This Week in Geek (31/08-06/09/15)


At the movies: I'm seeing every damn spy movie that comes out this year. American Ultra fits the category - it's essentially Chuck if the lead were a stoner instead of a geek, though it's also got its feet in Jason Bourne territory - and I'm glad to report it doesn't play like a dumb stoner comedy (because I hate those). At the heart of it is an actually very sweet romance, Kristen Stewart unusually effective in her role (did Twilight just taint the reputation of a bunch of actors who are actually good?). The action gags are fun, making good use of small town America locations. Topher Grace is a bit over the top as the villain, but you want to see him fail. I do think the comedy would have worked better if the violence had been turned down just a notch. I mean, it's a damn zombie movie by the end. Was Max Landis trying to channel Shaun of the Dead? A bit less graphic and we're laughing a lot more, I think. It definitely goes with the underground comix vibe introduced by the lead's artistic sensibilities, but still. Final verdict: Surprisingly endearing.

Straight Out of Compton is a biopic about gangster rap supergroup NWA that seems very relevant in today's climate, where police brutality and racial inequality seem to hit the headlines on a regular basis, but still feels suspect because it was made by the people whose lives are being told. There aren't a lot of AUTObiographies in film, but that shouldn't necessarily be off-limits, should it? I'm seeing it less as an air-tight historical document, and more like what it FELT like to be an NWA member. It's certainly got the attitude. It doesn't gloss over the wrong-doing TOO much, and isn't TOO self-serving. It's not boring certainly, though my favorite parts are definitely up front, when the group is dealing with iniquities and police harassment. Once success leads to decadence and in-fighting, it starts feeling like every other "American success story", and you just wait for everything to fall apart. It does, but it's not the end for them (obviously). Entertaining, and it might make you want to discover the music all over again, or for the first time. And wow, Ice Cube's kid looks JUST LIKE HIM. Uncanny.

DVDs: With Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the franchise gets its final director. David Yates will stay with it for the final four films. And I couldn't be happier. He actually makes the story nightmarish when it needs to be, includes a lot of background magic without drawing undue attention to it, and with the actors and story now more mature, I can finally say I've watched a Potter film that hasn't bored or annoyed me. Even Cuaron's turn in the director's chair couldn't make that claim. People more familiar than I with the books and films have told me Order of the Phoenix isn't particularly well-regarded, probably because it's a massive set-up for what it to come. That's hindsight talking. There's a story here or the school under threat from governmental overreach, and Imelda Staunton is a sublime villain as the prim Dolores Umbridge. I was even sorry to see her go so that a tacked-on climax could be thrown in, though the sequence gets better when the Dark Lord shows up. Will Harry succumb to the power of the Sith? Look, give me a Potter film without a damned Quidditch sequence and I'll be a fan, okay? I guess that's it - there's no artificial school competition element in this one; it just tells the evolving story of this world/school, and is the better for it.

2011's adaptation of Jane Eyre, with rising star Mia Wasikowska in the lead role and Michael Fassbender as the damn peculiar (everyone's peculiar on Planet Bronte except for Judi Dench's Mrs. Fairfax, really) Lord Rochester, is the essence of Gothic. Dressed up as a ghost story, with frequent allusions to the world of fairies and goblins and strange happenstance, the book and film use Jane's limited point of view (which is not the same as a limited mind) to create strangeness and fear. The fuller picture - no less "horrific" - is something the audience puts together over time. And of course, it also serves as background metaphor for a young woman's inner turmoil. Jane is one of those pre-feminist figures that seems shocking in the context of when she was put to paper, insolent with the Church, completely convinced that the soul transcends class and makes all human beings equal, and ambitious in her need to expand her horizons and create choices for herself. Jane Eyre is grand, literate melodrama, with bizarre characters and dark situations, and the film captures that more than adequately, using cinematic techniques (like achronological editing) to heighten the mystery.

I flipped Doctor Who - The Reign of Terror's DVD this week. If you're wondering what I thought of the serial itself, those reviews start HERE (in brief, I love historicals, but this one eventually turns the characters into mere observers), and I've included there updated reviews of the two missing episodes turned into animation for this release. Spoiler: The animation is terrible, like they animated the reconstruction or a series of stills, and never tried to emulate the actual shooting style of the show. A frenetic, disjointed mess of images and movement. Very sad considering the slick Flash look of The Invasion's animated episode. Anywayyyy... The DVD also includes production note subtitles (but not on the two animated episodes, for some reason); a commentary track where expert Toby Hadoke interviews a rotating cast of participants, including Carole Ann Ford (Susan), several guest actors who held small parts, production assistant Tim Combe (who had to deal with the director's collapse), and missing episode hunters Phillip Morris and Paul Vanezis; the making of further makes use of William Russell (Ian); the rest is all galleries - pictures and animation. An okay, but underwhelming package.

What I thought of X-Files - Fight the Future is also a matter of record, so let's just look at the DVD. In terms of transfer quality, it could be a little better. The colors are murky even in broad daylight, especially early on. Chris Carter and director Rob Bowman provide a commentary track, and they have a lot of production stories to tell. Plus, they really don't shy away from pointing out the film's flaws, where they might have done better and failed due to lack of time or insight. The making of documentary is where other elements of the production, including the film's stars, get to say their piece. It's a good length and does a fair job of showing how sequences were achieved and what the particulars thought of the story. Perhaps the "extra footage" touted on the DVD box is meant to be the behind the scenes stuff from that documentary, because there really isn't an extra that's so labeled.

Books: Morality for Beautiful Girls is the third installment in Alexander McCall Smith's No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, and in the personal lives of the characters, we're certainly getting ahead of the short-lived HBO series. When it comes to the mysteries, however, we haven't yet passed the point where the series was taking its material from the books (and the show might even have improved on some of them). So where it shines is definitely in the characterization of the main cast. This is the novel where Mma Ramotswe's frazzled secretary/assistant, Mma Makusti, really comes into her own, while her husband-to-be Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni provides a mystery of a personal nature. Frustratingly, the latter isn't solved by the end of the book! So for me, this is the lesser of the first three books, but I'm hopeful things'll pick up again in the next.


Toby'c said...

Order of the Phoenix is among my favourite of the books (and the first that I read immediately after it was released), and I actually don't have a lot to complain about with the movie - partly because I haven't seen it since it was in cinemas, partly because a lot of what I would complain about is really just the result of the damage done to previous movies (ie, Barty Crouch Jr's soul-sucking being cut, Harry and Snape suddenly knowing who Padfoot is). There are a couple of missing plot points I'll be bringing up later, though.

 "did Twilight just taint the reputation of a bunch of actors who are actually good?"
Pretty much. I'd point to Speak, Panic Room and Welcome to the Rileys as further evidence.

Siskoid said...

Oh yeah, I keep forgetting she was Jodie Foster's daughter in that.

Craig Oxbrow said...

I'm willing to give a lot of the cast from Twilight the benefit of the doubt after having seen them maintain character rather than flee in terror from Puppet Renesmee. (It will haunt your dreams.)


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