. So it's especially annoying that most of what they get up to is padding and that in the end, they're very badly motivated. It takes a while before we get to the good stuff - a the fight on the front of the van and the junkyard climax are pretty cool - but even there, this is a movie that's too sadistic for my tastes, even for an exploitation film. Cruel, needless deaths are presented for shock value, and there's an awful lot of slapping women around.
Actual best from that year: The Getaway, half the Lone Wolf and Cub movies, King Boxer, The 14 Amazons, Fist of Fury (AKA The CHINESE Connection - they really wanted to capitalize on the success of The French Connection, didn't they?)

1973: Working in mainland China rather than the Hong Kong movie machine affords King Hu some interesting locations and actors, and while The Fate of Lee Khan doesn't have the lush environments of A Touch of Zen, it still looks distinct. The story has rebels set up an inn for the sole purpose of intercepting a Mongol ruler in possession of their attack plans. The first half of the movie is practically a comedy as the staff (including color-coded barmaids with criminal pasts and light-as-air kung fu abilities) take care of cheating gamblers, corrupt soldiers who won't pay the bill, and handsy customers. It's a lot of fun and could be its own episodic TV series. Then Lee Khan arrives and humor turns to tension, as traps and laid, suspicions fall, and no matter how fun you thought the characters were, they may or may not survive the story. And if Lee Khan is dangerous, he's almost a pussy cat next to the ruthless princess (Hsu Feng, star of A Touch of Zen).
Also from that year: Lady Snowblood, Live and Let Die, Enter the Dragon, Coffy

1974: Whatever I may think of the franchise it spawned (and indeed hundreds of similar movies, shows and comic books), the original Death Wish is a much more grounded story, and one that actually escapes the formula it's meant to have written (it's kind of like Halloween that way). A wife killed and a daughter traumatized at the hands of the thugs out of A Clockwork Orange (including baby face Jeff Goldbloom!) sends pacifist Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) onto a dark path, but unlike the imitators, it takes him a while and we're with him every step of the way. As his righteous killings are reported, he becomes a phenomenon and the movie addresses public (and government) reaction with some realism. And while a script doctor might have given the character and audience more closure, the movie avoids that as too easy. These surprises keep Death Wish from being entirely too familiar from having been copied so many times.
Also from that year: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Super Cops

Books: I must have been 12 years old or so when I read Yesterday's Son, my first Star Trek tie-in novel. Ann Crispin offers a slim volume (only 140 pages) that serves as sequel to the episode "All Our Yesterdays", revealing that Spock gave Zarabeth (Mariette Hartley) a son in that story. By introducing elements from other stories, including the Guardian of Forever and a known Romulan from the TOS era, she skirts quite close to fanwankery, but I think mostly manages to avoid it, making each reference simply a good use of the established world. Obviously, the draw is seeing how Spock would deal with having a son, and it goes about how well you think it would, with the climax providing a chance for bonding and, amusingly, Spock giving Zar "the talk". The story could have been expanded fairly easily, as some of the action happens offscreen, but it doesn't feel too short. The three main characters are well characterized and Crispin also gives Uhura more to do than usual. A pleasant episode sequel I didn't mind revisiting, in preparation for my reading ITS sequel. Stay tuned.

A follow-up to Finishing the Hat (which I have not read), Look, I Made a Hat is a more-than-complete collection of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics from 1981 to 2011 with his commentary. Essentially, that means the lyrics for Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Passion, Assassins, and four versions of what became Road Show (very interesting if you want insight on how plays evolve). Then the book goes back in time to the odd and sundry from movies and TV (some of it never produced or included), as well as special commissions and selections from student work. Obviously, while you can get some of the poetics from reading simple lyrics, there's no music (aside from a page of musical notation here and there, these and his scribbled lyrics are pictured throughout, and likely only of interest to true musical theater nerds). What really gives the book value is the commentary, which is lucid, revelatory, honest, and FUNNY. Sondheim understands his place in the theatrical world, and never fails to point out his weaknesses, mistakes, and where the credit actually lies for some of what fans would only attribute to him. I got a lot out of it.


Anonymous said…
I love Yesterday's Son (and Time for Yesterday) the sequel, definitely one of the best Star Trek novels. Too bad they're not considered canon ...

Mike W.
Siskoid said…
Canon is what you make of it.
Randal said…
My understanding is that Noah Wylie’s character is the Fixer. And yes I miss that part of the opening credits.
Siskoid said…
Yeah, the Fixer is what he was in his other life (the "Michael Clayton"); a little different as a member of Leverage, but I bet that's what would show up in the credits.
Green Luthor said…
I wouldn't really say the TVA is derivative of Umbrella Academy, as it was introduced in the comics about 20 years before UA came out (going all the way back to Walt Simonson's run on Thor). (Which isn't to say that UA was copying the TVA, either; it's probably more likely something that two different creative teams came up with independently.) (DS9 had the Department of Temporal Investigations in "Trials and Tribble-ations", which fulfilled a similar enough role; do enough time travel stories and the idea of someone who tries to keep the timeline from getting messed up is probably a fairly easy one to imagine...)

And the comics version of Mobius (Owen Wilson's character) was based on Mark Gruenwald, which was certainly fitting. (Because if there was anyone who could attempt to make sure Marvel continuity was kept straight, it was Gruenwald...)
Siskoid said…
Did it have that retro look in the comics? Cuz that's what I'm specifically taking about. Time agencies is an old trope that none of these shows invented obviously.
Fred Melanson said…
In the comics it's just a bunch of desks floating in a void, but the do have a retro office look with retro futuristic computers... But like... They don't have a mad men feel, they're just desks floating as far as the eye can see... Which wouldn't have been interesting on tv
Siskoid said…
I guess that's what ultimately why it feels like we've just seen it in a superhero tv show.