This Week in Geek (13-19/02/17)


At the movies: The original John Wick left some loose ends - the matter of the car, for example - and some open questions about the hidden world of assassins and just how John escaped it, which fuel Chapter 2 very nicely, thank you. And the way the film opens up that world means the setting is rife for a third installment. Fans of the original will get more of what they loved - extended gun fu battles, the suggestion of a deep world and history for these characters, high profile actors in small roles, baroque environments that make well-known cities look odd and alien, and a brooding protagonist whose very soul is on the line, if not already lost. Like the best sequels, it recaptures all that and makes it bigger. The Russian mob from the original film was a piddling irritant compared to what is essentially SPECTRE in Chapter 2. The settings are stranger and crazier, the hidden world breaching into our own and yet not, the world's rules get more detailed and interesting while still asking some interesting questions, and the movie doesn't forget what it's about, the enduring love John Wick has for his dead wife. A top-notch, relentless action flick that rises above its video-gamey first person shooter aspect thanks to strong editing, visual flair, an emotional core, world building and clear and precise geography.

Framed around a frank interview with President Kennedy's widow, Jackie is a biopic that deals almost exclusively with her reaction to JFK's assassination, and paints the portrait of a woman who both loves history and is aware she is living it, securing, in what some would say is artificial fashion, a grand legacy for her husband despite his aborted term in the Oval Office. Jackie Kennedy essentially throws herself onto the sword of history and makes her grief and suffering as grandiose and epic as the death of a President (a word in this case couched in a sense of Royalty) deserves. Director Pablo Larraín, no stranger to the political stories (I loved his No), mixes the larger than life (as this is an experience on a scale we cannot ever know) with the nitty-gritty of funeral arrangements, while at the same time underscoring the woman's trauma, the score a kind of minimalist tinnitus that both smothers and focuses Jackie. Natalie Portman's performance is, of course, impeccable.

Netflix: If you're a fan of the M*A*S*H TV series, Robert Altman's original film whose success spawned it is a cold shower of reality. The tone isn't quite as endearing and the sexual politics in particular seem very dated and objectionable. I think what may be the most off-putting is the level of humiliation "Hot Lips" O'Houlihan is put through by the chauvinistic doctors of the 4077, quite beyond anything that would be tolerable today, which makes Hawkeye, Trapper, etc. unsympathetic. But then this film isn't so concerned with sympathy, or protecting a TV series' leads; it presents a somewhat satirical portrait of life a few miles from the front lines, and lets you decide if "boys will be boys". What we have to remember is that these are doctors who, in civilian life, are likely country club members living large. Thrown into the Korean war without the discipline of the trained soldier, they become lascivious drunkards and con men. Altman shows it, but doesn't spell it out. Once you get rid of your resentment that Donald Sutherland isn't Alan Alda (etc.), you start to see it. Regardless of the discomfort, there are some fun and funny bits throughout. I especially like the mangled P.A. announcements that punctuate the film.

DVDs: If you follow this here blog, you'll have seen my announcement last Monday that I was undertaking a sort of "Can't believe I haven't seen this yet" movie-watching project. Thanks to a couple snow storms, I was able to cross 3 movies off that 50-film list already, so there's hope I can finish before the year is out if the weather keeps up ;-).

Forbidden Planet is, quite specifically, the template for Star Trek's original pilot The Cage, and for the series that followed, and an inspiration both directly and indirectly for loads of science fiction, including Lost in Space (the same robot), Time Tunnel (the underground base) and Terry Nation's episodes of Doctor Who (as well as the program's electronic music score). The story feels very old-fashioned today, but in the same way those shows do. The sexual politics are primitive by our standards, the acting fairly limited in texture, and the story so full of now well established tropes, it can't help but feel dated. Forbidden Planet's LOOK, however, still stands up. The sets, matte paintings, effects (animation and rotoscoping, etc.) all look great, and are all the more impressive for having been achieved in the 1950s. Watching it today is like being an archaeologist; you'll dig up the precursors of everything you love in SF.

Babe, the pig that would become a sheep dog, is a sweet little film, but can also be a harrowing experience for animal lovers. That's something you have to face when you give animals a voice and yet keep them in the real world. So when puppies are sold to new owners, it echoes slavery. And when to-the-audience-sentient animals are put on the menu, it's murder. This gives the film a certain maturity and like other "heavy" children's classics like, say, Charlotte's Web, it's no puff piece that just washes over kids and parents harmlessly. The possibility of death (by wolf or by cook) raises the stakes for the amusing and ludicrous story of a pig who dreamed higher than his station, and while the lesson that "you can be anything if you set your heart to it" isn't in any way original, it is well taught in an offbeat, memorable manner, and resonates across several characters' stories, not just the star piglet's.

Rudy is the sports movie that apparently makes sports fans weep. I can see why, but even if the eponymous character's fannish devotion is something I can understand as a card-carrying geek, I didn't find it all that affecting. While no sports fan, I have enjoyed many films about sportive underdogs, the theme of which has frequently been that it's better to participate with heart than half-ass it with talent. I guess my problem is two-fold. First, Rudy's experience seems repetitive as he jumps through hoops to get on Notre Dame's football team, is told he can't do it, whines about it, shows he has heart, is given opportunity, jumps through next hoop, and so on. Obviously, we're hostages to the true details of the story, but still, it's about what you decide to focus on in these cases. Second, Rudy's achievement doesn't really feel like one. We spend too little time getting to know his teammates for it to mean something when they decide to put their last game on the line for him. It's just an accepted fact that they all respect him. And every step of the way, though he works hard, he's always being thrown a bone. His achievement is getting everyone's respect despite his lack of ability, I get that, but the narrative is all about everyone giving him a push, not his own agency. And still he whines. "Put me in coach! Put me in coach!" Gah. All that said, it's a perfectly watchable sports movie, but an overrated one, I'm afraid.

Oscar Pool Stash Forced Watch: Two to go! If you remember, I pledged to watch every crappy-ass DVD I won in last year's Oscar pool BEFORE the next awards ceremony. The very worst go back into the pot, the best stay in my collection. Got through one that WASN'T crappy-ass this week (next week, I won't be so lucky, you'll see)...

The History Boys is based on Alan Bennett's play of the same name, screenplay written by him, and the entire cast straight out of the stage play (many of them, like Dominic Cooper and James Corden now well-known faces). Think of it as a Dead Poets Society set in the 80s with history rather than literature as the primary focus, though literature does figure into it quite a lot. The language is stylized - you can feel its theatricality - but there's nothing inherently wrong with that, and it might even be personality-driven. On one level, it's about a sea-change in education as competition to get students into prestigious universities took over from simply creating enlightened well-rounded citizens, but its real core is History, what it really is and how it works. Consistently, the boys are asked to question the accepted facts and their moral consequences, to create some distance from events, and we are too. Subplots that put the teachers in too close a relation with their students, while somehow maintaining deep sympathy and even likability for things we should know are disturbing is part of that. What kind of emotional distance can we take from the material as presented? Even the non-historical lessons relate to the ideas of context and subjectivity. The movie asks some great questions, and while I do think think it ends on a needlessly sentimental note, there's at least once scene in here I would watch again and again (the bit about Hardy's poem). The DVD includes a commentary track shared by the director and the writer, a featurette on the stage play (mostly behind the scenes on tour) and another on making the film itself.
#OscarPoolResult: A definite keeper.

Blogging: Readers may have noticed my blog template glitched a few days ago and that I have resigned myself to Blogger's dynamic view. What happened? I think Blogger updated its code and the third-party template I was using became incompatible overnight. I'm heart-broken about it, and even experts I've reached out to have told me it would be simpler to just find another template I liked, and though I spent a day researching it, nothing compared. Dynamic view showcases more posts on the front page, which is what I really want, but the generic layout bores me, and even my banner doesn't show up. Hopefully, your experience won't be the lesser for it while I struggle to come up with a better fix.


abc said...

I miss the banner :/

Siskoid said...

I miss a lot of things. :(

Siskoid said...

To anyone wondering what this exchange was about, there was a technical problem with the blog for about a week. Oh, memories!


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