This Week in Geek (22-28/06/15)


When someone told me "srsly Hamlet" was a thing, I knew I'd have to have it even if it caused me pain down the line. As far as DVDs go, I also go The Newsroom Season 3 and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.


At the movies: Inside Out is a clever tear-jerker out of Pixar, in which we follow a young girl's emotions as they pilot (for lack of a better term) her from inside her mind. She's a happy girl, so Joy (Amy Poehler - a full performance, Joy moves like her) is very much in control. Until the family moves to the big city and things start to fall apart on year 11 or 12, that is. When happy memories start turning sad, Joy is desperate to have her girl repress her Sadness. The world created by the film is a fanciful extrapolation of what psychology has taught us, filled with clever details for adults and repeat viewers alike. There's a lot of humor, especially when we realize other people have the same emotional consortium inside THEIR heads. But it's very much about the transition between childhood and adolescence, in mind if not yet in body, and the loss of something. That loss is translated into a melancholy that won't leave a dry eye in the house. Touching, funny, smart and relevant, I'd go so far as to say this is the best Pixar movie outside of the Toy Story franchise.

DVDs: My i-MUST-CheckMovies project has finally brought me to the Harry Potter films. I dreaded this, I must admit, but went into it with an open mind. The Philosopher's Stone (or Sorcerer's Stone - why do Americans fear philosophy?) is the first entry and right away, my major beef is that, unlike Inside Out, it talks DOWN to the kids making up its presumptive audience. (I haven't read Rowling's books, and will make no attempt to, so this is criticism of the film, with the assumption being it is the fruit of a poisoned tree.) I don't mind kids' movies, so long as they're not reductive of the adult experience. Harry's evil family IS reductive, just one-dimensional caricatures making Harry's life hell before he goes to Hogwarts. I'm sure it's meant to establish the story as a modern fairy tale, but I don't know that it worked. Perhaps I was too distracted by the hacky lifts from other fiction. My misgivings about the franchise had always been my snobby contention that I'd liked it the first time around, when it was called The Books of Magic, but really, Rowling's also put Tolkien and Lewis in her blender, though perhaps it's unavoidable when you do a fantasy story about a "chosen one". I can excuse a lot of this even if I found it annoying going through it, but where I draw the line is the lazy plotting. While there's a greater story about the evil wizard who killed Harry's parents, the villain of the film itself is a bit of a cheat even if you guessed Snape was a red herring. And there's a LOT of cheating in the first Harry Potter book. Part of the story hangs on the competition between the four Houses or whatever they're called, a competition Harry's lot win because the school principal, Dumbledore, gives them bonus points at the very end. It's a manufactured punch-the-air moment that falls completely flat because it seems so unfair to the other kids. The same care has been taken in the creation of the now-iconic Quidditch sport, whose goals hardly matter because catching the small independent ball that ends the game gives you so many points, it would effectively always win you the game (unless the other team was more than 15 points AHEAD). I don't mind whimsy, and there's a lot of that here, but such elements take me out of the world entirely. That's not to say I hated the film. I thought the kids were reasonably good in their roles. There are some awesome adult actors as well (who doesn't like Maggie Smith or Alan Rickman?). As the former grow up, some of them will become adult actors I enjoy today. And since I must watch the entire franchise before I'm through with my project, I'm eager for the franchise to grow up as well. For now, the childish fairy tale and gross-out moments seem at odd with the running length and darker elements like the dead unicorn.

Hitchcock's Marnie, while technically a text book example of the great director's use of the camera and editing to visually tell the story - you could probably derive his entire filmic vocabulary from this one movie - is first and foremost a strident melodrama. And while you're never sure where it's going the first time you see it, the story and acting do seem old-fashioned because of it. At the time, I'm sure the final revelations were very shocking, but today, they're par for the course. What shocks most today is that Sean Connery's character physically and psychologically dominates Tippi Hedren's, and (only somewhat ambiguously) rapes her. Yet, we're meant to think him a sympathetic character. Hitchcock was obviously interested in psychology, and what might drive a woman to become a grifter and thief, but he also enjoyed this kind of unhealthy relationship (Vertigo has a similarly nausea-inducing love affair). That interest keeps Marnie suspenseful and interesting; I think it's the over-the-top ending that probably makes it seem so hackneyed. I admire it for its parts, but the whole left me cold. The DVD has a good hour-long documentary on the making of the film, as well as a library of stills and marketing pictures. If I didn't love the movie, I do love its trailer, a 4-minute comedy in which Hitch takes himself down with self-deprecating humor.

Off the bat, China Beach Season 3 trumpeted McMurphy and K.C. as the show's true stars, focusing a great deal on them, their loves (the focus on romance in the first half of the season seemed like regular TV rather than what the show was made for), and their relationship with each other. It takes a little while before the rest of the cast gets some good screen time, though it eventually does. Ricki Lake joins the cast, and we see a lot more of the men of China Beach as well. As usual, the show takes some risks with its format, but it doesn't always pan out this time. The "magical" excursions where we meet magicians or angel fell flat for me, with the possible exception of the dreamwalker season finale. The Memento-like episode that reverses the sequence of its scenes is a bold experiment that felt gimmicky. Much better were its shifts in space and time: Seeing a soldier's life after Vietnam, or the China Beach Year Zero, expanded the scope of the show considerably and efficiently. The DVD includes commentary tracks on a few episodes, a deleted scene, a gag reel, and interviews with cast and crew (though some of the material was taken from making ofs from earlier seasons and will repeat some information).

The Newsroom's second season set up a large continuity story that transitioned away from the more episodic examination of various news stories the first season had managed. For better or worse, you might say, though there's obviously still a lot of that, just in smaller nuggets. It's still fascinating for its look at how journalism, when done well, researches and vets a story, and it works as both detective fiction and, as the story falls apart, courtroom drama. One character being put on the Romney bus provides occasions for comedy, and the whole thing ends on Election Night 2012, where big things happen in and out of the newsroom. While Aaron Sorkin's made a lot of the points he makes with this show in his previous shows, I still have the urge to defend the work because I enjoy the wit, the episodes' thematic coherence, and the need for earnest stories that show us how to best (by which I mean, most ethically) do certain jobs. The Newsroom is that. The DVD includes, in HBO-style, "inside the episode" featurettes that briefly discuss talking point with Sorkin, a couple of deleted scenes besides, and fun cast and crew commentary tracks on four key episodes.

X-Files Season 4 has been amply covered over the month of June on this very blog. But overall, I'd have to say this is the weakest season to date, after coming out of the gate very strong. It takes some woeful missteps early on with episodes like Home and Teliko, but redeems itself by the end, which could have served as a dark SERIES finale. But yeah, methinks Millennium, also in production at the time, divided Chris Carter's attention a bit too much. The DVD set is like the rest, with foreign language clips, deleted scenes annoyingly embedded in a "branching-off" function, and one of the two commentaries spoiling events 4 seasons in the future (I hummed over it when I realized). The other, by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, doesn't do that, and provides an interesting document on the early work of one of modern TV's more celebrated auteurs. His episodes are definitely the highlight of the season.

Books: I'd seen Cloud Atlas, the film, and rated it more highly than most despite its distracting make-up and casting, but now that I've read David Mitchell's book, I don't think I like the movie anymore. In fact, I tried watching it again, and couldn't get through the first hour. Obviously, the book doesn't cast the same few actors in all the roles and doesn't feature terrible make-up effects (including white face, yellow face, black face and drag). But it's more than that. The structure is completely different. The movie shifted between the six stories so as to interconnect them visually at different points. The book plays is more like a Russian doll, with each story existing inside and being interrupted by the next, until you reach the far future "middle" and then go back the way you came. The future is the middle, but also the outside, since all stories are somehow contained within it. It certainly gives you more time to appreciate each thread, and I've been lucky of late in picking books that have enormously witty prose. Mitchell writes each of the stories in the vernacular of the time - an 18th-century journal, letters written in the 1930s, a 70s mystery novel, a first-person singular and savage comedy, an interview in a cyberpunk future, and science-fiction told in a future-speak à la Clockwork Orange. Some of these are obviously harder going than others, with the net effect being that the comedy, told in such wonderfully grumpy language, was an instant favorite despite being the one thread I'd forgotten from the film. Like the film, it's a little obvious sometimes in the way it wants to draw connections between its stories, but those elans of philosophy aren't anywhere near as distracting as the film's tricks.

RPGs: Starter the character creation process with my players for my Battleworld campaign. We already had two unused Planescape characters who will be integrated into this world - a Bariaur priest and a Tiefling charlatan - and a couple of other players want to 'port their PCs from other games as well (a superhero and another I'm not sure about because he originated in someone ELSE's game). Then there's the Shadowrun Street Samurai with a secret, and the bold idea of having a Quantum Leaping character who jumps into various domains' locals to participate in adventures. I'm mean to help one player create a Mad Max type from Gamma World later today. I'm moving apace and I'm proud of the clean and simple character sheets I created for the setting. I'm going to try to engineer a first session over the course of the week. Wish me luck.


Toby'c said...

"The same care has been taken in the creation of the now-iconic Quidditch sport, whose goals hardly matter because catching the small independent ball that ends the game gives you so many points, it would effectively always win you the game (unless the other team was more than 15 points AHEAD)."

For what it's worth, this does happen a couple of times in later books (albeit due to the teams being severely mismatched at the time), and it's also explained that winning the league is based off cumulative points scored rather than number of games won, meaning that in one match victory is dependent on Harry not catching it until they're a certain number of points ahead and having to distract his opponent in the meantime. None of these scenes appear in the movies, however.

I've been a Harry Potter fan since late in primary school (the last book coming out when I was 17, so I can tell you that the series does age with the reader), but the movies have been a source of frustration for me starting with the third due to increasingly inadeguate exposition and mishandling of the books' numerous Chekhov's Guns (or Gunmen). There's even symptoms of that here, specifically, a deleted scene where Harry finds Nicholas Flamel's name on a trading card (the same one that he got on the train), leading into the scene where Hermione finds it in her "light reading" material.

That being said, I'm not sure why you thought the real villain was a cheat, the foreshadowing was all there (for starters, him being in Diagon Alley the same day as the attempted bank robbery).

Moving on: loved Inside Out, which will probably be my favourite of the year.

Siskoid said...

The younger friends I watched the movie with were very critical too and one admitted that nostalgia was a factor in her memory of it being better than it was.

I'm not saying you can't go back and find the clues to the villain's identity, but remember, you'd read the books. The problem here may be the length. At two and a half hours, you lose track of the villain very easily on the first viewing.

De said...

The comments left by Toby'c highlight the biggest problem with the Harry Potter movies: they're geared for an audience that has the read the books. Reading a book (or comic) should never be a prerequisite for watching a movie. Like you, Siskoid, I'm not going to read Rowling's books (I tried getting through the first and the hackneyed writing made me give up in frustration around the halfway mark), but many of my friends claim I'll "get more out of the films" by reading the books. If a movie can't stand on its own, then it's not a good film.

Siskoid said...

I think so too. I mean, it's technically true, but it shouldn't be a prerequisite.

There are a number of ways this can go, actually...

Movie outdoes the book: The film can be a chance to fix some of the dramatic problems the book's always had. Example: Lord of the Rings.

Movie is disappointing compared to the book: Often happens when they use the plot, but none of the style. Example: Choke.

Adaptation is so faithful as to make the movie redundant: It's an adaptation, so ADAPT IT. If there's no interpretation to it, there's no need to consume both versions. Example: Sin City.

The ideal: Both book and film are their own entities and are enjoyable for their own reasons. Example: Fight Club.

Toby'c said...

"but many of my friends claim I'll "get more out of the films" by reading the books. If a movie can't stand on its own, then it's not a good film"

That's fair, but I feel you should still make some effort to know who you're blaming for what (ie, JK Rowling or Steve Kloves), rather than the "fruit of a poisoned tree" assumption mentioned above.

Siskoid said...

Yeah, that's unfair of me. In the future, I won't presume anything about the books.

Anonymous said...

About "Inside Out", I hope we collectively look back on it in a few years and are bored by it. That's a compliment, and I will explain.

Virtually everyone with a heart was moved by "Inside Out"; for example, Mindy Kaling (the voice of Disgust) reports having cried just from the concept of the film, that it's okay to be sad. In other words, it's a novel message in kids' entertainment that being sad doesn't mean you're broken, it's part of being a person (and especially of being a kid). But now that the secret is out, I hope it's self-evident enough to have some legs and be naturally incorporated into other films. Which will hurt the rewatchability of "Inside Out", but it would be in a good cause.

What disturbs me are parents who get angry or disappointed when their kids are having trouble being happy. Parents like those deserve a punch in the chops. (You may imagine the little Anger creature in my head as a shapeless, formless red mist with two fists with brass knuckles.)

Siskoid said...

Probably a byproduct of the "amateur child psychologist" parents.

At worst, that kind of attitude is selfish, because it's about not having your happiness ruined by your child's unhappiness.

I see what you mean.


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