This Week in Geek (7-13/09/15)


In addition to the Dr Who RPG pdf, I also got a couple DVDs - Whiplash and Leviathan.


DVDs: Given my interest in media and journalism, I was attracted to The Fifth Estate (or "the WikiLeaks movie"), but the film lacks focus. There's a good movie in there, but damned if anyone involved knows what it's supposed to be. It's really the third act that lets it all slip away. Before that is a slick exploration of how information technology has changed and how the mainstream media failed to keep up with it. The hacking elements feel legit and are easy enough to follow despite their technical aspect, and the film also stands as a reminder of the events exposed by WikiLeaks. But then the film becomes what its central character - Julian Assange - criticizes the mainstream for doing - it abandons the socio-ethical questions it raises to focus instead on Assange's strangeness. As the third, rather pointless act unfolds, we come to realize the protagonist, Assange's partner Daniel Berg (who wrote the book, so it's mostly from his perspective) has a plentiful lack of agency throughout. For a real person, he really is just a vessel for other characters' thoughts and agendas and never does anything unless pushed into it by others. And then there are the poor diplomats who become side-heroes, though their own wrong-doing is glossed over. The final blow is a preachy, pretentious tacked-on scene that presumes to explain the movie's title and Assange's character. And then there's an interesting meta-textual bit, but by then you've given up. Does the movie celebrate or condemn Assange? Like WikiLeaks itself, it drowns you in dense information and claims neutrality. In reality, it schizophrenically swings from one position to another and lands absolutely nowhere. A frustrating experience, but one that certainly created a lot of discussion with the people I watched it with (in fact, a lot of these notions must be credited to them, fellow Lonely Heart Marty especially).

Otherwise, this week was all about taking a big bite out of my I-MUST-CheckMovies 2015 Project, going through the 50 top movies lists as most-checked/most-favorited that I hadn't seen. In other words, catching up with the rest of the world. Up first...

Superbad. While it has its moments, most of them in the McLovin thread, it really shouldn't take two hours to tell the story of three teenage boys trying to procure beer for a party. The movie is plenty draggy. I didn't find it aggressively irritating though, which is something of a victory considering my lack of patience with this kind of comedy. At its heart is a sweet bromance, and it's fun to see a lot of the actors at such a comparatively young age. I'm not sure where to put the film on the credibility scale given how preposterously stupid the two cops are, but I can at least say I knew kids like these in school who were obsessed with sex, but didn't really have the wiles to get it. This was middle school, however, though I suppose they didn't fare any better in high school. I found it disturbing then, but would have found it simply annoying later. Now, as an adult, watching actors say similar things, I'm just, well, okay, what else have you got to say? I'm sure there's a good coming of age sex comedy that makes sense in Superbad, but it flails around a bit too much for elicit a laugh from me.

For an Oscar winner, Million Dollar Baby sure is a mess. I've yet to like a film directed by Clint Eastwood since Unforgiven, though this has some of that DNA in it, insofar as it's about over-the-hill old men never quite recapturing old glories. It's just so damn out of focus, y'know? Nominally, it's about a female boxer, and that's an interesting entry in the dangerously samey boxing genre. I'm not entirely sure I buy her meteoric rise given everything the movie tells us about training boxers, but fine. That it leads to a tragic sports injury is likewise not something a lot of sports movies get into, so I guess it's a worthy twist. But it makes the last act about euthanasia (so THAT'S what those pointless scenes of Clint's coach arguing with his priest were setting up) and it's a highly melodramatic gear shift that makes you feel like you've been tricked into watching a movie you didn't want to see. I also have to wonder why Morgan Freeman's character narrates the story, because to do so, he has to read Clint's mind and knows things he really couldn't. And what does the Jay Baruchel subplot have to do with anything? It's like they crammed too many boxing short stories into the same film. And for all these twists or strange choices, I continue to cling to my impression that Eastwood's direction is somehow too "obvious" for my tastes. Freeman doing narration? SO OBVIOUS. Syrupy Spanish guitar to make the movie more arty? Obvious. White (or in this case Male) Messiah complex? Obvious. It's well shot and everything, but I just can't get a rise from his stuff.

Tangled, the Rapunzel story, took me a good 15-20 minutes to get into, I have to admit. The opening narration explained things to me like I was a child, and then I kept thinking her hair must've been so incredibly dirty trailing behind her like that. But soon after, I dunno, the second song, I found myself really digging it. Rapunzel is really a very quirky Disney princess, Zachary Levi's Flynn exudes infectious swashbuckling fun, and that horse, that horse is just hilarious. The cartoony slapstick is something you expect from the Looney Tunes, very entertaining, and the film gets quite dark at times. I don't think I've seen that much blood in a Disney cartoon before (though I admit, I haven't seen THAT many). Overall, the violence, action (at times, it's Rapunzel as Spider-Man, I'm not gonna hide that fact), humor and musical numbers are very well balanced, and the film creates a number of memorable characters. It goes way off the map in terms of the original fairy tale, but that's entirely to its credit. What fun!
The Project also required me to finish the Harry Potter movies, so I did. The last three Potter films are very much of a piece. The nightmarish qualities director David Yates brought to the 5th film, he perfects in The Half-Blood Prince, and finally the special effects seem on par with the story's requirements. The colors are muted, the cinematography stark and oppressive, and the landscapes wintry, as befits the end of a saga. The revelations come hard and fast, important characters start dying off, and we've left the silliness of school games behind in favor of character development and political intrigue. Though it's apparently not one of the most loved, perhaps because it's a lot of set-up for what's to come, Half-Blood Prince is the first Potter film I can put my unqualified recommendation behind. Shame we need to see the others to make sense of these stories. My one pet peeve - and it's one that carries over into the next two films - is the sound design, which makes every interior sound like a cathedral; what's with the reverb? In The Deathly Hallows Part 1, everything goes to rot. The kids have a clear(ish) mission thanks to the revelations of Half-Blood Prince, but few resources. I admire the second act a great deal, with its austere landscapes where lonely figures meditate... There isn't a whole lot happening in physical terms, but the mood is perfect. It's despair before there can be hope, the calm before the storm. Takes guts to turn parts of this blockbuster series into an art film. I also love the animation on the story of the Three Brothers and wish there'd been stuff like this across the entire series, if only to better justify it. The final part is largely a giant battle, returning everyone to Hogwart's and ticking all the boxes in terms of people, monsters and artifacts from across the series. It's what makes watching the entire thing not a waste of time, because it makes all the pieces matter. It even sets the series up for a re-watch given its key revelations. Feel free to skip over the 19 years later epilogue though; who needs it!

The back half of the Potter films was loads better than the front half, to be sure. I did not come off with a better appreciation of J.K. Rowling as an author, mind you. I've always thought the spell names were silly and obvious, the early plots random and rife with deus ex machina, and that she owed too much to Neil Gaiman, J.R.R. Tolkien and George Lucas. That hasn't gone away, and I still have no intention of ever reading the books, no matter how much detail Potter-heads insist are contained in them. But I can at least say I enjoyed the more adult chapters of the story, at least through the condensed lens of Yates' films.


Toby'c said...

Half-Blood Prince is one I'm less than fond of, and this time it's not because of the missing exposition (of which there is still plenty, such as everything Dumbledore knew or suspected about the remaining horcruxes), but a couple of terrific character moments. One comes during Harry's first meeting with Rufus Scrimgeour, who wants to use Harry as a mascot to rally support for the ministry. But Harry is having none of it, calling Scrimgeour out on a number if unethical tactics the ministry are using to look like they're more effective than they are (he points out that it's a repeat of Barty Crouch's actions when he was in charge of Magical Law Enforcement), as well as the crap they put him through the previous year, which he here learns Umbridge has gone unpunished for (he shows him the scar on his hand to hammer it home). All this carries over into their scene in Deathly Hallows, though Scrimgeour earns some gratitude from him after he dies while refusing to give up Harry's location under torture.

The other is a conversation between Harry and Dumbledore after the explanation of the Horcruxes, dealing with Harry's fear of being forced into a final confrontation by the prophecy. Dumbledore makes it clear to him that not every prophecy in the Department has come true, and the only reason this one means anything is because Voldemort chose to act on it.

There's also a good bit where Dumbledore gets to call the Dursleys out for their years of mistreatment, while giving them some backhanded praise for not turning Harry into a spoiled brat and a bully like Dudley.

Both Deathly Hallows movies largely suffer from the damage to previous ones. If you were wondering at all about Dobby showing up randomly and knowing who Ron and Hermione were, he'd been a recurring character at Hogwarts since Goblet of Fire, in which he gets himself a minimum wage job from Dumbledore. (This also ties into a subplot where Hermione becomes obsessed with Elf Rights, which honestly I could do without). Dobby was the one who gave Harry the gillyweed for the underwater task (Neville was Crouch's first plan, so I can't complain about that change by Steve Kloves), told Harry where to find the room he used for Defence training, and spied on Malfoy with Kreacher (the Black family's elf, who also played a role in the trap that led to Sirius's death).

Even without the previous movies, there were a number of annoying and avoidable changes that just made me facepalm. Harry destroying the Elder Wand without first using it to repair his Holly one, for example (though I do have to give Kloves some credit for moving the wandlore exposition to after the fight was over).

In conclusion, even if all this ranting over the last couple of months hasn't swayed you on Rowling as a writer, I'd still argue the books worth your time, for the frequently hilarious banter and narration in their downtime.

Moving on - loved Tangled a lot more than I was expecting, even as a lifelong Disney fan. The lantern scene and "I See the Light" was what really won me over (well, that and the frying pan gags), and on subsequent rewatches, it's actually jumped into my top ten films of all time (though only third favourite animated movie).

Siskoid said...

I just don't have as much time as I used to for reading (what with all the writing and stuff), so I have to make choices. Some things I am content to experience in adapted form (you've heard me rant about how terrible I think Tolkien is as a writer, right?).

Moving on - I would probably not have an animated feature in my top 10 films (although I can never create such a list, because I think various genres can't really be compared and would rather have several such lists), but off the top of my head, yes, I think I'd agree that Tangled is my favorite Disney animated feature, but that's either because I haven't seen most of the recent stuff, and haven't seen the classics (even the 90s wave classics) in a very long time. But off the top of my head, yes, certainly, though perhaps running side by side with Mulan.


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