This Week in Geek (15-21/01/23)


In theaters: I know that The Whale was a play, but I was still surprised at how straightforward Aronofsky's take on it was. I kept expecting it to get into surreal territory, especially with the doom-saying missionary who comes knocking a few times. But he lets it be what it's meant to be, an acting showcase and literate drama, couched (pun not intended) in material pulled from the Bible and, most especially, Moby Dick. Brendan Fraser is incredibly sympathetic as a morbidly obese man, in physical and mental pain, whose heart is about to give out and knows it - that's one of the more obvious metaphors - and is well supported by a strong cast. Moby Dick also brings in the idea of obsession, which translates as both itself and addiction for a number of characters. And then there's a complex interplay of intention vs. result, with contradictory examples of cruel kindness and kind cruelty (epitomized by the monstrously angry daughter played by Sadie Sink), the idea that we can inadvertently cause harm while trying to do good very much at the forefront of the main character's guilt, but he's a victim of it as well. Protection by omission is only one aspect of this, and what we have here is a character who has omitted himself from the world to protect others.

At home: 47 Meters Down in the other direction, Fall is a vertiginous film that, had there been nothing else I wanted to see, I would have experienced in theaters. But I'm not sure I could have taken it. Like The Walk, it gives you vertigo even in the home setting. Props to the actresses for doing it for real, even with 100 feet playing 2,000, as it gives this survival thriller an upsetting reality. Like the best of this subgenre, it's one damn thing after another as plans to get down from a free-climbed, disused television tower are foiled by accidents. What's not so strong is the melodrama, some of which is patently unnecessary, and a late twist that I nevertheless warmed up to. But if you're not a nervous wreck watching this, you're a braver person than I. I found myself audibly gasping and cursing at the lack of handrails in the action, and for that feeling, I wanted to give the movie 3½ out of 5, but having to admit the script's weaknesses (including an everlasting phone battery), sprang only for a 3. Shall we agree on 3 and a quarter?

I'm a big fan of Guy Maddin's and believe Vertigo to be Hitchcock's artistic peak, so The Green Fog, Maddin's experimental remake/tribute to that film was intriguing to me from the premise on. It's a work of editing - the editors are credited as co-directors, which I think is quite proper - using film and television footage sourced from projects shot in San Francisco (except Vertigo itself, aside from its title card) to recreate Vertigo's story. You should either rewatch Vertigo before you watch this, or have seen it so often it sticks in your mind, to get the most out of it, but it is BRILLIANT. Evocative and playful, it recreates the story and the feeling of Hitchcock's original as a one-hour mostly-silent, and you might be astonished to find you can follow it despite the characters switching actors all the time. It's got a fun sense of humor - calls its first chapter Weekend at Ernie's, for example, and the use of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is especially amusing - and might tickle your nostalgia for the sources used. The green fog itself, like a supplementary story layered onto Vertigo - or perhaps a replacement for that film's motif - is the one element I don't find particularly successful. I don't mind it, but it seems to interfere with the experiment. Unless I'm missing something?

An under-appreciated Mel Brooks flick, High Anxiety is a fine spoof of Alfred Hitchcock's oeuvre with a few key parody moments - the shot-for-shot shower scene from Psycho, the monkey bars from The Birds - but generally aims to tell its own story, with its own characters, in a tale that's half Spellbound and half Vertigo. Otherwise, he's quoting Hitchcock's shots, but you're not always sure you'd be able to name which movie they're all from. In other words, a similar formula to Young Frankenstein, but even more distanced from the original work (not to mention the gags that spoof other films). It means it looks pretty cool, and it's a lot of fun besides. Harvey Korman is particularly in good form - I don't think he's given enough credit for his physical humor - and who isn't happy to see Madeline Kahn? If you want to get drunk watching this, however, I suggest you take a shot every time someone asks someone else who they are. Is this a Hitchcock trope that I never picked up on? I don't think it is.

Using only news footage and video shot by the White House itself during Reagan's two terms as president, The Reagan Show documents this game-changing era in politics and lets the audience draw parallels with the more recent "celebrity president", though of course, everyone who came after Reagan (and not just in the States) has had to play by the media rules he established. We tend to think of the "Reagan era" as the policy change that led to the corporate dystopia we have now, but a perhaps more defining change is politics as PR (not to call it propaganda), and arguably, no one did it better than Reagan. The doc presents his presidency as a series of photo ops, and Gorbachev as a rival in terms of celebrity. The media focusing on him having been an actor creates part of this narrative, but he definitely invited it, it was a stratagem to deflect attention from more important things. And lest people buy into the idea that other people were actually in control (and I'm sure many took up the slack while Ronnie was taking pictures, though it probably wasn't on the same level as, say George W.), moments of candor shot by the White House show the nice-guy persona break and reveal the ruthless and callous bastard underneath. Very interesting, especially as it relates to the 21st-Century political media machine that has us in its grip.

Putting cameras in a live group dynamic workshop, the conceit of The Task, was always going to have a Heisenbergian effect, and eventually, the participants start to question whether they can be really honest about themselves while under hyper-surveillance, which is what the cryptic "task" asks of them. If that's what it asks of them. In a way, this is like a reality TV show without staging or cutting away (though we don't see everything, the whole first day is omitted forcing you to play catch-up, etc.) or like a real-life version of those locked room movies like Exam, Circle and Cube. There are really three kinds of participants (the psychologists, or "consultants", are, to me, chaos agents who force chaos and are thus not "unrehearsed"): People who have been in therapy before (whether using the Tavistock method shown here or not) and who therefore vomit forth all the psychobabble available, intellectuals who are trying to figure out the point of experiment and analyze things philosophically or psychologically, and the people who have neither background and are generally confused and frustrated by the exercise. And then there's you, the observer, with a partial perspective and understanding of what's going on, making your own judgements and probably just as equally frustrated by what the participants focus on as "important" and not getting what this is about. But in their place, would we do any better? You might find yourself wanting to interject as if you were in the room, and in that way, it's a rather participative experience. Or you might connect to those who don't get it and just want to leave/switch off.

A passionate eye documentary focused on the Ojibway community of Sault-Sainte-Marie (U.S. side), INAATE/SE/ is a bit of a collage, and while I appreciate many of its parts, I'm not always sure they belong in the same film. The better stuff: Discussions on a pre-colonial prophecy and how it relates to later events, and the white community (and local museum) edifying the missionaries who converted so many Natives (by hook and by crook, as you can imagine) - and I do mean edifying, with the Tower of History acting like a big middle finger to the Great Spirit. I also appreciate the trippy vision quest montage, but it comes late into the narrative, and feels like the film makers were just adding random things to the doc at that point. Less successful still are the interviews with various Natives, in particular the alcoholic gun nut, often without commentary or intrinsic connection to anything else. Some make interesting subjects, but they deserve their own documentary piece and get sort of lost in the frenzied experimentalism of INAATE/SE/. Lots of intriguing bits, and despite its specificity, reaches for universal truths. One just wishes for a bit more coherence.

Mike Leigh honed his method on the BBC's Play for Today program through the 1970s and early 80s, and Hard Labour is the first of those made-for-television films, a look at Britain's lower middle class - a frequent subject - at its most observational. Though we follow her entire family, it's really a portrait of a quiet woman who cleans other people's houses in the morning, her own the rest of the time, and her soul come Sunday down at the church. The film's précis mentions her finally "breaking her silence", but that's an exaggeration. It barely counts. Hers is a life of silent, every-day hardships, where fussing about with the wash is a reflex that covers the tedium found at the margins of anything remotely exciting (which is still better than being shouted at by an aging husband at home). She lives (and cleans). We watch (and get dirty). If you didn't recognize an actor here and there (including a young Ben Kingsley in a small role), you'd be liable to think Hard Labour is a documentary. The audience shows more interest in Liz Smith's housewife than anyone has ever taken in her in her own universe and that's unfortunately a very common tragedy.

Alison Steadman and Roger Sloman in Nuts in May might be the first "Mike Leigh characters" in his canon of work, which is to say slightly dim, somewhat tedious, ordinary people whose eccentricities push them into the realm of comic pathos. A couple on a camping trip, Keith is a walking guidebook and self-righteous nature lover who seems to stifle the guileless, whiny Candice Marie who nevertheless has bought 100% into his conception of the world. They are quickly irritated by other campers, but are irritating themselves, and the film plays with themes of how a certain thing, in a slightly different context, is objectionable or not to them. It's ultimately quite charming, though it could have used a tighter ending. But while this Play for Today has a different tone from Leigh's previous Hard Labour, it still has an observational style and we just happen to watch during that part of the holiday and leave when our time is up. I guess it's the fact that the original program called them "plays", but watching these, I like to imagine them staged in a theater, and that activates my theatrical brain cells. In this case, we'd lose the Dorset locations, but I think it would still work. After all, Keith is always telling us what we're looking at. He's that guy.

Unlike Leigh's previous Plays for Today, Abigail's Party actually started out as a stage play, a successful one, and was recorded for television abridged and with replacement music the BBC could afford. And it LOOKS like a play, with an open fourth wall, a sitcom kind of look, and likely shot with very few cuts. In Leigh's canon, it looks strange. Also strange, at first, is that Leigh regular Alison Steadman's character is called Beverly and she's the one throwing the party. We'll come to realize that Abigail is the daughter of one of the guests, an unseen teenager throwing her own do, and the catalyst for the cringe-inducing malaise that sets in at the adults' little get-together, inspiring conversation and the poor mother's anxiety. Leigh's comic characters often come off as a little extreme, but I think it's often because they are "playing" for others. Their particular collection quirks is a facade they have clumsily built as an interface with others. There's something to this in Steadman's performance, and in Janine Duvitski's thoughtless Angela. The general facade keeps us from knowing the involved backstories developed by the actors in rehearsal, which is an innate irony of this little "getting to know you" gathering between neighbors. The cringe is funny - Tony's mono-syllabic answers, Sue squirming in her seat - but it's all heading for an explosion, kind of like a middle-class Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof?, though not necessarily on that level. The idea is more of an examination of new middle class ambitions falling short.

In The Kiss of Death, Capaldi-lookalike David Threlfall is Trevor, a young man with no real experience with girls, set up with one by his best mate's girlfriend who, frankly, has had enough of him playing third wheel. Her own boyfriend is only barely less feckless. This is probably relatable to as many men as women. The ambivalence of being with someone you didn't really choose, who is "leading the dance" so to speak, intimidating, but also opening the door to experiences you don't have, but perhaps fear out of potential humiliation. Or on the other side of the equation, the frustration provoked BY that ambivalence. We're not really in Trevor's head because he's rather subverbal, so like many Leigh films, it's about picking up the clues from mannerisms and expressions. And for a director I'd call the chronicler of people with downturned mouths, Kiss of Death is lighter by virtue of seeing a lot of smiles, some expectant, some shy, some nervous to the point of disaster, but smiles nonetheless.

I've read that because Mike Leigh takes aim at Yuppies and an emerging UPPER middle class in Who's Who, it doesn't work as well as his working-class material. While I don't dispute that this one isn't as effective as his other work, I don't think that's what's going on. To me, Who's Who is a lot like Abigail's Party in that it dramatizes people who WANT TO BE of a higher class - are indeed desperate to - but keep exposing themselves as less than. And of course, that's THEIR judgement call, not mine, nor even Leigh's. Britain's class anxiety is a kind of anorexia, all in the minds of those who care about this. If it doesn't really work, it's that while characters are connected through the brokerage firm many of the characters work at, the groups don't really have much to do with one another. Most effective is Richard Kane's tedious fan of the upper class, with his cat-breeding wife at home (the metaphor is clear) and an insolent, very young, colleague at work. Accessing a higher class has passed him by, and there's tragi-comic pathos to his obsession. The Yuppies themselves, however, might still have a shot if they socialize with the right people, but they are a largely insufferable lot, acting the parts they want, but coming off as pretentious and gauche. And the more time we spend with them (especially Catherine Hall's irritatingly flighty Samantha), the more I want to get back to Kane's household.

Mike Leigh's last Play for Today is the sarcastically-titled Home Sweet Home, a sad comedy about three postmen and their dysfunctional households - two couples you have a hard time imagining ever got together in the first place, and a father/estranged teenage daughter pairing (we never really understand why she's been put in foster care, which provides some tension). Working class status as a prison. Characters long for escape and get it where they can - trashy novels, sex, even routine - but like these relationships that feel like they were forced upon them, there's no getting out. And no real ATTEMPT to get out. The flirty wife teases, but doesn't commit. When cheating is exposed, the situation doesn't really change. And the father who gets consistent visits from social services doesn't seem to have much of a stake in what will happen. This is all about agency and feeling that one has none, letting things happen. And if we need to give the postmen an ironic turn, it's that they never completely get the message that they are making their wives/daughter unhappy.

Books: Marc Cushman continues to debunk "fan wisdom" about Star Trek in These Are the Voyages: TOS Season 3, in particular that it was cancelled due to low ratings, and in this particular volume, tracks how the show's quality went down and reassesses incoming producer Fred Freiberger's decision-making. He proves to be as controversial a figure as Roddenberry, as vilified as the Great Bird was deified, and in both cases the facts fall somewhere short of that. All in all, it's NBC that comes out looking like the villain. Cushman also adamantly wishes to reassess the season's offerings, mounting a defense for some of its stinkers, but also taking potshots at well-regarded episodes like The Enterprise Incident(!). Dude has to get over his personal nitpick about aliens speaking English. As with the other volumes, this is a great behind the scenes resource, especially in regards to the the writing process. These particular producers didn't like memos as much as the original crew, but there's enough to satisfy the reader. I thought at first it was doing a better job of detecting and removing typos, but as the series' quality starts to wane, so does the proof-reading and editing. My main criticism is that there's entirely too much information reiterated 2-4 times in the body of the book, and too many redundancies sometimes on the same page. While it doesn't take away from the value, tighter editing was required.

RPGs: For the characters' first mission, I selected a Torg Eternity convention-ready scenario called The Burden of Glory because it contained a number of elements I either hadn't introduced yet (in the preliminary one-shots) or wanted to reinforce - the Living Land (only half the players had been there), requisitions, nightmare trees, how Glory works, uprooting stalae, Eternity Shards - but I changed the where, the when, and plugged in elements that I wanted to carry over from the previous (GURPS Shiftworld) campaign. I also felt that it was a good shakedown cruise for the PCs, giving them challenges equal to their abilities, if only they learned to work together. So they are assigned as the back-up team defending the Hollywood hardpoint from Edeinos attacks, but Alpha Team doesn't return from scouting a Wonder, and they are called to action to go and uproot a stela, one of the objects that holds the Living land reality in place over the Los Angeles zone, after another team has filled the zone with hope (a requirement, lest you erase ordinary people from reality). But then they learn two things. 1) A large Edeinos army is walking towards Hollywood and 2) the nearby Wonder might hold the key to changing the course of the War. It was all about giving the players a choice that would carry a sacrifice no matter what. If they uprooted the stela first, the Wonder would disappear. If they uprooted the stela last, it would be a pointless exercise because a back-up would have been installed. If they went home to defend the hardpoint last, how many casualties would be on their heads? This was also important to me, that they learn very early that their actions matter and that I am very open to their changing the course of the war, the map of Core Earth, and so on, deviating as required from the setting as described in the sourcebooks. I think they chose the optimal order. But these are players who take their roles seriously, so they are almost their own enemies. One is focused on the mission orders and gets arguments from the others. Another is such a condescending jerk that he can't easily convince anyone of his ideas, even if he IS the best-informed. One is so haunted by the hag that came to him in his sleep as a boy that he refuses to enter a temple overrun by a nightmare tree, and almost falls to corruption through his passivity. And the other is a happy-go-lucky super-wrestler, so he's probably going to be okay, right? Anyway, we didn't finish the scenario, which I kind of knew would happen if they made every pit stop, but they've rescued a powerful artifact from a lost temple that seems to have been an Atlantean interdimensional craft infected and destroyed by Orrorshan corruption (plus all that back story), AND uprooted the stela and returned the L.A. zone to Core Earth. But can they get back to Hollywood in time to save the studio from being overrun?!
Best bits: The Horrorsaurus (a corrupted T-Rex) was a dangerous early danger, only defeated when it was maneuvered over a charge of C-4, which blew a hole in its belly which the characters then threw grenades into. The temple being under Orrorshan rules, when the players themselves are deathly afraid of ever stepping foot into Orrorsh, provided some good tension. The super-wrestler was fighting an undead humanoid scarab (a Lorbaat) when his dice exploded and he pulverized the thing with 45 points of UNARMED damage. And when simply providing support for uprooting the stela, the haunted cyborg had his own dice explode to the point where a Glory card could be played (and was) - a rare occurrence indeed, but kind of poetic since the whole adventure was predicated on some unseen NPC team having done the same. So the PCs somehow "earned" their chance to uproot a stela even if it was originally just a conceit.