This Week in Geek (14-20/04/24)


In theaters: Dev Patel writes his own ticket and the result is Monkey Man, a gritty, grimy action flick that's part Greengrass' Jason Bourne, part John Wick, and part Golden Harvest. Patel's nameless lead is out for revenge after the corrupt forces that be did something terrible to his village and family - impressionistically alluded to until we're ready to know - but he's kind of savagely hapless in the way he goes about it. The first half of the movie is all close-up details, furious shaky cam, POV moments where the camera is between a fist and a face, which is almost too much. Once he's had his training and found a clearer purpose, the camera takes a step back, stays on him, gives us longer shots. It's all quite purposeful and shouldn't be held against it the way we might other action movies. The action isn't badly conceived and therefore created in post with fast cuts, it's part of the character's psychology, and besides, incredibly immediate and visceral. A simple revenge story made better by its Indian setting, its mindfulness, and a charismatic star who no one else would cast in an action movie so he did it himself. And you know what? He pulls it off.

At home: I generally love Ozu's work, but some of his films hit me more strongly than others. Put 1950's The Munekata Sisters in that column. 5 years after the War, we meet two sisters who each culturally teeter on opposite sides of it. The eldest, Setsuko, wears kimonos and visits temples, and though she is a business woman, is demure and deferential, a traditional wife to a husband who doesn't seen to care much about her. Mariko, on the other hand, is the most modern character Ozu has probably ever breathed life into. Interested in up-to-date fashions and spending her time with a guy who sells CHAIRS, she surprises with a lack of manners and a wild spirit that taps into the movie scripts she imagines herself and other navigating. She's the lively future of Japan, which Ozu rarely celebrates to this extent, usually adopting a resigned stance to change while mourning pre-war Japan. But while Mariko is the one to watch, it's Setsuko who will squeeze your heart with her restrained emotions - a beautiful performance from Kinuyo Tanaka. The father who is dying of cancer (or to stubborn to succumb to it) is a decoder key, ill because of excess, which for Japan was the war, yet forging ahead and loving both his girls equally. And the two women ARE more alike than even they realize, in their overwhelming imaginations and in their authenticity and stubborn will to be nothing but themselves. An underrated Ozu, as far as I'm concerned.

At first and like many, I freely admit I had trouble following the plot of Masahiro Shinoda's Samurai Spy. Its opaque plot. Its dense exposition scenes. I thought I was just not culturally equipped to tell the various factions (or Japanese names) apart. That's until I read another person's comment that this was essentially Chambara Noir and it came into focus for me. Samurai Spy has a lot more in common with The Maltese Falcon than, say, Seven Samurai. Like that film, there are too many twists, turns, suspects and reveals to truly make sense of things (certainly on a first watch), but one remains interested in the intriguing characters and the crisp black and white cinematography. Understanding what genre it's playing with helps make sense of that ending where our hero - a neutral samurai walking the gray line between two warlike factions (and asking, why war?) - has a "J'accuse!" moment as if he were a 1930s gumshoe. And this is also a Cold War narrative set in Japan's Edo period, which also tends to Noir.

It's so hard to be a whistle blower that whistle blowers should stick together. And if that was the lesson of 1999's The Insider - based on the true events of 1995 surrounding the tobacco industry's criminal behavior - imagine how bad it is NOW. This is the kind of movie that would have Mark Ruffalo as the crusading journalist today, but Al Pacino will do, as a 60 Minutes producer at odds with CBS itself when corporate masters start protecting one another. The truth just isn't profitable enough. But as the the title suggests, this is really more about the whistle blower himself, played by Russell Crowe who was kind of in everything in this era, and how doing the right thing basically destroys his life. Though the movie sides with the "right thing", it's also a terrible warning against doing so. Michael Mann is at the helm and he tends to shoot everything as if it were a rain-soaked action film, which in this case  counterbalances the potential dryness of the subject matter admirably. Dealing with an industry that's extremely litigious, you can sense a certain timidity in some quarters (like, why so many non-American actors?), but Mann doesn't let you feel it. It's possibly too long for its own good, but now 25 years removed from its release, I really enjoyed how it was placed very specifically in its time, with the 60 Minutes people talking about real news items, including the Oka Crisis over in Quebec, which dominated Canadian headlines if not American ones.

It may be Christopher Nolan's first (and cheapest) film, but Following has many of the hallmarks of what would become part of his style. It's told achronologically (though a little clumsily at times), with several time frames competing to reveal just what's really going on (with one more twist than one expects). It's got an intriguing premise and explores morality, with an habitual follower of random strangers getting more than he bargained for when one of his "victims" decides to confront him and use his voyeurism to rope him into his own voyeuristic burglaries. The key speech about taking something away to show the victim what they've lost so they can better appreciate it is interesting, but it's fuzzy as to whether it really comes full circle. So Following doesn't QUITE work on its own terms, but Nolan is already playing with heady concepts and packaging them for a mainstream audience. Worth a look beyond your native curiosity.

Though there are a couple of dodgy moments, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery still holds up, and of course part of it is that some of that dodginess is part of the retro-60s spoofing (for example, Will Ferrell in Peter Sellers brown face). But for a sex pest, Austin Powers is quite keen on consent, so it works. That film film left an undeniable stamp on pop culture, and I remember many conversations peppered with quotables from it. Vivid characters with memorable shticks. And as a fan of the superspy genre this was spoofing, I enjoy the references. In the mid-60s, the genre was ubiquitous, but by 1997, even Bond was on the wane, so Austin and Dr. Evil really are men out of their time and seem ridiculous beyond just Mike Myers' caricatures. The humor often leans into the Airplane/Naked Gun variety, but it also has the period feel of those 60s camp comedies no one really talks about anymore. Elizabeth Hurley would have been perfect as a Bond girl, but this is perhaps a better role. The music is fun (I'd forgotten about the BBC song). The sets look like they were designed by Ken Adam. It's hard not to get swept up in the ridiculousness.

Thanks to a cameo by Rebecca Romijn (as herself), Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me is the only film in the trilogy to have a Number One as well as a Number Two. Of course, number twos are one of the problems with this otherwise fairly strong sequel. Yes, I'm talking about Fat Bastard, a totally repugnant character that's only there to indulge in scatological comedy for the lowest common denominator, pushing the franchise further into boring bodily fluids jokes. There are a lot of repeated gags from the first film, but at least, new material as well. Losing Elizabeth Hurley the way we do undermines the first film a bit, but since nothing is to be taken seriously in these things, we can at least enjoy Heather Graham in the similar role. We get straight up time travel, so the 60s put in an even greater appearance than in the first film. Rob Lowe does an amazing Robert Wagner impression as the younger Number Two. Mini-Me is an iconic feature of the series. The moonbase evokes Doctor Who's The Moonbase, which aired in 1967, when the characters were frozen, so it perhaps IS a fair inspiration. But boy, do I hate Fat Bastard (and generally, this whole subgenre of fat suit comedy). Too many variations on the same themes, perhaps, but Austin Powers still has his mojo at this point.

While the cameo-happy Austin Powers in Goldmember has some laughs. and Beyoncé is pretty cool as a blaxploitation star pulled right out of the mid-70s by Dr. Evil's time machine, its fatal flaw is its villains. Interestingly, they do things here with Dr. Evil that the Bond franchise will do with Blofeld in the Daniel Craig era (which is kind of insane), but generally, his value has been in decline since the second film as he gets dumber and dumber, does rap numbers, etc. He's at least better than Goldmember, an out-of-focus parody of Goldfinger and other 60s Bond villains, with a bit of gross-out humor (speaking of which, thanks for sidelining Fast Bastard in this one, guys) and not many jokes to his name. I just don't think Mike Myers really had a third character in him, here. At least he's not playing his own dad (Michael Caine does a great job as an elder International Man of Mystery). They should have upgraded Scott Evil sooner, probably. And while spoofing more modern films like Mission: Impossible worked for me, overall, the franchise has run out of steam.

A French documentary about the record-holding Japanese female volley-ball team for most consecutive matches won (the number will surprise you, so I'll keep mum here), The Witches of the Orient finds the surviving members of the 1964 Olympic team in good spirits and willing to tell their story. It's a sports documentary, so you know, I can only care about it so far, and perhaps the subject matter is relatively slim to begin with given how many musical montages the film makers utilize to pad things out. At the same time, these might be where the film takes off, giving us a sense of the repetitive, gruelling training, or the back and forth of an important match, etc. Director Julien Faraut got his hands on a volley-ball anime (as well as more ancient Japanese animation) and uses it to cover moments the camera wasn't privy to in the 1950s, though there's an amazing amount of clear color footage from training sessions that had me thinking they had restaged it all with actors. Ultimately, I did care about the Olympic final (a real nailbiter), so the doc did its job.

My Companion Film of the week features Wendy Padbury (Zoe)... The Blood on Satan’s Claw is full of interesting, even beautiful, shots, taking the edge off some of the low production values (the wigs especially) and has an intriguing premise to boot - the Devil (or some fiend) is trying to manifest itself in the 17th-Century countryside by harvesting body parts from his coven and other villagers. Wendy Padbury has a pretty big role in this, but it's a 70s horror movie so she meets a fate that's distressing even to non-Doctor Who fans. But generally, the incidents feel a little strung together as if the film was plotted from a collection of folk tales and witchcraft reports, especially the scenes that involve the county witchfinder, whose motivations seem almost sinister until they're not. For horror fans who love the devil worshipper subgenre, there's a lot to like. Never been my favorite horror type, so I'm going to give it a passing grade, but no more.

Books: Moonraker, the novel, has very little in common with Moonraker, the movie. The eponymous rocket is a long-range nuclear missile, for example, not a spaceship to carry Drax's master race to an ark in space. There's no Jaws. No following clues willy-nilly across the globe. No babes at space camp. And Gala Brand is a much more interesting female partner for Bond than Holly Goodhead who I once proclaimed the worst Bond girl of all time. Gala has agency, solves some of the problems, and is even given an interior voice by Ian Fleming. But man, these Bond novels are WEIRD in the context of the film franchise. The first third of the book is concerned with Bond playing bridge or doing paperwork (still kind of interesting), and reserves the action for the back half, with a pretty desperate missile launch and some interesting POV play that never leaves Bond and Gala and so uses BBC Radio to fill in the blanks. The action bits are strong enough to forgive the book's slow start, but these books are relatively short, so the padding seems ill-considered. Perhaps staying in England for this one was too limiting. So it's not Star Wars like the movie, but it's still a bit of an outlier in terms of the series' tropes.

Collecting issues #276-284, Fantastic Four Visionaries: John Byrne Vol. 6 also includes Thing #23 (Ben's return to Earth) and - egregiously - Secret Wars II #2. Egregious, because these volumes are supposed to spotlight a particular writer/artist, and Secret Wars II doesn't have a collaboration with Byrne. In has the opposite. Editorial interference, with editor-in-chief Jim Shooter (writer of the mindbogglingly bad SW II) co-opting the climax of an FF storyline to force fans to buy his wretched book. Otherwise, it's probably peak Byrne FF, with "Extraordinary" Jerry Ordway providing beautiful inks over strange sights and slam-bang action. Mephisto hits Reed and Sue in the suburbs. Doctor Doom gets a new lease on life. A new Hate-Monger rises that, despite the Secret Wars hiccup, sends the FF into the Microverse for a few issues. And though Byrne was playing with the Kirby/Lee handbook for a while, he's making some big moves here, including taking aim at the team's living quarters and his most enduring legacy, changing Sue's code-name to the Invisible WOMAN. Some Byrne-drawn Marvel Universe Deluxe entries are included as well. It's just too bad the Marvel Universe's interconnectedness in this era comes between me and my enjoyment of a specific era.

RPGs: After a big weekend away from home, I'll admit that I was a little foggy going into Monday's Call of Cthulhu game, but our Keeper Ian caught us up relatively efficiently and we were off to the races. Well, off to the investigation phase of most CoC adventures. We shared clues, got rid of the big killer dog in the house (or as it turns out, floofy pup once it was tamed with pocket bacon), made friends with farmers, professors and librarians, but also picked up mysterious tails around jolly Arkham town. While my character Phelps was busy trading barbs with an Ancient Languages professor helpful enough to translate some Nova Scotia Gaelic for us to help solve the mystery of the wooden ring, his colleagues were having mad fits in the background (something I still can't explain, but will blame on a gas leak). I'm learning the game, so now when faced with a choice of skills to use, I'll try to go for one I haven't yet, as it's the only way to checkmark them for possible improvement. But Phelps' key skills are Spot Hidden and Charm, and they got used several times. Was very lucky with my rolls all night (as opposed to the other players) and managed to evade a villain in the book stacks, and charm a librarian with a well-placed book of mine in the returns pile. Unfortunately, Elsie Gilchrist got her head bashed in with a baseball bat by a mad witch, which would normally be lethal, we were told. Of course, Elsie is a 60-year-old in a 13-year-old's body, having already regressed from 16 when we met her, her injuries having a tendency to "reverse" in time. But I get the feeling that every time she magically heals, her body lurches farther. Will we find a 6-year-old in the street next session? No wonder Elsie was mumbling about body swapping (the crux of the mystery we're investigating) all night...

As for my Torg Eternity campaign... I had the PCs flown to the spine of Myanmar for a final(?) confrontation with their nemesis Quiang Xhu AKA Dr. Grimm (a conflation of several NPCs from the Delphi Missions). He's been their friend, filming their Moments of Glory with his drones. He's been a shadowy supervillain kidnapping them and extracting their possibilities and/or special reality DNA. He's even been a damsel in distress. But lately, with his use of damaging deepfakes, he's shows his true colors. He's been tracked to Southeast Asia where he's started the Grimm Network, beaming exciting announcements and programming to adjoining zones' Zuzus, and he's got 100% market share. What's he going to do with it? Well, after the PCs save a Core Earth VERSION of Quiang Xhu from ninjas, they follow the clues to an island where Xhu/Grimm has managed to fracture himself into personas from different Cosms, JUST LIKE our PC who has that unique nature. And in that final confrontation, the team has to fight the usual Pan-Pacifica Xhu (and his pesky drones), a Nile Empire supervillain Dr. Grimm, the Grimm Ghost from Orrorsh, Xhu of the Dark Grimmoire - necromancer from Aysle - and Father Grimm of the Cyberpapacy. Heck, let's call them the Brothers Grimm. The protracted fight ends with the deaths of all but the original Quiang Xhu (he's captured), but his fate remains unresolved as the PCs realize there's a stelae right behind the base. This is important because Xhu's plan was to broadcast a Glory Moment to contiguous zones with 100% penetration, refilling everyone with possibility energy, then a Despair Moment to rob everyone of it again, funnelling it into his special weird science cistern (from the previous Grimm adventure) powered by the Bust of Thoth talisman from Kali Station stolen from one of the PCs in their FIRST kidnapping. See how these various strands are all coming together! Anyway, the PCs realize they can send out the Glory Moment, erase all the Despair moments from the database, refill everyone with possibilities and THEREFORE, allow for a safe uprooting of the stelae that won't turn everyone into "what ifs". But we left it there, as it was getting late and uprooting stelae always comes with complications...
Best bits: Our Realm Runner has become rather adept at making the bad guys waste Possibilities and also got pretty lucky with card draws, because every use of Poss from me was followed with Negation or Opponent Fails, etc. I couldn't get a Possibility in edgewise. He also called a Reality Storm to block arguably the most powerful villain of the lot (the Nile Empire Grimm with a pretty powerful battlesuit) and locked him into a battle of attrition that ended with him disconnecting, immobilizing him in an unwieldy suit. At which point, said Realm Runner put a gun to his head and killed him (quite murderous, this time around, he also shot the unconscious Aysle persona). Speaking of disconnection, what I can only assume was a bug in Foundry (because it stopped happening after I reloaded the page) made each of my villains Mishap on the same turn and disconnect. Apparently, rolling this many 1s in a row on a d20 carries a 20 million to 1 chance; I should have bought a lottery ticket. With resources almost all drained, the PCs started doing Approved Actions to get Destiny cards... The Monster Hunter manoeuvred drones so they would crash into the upper office window from which OG Xhu was controlling them and exploded the window, finally making him vulnerable. The Super Wrestler almost deleted the entire contents of the computer controlling the video broadcasts, which would have made the final victory impossible, so the players breathed a sigh of relief that he'd failed and then stuck to flipping wizards over his head. The Akashan used his super-Scholar skill in an interesting way, rolling it first (to Outstanding), then explaining what he thought was happening (with Xhu's scheme), asking for confirmation, kind of like a reverse Clue card. "Am I as smart as I think I am?" With that Outstanding result, yes, and perhaps allow me to fill in some gaps for you. I don't hate it. Oh, and they wrung their hands at the empty tube for a Tharkold persona, wondering where THAT Grimm had gotten to. Yes, I do have plans.