This Week in Geek (25-31/07/16)


At the movies: I've reviewed Star Trek Beyond in long form, but for those who only have time for capsule reviews and don't want to be spoilered... The newest entry in the NuTrek franchise is a nice return to what made Star Trek Star Trek, i.e. characters you want to hang out with dealing with moral dilemmas and themes about the human condition. Simon Pegg's script is restrained when it comes to comedy, starting on a melancholy note and progressively becoming more fun, crazy and ridiculous, but never forgetting his twin themes - strength through unity/diversity (IDIC) and mortality/how the past haunts us (given it's Trek's 50th Anniversary, the way it's handled is a lot more subtle than you'd think). The film's biggest flaw, for me, was the effects, especially early on, which in an effort to be photo-real, sometimes just became dirty and hard to follow. But that's not usually why I buy my movie ticket, so it becomes a minor complaint. Slow to start, perhaps, but by the end, was pushing all the right buttons. If we were ranking all the Trek movies, it would easily fall in the top half.

Netflix: I don't know anything about the late Frank Sidebottom, the inspiration for the 2014 film Frank written by one of his band mates, but I don't think that's important, because it's not a biopic. Rather, the ludicrous concept of a band fronted by a man forever hiding his face under a papier maché head, transforms the character into a concept. Watching the film, whose protagonist is the newest member of the band, the struggling and at times self-serving Jon, I couldn't shake the feeling that Frank was a living manifestation of Jon's creative process. And in a way, what happens to this band, with its cipher of a front man, and its cipher of a name, is what happens or can happen to any band, or person involved in creative endeavor. The struggle to find inspiration, to be honest with yourself, that some band members are interchangeable, that popularity can destroy you, that selling out is the death of art, it's all in there, layered and almost allegorical. Bizarre, but truthful.

Slow Learners, AKA Bad Boys, Crazy Girls, is a rom-com starring Adam Pally and Sarah Burns as nerdy high school employees unlucky in love who decide to reinvent themselves over the summer to change their romantic fates. What happens is that they become worse people, to the point where you're not sure you want to watch them anymore, until they finally give in to the rom-com cliché you knew was in the cards all along. Even when Pally is a "bad boy", you can tell his real self is still hiding underneath, at least, but Burns' character goes so off the rails, you can't tell if the likeable girl you met in the first act is still in there, which is a major flaw. The movie also has a television feel, as far as framing and pacing go, that doesn't do it any favors either. Not bad, as the premise has some value, but a little dull.

Harmontown is a documentary that follows Community creator Dan Harmon on the road as he brings his podcast in front of audiences across America, and exposes his darkest self to the camera, but I'm not sure it even finds a clear focus. It's really about three things: Behind the scenes on this particular road show, a biography of Dan Harmon, and the rise and fall of a self-loathing narcissist. You get the sense that the film is always looking for what it's about, and that's probably what it actually was like. The heart of the film is that, on the road, this disaffected man finds a sense of community wherever he goes, which is entirely appropriate given the show that made him popular. Of course, fans of Community watching this may well come away thinking they've been worshiping at the wrong altar. And yet, I think there's value in such honesty, even if it is self-destructive. What we may be watching is a self-important giant trying to take himself down a few pegs because no one else will or can. Or just watch it for the cool and endearing Dungeon Master who's along for the ride.

Non-Stop is a thriller set aboard a plane, in which Liam Neeson plays an air marshal getting threats by text. As the copy says, 146 passengers, 146 suspects. It's a good premise, and the villain's scheme probably can't hold up to scrutiny, but it's not something you think about while watching. In other words, there's enough tension, mystery, problem-solving, and brief spurts of action to keep you entertained. The film quickly establishes a large cast of suspects, and uses them well. The one problem is Julianne Moore's character, who doesn't just draw attention to herself because of the casting, but can be quite sinister at times, and for no real reason. If she in on it? Isn't she? It's like the movie can't decide, or if different different drafts had different takes on her, and of all the elements in the film, she's the one you go back to and wonder if the ending, and indeed, many moments with her, are earned.

Cleanskin tells two stories that eventually dove-tail into one another. In one, an MI-5(ish) agent (Sean Bean) on the cusp of being disavowed, tracks terrorist activity in London, while perhaps his own people are working against him. In the other, a young Muslim (Abhin Galeya) is being radicalized by Jihadists, though he perhaps doesn't have it in him to become a terrorist. His is by far the more interesting story, and the more sympathetic character. If that's the contrast the film is going for - antipathetic Westerner vs. sympathetic Jihadist - it's a bit obvious, isn't it? Structurally, the contrast actually makes the film feel disjointed, especially given the extended flashback to the young man's university days, and Michelle Ryan doing in so small a part? An interesting notion to try a pull the rug out from under the audience, but it just becomes hard to follow. Ultimately, the film does have a strong theme. How do you wash your conscience clean of heinous acts? Justify them through dogma? Blame others? Void our own selves? None of the answers are pretty, but they are thought-provoking.

Books: China Miéville's novella This Census-Taker is an oddity, and I've been struggling to figure out what it's actually about, or even WHO it's actually about. Of course, Miéville's prose is always interesting, and his spare world-building impressive, that's almost a given. Set in a postapocalyptic town perched on a ravine, or rather the mountain slope that faces it, it's the story of a boy who may or may not have seen his father kill his mother and who lives in fear for his own life. There is confusion from the first page, and because at times we're transported to a room where a man writes this tale in a coded book whose notes he inherited, it's hard to tell just who is actually telling the story. The boy? His father? A complete stranger? An amalgamation of people? What's real, what isn't, what's fiction and what truth? I'm on the fence as to whether the lack of answers is a flaw or a strength. Is This Census-Taker ambiguous to the point of pointlessness, or does it invite multiple readings and meanings? In the end, it was a pleasant read, and I'm not really dissatisfied with the ending.


Anonymous said...

If and when they do a porn movie of "Cleanskin", they had damn well better call it "Cleanse Kin". Then it can be about a spy on the run who likes to take showers with his relatives.


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