This Week in Geek (7-13/05/23)

This week's themes: Science-fiction, what is real?, vehicular mayhem, girl bosses, grotesque parents, cats & birds, the Moon

In theaters: Most of what we've seen in Phase 4 of the MCU was about beginnings, and suffered from the addition of new characters shoehorned even into franchises already in progress. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3 is about ENDINGS and manages to avoid what in comics we'd all "editorial interference". Yes, Warlock in introduced, but he's mostly a joke and WAS part of the franchise already (just as-yet unhatched). This time around, the Guardians have to save Rocket's life, and finally learn his tragic secret origin. This can be difficult viewing as it doesn't shy away from what is essentially animal cruelty and experimentation on animals, but this is also easily the most violent MCU movie ever. A lot of sentients die, by the villains' AND the heroes' hands, and though it's "sci-fi gore", it can still be gruesome. Are these movies ready to accept they've grown up with their audience? Well, maybe, maybe not. Guardians has always been pitched a little older (nostalgia music, sex jokes, life is cheap moments), it just pushes a bit harder in this one. If you like these characters, you'll find yourself fearing for their lives and welling up. And whether any of them show up again or not, this is a good send-off for each of the characters, and for James Gunn who turned a no-name I.P. into one of the MCU's greatest successes.

At home: Ali Wong and Steven Yeun get into a road rage incident in the BEEF mini-series and things escalate through a cycle of forgiveness and revenge that can't ever really be predicted. It's a lot of fun. A dark comedy that takes aim at an over-therapied generation that then knows how to use psychobabble to hide their real issues, and mocks pretentiousness in a way not dissimilar to Always Be My Maybe (so Wong has a thing about this). People seem so angry these days, and BEEF taps into that, showing how grudges are never going to dissipate unless both parties let it go AT THE SAME TIME. Everyone has a bad day, and it's easy to "pass it on" (which is the theme of the show) instead of empathizing with the other person. Could a new beef spring up in a second season? Sure, but by the end of these 10 episodes, it would be retrograde for the characters to keep at it. And though I did like the ensemble quite a bit, the story should probably end there, with its final commentary about what keeps us apart and what brings us together.

When you need someone to incarnate a sexually complicated woman, you can hardly do better than Isabelle Huppert. In Paul Verhoeven's Elle ("Her"), Huppert's Michèle Leblanc is attacked and raped in her own home, then proceeds to just go about her business. How and why? It won't be the last incident either as the film becomes more of a thriller, but I would still categorize it as a character study. In a way, Michèle is consistently violated by the people around her - either embarrassing her with their own lusty displays of affection, harassing her at work (where she's working on a violent, sexual video game), or being insistent lovers who won't take no for an answer. But Michèle has a history of "going along" with whatever's happening to her, which the film explores. The pervacious Verhoeven raises some uncomfortable issues with his kink, but it's Huppert who elevates this well above the ill-judged smut it otherwise could have been. And there's so much happening in her life that even at the script level, it stretches beyond sex thriller tropes.

An exploration of how memories are created, define us, and fade, Marjorie Prime started life as a science fiction play (unusual in and of itself) and begins with the powerful Lois Smith having conversations with a simulacrum of her dead husband (John Hamm), in his prime (something of a pun, since a Prime is what they call these comforting A.I.s), which learns and becomes "more human" and more like the lost one the more it interacts with people. Her daughter (Gina Davis) and son-in-law (Tim Robbins) are also part of an ongoing conversation as are other Primes, asking questions about whether we're no better than A.I. in our approach to memory, its unreliable nature, and how it creates, even for us, only ever a partial picture of the past. What the script perhaps does best is create the sense that these Primes are indeed A.I.s, in the way they speak, parrot certain phrases, and convince themselves and others of their reality. It pulls of a couple twists, and when I thought it had run out of twists, it hit me with a final scene that really brought all those themes home. Very intelligently done.

Mélanie Laurent wakes up in a cryogenic pod in Alexandre Aja's Oxygène, and is desperate to get out, perhaps by calling for help, and at first it feels like sci-fied up version of the Ryan Reynolds vehicle Buried. Hey, it's 2021, and pandemic must as pandemic can. But it's more than just a slight sci-fi twist where she wrestles with an A.I. interface, or the fact that her memory's all scrambled so she doesn't know what's happening. The twists keep on coming, and coming, and the last half-hour is as tense a nail-biter as you're likely to see in this subgenre. And to bring it back to pandemic-era film making, that idea of being isolated, unable to see your loved ones, knowing there's a plague out there and it contributing to your anxiety... It's all here, along with existential questions, the kind you might have when your only contact with the world is through a computer screen. I could have done without the final, final shot, but otherwise, this was a nice surprise. Gotta say though, in French, the technobabble always sounds wrong to me, like something spit out by Google Translate.

What if you fell in love at first sight and the other person reciprocated? And then what if later that day, you were tipped off an hour before a nuclear missile hit your city? That's Miracle Mile, a madcap romantic comedy about getting together before the big one drops. There's a lot of running around to be sure, and characters encountered along the way tend to drop out of sight, but the movie leaves just enough doubt as to what's really going to happen to make the objectively dark subject matter amusing. I mean, if it's all a big mistake, it's still not unlike the mix of anxiety and excitement of a fresh young love that you are desperate not to screw up. Everything and everyone seems to be in your way. It's panic exteriorized. If it IS true that it's all going to end in an hour, the metaphor still holds, minus the outside perception that people in love are "much ado about nothing". In any case, I think they went with the cleverest ending.

Earth is dry as a bone, and the Moon might have the key to rehydration in the Korean SF drama The Silent Sea, starring the always riveting Bae Doona - playing a sad astrobiologist - and Gong Yoo - a sad soldier - along with a cast that seems stuck on a suicide mission. Though the MacGuffin is pretty unbelievable (and things get more unbelievable by the end), the mini-series nevertheless plays like an almost-procedural scientific mystery, and it throws a lot of curveballs at the characters (and the audience), to the point where there's a subtle genre shift going on, episode to episode. There's probably one episode's worth of skulking through dark corridors on the Moonbase too many, but the overall feeling is a tense, paranoid one. It's clever trick to make the thing everyone thirsts for the thing they have to run away from. It's more than a little like Doctor Who's The Waters of Mars (without the zombies), but it's deeper and more involving. Now can I get a glass of water?

Gross Musk-stan Roland Emmerich's Moonfall is unfortunately not as advertised. It LOOKS like it doesn't take itself seriously à la Iron Sky (which is still the best Moon Attacks movie), but no, it's an Emmerich greatest hits with cliched dialog, uneven acting, uneven CG, tedious destruction porn, and plot holes the size of... well, the size of that hole on the Moon from which SOMEthing attacks. His contention that conspiracy theorists - remember, this guy made Anonymous - is ill-judged in today's landscape (but at least they didn't fake the Moon landing), and you're frequently pulled out of the movie to question how things are possible, even within its own rules. It does take itself seriously, which is itself laughable. It could still have been a passable space romp, but for all the Earthside scenes to work, you need a cast of characters you care about as your POV. We don't have that. The astronaut's son in particular is a block of wood, but they all stare at green screens with no notion of what's going to be inserted there and therefore have no notable reaction to Earth being destroyed. Actually, I kind of feel the same.

Had the streaming posters said that Beautiful Dreamer was really Urusei Yatsura 2, I would have ignored it in my recommendations and been the happier for it. it obviously has its fans - I'm sure the entire franchise is filled with whimsical elements that make for fun animation - but I spent most of the run time asking just what the heck was happening. Not because I didn't know the characters from the first film (or the manga) - I don't think it's even relevant - but because it's set up as a dream within a dream within a dream, and it's a lot like having someone tell you their dream in detail. It's always boring. William S. Burroughs prefaced his dream diary by saying that dream images are only really meaningful and fascinating to the dreamer, while everyone else feels disconnected from them. So there are some interesting images, but the dream logic gets tedious, the "mystery" (that it is a dream) is pretty obvious (and not just from the title), and the final solution is necessarily dull so that this can fit the franchise. To Urusei Yatsura fans, I'm sure this is an interesting folly, but anything I found intriguing soon evaporated as the dream shifted gears.

RPGs: My Torg Eternity players have been using violence as a solution a LOT, so it's time to send them to a Cosm where violent encounters are difficult to win, and covert ops and diplomacy are more important, i.e. the Cyberpapacy. The PCs head to Paris - a Core Earth Hardpoint - but are immediately troubled by an app spontaneously installing on their phones called Revelation, and it predicts they will be dead within the hour, and then turns the populace against them. The eventually find their contacts, characters they themselves played in the Day One scenarios. They take our heroes over the border into the Cyberpapacy where they must negotiate for the original manuscript for The Three Musketeers in a Resistance-controlled hotel - an artifact that is said to be an Eternity Shard - the finder having invited various factions to bid on it. This was my chance to introduce various characters who may or may not have recurring roles, like a tortured Resistance leader about to crack, a cocky member of Stormbreak (a rival global agency of freedom fighters), and Fabien's new character Asar, a boisterous Nile Empire duplicate of the character killed in the previous session, an armored Rocketeer who is there on behalf of the Mystery Men, heroes based in Egypt (and who will join the group by the end of the session). The players did REAL well making their speeches to convince the finder to give them the Shard, but things turn pear-shaped when an Inquisitor crashes the virtual reality where the meeting is taking place, the manuscript turns out to be a  fake, and the heroes have to race back to the hardpoint while their faces flash on every screen and building. They hardly have time to breathe when Revelation tells them to avoid talking to Pagans and one walks out of the shadows. But what does this cyberwitch want with them?
Best bits: Fun to use some old one-shot PCs as NPCs, of course, but I really enjoyed creating a couple of NPCs here. The Inquisitor, Cassandra Laurent, I played as a cold, cruel SNM mistress, subjugating fragile souls (like the aforementioned Resistance leader) under her boot. But my favorite is the Ace of Clover, a Stormbreak hacker who plays Drama Deck manipulating beats on his cyberdeck keytar and is an absolutely OBNOXIOUS TOOL! His name is a reference to a pre-Torg campaign that slings mud at one character's family (Ace is a toxic fanboy of the GURPS characters in the prequel to all this). He leaves digital playing cards where he steals data (like the insulted PC's drive/head, and even tried to recruit Asar to his group! While the emissaries were waiting around the manuscript holder to show up, NPCs and PCs alike put their tokens in front of toilets on the map - ok ok, fine, let's take a pee break in the real world! But the players' entreaties to WIN the Shard (even if it was a trap) were very good indeed, and though they were all on the same side, they made them different based on their various attitudes. Notably, because the core group was down to three, they played on the Three Musketeers connection (with Asar the D'Artagnan eventually). I leave you on an absurd pun monster hunter Marty made after the heroes returned to the 17th Arrondissement pizzeria safe house: "Cyberpapizza: Ask for our Cheesus Crust!"