This Week in Geek (18-24/07/21)


I got a couple of nerdly gifts a couple of weeks ago and forgot to mention it: Julian Barnes's The Only Story (from DJ Nath), reviewed on this very page, and a nice shirt with polyhedral dice coming down it (from Josée). Thanks, girls!


At home: After a year of watching Karen Gillen and Lena Headey prank each other on Instagram, I was excited to see Gunpowder Milkshake (great title). It didn't quite live up to expectations, but it still won me over. First, the action wasn't always convincing (Gillen moves awkwardly and there's too much slow motion), and there's no question the recipe for this milkshake is John Wick in a blender with a big Léon cherry on top. But if it's Jane Wick in terms of the world it's building, the ridiculous action beats are more akin to a Wick parody. John Wick is a procedural compared to this. It's also a nice mother-daughter team-up and you can't help but love the librarians (what a perfect cast). What puts the flick over the top is its production design, caught somewhere in the mid-20th Century despite Gillen's anime cereal box and jammies, it's all 40s fedoras, 50s locations and 60s neon, lit in Giallo colors. It's gorgeous. At the same time, I was impressed at how they didn't prettify the protagonist - Gillen's assassin is as beat-up and haggard as any male action star might be at the end of this.

Linda Fiorentino burns up the screen as the worst person in the world in The Last Seduction, a wicked Neo-Noir thriller with a jaunty jazz soundtrack about a woman who double-crosses her husband after a drug deal and hides out in a small town until she can spend the money. Can she get her new bumpkin boyfriend to kill her husband (a smarmy Bill Pullman), or has she miscalculated along the way? In traditional Noir, the femme fatale enters the protagonist's life all sex and tears, and treachery eventually ensues. But what happens when the fatale IS the protagonist? If we follow HER. That's what The Last Seduction does, all without making Fiorentino's character sympathetic. We want her to succeed (to a point anyway) because she's the heroine, but only the overtones of black comedy make it palatable, probably. Then again, I was always drawn to great cons, and this definitely fits the bill. Hot hot hot.

50 Years of Action/1975: It clocks in at more than 3 hours, but I was never distracted away from Sholay (which translates as Embers), a Bollywood epic about a retired police inspector hiring two trickster-like criminals with hearts of gold to defend his village from bandit attacks and capture their leader, responsible for the death of his family. Shot like a western, shootouts give way to crazy musical numbers, and broad comedy turns into effective tragedy at the drop of a hat. This is everything to everyone and it shouldn't work, but it does. Its greatest triumph is introducing an annoying comedy character, then making her the most touching and interesting figure in the film, leading to the most suspenseful dance number you're ever likely to see on film. The action is by turns clever, fun, immediate and visceral (even the goofy 3D effects added in 2013 seem to have their place), and while the comedy is sometimes a bit broad and the drama bordering on melodrama, I felt completely sandbagged by the end, restless, teary and incapable of immediately going to bed. Aside from the prison hi-jinks at the beginning, there's really nothing superfluous in Sholay, as even the most innocuous choice or subplot eventually delivers and becomes important to the plot. So three hours or not, I'd gladly watch this one again, and I wish my other experiences with Bollywood pictures were more like it.
Also from that year: The Flying Guillotine, Disciples of Shaolin. Dolemite

1976: Obviously, Rocky has many iconic moments and they're the ones you remember. What you don't remember so much is how little boxing there is in one of the greatest boxing movie ever made. I'm taking away that title, or at least changing it to one of the greatest movies about a boxer. This is really peak '70s American Malaise cinema, isn't it? Urban America looks like a trash heap. Rocky is a loser given his shot randomly and as a joke, even in his success used and abused. His romance with Adrian (with its thoughtless and now cringy courtship) is right out of Marty, unwanted people getting together almost by default. He's a dumb cluck, he has little respect from his peers, and he's misusing his one talent to make ends meet. He's about to go in the ring with Uncle Sam and get punched to a bloody mess, and his only ambition is to survive. Peak. American. Malaise. It's a movie that tells you the small victories are as important (if not more so) than the big ones. That final image of Rocky and Adrian embracing and his happiness there even as Apollo Creed is announced the winner of the match by the judges encapsulates this feeling. Someone must have written a thesis sometime that tracks American attitudes through the Rocky films, right? I'm thinking of Rocky IV in particular here...
Also from that year: Assault on Precinct 13, The Enforcer, Yakuza Graveyard

1977: I wouldn't have thought of William Devane as an action hero, but he cuts a great figure in Rolling Thunder, as a just-returned POW who ultimately has to take revenge on the people who took his family away from him. Devane gives a mostly silent (and thus thankless) performance, but a captivating one - a man broken down but also hardened by years of torture, a man who has lost something crucial in the jungles of Vietnam, or perhaps back home if we take events to mean the torture never ended. Where Rolling Thunder excels is in its veteran drama, and at least initially, the action is grounded, messy and believable. The climax is where it loses the plot for me. Not only does the movie scream out for an epilogue, but only one villain is offed satisfyingly, whereas the one that made the biggest impression in the inciting event dies from so far away I wasn't sure it was him. Shout "realism! realism!" if you like, but denying the moment to the audience is denying it to the character, and without comment at that.
Also from that year: The Spy Who Loved Me, Smokey and the Bandit

1978: Yuen Woo-ping's first directorial effort (Drunken Master does come out the same year though), Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (also) stars Jackie Chan in one of his first major roles, and both men shine exactly because we're early. Director Yuen is not yet overusing wires to amplify his action, and Jackie gives one of his most proficient martial arts performances (again, before he became a thing and started relying on stunt work in addition to fighting). The story is stock kung fu film-making. Jackie is consistently bullied at the school where he works, so an old master teaches him the Snake style on the side. Little does Jackie know that the old man is the last surviving member of the Snake clan, running from the evil Eagle clan that has determined to exterminate it (for kung fu reasons - this IS a comedy, but one with brutal murders). Yuen Woo-ping choreographs various animal styles to look distinct and interesting, and further throws in fun action based on circus tricks - acrobatics, sleight of hand, and clowning. The level of action is thus quite high and even at this early age, you can tell Jackie is a star. The spacey music though...
Also from that year: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, The Five Venoms, Heroes of the East, Every Which Way But Loose

Books: Ann Crispin's follow-up to Yesterday's Son, Time for Yesterday, is a longer and more mature work, and much more satisfying. We catch up with Spock's son Zar back in Sarpeidon's Ice Age, with some measure of world-building attached, and the introduction of, for my money, the best character of the book, Lady Wynn (no relation). Of course there's a reason for the regular cast to go back there and it's wrapped up in the origins of the Guardian of Forever, but even if the Enterprise's crew is well rendered (once again, Crispin gives Uhura a small but crucial role, which makes me happy), it's amazing how much we care about Zar off the back of Yesterday's Son (and of course, how his life has gone in the years since that book). Is it that we love Spock and see something of him in the character (in fact, I sort of cast him as an aging Ethan Peck who plays Spock in the Discovery era), or did Crispin endear him to us so completely in the span of her first short book? Perhaps a bit of both. Set just before The Wrath of Khan, it's a story that foreshadows Kirk's own relationship with a son. I think both books in the diptych have a nice claim to canonicity, not because they don't contradict much, but because their emotional core rings true and a worth being part of Spock's history.

Julian Barnes's most recent book, The Only Story, is about love, specifically a love story between a 19-year-old boy and a 48-year-old married woman some time in the 1960s, and more generally all love stories - yours, mine, everyone's. As is not infrequent in Barnes's work, there's a play on memory, what should be remembered, how and why, and I was often taken back to my own relationship with love. It engaged MY memory in a way only the most truthful books can. There's also an interesting use of first, second and third person narration, showing how close or disconnected the narrator feels from his story, going from intimate, to accusatory, to detached, taking us to a poignant resolution. Memorable characters, and not just the two leads either, enliven a a story that makes a grand point about how we are shaped by our relationship to love (and you can take that to mean any breed of it, whether romantic, familial, brief, committed, unrequited, unwarranted...) more than any other "event" or "feeling" in our lives. It's really the ONLY story worth telling...

There's a lot of dislike out there for Terrance Dicks's The Eight Doctors - the first 8th Doctor novel in the BBC's long-running book range - but Uncle Terry is basically pulling what he did with "The Five Doctors" in book form (or in the Target novelization range, which seems entirely appropriate for him). In other words, it's an assembly of set pieces made to order and thus very slim as a story. It's almost better taken as a series of short stories in which the 8th Doctor interacts with his past selves in turn, often in a short sequel or long epilogue of a televised story (the most involved being a worthwhile attempt to make sense of Trial of a Time Lord), Dicks normally going to episodes he'd written or edited. This makes sense in that it's the first book in a new series, so a nostalgia exercise that catches a new reader up on the Doctor's history was probably the remit. I might also suggest - without actual evidence - that Dicks believed the Doctor ended the TV Movie still without memory, then was told it wasn't clear, so has him lose his memory AGAIN at the top of the story to make sense of Eight's quest to regain them by making contact with past incarnations. This becomes an unfortunate shtick of this Doctor over the years. As for the introduction of Sam Jones (yes, the original Smith and Jones), she's immediately likeable, but rather generic (so, like Clara in Season 7b), which is normal considering she's only part of one segment in this loosely-connected jumble of tales. Is it a great story that reminds then-current readers of the New Adventures' heights? Not at all. Is it an undemanding nostalgic review that has fun with continuity, told in Dicks's trademark efficient Target adaptation prose? Yes and thus a quick read. Verdict? It's fine.


Anonymous said...

Totally agree on Time for Yesterday; for me, it's Crispin's writing that makes Zar so compelling. I also liked her Han Solo trilogy, more stories I wish were considered canon. If they'd used those as the basis for the Solo movie, who knows what might've happened ...

Mike W.


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