This Week in Geek (19-25/12/16)


So cute! Podcast Network buddy, Chris Franklin, sent me a small wooden Spock figure (a "Pin Mate" from a Super-Mate) for Christmas. I never do stuff like that. Thanks for making me feel bad! ;-) Also, now on my gaming shelf are Shmovie, Inhabit the Earth, and Dead of Winter. And on the book shelf, my copy of Outside In Boldly Goes, a book I contributed to, arrived just in time for Christmas, and with it my hardcopy upgrade from my reviewer's copy of the original Outside In covering every classic Doctor Who story.


At the movies: Rogue One is proof of concept for "Star Wars Stories", I think, a film that sticks to its guns in a number of ways, folding neither to the pressure of keeping its characters - many of which have tremendous appeal - alive for side-franchises, nor to that of keeping the movie in the Lucas-from-Kurosawa format of the 7 main installments. If these stories are to work, directors need to be able to suggest different genres and styles. Rogue One is a war movie in the Dirty Dozen tradition, slightly too murky in spots, but I don't mind the changes (location cards, a prologue in lieu of an opening scrawl, some shaky cam). I like the diverse cast (the only American actor on the crew is playing a droid's voice) and the locations used seem more original to me than continually returning to Tattooine or whatever, but the youthened or resurrected actors brought to life by CG DID bother me. Distracting and more than a little creepy, I do wish we'd just seen these characters in shadow, or their backs turned. I would call this a minor quibble, but there's a lot more time spent with such digital golems than I think was necessary. Still enjoyable, and the impossible continuing adventures of this cast would be cool, which makes their one outing together all the sweeter for its bitterness.

Moana brings the Polynesian culture and myths to life in one of Disney's musical spectaculars, and on the basis of that feature's originality alone, the film would be a winner. It's gorgeous, and presents a world Western audiences know little about, whether real or magical. But then it's also full of memorable songs and a strong theme of following your inner voice despite parental and social expectations (so not original in that sense, but it works). The casting is on point, every character played by someone from the Oceanic region, including a certain New Zealander who represents half of the country's fourth most popular folk parody duo ;-). I wasn't always sure the movie ought to be so self-aware, but the sidekick fake-outs and some of the jokes did work on that score. I think I just resented anything that pulled me out of what was otherwise a lovely immersive experience, beautiful enough to make me weep openly.

DVDs: Joyeux Noël is a war movie based on the real fraternization between enemy troops on the first Christmas of the first World War. The fiction that unfolds before our eyes features French, German and Scot units, containing among them all manner of characters and attitudes, but highlighting the common bonds of soldiers wherever they may be from, and no matter how much the other side wants to dehumanize them. Once you've shared a drink with the enemy, how can you them shoot him on sight? And in wars such as this one, where German tourists came into France all the time, might you not have crossed paths under friendlier circumstances before? There's humor, music, tension, and there's heartbreak when doing the right thing becomes doing the wrong thing in war, and an unofficial cease-fire we want to celebrate today is actually condemned at the time. And may still be, in some quarters. Because despite the century that's gone by, I don't think people and policy have changed very much.

When I reviewed Love Actually last year, I said the film left me hungry for more. So I got the DVD and lo and behold, there's more. Some 37 minutes of deleted scenes (shave off some of that time for writer-director Richard Curtis' introductions) that restore some of the original length, scenes that are just as effective and touching as what was left on screen. No real sign of the planned subplot to make Rowan Atkinson's character a guardian angel in everyone's lives, however, though it is mentioned in the commentary track which teams the director up with some of the actors. The DVD also includes a featurette on Curtis' soundtrack choices, and a Kelly Clarkson music video that spoils a lot of plot points (just thinking of the poor MTV watchers back in the day, I guess... if MTV still showed music videos in 2003). Even before the extras, just watching this again made me love it even more than I previously did. I would have watched the 3h30 edit. I would have watched it as a TV series. In my head canon, I sort of have. Ok, a couple more Christmas selections...

Netflix: A Very Murray Christmas is a throwback to variety Christmas specials of yore, by way of Bill Murray's connection to Scrooged. It's mostly an hour's worth of musical numbers, with Bill and various stars of song, screen and comedy either playing themselves, people that are part of Bill's entourage, or hotel staff, seeing as his doomed special is supposed to go live in the middle of a snow storm that's paralyzing New York City. As you might expect from Bill Murray, there's a definite depressive smirk to the show, though it does not dominate as Bill, without any real irony, goes about the business of doing the things Christmas variety show hosts tend to do, like getting lovers back together, or forcing stars to sing. It's a melancholy Christmas special with a happy-sad tone that makes it palatable to an old Grinch like me. A sincere spoof, you might say.

Elf has some interesting things going for it, but blows at least some of them for gags involving Will Farrell man-child comedy. The North Pole's retro Rankin-Bass look and animal sidekicks, for example, fall flat and serve no purpose. If the film paid tribute more overtly to other holiday classics, there might be something to it. As it is, it's in the same vein as The Santa Clause (though in reverse), a sometimes sweet, fish out of water story with a cute lead character who ends up saving Christmas with spirit and sincerity. Now if only Buddy the (adopted human) Elf didn't have to be so dumb as well. Being raised as an elf has apparently stunted his development to the point where he acts like a silly 6-year-old basically, and a little of that goes a long way. I'll call it inoffensive and leave it at that.

Victor Frankenstein does to Victor and Igor what Guy Ritchie did to Sherlock Holmes and Watson, and if you're into that kind of hyper-action Victoriana that repurposes literary characters for crazy entertainment, you'll be mostly satisfied. The film is a prequel to the events of Mary Shelley's book, in any case, tracking the early meeting of the two leads and their first experiments together. James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe are engaging and obviously having fun, though it perhaps goes pear-shaped in the climax where they're forced to fight the Monster 1.0 with swords. Is it me or does grumpy Max Landis' scripts make for films with wonky tones and shoehorned violence? (I'm thinking of American Ultra's zombie movie finale, for example. Like that film, things get a gory/disgusting at times, when restraint should have been shown, though obviously that lays at the director's feet.) But overall, a lot better than expected!

If I wasn't a time travel nut, I would probably have skipped Paradox, a Zoe Bell vehicle where she gets to do minimal stunts and fighting, as part of a crew trapped in a causal loop that seems inescapable. The time travel plot is actually pretty airtight, and there's something naughty and amusing about the number of "creating yourself" paradoxes on show. HOWEVER! It takes what feels like forever to get to those bits, it wastes its capital on ordinary thriller tropes, and what few effects it can afford are unforgivably terrible in this day and age. That all severely impacts the entertainment value of this "cheapie" and I found my attention drifting with nothing to really anchor it either to the plot or the characters. Gray rooms, gray suits, mostly no-name actors, repeated actions... It all blurred into a mush.

Reversion, an indie Canadian sci-fi film about the "oubli", a device that manipulates memory and makes your happy ones more vibrant (though French speakers will recognize the word for "forgetting" and be a little mystified by the marketing), quickly turns into a dull thriller when the inventor's daughter is kidnapped and let go with an oubli malfunction. Her memories go wonky, and she starts to remember a repressed memory that may reveal a darkness within her family. Somewhere in there, the movie tries to make the point that we are a product of our memories (the happier, the more positive a person we might be), but it's hard to get a handle on the motivations of several of the characters, and the revelations at the end are okay, but by then, I'd lost any interest in them. A pretty short film that nevertheless felt padded.

Womb is one of the strangest love stories you're ever likely to see. If your loved one died suddenly and you had the power to clone them and raise them as your own child just to have them in the world, would you? One woman (Eva Green) makes that choice. It gets strange from there, and it didn't feel particularly normal before that. This is a quiet, thoughtful film that plays on your perceptions a great deal. Scenes that would seem innocuous between mother and child take on an upsetting bent when that child is identical to the woman's lover (but then, don't all children have their father's/mother's DNA?). Weaved into the film is how people would react to cloning, including the clones themselves. There's a gray beauty to the film, mostly shot on a chilly, austere German beach, and visually brings to the fore themes of life/unlife, with shots that look like still life paintings, a bleak nurturing sea, and so on. A lot to think about.

Creative Control is certainly stylish, but does it hold up as a science fiction film? The jury's out, apparently, but I say yes. Though there's a new technology being developed, used and marketed - an "augmented reality" that's not unlike cell phone aps projected on your retina - it seems like little more than a backdrop for a relationship drama between an ad executive and a yoga teacher. At most, the tech allows the exec's fantasies about a second woman to feel confusingly real. And yet, like true SF, it has something to say about our world and technology's impact on it. The lead's pairing with a yoga teacher isn't random. Here is a woman who is all about emptying her mind to find peace; he's working with technology that creates overwhelming background and foreground noise. Ironically, she's the one who finds real connection with the world, while he struggles despite his super-connectivity. And the super-science in the film is barely ahead of where we are now. I'd call this a cautionary tale if we hadn't already thrown caution to the winds on that front.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is a trippy, artsy film about a telepathic girl trying to escape a futuristic commune, and at least as much about her captor... or is that really what it's about? More atmosphere than story, I sometimes felt like the fact the female lead was sedated throughout was a cruel joke about what the film was doing to its audience. This one's on a very slow burn, folks. Always interesting to look at (and good sound design too), but otherwise slim. Now, the twist is that it takes place in 1983, well away from the outside world, and the film at least partly wants to pull a Tarantino (who has never done a sci-fi film) and make something that could have come out of that era, though I dare say it feels more like a product of the 70s. Maybe that's why it goes into slasher territory at some point. Regardless, I can't decide if its anti-climax is meant to be cheeky or what. Is the film, in fact, complete masturbation we've been tricked into watching?

In The Captains, William Shatner goes out to interview the other Starfleet captains who helmed Star Trek franchises, all the way to the current Captain Kirk. I was a little afraid it would devolve into a Shatner ego-fest, something I have less and less patience for as time goes by, but while yes, Shatner is the supreme egotist, there's enough honest introspection from him to make this a valuable document. I could jettison his visit to a convention where he basks in the adulation, mind you. It's the other captains I'm more interested in anyway: Patrick Stewart, the consummate unrepentant actor; Avery Brooks, the odd jazzman philosopher; Kate Mulgrew, the gracious battleaxe (I had my ups and downs with Janeway, but God I love Mulgrew); Scott Bakula, the grounded song and dance man; and Chris Pine, the young hotshot (not nearly enough with him). Other Trek insides sometimes come on with context. What emerges is six portraits of actors who had to lead a company of actors, leaders on screen, but in life too. How did they manage it, what did they sacrifice, and what did they take away from the experience? Honest conversations that will often make you wish Shatner would shut up and let his guests speak. Especially when he gets sexist with Mulgrew.

Being George Clooney talks about a forgotten role in the movie business, that of the dubbing artist. Different countries have different traditions, and while Americans prefer remakes to subtitles or dubs, countries desperate to watch American blockbusters do have strong dubbing traditions. As a native French speaker, I watched a lot of dubbed material before I learned a second language. In many countries, dubs are always the way to go and the biggest stars are usually always dubbed by the same person. Ergo, interviews with many men from across the world who are the voice of George Clooney. The documentary thankfully talks to many voice artists, not just those few, but paints an interesting picture of a part of the industry we scarcely ever think about, how much effort goes into the work, for comparatively little money and recognition. Almost made me feel bad about always insisting on watching films in their original language.


Toby'c said...

I rewatched Love Actually on Christmas Eve (followed by my traditional viewing of Die Hard and preceded by a few others over the last few days: Muppet Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story (first viewing) and Christmas Vacation (first viewing from start to finish)). Still among my favourite romcoms and firmly in my top 100 films of all time list. I've seen the deleted scenes a couple of times before but not recently.

Loved Rogue One, though I can't help but be disappointed but the absence of Kyle Katarn.

I'll be seeing Moana on Boxing Day and I have high expectations.

LiamKav said...

I can't cope with Love Actually. The horrendous sexism (most of the men are in positions of power over the women), the constant calling of an average sized woman fat, Alan Rickman being mean to Emma Thompson... plus I got sick of the Richard Curtis "posh people saying 'fuck'" thing years ago. This article basically sums up my feelings on why I find it horrendous...

I suspect that a lot of why people like Love Actually is the cast. There's tremendous charm there. Still, even lovely Colin Firth makes me roll my eyes at his "alone again". You've flown to another country to your beautiful lakeside house where you have a servant to do all your housework whilst you while away the hours writing a book on a deliberately old fashioned type writer. My sympathy is limited.

I do like Elf. Although Muppet Christmas Carol is clearly the best.

Siskoid said...

I certainly get all that Liam, though I think the sexism on show is mostly observational, with the PM very obviously not getting the "fat" thing his assistant is pushing (nor did we, as an audience - but then the film has a lot of pretty girls who nevertheless look like real people, you know what I mean, contrasting with the fantasy American girls of that one silly subplot), and Thompson being married to a grouch and it's all part of their identity as a couple (and the point, seeing their arc through). In Firth's case, I don't sympathize with his wallowing (though I do empathize with it, being a single man sitting at a keyboard in an empty apartment on Christmas), but as this is a comedy, we're supposed to mock the characters' foibles when they overstep. And in such a large cast, you'll find all kinds. But most stories are definitely from a male point of view, I'll grant you that.

And yes, the Muppet Christmas Carol is the best.

LiamKav said...

I suppose it depends on whether you think a man leaving his family on Christmas Eve to go and propose to a woman he's never had a conversation with (but crucially, seen in her knickers) is romantic or ridiculous. I just can't get the romantic thing I'm afraid.

And if it helps regarding your Christmas situation, I'm currently at the in-laws and been told I'm wrong for thinking that Harley Quinn's most iconic outfit is black and red. Also, I was told off for telling my niece that Harley is a doctor. Apparently she's a "gymnast". I'm just dreading a Brexit conversation...

Siskoid said...

You're having... geek-related arguments on Christmas? And losing? So weird.

LiamKav said...

With non-Geeks. And I'm choosing not to argue back for family harmony.

Siskoid said...

I've never lost a geek argument in those circumstances.

But maybe I just don't engage.

John said...

I agree with most of Lindy West's observations about Love, Actually but I still enjoy it tremendously. (I like Olivia Olson's version of "All I Want For Christmas Is You" better than any of Mariah Carey's save the one she did with Jimmy Fallon and the Roots.) Though it is perhaps telling that I almost always watch it with the commentary track on. Listening to Hugh Grant slag on Colin Firth never gets old for me.


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