This Week in Geek (9-15/11/15)


Got a couple movies on DVD I saw and liked in theaters - Mad Max: Fury Road, and Spy. Speaking of spies...


At the movies: I thought SPECTRE was meant to be Craig's final two-parter, but no, I got that wrong. It's a complete film and might be Craig's last. I don't think I'm ready to say goodbye, though I do think his era has gotten away from what I so loved about it in Casino Royale. Bond #24 is a throwback to earlier eras, not just because the old criminal organization returns (Hail Hydra!), but it's got Moore-era jokes (I hate it when the comedy is driven by extras; the ones that come from Bond himself are tops though), set pieces that seem designed to evoke past films (the Austrian resort is right out of In Her Majesty's Secret Service), a villain with a metal feature (but he doesn't amount to very much), and a "follow clue A to clue B to clue C..." plot from which the worst Bonds have suffered (if this were a role-playing session, the GM would be accused of railroading; Bond even complains about the lack of choice). Bond working with a team, an anti-SPECTRE, in a sense, was the best part, with particularly active parts for M and Q, though Moneypenny necessarily takes a back seat to featured Bond girl Léa Seydoux. I'm not sure I'm behind the big revelation behind Blofeld's origins yet, just a coincidence too far, in my opinion. The Sam Smith theme is the worst since Madonna's. But though he doesn't achieve Skyfall's level of splendor, Sam Mendes still brings his visual brilliance to the film - the tentacle/tendril motif is intense! So it sounds like I'm down on the film, doesn't it? I'm not. It had plenty of good moments, fun gags, exciting action, and the required sexiness. I just wish it were the best spy film I've seen this year, you know?

DVDs: Slow West is a lyrical western in the mold of Jarmusch's Dead Man, about a young Scotsman tracking the (unrequited) love of his life in the Old West, with the help of a bounty hunter who at first means to collect on her and her father's heads. That's the slow-burning plot, but what it's really about is the transformational power of love and death. It's the kid's love that drives the picture forward, and that transforms the bounty hunter's world view, though the influence goes both ways. Writer-director John Maclean has an inventive visual style that delights and shocks, even if his symbolism is sometimes a little heavy-handed. It's a style that is perfectly suited to the New Zealand locations standing in for the American West, a Middle-Earth littered with bodies acting as surreal backdrop for the story. It's gorgeous. A quiet film punctuated by flashes of violence. The DVD includes the action-oriented and wholly misleading trailer, cast and crew interviews, and raw behind the scenes footage.

Listen Up Philip an indie drama about a quartet of characters connected through Jason Schwartzman's Philip, a young author whose sudden success alienates him from his girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss), and brings him closer to his idol (Jonathan Pryce), whose relationship with his daughter (Krysten Ritter) is strained. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry gives us a character study in the "New York" style (Woody Allen is an obvious touchstone, though Perry's novelistic inspiration, Philip Roth, is evident even in the DVD cover design which emulates certain editions of Roth's books I have on my shelf). Schwartzman's stony intellectualism seems right for this bitter egotist, keeping everyone at arm's length but his warmer, but just as intellectually cold, mentor. Moss is a complete contrast, giving a true and emotional performance that makes you wish the movie were more about her. The structure, playing out as character-driven chapters, does allow it to be, for a time, and the inclusion of a third person omniscient narrator is also a nice touch. I respect this kind of film making a great deal, letting actors do their thing and letting ambiguity reign. This is, in fact, what other movies would consider a first act, and only the narrator really allows us to skip ahead to see what else might await these characters. The DVD offers a commentary track, Perry giving us a lot of insight, although also sometimes bitter about the criticisms he's endured. There are about 7 minutes of deleted scenes, 12 of raw behind the scenes footage, a short making of featurette, a teaser with all original footage, and a gallery of one of the characters' book jackets, but not the others (odd since they do appear in the credits sequence).

Neil Blomkamp's Chappie doesn't really deserve the contempt it's attracted, but it's not a great film either, mostly because it doesn't know what tone it should strive for. Part Robocop, part Short Circuit, I'm fairly sure this robot with a soul movie was meant as a tribute to 80s sci-fi films. It's got "futuristic punks" right out of Max Max, Max Headroom and The Dark Knight Returns, slow motion action shots, etc. But it also wants to be a thoughtful meditation on sentience, an allegory about growing up, and an examination of nature vs. nurture. While I appreciate this brand of SF, Blomkamp is always very overt about his metaphors and brings no subtlety at all. Regardless, the film is at odds with itself because it tries to be too many things at once - action film, sf fable, social commentary, goofy robot comedy (this is what it is, mostly) - and it betrays its own narrative with its attempt at a feel good ending. And while I like Hugh Jackman as a villain, he's written as a cartoon, just like the gangbanger punks (who, I understand, are playing themselves, something that doesn't feel cute outside South Africa). When your villains are thoughtless and stupid, it doesn't make your heroes shine too brightly. I would have been more interested in a tragic movie about artificial intelligence - Chappie IS a sympathetic character, well realized in terms of voice and effects - and kept growing bored with its screechy action beats. The DVD includes a brief featurette about the making of the film.

Though a fan of the books and the TV series when I was a teenager (the radio series wasn't available to me yet), the 2005 Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy film doesn't quite do it for me. The problem, I think, is that the big budget movie format has replaced much of the humor with spectacle. And while the spectacle is very pretty and impressive, spectacle is not inherently funny. Obviously, it wouldn't have done to make a movie where we consistently go to the Guide and its absurd definitions, but when it does, that's when the film is genuinely funny! Though I have some attachment to the way the TV series did the Guide's imagery, I quite like the film's animation too. The moments when the narrator/Guide takes over are, yes, the best parts. Oh, and the dolphin musical number. And the Improbability Drive effect. A great cast (although Mos Def? really?) sometimes let down by a zany pace, a few neat references to the TV version (try to spot the original Marvin!), but I think viewers less familiar with the book will come out of it simply thinking Marvin was oh so cute, and ah, that's where the babel fish and "42" come from. For those who did think highly of the book(s) or radio original, I think the Infocom text-based adventure game has yet to be dethroned.

When I first reviewed Guardians of the Galaxy, after seeing it in a theater, I was overwhelmingly positive about it. Since then, a certain fellow blogger/podcaster by the name of Diabolu Frank punctured my balloon and made me see its flaws, specifically how sexist it actually is in its treatment of Gamora, as a badass assassin who nevertheless cannot win a fight and must play the damsel in distress. Once thought, that cannot be unthought. #FranksAgenda. Watching the movie again on DVD with this in mind, it's not QUITE as egregious as Frank made it out to me (understand, I'm not blaming him, but my interpretation of what he highlighted), though it certainly doesn't help that Drax keeps calling her a whore. Still an exciting, funny and visually stunning space opera that I hope the next Star Wars can equal in entertainment value. Marvel DVDs suck these days, so just an "exclusive look" at Avengers Age of Ultron (what is this, a DC animated release?) and a single deleted scene, or rather, a few extra lines added to a scene that's in the film. Given how big a hit Guardians was, and the number of obscure comics characters it introduced to the cinematic universe, it's a real shame. Sure, the Blu-Ray special edition has more new content, but I don't think it links back to the comics.

Another film I saw in theaters and consequently have reviewed before, the existential Birdman was as good on a second viewing. I will again praise its magical realism - which director Alejandro Inarritu always delivers - its technical ballsiness, and its rich thematic underpinnings. The performances are top notch. The story can be understood as a tragic drama, or a satirical comedy. The commentary on the life of a performer is potent. The dilemma every (good) actor faces is the loss of self that comes with taking on a role (including the star persona that movie actors may have to adopt in the public sphere). Michael Keaton's Regan is hounded by the role that made him a star, and his loss of self is represented in his hallucinations (which may become reality), but also his absence as a father and husband, in his grasping for what made him want to be an actor in the first place, in the voiding of his identity on stage in the climax. The other actors in the story suffer from identity crises too (as does Regan's daughter), though it may manifest differently. Inarritu has my box office money forever, man. On the DVD, you'll find a good making of and a photo gallery.

Cougar Town Season 3 is the last released, though the comedy has had three more seasons (to date?) after moving from ABC to TBS. So who knows if and when the rest will make it to DVD. Well, I can stand to take a break. I just chugged three seasons, after all. The third season repositions many of the characters, giving them new jobs and relationships to fuel their personal stories, and I think finally finds a way to make Travis work as a character now that he's left for college (season 2 was a little awkward about this). But it's essentially the same show, delivering funny characters and absurd situations, then cuing up a sad song and letting the emotions fly and melting our hearts. That's how Cougar Town rolls. Diminishing returns on the DVD extras though: Just a few deleted scenes and a blooper reel this time around.


snell said...

I'll just say that the decision to turn Hitchhiker's Guide into a romance where Arthur wins Trillian shows how limited the filmmakers' understanding of their source material was.

As for SPECTRE, yeah, it's not bad, but sometime the sense of disappointment can be hard to shrug off, when you were expecting more on the level of Skyfall.

snell said...

PS--you've got to bite the bullet and make the upgrade to Blu-ray, if for no other reason so you can get beyond the "bare-bones bonus features" DVDs seem relegated to these days.

Anonymous said...

I was "there", so to speak, when Gamora first appeared in comics (Adam Warlock / Pip / the Magus), so I was plenty disappointed by her handling in "Guardians of the Galaxy". It's a part of her character that she was damaged by Thanos and others, but that never stopped her from being proactive; and I don't recall her ever having interest in romance (i.e., even being potentially won over by Starlord's dance moves).

The biggest flaw in "Guardians of the Galaxy", I felt, was that it was a plot where our heroes had little control over what they did; they kept going from one thing to the next because every other choice was death. With the exception of deciding to help Xandar, it was all like a D&D campaign where there are always moving walls that push you from one room to the next.

But the other biggest flaw in "Guardians of the Galaxy" was our lead's character arc. Not every movie requires one, but I think this movie wanted one, and didn't quite deliver. The best way I've heard it described is, decide how the hero is screwing up his own life, and let the course of events help him overcome that self-defeating tendency. We ALMOST got that but they didn't quite pull it off: Starlord was pretty unable to cope with the loss of his mom (presumably how he is screwing up his life) and I never got the sense that he came up with any sort of answer -- say, by being the man his mom would be proud of, he's carrying on for her.

Maybe I'm just mad that Chris Pratt isn't Andy Dwyer / Burt Macklin / Johnny Karate any longer. That was the role Chris Pratt was meant to play.

Siskoid said...

Snell: Douglas Adams himself worked on the movie script and felt it was the best way to do the story as a film. I don't disagree, but it's a little formulaic. As for Blu-Ray, I just can't stand to high-def images that are crisper than my own normal vision. That's not how movies look in theaters either. I used to rate extras as extremely important to my movie-to-own experience, but not as much anymore. Still, it stings when a low-budget indie has a better package than a big budget hit. Pretty clear they aren't giving me a choice of format, but actually pushing one format over another.

Anon: So your complaint about GofG is the complain I had about Spectre, except I think Guardians did have choices that needed to be made because the characters weren't a team or altruistic to begin with (as opposed to Bond who was always going to try to stop Spectre). The choices are about relationships and morality. And characters do make choices occasionally. Drax has the agency to lure Ronan to Knowhere, throwing a wrench in the works, for example.

Brendoon said...

Ahhh! The Hitchhik game. Loved that.
I guess what we're seeing in the Hitchhik (H2G2G) movie is Douglas Adams (DNA) with a whole lot of writing discipline enforced. That was always his strength and weakness: he was an Anarchist when it came to writing. This meant he was able to add a ton of exciting foreshadowing in the books and Radio show (like in Lucas' Star Wars & Empire)as he felt like it BUT THEN failed to deliver on the promises... (Lucas kinda delivered but I'd rather he didn't)...because a whim took the story in a different direction. That's what made the books great, they were unpredictable and every turn was fresh (like life!).
By the way, if you recall there was a commercial 3LP set of the first 6 hitchhik radio episodes... completely rewritten, tidied up and re-recorded with the same cast, released in the early 80's.
It was better than those episodes because the time restraint was removed from the project, total perfection. Because these chaps went broke wihtout paying DNA the royalties due him, the masters went into ownership limbo and were never heard again. HOWEVER, I bought the tapes during the original release and later had them digitised. If you ever have the luck of finding them online they're copies of this very digitisation! Mail me if you want 'em, they're jolly good.

LondonKdS said...

As I understand it those characters in Chappie aren't non-professional actors, they're South African gangster rappers. Not exploitation of naive people, more like the way rappers used to get cast in American "street" dramas.

LiamKav said...

"As for Blu-Ray, I just can't stand to high-def images that are crisper than my own normal vision"

Not to question you, but whaaaaaaaaat? The resolution of your own eyes is always going to be higher than "hi-def" (and cinema showings will be higher res than 1080p anyway).

Have you got overly aggressive "image enhancement" going on on your TV? I've been to peoples house where they have the contrast set on "dynamic", they have "edge enhancement" and everything else turned on and it makes things super artificial looking. It's why I got one of Panasonics last plasmas before they stopped making them... I found plasmas much better than LCDs at making things look natural.

Siskoid said...

Yes that's certainly the problem. Edges enhanced, annoying frame rates, impossible depth perceptions. It just looks wrong to me. I can't stand it.

Note: I don't have 20/20 vision either. Wearing glasses does flatten out details somewhat. Maybe that's part of it.

Siskoid said...

Brendan: Oh wow, nice. When I get the time (I'm late on my Big Finish listening), I might just have to look for those. As for the Infocom game, I'm still stuck trying to open those stupid doors, but I just can't prove my intelligence!

London: Yes, Ninja even listens to his own soundtrack during the film. Like I said, if you're not South African, you probably don't know these artists, so it's just thick accents and fashion nightmares and you don't get the reference.

Brendoon said...

The infocom Game....
I haven't played it since... oh,1988? Intelligence wasn't so much the answer as intelligence gathering... back in those days you had to talk with your friends who had talked with theirs and heard a rumour that a friend of theirs had discovered some random object did something unexpected when you did some sort of random thing with another random object. You could make one or two of those discoveries yourself and send 'em back down the grapevine to join the rest...
There wasn't much "intuitive" play to it, but it made you feel awfully clever even if you cheated.

"Those stupid doors": If these are the big doors out onto Magrathea it's no biggie, the game ends at that point with the promise of a part two which never happened.


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