This Week in Geek (21-27/11/22)


In theaters: The Eat the Rich subgenre has given us The Menu, which feels like a culmination OF that subgenre and you do keep wondering when there'll be a cannibalism course. But really it's the service industry workers vs. the Top 1%, and with its one reference to COVID, yeah, we all know what this is talking about. A high-end restaurant for the topmost elite is hosting a dozen rich fleabags who will get a lot more than they bargained for from Chef Ralph Fiennes (who is excellent, as usual) on this particular night. In comes Anya Taylor-Joy as a spoiler, a common girl brought along unexpectedly who could ruin everything. Well listen, twist my rubber arm here. She's accompanied by sociopathic foodie Nicholas Hoult who is kind of tapping the same vein he does in The Great, so lots of laughs in the cinema. Dark humor doesn't always translate that way, but our fairly full theater was really into it. It lampoons privilege, but also foodie-ism, while also making you crave for such a dining experience. I love food movies, and this one is as well shot as they come. So a fun thriller, with a fun solution, and while there are a lot of secrets around the room, there's no sense that we are being force-fed the answers. A lot of the realizations you make about people's connections and identities might only come at credits' close.

At home: Giving off some of the same vibes as the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is a bright, shiny piece of fluff probably shot during the filming of Guardians Vol.3 while the cast, make-ups and sets were available. By SW vibes, I mean that it has musical numbers and Kevin Bacon as himself kind of in the Bea Arthur role, but it's better warranted since Peter Quill dropped Bacon's name as early as Guardians Vol.1 and, y'know, the movies don't take place in another time and place. In terms of soundtrack, James Gunn is on top of it, of course (the inclusion of Fairytale of New York will always score bonus points from me), and that one original song near the beginning is a fun jam. While it's essentially one joke after another and shouldn't be taken seriously, the Special doesn't mind establishing canon, subtly changing some of the character dynamics for future installments. And it does have some heart, though it's sometimes hard to see it during the Drax-Mantis sequences that make up the bulk of the adventure. A lot of giggles around the room, good response to the cuter moments, what else does a Christmas special tying into the MCU need? A lark with some rewatchability value (the music, catching the jokes that flew by too quickly the first time...).

Of all the characters in Rogue One, Cassian Andor isn't the one I would have thought to spin off into his own series. Not with Donnie Yen standing right there, but really, almost any of the characters seemed to me more memorable than the Rebellion's master spy. But it didn't take very many episodes of Andor to prove me wrong. We catch Andor before he joined the Rebellion, in fact before he was ready to give himself to a cause larger than himself, and though his journey is interesting, I was perhaps more intrigued by the events that sparked the Rebellion to the point we see in A New Hope. It's a little crazy to think that the Mon Mothma stuff - financial and political as it is - was a highlight, considering that most people object to that kind of thing in the Prequels, but there it is. We also spend a lot of time with Imperials who feel righteous in their actions. At 12 episodes, it's perhaps a couple episodes too long. There's one of the prison-centric episodes where nothing really happens, and the flashbacks to Andor's childhood in the first three episodes aren't really need. The way new supporting casts are introduced every so often (including a droid that will melt your heart!), one can see Andor's first season as really 4 movies: An origin/intro, a heist, a prison movie, and the conclusion where everything comes together. Each of these has its joys and builds to the next (I say joys, but it's often bleak). If you liked the feeling of Rogue One, it's here. The more covert side of the Star Wars galaxy. Could be a little more focused, but the strongest SW show since The Mandalorian.

A fun little feminist fable set in the Middle Ages, Catherine Called Birdy manages to stay true to the way women were treated in this era, while still function AS a feminist story. Birdy looks young for even her 14 years (Bella Ramsey was somehow 18 while filming!), so the idea of marrying her off to pay off her family's debts seems obscene to the audience, but it kind of is to her parents too, believably so. Casting was paramount, and people are already raving about the lead. I do want to signal some excellent comic AND dramatic performances though: Andrew Scott, Billie Piper and Okenodo particularly, but there are some nice turns by David Bradley, Paul Kaye and Lesley Sharp too. And you need a strong ensemble, because the movie is building a world that has to be as endearing AS the lead. I'm sure the onscreen bullet points on each character are from the book, but when that information repeats in the body of the text, they seem redundant. More distracting though is the soundtrack, which uses modern songs, but aside from the diversity casting (which I have no problem with), there isn't much in terms of anachronisms here. Perhaps distracting is too strong a word, but like the bullet points, it's trying to be a touch too clever instead of letting the material speak for itself, which it totally can.

I'm sure there's a literate comedy about Romeo's jilted first love, but Rosaline isn't quite it. Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart) plays the title character in a Verona where everyone talks like they're in 2022 high school (or their parents), with cool modern music tracks, etc. While its thunder was kind of stolen by the close release of Catherine Called Birdy which has some identical beats (a feminist girl - maybe there's a shade of As You Like It's Rosalind with a "d" in her, or am I giving this too much credit? - in the olden times who refuses every suitor, although in this case, it's because she has a boyfriend on the side), it puts you more in mind of A Knight's Tale in how anachronistic it all is (and perhaps the fact that Romeo's Kyle Allen is a dead ringer for Heath Ledger is part of it). It's still a bit of fun, cleverly playing at the edges of Shakespeare's play, and involving Roseline in events across the entire story, and it's not without its surprises there even if we know the Shakespeare by heart. Rosaline's OTHER romance is more rote and predictable, but what can you do?

Florence Pugh is a nurse called in by a small Irish community in 1859 as part of an effort to corroborate a miracle in The Wonder, a period piece that states its theme as being about stories. The stories we tell ourselves to restructure our narrative, the stories we tell others to avoid the truth, the stories our cultures and faiths are built on, how we will relate our stories and those of others, and with what agenda, and of course, the film itself is telling a story and asking us to go along with it and perhaps question it too. The drama, opposing science and faith - facts and the believed facts of metaphysics, is there a miracle or are we witness to zealotry turned to abuse? - in the case of a girl who miraculously survives months without eating was strong (and initially ambiguous) enough to work by itself, without any directorial tricks, so I question that odd opening sequence and the few bits and bobs that flow from it. I absolutely do not think it was necessary to put the audience in a questioning sort of mood, nor did it do anything with its play on reality vs. artifice except undermine the story it is telling. Fortunately, there's very little of it, and the acting, locations, questions, carry us through.

We're well used to undercover operations based on true stories - how they go, how they're told, and so forth. The Stranger, while still a true story, is kind of the opposite in premise. Instead of a cop infiltrating a criminal gang, the cops pose as a criminal gang to get close to a lone suspect so they can get his trust and learn when he's hidden a body. It's real Mission: Impossible stuff! It also doesn't do that thing biopics/true stories so often do, force-feeding the facts to the audience, having characters make speeches about what's happening and how they feel, and end on info-cards that tell you how it all worked out. Instead, what's happening is a slowly developing mystery (not always successful in its disjointed achronology, at least at first, but it all dawns on you eventually) helped along by more procedural cut-aways, and what anyone is thinking is all done through acting and reacting to situations. Sean Harris (the suspect) and Joel Edgerton (the cop who befriends him) are more than up to the challenge and give excellent, subtle performances. Given the nature of the crime, it could also have been a lot more exploitative, but it's rather respectful of the events and victims instead. Some will find it slower than they'd like - it's definitely not one of those movies you can have on in the background and still easily follow - but for me, it avoided all the things that turn me off so-called "true stories" as told in cinema.

In 2019, Valentyn Vasyanovych's Atlantis imagined Ukraine in 2025, recovering from a war with Russia which hadn't happened yet. It's eerie for that alone, and there are actually similarities between what apparently happened (the film doesn't dwell on details) and what ended up happening in the real world. First off, this is a beautiful film to look at. Sustained shots of activity in bleak landscapes and bleaker interiors, a real play with light and shadow and with spots of color, and some frankly maverick image-making. I have seen ideas here I had never seen before. In terms of story, it's more portraiture than narrative, so the burn is as slow as the editing. But the subject is worthy. War films are common, but films dealing with the aftermath of war are more rare and perhaps more instructive. Its effect on the soldier (PTSD and so on) is a part of this, but Atlantis goes further. Its Ukraine is recovering from the war and that's likely to take a long time (as it will in real life). History has taught us to think of starting and end points. A war is fought until that date and then it's over. It really isn't, and this film asks us to consider the devastation visited by modern warfare. It's about a fictional Ukraine, but it's also Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria... That title? We're looking at a lost civilization, a sunken world. Postapocalypse on our time. It's a mood, a powerful one.

RPGs: This week's Torg Eternity game was a "Day One" introduction to the Cyberpapacy, a Cosm that invades (it would rather say "brings salvation" to France, via a high-tech papal seat in Avignon (which is a great historical touch). The weird mix of Cyberpunk and Crusade/Inquisition era Catholicism is one I always thought original and clever, and by virtue of its science and oppressive regime, it at least felt like one of the deadliest. My players mostly chose stealthy options and running away when possible and who could blame them when almost every attack on a threat resulted in such minimal damage, things must have seen hopeless. It's also one of the hardest to run for me. Cyberpunk is one of my blind spots, I feel, and with all the tech and societal rules, there's a lot to keep track of (including meow-meow beans--I mean, Piety Points, which I barely touched on). In a real-life ironic twist, I upgraded my Foundry and modules early in the morning and then spent the better part OF that morning debugging my graphics card which wasn't up to par anymore. The kind of thing that frustrates me to no end, especially when the game is just hours in the future. So shout-out to the people of the Foundry and Torg Discords for their help. So perhaps no surprise that I felt a little tired running the damn thing, and wasn't as sharp as I wanted to be. That's on me. The players did well finding solutions to their problems and eventually escaped the Cyberpapacy in a runaway train. Other than learning about this strange world, the scenario also introduced the players to reality storms that are on the borders between realities and some of the effects they might have.
Best bits: Some good religious banter and reflection from the Catholic priest and the Wiccan witch in the group. The train engineer, after the other two find their loved one and are ready to go, going "whoah there, aren't you forgetting MY loved one?!" (They had.) And everyone pulls together at the end to connect a locomotive to a wagon full of prisoners and flee, then throwing a third wagon at the pursuing cybertrain while a cyber-angle slices their own train to pieces with a flaming whip.


daft said…
It's nice to see Lucasfilm finally deliver on the promise to tell a varied selection of stories within the Star Wars universe with Andor. Although the flashback sequences to the indigenous culture flirt with unwelcome stereotypes, the immigrant tale overall succeeds in providing additional texture. I'd agree the prison storyline could have been gazetted, but I think it's inclusion was probably a cost imperative given the lengthy non-StageCraft location work delivered elsewhere. I particularly enjoyed the devotion to exploring the bureaucratic 'banality of evil' motif, as it were. Flawed interesting antagonists always seems so blooming obvious when they're presented on screen you wonder why other scriptwriters routinely deny themselves the opportunity to play.

I'm presuming the Torg Eternity introductory scenarios are designed as a basic introduction to the main story arc where the players regularly shift between the different Cosms? It seems like an awful lot of investment for the GM to attend to, it's probably a bit early to tell, but does it feel like it ultimately pays off in storytelling dynamics?
Siskoid said…
Day One provides one-shots (though a couple are a bit longer) with one-off characters that are living normal lives when the storm hits, have their moment of crisis, turn into Storm Knights, and then stuff happens. The point is to teach the settings but also the game concepts to the players AND to the GM (the way it's written is invaluable to integrating the concepts early, and the order of the scenarios works well to ease you in).

My players have enjoyed it immensely and so have I. They didn't spoil themselves, so each new Cosm is either what they expected or isn't, but is meant as a surprise. And once we're done (almost there!), they'll have a better picture of the game world in which to make their own Storm Knights.
Siskoid said…
And of course, there should be some fun had by including the surviving one-off characters in the campaign world afterwards as NPCs.
daft said…
Thanks for the explanation, it's good to here the effort feels personally rewarding as the GM given the additional investiture. :)
Siskoid said…
Clearly, if you're chomping at the bit to create characters and get things going, you might not want to do 10 whole sessions of introduction. I know someone who used this product differently: He introduced some kind of artifact or eternity shard that would quantum leap the ongoing PCs into Day One. It's an interesting notion!