This Week in Geek (14-20/06/20)

Buys

I've recently purchased The Twelfth Doctor Sourcebook from Cubicle 7. Need to keep that collection complete!

"Accomplishments"

At home: Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods is certainly about THIS moment in time, but he plays a lot of tricks with form that also tells us THIS moment? It's been going on for decades. As four friends go back to Vietnam to find a lost comrade's remains and (uh oh) the government gold they buried in the jungle, Lee fiddles with the aspect ratio, uses the actors as they are in flashbacks (though I do question people who were in Vietnam 50 years before looking this young in the present), and drops in pictures and footage as if this were a documentary. It can be distracting, but works as a manifestation of memory and of course PTSD. I'm most critical of his use of gory file footage and photography to ambush the viewer in what is, despite the added layers of meaning, a heist movie in the style of Three Kings or Kelly's Heroes (with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre thrown in). Especially in the case of the Vietnamese, a people the film paints as brutalized just as African-Americans are, I don't think those images "belong" to the film maker, and just brutalize more. When he talks about the black experience in Vietnam, Lee is on surer footing. I like the specificity that seems denied white-led Vietnam films (and Lee quotes a lot from them, Apocalypse Now chief among them), and a number of subplots find their roots in that specificity. As for the caper, it can be fun, but it's also quite frustrating because one of the guys is his own worst enemy. There's always an asshole in these kinds of things, I guess, and in this case he's the (unlikely) Trump voter. Not coincidentally, because he embraces, greed, selfishness, paranoia and hate, he's going to be the one to derail everything. More than a political cheap shot, this is part of a moral fable about the greater good, and only Delroy Lindo's considerable talent keeps the character from being totally unsympathetic. He's suffering, and he gets a moment of grace at the end, but he's pretty unforgivable. Well, I guess that's up to you.

Wow. The National Theatre Live presentation of Small Island manages to be hilarious and touching in one same moment (several times) and as a piece, it is a balanced mix of comedy and tragedy - I laughed and most definitely cried - focusing on three characters whose lives intersect because of the Second World War - the prideful Hortense who wants to leave Jamaica out of a broken and hardened heart, the well-meaning but awkward Queenie who defies social mores by taking in black lodgers, and the flippant and charming airman Gilbert who was promised opportunities in England after the war but mostly encounters racism and disappointment. Heading for a Dickensian finale, the play manages to juggle a lot of biography without ever becoming tedious, thanks to fun, energetic performances, and wonderful staging ideas. The set design is simple and yet manages impressive effects, but no matter how pretty is looks, it's the characters that stick in your mind, more so, I felt, than any other book-to-play adaptation I've seen from the National Theatre. There's always the danger of over-cramming the stage with novelistic plot points, but in this case, the three hours flew by, and I never got the sense I was watching such an adaptation. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

I'm always intrigued by WWII movies made DURING WWII, especially when the Americans aren't all that involved. Edge of Darkness is the story of a small Norwegian village, occupied by the Nazis, and its Resistance movement. Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan top the cast list, but it's really an ensemble picture in which we get to know resistance fighters, collaborators, German soldiers, conscientious objectors... and they may all be prey to doubt, whatever their initial position is. Its streak of psychological realism and its unusual setting (I feel like this is a forgotten page of history, eclipsed by the later French Resistance) make it stand out. If it's slow to start, setting up a lot of characters and subplots, its third act is filled with poignant moments, sweeping action, and furious extended combat. All those characters you got to know meet their fates head on, on both sides of the equation, and your patience is rewarded in a most exciting manner. At the end is a bit of war-time propaganda that gives this relatively small story its full meaning, pulled from a speech by FDR.

The year is 1933 and the Nazi party has just come to power in Germany. The Mortal Storm is a powerful tale of the rise of fascism set in a small Alpine town where neighbor turns against neighbor when the party rolls in and makes adherence a condition for the pursuit of happiness. At first, there's the tediousness of patriotism, then xenophobic bullying, then (and this is crucial for understand our own times) the suppression of science, and finally the imprisonment of political enemies, witch hunts, and full state oppression. At the heart of the story is a family torn apart by the party, the brothers having joined up, the father and daughter dissenters, and a romance between the latter (Margaret Sullavan) and a pacifist veterinarian (Jimmy Stewart) whose positions become untenable in that climate. I feel like we're used to big picture Nazism, but the movie tells a small story, with low world stakes, about the poison fascism introduces in a small community, where everything was, on a personal level, happy one day, and hate-filled the next. Released in 1940, it's an early warning and call for the U.S. to join the war, but it sadly still speaks to today.

I get the feeling Jim Jarmusch is continually deflating expectations with Mystery Train, including those the title evokes (the train only bookends the film, and what's the mystery?). Each of the three interconnected stories in this anthology features at least one foreign character who eventually has to crash in a seedy hotel on the same night; Elvis is a consideration in each. In each block, we expect certain things to happen because movies and other narratives have conditioned us to expect them. But like the young Japanese couple who are a little disappointed not to understand a thing a tour guide is saying, our own programmed hopes are often dashed. There's no real arcing in the youths' relationship by the end of Far from Yokohama. In The Ghost, an Italian woman is told a weird story about the ghost of Elvis Presley, and later sees it, but is also told it's just a standard pick-up line in Memphis. Sharing the hotel room with a girl down on her luck (and with a very naturalistic verbal tic) likewise doesn't end with us really knowing what happened to the woman's husband. And in the third room, three drunken jackasses, including a Brit who just shot someone, hold the gun that has to go off by morning since we hear it in each story, but the Chekhovian tension is deflated too, and is played off as comedy. And though the three stories have the potential to converge into one last act, the coda instead refuses to have the characters meet even if they're technically in the frame together. This is a case of a film maker understanding how the medium works and turning left when all the rules say he should turn right. It's not unpleasant - to me it's akin to Tintin's The Castafiore Emerald - but more for connoisseurs who get wise to what Jarmusch is doing than the casual movie fan.

Gun Crazy is the same old story - two sharpshooters fall in love and go on a crime spree. Okay, it's not exactly the same old story. It's only like Bonnie and Clyde in terms of strict premise. John Dall's Bart loves guns, but can't stomach killing ANY creature, and his story begins when he is a child and realizes this. When he meets Peggy Cummins' fatale Annie, there are sparks because she's an extension of her guns. But no matter how much you justify them as hobby, or circus act, or abstraction, the function of guns is to kill, and especially once the duo go on their rampage, a gun has to go off sometime. And like the gun, Annie is dangerous no matter how much you try to keep her safety on. It's a tragedy waiting to happen. Visually, the approach and getaway action is all shot from the back seat, giving the film real immediacy, and if these guys are expert sharpshooters, they are very bad at running, and those clumsy, breathless moments add to the realism and excitement as well. I also rate highly the finale in the swamp, gorgeous film making.

Respect where respect is due - Gunga Din is absolutely, totally a precursor and inspiration for the Indiana Jones films, managing the same sense of fun and comedy in an otherwise violent adventure (Cary Grant essentially being a greedier Indy). The morality is black and white, and we're not supposed to take the many deaths very seriously unless we're meant to. Unfortunately, the film is dated almost beyond my ability to recommend it except for its importance to film history, or perhaps for Kipling completists, despite having some good moments, impressive builds, and a good pulpy story ultimately about friendship and loyalty. Possibly the easiest problem to ignore is the unambiguous Colonial point of view, with heroic British occupiers (with variable accents, ooh boy) whereas the locals are either servants or savage cultists. But the black face is egregious, especially in the case of the Thuggee guru and the eponymous water bearer from Kipling's poem. And sometimes the comedy feels a bit forced, such as the punch-spiking sequence, or the way the director speeds up all the fist-fighting action as if we were in a silent Buster Keaton feature. What's THAT all about?

In a way, Murder by Contract is a send-up of the hit man narrative. Vince Edwards' cool, collected killer Claude (how's that for alliteration?) wastes his handlers' time because he's overly cautious but doesn't let on, and when he finally gets to brass tacks, he misses the mark several times, completely discombobulated when he realizes his target is a woman. He's cautious to a fault, but then things go out of control, and you could make a Looney Tunes cartoon out of this, with him as Sylvester and the pianist marked for death as Tweety. Normally, if you tell me a hit man movie is all about waiting, I expect the killer to get frustrated, unravel, but not Claude. He's the one who makes you wait, you and his handlers, a darkly comic double act who don't understand his process or the philosophy he puts into his work and persona. Though apparently filmed in seven days, this "cheap" indie has nice photography and a memorably spare guitar soundtrack that bomps along playing the waiting game until it needs to push the suspense. Cockiness, like crime, doesn't pay though.

Coming at it from the perspective of wanting to discover more of Ginger Rogers' filmography, I was still worried Week-End at the Waldorf would be too much of a remake of Grand Hotel, but no, it's just a similar premise. A big hotel, criss-crossing storylines, a sad celebrity, a jewel thief, a business deal... But the details are all different. For the A-plot, it's really down to leaning into the star's persona. Where Greta Garbo was a melodramatic actress, Rogers is a comedienne and great at impatience and cracking wise. As a result, this version of the idea is much more of a romantic comedy about misunderstandings, with Walter Pidgeon a great foil for her. But it's not touching in the way Grand Hotel is. Skipping right over the dull business bit, the more dramatic romance belongs to Lana Turner and Van Johnson, and though his soldier is about to go in for a dangerous surgery, the vibe is really about PTSD and suicide. They just can't say it outright. When he comes into her office to have his makeshift will notarized, well, her heart goes out to him. It's a bit unfortunate that the plot takes away her choices at the end there, because it would be more powerful either way if she HAD a choice. But Week-End at the Waldorf is just a bit of fun and doesn't reach for more.

The Rashomon of musical romantic comedies, Les Girls tells the same story three times, under oath, but each take is so self-serving, you can't believe any of them, and while the final reveal is cute, it doesn't really resolve things for the audience. What probably bugs me more than it ought to is that there's no reconciling the various testimonies and more importantly certain people's reactions to them. What bothers me just about right though is the dated gender politics, which ultimately seems to say men should manipulate women for their own good. At the same time, the three ladies of the piece are so lively compared to the men (even Gene Kelly who's a bit of a drip in this) that they at least get to put their boys' feet to the coals about it. As a musical, it finds ways to change the tone of each version - romantic and breathless in the first (with a fancy rope dance in there as well), silly in the second (though I could do with less drunken opera), and more dancey in the third. Some good numbers, but not among Kelly's most memorable. Les Girls is perfectly watchable, even amusing, but it's not without its frustrations.

Role-playing: Played the second part of an India-themed Rippers adventure which I'd initially described as Temple of Doom meets Curse of the Mummy, with a touch of The Golden Child, and based on the Savage Worlds: Rippers adventure The Third Hand (I did go off-roading however). I'm still getting a feel for my group, so this was a mix of role-playing opportunities, puzzle-solving, and action, and seeing what worked with whom, I can better calibrate future installments. At least, that's the idea. Without asking, I can already say role-playing is high on the list and so is problem-solving (I've even got a couple who are good at those pesky puzzles). Combat probably comes last, and I thought the first of the two sessions devoted to this adventure was more fun because it had less action per se. One of the obstacles is that there are so many players, combat means your turn comes only slowly, perhaps never, and not all of them have PCs that are useful in combat. Grading my own performance, the first chapter had more NPCs and I had more fun doing voices and bringing them to life than I did running combat, so there's my bias in there too. I should probably mention the climax in which a player used an incantation that made the Hand rip a hole in space-time straight to Kali's apocalypse, which gave everyone the frights (it's good we have a shrink on staff) until another player threw the hand on the BBQ. Remain unconvinced about Rippers' Fright Table, will tweak or ignore in the future.

2 comments:

Ryan Blake said...

Your tippers campaign is intriguing I enjoy hearing about it

Siskoid said...

We in fact had a discussion about who was a Tipper and who wasn't the last time someone made that typo. It's about half and half, divided right on the poverty line of the PCs.

 

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