This Week in Geek (25-31/12/22)


Christmas gifts that fit the geekly realm? Sure! Marty got me Marvel Meow, Josée got me a couple of Doctor Who shirts, Nath a Shaw Bros. one. Isabel found a tiny Hard-Boiled pin I once lost (can't believe there are two in the universe). And Shotgun got me some Star Trek socks (all three divisions).


In theaters: There will always be Hollywood movies about Hollywood and I'll always find them to be navel-gazing, but those of the present era feel like they're motivated by film makers panicking over streaming taking over from theaters. I feel it in Damien Chazelle's Babylon, which is essentially a tribute to, and partly a remake of, Singing in the Rain, but set in a more realistic, debased, decadent Hollywood, as the silent era gives way to sound. Stars of one format have trouble staying relevant in the other, and so the end of THAT era must also stand in for other endings - from black and white to color, from practical effects to digital, from 2D to 3D, and yes, from theaters to streaming if it must come to that (so is Chazelle writing a defense or a eulogy?). I could have done without all the bodily fluids, but his Hollywood is a dark, disgusting, immoral place that nevertheless holds a fascination and is bathed in a golden light. And so the epilogue answers the question: What was all this terrible stuff FOR? Which begs another question: Was it worth it? We know Chazelle's answer, but what's ours? The story hangs on four people whose stars flare and wane with the times, none so captivating as Margot Robbie's actress against whom the Hayes Code could have been specifically written. Diego Calva's character, on the crew side of things, is the heart of the film. Both Brad Pitt (the big star) and Jovan Adepo (the jazz musician) have good-to-great moments, as does Li Jun Li (a multi-talented performer), but the movie's big speech goes to Jean Smart's gossip journalist/critic, always lurking in the background, in a dangerously exalted position to comment. I didn't really feel the 3-hour length because there's so much happening, lots of memorable scenes, and definitely a crazy energy (it's told like a gangster epic). As usual, Chazelle brings it all in at the end, but Babylon is perhaps too messy - by design - for his grace note to work as well as it did in previous films.

At home: I am normally bored with the straight biopic, but love it when the style matches the subject. Weird: The Weird Al Story can't really be called a biopic at all, however, as it has more in common with "writer lives their own work" movies like The Man Who Invented Christmas, Naked Lunch and Kafka. Weird Al is a parodist, so his "biopic" is an insane parody OF a biopic, taking pot shots at exactly those tropes I find trite and boring in "true stories", especially those repeated memes in music biopics, with recognizable scenes stolen from Bohemian Rhapsody, The Doors, and others. The most joyful thing about Weird is that it is filled to the brim with cameos playing, well, cameos, celebrating weird artists across various media. The better moments are those that plainly never happened because it's outrageous to pretend they ever did (but it's fun to dig a little deeper and find the kernel of truth behind the ideas). But ultimately, it DOES make use of the tropes I hate, so even if it's laughing at them, I'm still sometimes impatient with the movie (much as I was with all the scene changes in Weird Al's live show, which I attended a few years ago). Weird does use the songs well, and it's certainly not shy about using the accordion in its score. In a related comment, listen to the new song Al drapes over the credits, it's worth it for more jokes.

Set in Fascist Italy - because of course it is - Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a beautiful and well-designed - of course it is - stop-motion extravaganza loosely based on the 1883 fantasy novel. Gepetto, reeling from the death of his own son, recreates him in wooden effigy while in a drunken frenzy, and... well, just from this opening you can tell it's going to be an "adult fairy tale". Del Toro doesn't pull any punches in terms of characters being killed, for example, though the camera often cuts away when a "hit" happens. His designs are slightly creepy and tend to horror, in the same way many of older fairy tales do. But it's by making Pinocchio an immortal construct (who wants to be a real boy, and therefore mortal) that he seizes upon a most intriguing theme - the value of life in a mortal world. The war time setting there takes its full depth, and that final line (at least before the in-credit number) really brings it all together, a final gut punch that made me raise my evaluation a notch. Pinocchio is an annoying brat, that's always going to be a component of this story, and the singing voices are only middling, so I won't remember this as a musical, but the movie definitely enchants, dazzles and ultimately, hits you in the feels.

I get what Four Rooms is doing - even without Tarantino putting a big, unnecessary neon sign over it in the fourth act - an homage to the goofy comedies of the 60s, specifically Jerry Lewis', but did anyone think to ask if we still wanted stuff like that in the 90s (or today)? Four very modern writer-directors trying to do this kind of shtick... It might even have worked if Tim Roth weren't doing a weird cartoon performance, often at odds with the rest of the material. He's a Jerry Lewis character out of time, and though he has his moments, especially once his polite facade starts to break over this insane New Year's Eve, it's mostly distracting. Each of the directors brings at least one of their alumni with them - Allison Anders has Ione Skye (Gas Food Lodging), Alexandre Rockwell has Jennifer Beals (In the Soup), Robert Rodriguez of course uses Antonio Banderas and Selma Hayek (see if you can spot her), and Tarantino has an uncredited Bruce Willis and, uhm, himself. To evaluate each segment, the first is the best fit - in terms of tone and humor - for this attempt at pastiche. Anders has the bellhop interact with a coven of witches, which feels like a missing chapter of Anna Biller's The Love Witch. Rockwell's absurdist scene in which the bellhop walks into a strange marital(?) situation works for me, but is the one most hurt by Roth's mugging. Rodriguez's segment, in which the bellhop must babysit two misbehaving kids is by far the best - think Spy Kids, but the trappings are crime pictures like Tarantino's (look at that foot-smelling bit and tell me Rodriguez wasn't taking the piss out of the movie's producer!). And finally, there's Tarantino playing a rich movie mogul, and though it's well done (especially the final moment), it's the thinnest of the stories and isn't in the same league, narratively, as the others. In this grab bag, only one segment works as a short story, two feel like they should be scenes in longer movies, and the last is just an indulgence.

Imagine living in a time when Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant could team up twice in one year - in Bringing Up Baby and in Holiday! The latter makes me think about plays adapted into films and how it can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it often makes for literate comedy or drama, and often pushes the boundaries of what's acceptable in a Hollywood movie of a certain era. In Holiday, Hepburn evidently suffers from mental health problems, her brother is an alcoholic, etc. On the other, it can feel "written" and hyper reality (the special effects of the stage) sets in. While Hepburn burns up the screen with an emotional bipolar performance, what she's given to say, while witty, almost pushes things into melodrama. But it still succeeds as a kind of romcom that veers into more serious material. Cary Grant is a free spirit who falls in love and wants to quickly marry a woman who turns out to be a rich heiress and somehow, that's not Hepburn, but her sister! He finds himself at odds with the patriarch's values, dramatizing the American Dream's paradox of freedom by way of workaholism. New Year's is, in fact, the perfect holiday for these events as he finds himself at a turning point. I also want to mention Edward Everett Horton, who I've often criticized for over-playing the comedy, but here shows restraint and turns in one of his funniest performances.

Alex Guinness's Mr. Bird is given a death sentence by his doctor in Last Holiday, so he heads out to spend all his savings at a posh hotel in a resort town, his last remaining days intersecting with the lives of others, and coming upon a mix of eerie reminders of his mortality, and extremely good luck he can't possibly make use of. The subtle satire of it is, opportunities breed opportunity, and only by acting the rich man does Bird finally get ahead in life. The lesson is more overt: Live life, for caution is a cage. But then there are examples to the contrary in the film as well. Temperance, then. Neither too frugal, nor too opulent. But Last Holiday won't let me get away with that either. It's a comedy except when it isn't, and Fate is fickle indeed. A common man's window into the world of moneyed men and women, their hypocrisies and "first world problems" turns into an attempt at finding what's really important in life and how to best live it. Guinness is up to the task - and well supported by his cast - playing the truth sayer who you really want to see pull through. As to whether Fate decides this is a comedy or a tragedy in the end, I'll let you discover.

I was told 2006's remake of Last Holiday with Queen Latifah wasn't half bad, so I felt compelled to compare it to the 1950 original. It's the American version, so everything is bigger, splashier, broader, more sentimental, and less subtle. Despite being longer, there's a simplification at work. Our Ms. Bird mostly interacts with the same few people (most of them bundled into a single party) and whatever changes she might effect on them isn't really part of the story. It's not a bad change, given that some of the subplots were a little cursory in 1950, but we've seen the evil businessman a hundred times. It also lacks the original's edge (I'm not surprised), which still shouldn't have driven the film to such a corny ending. Queen Latifah is charming enough as the common person's hero without the movie having to resort to such silliness. So it's the loss of subtlety that hurts it the most. It retained some few details from the original, but not enough of them, and lost some of the more intriguing themes as a result.

With every fan of the Jack Reacher book series up in arms about how miscast Tom Cruise was in the movies, the Reacher series (no Jack, presumably because Prime also has a Jack Ryan series) had a vested interest in making its protagonist a huge hunk of a man. Alan Ritchson fits the bill (to the point where early on, there was something of an uncanny valley for me and I wondered if he was a digital construct), but I'm not entirely convinced by his acting ability. It works for the character, but a smoldering intensity does a lot of the work, and more texture and comic timing could have enhanced the performance. These first episodes are based on the very first book, Killing Floor, and I guess they aren't doing them chronologically regardless as season 2 has been announced to adapt Book 11, but this opening shot, at least, is a lot of fun. Reacher walks into the most corrupt town in America and gets to killing bad guys when the stakes actually get personal. The action is pretty legit, the supporting cast is engaging (it's a shame Reacher's wandering ways won't keep more of them around), the comedy works well, and the mystery is interesting (even if I didn't necessarily keep all the character names straight at all times). I'm well game for a second round of these.

RPGs: It's always fun to run a Holiday-specific game, and as we gear up for a full-on Torg Eternity campaign, the Holidays were also the perfect time to run one last one-shot that reminded everyone (and for some players, introducing) all the Cosms. My inspiration was a Festive Cosm Card Pack offered by Jay Rutley on the "Infiniverse Exchange" (where you can put out open license material for the game) - each of 8 cards with a Christmas theme, one per Cosm. Well, how do I use them all in a single session? I decided to design a scenario for Santa Claus (a jolly old elf from Aysle) and his transformed elves (Corporate Elf, Cyber Elf and Lizard Elf - the elf players chose their own Cosms for this - representing different attitudes on Christmas, whether commercial, religious or pagan, respectively). They would have to go all around the world delivering gifts, stopping to "play out" any complications (again, one per Cosm) and in their hands would each have 2 Festive Cosm cards, their own and another. I made several of these cards "possible solutions" to some of those complications, and voila, we were all set up for a night of kooky - BUT CANONICAL, OH YES, belief has made these characters POSSIBLE for that one night - holiday cheer. Having chosen to start the Possibility Wars on April 1st of a Near Now year (2025?), and the campaign on Day 90, Christmas Eve will fall on Day 268, which means the players will have to wait a while to see what effects their Christmas adventure (titled "Silent Night, Stormy Night") will actually have had. The big tent pole events included fighting off chain wolves kidnapping children out of a mutant camp in Tharkold's Blasted Lands, installing a Taste of Freedom app in the Cyberpope's Bible during Midnight Mass, and leaving a lump of coal in the Gaunt Man's stocking (the fear was real), while smaller complications involved finding perfect gifts for hard-to-buy-for heroes and giving hope to the oppressed. A side-effect was the ability to introduce a couple concepts I could use later, but weren't in the Day One intros, like dimthreads, the Mystery Men, and the GodNet. I might write it all up some time and put it on the Exchange myself.
Best bits: Well, the WEIRDEST bit is no doubt the Edeinos Lizard Elf singing Christmas songs to keep the darkness at bay, like, all the time. It's something that came unprompted, but somehow, I had notes prepared for "singing solutions", such as putting the Gaunt Man's banshee lover back to bed and "activating" Rutley's "Silent Night" card. Other great player ideas include getting through the final GodNet checkpoint by pointing out that Santa Claus is a veritable SAINT (which I hadn't thought of, so of course I gave them a pass on that combat), the candy-cane flavored wetware was theirs as well, and bringing Rudolph into being through sheer belief (+ Silent Night, which can remove a travel hazard, like the thick fog making gift delivery impossible). The Krampus moment was also a fun, but all-too-brief, moment.
Missed opportunity: Given that gifts were brought to castle defenders in a trench, sitting opposite an enemy trench, it would have been fun if the players had evoked the events of Christmas 1914 and made a football match happen, or something, but alas.


Corporate Elf said…
Funny, I remember thinking of Christmas 1914 during the Aysle scene. You must have adequately hinted at it somehow.
Siskoid said…
That was the inspiration, but I should have made you stick around a little longer somehow, maybe it would have sparked an idea. Not sure the Lurks would have played soccer, but maybe you could have done something to hurt their cause, not just help the allies. Not a problem because we had to get a lot done in one night, but you know.