Strange Vistas

Movies, anime, books, and games

Robin Williams in Jumanji

Jesus Harold Torrance, has Stanley Kubrick been dead for 20 years?

#stanleykubrick #theshining

Halt and Catch Fire, main characters

I originally reviewed Halt and Catch Fire in two parts, first seasons 1-2 and then seasons 3-4. Here are both short reviews together.


Halt, Midway Through

Come on.

Nobody was adding math co-processors to computer kits back in the 8086 times, much less portables.

Yes, that's a nerd's complaint.

It shouldn't be what I say about this show, since it doesn't have a lot of tech background. Its history feels retrofitted, retroactively convenient for the times. They are too visionary, too misunderstood, too under-appreciated. It's got some well-written drama, but as far as tech or entrepreneurship goes, it's lacking.

Its main sin is that, two and a half seasons in, it doesn't make me want to run out and build something. Anything.

It does make me want to pitch, though.

I guess that's something.


Halt, at the end

Halt and Catch Fire continues its “tech's greatest hits” tour in seasons 3 and 4, with their characters inventing even more things ahead of their time. In less than 20 episodes, they manage to come up with:

  • Anti-virus software;
  • Web crawlers;
  • Yahoo;
  • Internet service providers;
  • and the commercial World Wide Web.

It's a techie's face-palming wonderland. It features an anti-virus written in BASIC, a packet sniffer which can sniff packets hour or days after the fact, and Unreal Engine-level graphics in 1994 (for an Atari game, no less).

But finally. Finally, at the end of season 3, they capture the builder spirit. That thing emanating from a few people, alone inside four bare walls, trying to figure out if there's something they can create out of someone else's concept. The angles of attack. The frustration of being left out. They get it right. Even if the writers can't stop themselves from making Cameron a über-genius who can build entire tech epochs by herself.

Its tech is window dressing, anyway. It's just there to anchor the drama and give them something to argue about.

This thing we do – programming, engineering, building businesses, the whole thing – is nothing but a hack. It's a hack implemented on top of a system force-grown, on a budget, against much more modest requirements: to avoid getting eaten by a tiger.

Season 4 understands that. Building stuff is great, and it provides a purpose, but it's also methadone to keep you calm while you find out if you were one of those who made it. Methadone only gets you so far.

You throw rational people into a room, give them something they all feel strongly about, and watch the apes club each other with keyboards.

Most of them do OK. Boss takes one step outside himself, gets a glimpse of greatness, but it costs him himself. Gordon realizes his potential, grows as a person, even if that growth is stunted. Donna wakes up, starts walking her own path, then runs, picks up so much speed she can't stop herself, no matter how conflicted she is about where her legs take her. Joe goes from charismatic salesman to hating his success to Jobs-wannabe to somehow coalescing all the personas into a cool John Cusack, then back to Joe. Only Cameron remains Cameron, her wardrobe gradually less janky but her persona just as sketched, the chip that doubles for a pauldron just as big.

She's only there to introduce chaos, anyway. Yeah, she's the one coming up with most of the impossible breakthroughs. But her whole shtick is to proclaim, in anger, why she's right and everyone's wrong. With as much door-slamming as she can manage.

It works, as a tactic. A decade of fighting about implementation details can make you feel you belong, even if the place is at each other's throats. Arguing means you care what the other thinks.

Frenemies are still friends.

#haltandcatchfire #tvseries #leepace #scootmcnairy #mackenziedavis #kerrybishe #tobyhuss

Radhika Apte in Ghoul

A movie's autochthonous nature needs to come from more than its setting or cast or direction. It needs to permeate the whole.

There's nothing inherently Indonesian about The Raid, for example. It's set there, and the entire cast is Indonesian, but writer-director Gareth Evans is Welsh. Its pacing is Western – nay, American – and its setting would translate to any other city where crime has metastasized. If you need any other indication of its universality, you can consider how its theme and structure transferred blow-by-blow to Dredd's decaying future North America.

Contrast it with Wong Kar-Wai's In the mood for love, which is not only undeniably Chinese but couldn't be mistaken as anything other than a Hong Kong movie. Its mis-en-scène smacks of back alleys and steamy dumpling shops and steak restaurants that have seen better days, even if photographed by an Australian. Wong's brand of platonic relationships is rooted not only in place but time – he aims to convey the spirit of 1960s Hong Kong – to the extreme that it didn't translate where he tried his hand at capturing Americana.

Throw Ghoul into that whole discussion. It's set in a future, radicalized India, where the Hindu majority considers Muslims to be an infectious vector for terrorism, drags them away for “re-conditioning” and forces those that remain to burn the books connecting them to their past. Even children's stories must go into the too-on-the-nose bonfires.

Maybe if they weren't so busy burning folk talks they would have learned about the movie's namesake, which comes from Arabic myth: the anthropophagus who could turn into the last victim it had devoured.

The ghoul is repurposed here as a spirit of vengeance, haunting a secret prison where police drag suspected Muslim agitators off to so the army can torture confessions out of them. It's a good setting for a labyrinthine cavern, all concrete tunnels and blacked out windows so that prisoners don't have a chance of even getting a hint of the passage of time.

It seemed like a good idea back when the soldiers were in control.

Netflix bills it as a mini-series, but it feels like a movie split into three 45-minute chunks. It's surprisingly restrained, for something with its critter in the marquee. It takes its time, not bringing out the monster right away, even if everyone involved senses there's something amiss. We spend that time with individuals who have been indoors too long, push each other's buttons trying to edge out an advantage, revealing their characters in the process. That pays off when it comes time to let the creature loose – we have a better sense of the people getting chowed down on.

But it doesn't come across as native. It's got a strong Hindi accent, but it might as well be set in Texas.

At least as an outsider, there's nothing that feels Indian about it. There are some color splashes – at a roadblock, a character attempts to hide his bag under a jacket, and prompts the challenge “What do you have there? Books? Beef?”. But when it gets down to plot or characters, everyone but the monster feels like they could be anywhere else.

It oversimplifies the country, making it Hindu vs. Muslim and ignoring the other minorities. While those are the two larger groups, you could also take that situation and transplant it to the United States – specially in the current climate. There's no other politics or flavor or touches that make it feel rooted in a culture.

That's not against its suspense chops. When it comes down to building tension, seeding doubt, making you guess, the miniseries does its job well. In fact, it executes well enough to make you wish it was less Blumhouse and more Bollywood, just so you could see something you haven't seen before.

#ghoul #horror #india #blumhouse #garethevans #patrickgraham #hongkong #wongkarwai

Mr. Six photo

There are so many ways in which you can lose whatever relevance you had in the world.

It can be taken from you, by force, from others. That happens early, when it still has value. You would notice.

It can also wander away without you realizing it. You while away the days, keeping to your domain, while whatever influence or knowledge you had becomes less important, friends drift away, few remain behind you other than those who had similar trouble holding on.

Or, saddest of all, your can hold on to it for ages. You are still what you were, in your own back alley, while others build a new world just outside your borders, a world which continues to expand and accrete and compound without your knowledge until, a decade or so later, you are still holding on to your tiny speck of importance and your outdated code, neither of which has any relevance on this new environment.

That's Mr. Six. He was a gangster, used to settling problems with his code of honor and stern talking-tos and the inevitable back-alley fight. When his erratic son disappears, Mr. Six and his tools are inadequate to deal with the brave new world of impossibly rich kleptocrats and their well-insulated princelings. Too proud to ask for help, just sticking to what is exactly within his means or what he is owed, he tries. He brings along his band of old timers, small enough to fit around a tiny back-alley restaurant table and, like the restaurant, colorful, noisy and unpolished.

Nostalgia and its core cast, though, is most of what Mr. Six has going for it. Your enjoyment of the movie will depend on how much you get out of those two. The veterans need to face off against wooden young models and clunky camera angles. They convince you to stick around for a script that meanders before turning cloying, that backpedals from a brief critical look at its central character to lionize him, that abandons the personal scale for flash.

They almost carry the day.

#mrsix #china

Poster for Bad Guys

Am I done watching this one?

I think I'm done watching this one.

Bad Guys' pitch must have been “imagine the A-Team... but they're all evil!”

(Cue Korean drama executive pissing his pants)

A cop gets killed in Seoul, chasing after a serial killer. On his own, for some reason, with just a camera-man following. Suicidal tendencies notwithstanding, he's not a random cop but a Big Shot's son, so this time someone does something. Big Shot asks Hard-Drinking Loose-Canon Cop to put together a team to deal with crime. The cops are too rigid-minded for criminals, so Loose-Canon hand-picks a bunch of criminals. They're supposed to compete with each other – whoever solves a crime or saves a victim first, gets time off his sentence.

They are:

  • A cute serial killer who could be in a boy band (and probably is), doesn't remember any of his murders (so he might be innocent!) and is also a young genius with a handful of PhDs (aren't they all?);
  • A handsome assassin (who could have been in a boy band), whose methods and victims are unknown (I guess we take his word for the whole “being a hitman” thing), who's never made a single mistake (how would you know if you don't know his victims or methods?), but who gave himself up for no obvious reason (a woman, duh);
  • The tough-guy mobster who took over Seoul in a blink, got caught, took over prison, and is obviously the class-clown actor auditioning for straight-man roles with better material.

Oh, and there's a token woman too, as a the straight-laced, stiff-necked official trying to keep them in line.

But wait, it's not that simple! Pretty boy might not be a killer at all! Assassin model has a heart of gold! Mobster... mobster... might be the only part worth salvaging!

The crimes they deal with are a teenager's idea of what would be both shocking and totally rad: they not only make no plot sense but might be physically impossible (a villain chops a body into 356 pieces with a knife). There is so much plastic surgery that if I blink while watching it, my ears smart. The soundtrack is perfunctory “cool guys doing cool stuff”. The only thing more bombastic than the dialogue is the camera work.

I lasted three episodes. On my defense, I was trying to get my ear re-accustomed to Korean. And I was drinking.

#tvseries #southkorea

Eva Green in 300 surrounded by soldiders

300 was a jingoistic, borderline homophobic, one-note macho-posturing movie which happened to have a fascinating visual style and a flair for slo-mo action. It made Zack Snyder. He'd follow it up with an almost-there Watchmen adaptation and then go on to turn one-note posturing into a career.

It is rare to find a sequel which takes the piss out of the original. 300: Rise of an Empire manages.

It takes place both before, during, and after 300. Themistokles the Athenian attempts to rally the Greek city-states to face the Persian invasion. The Spartans are too busy getting off on going off to die, other cities insist on parlaying, so Athens has to make do while the others settle their argument.

Where 300 painted the Spartans as ascetic warrior-poets and the Persians as effete, arrogant conquerors from a too-comfortable society, Rise tells us the story of how Xerxes' messenger saved and raised a Greek girl who Geeks of a different city enslaved, sexually brutalized for years then left for dead.

Where 300 put a strong woman in a central role then relegated her character to a sexual bargaining chip, Rise has Eva Green's Artemisia, the rescued little girl turned general who becomes a fleet-destroying throat-slicing man-eating one-woman army who leads better than her commanders and fights harder than any of her soldiers.

Where 300's Leonidas ridiculed a peasant's offer to help, relying instead on his chosen few's military training to face the Persians head-on, Rise's Themistokles is a politician surrounded by farmers and bookworms who uses his knowledge of the local area and deceptive stratagems to fight.

Where 300 glorified war and the Spartans' militarized society, Rise starts with the reasons behind Xerxes' mad desire to conquer Greece: his father Darius died by Themistokles' arrow and Artemisia poured poison in her ear, using Xerxes' revenge as a cover for her own. Murder begets murder. Violence begets violence.

They're both loud and bloody and have too much slo-mo, but Rise of an Empire is more self-aware. You can hear Themistokles' finger quotes when he talks about the great Spartans. 300's Spartans no longer come across as professional warriors but as a death cult, with Themistokles' leadership insecurities feeling more human than Leonidas' suicidal certainty.

Still lots of bare chests but barely any chest thumping.

The movie can't stand on its own, though – Eva Green has to carry it all the way on her spiked, leather-armored back. Any scene she's in, other characters recede into masked, faceless extras, as her eyes slither and her voice ooze all over the scene. She's done her share of scenery chewing before, but Artemisia feels like all her career compressed into one part: femme fatale and damaged girl and over-the-top villain and independent woman and commander in a position others feel should be occupied by someone with different genitals. Sullivan Stapleton's forgettable, expressionless Themistokles works only because you can expect Artemisia to come up and speak with her whole lower face as her gaze hunts around for something to devour. She makes his blandness come across as restraint.

No, it's not a great movie. From a technical standpoint, it's not even unequivocally a good one. But it's the movie equivalent of sitting down and having too many drinks and snacks while shooting the shit on a Friday night: maybe you shouldn't have overdone it, but it was fun, and given the right circumstances you'd probably do it again.

#evagreen #300

Shiva and hear teacher

There's a girl living in the woods with her dapper teacher. They spend their days studying, cleaning the house, and looking for food on the houses in the nearby abandoned villages. Her name is Shiva. She bides her days waiting for her auntie to come back for her. Shiva lives with her teacher, who is a dapper dresser but not a very good cook – he sometimes gets distracted and puts his hands right into the fire. Luckily for him, he's a cursed, horned creature made out of soot and shadows, who feels no pain. He tells her stories before she goes to bed.

That's The Girl from the Other Side.

For a good third of the first volume, that's their entire world – just Shiva, her teacher, and their routine. There isn't anyone in the villages or the woods, no nearby cities. How come this little girl came to live with a towering, tailed humanoid creature with a bird-deer head? Why does he seem afraid of touching her? Is her auntie real or just another story he tells her?

Most other details are just as fuzzy. The teacher's clothes make it look late 18th century, but other elements would make you think it's a couple of centuries earlier. It's got a vaporous, dream-like narrative that makes it feel all the more like a folk tale that managed to survive passed down by oral tradition.

How long has passed in the story, four volumes in? It feels like every book covers only a couple of days, like these six hundred or so pages have been just an eventful week in Shiva's life.

I'm not sure where the story is going, though, nor am I sure that writer Nagabe knows either.

It doesn't matter. The Girl from the Other Side's cinematic charcoal drawings of delicate shadows and a polite, tender monster caring for a moppet draw you in, at their own languid pace.

It could stop at any moment, abruptly, like dreams do. Meanwhile, you enjoy the time you spend in its haze, even if it recedes when you wake up.

It's the rare manga where the feeling it leaves behind is as important as the plot. As hard as it is to recommend a story that hasn't wrapped (that might not properly close), it's a tale that might be best enjoyed as you would a bottle of absinthe. You don't open it and gulp it down in one sitting. You pour a bit from it, ever so rarely, enjoy the associations that it makes, the things it makes you think of, and then you put it back for a couple of months, until the next time comes.

#manga #nagabe

Planetes book cover

It's easy to imagine space having a meditative quality. You, inside a metal tube, floating in the void, weightless, with no extraneous sounds for a few dozen thousand kilometers. The tin can keeping you alive doubles as an isolation chamber. With nothing to see, anywhere else, you look inward.

Nothing helps you focus like having nothing all around you.

Planetes is a manga set in a future where space travel – at least between the Earth and the Moon – has become commonplace. So commonplace there are blue-collar jobs. The main characters are a crew of garbage collectors, working in space picking up the debris that could threaten other ships.

There's Yuri, the stoic, inwards Russian dealing his wife's death. Fee, a brash American pilot chainsmoker who takes no crap from anyone (almost). And Hachimaki, a Japanese full of dreams who says he'll get his own ship one day, as soon as he jettisons the dead-end gig he's using to pick up some cash.

There are shenanigans involved, as author Yukimura Makoto feels his way through the format. Mostly, it's a book of low-key emotions. The crew deals with vast emptiness and cramped quarters, their world reduced to the 2 or 3 people they share a ship with.

It creates a tension in the narrative dynamic. The story can have fun but doesn't goof around too much. There is adventure and some action interludes, but they never become the point. It's alternatively about people doing their job, world-affecting conspiracies, and quiet introspection.

As a story, it keeps you wondering what's going to come next.

For the characters, though, it's about loss, and acceptance, and change. With all that empty space, the nothingness threatening to suck you away, you're going to have to find your own footholds. Lacking external stand-ins for meaning anywhere around you, you have to provide them yourself.

Boy, is that hard, and Yukimura can make it all feel painfully human.

He concocts the conspiracies the crew get dragged into with the same ease as he presents the strife of a kid trying to live up to his elders. He can put a multi-page chase sequence or make you feel loss in three panels.

You can get what you want as long as you are a crazy, selfish prick of a dreamer, but it might consume you. Reaching for the stars, you may need to leave your loved ones behind.

Expressions. Body language. Walking away. Sorrow. It all comes through.

And then it sort of ... just ends. The story wraps without being able to top itself. But by then it’s done enough.

Having achieved what you aimed for, you realize that there’s peace in just getting on with the job.

#manga #planetes #yukimuramakoto #sliceoflife

Aloy standing on a dead machine

There's a character you meet early in Horizon: Zero Dawn called Teb. He is a boy, just a teenager, who slipped off a cliff and fell into a valley full of animalistic machines. The machines are calm, because they haven't noticed him, but will turn savage and attack the moment they sense a human.

Your character, Aloy, wants to help. Rost, her mentor and surrogate father, stops her. She's just a child, he says, not even as old as the boy she's trying to save. The boy has only a hurt leg, but there are too many machines around. Soon one of them will notice him and they'll trample him to death. There's nothing she can do.

Aloy runs off and you get to rescue him, of course. It's the sort of thing one expects the heroine would do.

The story skips ahead a few years shortly thereafter. The next time we see Alloy she is a young woman, in her teens herself, eager to prove her worth at a tribal contest.

You've played enough of these things. You know where that's going. Teb is going to show up again. He'll be the Designated Older Male, inspired by Aloy to become a better warrior, who will trail her through her quest to repay the favor of saving his life, who will become the Requisite Love Interest.

It's a trivial spoiler to say that he is not. His experience with the machines and Aloy taught him that he was no warrior material. He is a tailor, making clothes and keeping close to home while supporting others with the leatherwear he makes.

Over and over, Horizon: Zero Dawn's story upends narrative expectations. Turning around tropes is easy enough – you just figure out whatever the majority would expect and go the opposite way. Horizon does it the hard way: making its secondary characters feel like actual people instead of being anthropomorphic plot dispensers. You deal with sexism and racism and xenophobia. You meet an Empire that is trying to get above its bloody past, climb the ruins of the old world, hear about it from the (recorded) mouth of some people who lived in it. It's a gorgeous world which feels like a living place, an ecosystem populated by fiberglass and metal instead of fur and feather.

It's a lovely story, but you need to spend most of your time in the repetitive game.

Horizon: Zero Dawn's core gameplay hamster wheel is so polished that it takes a while to notice that you spend most of your time running in place. You fight machines, get parts, craft munitions out of them, fight machines in corrupted zones so that an area is safer, trade parts for better weapons, climb a stunning walking tower to scan the area so you can find more machines to fight. The core game quests tell you Aloy's story, the side quests flesh out the world, and the fact there's a section named “Errands” tells you everything you need to know about its third category. Its dialogue is delicious, its writing on par (and often above) that of The Witcher 3. The core game loop can give off whiffs of Dragon Age: Inquisition tedium.

The game is still a delight. It holds up a mirror to our own society's tribal thinking and sectarian squabbles. It features a strong, smart woman who keeps teaching those who judge her by her genitals how far they are from the point. It's a perfect showcase of gaming best and worst traits, and how we can both entertain and set an example, without preaching or forcing the player to agree with your politics. Its bushels of errands are worth putting up with, so you can get to the places they lead.

#games #ps4 #guerrillagames

Get Out's main character, screaming

Catherine Keener, wearing her best shark face, is the scariest thing about Get Out. She looks just like my mother.

Trust a white guy to make a black horror movie write-up all about him.

Here's the issue, though. There's cultural and personal nerves I feel comfortable playing for fiddles. I am all for expounding about what writing says about the writer. But it should tell you how clearly Get Out comes from a place of being black in the U.S. that I don't feel like talking about that aspect of it at all.

Chris Washington and his girlfriend Rose travel to her family's countryside estate. She's white. He's not. Even as an educated black man who – by all appearances – can make a decent living out of art, he's self-conscious about that difference. They have to call a cop to report an accident and there's a defensiveness to him, a desire to comply, that Rose tries to shake him out of.

Then they meet her parents. Wealthy, successful, old money on top of everything else. They doth protest too much about being hip with their daughter dating a black guy. I mean, how could you think they mind? Look at them. They even treat their (too agreeable) black servants like family.

And then there's the social event. Rich family friends stopping by for barbecue. More old white people who just want to talk to Chris, explain how they are fine with there being a black guy among them, curious about what being black in America is like.

It's enough to make a brother want to disappear into the furniture.

So is Get Out a horror movie first and a social message second? Is it an argument against racial discrimination put together in a suspenseful way? Is it a black writer-director following the dictum of writing what you know?

All of the above and then some. It's a story born out of the horror of being treated differently because of a cosmetic difference, the tendency to agree with your abuser to avoid triggering even worse treatment, the knowledge that you aren't welcomed (or possibly even considered human) in your own country. I would never have expected this skill for terror to lurk under Jordan Peele's comedy. It touches a cultural nerve. It is suspenseful and tense on its own right, but if you're black in America, it's probably horrifying.

#horror #jordanpeele