This Week in Geek (14-20/05/23)


In theaters: I hadn't realized Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was a period piece (set in 1970-71), but it explained the number of ladies of a certain age in the audience providing a steady murmuring about their own coming of age in that era! Kelly Fremon Craig's Edge of Twelve, so to speak, is a charmer from top to bottom. Abby Ryder Fortson is great as a little girl on the cusp of teenagehood, but in a great hurry to grow up (though mostly to please a new friend who proves to be more immature and only play-acting what she imagines is maturity). As the title (of the book and film) suggests, Margaret also entertains a conversation with God throughout, as a narrative device, yes, but also an agnostic exploration of faith that isn't without some poignancy. Rachel McAdams' comic timing is unimpeachable and who doesn't love the parents in this (Benny Safdie is the dad)? Kathy Bates is, for her part, hilarious in the supporting role of the grandmother despondent over her family moving to the suburbs (which acts as a geographical transition connected to Margaret's physical/emotional one). Funny and well-observed, older viewers will like it as a walk down memory lane, but the themes are universal.

At home: Seven episodes, seven lives. Les 7 vies de Léa (The 7 Lives of Léa) is a gorgeous-looking French mini-series in which 17-year-old Léa finds a long-dead body and then starts travelling 30 years into the past to the year 1991 in her dreams, quantum leaping in the bodies of her parents and their classmates, in order to solve the mystery surrounding this death... and perhaps prevent it? Great needle drops that will inflame the nostalgia of anyone who was young in the early 90s (in '91, I was myself only 20), though I don't remember people being quite this horny. We probably were. Who isn't, at that age? Beautiful locations, too. The show does a very good job showcasing the female gaze, and uses its leaping premise to explore empathy and how a villain from one point of view has things going on that explain their apparent villainy. If only we could live a day in other people's shoes, kind of thing. 7 Lives throws a lot of twists and turns at the audience while still resolving the mystery satisfactorily AND not feeling like it compromised to force trope happy endings on everything. A nice discovery.

Part Battle Royale, part Banzai, but with the extra depth afforded a television series, Squid Game follows Seong Gi-hun (AKA Player 456, played by Lee Jung-jae), a gambling addict known for making bad decisions, who gets recruited for a lethal competition based on schoolyard games, along with a variety of other desperates - a young thief from North Korea, a gangster who took from his boss, 456's childhood friend and corporate embezzler, an illegal immigrant from Pakistan, and old man with a brain tumor, and so on. In the early episodes, there's a sense that these are invulnerable because we've invested time with them both in and out of the game (the show doesn't reduce things to SIMPLY the Survivor premise), but even so, there's enough unpredictability that even the simplest game becomes hugely suspenseful (the tug-of-war even was particularly edge-of-my-seat). A subplot about a cop investigating the Squid Game helps explain what's going on behind the scenes, though it's weakest part of the series (especially those English-speaking VIPs who are terrible actors - the usual for Asian productions using such). The strongest is 456's ethical arc. He was always a good guy, but can he stay ethical in the face of this torture porn competition, and further, will he now start making better decisions for himself and his loved ones? It's engrossing and you start caring for the wider cast as well. Plus, great visuals making use of colorful game iconography, a contrast to the single-minded violence of the game wardens.

Set in a tiny chalk-drawn town, Lars von Trier's Dogville is a minimalist micro-cosm of America (but ostensibly, of humanity) with a hugely talented cast that makes the overt stylism soon blend into an acceptable reality and lose the label of gimmickry. A woman comes to Dogville to hide from the people after her and the town's philosopher convinces Dogville's 15 adults to take her in despite the risk, trying to shame them into putting their values where their mouth is. And over time, the woman, Grace, falls in and out of favor and is sorely abused. It's an allegory. The town is full of "by your bootstraps" American exceptionals, who deny they need help, but end up abusing their one indentured servant. Dogville is discussing slavery (and its legacy) as well as the immigrant experience, and the objectification of women. The people who have served the majority and gotten little out of it except more hardship. In the final act, it spins into Biblical allegory - Grace as Jesus, showing infinite forgiveness in spite of her suffering - but does that mean the American allegory was wrong? I don't think so. It's really about two duelling interpretations of Christianity - what's on the page, at least in the gospels, and the harsh puritanism that came over with the pilgrims - and which is more in line with human nature. It therefore remains an American story. If von Trier exposed how we can overlook evil in Europa, here he shows how we can go one step farther and justify those evils.

Writer/star Abigail Thorn's The Prince starts in the middle of the most LGBTQ+ performance of Henry IV, Part 1, when a confused character walks on stage and realizes she's in a play. Jen and the equally aware Samantha spend the rest of the play (and a bit of Hamlet for good measure) trying to escape to the real world. Their actions start having an effect on the story and breaks the world and its characters in amusing ways. It's a clever piece of meta-textual business, but it really supports the LGBTQ+ issues at the center of the staging by highlighting how people denying their identities are in effect giving a performance (or having to), and the liberation of the leads is a theatrical coming out party. If I've been saying play rather than film, it's because The Prince is very appropriately a play shot on film - theatrical rather than filmic - done in one in front of an audience we can see. If there's a Shakespeare-verse, this is how it's meant to be experienced (with apologies to the Kill Shakespeare comic book).

I don't properly have a theater background, but my improv background means I know a lot of theater folk and what they've been through, especially at drama school. Madeline’s Madeline may just be the most accurate depiction of the toxic relationship that can sometimes develop between actor/student and director/teacher. Madeline (well played by newcomer Helena Howard) is a teenager who has had mental health issues, caught between her mother and director, two maternal figures who are possibly more on edge than she is, but can't admit it. Her very pretentious director wants to exploit Madeline's story, make her feel things in relation to her personal problems, as meat for the play they are workshopping and if you think that's going too far, let me tell ya, it's very much business as usual in drama school, and many more vulnerable students allow themselves to be abused in this fashion while ironically, those who refuse and stand their ground often have more profitable careers afterwards. The film starts with Madeline acting like a cat (Madeline's cat, if you will) for her mother played by Miranda July, the casting of whom seems like a inside joke (at least to those who have seen The Future). But what is Madeline's Madeline? At 16-17, still trying to find herself, trying to meet duelling expectations, playing a role that increasingly becomes like herself, or a third-party version of herself. A lot of this is a metaphor for the way we treat a loved one with mental health issues, putting them in a box that only seems to fit for the uninformed. The reversal at the end is a coming of age revenge of the highest order.

RPGs: In "The Dumas Revelations" Act 2, the player characters hardly had any time to breathe before meeting a cyberwitch in a dark alley, getting info on the Revelation app's imminent threat, and getting ambushed by the Inquisitors tracking them from the previous act's kerfuffle. Big Drama Deck problem at this point, with the cards stacked against the PCs something fierce, which extended the a 20-minute encounter into a 90-minute battle. I may have overdone it on the Setback dictated by the cards, and one of players soaked SOME damage from getting hit by a hovertank's plasma weapon. I've been telling them since the beginning they shouldn't get into fights with the Cyberpapacy's Church Police and I guess this served as a demonstration. But one that ate up a lot of time (live and learn). From there, it's your standard MacGuffin runaround where the witch's USB virus has to be plugged into four relays around the Champs de Mars before finally being deployed in the Eiffel Tower transmitter, while different threats try to stop them at each station. HOWEVER, the PCs DID learn their lesson and tried to find sneakier ways to go around the obstacles than just straight-on fighting (see below), so that's good. In the end, they not only succeeded in destroying Revelation before it sucked Paris into the Cyberpapal reality, but it also served as an audition piece for Asar, our new Rocketeer hero, who the PCs found hard to trust by virtue of the Cosm rules. But now, there's just too much heat in Paris, and the team will have be redirected to Normandy to deal with the fallout from the previous chapter. A Resistance leader was "turned" and now his contact up North is possibly compromised...
Best bits: Our psychic realmrunner is playing the Law of Suspicion well, and almost didn't complete the mission from fear it was another Cyberpapal trick to actually tip Paris to the other side. I'm also quite pleased with myself that when help arrived in the form of characters the players once used in a one-off last year, there was a fear that I had turned them into betrayers. Well, I had, but I hadn't. They were demons in disguise. Sometimes you're right to be paranoid, but wrong about why you should be. while that first fight was a bit of a cock-up, the players did manage to play a Glory card (rolled higher than a 60) which was caught on tape by the NPC drone master who is packaging their adventures as underground films. In other words, anyone watching will be inspired and refilled with Possibilities, which will allow Core Earth to turn the tide more easily in certain areas (where movies are possible). The Rocketeer used his flight armor to good effect, getting in and out of places with ease, and the combat monsters in the group turned their attention to hologram projectors to get rid of GodNet threats more easily than fighting them head on. And then there's the bit where a crowd of Revelation-influenced Parisians were set to defend one of the relays, and our super-powered wrestler staged a mock fight with our monster hunter to distract the crowd while someone else did the computer work. Personally, I'm glad we're transitioning into non-combat solutions as it restores my games' usual balance which has been skewed because of the Virtual Table Top engine more gamist interface.