This Week in Geek (18-24/02/24)


In theaters: It's quite correct to compare The Beekeeper to John Wick - a revenge story with a stoic hero who goes through bad guys like a hot knife through butter - but I was rather more reminded of Thomas Jane's Punisher. The Punisher had a more outrageous villain - here, that role is played by Josh Hutcherson's slightly ridiculous tech bro - and was, well, a superhero story. Jason Statham doesn't speak much in this flick, but when he does, it's usually a bee-related pun or metaphor. He's as on-brand as Batman. If a bee had flown into the window the night he was thinking of a shtick. Some good action beats, though what makes Statham Statham is that he's cool as steel and confuses his enemies with calm serenity. Great to see spam callers get their asses kicked, of course. It's clearly the UK playing the States, so uneven accents, a "beach house" that looks like an Earl's estate, etc. You can't fool us, but the trade-off is that there's lots of UK-based talent in this - Jemma Redgrave, Minnie Driver, Jeremy Irons - so who's complaining? It all makes for a fun enough, if undemanding, revenge actioner.

At home: The second season of the new Quantum Leap creates a new status quo at the Project that allows for two key things. One of these is that Ben is free to fall for a woman back in time, and they keep this up as a pleasant arc where he crosses paths with her several times. The other is that there's a villainous tech billionaire who aims to take over the project, and his origins can also be found in the past. While I like where this takes us in the season finale, the level of villainy is a little ridiculous for my tastes AND I'm not sure if follows the rules of Quantum Leap's temporal adjustments exactly. But the show is using modern television's love of story arcs to its advantage, even as it tells done-in-one "right what went wrong" episodic tales (one or two of them fairly poignant). Raymond Lee has found his groove with Ben Song and he's a good replacement for Bakula. I still like Ian, but Jen is strong this season. The new cast member is a bit whatever and Addison gets outshined by Eliza Taylor's space-time romance Hannah. Overall a stronger season than the first, with a more focused meta-plot (not sure I can explain Season 1's), and it ends on a new status quo that begs to be explored in a third.

Native French speaker or not, I was happy to have subtitles for Claude Berri's Jean de Florette, as the accents and patois of rural Southern France felt almost completely opaque to me. But the story is entirely absorbing. Farmers, a ruthless father and hapless son (Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil), have their eye on their neighbor's land and therefore sabotage his heir's chances of making a go of the property, in particular on the question of water and irrigation. That heir, a hunchbacked family man from the city, is played by Gérard Depardieu with enthusiasm to succeed despite the harsh, arid conditions of the region, and there's also a sense that the film is pitting science and modernity against folk knowledge as an additional stake. The former will win unless the latter cheats. We absolutely do not want the scoundrels to win, and prey for Auteuil to relent as he always seems on the cusp, and so if the film leaves one unsatisfied by the unfolding tragedy - a kind of redress of the Fall of Man, in a way - it's because this is a four-hour epic split in two. The next chapter, out the same year, would resolve things. But even without it, I liked Jean de Florette a lot. Berri takes Pagnol's novel (itself an expansion of one of his films) and creates a rich, detailed, lived-in world from it, where even the venal characters are interesting.

Named after Pagnol's original film which spawned the "Water of the Hills" novel than then gave us Berri's two-part Provencal epic starting in Jean de Florette, Manon of the Spring (Manon des Sources) jumps ahead about a decade to see the consequences of the previous chapter's land grab. It is the New Testament to part 1's Old, with the landscape that, while beautiful, felt hellish now a colorful pastoral setting. Manon, the wronged hunchback's daughter, is a shepherdess who punishes the sinful, but also seems to provide a miracle when the village is hit with drought. Daniel Auteuil's character has become obsessed with her, and is again on the verge of repenting his sins, but he may be in too deep. His father (Yves Montand) is in greater need of redemption, or if unavailable, punishment, and this comes about in a most melodramatic way. This, and the fact that Manon lacks the agency that summary blurbs would give her as an avenger, makes me affect this second part less than the first, but I'm only slightly disappointed by the film's novelistic epilogue.

Emmanuelle Béart's Marianne agrees to play model to Michel Piccoli's artist in La belle noiseuse, a word I had to research since, no matter what Marianne says about her stay in Quebec, doesn't ring any bells for THIS French Canadian (but Béart imitating a Quebecker is going to be an earworm for a while). It's essentially someone who's looking for a fight; it seems to sometimes be translated as "The Beautiful Troublemaker". And though we don't really know what the artist is thinking, there IS a sense that, as a concept, he wants to create something that hinges on provoking and angering his model. He's titled the work before creating it, after all. He wants adversity, but he also wants absolute control, and it's only when SHE turns the tables on him that things start to loosen up, that the work starts to take shape. And very naturalistically, too. We're seeing drawings and paintings being made IN REAL TIME, with long sequences that amount to scrapes-on-paper ASMR. We're seeing things they never show, and there's a beauty to that. I navigated the world of fine arts for a while and also served as a model, and the relationship here is totally believable. The awkwardness giving way to a mechanical process, where the body is just an object, a shape to be manipulated and reproduced. The model can be part of the creative process too, and bring ideas to the table. It all felt very real. I also like Jane Birkin's portrayal of the artist's wife and former model, again a person I think I met in the real world. She gives Marianne a warning at some point that seems to mean one thing, but means something additional once we start seeing reactions to the work. Ultimately, it's about artistic process - intellectually, physically, spiritually - and the toll it takes - ALSO intellectually, physically, spiritually. A four-hour, somewhat improvised, French epic loosely based on a Balzac short story seems a big ask, but it was totally worth the investment.

There's a conversation in Hal Hartley's Henry Fool that presages the ways the internet would one day be used, so it's absolutely proper for it to present personality types we might recognize from social media, but there was such a thing. Henry is a big-talking conspiracy theorist with a sex offender's past. Simon Grimm is anti-social and becomes a pornographic, and grammar-lacking poet under Henry's QAnon tutelage. His bullies are neo-fascists who follow a dumbed-down moral minority candidate and commit/excuse domestic abuse. Fay is comparatively normal, even though she (Parker Posey) is just there to shout at the world. I spoiled myself with this one by seeing the two later parts of the trilogy, so I knew where the characters were going to end up. Which is surprising if you don't have foreknowledge. But how they get there is still an intriguing journey. It does make me appreciate more how Fay Grimm recontextualized this film to spin out into a spy story. I can't quite decide what I would have said had I seen Henry Fool first as nature intended.

The earliest cryptid-inspired horror comedy I've seen from Motern Media, Freaky Farley definitely feels like an early effort from the gang, with Matt Farley lending his last name to his character, the negative to many of his future roles, in particular the stunted Marshall from Manchvegas. That also holds true for the local cryptids, which are much the same, except morally reversed. Here, Farley is a peeping Tom whose mother died under mysterious circumstances, leading his father to abuse him in very strange (and non-triggering) ways. It's all played even more archly than later offerings, and the usual community theater earnestness is at odds with the lead's meanness, and can't quite pull off its action finale. That said, there are still things to like, including the deadpan inclusion of a certain townsperson who shall not be named because it's better if it comes out of left field for you as it did for me.

By Song of the Thin Man, it's been 13 years since the series started, and it's eased itself into a vehicle for Myrna Loy and William Powell's banter as a "sexy married couple" (no, really, there's a fellatio joke in this one that's a real spit take), with fairly ordinary mysteries to hang things on. Ordinary, as in, Nick it kind if hinges on everyone confessing at the end. Unlike the previous film, Nora Charles is kept in the loop consistently, which is amusing given that it's about a murder in the all-night jazz scene and neither of them can ever go to bed. Of course, their being out of touch with the "hip" generation and their lingo stresses the fact that they're getting long in the tooth. That and their young boy at home - Dean Stockwell alert! - who's a handful and who Nick is loathe to punish (still a weird spanking scene from today's perspective, but toothless, no worries). I can't stand Asta Jr., the replacement for Sparky who played the original dog - such a jumpy thing, way too excited compared to the real thing. He's not overplayed here like he was in Goes Home, but he's still annoying. So nothing great, but there hasn't really been a GREAT one since the first.

The play premiered in 1967, but the 1971 film version of Little Murders is even more "of its time", made in the shadow of the Kent State shootings, which in the story, becomes a kind of "new normal" in a New York where institutions, infrastructure and morality are disintegrating. Enter a hero for our time (because if the felt like the end of America, what do we make of the 2020s?), Elliott Gould as a photography who has made disassociative apathy his entire character. He doesn't feel it when he gets beat up in the street, and he doesn't feel it when he falls in love. He just goes through the motions, and finds he can't bring people into focus, only objects, and excrement at that. He's like many, insensible to the violence around him, and like some, only seeing what's terrible and not what's good. The film presents three viewpoints and asks to you to choose between them, really: Is it better to ignore the world collapsing around you, allow yourself to see it, or actively participate in it? It sounds heady, and it is in that "70s protest satire" kind of way, but it's also very funny. There are some absolutely GREAT monologues in this thing - including the judge's thoughts on God and Donald Sutherland's a-ceremonial marriage ceremony, to name just a couple. When the murders start happening, things get darker and the chuckles subside, but the wit is still there. Alan Arkin directs (it was almost Goddard, we dodged a bullet, I hate Goddard) and creates a New York City that's truly falling apart, with random power outages, background riots, and a heavy-breathing pervert on every phone line. A wild ride that unfortunately seems even more relevant today than it was then.

And the week's Companion Film... It's pretty cool that the makers of The Day of the Triffids stayed true to John Wyndham's book when they crafted the plant monsters (they look just like the original hardcover's illustration) and only sometimes do they feel like men in rubber suits (arguably, the rest of the time, they're stiff puppets). The buck stops there. The book is about the colony that sprouts up around the survivors. It's not very cinematic. The movie is about surviving the first few days of the ecological invasion, made more difficult by 99% of the population going blind during seedfall. Howard Keel is the brawny hero who will get people out of Europe if he can, almost hard to recognize because he's not being a singing douche in a Taming of the Shrew riff. We also have an action scientist on a remote island who has a big red sign with the solution on it to help him (as happens in these movies), though that story never connects to the rest. For Doctor Who fans, we have Carol Ann Ford as a French girl abandoned to her fate too soon. Notably, the schoolgirl Keel hangs out with is called Susan! The First Doctor's Susan will be left in an invasion-torn London like the one here. The Fourth Doctor will of course fight Krynoids who are Triffids mixed with the Thing. And then skip to Ninth Doctor Chris Eccleston having a role in 28 Days Later, which was inspired by the empty streets in this movie. It's a classic of the genre and keeps one's attention. The effects are dated but not bad. I take off half a star for the clumsy structure.

Books: Collecting issues 13-24 of the Casey/Scioli series, Gødland Celestial Edition Book Two is very much the sagging middle of the saga. The villains' stories are idling in geosynchronous orbit, especially the Tormentor/Nicklehead stuff, but the Triad's too. Neela's journey through the cosmos gets teased a lot. Adam is on the outs with his government handlers, then back in. And there's a 60¢ issue that mostly just recaps the preceding issues, useful at the time, but redundant to the marathoning reader. The series plays for time. But the collection ends with a number of bangs! Several important deaths are in the offing. Neela returns to Earth for a very cool What If issue. And the cosmic-powered fights are percussive as all get out. A difficult start to the second "year" of the book, but it finds its groove again and gives Adam Archer juice to propel us through Book 3. It's also around this time that Scioli decides to evolve his style, using thinner lines and moving away from Kirby in terms of final rendering. There are a couple of issues of growing pains on that front, but I think the eventual result is one I like, even if I still (at this point) miss the outright Kirby pastiche.

Gødland Celestial Edition Book Three (collecting issues 25-36 of the series plus the long-awaited triple-sized Finale - all in all, a big'un) brings everything to a close (two or three times!) and gives lots to do to the villains I felt weren't moving in the second act. Cranium's fate is one big dick head joke that I can't help but appreciate, and Nicklehead's journey is the most interesting. But there's also a giant cosmic threat, who is a little bit as if Jack Kirby had created the Punisher. The comic somehow manages to predict the events of January 6th (yes, that one), but in the larger scheme, taps into 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Hunger Dogs, and the works of Jodorowsky for its slam-bang finale. Which is issue 36. The "Finale" is more of an epilogue, set a century later, and yes, it's interesting, but I didn't really need it. If you're looking for the overall message of Gødland, then yes, it's in that final chapter, but the previous end point is the great action/plot climax and I love it more.Jack Kirby was never able to end Tales of Asgard nor the Fourth World the way he wanted. Casey and Scioli's "Jack Kirby as genre" series did it and you can't help but take your hat off to them, then place it over your heart to say a little prayer for the King of Comics that inspired them.

RPGs: Played Torg Eternity this week... In Delphi Missions - Nile Empire, there's an interesting adventure concept that has a villain called Dr. Grimm kidnap the heroes and run their through their paces in his lair. Makes it sound like Grimm is a supervillain of some concern, but he appears nowhere else in the published canon. So I decided to play the long game with him. Sabella, the recurring NPC from a couple of NE adventures, is supposed to have lost her family to the Insidious Wu Han - I changed it to Dr. Grimm. Played a version of the "Grimm House" idea some months ago, where the PCs woke up in a mental institution called Grimm House. Now it was time to pull the same trick, but actually use the Grimm House maps from T:E for a return engagement against a super-powered Dr. Grimm who is playing with possibility energy. But we're at that point in my campaign where I go off-book a lot, paying off subplots and the Player Characters' larger arcs. Therefore... Grimm's lab is holding a (shocker) pregnant Sabella (she had been successfully romanced by a now-dead PC, whose body is ALSO in a glass tube here). Reminder that I have a player whose character leads a "fractured existence" - the PC exists as a "dimensional clone" in every Cosm. For the player, it's about switching gears with a new build every few sessions. SOMEone (a villain, a High Lord, someone) was going to take an interest, and it might as well be Dr. Grimm. Seeing their friend's corpse forced a Spirit roll (universally failed) which gave them a condition I invented: Shaken. Essentially, your resolve and confidence is so shaken by some disturbing personal event that you are Stymied and Vulnerable until one of your dice explodes (as they do on 10, 20 or with damage dice, 6) - this is how they entered the final battle. But wait, another shocker! Dr. Grimm, once defeated, turned out to be an empty suit remote controlled by Pan-Pacifican drone technology. Who else uses that? Quiang Shu, the P-P movie director who they freed from conditioning months ago and whose offer they accepted that he drone-film their adventures to give Core Earth hope. No wonder he knew where to dig for their fallen comrade, or where to send his drugged champagne. He's been manipulating them for a while... and now I'm all set to take the adventure to Pan-Pacifica, the Cosm we haven't really been to yet. That's the plot, but in terms of play, the dice/cards were really frustrating this week. The early encounters had me rolling too well, putting the PCs on the defensive when they should have been more proactive. And then in the final encounter, it's not so much that they were rolling well, but rather that I was now rolling very poorly. When your Big Bad disconnects in the second round and depends on a battlesuit to do, well, anything, and can't reconnect to save his life... Yeah, it leads to a lop-sided session.
Best bits: Funny to think our Super Wrestler spent the whole adventure in nothing but a towel, but that's how he was kidnapped. The Akashan Zen Master used his faith in Zinnat (which is really a scholar test) to calm Grimm's "divine jackals", using the "divine" epithet against them. Seeing as the heroes were without equipment and losing badly, I allowed it; the Nile Empire is the right place for out of the box solutions. Trying to deactivate robots from a console, the badly-equipped Wrestler bangs on the computer console to turn a failure into a success (the villains had a Setback on the drama card), which makes them all glitch in idle mode for a turn. Sabella's back (which surprised the players) with a baby bump (ditto), and OF COURSE the Akashan (who used to play her lover) drops a Romance card on her. No intentions - he still remembers his dead wife from the old world - but she at least thinks it's the former identity and he feels beholden to her. In other words, the possibilities gained from the Romance card makes complete sense as he has to protect her through the rest of the story. The PCs drain the power out of Grimm's battlesuit as a team, the Wrestler pinning him against his machine and the Monster Hunter taking pot shots at it with electric bullets. The Realm Runner, desperate to get a Nemesis card from the deck (didn't happen) then opens up on the prone suit and empties a  clip into it, only to find it empty (death in the Nile Empire is something musty). He vows revenge and blows the whole lair up, possibility machine, friend's earthly remains, and all. In a fun coincidence, this coincides with Pan-Pacifica getting rid of the Law of Revenge. It's almost like they knew he was coming for one of them.

Improv: In the Fall of 2022, my improv group presented Sang Titre - an improvised slasher. (Decoder ring for non-French speakers: It's a pun. It sounds just like Sans Titre, which means Untitled, but "sang" is "blood".) A cabin in the woods, a sextet of old friends reuniting 10 years after graduation, one of them uses the event to kill the rest dressed as Death, the audience chose who would be the killer and who would be the last survivor of the massacre by secret ballot, gore packs made of felt, red lighting, kill music, and so it goes. Slashers tend to spawn sequels, and so this week, we presented Sang Titre 2: In Cold Blood. It's 15 years later, winter, the cabin has been renovated into an Airbnb and the killings mostly forgotten. The survivor from the last show is now its caretaker. Two groupings booked on the same weekend. A sister-and-two-brothers combo, one of them going through an anger management program, another none too supportive and focused on his ghost-hunting podcast. The other group is a flashy, snobby couple - the spoiled daughter of the new owner and her professional skier of a boyfriend. "Death" is back (that's me, I played Death in the original show too, so as to hide the body shape of the actual killer until the very end), but this time, it's a supernatural threat. The audience still voted on the "last girl", but it was a tie, so we made a conscious choice. As per the rules of the genre, one of the rich kids had to get it first, and the anger management brother survived instead - it was more his story, in a way. Rage murders happening around him as he desperately tried to keep his own under wraps. We evolved some of the killing from the original show which was just stabbing. The sequels always have more fanciful murders, and in this case, the podcaster was choked with his own scarf, the sister protecting her brother and taking the hit for him blocked the knife and had her innards ripped out by hand, and the skier was stabbed in the back with ski poles while going down the mountain (homage to the Black Racer). The caretaker was also found dead in a closet, pre-killed, with sticky movie blood all over him. The podcaster was always doing seances to get material, so we sent out the dead with basic eye make-up and their gore packages out to creepy effect. They made a few audience members jump when they used a secret door to go behind them and start whispering things in their ears. At the end, the ghosts come to the brother's rescue and smother the killer into the snow bank. But of course, there's a last scare, the killer's hand rises up to the killing music and TOTAL BLACKOUT. The original show felt goofier, so we really wanted to push people's buttons more with this one. It was creepier, had more jump scares, and the improvisers reacted more naturalistically to the deaths. A quick survey of people we knew who came reported actual jumps, chills, and hey, even a few tears rising given the family situations. In improv, it's easy to go for the joke (and there definitely were some) and the caricature. But this is what sincerity gets you and in long-form improv, it's what you should aim for.


Doc_Loki said…
I really must get the last two Celestial Editions of Gødland. Volume one looks lonely there on my shelf.
Siskoid said…
Don't let it be sad!
Surefoot said…
The Thin Man film series so quickly lost its edge when it became domesticated, and NIck and Nora even ended up stopping drinking...