This Week in Geek (21-27/05/23)


In theaters: One of the unforeseen manifestations of late-era capitalism is apparently getting more and more movies about products, something sure to make my general disinterest in biopics dis even further. BlackBerry does it right, however, because it's no longer a thing, and I don't feel like I'm watching a long commercial. I knew in advance, of course. I'm just now discovering Matt Johnson's work, but Glenn Howerton and Jay Baruchel have proven value, as do a lot of the Canadian personalities cast in smaller roles. And because it uses the product's eventual failure (after creating an entire market), it has license to be funny and find the jokes in its tech start-up story. Johnson shoots almost documentary-style, injecting it with the energy that befits the sort of fast, furious and seat-of-your-pants rise of the company, and when things slow down, it makes a point. Giving me real Halt and Catch Fire vibes with its tech puzzles, and that's a good thing. Part of our Heritage.

At home: I don't care about sports, basketball ranking one of the lowest. I don't care about riches to even greater riches corporate stories. I don't even care about sneakers (I'll wear whatever). So I only watched Air because so many people recommended it. I will give it props for telling a different kind of sports story, and putting lots of charismatic actors on the screen to make some well-written dialog come alive. For 2 hours, I was fairly interested in what a bunch of marketing types had to say to one another, and hey, it's not easy to build a cool, non-cheesy soundtrack using only music from the first half of the 1980s. However, it's way too fetishistic about professional sports and in the final analysis, doesn't get away from being a 2-hour ad for Michael Jordan, and therefore for Nike. That's the long and short of it. No matter how compelling the characters are (and I could imagine this as a season-long arc on a well-written television series about a fictional shoe company), it's still about millionaires becoming billionaires and I'm sorry, but a barefoot CEO, a shlubby recruiter and a folksy mom aren't really distracting me from that. I just don't tap into those values. Yes, great, the Nike deal changed things for athletes to get a bigger piece of the pie, but why is this pie so big in the first place? Not for me.

It's pretty easy to conceptualize a detective show. The detective needs to be quirky if not downright anti-social, and surrounded by helpers who are more sympathetic (and thus, suffering) than they are. Modern TV also requires a conspiracy, maybe some Moriarty type to keep things from getting episodic. What's harder is finding a treatment that makes that creates something unique out of that old formula. Inspector Koo does that. This largely female-led Korean 12-episode series presents a former police officer, now an alcoholic gamer, who is pulled into working for an insurance company to investigate fraud and soon runs afoul of a serial killer with connections to her past - herself a pretty unusual "cute girl" vigilante - and a conspiracy that involves a powerful philanthropist, herself even more terrifying. You want Koo and her oddballs to win, but you also kind of want the killer ("K") to get away with it, and the series' humor and clever point of view tricks takes the sting out of the game of murder. You're always kind of wondering how there can be so many episodes left, but the twists and extensions are never cheap and take the story in unexpected directions. Fun soundtrack too. I don't know if they have another mystery in story for Inspector Koo - everything set up is resolved - but the last episode does suffer from too many epilogues, sort of inviting the audience to care if there is a follow-up. I don't think there should be, but I'd watch it!

"Do you what a conspiracy theory is?" "Yes, I think we're in one." Anyone who knows me also knows that I absolutely hate the conspiracy theory about the fake moon landing, but Matt Johnson's Operation Avalanche - a mockumentary/found footage hybrid tell-all apparently shot by the CIA agents who did it (Johnson and friends as "themselves") - is too much fun for me not to fall under its spell. These goofball rookie agents/film nerds convince their bosses they can infiltrate NASA as a documentary crew to ferret out a mole, and stumble on the reason for the landing to be faked so the U.S. can win the space race. And of course they document their own efforts, which gives us the film. The period is well-realized, as is the vintage look of the film. It's often funny and infectiously exuberant, even gets a bit of exciting action in there, but I'm most impressed at what Johnson has chosen to show, making this fiction fit historical facts. Obviously, I hate that this might convince people the first landing was staged, but I'm tickled by it as a comedy.

My friend who highly rates the Spy Kids franchise recently told me, about the second film, Island of Lost Dreams, and I quote, "Chef's kiss". And yes, I probably had a better reaction to than the first, but perhaps I'm starting to hack the appeal of Robert Rodriguez's kid films. I think they are essentially animated features in live action (or mostly live action, given how much green screen he uses). In a way, they're Sin City for the younger set, and if they were completely animated, I dare say people (myself included) would have a better reaction to their silliness. As is, its formal in-betweenness makes me cold towards them. I can still appreciate that Spy Kids 2 has some fun, inventive gags (especially in regards to the President and his daughter) and keeps the villain in the background, which is a good thing because I find the adults in these things tend to be a little too broad. The parents - and now grandparents! - are stuck in a nothing subplot, but what a great cast. It's just a little hard sometimes to not let the CG creatures and green screen environments pull you out of the movie, is all.

Maybe I just don't know how to rate the Spy Kids movies, but to me the first three at least are flying at the same level. I don't affect one over the other despite the evident drop in other people's estimation. #3 (Game Over, a terrible lie given there's a fourth one) is another bit of silly fluff with Juni (who really owns this story, even Carmen is sidelined for much of it) going into a virtual game world to save the world from the Toymaster (Sylvester Stallone having some fun here). This solves, or at least attenuates, the problem most adults have with the franchise - there are just too many effects and virtual environments for these films' capacity to render them believably. Well, the game world isn't real, so it's mean to look like that. It's really just a bunch of set pieces (or levels), but that's thematically consistent with the adventure. I kind of which there had been more of Gumshoe Juni because the film noir gags were actually pretty clever. As usual, the adults are near useless and here have smaller roles, but Ricardo Montalban, introduced in the previous film as the grandfather, has more to do, even if it's just his head on a robot body. This was unfortunately the weakest part of Game Over - they have him act all mysterioso for no reason but to hide the final, saccharine twist. Even if everyone but Juni is on the fringes, they still bring back a LOT of characters from the franchise (it was probably all filmed at the same time). But yeah, this isn't really any better or worse than #1 and #2.

I can't believe it took this long for Rodriguez to put Jessica Alba in a Spy Kids movie... Eight years after the last one, the world of the O.S.S. returns with All the Time in the World, which per force, has to introduce new kids (though the original do appear, all grown up), and Rodriguez could have kept the franchise going indefinitely this way, just passing the torch every few years. It wasn't to be, despite a fair time travel-related plot, hot new parents, and a sometimes amusing robot dog voiced by Ricky Gervais. I think the problem is that #4 can't decide who it's for. There's an incredibly wide gulf between the trademark kid humor, this time entirely too obsessed with potty humor and gross-out gags - "Never underestimate the power of puke!" - and elements perhaps catering to now older fans of the franchise, with Alba as an actually competent superspy/struggling stepmom, and a message to parents about spending quality time with their kids (a clever use of the plot as theme). In a way, it spoke to me more as an adult (despite not being a parent), so made me sigh more when the fart jokes multiplied. Alba and McHale make me forgive a lot of things, but ultimately, this is the weakest effort. Maybe if had the "4D" scratch-and-sniff card? Yuck, no. I just realized what that would have been like.

Books: I'm surprised at how quickly Ian Fleming went from the almost mundane spycraft/romance of Casino Royale to crazy genre tropes, but Live and Let Die is the second Bond novel (and Moonraker the third!), and though it doesn't ultimately play with Voodoo as much as the movie version, nobody questions Solitaire's powers, etc. Weird. The movie was, as far as I can recall, the first Bond I ever saw in its entirety (on television), and it has a warm place in my heart, warts and all. The novel had different locations and different set pieces using the same cast, and its climax is much more exciting than what they were able to do on screen despite the whole of the book relying more on spycraft. Strangely, this is Felix Leiter's book until the third act. He's a lively and humorous character with more personality than the early Bond who's rather better at ordering food than being an action hero or stealthy agent (and you won't believe what happens to Felix). But this is structurally a step up from the first book. It doesn't jump genres in the middle and has some pretty evocative prose. Of course, it's also a white Brit's novel set in and around American black culture in 1954, so it can be quite racist. The n-word is dropped only(!) a couple times, but the way black characters are described and made to speak is right out of old Hollywood, with Mr. Big a genius exception. He shouldn't have had to be. Being a relic of its time in BOTH its versions (the racist 50s and the Blaxploitation 70s), Live and Let Die remains best as a Paul McCartney song.

It may be Book 29 of Time-Life's World War II series, but The Secret War was the volume they advertised when I was a kid and that made me point at the television with enough interest that my mom got me a subscription. It came first, followed by others in random order until my LACK of interest made her cancel it. I was really in it for pictures of spy gear, and have probably just read it cover to cover now, some 40 years later. It's a fun volume, though you could also say it's a bit of a hodgepodge as well. There are stories of spies, disinformation campaigns, elements of the arms race, and code-breaking (shockingly, but because if was published in '81, absolutely no mention of Alan Turing in relation to the latter). Some of the stories expand (or repeat) stories that were also important to other books in the series (mostly The Resistance and The Second Front, possibly others, I don't have them all). But despite the repetition, this is one of the better and least technical reads in the series, on a topic that should interest fans of spycraft, not just of military history.

Comics: Matt Kindt's first story published in the Super Spy series, 2 Sisters tells the story of Elle, a woman recruited to be a spy during World War II, and is inspired by real tales of espionage of the era (I just read The Secret War, so yeah, the sources were fresh in my mind). In Kindt's usual fashion, the story defies strict chronology, telling some chapters out of order only to later quite satisfyingly explain them when they connect to the main story - elements as disparate as tale of a female pirate in the time of swashbucklers (but trust in Kindt). Also as usual, the writer-artist finds ways to cleverly represent spycraft, codes, and things happening invisibly to the eyes of the enemy. This IS, however, a fairly early work from him, and it doesn't have the polish of later Super Spy books. No color and it can be quite sketchy. Nevertheless, the story of a woman who lost everything, then lost everything again (and again) is an engrossing one - her sister a kind of ghost in the background, which unfolds like a mystery thematically appropriate for a spy yarn.