This Week in Geek (14-20/01/19)

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: While I was interested in the court case that defined gender discrimination and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg deserves to be treated as a hero on film, On the Basis of Sex is essentially what that story would be like if it were a movie script. The characters we meet in one situation become important later on; if we catch a conversation about law, you can bet it'll turn out to be relevant; characters go out of their way to mention things that will make good metaphors later; and it sometimes plays as a "superhero origin story/prequel" where the film tries to efficiently explain and set up things that we know to be true today (life isn't that efficient). With a big dollop of sexism on top so even the dimmest in the audience gets the point. As such, though it is well-acted, as a biopic it is neither imaginative nor realistic. And yet, I was moved by the oratory, there's no arguing that.

At home: Watched A League of Their Own in honor of Penny Marshall (given the state of an industry only now giving women directorship of big movies, it's a testament to her ability that they let her do a sports movie in the 90s, female-led or not) and it's as good as you remember. A big, charismatic cast ensures we recognize and distinguish between most of the Rockford Peaches roster - that's an achievement just there - with dependable Tom Hanks never usurping Geena Davis' centrality. Unusually, this isn't an underdog story even if the ladies have to suffer the indignities of the Patriarchy, because they're highly competent athletes. We're really following champions we want to see win, made sympathetic by their personal trials, and the sports story doesn't really go where these kinds of scripts usually do (give or take). So what drives the drama is a story of sisterly jealousy, what it means to be the younger sibling of a star and not being able to shine yourself, and vice-versa, casting a shadow over your younger sibling. Only one of these characters handles it well, avoiding a trite afterschool special resolution. The epilogue feels a bit long, but it's earned, and it's hard not to feel the ol' lump in the throats at various points through the movie.

Though it has low points where it goes after low-hanging fruit (bodily fluids mostly), Get Smart manages to reach my requirements for what I think is a fun action spy comedy, a subgenre I'm fond of. Steve Carrel doesn't try to do an impression of Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, not even in his line readings of famous catchphrases, but brings his own interpretation, and has good chemistry with Anne Hathaway's Agent 99. He's hapless in terms of experience and physicality, but goes the Jack Ryan route, and is a smart analyst throughout. That's important, because it makes the film viable both in terms of comedy AND espionage thriller. They certainly don't skimp on the stunts and explosions. And if you're a fan of the old TV show, there are lots of nods to it, noticeable but not intrusive. It made me want to revisit the original show, and not in a bad way. I.e., not because it only highlighted how the show was better, but rather because it pushed the right nostalgic buttons.

I was holding out hope that crabby David Bradley* would become Robin to Michael Caine's Batman in Harry Brown, a Deathwish story starring senior citizens, but alas, it was not meant to be. It's still a pretty good crime thriller, in which the lead has the element of surprise because no one would suspect an octogenarian of being a badass vigilante, albeit one that's almost always out of breath. Harry isn't exactly an idealized action hero, quite the opposite. But when the estate where he lives is overrun by a gang of thugs, he snaps, using his anonymity, wits and really old training, to take the fight to them. Emily Mortimer rounds out the main cast as the only detective who cares about the situation, and she isn't glammed up either. This is bleak and realistic, though the inner city violence is a bit more intense than the latter epithet would normally grant. I wish more had been done with Harry's interest in chess (the metaphor is very thin), but I do like the ambiguous note the last scene strikes.

Filled with 80s horror references, Mandy puts an art house sensibility on its story of psycho cultists, biker demons, heavy metal sensibilities, and gory (but not that gory) carnage at the hands of Nic Cage (Red) in full freak-out. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the story has more meat on its bones than director Panos Cosmatos' previous effort Beyond the Black Rainbow. The three chapters each have their own tones - art house, straight plot, grindhouse insanity - which somehow doesn't seem jarring, but does beg some questions as to why, say, part 1 shows us scenes that aren't really going to matter by part 3... unless they do. And I think that's why Mandy is such an interesting work. It's at times enigmatic and ambiguous so that, regardless of the director's intent, it can support several interpretations and live in the viewer's mind. To some, it will be the makings of a slasher as heroic protagonist. Or a psycho-sexual journey in which the demons are one's own sins/impulses which must be overcome before doing anything of value. Or a deforestation metaphor, with Mandy Bloom's vegetal name linking her to nature, though she is married with a lumberjack. The film also hints at this world's untold history, which ties into my own theory (from this point, I get spoilery). See, one of the things I don't like is that part of the story hinges on an annoying fridging trope. But it's only really annoying of that's actually what happens. I tie Red's demon-slaying back story to an enigmatic scene in the first act in which Mandy comes out of the lake and Red is stunned, and further, her scenes alone in nature, and her never-explained scar. It may be like this: Mandy is a nymph, a spirit of some kind (which would also explain her "radiance" to the cult leader), and the couple has gone through this before. He is stunned in that flashback because he had seen her die; she's back from the dead, though shows the scar of that death. He feels it might happen again, which is why he wants to leave Crystal Lake, but she likes it there, she is linked to it through nature. So when she is killed, it's in a way that he doesn't think she can come back from, and goes on a rampage - which is perhaps necessary to bring her back, we don't know the rules - and perhaps she will be, though I kind of miss another lake scene at the end where she walks out, perhaps with different scarring. Or does the death of Mandy bring about a personal apocalypse, and her rebirth a new world, perhaps one pulled from a science-fiction novel she's been reading? This is me after a single viewing. I may be overreaching, or I may only be scratching the surface. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

An existential study in alienation, Ingmar Bergman's The Silence is a quiet piece, its three leads - two adult sisters and a young boy - struggling to communicate with one another at what appears to be a crisis time in their lives, though the details are mostly unknown. They exist in a world of impossible communication (a "silence" as much as the silent God of the title), a hotel in a country where no one speaks their language - a sort of vaguely European pidgin, no translation available, though perhaps the kindly concierge is the only one to make real connections - and the imagery supports the theme. Sisters in the same shot but adjoining rooms, people having sex in full view of others as if they were invisible, a bed frame that looks like bars, and so on. Some have remarked that the sisters are facets of the same woman, so it also gets into alienation from the self. Even without that reading - the boy's ambiguous parentage sells me on it - both show the kind of self-hatred that comes from knowing a part of oneself has betrayed us, the younger sister by her basest instincts, the older by her sick body. As for the boy, he feels apart from the concerns of adults. They sometimes fascinate him, sometimes bore him, but he does try his best to decode their communications. Wrapped in what appears to be Bergman's own, often Oedipal, childhood recollections, the film manages to rise above the status of existential tract. The subject matter is bleak, but I do think the last shot carries a lot of hope.

The title of I Am a Fugitive from the Chain Gang is a massive spoiler and it's not until halfway through the film that we leave its road map behind and escape (ha ha) its promise. That said, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the Depression-era prison movie stuff of the first act. From the escape, however, we're in less charted waters and the story becomes more interesting. Ending on a fabulous punchline, the film is a powerful indictment of the chain gang system in particular, and of harsh punitive sentencing in general, questioning the power of the penal system's ability to reform. And then there's the direction. Mervyn LeRoy has lots of ideas for transitions to mark time, place, and mood, which gives the picture an inventive liveliness. And historically, it did what its characters try to do and helped put an end to this brand of inhumane treatment and got a pardon for the man it was based on. Indeed, the state of Georgia felt targeted and reacted in much the same way as the State did in the movie (only with more lawsuits). A great piece of naturalistic social commentary from the pre-Code Depression era.

I could not care less about the romance in Quo Vadis, a big budget spectacular set in Nero's Rome, so the first half drags abominably. I couldn't spot Robert Taylor's character in the crowd of 32,000 extras if you paid me to, and liking Deborah Kerr a lot in other things doesn't not help me get invested in a melodramatic performance as a Christian woman who draws his attentions. I wouldn't call Peter Ustinov's Nero one of the great film performances, but at least he has an interesting character to play with, especially when he interacts with Leo Genn's dangerously insolent Petronius, a Roman's Roman who gets all the best scenes. So from the fire of Rome onward, things get better, but the messaging is all over the place. On the one hand, Christianity is presented as the better ethos (to the point of pandering to its audience), but on the other, the script is quite convinced in the nobility of the Roman ethos, absent Nero-tic madness. It reminds me of Titanic, where the historical elements are compelling, but the romance story feels forced and distracting. The sets are immense and colorful, and there's a harrowing fight between a man and a bull, as befits an epic of this size, but Quo Vadis' achievements are, on the whole, mostly technical.

I was, on the whole, pretty negative about the first season of Friends from College, but I seemed to have forgotten that as I more or less marathoned Season 2. (In stark contrast to the second season of Salvation that I uncharacteristically dropped after 3 episodes because the writing is so horrible, despite my being fairly positive about the first.) I guess 8 half-hours are a lot easier to invest in than longer series. I'm still a little ambivalent about the whole thing and the way it juggles real drama and sitcom plots, but I think I get it now. The whole point is that people change (thus the "from college" title), may be sympathetic one season, and unlikable the next. All these characters are flawed, but I think I kind of like them for it. Bonus points for adding Zack Robidas to the cast as a random boyfriend; his reactions and way with physical comedy are rather fun. Sarah Chalke, however, gets a more thankless role. Anyway, I guess I'm willingly following the characters' best attempt to destroy their own lives.
Role-playing: The BARD&D Yule Time Special. The Tragically Imps are on the road again after few weeks' hiatus, but instead of going right back to the tour, we decided to play the Christmas special I'd planned for the holidays and that we couldn't make happen. It happens out of continuity somewhere. Based on an idea from Planescape's Planes of Chaos set, our bards (plus special guest star DJ Nath, playing one of the Swinging Sistyrs, essentially Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas, but as a Viking chick) are sent to find three yule logs to prepare drummer Orvald's hall for the shortest night of the year... and make sure they have stories aplenty to tell around the fire! Proving your strength before the illegitimate daughters of Thor! Having a magical Battle of the Bands with Bariaur nomads! Fighting evil men for their wood twice as they turn into frost zombies (you know how things get beyond the Wall)! Family, fun, and huddling together in the dark. In other words, Christmas.
Set list - In The Bleak Midwinter (Loreena McKennitt), The Bare Necessities (The Jungle Book), In Summer (Frozen), Santa Baby (Eartha Kitt), Viking Christmas (Amon Amarth), Misty Mountains Cold (The Hobbit)
Battle of the Bands (Tragically Imps vs. The Go-Goats) - Furr (Blitzen Trapper) -> Werewolves of London (Warren Zevon) -> Hungry Like the Wolf (Duran Duran) -> Who Let the Dogs Out (Baha Men) -> Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash) -> Ride the Lightning (Metallica) -> Tubthumping (Chumbawamba) -> Stay Down (Mary J. Blige)

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