This Week in Geek (14-20/12/15)

Buys'n'Gifts

A got myself a couple of DVDs this week, Maps to the Stars and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, as well as a couple of game products, the sea-going version of Tsuro, and the pdf version of the 10th Doctor Sourcebook for the Doctor Who RPG. But 'tis the season and I was blessed to receive the following from friends: It Follows on DVD; trades of Saga and The Wicked + The Divine; books such as Broadcast Hysteria (or Orson Welles' War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News) by Brad Schwartz, and Giving Up by Canadian author Mike Steeves; a little plate with a Dalek snowman on it; and you gotta check this out guys:
That's a scarf Hot-or-Not-er Havana Nights (hi Elyse!) made me with TARDISes stitched into it. She's got talent! Thank you everyone, and I hope you like your books/games/movies/comics too.

"Accomplishments"

DVDs: After liking Tangled quite a lot, I was eager to see Frozen, which given all the cosplay and the hoopla about the main song, I sort of thought was about Elsa the Ice Queen. But no, it's really about Elsa's hilariously awkward sister Anna, and of course, a cast of delightful characters, just like Tangled. Some nice songs and themes, a mount that acts like a dog, a villain that holds some surprises, and beautiful animation. If that's a formula, it's one I can get behind (though Disney's next project from this "universe" should break the mold a bit more lest the films lose their sparkle). I do tend to think Frozen is a little overrated - it's definitely good, but it's not, say, The Lion King, and I still think I might prefer Tangled, if we're comparing them, but... just listen to me. I'm having a harder and harder time keeping up the pretense that I'm not a particular fan of computer animation!

On to #ISpyDecember... Gorky Park is a murder mystery set in Moscow in the Soviet era, a mystery with ties to the KGB and the climate of hyper-surveillance in the Red State. It works as a procedural and as a political thriller, but I think its strengths lie more in the picture it paints of the USSR. Filmed in Finland, the movie has a nice stark atmosphere, and the lack of well-known landmarks actually makes it more convincing. We're not seeing the tourist's Moscow, but the residential zones, the contryside, etc. The characters must work within a culture where freedom is curtailed, and where it is a natural fact of life, and that's well represented to. In fact, the root of evil in this world is capitalism! A good use of the unusual point of view. I do have issues with the film noir femme fatale element, which even the dialog admits is melodrama, but it still works playing off then-unknown William Hurt's stony performance. Almost certainly one of director Michael Apted's best films, if not his best known. The DVD features an interview with the director that acts as a good making of.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is the movie I can never remember Charlie Kaufman wrote, perhaps because it's a book adaptation rather than a completely original work. Still a strange one, directed with the appropriate amount of fun by George Clooney. Sam Rockwell plays real world game show mogul Chuck Barris (The Dating Game, The Gong Show, etc.) who claimed, in his autobiography, to have been a hit man for the CIA. The claim is somewhat preposterous, and the Agency has totally denied it, and though Barris worked as a consultant on the film, it keeps its ambiguity. The protagonist is the kind of huckster who would make this stuff up, and we hear just enough of his voice to wonder who he's telling this to and for what reason. A lot of the spy stuff is played at outright paranoid hallucination. And yet, some details of his crazy life to beg some questions, and the production includes documentary talking heads of the people who really knew him, just the add that layer of "reality". Though Confessions is sometimes messy and disorganized, that's somehow appropriate to the subject matter, and a wild ride regardless.

Luc Besson's Nikita (AKA La Femme Nikita) was a domestic success back in 1990 and spawned an American remake (Point of No Return) and two TV series. It is definitely an action film made on the cheap, but that statement takes nothing away from its energy, originality, or Bessonian texture. In the story, a delinquent girl is reprogrammed and trained as a French secret agent by her arguably sadistic handler. We're privy to her whole career, from indoctrination through the events that will make her want to leave the service. Where Nikita surprises is in the very strangeness of the lead character. In any other film, the character would be dead sexy and a cool badass. Instead, Nikita is a total mess, both physically and mentally. She's completely unpredictable, and so is her world, with the circumstances propelling her into this life and those expelling her out are masterful cock-ups. A note on being a French speaker: Some of the accents were a little difficult, so the subtitles were turned on. Hilariously, it is not a direct translation, but an approximation that still tells the story, but creates frequent and hilarious discrepancies for the bilingual audience member.

Billion Dollar Brain is the third Harry Palmer spy thriller starring Michael Caine (after The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin), and they've changed the director again. This time, madman Ken Russell is at the wheel, but at least initially, the film feels LESS experimental the first two directed by Furie and Hamilton respectively (although I'll concede the camera gets more and more chaotic, and every scene starts on an interesting non sequitur). When we catch up to Harry, he's left the secret service, but he gets pulled back in, and uncovers a plot to take down communism run by someone who might as well be the 1960s version of Donald Trump. The film is this crazy mash-up between 60s James Bond camp and Dr. Strangelove, and I'm not sure how it really fits the world created in the first two films. It's worth watching with an open mind just to see what's the next crazy thing that'll happen (and how it hits a bit close to home for 2015), but it's ultimately a failure because Harry has so little agency. He's dragged along so he can witness these events, but his survival so he can get to the next usually feels contrived.

Our Man in Havana is one of those witty comedies of yesteryear, filmed in Cuba barely three months before Castro's revolution (a title card has to clarify the point, since it came out after) starring Alex Guiness as a vacuum salesman who gets roped into spying for the British government and makes a hash of it. He bills every expense, but doesn't really have anything to report, so he starts to make stuff up, which attracts unwanted attention from both his British superiors and forces inside Cuba; violence and hilarity ensue in tandem. The comedy stems from the sparkling Wildean dialog and the various misunderstandings, but the thriller elements still provide great atmosphere and real danger for the lead and his loved ones. Our Man in Havana isn't a spoof, so much as it's a comment on the unreliability of spies and their intel, and how in the end, playing the game is more important than the results. BEST SPY MOVIE OF THE WEEK

Ridely Scott's Body of Lies was a nice, though imperfect, surprise. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a CIA operative in Iraq and then Jordan trying to run operations on the ground while consistently getting the shaft by his handler played by Russell Crowe. Based on a novel, its structure is haphazard, but not aimless, and definitely meant to frustrate us in the way DiCaprio's character is. Plots don't head for happy endings the way you think they should, but it doesn't mean they won't, in some way, down the line. Never boring, Ridley Scott directs this with energy, giving us an interesting snapshot of intelligence operations in that part of the world, and how politics tend to complicate matters. There's a romantic entanglement I found a little distracting (though it does become important to the plot), but is worthy if only to immerse us further into the culture DiCaprio is infiltrating.

Really the first movie I didn't care for in all of #ISpyDecember to date: Tony Scott makes Enemy of the State look and sound good, but this Will Smith vehicle is so badly written that it falls apart almost immediately. You've got a nasty element inside the NSA who commits murder, gets caught on tape, then spends the movie trying to destroy the tape and anyone who knows about it using every means at its disposal. Will Smith gets into trouble when an old college friend slips him the tape, and off we go. But I have a hard time believing even a single frame of Smith's performance, a wisecracking labor lawyer whose wisecracks are frankly unfunny, and whose turn as an action hero doesn't track. There's entirely too much coincidence and stretches of the imagination needed to make the plot work. The best moments are provided by Gene Hackman, as a former NSA agent whose intense paranoia may just get both of them out of this, but despite his larger billing on the DVD cover, he's not in this quite enough to save the film.

4 comments:

snell said...

If you liked Our Man In Havana, you might want to check out The Tailor Of Panama, which le Carre admits was partially inspired by Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana novel.

Siskoid said...

It was almost on my December list!

Had I realized the connection then, I might have made sure it was.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

"I do tend to think Frozen is a little overrated - it's definitely good, but it's not, say, The Lion King, and I still think I might prefer Tangled, if we're comparing them."

You are more generous than I. I find the movie to be a LOT overrated; much like you describe Will Smith in Enemy of the State. Not really engaging, wisecracks that aren't funny; I totally get why people latched on to it (the non-traditional focus on sibling love instead of romantic love was unique before every Disney movie since did the same thing, 'Let It Go' could be the anthem for any number of social groups in a society that currently says 'embrace any and everything about yourself and don't change for anything'- which, while trying to encourage downtrodden minorities, may backfire in the end if it doesn't receive some qualifiers, but I digress- with catchy music and striking visuals... plus, a villain twist that is unexpected and a real shocker; though I would say that's more because it comes out of nowhere and is completely unsupported or unforeshadowed in any way, making it more sloppy writing than clever red herring). So, I get why the world went gaga over it.

But I think the characters are tremendously unengaging and try to hard to be quirky/funny (is it just me, or is modern Hollywood (and the independent film scene) completely ruining 'quirky'? They're driving it into the ground, and trying too hard most of the time. It feels like they're going to burn it out and free-spirited, socially-awkward/run-at-the-mouth 'quirky' characters are going to be that eye-rolling cliche of the 2010s the way Bullet Time is of the early 2000s. Quirkiness, and slowly-fracturing glass. Anyhow, another digression.)

Honestly, the only character I found to be funny was Olaf, which is ironic, because I typically HATE the mood-breaking, out-of-step comic relief character (you know, the guy that's usually voiced by Danny Devito and wearing a wife-beater in medieval times while cracking anachronistic jokes, because the producers think the audience are too stupid to invest in a fully-period piece, and need a comic relief character who's 'dumb like them'?). Olaf seemed like he was designed to be the one of those for this Disney movie, except, for once... the character actually worked. (Particularly because they didn't do the anachronistic bit so much). I dunno what it was; he just really clicked.

No one else did, though- I found the banter forced, the plot simplistic, and the film nowhere near the 'best thing Disney has ever produced' that it's being hailed as. (I, too, thought Tangled was better.) Out of about 51ish Disney animated films, I'd probably ranks this one in the mid-30s; well below any of the Disney Renaissance films, most of the 70s/80s stuff, or the early fairy tale classics. Above Atlantis: The Lost Empire or The Aristocats? Sure, okay. But best thing ever? Nope. And a cultural uber-phenomenon? Based on the film I saw, I would never have guessed that in a million years.

Wow. meant this to be a short comment, but it just kinda all came pouring out, didn't it? Guess I needed to... let it go.

Siskoid said...

Olaf is dead funny, I agree. Don't know if I could rank Disney's fairy tales, I'm not a huge animation fan to begin with, but I gather much of the hype is based on the generational nature of children's entertainment. Frozen arrived at the right time for a new batch of kids and their parents to fall in love with it, and so, mega-hit and lots of raves, while older films either fell into the baby bust gap or are only faintly remembered by the older fans of Frozen.

I did like it more than you did, though as with Tangled, it took me a bit to get into it. The main song has been overplayed so much that by the time we got there, it felt out of place. The Do you want to build a snowman theme resonated much more with me. This WAS Anna's story, and that's her song and music.

 

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