This Week in Geek (8-14/01/18)


Took advantage of Boxing Day sales to get a number of DVDs, whether that's movies I enjoyed in the theater (Spider-Man: Homecoming, War for the Planet of the Apes, The LEGO Batman Movie, The Nice Guys, Baby Driver, Kong: Skull Island), TV series I was waiting to see drop in price (Broadchurch S3, iZombie S3, Game of Thrones S6-7), or entirely new fare (Batman vs. Two-Face).


In theaters: All the Money in the World looks like it takes a lot of liberties with the true events surrounding the kidnapping of 16-year-old Paul Getty back in 1973, the grandson of the world's then richest man who refused to pay the ransom because he was a greedy old bastard. That's fine. As a film, it has other responsibilities, such as creating a story that is exciting, collapses into two hours, and follows a theme to its natural conclusion. In that respect, Ridley Scott manages to create a somewhat relevant portrait of the capitalist end game, where money is more important than anything, with some strong mirroring effects between Getty's financial empire and organized crime. A well-crafted biopic, but really, it's best seen as an acting showcase for the the always good Michelle Williams and, most infamously, last-minute pinch hitter Christopher Plummer who not only reshot all of Kevin Spacey's scenes in 9 days, but gives a great performance to the point where you can't imagine anyone else doing it. That's twice he's played Scrooge this year, but both performances are entirely different. I do think that in a few years, when the behind the scenes drama has been forgotten, the movie's achievements will likely fade and we'll be left with a competent real-life thriller, but not a particularly remembered one.

At home: Long Way North (Tout en haut du monde, in French, literally At the Very Top of the World) is a lovely and unusual animated film about a 19th-Century Russian aristocrat whose grandfather gets lost on an expedition to the North Pole. She runs away from home to find him, gets passage on a ship, and with an often hostile crew, braves the ice. The result is a film that's at times quiet, at times exciting, at times cute and funny, and at times sad and bittersweet. My only real complaint is the dream sequence that somehow yields real clues... That was sort of confusing. If this were made in live action, the more dangerous adventure sequences would be truly harrowing. They still are. As an animated film, it has a simple "blocks of color" style with impressive lighting effects, and a way with comic montage. Watch to the end of the credits for various moments of closure.

With its second season, The Last Man on Earth tackles consequences. Will Forte's character, Tandy, needs to pay for the previous season's behavior, but the wasteful lifestyle of the survivors is also addressed, as is the need for the group to become a family and a society. A surviving astronaut in the International Space Station adds an interesting wrinkle as well. In season 3, it's time to have babies and confront security risks head on. The show gets darker for it, but I do enjoy how the real problems you'd associate with the total collapse of civilization are realistically addressed, no matter how silly some of the characters can be (especially Forte's who, despite a sea change in attitude, is often very close to annoying the viewer as much as his fellow survivors). A change of venue seems to come with each season, keeping things fresh, and the show's serialized structure is really quite good at keeping us guessing.

If Friends from College hadn't been just 8 episodes, I don't know that I would have kept with it, even though it stars a bunch of actors I like (Keegan-Michael Key and Cobie Smulders among them). I'm just so very ambivalent about it. As a dramedy, it has some real human moments for flawed individuals, but also some hare-brained sitcom plot points that are just stupid. As a comedy, I like its takedowns of YA fiction, pretentious theater, etc., but either I'm over the whole "terrible people being terrible" genre or these characters don't also manage to be endearing. And perhaps it's because of the shorter season, but the premise calls for an ensemble effort, yet really revolves around Key's character and his romantic triangle, with one of the Friends sort of becoming a thing late in the game, to the point where I asked "who is that guy?". Meanwhile, I'm more interested in the spouses struggling to understand the group's inside jokes, because that at least, feels true to life.

The Toys That Made Us is an 8-part documentary series, dropping on Netflix in two waves. The first four episodes look at Star Wars, Barbie, Masters of the Universe, and G.I. Joe and are uniformly good. While the people behind movies, tv shows, comics, music, etc. are often well known, even hit toys generally don't make household names out of their creators, and there are no "creators' commentary" to tell their stories. And there are certain stories to tell! From crazy ideas made in desperate times to passion projects, wild wheeling and dealing and legal battles, toys with long histories and newcomers that started a craze, The Toys That Made Us tracked down everyone they could, got candid interviews from them, and spiced things up with equal parts humor and nostalgia. If you were a before the 90s hit, these four eps are probably going to speak to you the most. Interesting and fun. Bring on the next four!

Muppets Most Wanted starts exactly where the previous, much celebrated Muppets film ends, but yeah... no. The best Muppet movies (The Muppets, Muppets' Christmas Carol) have a lot of heart. The lesser efforts are merely silly romps. This is the latter. The Muppets are essentially caught in a caper-type tale (though there's a Cold War era mixed metaphor) when they get infiltrated by baddies (an evil frog and the particularly simpering Ricky Gervais' cat burglar). Lots of celebrities, both in roles and cameos, but the human acting is broader than it needs to be. There are a couple of good songs, but too many of them are done with mock Russian accents, and then there's the massive opener that tells us the name of the movie is The Muppets Again, which turns out it isn't (that's damn shoddy). At times, I don't know who they're making the movie for. The story logic is too cartoony for adults (and the lesson at the end dumb and cheesy), while jokey references to President Kennedy obviously don't play to the kids, nor do the ghoulish inferences of the Russian gulag. And then there's the whole shtick that's meant to attack Europe as a worker's paradise; I know Disney doesn't believe in employee rights, but that's some weird and irritating commentary right there. Sure, there are some good visual gags here and there, and we do care for the Muppets themselves, but otherwise, this is a far, far cry from the Muppets relaunch's success. The DVD includes a video for "I'll Get You What You Want".

Orson Welles' adaptation of Kafka's The Trial is a surreal experience to say the least. While we're definitely in the hands of a master film maker - the climactic chase is particularly amazing - there's always some tedium associated with surrealism, I find, as we jump from one strange image to the next. The looping is a little off and can't really be justified by saying it's part of the off-putting atmosphere, but perhaps most disturbing of all is an ending - not from the book - I find extremely wonky. Anthony Perkins is good, if somewhat ambiguous, as Josef K, a man accused of unrevealed offenses, defying an absurd and oppressive legal system. Where the book is spare and open to interpretation, the film has a definite opinion of what those interpretations might be, and comes across as a strong existential statement, where the highest courts are in the afterlife, and judgment is just a fact of life. K hurts everyone he meets in some way, feels guilty (or not), and is answered with the judging gaze of society. And so it is with everyone; we're all on trial.

Doctor Who Titles: Boom Town pits Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy against one another for the affections of Claudette Colbert in this oil tycoon saga set over 20 years of the early 20th Century (not that they seem to age much over the course of the picture). In turns romantic western, procedural oil drilling adventure, and court room drama, the flick shows us friends becoming enemies then friends again as their fortunes, both financial and romantic, change, and is well supported by the leads' performances. Boom Town doesn't take itself too seriously, but the end result is psychologically logical, whether you root for Gable's flighty bad boy or Tracy's dependable sourpuss, or both, in turns or simultaneously.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 1st Doctor and Susan star in a historical about the oil boom, help fight fires, act as go-betweens, etc.

Oscar Pool Stash Forced Watch: Insidious Chapter 2 starts pretty much exactly where the first film ended, and deals with the consequences even as it shows something is still haunting the family. Now, the first half feels like more of the same, with jump scares and creepy images almost haphazardly crossing the characters' paths, but you soon come to realize that James Wan has made his Back to the Future Part 2 with this one. I realize that may not sound like praise, but absent any value judgment, I mean that Chapter 2 revisits key moments in Chapter 1 (by way of the timeless Further), gives them new context, or else explains them. In other words, Insidious 2 makes the uneven original film better, or at least more focused, tighter. And that's not a bad ambition to have. The DVD's behind the scenes stuff covers all the bases, and also includes a 3-part web series that shows the origin of the ghost busters' association with Elise.
#OscarPoolResult: I kept the first and I'll keep the second.


Toby'c said...

I'm a lot more fond of Muppets Most Wanted that the 2011 movie, probably for similar reasons that I prefer Great Muppet Caper to the original movie (though my favourite overall is Christmas Carol).

Anonymous said...

The Toys That Made Us offers a lot of insight into the process and history, even for people who live, eat, and breathe this stuff. Being around the toy industry for a number of years now, it was refreshing to see creators getting the spotlight instead of the series being yet another "What's it worth?" show. One complaint I did have was that the approach to each installment varied wildly: Star Wars was full of whimsy, Barbie was heavy on controversy, and G.I. Joe's modern era was ignored altogether. The He-Man episode was probably the best balanced overall.



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