This Week in Geek (17-23/09/23)


Having finished Saints Row, I looked at sales and picked up Control for cheap. I need a new sandboxy kind of game to make mud cakes in (or whatever kids do in a sandbox, it's been a while). This one's more serious than my usual, but really weird. Bookwise, you might get reviews of some of my favorite authors' works in the future, like Julian Barnes' Elizabeth Finch, Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, and China Miéville's Looking for Jake.


In theaters: A Haunting in Venice (AKA Halloween Party Remix or, How Poirot Got His Groove Back) is a spooky Agatha Christie mystery signed Kenneth Branagh that Agatha fans will probably condemn it for being inspired by the original story, but changing everything about it. Personally, I think that's fair play when dealing with one of the lesser known mysteries. Branagh's Poirot isn't quite as eccentric in this one as he was in the others, currently retired and suffering from PTSD. His old friend - and Agatha Christie stand-in - Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) means to shake him out of it and invites him to a seance he can debunk. And of course there are murders, both past and present, to solve. It's really played as a spooky ghost story, with strange visions, a decaying house (did the Ushers ever own it?), creepy shots of birds and sinful apples and such, but surely, there's a reasonable explanation for all this. Branagh and Fey are funny together. A lot of the characters are mirrors of Poirot's own aspects since this is really about him suffering from a personal crisis and reconnecting with himself. As usual for this film series, the mechanics of the drawing room reveal are iffy, this time seeming rather abrupt. It's gonna get some slack for literary inaccuracy, but I thought it a fine seasonal entertainment.

At home: I'm not sure Nobody would play as well if one hadn't seen John Wick. Though played for straight, there are Wick riffs in here that work as "spoof" and draw a smile, that otherwise might just register as strange. So it's quite on purpose pas that the villains are Russian mobsters, that the information broker works out of a normally innocuous business, and that our hero returns to the life of an assassin after a home invasion, but in each case, there's a punctured balloon that makes the narrative slightly more ridiculous and therefore humorous. One bit of natural cognitive dissonance is that our Baba Yaga analog is played by Bob Odenkirk who feels like an amalgam of John Wick, Jack Reacher and John McClane, doing all this deadly action, but definitely not invulnerable. But if you think about it, he's probably much more realistic casting than Keanu Reeves for such a thing. So what if Wick had managed to get out of the business and lived a simple life for 15+ years? And THEN, he accidentally crosses someone from the old life? What if the gangsters drove like I do in video games? What if your only allies in this fight were your aged dad (Christopher Lloyd) and a ghost on radio (the RZA)? The movie builds its characters up even as it takes them (and all their inspirations) down, and it's a hoot. Fun soundtrack too. So while this derivative of John Wick, it's got its own tone (love the mundane life montage at the top), its own style, and its own story to tell.

Came to The Unusual Suspects for Miranda Otto, who plays a monstrous girl boss you want to slap hard, but stayed for Aina Dumlao, who is the heart of this "Real Housewives becomes Heist" Australian 4-parter as her abused Filipino nanny. There are many more characters involved, of course. The heist plot, though foreshadowed early, isn't really the point. The clash of cultures and classes is the point. On one end, the spoiled, rich, entitled Syndey suburbanites. On the other, the Filipino servant class, toiling unseen and unappreciated. Good on Otto to actually make her heel turn believable, as women from both sides of the class divide join forces to stick it to the men, and the system, who wrong them. A big fiasco is in the offing, but this is a comedy, so it's endearing too. Plenty of twists and turns in the plot, but also in the character development, creating a stark contrast between who people are and who they think they are. Fun stuff.

When you know director Bruce Beresford for Driving Miss Daisy, Money Movers is a real shock to the system. This raw little Australian heist picture about armored car drivers borders on the procedural, and is at least as much about the security business as it is about the would-be robbers (Bryan Brown from F/X is one of them). The gritty naturalism is sending us headlong into a fiasco too, as the boys advance their plans after their company starts to scramble after one of their cars is hit by a deadly hold-up. So now they're under pressure to carry out THEIR daring crime before new measures are put in place, also dealing with new personnel and old criminals taking an interest. Heist movies are often fun, this one rather feels desperate and gloomy. And for the first hour, you're probably wondering who all these people are, what their agendas might be, and also, what they're saying (the naturalistic sound is often hard to parse).

In Takashi Miike's First Love, a young apathetic boxer and a broken girl sold into indentured sexual service to a drug dealer are on the run a couple guys try to steal the latter's stash and everything goes tits up, with various criminal gangs converging on the framed kids. It's a wild little chase and Miike, as usual, knows how to hurt and kill his characters in ways that are clever, original, and humorously disturbing. It's not top-tier Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer, 13 Assassins), but it's extremely entertaining, and of course, visually very cool, with its neon-drenched streets, hyper-violence, and even a bit of animation. It's also intriguing how the "first love" in the title really isn't referring to the two leads despite the growing closeness you can expect from such circumstances. For him, it's boxing, but he has yet to really connect it to a passion. For her, it's a boy from school who represents her life before everything went to hell.

Takeshi Kitano's follow-up to Violent Cop was Boiling Point (nowhere close to the Japanese title, which is a baseball score), a rather confounding film, with its sleepwalking protagonist and over-long baseball scenes. Masaki is terrible at baseball, and perhaps even worse at being a gas station attendant. When he insults a yakuza - and in the 90s, the modern Japanese gangster was largely portrayed as an overgrown bully - he's in for some trouble and in trying to secure a gun for protection, meets Takeshi's psychopathic character, hangs out, violent stuff happens. While I wasn't sure what movie I was watching anymore, this was still where the narrative started coming into focus. I admit to finding the back and fourth between young Masaki and the yakuza subplots hard to follow in the first half of the film. The confusion may or may not be justified by the elliptical ending, I'm not sure yet. In the final analysis, Boiling Point creates a number of memorable images that have me recommending it, but I think this is the kind of movie you need to watch more than once to properly appreciate.

In its initial scenes, Miracles, AKA The Canton Godfather, has you thinking its rags to crime boss story would be a riff on The Godfather Part II, but it was apparently inspired by Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well, itself inspired by Shakespeare's Hamlet... uhm, let's just say Jackie Chan got us pretty far from the source material. Jackie is in his prime though, with amazing fight choreography highlighting his talents, and yet, its focus is really on the comedy plot (I can already tell action fans will be annoyed). Jackie lands in 1930s Hong Kong and is accidentally minted boss of a particular criminal gang (which suits some of them because he can be manipulated and the target is on HIS back), but he endeavors to do good works with his power and money. And there's this older woman who sells roses on the street, his good luck charm, who has a daughter who will marry rich is only the father of the groom believes she's from a well-to-do family... you can see how shenanigans ensue. Throw in Anita Mui as a songstress and love interest, slapstick expert Richard Ng as the venal chief of police, and an enemy clan out to hurt Jackie at the worst possible time... It's a full meal. Very much a Cantonese comedy, with silly music and untranslatable wordplay (made even more opaque by the terrible subtitles available), which I think is why Miracles isn't spoken of in the same breath as Rumble in the Bronx or Police Story. I think it should be.

Japanese cinema really knows how to title a film. Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards! is a Seijun Suzuki barn burner that prefigures some of the outlandishness of Tokyo Drifter, while still playing as a pop, color-soaked noir action flick. Jō Shishido is a private eye who offers the police his help to infiltrate a gang that's stealing from yakuza clans. He's real cool and seems to manage it, but these baddies are so untrusting, it's sure to fall apart any minute. The rest of "Bureau 2-3" isn't so useful, however, mostly acting as comic relief, which is perhaps not that useful either given the overall tone of the film. The lead and the action are fun in a James Bond kind of way, so we don't need these clowns, or else need them to do more. Suzuki's stylishness brings a lot to the game, with stark color choices and a bopping rock'n'roll soundtrack chiefly, but Shishido gets into a musical number, somehow. It's moments like this that just made me put all the Suzuki I can find on my watchlist.

I give a lot of credit to Bunraku for its look, which adopts a stylized, pop-up diorama aesthetic to tell its science-fiction western/chambara revenge story in a new and unusual way, even if it's not always consistent in its approach (some of the transitions look more comic booky than anything). And there's too much narration, even if I think the prose is generally good. In this world, humanity has destroyed its guns, so swords rule the day. One frontier town is controlled by a crime lord woodcutter (Ron Perlman) and his gang of ranked Killers. A gunless cowboy (Josh Hartnett) and a swordless samurai (Gackt Camui) descend on the town to take him on for REASONS (I'm not sure the film is always good at spelling out staked and motivations) and what follows is a series of cool, cleverly staged fights until our heroes can climb to the top. Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore have strong supporting roles that make you want to know more about this world's back story. Another pass at the script might have fixed the structural problems, but the holes are easily covered by our familiarity with the genre. An exercise in style is fine by me in this context.

Much of the experimentalism in Cocote is a distraction and doesn't really work. If there's intent behind the constant changes in aspect ratio, color and film stock, I could not divine it (it's almost true to say the documentary aspects are in 4:3, but that's not consistent). So let that be. The other barrier to enjoyment is that the mourning rituals go on way too long and are extremely tedious in the third act especially, when you really need the story to ramp up. One stylistic touch that DOES work is that we rarely see the person speaking in any given scene, which may be a way around synchronized sound, but reminds us that this is a story where the unseen is motivating the action. That story: Alberto is part of the servile class and thus a man who doesn't really have to make decisions in his day to day. After his father's death, he's called back to his village where he has to make big decisions that do not mesh well with his Christian faith, seeing as his family practices witchcraft and further want the father avenged. This was no simple death, it was murder by evil men. That's an interesting internal dilemma, and when the story is on, we're interested. And though this voyage back in time makes the rituals meaningful as a meshing of Christianity and Dominican island faiths, it makes us lose the already vague plot. Impressed with some elements, but others get lost in translation or needless experimentation. There's a great 80-minute edit in there somewhere.

Gena Rowlands is the eponymous character in John Cassavetes' Gloria, a woman who inherits a neighbor's young son when the mob guns down the rest of his family, initiating a chase for the accountant's book left in his possession. But Gloria is far from useless in this circumstance, because she has mob connections herself and proves to be an incredible badass. I could watch Rowlands blow dudes away all day. I also like the decrepit New York of the film, where every building feels like it's falling apart, and a lot of the mob guys seem to have grown old and useless (The Way of the Samurai would get back t this idea). It's thematically useful, because they're out to kill a 6-year-old; it's generational. That kid is pretty irritating though. I eventually fell on the side of loving this movie, but he was hard to take. Always running  off and doing the wrong thing as you might expect, but also talking tough like he's an adult character - it just set my teeth on edge. But it's also interesting. To him, Gloria is all women - a mother, a lover, an enemy, a friend - it's like a crazy whirlwind mother-son romance that perhaps only the talents of Rowlands and Cassavetes prevent from feeling creepy.

By the director of Foxy Brown, Coffy and The Big Doll House comes The Switchblade Sisters, a girls gone bad action tragedy that comfortably sits with the best exploitation flicks of the 70s. The funk soundtrack puts you in mind of blaxploitation films, but trades in women as the minority sticking it to the Man (literally). There's a prison scene, but the girl gang is soon back on the street, or the schoolyard, as this puts twentysomethings in high school where they run adult rackets - the school is a setting, and nothing more - and have to deal with a rival gang who lost their school and are being transferred. A new girl joins the Dagger Debs, but is Maggie (Joanne Nail) loyal, or does she have reasons to infiltrate the gang (like an unsavory sexual assault)? Internal politics between the girls go beyond the simple pecking order (poor Donut) and are sending us headlong into a deadly cat fight with tragic consequences (in an Othello kind of way). Imaginative action sequences, cool badass chicks, memorable characters. and just the right touch of ridiculousness.

Took me 5 or 6 episodes (over the last few months) of Superstore to start binging it like popcorn, but here I am, reporting in, at the end of Season 2. It's a workplace comedy set in a faux Wal-Mart, often at its best when it attacks mega-retail (the satire about these corporations' attitude towards unions is devilishly on point), and going to the trouble of shooting cute visual gags as transitions between scenes. At first, I wasn't too sure of some of the broad performances meant to make America Ferrara (recently in Barbie) and to a point Ben Feldman as the new guy stand out as the two real people - which meant everyone else wasn't, so why should I care about them? - especially Kid in the Hall Mark McKinney doing a froggy voice as the foolish well-meaning store manager. But it soon becomes pretty normal, and you care about the personal lives of the characters, not just the principals, but the extremely diverse cast of lesser lights, quickly built up so that within a dozen episodes or so, the place feels lived-in and former near-extras start to get storylines. But already - and this is common of modern sitcoms - while the weirdos are being humanized, the more real audience identification figures are becoming more ridiculous as the writers lean into the characters' comic flaws...

Books: The fourth (and final?) volume of Appelcline's Designers & Dragons, covering The '00s, really has two tracks. One is the extremely exciting rise of so-called "indie" role-playing games, experimenting with mechanics and pushing for story-telling more than simulation. It's more philosophical, and actively made me regret 1) the decade I was born in and therefore started gaming in, and 2) that my collection is so comparatively old school, dictating much of the gaming I've done to this day. These games also coincide with the self-publishing movement, which I am well into. The other tracks is more disappointing, because all critical darlingery aside, the decade is also about d20, its boom and bust, the proliferation of publishers catering to that one system (so many the book doesn't even try to cover them all), and its eventual settling into mega-hit Pathfinder. The success of other games resurrected from the past in the 2000s speaks to an old-school status quo in the hobby that's completely at odds with the more innovative game design going on next door. A book on the '10s going into the '20s would continue this latter trend, with D&D 5th playing the part of Pathfinder and streaming replacing online sales and Kickstarter in the narrative to grow the hobby.

Game designer John Wick (yes, not THAT John Wick) styles himself a pretty nasty GameMaster, and Playing Dirty is a collection of his articles on the subject from Pyramid magazine. The stated choice of not re-editing the articles for the short compendium is dubious, because it means he announces articles that are then not in sequence (or present at all), which is just confusing, and he might have caught a couple of spelling spelling mistakes. But these are minor complaints on the whole because the articles are quite inspiring, whether one relates to his style (and sometimes I do) or not. The style is convivial and jokingly aggressive, and points are made mostly through amusing anecdotes from past games. This is dangerous, because RPGs are like dreams, nobody effing cares but you, dude. (Yes, I realize I'm following this review with an Actual Play paragraph of my own.) But he keeps it short, pithy, and over time, many of them connect to each other, so you feel like you're an insider to the lore. That said, the advice does sometimes feel a little thrown together, as we jump from story to story. And THAT said, I bloody love the last of the articles. It actually brought tears to my eyes. A good place to leave the reader on. So you ask, am *I* a nasty GameMaster? I don't think so. I have one in me, and certain games are tailor-made for it. I'm certainly good at seeding paranoia, if nothing else. And like Wick, I prefer it when the PCs suffer, as opposed to getting killed. So maybe, I *am* and just don't want to face up to it. Just before our most recent game, told one of my players I was reading this book and they started sweating. Like I said, paranoia.

RPGs: Finishing up an Act this week, with the PCs infiltrating the enemy Viking camp as an awaited necromancer and his bodyguards, the players quickly split up to soften the raiders so they might abandon their plans to take the nearby town. I let the players build their own Dramatic Skill Resolution, using the time before the Vikings were to move out as the ticking clock (and for once, it did before they managed to carry out all their plans). Resistance fighters flooded in at their signal and fought almost to the last man (a cheap shot during their retreat had me roll a natural exploding 51, and then the damage dice exploded into the 6 Wounds echelon). After discussion with fellow GMs, I had built large units as single tokens with the number of Wounds equal to the number of soldiers, so 1W = 1 death, so you see how that happened. But hey, it was still 5 to 1 in there (Vikings' advantage), so cutting the camp's forces by HALF really did successfully route them. My group's tropes were definitely on show during this sequence. The Paladin dropped a Romance card (the character's third in 4 sessions) on the Viking leader (it's always the leaders), but in a twist, our Monster Hunter, disguised as a necromancer, dropped a Nemesis card on the same character. So in an effort to make each relationship different, I made her the aggressor (and I don't remember the last time characters overtly had sex in one of my games). The Paladin spent most of the encounter in his birthday suit distracting the Grand Marshall, and then fighting her and her guards naked when his treachery was revealed. (She escaped, so this isn't over by a long chalk.) The players, already benefiting from the last Act's Glory, played a Glory card AGAIN, giving them a boost until the end of the NEXT Act. In Aysle, this also turns a piece of gear into a magical object. Since the Realm Runner was doing an Intimidation/Fire Combat combo at the time, I made his black turtle neck (which I've been using to poke fun at him - people like to refer to him as the gloomy mime in the team) magical. You know when Gandalf does the thing where black clouds gather and he's real scary? That. We then had time to start the next Act, just getting on the road, explaining some of the mechanics there (how Survival and Fatigue rolls will work, that their guide can teach them skills they don't have to while away the hours between encounters - they're finally looking at Cantrips) sliding in a short first encounter, and so on.
Best bits: The highlight is no doubt the social battle between the Paladin and the Viking leader, where she's trying to turn him against who she believes is a necromancer (a necessary evil for her plans, but he gives her the creeps - though after this, it'll be about betrayal) and he's trying to convert HER to Dunad, God of Light, trying to convince her to give up the ways of revenge. I didn't make it easy, not allowing Possibility/card play on such a roll, but he came DAMN close to rolling a natural Outstanding result on that Nearly Impossible test. Phew! In the end, she escapes with a lot of unfinished business between her and the team, and the Paladin whirls his warhammer to pummel five guys in one 360 swing. Still props to the Monster Hunter for poisoning the grog, the Realm Runner for tricking more raiders to go have a drink, and the Wrestler for setting some tents on fire. It was a team effort.


CalvinPitt said…
With Nobody, what I found interesting is all the characters seem to just be looking for any slim pretext to hurt people. In the bus fight, Odenkirk could have just scared the guys off with the gun and called it a day, but he deliberately unloads it so he can fight. Or the mob boss that takes a minor question as an excuse to carve a guy's face off with a broken glass. Everybody just wants to go nuts.

I watched Miracles not long after Legend of Drunken Master, so I was hoping to see more of Chan and Anita Mui (who played his stepmother in Drunken Master) playing off each other, because I thought they had great chemistry. I was pretty letdown that there was so much focus on making his mother think he was a successful guy.