This Week in Geek (26/12/16-01/01/17)


At the movies: Damien Chazelle made La La Land on the back of his success with Whiplash, and it's ambitious in a number of ways. An old-timey musical set (and indeed, released!) in the present day, long involved takes for practically every song and dance number, and an ending that's not what's expected... It succeeds on every level. Emma Stone is of course delectable in her role, but Ryan Gosling is extremely funny too, and the pair have undeniable chemistry. The songs are memorable. And as with Whiplash, there's a lot of jazz talk (Reynolds plays an old school jazz pianist), but the screenplay also conforms to jazz movements, especially the climax of the piece, which is, all at once, a means to communicate without speaking, a variation on a melody, a nice structural fake-out, and a way for the movie to have its cake and it eat too. A full entertainment that's shot up to the top of this year's list of best films.

DVDs: Mr. Nobody is hard to describe. Imagine a child having to choose between two parents in a railway station. The film sets this up, then shows us how it might have gone had he decided one way or the other, and these timelines multiply as he makes other important decisions in his life. Jared Leto's protagonist is necessarily a bit of a cipher as he lives through more than a dozen lives, at least some of them fictional from even his point of view, though mostly concerned with his potential marriage to one of three girls. Beautifully shot, full of symbolism, and a meditation on time, memory, and free will, with the conceit that the boy can see into his futures, branching off in front of him in a split second, and confusing his selves. A puzzle movie to which there is no single solution, which I think is exactly the point. The DVD includes a good making of, some deleted scenes, and behind the scenes footage that mostly reuses some of the stuff in making of, but also includes supporting actor Rhys Ifans being goofy around set.

Thesis - Die Hard is the most influential action film of all time. Its formula was used many, many times, with critics (and I'm thinking studios) calling the imitators "Die Hard in ______". It pushed action films towards everyman action stars and away from the athletic superheroes of the 80s. It was Bruce Willis' first movie success and Alan Rickman's first film. They kind of went on to big things. Even Reginald VelJohnson traded the movie's success into sitcom stardom. Looking at it again, I can see how it also brought a lot of texture to the American action film, borrowing from film noir, European and Asian cinema. The lens flares alone deserve a special prize. It looks lush. And its look, I think, is just as much a part of its success as its characters, plot, and cool stunts. The DVD is one of those early Special Edition-type releases that actively wants to teach you about film, with editing and sound editing workshops thrown in, a complete script, a couple of deleted scenes (one can be "branched to" during the film, but is included on its own on the second disc), pictures and marketing materials (including a brief featurette), but no proper making of. THAT story is instead on a number of commentary tracks - the best being the director's and production designers edited on the same track. The special effects supervisor gets scene-specific commentary, and the rest of the cast and crew are to be found on a subtitle track. All are of interest even the package is a little unwieldy.

Crackle: Real Genius has an engaging premise, but gets to it too late in my opinion. Science whiz kids finding out their work will be used for military applications and making sure it doesn't happen is a fun and heroic hook you see, but the movie spends almost all its time acting like a college party comedy, where the only real twist is that the smartest kid is the cool goofball (Val Kilmer who, despite getting the poster, isn't actually the protagonist). As far as these things go, it's not bad. The dialog can be witty, and the villains are satirically played with gusto, and that's fun, but you could easily trim 20 minutes out of it, those that don't really add anything to the genre, just the usual revenge comedy shenanigans of cool vs. uncool. Still, the flick has bouncy energy. I just wish it were less Revenge of the Nerds and more War Games.

Netflix: Spectral is a military action movie in which a scientist helps a special ops crew fight ghosts. Yes, ghosts. Well, they do get some kind of scientific rationale, which is about Doctor Who level of believability. Which is perhaps at odds with its procedural tone, but the sf/war/horror mash-up is at least interesting. It's just... It doesn't really give us anything new to sink our teeth into. The effects are surprisingly good for what is essentially a Netflix B-movie, and the ghosts follow the rules set down in the film, leading to logical solutions. But the story structure, the characters, etc. are strictly by the numbers and aren't particularly involving, despite the participation of good recognizable actors like James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer, Bruce Greenwood and Max Martini. Forgettable.

Realizing Project Almanac was produced by Michael Bay should have been a red flag, right? Well, this found footage time travel movie respects the rules of neither genre, with the footage sometimes having notions of POV (it gets tinnitus when a character does), and the time travel being all over the map. Basically, it starts when unconvincing teens find an old tape which shows footage of one of them in the background of his 8-year-old birthday... as an adult. This sends these whiz kids on a mission to build the time machine they're obviously fated to complete. Takes a while to get there, like many found footage movies do, but then it blows the premise by showing that you only become aware of changes in the timeline when you return to a changed present. So how does that tape exist when the time trip hasn't yet occurred from Point Zero? It gets worse when the protagonists freaks out about losing a girlfriend when everything shows she wouldn't forget the relationship since she was on the trip, and... I give up. Perhaps you shouldn't tempt fate by almost pathologically referencing other time travel movies (was it trying to pull a Scream?), but let me reference another one: This is an attempt to make a mainstream version of Primer, and it screws up the one thing that made Primer interesting - the ironclad logic.

The Reconstruction of William Zero is a pretty logically-designed thriller about a man who creates a clone of himself so he can disappear. We come into the middle of things and have to catch up, adjusting what we think we're seeing as puzzle pieces become visible. So as science fiction story that has internal logic, provokes thought about technologies, has a pretty good twist ending, and is inexpensively made, it works. I'm a fan of the latter especially, and like to see how ideas are explored without resorting to big budget CG. It IS rather slow and staid, certainly isn't stylish, and the twinned protagonists can lead to confusion early on, but I think it does reward one's patience. But exactly once. All the other characters are underdeveloped to the point of having too ambiguous a motivation, or perhaps no closure. This is a good story that, quite frankly, stumbles in the telling, but I like where it ends up.

Embers proposes a dystopian future where a virus has taken away most of humanity's ability to retain memories. We follow several characters in this arrested society, exploring the question of whether we really are the sum of our experiences, or if a basic personality exists as a series of feelings and instincts. For some, emotion is the only reality - the couple who wonder if they're together every morning, for example, or the sociopathic youth the end credits call Chaos - others treat their former selves as something to discover and understand, like the published scientist. And then there's the girl down in a bunker, isolated from the virus with her father. She has memory, but is bored and listless. Here we have forgetting as a possible liberation, the potential for joy in rediscovery. A quiet, thoughtful film that deserves some attention.

I don't think The Lobster can be understood as a proper dystopian sci-fi film; it is too absurdist for that. It instead falls into the realm of allegory, a representation of the mechanics of singlehood and couplehood, and the transition from one to the other. It's darkly funny, completely deadpan, and filled with irony, but it's also deathly unemotional. Its characters are largely robots, following rules that don't make sense (except we all follow them in the way we pursue relationships, especially online) and delivering programmed dialog. It is at its best when the allegory is clear, but things do get murkier as we head into the second part of the film, which out of necessity, makes a rebellion plot the focus of the action, but this is nevertheless where characters dare to break the rules, and where, ironically, true love is to be found - if only they can see it for what it is (and will society accept it). The central conceit, that those who don't find mates are turned into the animal of their choice, is one I can't allegorically place, though they perhaps can be likened to "cat lady" syndrome and the choices themselves have ironic resonance. The Lobster is a film that perhaps doesn't know the answers to all the puzzlers it presents, but perhaps it does. Rewatchable.

Sing Street is a pleasant, if sometimes formulaic, coming of age story about a teenager in Dublin at the dawn of the music video age who, to get the attentions of a girl, starts a band. Not that he knows anything about music. And yet, he and his friends manage some memorable songs that sound like they come from the glam rock era of the mid-80s. You can actually track "Sing Street"'s style progressing through given inspirations to finding their own voice. The bravura production of videos lends itself to comedy, while family affairs push the drama, and of course, you need a big battle with authority figures in the end, well supplied by the Catholic school's headmaster. The movie doesn't skimp on the tunes, and pays great tribute to a relatively maligned period in popular music. Gosh darnit, I think those kids'll make it.

They won't be happy until every genre has been done in found footage format, but End of Watch isn't exactly that though. While SOME of the action is filmed by the principals, a lot of it comes from a magical documentary cam that doesn't have a person attached to it. So it would be more true to say it has a hand-held documentary STYLE that incorporates found footage. Still distracting. I've now come to expect a certain disappointment when it comes to David Ayer films, not because they are bad, but because they just come short of being really good. This story of cops on patrol in a rough part of L.A. isn't original, but Jake Gyllenhall and Michael Peña have ample chemistry and an easy way with improvisation that gives a lot of the scenes a COPS-like verisimilitude. For a while, you can coast on that and the style, but by the end, you'll realize nothing in this was new.

In Electrick Children, a naive teenage girl living in an Amish-like cult, becomes mysteriously pregnant and believes herself to have been visited by the Angel of God through a piece of music found on a forbidden cassette tape. Facing judgement from her community and a shotgun wedding to a local boy, she runs away to the city to find the father of her child, the man whose voice is responsible. She won't find what she's looking for exactly, but writer-director Rebecca Thomas then gives us an odd, but sweet romance that relates to the story of the Biblical Mary and Joseph. The film doesn't play as a condemnation of faith, though the more cynical viewer can ferret out the clues to the baby's true paternity, but it forces you to leave it as conjecture. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking the miracle at face value in the context of the film, which truly exists within the singular point of view of its innocent and good-hearted heroine.

Broadcast News is really a direct ancestor to Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, isn't it? It tackles the work of TV journalists with both moral self-examination and character humor, and perhaps wastes time on things that are far less interesting, i.e. love triangles. I'm sure the film would have worked without both Albert Brooks and William Hurt pining for Holly Hunter, and from the perspective of realism, it would have shown much more professional relationships. Not that it's a bad relationship story - the characters are well drawn and the dynamics very human - but where Broadcast News works best is in the moral dilemmas faced by the characters in a world where superficiality is becoming increasingly important... and those questions are as relevant today as they were in the 80s, if not more so.

Remember the Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse films? Hobo with a Shotgun was one of the fake trailers shown as part of that package. Well, like Machete, it was then turned into a full-blown grindhouse movie, respecting many scenes and pieces of dialog, but recast with Rutger Hauer in the title role. This crazy gorefest shot in the Halifax, Nova Scotia area, has a cool Technicolor, 70s-80s feel to it, though it is clearly on steroids in a way, say, the Deathwish films, never were. Perhaps inspired by Frank Miller's Sin City, it features a transient walking into "Scum Town" (formerly "Hope Town") and disgusted by what is either a hive of villainy or the Hellmouth itself, takes it upon himself to kill, kill, kill, his only ally, you guessed it, a hooker with a heart of gold. Hauer gives the story some gravitas, but the villains are way over the top and deserve all the bad things that happen to them. The shocks are strictly for laughs, but the comedy is black indeed. Fun, if ultimately a little tiring in the relentlessness of the violence.


John said...

I saw Broadcast News on its original release, when I was 19, and the Albert Brooks character was my favorite. When I watched it a second time, as an adult, I realized that character was actually kind of an asshole. Interesting what a little maturity can do to your perspective.


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