This Week in Geek (25-31/07/21)


The only RPG collection I'm actively building anymore is GURPS 3rd, and I splurged this week, getting my hands on GURPS Conan, SWAT, Shapeshifters, and Rogues. I say that, but I'm also actively buying the Doctor Who RPG (but that's not like collecting because it's all new material), and I pre-ordered the game's 2nd Edition, and so already have the pdf. In other news, friend Marty gave me Book 1 of the Dune graphic novel.


In theaters: M. Night Shyamalan loves to do feature-length Twilight Zone episodes and that's what Old is, albeit one that's very oddly put together. It certainly tries to grasp at something, whether that's age and illness, what it means to grow up, the callousness of industries that cater to gerontological concerns, or COVID-inspired isolation, but it never truly latches onto anything concrete because it's so obsessed with plot. It feels throughout like dialog is only ever meant to be expository, in a way that never sounds natural - it practically comes with described video - and that's why I'm panning it. At its best, I think the kids (when they ARE kids, but they grow up so fast) have fun moments, and one of its endings almost achieves poignancy with its grace note, but otherwise, it's a mess. You'd think spending most of the shoot on the same beach would make the geography of the place clear, but it doesn't. The international cast isn't all comfortable with the language/accents they've been asked to use. And it does what I ask my improv pupils NOT to do - over-explain everything, introduce themselves along with their plot function, and generally think of the audience as dunderheads who need everything spelled out for them. The lingering questions aren't a matter of ambiguity but of badly reasoned elements.

At home: When it comes Jean-Claude Van Damme's later work, it's no secret I prefer the stuff where he makes fun of himself - JCVD and Jean-Claude Van Johnson the very best examples of this - and The Last Mercenary (or Le dernier mercenaire, it's a French film) happily falls in that category, though without achieving the same heights. The problem really is the broad French humor, with too much improvisation in the dialog and actors mugging like they're cartoon characters at times. Eventually, you get it into it more and the back half is better than the front half, but it's really like getting thrown into the deep end. Then again, if you're a Frenchie, this might tickle your funny bone just right. As for Van Damme, even at this age he's a charmer and a whole lot of fun, playing a former secret agent and improbable disguise artist here trying to make sure his estranged son is safe from government forces trying to "burn bag" evidence of an old operation. The action set pieces are fun, the story is patently ridiculous, the cast of characters grows on you... Not a game changer, but a nice enough diversion.

Jim Cummings's Thunder Road has him play a police officer whose life spins out of control after the double-whammy of his mother's death and an acrimonious divorce. Full points for not making this about police misbehavior as such, as I think it's more subtle this way. Now, it's one thing to follow a lead character that is articulate enough to let us in on what's happening to them, but Officer Jim adds to his pathos by being fairly unintelligent, unable to process his tragedy except instinctively, which is where the film's interest lies, and why it's such a piece of theater of the awkward. The stand-out scene has to be his teacher-parent conference, where the comic and tragic elements come together the best. Plot-wise, I don't think Thunder Road really sells every point - the climax (if we can call it that) especially - but this is first and foremost a portrait, so what's memorable is the performance and character moments (both strong), not the incidents per se.

50 Years of Action/1979: With King Hu, you can always depend on beautiful, evocative locations, and the Buddhist temple grounds in Raining in the Mountain fit the bill. Though it features minimal action, the film criss-crosses three plots to potent effect - a sacred scroll that is the target of several heists, a convict becoming a monk and seeing the hypocrisy of many of his brethren (very engaging, this), and the abbot's decision as to his successor - all connected through a well-constructed plot. I'd be very much surprised if the first act hadn't inspired Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - as King Hu's work seems to be the ur-text for that film - in look, sound, plot, and even casting. DId Zhang Ziyi get her big break because she expressed herself a lot like King Hu muse Hsu Feng did?
Also from that year: Mad Monkey Kung Fu, Life Gamble, Mad Max

1980: A very quirky action film, The Stunt Man has a fugitive from justice (and Vietnam vet) hiding as a stunt man in a movie production run by an eccentric and tyrannical director (Peter O'Toole playing God), and it comes off as a PTSD-fueled fever dream. Much of the action comes from the movie inside the movie, a World War I epic that would be exciting on its own, and seems to be comprised of massive done-in-one action sequences, which are impossible, but meld the fictional with the truth in the stunt man's mind. We come to interpret the movie production as a war - HIS war - and the fickle director as the U.S. government (or more existentially, yes, God), putting people in danger and not explaining why they should do so. Throw in some wicked barbs at the movie industry for good measure. What if Kafka had written First Blood? Well, it doesn't necessarily clinch all those concepts as definitively as I make it sound, but there's a lot bubbling under the surface.
Actual best from that year: Kagemusha

1981: Camelot on motorcycles? That's George Romero's unusual Knightriders, on the one hand an excuse for cool motorized jousting and bike stunts, on the other an effective look at the community spirit that exists within a subculture. At almost two and a half hours, I will admit I wanted it to be clearer in spots and less indulgent overall - less exploitative maybe - but what Romero does with this extra time is valuable, giving members of thus Medieval-style rodeo subplots and attention, filling them out so that the plot concerning the side-show coming to a crossroads as its popularity grows means more to the audience. If I was unconvinced throughout, the last 15 minutes has some many great and poignant moments that I had to fall on the side of recommendation in the end. And face it, where else are you gonna get your fix if you're into knights on bikes?
Actual best from that year: Raiders of the Lost Ark, For Your Eyes Only, The Professional, My Young Auntie

1982: Like Rocky before it, the first Rambo movie, First Blood, is grounded in the American malaise of the late 70s (and apparently early 80s), and then the franchise goes off the rails into 'roided flag-waving (pretty quickly in this case). But before it gets too crazy, we have a clear message about the USA's treatment of its unwanted and uncelebrated Vietnam vets. That, and making the film still relevant, points against police overreach and the notion that militarized policing is an incompetent danger, in every way inept and irresponsible compared to a properly trained soldier. First Blood does go a little overboard in the third act when Rambo goes on the offensive - he's better as jungle warrior justified by his severe PTSD, surviving in beautiful Northwestern locations, going through hell, in fact rather literally in the case of that mine sequence. Still, the points are made and remain important. We are a culture that creates killing machines, puts them in situations where they will suffer mental damage (if they survive at all), then discard and oppress them. First Blood cooks that recipe for disaster to its extreme.
Also from that year: Conan the Barbarian, Star Trek II, Tron

Books: Obviously, Prelude to Foundation, though Book 6 of Asimov's series, is a prequel, so the reader is often ahead of the characters and can hardly be surprised by where the novel ends up (though there are still some twists). But I'm a sucker for a scientific thriller and seeing just how Hari Seldon finds the key to psychohistory remains interesting to me. I admit I clued into the solution faster than Seldon did, but Asimov does a good job of keeping up the pace with world-building - expanding the Imperial capital of Trantor to a more complex world than imagined - and not unlike the prior (but chronologically later) quest for Earth, creating dangerous locales where action/suspense set pieces can play out. Seems like Hari was more of an action hero in his youth than later appearances would have belied, and the cast that evolves around him to create his original team are all interesting too. That said, it does suffer from repeated information (as ALL the books have), never more so than a conversational climax just like the one we had in Book 5. Still, in terms of characters and incidents, this is one of the better later novels in the line.

The second prequel and final Foundation novel penned by Asimov, Forward the Foundation, is probably my favorite since the first book itself. Perhaps it's no surprise because it returns to the original stories' structure, i.e. shorter connected tales, each resolving a "crisis point". In this case, of course, Asimov's using Prelude's cast (which is my favorite of all of the books) and the various crises threaten to derail the creation of the Foundation itself, a backtracking mirror of what the Galaxy faces in chronologically later tales. There's a bit of a dash to reconcile everything in the last story, making it the weakest of the four, but a surprisingly poignant epilogue leaves things on a better note. Generally exciting and even at times touching, Forward closes the loop on the centuries-long saga and I think does so satisfyingly. The series as a whole (you'll note my disinterest in further books written by other authors) has had its dips in quality, especially when Asimov decided to connect various unrelated novels to the series, but it ends on a high.

If The Eight Doctors didn't really do it for, well, anyone, we're in better hands with Jonathan Blum and Kate Orman's Vampire Science, a vampire hunting adventure filled with crisp, well-drawn characters and founded on a solid plot. Their enthusiastic Doctor is a stark departure from the New Adventures' 7th Doctor - as he should be - and quite endearing. So it's a bit of a shame that they're saddled with the barely sketched-in Sam Jones as companion (and tease us mercilessly with a switch that can't come) even they try to put some meat on her by telling us she's already been traveling with the Doctor for a while. She is perhaps even more generic today for espousing attitudes common to the NuWho companions. This is really the start of companions for whom the Doctor is "the Way", isn't it? That gives the book a certain modern feel, as if the writers could see a decade into the future. Still, kind of wish Carolyn had made it aboard the TARDIS... Bottom line: If The Eight Doctors feels like a nostalgic prologue, this one is a strong "pilot" for the Eighth Doctor Adventures line, coming across as something the show, had it been picked up in '96, could have filmed in Vancouver-as-San Francisco.


Anonymous said...

I didn't know what "described video" was until I Googled it. It's a Canadian thing. Natch.

Siskoid said...

We're not the only place with blind people who want to watch movies, so I'm gonna assume it has a different name where you are.

Anonymous said...

Right! The "Canada" thing came from the internet description: "Described Video (DV) is also called Video Description or Described Narrative in Canada, and Audio Description (AD) in the United States. DV is a narrated description of a program’s main visual elements, such as settings, costumes, or body language."
I trust your reviews so I won't be watching that one anyway!

Tony Laplume said...

There’s a service at least in broadcast television here in the States that describes all the notable visual action. I switched it on accidentally once and thought it was a quirky new feature of the particular program I was watching.


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