This Week in Geek (17-23/10/16)

"Accomplishments"

At the movies: The Accountant was a nice surprise. The answer to the question "what if Batman was an autistic super-accountant/justice assassin?" could have been worrisome, but though the character is a comic book fantasy (and it will all go down better if you look at it in those terms), the take on autism felt well-researched and positive (an early scene gave the young accountant-to-be a knack similar to that of a friend's son, which helped convince me). The third act does head into more formulaic territory, and there's at least one crazy plot coincidence too many, but overall, I enjoyed the excellent cast, the humor, the action, and the puzzle-solving. Is this Affleck's "Bourne franchise"? It could work as long as they walk the tightrope as nimbly in future installments. Or will this go the way of Affleck's Daredevil, another differently-abled action hero The Accountant might remind audiences of in spots?

DVDs: Arthur Miller's 1996 adaptation of The Crucible (he wrote the screenplay) is at once about the Salem witch trials and the McCarthyism of his own era... and perhaps it's about our own ever-more-irrational time as well. It's cautionary tale as a American story, with the dangers of public hysteria boiling in a Kafkaesque sauce of absurdity (I don't know why my mind went to a cauldron metaphor there), the characters damned either no matter what they do because logic doesn't live where emotion rules. But in losing, there's a sort of winning, at least by Puritan ideal, in that victory a condemnation of Puritan leadership. Nicholas Hytner's adaptation is fair, but nothing flashy. Something you might have expected from a TV version, almost, if not for its high-end cast, including Winona Ryder, Daniel Day-Lewis and Joan Allen. In the end, it's their performances and the text of the play that win the day, not the direction.

Netflix: RED was a fun action-comedy flick, and RED 2 is pretty good too, if not quite as strong. The retired assassins are all back, though this time, Mary-Louise Parker is part of the ensemble from the first, addressing the question of whether it makes sense for Bruce Willis' ex-CIA operative to retire from danger when that's a seductive element of how they met. The evolving relationship is at the heart of this film just as it was of the first, and where all the best stuff lies. The ludicrous, convoluted plot would be at home in a 1980s James Bond film, but borrowing from the genre's best known hero doesn't necessarily make it any better, not if we're going to get less super-action gags than the first film. RED 2 comes off as a cheaper, more indolent version of the original film, but it's still pretty entertaining.

Sinister definitely relies too heavily on jump scares for my tastes, but does manage a great, creepy atmosphere with Ethan Hawke comfortable as always playing "obsessive" as a true crime writer who moves his family in a house where an unsolved mass murder took place. Obviously, there's going to be a supernatural element, but I kind wish there wasn't. The film works so well as a paranoia-inducing deep dive into the mind of a serial killer that I think it would have worked better if Hawke's character had been imagining the unexplained phenomena that besieges him. The final act doesn't quite do it for me, in part because it feels like a Torchwood episode I didn't care for, made a few years before this film. The set-up is so good (including the family dynamic and the visiting cop characters who help/hinder Hawke) that it's just too bad it goes for horror tropes at the end.

I have a thing for movies about the radio experience, and though Oliver Stone is a director I really don't like, he can't devalue Eric Bogosian's play based on Stephen Singular's book Talk Radio (is that genealogy clear?) when Bogosian is playing the lead himself. Talk Radio is about a call-in show shock jock who gains the attention of White Supremacists just at the wrong moment, as his show might go national and his ex-wife returns to town to church some emotional sediment. The action of the play/film is the unraveling of the lead's public and personal personas, and if the film incessant talk is necessarily grating at times, it's meant to be. The use of silence in that context is all the more dramatic and shocking when it happens. Yep, radio movies have an inherent minimalism I just respond to, and Talk Radio manages to tap into that.

Drinking Buddies is a drama about relationships where each scene is completely improvised. Naturally, I'm interested. What the quartet of actors successfully achieve, within the director's loose framework, is well-judged realism. They follow the interpersonal chemistry where it leads them, have reactions we recognize as real, and both respond or ignore cues according to their characters' level of cluelessness. The big winner in the cast, for me, is Anna Kendrick, who most seems like a real person, someone not in a movie. The plot is simple, but doesn't follow formula, and is essentially triggered when two brewery employees bring their significant others to a cabin in the woods and sparks fly in the wrong direction. From there, cinematic expectations become less important than actual human behavior, which makes the film worthy of note.

A Picture of You is a small indie film about two Chinese-American siblings cleaning out their recently departed mother's house. Fragments evoke memories of her, but they discover at least one secret that rocks their world and brings a bit of awkward comedy into the proceedings, which otherwise live in the world of realistic drama. If you've lost a parent, you'll probably recognize yourself or your family in one pattern of behavior or another, and I found the film very effecting on that basis. It also highlights how few films present the Asian-American experience (a damn shame). It's a film that could have been made with any ethnicity, as the differences between this family and its white-normative equivalent are subtle, but is so much richer FOR those specificities. I certainly want to see more from writer-director J.P. Chan and lead actress Jo Mei (hey, lead actor Andrew Pang too, who needs to graduate to bigger parts even if we see him often in smaller roles).

Books: China Miéville's Kraken describes a London where old gods go to retire, something out of an Unknown Armies RPG campaign, an urban fantasyscape that exuberantly makes use of every facet of everyday life in some insane magical way. I would SWEAR that some of the Moffat-era Doctor Who stories were inspired by single throwaway lines from this novel. The story follows various factions (and accidental initiates into this world) scurrying to find a giant squid specimen stolen from the Natural History Museum before it's used to trigger an Apocalypse, the writer reveling in plot contortions and convolutions along the way and getting us to a totally appropriate climax, at a place where you're able to forgive any red herrings you might have invested in. There are several characters in this I'm going to remember a long while, I think. Miéville should always be having this much fun; it's infectious.

Theater: Went to a theater laboratory hosted by le Théâtre de la Cigogne (Theater of the Stork) where they presented a "draft" of their newest stage project, after which the audience was invited to discuss what they'd seen, felt, and understood. "Violences" is a series of tableaus (some realistic, some metaphorical) about misogyny and rape culture, what it does to our culture, to both men and women, and how it manifests as punctual or sustained violence. Can't wait to see the finished product down the line, but I thought it was all deeply interesting even at this early stage, and great to discover "accidents" in this cursory staging that actually made the play more interesting for me, and which they'll hopefully integrate. One of these, to give an example, was the limited workshopping cast, which meant a woman had to play several male roles. While it remained ambiguous, the idea that a woman acted/talked like a man (a "boy's club/Trump's bus" kind of man) created an incongruity that immediately started you thinking about how abnormal it all was, which should have led you to the next though - it's not normal when men do it either. Most of the tableaus in fact led you to question societal assumptions, creating an open dialog with the audience (even before the Q&A) without being too on the nose or moralizing. Thought-provoking and deeply effective, I think this troupe has another winner on its hands.

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