This Week in Geek (12-18/05/24)


In theaters: The Fall Guy is just great big dollop of fun and has two driving forces: 1) Make the case for stunt people getting recognition, awards, and so on (I never doubted it). And 2) amuse with tons of movie/TV references, bordering at times on parody (as a big movie fan, I was INTO that). Now, I'm old enough to have watched The Fall Guy on TV in the 80s, and there's just enough of it in the DNA of the movie to satisfy even if Ryan Gosling is playing an entirely different character in all but name and truck (he reminds me most of his character in The Nice Guys). This Fall Guy, mooning for upcoming director and former flame Jodie Moreno (Emily Blunt), is drawn into a web of intrigue that could make him a literal "fall guy" while looking for Jodie's missing action star. The villains are cartoonish and, of late, I've become a little impatient with obviously improvised banter, but the movie finds ways to surprise and entertain, pushing at the world records in the world of stunts and finding new twists to old gags and sequences (the split screen, the drugged fight, stunt crew to the rescue, to name some favorites). A lot of well-deserved chuckles from my gang at the theater.

At home: I didn't watch the 90s X-Men cartoon. Thought the animation was abominable, had lost interest in the franchise, and was growing out of cartoons anyway. So I can't rightly tell you if the new X-Men '97 continues on directly or if there's a big time jump, or what. To me, it looks like a remix of many different eras from the comics, largely late 80s stuff, but with a distinctly 90s villain in the second half, and costumes from all over. If you've EVER been an X-Men reader, there's probably something in here for you. The basic look is from the original, but it's playing by anime rules now, with furious action and lots of body horror that plays to older audiences (it's a nostalgia project, isn't it?). But then its main themes are quite adult. It's about genocide and how even well-meaning people tend to look away and ignore it if it doesn't affect them, or call foul when the oppressed dare fight back. Some of the X-Men won't walk away from this one, I guarantee. As a superhero fiction, it delivers with lots of cameos (not just from the mutant corner of the Marvel universe, new ways to use and combine tired old powers (they actually make Cyclops the coolest member AND give Wolverine a bit of a rest), and all the angst you expect from an X-story. The voice acting is a little basic (same lackluster performances as the original?), but that's a minor criticism. Epic and additive, this is the surprise streaming hit of 2024.

The first half-hour of Jigarthanda DoubleX is a shock to the system that threatens to leave you behind at any given point, but stick around, once you've parsed who is who, it gets a whole lot better. Pretty great, even. But oof, its shifting perspectives up front, and the director Karthik Subbaraj's over-stylish effects make it real hard to get into (I was reminded of Moulin Rouge). A man, "Ray", accepts an assignment to assassinate a gangster so he can shrug off an unjust prison sentence, and turns himself into a movie director to get close to "Caesar", said gangster who wants to become India's Clint Eastwood. Ray says he can turn him into an action hero, but the hero part is a lot harder than the action part, which Caesar has well in hand. It's a journey that will take them back to Caesar's home village, under threat from both a feral elephant poacher and the corrupt cop who gave Ray his task in the first place. Crazy action, a few musical numbers, but in the end, it's all about the power of cinema, with the camera used visually and thematically as a righteous weapon that can change people through the sympathetic power of cinema, but also the course of history. By the second half, I was totally on board and cheering.

In Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Løve 2021's film, not the 2006 documentary), Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth are film makers doing a residency on Fårö Island, where Bergman shot many of his most famous films (and lived). Hansen-Løve uses Krieps' character Chris as a stand-in for herself in a kind of Russian doll situation. Chris is having trouble writing a script, but as she tells her partner what it is, we see a film within a film, in which HER stand-in is Amy, played by Mia Wasikowska, also a director visiting Fårö (though for a wedding). Problems relating to Amy's love life might then relate to problems in Chris', which in turn may or may not relate to what's happening in Hansen-Løve's (her own partner was Olivier Assayas, who may or may not be lampooned in Tim Roth's character). In Chris' case, is she risking playing out Scenes from a Marriage? Bergman's existential work haunts the film through its locations, of course, but never makes it so bleak. The first half is practically a travelogue, made interesting to me by the idea that Chris is always just a few steps behind, and feels like she's being abandoned even when she did the abandoning. Or perhaps Tim Roth's character is always a few steps ahead, giving her an autonomy she doesn't really want in the moment. A lot is left unsaid, and that ending isn't particularly satisfying even if it might act as a DOUBLE-ending (perhaps). Magically, we invest in the Amy story quite a lot despite it being an interlude, but the rest (an extended frame tale) is too subtle a character study to connect as strongly with the audience.

Set in December of 1941, Saturday Fiction has Gong Li play the fictional movie icon Jean Yu who has returned to Japanese-occupied Shanghai to star in an old friend's play... or to get her ex-husband out of jail... or because she's working as a spy for the Allies. She's being watched closely by the Chinese, the Japanese, the British and the French, but what is her true mission? Director Lou Ye may be presenting this paranoid story in black and white to give us a sense of the era, but his camera work and editing are very modern, and though more grounded, the action beats have something of John Wick in them. But you're not really expecting Atomic Blonde or Mission: Impossible - or even Tinker Taylor - when you get into it. Gong Li is such a powerful actress, you think you're there for a war-time drama exploring the connections between the play and the real world. But actors and spies have a lot in common, don't they?

Abel Ferrara shows his process in Dangerous Game, casting Harvey Keitel as his stand-in, a director making a film about religion and decadence, himself struggling with the vices of his main character (Ferrara's wife plays Keitel's for extra discomfort - is the film at all an apology to her?). Often playing as behind the scenes footage, the film shows fans of Ferrara's work how he might deal with actors, intellectualize his own work, and treat the people around him. All depending on how close this hinges to the truth. Madonna, who has been pretty fairly derided for her acting in other projects, is absolutely stupendous in this - natural as the actress, and emotional in that actress' role. Leave it to Ferrara to tell us a story about art's DESTRUCTIVE potential, as the actors' "Method" blurs lines that shouldn't be blurred in the name of performance, and the director, while not co-signing this process necessarily, manipulates them, pushes them to the edge, to get edgier performances. The cinema proceduralism turns into a meta-textual thriller before the end. A far from self-serving meditation on film making,

Part fiction, part documentary, Bye Bye Africa has its director, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, as himself, returning to Chad after ten years and finding his origin country worse off than when he left it, especially as it pertains to cinema. It's not just that films aren't made there (or distributed when they are), but even the theaters have shut down and the populace has a contentious relationship with image-making and differentiating fact from fiction on screen. All of this justifies Haroun's hybridization, but also the film's technical imperfections (the sound is incredibly messy, for example). It is a product of the environment in which it was made. Chad's problems - and by extension, much of Africa's - stem from war-torn infrastructure and poverty. Cinema cannot be maintained without money. So this is a portrait of a society without film, or at least, film in which it can see itself reflected. Very often, I've found, documentary is the chosen form in cultures/areas where the means of production and distribution are lacking. Because "showing us ourselves" is more important than escapism at that stage. Haroun gets his fictions thrown in his face several times in Bye Bye Africa, as he turns in a personal meditation on what responsibilities he has as a film maker to his audience, his collaborators, his country and his culture, whether in exile or not. The transcendent moment, for me, was an actress shoutig about being a real person and not a character. The film lives at that intersection.

Monument Valley became indelibly tied to the concept of the American (Old) West through John Ford' western, something explored in full in The Taking. Alexandre O. Philippe uses talking voices (as opposed to talking heads) and plenty of (eventually very similar-looking) film footage to at once celebrate, mock, deconstruct and attack this filmic notion of a West that never really was, but that became mythic through cinema. Experts explain how and why it got into Ford's visual vocabulary (Ford never explained himself, quite the opposite), usually flying in the face of geographical logic, how the images spread to other films, what effect the Monuments have on the viewer's psyche, etc. But the film also airs Native voices who speak of a certain kind of cultural appropriation-turned-perversion, using the space to tell white stories and distorting Native ones. The doc's title starts to make sense. While I am not a Ford fan (largely because he kept casting the Duke, a screen presence I very rarely can stand), I still found the film theory nitty-gritty and mytho-psychological discussions fascinating. My one criticism might be that I'd have liked to know who I was hearing from before the credits.

My Companion Film of the week features Ian Marter (Harry Sullivan) in a one-line role... The Medusa Touch is detective thriller that's anchored in the malaise of the 1970s, with its riff on disaster films and interest in the paranormal. A nihilistic writer (Richard Burton who essentially lives in flashbacks) is assaulted by a person unknown, potentially because they believe he is responsible for a string of personal and global disasters, just as HE is. It's up to Lino Ventura's Inspector Brunel - a Frenchman on loan to London police (he's been quite good in these kinds of roles in French films) - to untangle the mystery. Lee Remick is the victim's psychiatrist who apparently failed to help him. This is a world that's already ramping up to be our own, where information arrives quickly and creates a general apprehension (the film evokes Apollo 13 and seems to INvoke 9/11), but also comments on the disaster movie trend, by saying we're actually quite interested, if not addicted, to what we today would call doomscrolling. The film has some dark humor, Derek Jacobi in a small role, some actual disasters that could have been their own movies, and a weird mystery at its center. A small British thriller to discover.

RPGs: Torg Eternity's Orrorsh Delphi Missions book includes a scenario that pits the Storm Knights against a nightmare called Talamous Scratch, navigating back to Orrorsh after a trip to other cosms where he was trying to find ways to extend his life. I toyed around with it because, as written, I found it too battle-heavy and repetitive for a horror story, but the premise is pretty cool. The ship he's on transforms as it hits the reality storms in the Arabian Sea, he kills the crew, and he uses his new techniques to bond with the vessel, essentially turning himself into a boat golem. The PCs are dropped by a skittish helicopter pilot and are on their own exploring the empty ship and facing various flesh avatars, undead mariners, and the ship itself. Every time they use Possibilities, Scratch snatches it for his own purposes, growing stronger, which could be felt through a Tell-Tale Heart narrative device (I made some rainy, creaky, windy, heart-beaty soundscapes for this one), but even realizing this, they still went ahead and spent the Poss, ultimately allowing Scratch to fully heal into his ultimate form. Expelled from the ship, which will now haunt the Indian Ocean's coast, mouah-ha-ha, I left the players on a makeshift raft, in a storm, in the middle of the night, one of them poisoned and dying, as the helicopter failed to return... We were down one player this week, so I knew the adventure would probably run short. So I had prepped/not prepped the next (my plans were dependent on whether they succeeded or not) and just kind of improvised a lot of what happened after, leaving them a lot of room to role-play their dire situation. Then, Gillmen grab them from beneath. They wake up in a wet cave with half a dozen girls meant for the sacrificial altar, escape, and get their bacon saved by Thomas Brownstone, the game's iconic monster hunter. Because HAVING failed, they are ordered to get some much-needed Orrorshan training, and neither they, nor Brownstone, are very happy about it...

Best bits: OF COURSE the players were singing "Talamous Talamous, will you do the Fandago?" and they were rewarded with thunderbolts of lightning, very very frightening. The players offered the copter pilot - a family man - a souvenir from Orrorsh, like a doll or something. ABSOLUTELY NO! The family theme returned later, as our Akashan lost a daughter in his reality's destruction and was encouraged to remember her while in a feverish delirium on that lonely raft. When the ship moved its planks to trap their feet, they used different means to get out: a makeshift pulley system to pull at the planks, zombie guts to lubricate themselves free... the Realm Runner finally dare the ship to let the last remaining party member go since it was obvious it wanted them to go to the hold - so it did! Things that gave the heroes pause: the girl they saved turning into gray gruel in their hands, the hold filled with blood sloshing around waist high, the unnerving heart beat in their ears (if they didn't turn their volume off). The Monster Hunter combined his Elixir of Life and his fiery Dragon's Breath to save burn the poison out of the Akashan's blood stream. This is after a couple of failed attempts at first aid, including one which had the Realm Runner's Orrorshan Eternity Shard goading him into tapping it for Possibilities. No one failed any Corruption tests, but I'm turning that thing into a nasty NPC, make no mistake. The Monster Hunter's relationship to Brownstone is already very contentious (a transformed Indian national is not going to take to the more experienced hunter's condescending Victorian attitudes), so that should prove interesting next time. The rest of the party is also quite jealous of Brownstone's autonomy, abilities and resources.