What I'm Watching: Last Suspicions, The Investigation

  • Suspicions of Mr Whicher: Ties That Bind: (zon) A divorce case (in Victorian England, nasty business) turns into a missing person case, then murder. Paddy really seems to have grown into the role here (tho again by now the historical Mr Whicher is utterly different from this character), but this is the last one. Unlike #3, the video quality is back to normal, even fairly good views of pastoral English countryside, horses galloping around. Everyone in this crappy little village and the nearby manor house has secrets, nobody is innocent of anything. The mystery almost works; but they have to cheat by telling Whicher something the audience doesn't get to hear, which resolves everything. Still, a good enough episode to go out on. ★★★½☆

  • The Investigation: (hobomax) Danish 5-episode miniseries about the death of a Swedish journalist in a submarine ("ripped from the headlines!"). Stoic, brooding cop (Søren Malling) largely ignores his family while slowly moving between scenes. Very heavily tell-don't-show. We don't even get to see the first interviews with the submarine guy, just told about them. Ep 2 mostly follows officer Maibritt (Laura Christensen) investigating the journalist's private life. Somewhat less brooding, but still closed-off, moody. Ep 3 they finally get some physical evidence, but again spends very long stretches waiting, in silence. That's where I am so far. Another case of maybe 45-90 minutes of content stretched out to 225 minutes of show. I'll probably finish this tomorrow, I'm interested in the case, but I'm bored out of my skull by the pacing. ★★★☆☆

What I'm Watching: More Suspicions of Mr Whicher

  • Murder In Angel Lane: Mr Whicher is now a "private inquiry agent", dicks not yet having been invented, and searches for a missing girl in a story about uncertain paternity and jerks with knives. Obvious villain is obvious, but the multiple visits to the insane asylum are nice; for a Victorian bedlam it's pretty cushy.

★★★☆☆

Note that the historical Mr Whicher was still a police officer at this time, and moving up in authority in London.

  • Beyond the Pale: The English are, it should be noted, monsters. The conquest, rape, and robbery of India over centuries is one of the greatest war crimes of history, every English is blood-stained clear through. The Sepoy Mutiny was the first try of the Indians to seize back their country, which took nearly a century. And that's what this oh-so-happy episode is about.

"Out there in the hills, we lived like kings. No one to censure us, no one to disapprove."

The fantastical element of this episode is that any English cares. That Mr Whicher will stand up even a little bit for the Indians seeking vengeance for a truly heinous crime. And the resolution requires even more empathy and compassion that I don't buy from them. The premise could've gone really dark and given something like closure, but instead it whimpers out.

Also, the lighting/color grading in this one is terrible, it's just black and yellow, sometimes black and cyan for variety. Everyone looks jaundiced, and you can't see any of the action. Even the outdoors scenes are so fake-overcast (but not actually overcast) they look like day-for-night shots. Impossible to guess at the hour.

★★☆☆☆

Just one more of the series to go, hopefully it goes out on a higher note.

What I'm Watching: Suspicions of Mr Whicher

Not "The Witcher". This is on 'zon, "The Murder at Roadhill House", there are 3 more episodes so far. Based on a 2008 book by Kate Summerscale.

Period 1860, in a crappy English village of Wiltshire, a family awakes to find a missing child (called a "baby" and kept in a crib, but he's nearly 4), and when he's found dead, early Scotland Yard is called, they send a sad-faced Paddy Considine as the improbably-named but historically real Mr Whicher, though the actor doesn't fit the character well:

Whicher was reportedly described by a colleague as the "prince of detectives".[2] Charles Dickens, who met him, described him as "shorter and thicker-set" than his fellow officers, marked with smallpox scars and possessed of "a reserved and thoughtful air, as if he were engaged in deep arithmetical calculations".[2] William Henry Wills, Dickens's deputy editor at Household Words magazine, saw Whicher involved in police work in 1850 and described him as a "man of mystery".
wikipedia

The start's very slow, and often uses voice-over repetition to pad out scenes that would just be Paddy walking around looking at things. Later in the first ep, they send along a sergeant, "Dolly" (William Beck), which helps with dialogue, though he gets vanishingly little character development. The local authorities are unhelpful, hostile, closed-minded fools you'd expect of the still-medieval backwater English.

Whicher's not quite a modern, scientific detective, but he tries. And he's a bit moody, especially between cases he's as useless and dissolute as Sherlock Holmes; which is probably a modern back-adaptation from Arthur Conan Doyle's 1880s books.

The pacing is glacial, much plot happens off-camera, and an early version of spinning-newspaper headlines. Very little time is spent on backstory outside of the main suspects; I wonder if the book goes deeper, or if this is all there is.

Still, it's a good enough mystery, Whicher's worth watching, what-cha.

★★★½☆

What I'm Watching: "the little things"

Let it always be known that I dislike everyone imitating e e cummings. Write in all caps. And I don't like leading articles in titles; "Little Things" is a better title. The entire credits are in lowercase, and I hate it.

How is it that 1990 is a period era? Yeah, it's 30 years ago, and they only have pagers and big CRT monitors, but it's post Cold War, LA is a shithole… it's not clear if this is before or after Rodney King, but nothing really changed. You could set this in the present and it'd be unchanged. Apparently the script was written in 1993, and took 26 years for someone's slush pile to get low enough for this to be produced.

The starting scene is annoying, car drives past a girl driving her car at night, then she pulls into a deserted diner to try to shelter, then runs into the desert, instead of just driving on. That's kind of repeated multiple times, with victims being killed because they were stupid, or just let their guard down. Blaming the victim, instead of building up the killer.

A working sheriff's deputy Joe "Deke" Deacon (Denzel Washington) does an evidence run to LA, hangs around and gets involved in local serial killer investigation. Which is a lot like his backstory investigation that burned him out. Denzel lays out some rules for how to be a bad cop, and immediately breaks them himself.

The LA sheriffs are mostly awful. Rami Malek (the whiny millennial with the bug eyes from Mr Robot), Chris Bauer (Tony Sobotka from the bad season of The Wire), Terry Kinney as a Christfucker captain. Rami's trying to learn something from Denzel, but he's barely even there, a mannequin being pushed around would have more presence. The coroner (Michael Hyatt, the black lady with the very male honkie name, you may remember as Bri Barksdale on The Wire and from Nightcrawler) is essential to the actual plot, but she gets only a couple of scenes. Jared Leto, my least favorite person in film, is skanky but not really menacing, obviously fucking around stoned most of the show. I will say, he gets what he deserves for the first time since American Psycho; it doesn't pay off having to watch this film, but it's something.

Unbelievably slow. Over 2 hour movie, one crime scene in detail, another seen on the edges. No real suspects. Slow police work leads nowhere. What we do find out about is Denzel's backstory, but only through flashbacks, very tell-not-show.

Completely misses a chance to reference The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly "There's two kinds of people in this world, those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You… dig."

★★☆☆☆ — absolutely a waste of my time.

What I'm Watching: Warrior

On Hobomax. Based, allegedly, on notes by Bruce Lee in the '70s, it's a kung fu series in 1876 SF Chinatown. Produced by Jason Lin of 2Fast2Furious2Legit2Quit, and Bruce Lee's daughter.

Right from the start, there's a nice mix of actual kung fu halfway between Bruce Lee's actual beat-em-ups and physical comedy like Jackie Chan's fights (not just shitty jump-cut editing), politics within the tongs, brothel girls, nativist mobs of assholes, and the severely underfunded, corrupt, thug-like SFPD (so nothing changes in 150 years) starting a Chinatown squad (including a Georgian Confederate traitor, leading to some bad blood right from the start).

It's a little weird casting, Ah Sahm (half-Japanese/English Andrew Koji) doesn't at all pass for Chinese, especially when standing next to Young Jun (Hong Konger Jason Tobin) or Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng), but he's a fine fighter, a competent actor.

The dialogue is modernized, even more than in Deadwood, there's more profanity and just flippant speech that doesn't fit a Chinese man who supposedly trained with a sifu. They use the linguistic trick of speaking a few words in Cantonese (apparently all phonetic memorization except the whore) and then switching to modern English… and then back to stilted English or Cantonese if there's whites around. They have weird alternatives to "white" and "han" or whatever ethnic group they're pointing at, calling them "ducks" and "onions", much like The Wire replaced the N-word with "bitch" most of the time. "Itchy" means looking for a fight.

I'm not especially interested in the segments about the SFPD, and even less about the nativists, but that may change as the show goes on.

At times they also slip in modern music cues and other anachronisms, but it's largely trying to be a period piece.

Every fight isn't amazing, but they're all good. I've seen none that are as pathetic as any superhero trash.

Watch this show.

★★★★½

What I'm Watching: Adventure Time: Distant Lands: Obsidian

The next one after BMO, this time about a glass kingdom, a lava dragon, and P.B. and Marceline.

Apparently P.B. and Marceline have been living for… decades? in Marceline's old house. I guess most of the Candy Kingdom is extinct and doesn't need P.B., but she spends zero time worrying about that, just being a domesticated lesbian wife.

This time the new generation sidekick is not terrible, Glassboy's just a weak kid literally made of cracked glass, but he's brave and not too stupid. See-Through Princess is just vapid, waffling between "hey now don't be mean" and doing meaningless ritual.

Most of the episode is P.B. staring at a force field console, while Marceline goes off on a vision quest to get her angry punk rockness back. And occasionally the flashbacks to Marceline's youth in the mutant wastelands have some pathos, drag this up from dull to "oh that hurts". Marcy's first song is excellent, she doesn't quite rock out—the Pixies she's not—but she's trying. The second one is Lisa Loeb-like.

There's a couple cameos of old characters, which mostly just reminds me of how terrible the last few seasons of AT were, but this was much better than those.

★★★½☆ — Watch this one.

What I'm Watching: The Big Bad

This has been 6 groups trying to do a D&D 5E "tournament adventure", and then scored for mission success.

The Dungeon Master is Paul Siegel of Paul's Game Blog and the adversary is played by Dan Collins of Delta's D&D and OED Games.

Good Stuff:

  • The Adversary. Having a co-DM play the "Big Bad" is an interesting setup I've seen done a few times in real games, it leaves the Referee free to run the game fairly instead of also running every monster in the world, though of course the adversary's game time is usually limited. And Dan does a great job of chewing scenery (and slimy larvae from his lovin' cup). He doesn't have a lot of troops to control, and I think he's much too passive and defensive with them, but given what he has, he does about as well as you can hope for.

  • The Players. Many of the players put some real character into their pregens, and made good role-playing and tactical choices. They seem like fun groups to game with.

  • Scoring. The rankings are about equal to how much I enjoyed each group's attempt. The Luke Gygax group came in second, I think? And they were my favorite, but otherwise, sure. The last group was so dull, unprepared, and incompetent, and their low score was well-deserved. There's an upcoming episode explaining the scoring, which I'm curious to see.

  • Videoconferencing & Editing. Surprisingly few technical difficulties, mostly switched to the players when they were talking, miniatures when they're being moved. You'd think in 2020 that wouldn't be an issue, but so many of these things are nothing but technical failure.

Bad Stuff:

  • D&D 5E. Not a fan. Just a bloated, thousands-of-pages, over-complicated mess of a game. Somewhere under all that shit, there must be a pony, so many people keep digging. You can see it clearest in this show, when old-school players are confronted with the giant pile of abilities and modifiers they get from all over the place, the spells have weird conditional effects and you're constantly reminding each other of which ones apply. The two-hour game time here would be 15-30 minutes in an old-school system.

    This is especially weird because both these guys are old-school D&D bloggers, Dan's OED rules are pretty good, entirely reasonable interpretations of OD&D. Paul runs a weird hybrid of B/X, D20, and Warhammer FRP for his Ten Dead Rats game; I don't know why he's not just using Zweihänder or some edition of WHFRP, they're much better than his hybrid, but it works. But all of those are much simpler than 5E, and more engaging with the players. They don't have a laundry list of powers to activate, players instead must role-play actions the Referee agrees are reasonable. That's a better test than "oh I picked the Druid so I can turn into an alligator here!"

  • Miniatures. For a visual show, a giant model set and miniatures being moved around is useful, sure. The cavern and altar tower look great. But it's a single room that must've cost hundreds of dollars, and painting minis takes forever, and it limits you in what you can bring out to what figures you have. In any realistic budget, you'd maybe have a styrofoam riser "and this is the stone tower!" Which is why I prefer "theatre of the mind", where you just describe the scenario, everyone closes their eyes and pretends. Or for tactical situations like this, a "battle mat" of butcher paper with drawn lines and chits or cardboard standees to represent the combatants.

    Matt Finch did a series of his Swords & Wizardry rules Swords of Jordoba campaign, and they were fantastic game sessions—how old-school D&D is/should be actually played—frequently interrupted by setting up little mazes of miniatures and a tiny POV webcam. He also did a 5E Heroes of Jordoba campaign which went ludicrously off the rails, about evenly split because Zach's a very unserious player, because 5E's a terrible game, and because the end was running that stupid dinosaur swamp adventure.

  • Easy Mode Dungeon. The entire scenario, played out six times, is a single room, with about 10 opponents, 8 of whom are just identical cultists that Dan calls "Primus", "Secondus", etc. The final party managed to nearly TPK themselves in the river, but otherwise every group has skipped across the river, run up the stairs or side of the tower, killed the boss, game over. Nobody failed, which means it was balanced far too easy; admittedly it's hard to kill 5E player characters. There's no exploration, it's just a toy set on camera.

    The old tournament modules like Gary Gygax's S1 Tomb of Horrors, S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Lawrence Schick's S2 White Plume Mountain, the A series (various authors) collected as A1-4 Scourge of the Slave Lords, Frank Mentzer's R1-4 tournaments collected as I12 Egg of the Phoenix, and Tracy Hickman & Laura Hickman's B7 Rahasia, are all tough, long, complex dungeon crawls. There's fights, including hard boss fights at the end, but they're more about mapping, puzzles, traps, role-playing, often interacting with the NPCs, making use of found magic.

    White Plume Mountain is maybe the best/fairest tournament of those, and has only two major rooms with the artifacts, each on par complexity wise with the Big Bad's cave, but there's 27 rooms total, and clearing & looting several of them greatly increases your chance of succeeding at the artifact rooms.

    Now, at conventions we did tournament modules in 3-6 hours, or sometimes there'd be two blocks of 3-4 hours. That's a lot more than the 2 hours which is stretching Youtube audience tolerance. But there's some balance in between 1 room and 100 rooms where a short tourney's not just a single fight scene.

If they have another season, I may wait until the end and only watch the high-scoring team, or at least put the rest on 2x playback speed.

★★★½☆

What I'm Watching: Underwater

In the grand tradition of underwater horror movies:

  • Sealab 2020 (1972, Hanna-Barbera), Sealab 2021 (2000-2005, Adult Swim): "Oh, those aren't horror, Mark." Aren't they? MARDUK SAYS THEY ARE.
  • Abyss (1989): Pretty good for a self-indulgent James Cameron flick. Fun up to "live damn you live!", but the ending is stupid, aliens make contact underwater and just want us to stop having wars. Will do, Mom.
  • Deep Star Six (1989): Miguel Ferrer, Greg Evigan (minus the chimp), and a lobster.
  • Leviathan (1989): Peter Weller, Amanda Pays, Ernie Hudson, and Meg Foster! But the monsters a lame Thing ripoff.
  • Lords of the Deep (1989): Priscilla Barnes trying to act with her clothes on, do not watch, unbelievably awful.
  • Underwater (2020)

And many more in between, but that batch of 4 "Cameron's working on an underwater movie? Let's beat him to the theatres!" flicks already did pretty much every scene you can get here, and Sealab 2020 (the serious one) defined the look and many basic plots.

  • Deep sea stations are so dangerous that nobody would actually work in one. And in reality, nobody does.
  • That poor little spider. It gets more characterization than most of the other crew; we don't even see the crew, except a couple runners and a couple corpses. I don't know if there's 10, 20, 100, 1000 people supposed to be down there.
  • Running from pressure breaches and slamming pressure doors shut on people. Why can't they make the entire station out of pressure doors and the walls around them, which never blow?
  • Don't get emotionally attached to any black character (Mamoudou Athie) in a horror movie, no matter how much he seems to know the tropes. In contrast, fucking TJ Miller (the asshole from Silicon Valley), one of the shittiest wastes of human skin ever to darken a movie screen, gets to live more than half the flick and annoy me every minute of it.
  • Stoic captain (Vincent Cassel) can solve every problem except his own heart (in this case an obvious crush he ignores and his backstory daughter we never see…)
  • Heroic engineer (Kristen Stewart) can solve every mechanical, electrical, programming, tactical, and nuclear engineering problem. Well, that's the one good point of these flicks. She's basically just Ripley, but you know, I love Ripley.
  • Power armor deep sea suits with giant glass dome helmets and lights everywhere, so you can see the actors' faces, even tho a major plot point is that glass and lighted targets are a bad idea.
  • Chicks get sexy when they strip down to get in their power armor. Dudes look like hairy potatoes in bad underwear.
  • Let's go for a long walk underwater, even though we would realistically have subs, jetskis, or just oxygen tanks with straps and a valve as a "jet pack".
  • Don't worry about those oxygen alarms, those go off 10, 15 minutes before the plot will actually require you to get more air. Normally oxygen tanks are giant tanks, but this one has teeny little oxygen scrubber cylinders, which takes a lot of the resource management out of it.
  • Monsters always look humanoid, even though they originate in deep underwater vents, cephalopods have no need for bones, arms, hands, legs, or recognizable humanoid heads. Minor points to this one for having the baby stage be an ugly tentacle monster, and grampa Dagon is giant, weird, and hideous. But the middle stage is bullshit. I approve only of Deep Star Six, where the monster is a crab.
  • All you have to do is reach the escape pods and you'll be safe, because deep-sea creatures can't survive on the surface.
  • Tell, don't show. Half the plot setup and resolution is given as either voiceover by Kristen, GLADOS-like voiceover by a glitching-out computer, or spinning newspaper headlines in the start/end credits. Cheap and bad writing.

Missing:

  • Undersea romance. There is one, but it has zero chemistry, is only mentioned in backstory. Most of these have everyone fucking everyone else, because that's what Humans normally do, it gets the audience excited, and it gives you some reason to care if they live or die.

★★☆☆☆ — I didn't hate it, it just does absolutely nothing new, 31 years after the movies it's ripping off. Ranks poorly, above only Lords of the Deep, but not poison to watch like that was.

What I'm Watching: The Dead Don't Die

Welcome to Centerville
A Real Nice Place
Pop 738

Not for long.

Directed by Jim Jarmusch, starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Danny Glover, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi*, Iggy Pop and Sara Driver (no relation) as the coffee zombies, and Tom Waits as a beardy hermit/psychopomp/Monty Python's "It's!" man.

Sturgill Simpson's "The Dead Don't Die" is the theme song, and played far too many times, it's the only song in the soundtrack. I now hate Sturgill Simpson, despite normally liking outlaw country.

This is the slowest goddamned movie I've ever seen. 30 minutes to introduce… 12 named characters? Before anything happens, and then they reuse a lot of footage and B-roll driving thru town. The cinematography's like a student film, so awkward. And in the cop car, they break the 4th wall, or just fail to cut and edit out the actors talking about the scene, I'm not sure which. I mean, even for a Jarmusch movie, there's not much evidence of editing, it's kind of "start recording until we got maybe a scene, then go somewhere else".

And I will continue to complain about color grading. Half of the film is shot day-for-night and then tinted to almost jet black, it's very hard to see.

The film isn't just genre-aware, it's script-aware, it really makes no sense without seeing, you know, every zombie and vampire movie. So I'm good, and the gas station geek and Adam Driver will sit and explain some basic rules like tone-deaf nerds explaining Star Wars (Uh. Pointed pop culture reference.), but everyone just goes along with it except Chloë who screams and fidgets a lot, as if she was 20 and not 45.

I do like zombies that need coffee after gutting their enemies; as we see, all the zombies want something. They're the one part of this entire film so far that's not boring. Takes 30 minutes to get two zombies. Almost 60 minutes to get more, but now we got some action.

Tilda Swinton's albino Scottish samurai undertaker is fantastic, like a stoner's character for Witchcraft RPG or some such; not played for laughs, but just total bullshit. And then she gets weirder.

I don't like the ending. The long scene in the car leading up to it. There's finally some action… but it's not making any point, which is what I want from my zombie flicks. If the moral is "consumers are zombies/zombies are literally consumers", why are the cops fighting them, when cops are the enforcement wing of our corporate state?

★★½☆☆ — sometimes amusing, but a long dull journey to get there.

* Wearing a "Keep America White Again" red baseball hat; maybe in a couple months if we ain't all dead, that'll be a funny period piece.

What I'm Watching: Joker

Right at the start, I expect better of the Joker than to be mugged by kids, that should be an alley full of dead punks. Joachim Phoenix looks like crap, he's 45 here, at least two decades too old for this origin story, isn't really fit for the job. Maybe he'll toughen up by the end of this, but physically? Nope.

I definitely prefer the Jack Nicholson take: Hardened criminal who THEN goes crazier. I don't mind The Killing Joke story where a comedian becomes Red Hood, then goes crazy/gets dunked to become Joker, but his skills there are implausible. And none of this Jared Leto shit.

The plot's generally more pathetic downward spiral than an arc up to criminal mastermind, even if he has winning days (the well-memed stairs scene and on), he's a joker, not The Joker, absolutely not Harley's "Mistah J". I can't see this guy learning to make bombs, recruit hoodlum henchmen, rob banks, fight Batman, run the Legion of Doom with Lex Luthor (who's the kind of rich bastard this version would hate).

But the crimes and riots here are a pretty good start. Phoenix's Joker has a kind of pathetic charisma, good for attracting broken losers (which is all of us, except the pretty rich people, really). The cult of The Joker could be born here, even if the actual figure's not that good.

For once the Hollywood inability to leave movies alone without a fake color grade works, every scene is recolored something crazy, matching the Joker's moods. It goes from a not-terrible imitation of '70s film stock, very very obviously copying Taxi Driver, to Suspiria levels.

The supporting actors are meh, and they're a lot of the problem.

Robert De Niro as fake Johnny Carson is ancient and decrepit, he just looks bad, and of course De Niro is the least funny person in the world, it obviously hurts him to even smile, so faking Johnny's impossible. They should've got an actor who isn't mummified to play the role. Johnny retired at 66, De Niro is shockingly only 76 here, but he looks 96, barely held together by a suit.

Joker's mom (played like the Cryptkeeper reanimated Mother Bates) thinks Thomas Wayne (played incompetently by TV extra nobody Brett Cullen) is going to help her for personal reasons. In the movie, he's just indifferent, an out-of-touch Trump-like asshole, but this is a point I always come back to with the whole Batman mythos:

The Waynes made Gotham, and Bruce perfected it. It isn't that way—garbage piled up, grafitti on top of grafitti, poverty everywhere, corrupt and useless police, protests, steam pipes and vulture-like gargoyles looming over all—because they don't care, it's that way because the Waynes want a city full of despair and freaks, so that the older generation of Waynes can pretend to be philanthropists (much like Bill Gates does to the tech industry), so that crazy little Bruce can swoop down on villains in his multi-million-dollar battle armor and practice his rich-white-boy ninjitsu. So if terrible shit is happening to Joker's mom, it's because Thomas Wayne wants it that way.

I'm particularly unimpressed with Alfred (Douglas Hodge) and Little Bruce; Alfred's not supposed to be a wuss, he doesn't hiss and whine about cops to strange men at the gates, he's (depending on iteration) former British Army, and while he's not The Batman himself he's more than capable of defending the manor. The version in the Gotham TV series (played by Sean Pertwee, son of my favorite Doctor Who) is so much better. Little Bruce is a puppet even by the standard of child actors.

Slight amusement: The movie theatre at the end, where Batman is made… is playing Zorro the Gay Blade.

★★★½☆ — Kudos for trying something different, if not always successfully.