This Week in Geek (22-28/01/23)


In theaters: Computer screens as found footage, a missing person's thriller, even the title... When Missing started, I was like, haven't we JUST done this with Searching|? But it's kind of a reverse Searching|, with a resourceful tech-savvy teenager looking for her mom and new boyfriend when they don't return from vacation, and there are enough twists and turns that I was soon enjoying the ride. It also takes more liberty than Searching| did with the editing and moves at a nice clip. Now of course, these movies make you wonder just who has their camera feed reflected at them at all times from their computer screens, but it's a conceit we have to accept for filmic purposes. It did make the scenes where we don't know who's typing more suspenseful, because suddenly, we're thrown for a loop. Generally, Missing is clever with its premise, and the clues, realizations, etc. arrive quickly enough that you're processing them along with the protagonist. You might predict some of what happens, but when it does, it comes off as satisfying rather than tired.

At home: An interesting neo-noir in which fugitives inexorably head from L.A. to Arkansas, One False Move gives equal time to the desperate criminals, led by co-writer Billy Bob Thornton (no one can say Goddammit like he can), and the overenthusiastic  small town police chief working with detectives from the big city, played Bill Paxton is one of his better roles. He's really the main draw here, turning an "aw shucks" character into a Noir lead over time. But does that save him or doom him? I'm less impressed with Cynda Williams' femme fatale(ish), who seems to be playing it as if high on heroin, even though the drug they seem to be taking is cocaine. She's just a little too sleepy. Another bit I found distracting is the small town being called Star City, but that's my comic book brain screaming at me. One False Move plays into some unflattering stereotypes across the board, but as with Paxton's character, there's a surface to be scratched.

An erotic thriller signed Brian De Palma, Dressed to Kill undoubtedly pays homage to Hitchcock's Psycho (a shower scene - a De Palma trademark - the killer's identity, drastic act turns), and it might be true to say, that in terms of his thriller work, De Palma generally picks up where Hitchcock left off. This is a stylish film that uses camera tricks to create suspense and memorable sequences (among them an extended museum "chase"), with a strong cast that includes Angie Dickinson, Michael Caine, Dennis Franz (as a really terrible cop) and Nancy Allen as a murder witness who's next on the killer's list. Though its LGBTQ+ content is unfashionable today, Dressed to Kill is nevertheless rather open-minded about such things, but it was still made in 1980, you know? If there's a weakness here, it's the ending, which suffers from epilogue-itis. One unnecessary infodump seems to have been shot later (note the hairstyles), and the final note is rather elliptical. Perhaps not De Palma top tier, but certainly a very entertaining entry in the second.

Late-era De Palma isn't very popular (anything after Mission: Impossible was pretty badly received), but Femme Fatale starts with a fun heist set at the Cannes Film Festival. After it's bungled, the nominal Femme (Rebecca Romijn) escapes with both the authorities and her partners on her tail and adopts a new identity; a nosy paparazzi (Antonio Banderas) could ruin all her plans. De Palma uses a bunch of tricks we've seen before - split screens, slow-mo, diopter shots (indeed much of this was on show in the similarly sexy Dressed to Kill, for example) - but since very few directors make much use of this photographic vocabulary (at least, in this way), it keeps the picture from seeming like a Greatest Hits album. Romijn impresses with her language/accent skills, but it's hard to get a handle on a character who lies for a living. This one really lives or dies on whether or not you buy the insane final twist. Sure, there are clues that something odd is happening (look at the fish tank early in the film, then after the twist), but it's still rather inexplicable and on a plot level, unjustifiable. THEMATICALLY, one could make a case that lies create a reality, and that Romijn lies so well, she can have an actual effect on it. But does De Palma actually MAKE that case believably? You be the judge.

Duvivier holds up a mirror to French society in 1946's Panique, showing how public hysteria can scapegoat "the other" (recently, it had been the Jews under the Occupation), and Monsieur Hire, who becomes a target of such (as prefigured in a memorable bumper car sequence), is definitely coded as Jewish. And yet, he certainly can stand in for any "other" you might care to name. He's seen as different just in terms of temperament. The trigger is the fatal mugging of a woman in the neighborhood, and Hire falling in love with the killer's girlfriend, who he misjudges (despite being a fair fortune teller, predication a reliable force in the film's universe). Tragedy is in the cards, but for which characters? Duvivier also has a traveling carnival crash the area, and relates the situation to a kind of circus, which is very à propos. Michel Simon, in the lead, is good as usual, but it's Duvivier himself that I discover here. Strong Noirish photography, a dedication to his characters, and an unapologetic point of view - I have to see more.

In Still Walking, Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters) reminds me of Itami's The Funeral, even if the death in the family happened 12 years prior. A memorial brings a family together, many still haunted by this death, and so it's less comedic than Itami's film, except that in the way that observing human relationships can be funny. The main focus is on the estranged father-son pairing, the son a disappointment compared to the ghost who remains unfulfilled and thus unimpeachable potential, too tall for the door frames in his family home, a man who does not fit. Adding to the anxiety is his recent marriage to a widow who already has a young boy, bringing more outsiders into the family trauma. Kore-eda is such a smart film maker. Making the son an art restorer, transitioning scenes with shots of the symbolic family tree, and moments both overt and subtle about aging, creates a narrative that is about family/historical continuity, and presents things that might, on paper, short-circuit that continuity (the death of an heir, the adoption of a boy), but that in reality, do nothing of the sort. Lives intertwined, sometimes cruelly, sometimes beautifully, but as with Kore-eda's usual work, always truthfully.

I'm not big on "true crime" and basically watched Trial by Media's six episodes for their content on how media influenced landmark court cases. Thankfully, when it comes to participants, the focus is on lawyers and their strategies, but the series does indulge in the thing that makes not like true crime, i.e. the exploitation of victims and their families for entertainment. The first episode asks questions about this aspect, but then also does it, even if it's mostly being critical of it. At least it's not all violent crime (there are a couple of fraud cases), so the issue comes up less than it could have. There is some variety to the media effects selected, from television triggering a crime, to the use of cameras in the court room, to lawyers using media to sway public (and thus jury) opinion, and the show more or less leaves you to draw your own conclusions about how broken the American judicial system is and how the media plays into it. But in each case, the crime and trial are well-documented and digested so that, even if we remember them, we're efficiently caught up.

Comics: I finally finished Dark Crisis (and all attended specials and side-series) and for something that had the potential for restructuring the DCU for the next decade, it didn't do much. We've had the Multiverse back for a while and now it's infinite again. Ok. But Earth-0 feels virtually untouched. Even characters you see die on stage are mysteriously alive once it's all over. It does a few things well. One of them is tying all the big crossover events into the Great Darkness (of Legion fame) in a very clever way. It also ties back very firmly to Crisis on Infinite Earths and gives more meaning to the participation of such characters as Pariah and the new Doctor Light. And I personally like how the Justice League were shunted into their own universes, based on their personalities, as reality prisons that felt like Elseworlds. (Always up for an Elseworld and there were some good ones here.) What didn't work so well for me was the never-ending battle between the heroes left behind when the JLA was "killed" and Deathstroke leading Darkness-controlled villains against them. That went on wayyyy too long (and into some of the ancillary specials), and when a love letter to the Titans (well, Nightwing, it's not much about the others) and the A-list's kids (Damian, young Superman, etc.), the writing tends to be more than a little cheesy. Same with the Young Justice mini-series, which has those heroes coincidentally shunted to a world created by a toxic fan archetype that might as well be Superboy-Prime but is actually goofier, where today's more critical fans get scolded for social media comments... These are sentiments very bluntly put, and the writers are preaching to the choir. So in the end, especially with a "New Dawn" branding, I was expecting a lot more from this event, but it looks like maybe the status quo is going to be shaken up only in the NEXT event (Lazarus Planet)? DC is just never gonna get off this event roller coaster, is it? I'm looking to new creative architect Mark Waid to change things for the better, but at this point, Earth-0 might be too far gone...

Books: Torg Eternity's Nile Empire Sourcebook updates the World of the Possibility Wars to the end of its first year, adds a number of new powers and abilities (and therefore archetypes) to the melodramatic pulp Cosm, and gives more depth to the transformed region. All these sourcebooks do this, so how well does the Nile Empire do it? Well, one of its best features is certainly the plot hooks embedded everywhere in the text. I don't know if these have planned follow-ups in "Year 2", or are just left to the enterprising GameMaster to figure out, but I often felt inspired, which is a good thing. Hopefully we DO get answers later as to some of these mysteries, as I think there are elements that are rather quickly referenced and might have deserved more space. I also quite like the dissection of the World Laws (and the added "Minor Laws") by relating how they have affected and continue to affect this theatre in the War. As for new abilities, the addition of Egyptian-style magical traditions - Mathematics and Engineering - provide some interesting color, though it's perhaps more reasonable to think these will be the purview of NPCs. For Miracles, we have an Egyptian-style religion and its spells, which is pretty interesting. But I think players will most likely want to look at the new Pulp Powers, since the list in the original rules was good, but would-be superheroes LIVE on powers lists, you know? (Not that pulp heroes can have that many.) There's also a fair section on traps that will be useful in tomb raiding. Weaknesses? I would have liked more stat-blocked threats - whether super-villains or monsters - and there are too many typos for a book otherwise this handsome.

RPGs: A quick game of Torg Eternity this week, to play out the last Act of The Burden of Glory, and start on the next thing too. The climax was a big fight as Edeinos and their pet T-Rex attack the Hollywood studio base, and that's unfortunate in that I don't mind a big, long fight at the end of a session, but at the beginning, it feels like role-playing takes a back seat for too long. It could have been even rougher, but the players had two things going for them. One was that they'd uprooted the Cosm's hold on the region, making the forces of the Living Land weaker (some of their warriors disconnected and found they didn't want to do this anymore); the other was that they'd befriended an Edeinos from another tribe earlier, and they came to help, mid-battle. Still, it went on a while and reflecting on it, I think the VTT environment sometimes mires us in a "tactical" mindset where all that's possible is what's visible on the map, what buttons we can push, etc. In the theater of the mind, I could well have imagined players thinking up crazier solutions, like running into the base for C4, plowing vehicles into dinosaurs, calling in an air strike, who knows. I'm as guilty as anyone, always forgetting to make villains use Possibilities. Well, Atanakta, the leader of this particular tribe did survive, and with a Nemesis card played on him to boot. So maybe I can engineer a return engagement where he's a little more formidable so he can take revenge on the guy who felled his pet. Yes, a victory (and a major one, on a the global scale), but two of the key NPCs died, one of them right in front of the heroes who never prioritized her survival. Her death is on their hands, in my opinion.

But the brass is impressed and they're given a more high-profile assignment to deliver gear to the Nile Empire resistance, by way of Australia and a seaplane over the Indian Ocean. Then they'll be in a very busy corner of the world (four Cosms really close to one another) and fairly autonomous. Except the plane is diverted to - wait for it - Orrorsh (ohhhh noooooo), because a crucial listening post hasn't been answering. At least it's in a mixed zone (you don't want to be caught out at night - oh geez, is it 8h30 PM already? - in a dominant or pure zone, trust me). Well, it seems the listening post's crew went crazy and violently killed one another. And what's that tower up on the cliff, and why is the only light in the area coming from there? Truth be told, while some of the players always make a big show of dreading Orrorsh, it's one of their favorite Cosms exactly BECAUSE it tends to make them pee their pants. YOU'RE, uhm, WELCOME!
Best bits: The players definitely thought reverting the zone to Core Earth would magically fix everything, but I made a point of showing a devastated world that, for the past few months, was deteriorating under the Law of Decay. There are probably dinosaurs still out there (they used to be Core Earth animals) as well. In the game, Core Earth is never better than a Dominant Zone, and the reason is something abstract about the amount of possibilities. If this much is possible on Core Earth, then vestiges of other Cosms will remain because hey, "anything's possible". I've tied it to the previous campaign instead. In Shiftworld (which this Core Earth technically is), 75 years prior, Core Earth's reality was damaged by the forced shifting from one paradigm to another, resulting in the lack of any Pure Zone. True victory has thus become more of a long shot, and the PCs felt it.