This Week in Geek (5-11/03/23)


At home: On the success of his Knives Out movies, Rian Johnson devised Poker Face, a sleuthing show at the intersection of Columbo and The Fugitive (with old school graphics to match), starring Natasha "Can do no wrong" Lyonne as Charlie Cale, a human lie detector on the run from a mobster who blames her for bad things happening at her last job. She travels America, sniffing out bullshit that lead her to solve so-called "perfect murders" (we're in on it, Columbo-style). But she's no cop, and how Charlie is integrated into the action is pretty clever, as is the means by which the malefactors are punished. It's just a lot of fun. Great music, cool editing, lots and lots of great guest stars chomping at the bit to work with the Johnson/Lyonne combo (who wouldn't?), and well-drawn characters living in backwater areas that haven't been done to death. I was wondering how they could "arc" the season and still keep things going, but the finale turned out to be a fun breaking of the mold that accomplished just that.

A very young-looking Natasha Lyonne stars in Slums of Beverly Hills, a female coming of age comedy set in the mid-70s and signed Tamara Jenkins (The Savages, Private Life). Lyonne and her two brothers are dragged around Beverly Hills' lowest rentals by their perpetually down-on-his-luck dad (Alan Arkin), and is helped into womanhood by her older cousin (Marisa Tomei) and her drop-out, drug-dealing neighbor. The movie, like the lead, is obsessed with boobs (providing good jobs for body doubles), but in a female way. The boys are still being flashed, but it's really about a certain body dismorphia that is natural in teenagers. There are a lot of purposefully cringy moments in the film, which again I think is part of the teenage experience, helped along by a strong cast and well-filled smaller parts). Ultimately, it's about accepting who you are, cringe and all, and that gives some lift to an ending that arrives after not much of a climax. There is one, but it's internal.

Comics writer James Robinson (Starman) wrote and directed Comic Book Villains, a heist picture where the treasure is a stash of old comics in mint condition, and the villains owners of competing comic book stores. It's a fun twist on old formulas and obviously knows what it's talking about, though the sympathetic lead's narration is on the cheesy side. For me, it lets down the rest of the film, which is driving towards more of a Coen Bros.-type fiasco. There's a certain cheapness, probably due to having a first-and-only-time director at the helm, but Robinson has somehow gotten himself a pretty cool cast. Me? I'm mostly here for Natasha Lyonne doing Noir. She may just be the coldest, most ruthless Villain in the film, and her final scenes are pretty great. For the record, I knew all the right answers to the comic book quiz. Because of course I did. The kind of nerdy niche movie that will appeal most to comics collectors, but can be enjoyed by the public at large.

There's no question that the conversion therapy school in But I'm a Cheerleader is a cringy mockery of such programs, but there's a lot of truth under the satire - in particular the logical gymnastics used to find the root cause of one's homosexuality, and the threat of homelessness in case one "washes out". Natasha Lyonne is a good Christian girl who never really thought she might be gay, but once she's exposed to other gay kids (among them a show-stealing Clea DuVall), things become clearer. Director Jamie Babbit has fun with the look of the picture, painting Lyonne's family in anachronistic 1950s fashions, and the walls of the school in "gender-appropriate" blocks of solid color. And then there's all the accidental homoeroticism that puts you in the kids' heads and draw out all the chuckles. It's often silly, but doesn't shy away from bitter truths. It's not 1999 anymore, and "hiding it" isn't necessarily the only option for gay teens, but that really depends on your family situation and community. But I'm a Cheerleader is probably still a useful primer for understanding what LGBTQ+ teens are going through.

Jamie Babbit's second collaboration with Natasha Lyonne, 2015's Addicted to Fresno, is really Addicted IN Fresno, at least for Judy Greer's sex addict, who accidentally kills a man and gets her sister (an uncharacteristically guileless Lyonne) involved in getting rid of the body. It's a female take on the old "accidentally killed a hooker" trope, but surprisingly, that's more background than plot. The film is much more interested in the sibling relationship, and the romances both might achieve. With difficulty for Greer, but perhaps Lyonne will have more luck with Aubrey Plaza. At least, that's what the audience wants. While there are funny situations and dialog, and a lot of fun performers in small parts and cameos, there's a bit of a flatness to Fresno because it seems to ignore the plotty elephant in the room. But it does head for a likeable grace note, so in the end, I willingly forgave it its faults.

In Antibirth, Natasha Lyonne plays a party girl dosed with something that starts having terrible and terrifying effects on her body, going from drug-fuelled hallucinatory indie in the first act, to a paranoid thriller filled with body from then on, until it hits an absolutely crazy ending. But thematically, it's just as erratic as that plot. It's largely about the fear of... well, that's the problem, isn't it? The fear of WHAT? I kind of morphs throughout. Of people putting things in your body without your consent, of drug side-effects, of getting pregnant and having one's body (and lifestyle) change. But whether any of this really connects with the film's X-Files dossier of a story, I'm not too sure. Lyonne is great as an unrepentant partyer living in a dead-end hell hole - that's almost a given by now - but she's not well served by the infodump that stops the movie to reorient its genre. Some cool shocks and atmosphere, but it could use a bit more focus.

EO is a very cute and soulful donkey and everything, but the film reminds me of why I don't like to watch movies centered on animals. If the film is older, or not that old depending on the country of origin, you just don't know how the animals were actually treated. Even in this case, where we're told at the end that no animals were harmed, you're still watching animals potentially be harmed, or suffering from simulated harm. EO is a circus animal, separated from his loving training on the grounds that he's being exploited, but as he walks Europe as a kind of equine Forrest Gump, we wonder if he isn't being exploited no matter what - as a beast of burden, to score political points, heck, isn't using animals in a film just as exploitative? - and just what this says about humanity's relationship with even domesticated nature. Speaking of nature, the film is often gorgeous, set in interesting landscapes and beautiful skies. And while the notion of an animal film shot from the animal's perspective is a worthy one, I'm not sure EO plays by its own rules. The donkey's intersection with various humans isn't very satisfying and the statement that even the best person (from EO's perspective) is pretty terrible is trite. To prove that point, we move away from the animal's point of view and see things it doesn't, but are no more comprehensible. In particular, what is up with the whole Isabelle Huppert sequence? A big downer considering how much empathy you're made to feel with the donkey.

Books: I admit it. Though I've been a James Bond fan in terms of movies, I'd never read the books. Bond's introduction in Casino Royale holds many surprises for the old film buff. First, though the 2006 movie had to jettison the Cold War elements, it was much closer to the book than I would have expect (the torture scene seemed like a modern invention, for example). Another thing that surprised me was how little action there is. It's a quick read and structured so that Bond is already at the casino about to play LeChiffre, with flashbacks to London, and the first half of the book is devoted to a game of baccarat (which is well explained and thus manages some tension), and the second to Bond' recovery and protracted "honeymoon" with Vesper Lynd! It even dips into light erotica! It's perhaps no wonder then that this wasn't the first Bond novel put to screen in the famous franchise 10 years later (I've never seen the 1954 version with an American Bond, and 1967's effort was a parody). Of course, novels have different requirements, and what we get in Casino Royale is a certain exoticism - it uses a lot of French words and phrases and Bond spends a lot of time eating fancy foods - some spycraft, which I'm always into, and most importantly, Fleming's omniscient window into Bond's psychology. So while criticisms of his being a sexist brute are entirely warranted, and Vesper a very wet damsel whose distress tends to excite Bond in a way the modern reader while find unpalatable, the novel's interiority gives 007 a certain vulnerability that's rarely evident on the Silver Screen. It's definitely of its era, and despite Fleming's credibility as a former intelligence operative himself, still a very male 1950s fantasy.

Part of the Time-Life book series on World War II, The Nazis is a bit of a patchwork of different themes surrounding the war's main villains, but each chapter is fascinating (or perhaps terrifying) in its own way, making this one of the better volumes in the collection. The early aim of the book is tracking the party's rise to power, the personalities that surrounded Hitler, and the creation of the S.S. When people talk about current-day fascism using the Nazi playbook, well, this is the section that makes you well aware of that. There are important chapters on less reported elements like propaganda (again feels rather familiar today) and how the systemic looting of "enemies" foreign and domestic. The section on the Holocaust is harrowing of course, but doesn't use any sensationalistic pictures in the text pages (and still relatively tame in the following image gallery). This is a boon to those who want the information, but can't stomach the violence or exploitation of suffering that Time-Life could have serviced here. The final chapter is about how Hitler took control of the military and his generals' plots against him, but the history stops there (all the close calls had my time travel brain working overtime).

Proper Theatre (Théâtre Satellite): Your don't see a lot of science-fiction on the stage, so I give Céleste Godin's Bouée ("Buoy") a lot of props at the onset for even attempting it. The premise is a contemporary one born of the pandemic. Humanity decides to "update" the information sent out into space on Voyager, and maybe tell the truth this time, as a warning to aliens as much as an outreached hand. Because Godin comes from a poetry background, the play is essentially a series of poetical monologues that might make you long for human interaction, but that's really the point here. Are we alone in the universe, just as we're each of us alone here on Earth? Though it's cosmic existentialism, it's still very funny. Some wordplay, yes, but also a lot of physical humor well choreographed and performed. And yet, it's also rather sad and emotional, and the last monologue (via actor Ludger Beaulieu) got me right in the ticker. Lots of cool special effects too, and I'm a sucker for object puppeteering - used here for "model shots" and weightlessness. I'm not sure 99% of the audience got everything in the opening Star Trek rant (on the necessary disappointment that comes with fiction's promises), but it was like jumping into the deep end (yes, I'm the other 1%). The extended set piece about the Multiverse I think people are more ready for these days (Everything, Everywhere seems more the inspiration here than, say, superhero movies, but either way, it's become a mainstream concept), but all these science and science-fiction concepts flying around create a fun and perhaps thought-provoking time at the theatre. (I'm gonna try to use old friendships to get some of these folks on my Star Trek podcast, see if I don't.)