This Week in Geek (22-29/05/22)


Realizing the few Poul Anderson Time Patrol stories I'd read, I'd read as a kid in French translation, I grabbed the omnibus collection in the original English.


In theaters: Though Alex Garland's subject matter remains much the same with Men, he ditches science-fiction for horror-fantasy, or perhaps for magical realism, depending on how you interpret things. Many elements point to an interior journey for the wonderful Jessie Buckley, but others ground the story in some kind of tangible reality involving the Green Man of folklore (a male-presenting fertility god, natch). However Harper is being haunted, whether psychologically or factually, this is a film that, in addition to having stellar cinematography and sound design, has rich thematic texture. Harper has just come out of a toxic relationship, and on her solitary getaway, can't get away from all these men and their aggressions, micro-aggressions and patriarchal attitudes. That they're all played by Rory Kinnear is something never commented on (which adds to the film's subjectivity), but slashes at the phrase "Not All Men". It's perhaps a little on the nose and silly, but part of a greater tapestry. "Blaming women" for their sexuality is mentioned many time, with references to Eve and Helen of Troy among the more subtle cues. What provokes this attack on Harper is nothing at all - she is not sexualized (quite the opposite) and the "trigger" seems to be a moment of peace and delight for her, i.e. just a woman existing in the world. I rate this film highly, but audiences may have a hard time resolving all the ambiguities to their satisfaction. Or alternatively, finding it a big blunt in its messaging. I prefer to see it as a tone poem about this particular kind of trauma, where everything relates to its theme in some way, and have no problem imagining "what just happened".

At home: To its credit, Made for Love's second season is quick to drop the "chip in head" angle for newer pastures, reinterpreting its title in several ways. In the wake of the first season, Hazel has made a terrible choice for her father's sake, and potentially will again by season's end, though the show keeps her motivations as ambiguous as possible. Milloti may have great, expressive eyes, but we can take her inner struggle and the moves she makes multiple ways. The show does a good job of making the emotional subtext rich enough that it keeps us guessing. Absent the chip, the main "Black Mirror" element is the idea of A.I. reconstructions of real people (covering some of the same ground as Upload but from a different angle), though it's always more about the characters than it is the tech. The only weak part of this dark comedy is when it feels the need to keep Season 1 characters who live outside the Hub alive. Yes, their probing into matters drops some sinister tidbits about Gogol, but it always feels like a distraction to me, and I just want to get back to the leads.

In the shadow of, but also an update of, The King of Comedy (and more recently, Joker), The Improviser takes place in New York's comedy scene TODAY, where YouTube, improv, and podcasts play a role in the hustling for attention. Brett Sugarman is an aspiring sketch comedian/improviser/podcaster who just doesn't have the correct attitude. Middling talent and an inability to gauge quality only take you so far, especially in the dog-eat-dog world of NYC. He's contrasted with a stand-up comic who isn't any more talented, but has the charisma to pull off his act. And Brett certainly isn't alone struggle, so get ready to suffer through a lot of bad improv, bad stand-up and bad podcasting. This is top-shelf cringe for someone like me who has operated in the improv and comedy scene for decades (just in a much smaller fish pond) and do a fair bit of podcasting. Fact is, give or take the thriller extremes to which the story feels forced to go, I know people like Brett and the people he meets (well, maybe not the smarmy agent, the one character written as a comic caricature). The film has captured the pathetic underbelly of comedy quite well - people doing it for the wrong reasons, idolizing the wrong people, sabotaging themselves, blaming the audience, panicking on stage, and showing a deep philosophical understanding of what's required. If it's so cringe-inducing, it's not that Brett is an angry, disappointed misfit with terrible social reflexes - that's really the least interesting thing about this given we see the inspiration immediately - but that I've seen these improv auditions and open mics and desperate souls who have chosen the wrong passion (or the wrong role to play within that passion's world). Now, this is also VERY indie. We're quick to forgive primitive visuals as style, but sound is different issue. The cast is usually sharing a single body mic, so that one person sounds good and the others don't. A technical challenge for the audience, though go ahead and think of it as part of the cringy "wannabe" vibe of the story.

"Based on true events" and thanking a university ethnology department, Il Demonio (The Demon) prides itself on its authenticity, and it definitely throws its research up on the screen. Daliah Lavi plays a tormented witch in a small and very superstitious Italian town (what interesting locations!) who for the love of a man, casts spells and curses, and is amply punished for it. Striking black and white photography captures her turmoil, as well as the ritualistic practices of the town - marriages, funerals, and other rituals, not just pertaining to those dealing with witchcraft. Cultural authenticity might have been used to make the audience swallow the supernatural, but it's appreciably ambiguous about this. Is witchcraft, demonic possession and attendant ecclesiastical remedies real? As beliefs and practices, absolutely. But the rational mind can usually find a more reasonable explanation for what we see in the film, whether the girl's broken mind (frankly justified) on which the filter of these beliefs has been imposed, or perception, or even coincidence. If you choose to believe, however, the movie doesn't disabuse you of the notion.

When you don't have time (or patience) to watch a whole Republic serial, you look for the tightened up omnibus editions. But you're damned either way, because you trade boring filler for an unrelenting pace where the already slim characters go from action beat to action beat and you're wondering why you care. Case in point, Satan's Satellites, which is a 78-minute cut of Zombies of the Stratosphere (neither title makes sense) and has the advantage of having been colorized (mostly fun, though the day-for-night scenes just look foggy). Color or not, it's very hard to distinguish between the heroes and villains when they're just men in suits. I never knew who was who. In Republic style, the Martians are going to destroy the world, but it means they spend most of the episodes committing robberies for the necessary materials, most cliffhangers showing vehicle crashes, most chapter recaps cheating by splicing in a narrow escape. So even when you shorten it, you can't take all the redundant action out of a Republic serial (even if, admittedly, the stunts are better than average). But this one does have geek value. For one thing, it uses footage from King of the Rocket Men so it can have a Rocketeer-like hero (it was meant as a Commando Cody story, but all the names were changed). For Star Trek fans, it provides an early glimpse at Leonard Nimoy playing an alien (though he doesn't get to do much as a the green-faced second banana), as well as a fun use of the "Republic robot" that inspired Satan's Robot in Captain Proton's adventures on Voyager's holodeck. But like most serials, it's repetitive and badly acted, so the smaller the dose the better.

There are a couple reasons to see The Brain Eaters. One is that the threat is actually pretty unusual and once we get into the second half this very short movie, it is effective. The other is that Leonard Nimoy is in it, if barely, even if he is unrecognizable under the fake beard and hair. On the whole, however, it's a very badly made film. It's not the effects, which are fine for B-movies of this era - the mysterious cone is impressive and the monsters are kind of creepy - but rather the editing. Continuity errors aside, it just probably didn't have the footage or sound it needed to tell a complete story. So we get an intrusive (and often pointless) narration to cover the rough edges, scenes playing out soundless while a voice describes exactly what we're seeing, etc. Let's rush this out to the drive-in, quick! It's too bad because it sometimes reaches for greatness, such as when the parasites start to take someone over and the actors gives 100% in showing their anguish. But then everyone turns into a zombie and you can't tell them emotionally apart from the protagonists.

Back in 50s, Jean Genet's provocative, anti-establishment plays were deliberately designed to shock. When adapted to film in the early 60s, these must still have been pretty outrageous. Though that shock may be gone, they still pack a punch and remain relevant today. Case in point, 1963's adaptation of The Balcony, a rancidly funny tale set in a bordello that specializes in power fantasies, run by the great Shelley Winters. Rebellion rages outside, the chief of police (the great Peter Falk) rages inside, and costumed fetishists are sent to impersonate dead leaders lest the people side with the rioters - a bishop, a general and a chief justice. Power as illusion. Power as a function of title and not ability. Power as mere appearance. Power as manipulation, as hypocrisy. Power as kink and kink as power. Feminine power too, the power to seduce and to shame. So while a man licking a dominatrix's shoe is no longer in the realm of the shocking, what the play/film has to say about the people shouting at us from the balcony still hits hard.

When Leonard Nimoy was asked to do Star Trek back in 1966, one of the things holding him back was Deathwatch which, while not widely released or reviewed, nevertheless had put him on track to become a "serious actor". The cast - including future Trek guest star Michael Forest (Apollo) - had done Jean Genet's prison-locked play some years earlier, as had director Vic Morrow, and the latter and Nimoy got the movie rights to it. Morrow uses experimental editing to bring the claustrophobic three-hander to life and give it a strange dream-like feeling, though he abandons the tricks once we get into the tense final act and just lets the actors do the work. At the heart of Genet's play is the question of hierarchy among human beings, and though the setting dictates an absurd metric based on crime (not only gravity or sentence, but a kind of twisted purity rating), it is really about all tribalism in every setting. Who is top dog and why are others compelled to follow them, and compete for their attention? I've sampled other stagings of the play, and seen Nimoy's character played with an insane glint in his eye, especially at the climax. Nimoy plays LeFranc (the French or the frank/honest, if there are hidden keys in there) more dourly, as if fated or doomed, his final act not that of a madman, but as the only reasonable course of action. Who then commits the purer crime - he who chooses it or he whose passions lead him to it? Deathwatch's experimentalism doesn't exactly overcome it theatricality, and may actually be a distraction. What are we doing here if not watching actors perform a text?

The OTHER movie in which Leonard Nimoy attempts to sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat", Seizure: The Story of Kathy Morris missed a trick (or the adapted book did) by not calling itself Headstrong instead. Because headstrong is the defining characteristic of singer and brain damage survivor Kathy Morris, at least according to the TV Movie telling her story. Nimoy is the neurosurgeon in charge of her case, somewhat typecast as the cold dispassionate type who must learn to care about his relationships as much as he does neurons. Though it's definitely a TV Movie with an "inspirational story of the week" and television acting circa the big hair era, it nevertheless manages a sweetness, and while I'm not always believing Penelope Milford in the role (though it's entirely possible the nosy, deflecting Kathy indeed did have these reactions), Dr. Connought is given a satisfying arc, understanding something crucial about his failing marriage through his close relationship to his patient. Nimoy is easily the best thing about this.

Truly a one-man show, Vincent was written (or adapted, if you like), directed, and solely acted by Leonard Nimoy. It is essentially the story of Vincent van Gogh's life, told as a eulogy by his brother Theo, though Nimoy often has Theo impersonate the great, misunderstood artist himself, drawing laughs for the man's quotably absurd zealousness in all things. The words are taken straight from Vincent's correspondence with his brother, and you need those laughs lest the piece be too heavy. We ARE coming back from a funeral, after all. Above all, the play is a celebration of the man's art, philosophy and attitude towards life. It's about his personality more than it is the facts and figures of his life (though that's there as well). Despite being a taped performance and not truly "filmic", the staging and effects are interesting, and Nimoy gives an excellent and varied performance. Now if we can just go in with sound editing software and snuff out those coughers...

In Never Forget, Leonard Nimoy plays Mel Mermelstein, an Auschwitz survivor who lost his entire family to the camp, and who remains haunted by it. From Spock (mostly), we know Nimoy is an expert at holding things in and judging when to let the emotion come out in a burst. And so it is with this performance. This a true story of one man's crusade to get the Holocaust recognized as historical fact by American courts after being targeted by a Neo-Nazi group of professional deniers. At the top, we're told the dialog on the legal side of things is drawn directly from court transcripts, but there's an underwhelming amount of that. By the time it comes before a judge, there's very little of the TV Movie to go. It's almost anticlimactic. The Mermelsteins' family life, though not pulled from documents (imagine if your family kept transcripts!) is the heart of the film, and aside from a couple of more didactic moments to teach the audience about the Holocaust, feels very natural. Whether Mermelstein continues his fight or not is all down to that family, keeping it safe, making it proud, and so even if I feel like we wait a long time for little in terms of the legal proceedings, I have to concede the time is well invested in the characters. In this Age of Propaganda, the problems portrayed here feel all too familiar.

I saw Three Men and a Baby in theaters all those years ago, perhaps registering that it was directed by Leonard Nimoy who, for a hot second there, was a director of hit comedies after Star Trek IV, perhaps not. In fact, everybody's "hot off" something else here: Ted Danson in the middle of Cheers (playing Sam Malone even), Tom Selleck at the tail end of Magnum P.I., and Steve Guttenberg coming out of the more acceptable run of Police Academy and movies like Cocoon and Short Circuit. You can't imagine this case at any other time in history, probably. What I remembered is that it was made for my mom (Magnum being cute with a baby? Come on!), but I'd completely forgotten the heroin deal angle. I guess you really need something for everyone, so the movie becomes a crime farce to keep the male demographic entertained. But it's still macho man-children dealing with a baby that's the real star. And maybe that crazy apartment. Full points for not pulling a trite "they hate the baby until" shtick and essentially having all three men fall under Mary's charms in under 5 minutes. Then I take those points away for the inclusion of Sylvia who does not appear enough for us to ever forgive her (or who appears too much perhaps, because she does not present as someone justified in abandoning her baby).

From the writers of The Rock (I kid you not) comes Holy Matrimony, a story that... well, probably shouldn't have been attempted. Patricia Arquette plays one half of a low-rent Bonnie & Clyde hiding in a Hutterite community when events conspire to make her marry a 12-year-old boy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his first feature film role) so she can keep her hands on her ill-gotten funds. It's really not as icky as it sounds, it has a couple moments that will make you frown. Somehow, director Leonard Nimoy manages to make it cute and heartfelt, a pair of fish out of water stories with an 80s-required crime plot (and a cartoonish villain), and it might not work if not for the two stars' likability. It's also surprising that the religious community is not lampooned (they don't even agree with the marriage). Ultimately, despite its offbeat premise, it's still highly predictable. The two protagonists will find a way to meet in the middle and learn from one another, romcom rules of "I hate you now I don't" are in effect, and so on. On paper, this is likely objectionable, but on screen, it's not objectionable. But it's all a little by the numbers too.

Originally thought up as a documentary on the cultural stamp made by the character of Mr. Spock, Adam Nimoy's For the Love of Spock also became a documentary on Leonard Nimoy himself after his passing. He evidently did some interviews and first person narration for the project before his death (included), but much of the assembly has occurred after, with talking heads very obviously in "tribute mode". Of course, it says "Spock" in the title, and the original material is still there, though skewed towards Nimoy's contributions to the character (with every apology to Roddenberry and his other writers). Getting the Kelvin crew actors to talk about him is a minor coup  that shows Nimoy's cred in action (the father, not necessarily the son), but I end up resenting all the Big Bang Theory content (obtained when he guest-starred on an episode). Nevertheless, a good (and loving) portrait of the man and of the character, not shying away from darker elements like his alcoholism and family problems, though it's all a bit cursory when discussing projects other that Star Trek.

Books: Greg Cox had every opportunity to develop the Assignment: Earth universe and tell us all about Aegis, or Gary Seven's youth, or reveal things about Isis, etc., but no. Assignment: Eternity has the slimmest of plots, padded beyond endurance with references to other Star Trek episodes (Cox seems to be playing a game as to how many episodes he can cram in there) or to 60s pop culture (making Gary and Roberta either mention 60s stuff, or outright have interacted with The Prisoner, James Bond, and the Questor Tapes, making their appearance here a massive inside joke). One particular reference bears mentioning because it shows how slapdash this technique is. Roberta thinks Spock looks a little like the alien in The Brain Eaters, a B-movie in which Leonard Nimoy had a bit part. Except, he wasn't playing an alien, and he's nigh unrecognizable under the huge hair and beard pieces, so it doesn't make any sense. You have to KNOW the reference you're making! On a plot level, Kirk does not trust Gary to the point where he's just obstructing the story to add more pages, and the time travel story, to protect future Spock from Romulan agents screws with Star Trek VI without resolving the inherent paradox (the crew now knowing too much about future events). A waste of time.