This Week in Geek (1-07/08/16)


My girl Nath gave me the board game Mysterium for my birthday (belatedly, don't chime in with wishes), which is a mix of Dixit and Clue. Pretty fun and quick to play!


At the movies: Lights Out puts a Doctor Who monster idea in the blender with well-worn tropes, and manages to remix them just enough to surprise its audience at least some of the time. The ghost on show can only exist in shadow or darkness, blinking out of existence in the light, something that's well thought-out and cleverly countered by the heroes. She is also a metaphorical representation of one character's depression, destructive in much the same way and obeying those psychological rules, though it means the ending could be... off-putting. The characters are well-drawn, though the acting is only okay, especially in expository scenes, making for a film that holds one's interest, but doesn't feel like required viewing. Wait for it to come out on Netflix. Speaking of which...

Netflix: The oddly-titled Top Five is essentially a rom-com between Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson, both eminently watchable, with a dash of Before Sunrise acting as a platform for Rock's stand-up musings. He's a typecast comedy actor trying to change his life around; she's an entertainment reporter hoping to nudge a favorite star back on track; both are recovering alcoholics and this day may prove their undoing. All in all, quite likable, and it has something to say about celebrity culture, its addictive properties, and the hypersurveillance that comes with it. It does seem to ramble, however, as the film slides in a large number of cameo by recognizable faces, often as themselves, and flashbacks that don't necessarily pay off later. I like the final minutes that get us where these films predictably want to get without actually doing the obvious thing.

I've always thought Jenny Slate hilarious, but Obvious Child shows she has a lot more range than I would have thought. She plays a stand-up comic whose life is falling apart and who must face adulthood when surprised by an unwanted pregnancy. This self-aware rom-com has some genuinely funny moments, but also isn't afraid to dwell on drama, making for a grounded film where some of the characters just happen to be funny, perhaps to keep the darkness at bay. Most characters pale compared to Slate's performance, and they do feel real, not overwritten, their performances most subtle than films like this usually allow. Off-color and in some ways controversial, Obvious Child somehow manages to register as sweet and charming in the end.

I don't know what keeps drawing me to Jack Ryan films, considering The Hunt for Red October is the only one I don't have problems with. The one I've been holding off on is The Sum of All Fears, but I finally pulled that band-aid off. It's much better than I thought it would be, especially the first act, and has a killer cast. Ben Affleck's Jack Ryan is a bit of a cipher, to be honest, but the plot about a lost nuke and a conspiracy to use it to start WWIII is rich and interesting. And then, spoilers, the nuke goes off on American soil, and the film becomes harder and harder to take seriously. We've basically got a hero running around an atomic wasteland unharmed here! But more than that, it means the illusion of Jack Ryan's realistic world of global politics is broken - one wonders how this would have changed the world had Affleck's rookie Ryan gone on to helm a franchise - and the last scene tonally goes against the grain and feels all wrong. It leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths, especially post-9/11 (the film came out in 2002), and loses all the good will it had accumulated. I think I still like it better than the Harrison Ford ones though.

Best of Enemies is a documentary about the birth of punditry, when two intellectuals, William F. Buckley (on the Right) and Gore Vidal (on the Left), were used as a cost-saving measure by ABC-TV during the 1968 Republican and Democrat conventions. Seemed a perfect fit to watch just after the 2016 national conventions, and indeed, 1968 and 2016 have a lot in common. The film acts as a portrait of both men, first and foremost, and as an ironic counterpoint to the state of political discourse in media today. While Buckley and Vidal were brilliant wordsmiths, I'm not entirely sure they truly elevated the level of discourse; they were too much about destroying their opponent for that - or at least that's what the chosen clips show - so they are a herald for a lot of the crap that passes for news coverage today. Almost fifty years later, I don't think we've progressed at all.

The Last Man on the Moon is a documentary that takes a look at the last astronaut to have his feet on the Moon, Apollo 17's Eugene Cernan. He was also a Gemini astronaut and flew Apollo 10, so it's a chance to look at the entire space race through his eyes. As a fan of the space race, I have to admit I knew a lot of the stories already, and found the last act more interesting (people seldom talk about those last few missions). Parallel to the historical facts is the reflection Cernan has about his life, what it meant for humanity to accomplish what it did, and wistfully, whether his taking part was fair on his family. The film and its "characters" are touchingly honest, but I wish it took more chances with the material. Feels like a very standard documentary at times, and I wish it had gripped me more given my love of the subject matter.

The Real History of Science Fiction isn't aptly titled. It's a 4-episode BBC series, each chapter discussing a trope or theme (robots, space travel, aliens, time travel) innate to science fiction, but through television and film, very seldom through its actual literary roots. It's a chance to hear various TV and movie stars talk about the premises of what they were in (with lots of clips), but books and authors, while present, get short shrift indeed. Even then, the "history" is never chronological (robots starts with Terminator, for example), and sometimes narrator Mark Gatiss strays off the main topic (what's Metropolis and Blade Runner doing in the time travel episode, for example? especially since they were covered under robots). One to half-listen to while cooking and eating dinner, but a real disappointment awaits actual fans of the genre with this surface treatment of it.



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