Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Return of the Weekly Recap

After what I presume could only be a hotly contested seven month absence, the weekly recap returns!

7/21: Sharknado

sharknado

I caved to the social media phenomenon with several friends and several more Mosquito Beaches and resurrected the carcass of the weekly recap with SyFy’s schlockfest, Sharknado. Despite its en pointe title, less fascinating to me is Sharknado’s actual story: a tropical tempest merges with fully-lunged maneating sharks and then wreaks havoc on the state of California. This allows Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, and a cast of generic nobodies to band together and stop the shark cyclones by reversing their vortexes with propane grenades. If you’re analyzing the science of “reversing” a tornado, this just isn’t the film for you. The enjoyment in Sharknado comes in trying to figure out which parts are intentionally schlocky and which are simply terrible cuts, recycled B-roll footage, poor acting, and incoherent action. It’s one thing to be a terrible director; it’s quite another to do it intenitonally. Whatever the case, Sharknado crosses that finish line. If only John Beard’s town drunk didn’t have to die somewhere along the race to mediocrity.

7/22: We Steal Secrets

We Steal Secrets Julian Assange Alex Gibney

“I” Steal Secrets might have made a better title for Alex Gibney’s documentary on WikiLeaks, its founder Julian Assange and the infamous “War Logs” release of thousands of classified government documents in 2010. Gibney, whose Catching Hell entry in ESPN’s 30 for 30 sports documentary series remains a guilty pleasure of mine, is undeniably obsessed with the ethics of the information leak and whether or not that transparency can be fully achieved, even by self-professed “open doors” organizations like WikiLeaks. Gibney seems even more infatuated with WikiLeaks’ human stories, not just of Assange’s but of the currently imprisoned PFC Bradley Manning, the counterintelligence officer responsible for leaking the information in the first place. Zipping between archival footage of Assange, Manning’s recreates and dramatizes chatroom sessions but the brunt of its messages are delivered via interviews with former WikiLeaks employees, programmers, ex-government intelligence big wigs, and journalists. It’s a veritable who’s who of information trafficking, and as I indicated earlier, that “who” ought to be emphasized, as it’s often the people rather than the information that take over

We Steal Secrets explores the public and (as its keen to point out) ironically private lives of these public information antiheroes. Inasmuch as Gibney can hyperbolize chat reenactments, Bradley Manning does not receive the most flattering portrait through the Law & Order portrayal of his now widely known struggles with gender identity and depression. Also troubling is Gibney’s choice to ignore the “alleged” part of Sweden’s rape accusations against Assange. Apart from rape being terrible, I have no opinion (or facts for that matter) on Assange’s innocence, but Gibney’s implied guilt is a presumptuous departure for a film that is otherwise so thorough in extending the entire truth. This is a film that questions the veracity of truth yet it is also consumed by its focus on Assange’s cult of personality and a fascination for the founder’s own hubristic downfall. Then again, shouldn’t a film that explores truth also explore that of the truths behind its seekers?

7/23: Only God Forgives (2013)

Only God Forgives Ryan Gosling

Given how minimalist Drive can become — rigid long takes; scant dialogue; glossy, electric images — it’s little surprise that Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest feels so much like an arthouse film. Only God Forgives drifts through the aftermath of a rapist’s brutal murder through his brother Julian (Ryan Gosling), an American ex-patriot with Bangkok’s underground boxing connections and a propensity for banging his mother (a sadistic, bleach blond Kristin Scott Thomas). Coerced by the manipulative Thomas, Julian seeks revenge against the dominating presence of sword-wielding police lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

Honestly, I can understand the critical backlash, even if the boos at Cannes were going overboard. Refn operates at such heightened strokes of emotion and raw plot that his glibness with time or even reality finds Refn often losing himself in artistic indulgences. But there are redeeming touches of Lynch in that same dreamy glibness, just as there is Argento in the palette’s rich pinks and blues and its embryonic oranges. Even a touch of Kubrick is in Refn’s slow tracking shots, their trudging propelled by Cliff Martinez’s electornic lo-fi grumbles. To dismiss Only God Forgives entirely would be a mistake, even if its silent treatment wears thin by the end. This is a dissection of masculinity, of machismo and sexual repression. Refn fetishes a twisted hybrid of broad arthouse strokes inside a lush, dreamy package where one’s own limitations don’t take the form of a handcuff but rather a swift downward stroke of a blade. Gosling may only utter 25 lines throughout Only God Forgives, but that pseudo-silence only makes the experience all the more cinematic.

7/26: The Conjuring (2013)

The Conjuring clap

Both The Conjuring and James Wan’s previous ghost film Insidious find their director consumed by own his paranormal mythologizing. To some extent, Wan deserves credit for grounding fantastical narratives and establishing real stakes. There’s a thrifty streamlining in the arc of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) with that of the haunted Perron family, just as there’s something awfully “meta” about equating “obsession” with possession by, about bookending a narrative about the paranormal around a couple famous for investigating precisely that. To read nothing into Lorraine Warren’s hesitance to experience a case is perhaps to miss one of Wan’s sly digs at this own audience.

On the other hand, demonic possession and the inevitable reveal of the hauntings is far less scary when Wan places rules behind them. The Conjuring benefits from a strong first half that relies on one tried-and-true staple in good horror: the answer is always less satisfying than the intrigue. Wan makes darkened cellar basements, bumps in the night, and as the trailer has certainly made famous, a pair of clapping hands infinitely more effective than jump scares, and make no mistakes there are jump scares. I jumped, but as soon as the old woman in the scary face makeup shows up, the film loses that throbbing tension. This is a tight film, and it may be damning with faint praise to say this is better than most horror films in recent memory. It’s no Innkeepersbut Wan shares an understanding with director Ti West. West gets that the tension is much more important than the release, that it’s harder to create and maintain suspense than it is to walk behind someone and go “boo.” *clap clap*

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“Downfall of a Droid” — S1/E6

Downfall of a Droid Clone Wars Star Wars

Trust your friends and they’ll have reason to trust in you

It’s easy to see where the writers of “Downfall of a Droid” wanted to go with that proverb, but a simpler (and I’d argue far more on-the-nose) phrase might have gone like You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. Joni Mitchell aside, The Clone Wars introduces a strange, well-intentioned coronation for R2-D2 through a troubling helping of backhanded compliments.

Once again somehow, General Grievous seems to have Republic forces on the ropes. Tasked with defending the crucial strategic point of the planet Bothawui, Anakin Skywalker and a small battle group must stave off the Confederate assault, hiding behind the planet’s outer ring of asteroids and hoping any stray debris (or potatoes) will do the bulk of taking out Grievous’ fleet. But the ever confident Anakin’s also got another trick up his sleeve, stashing General Rex and dozens of AT-TEs on the floating rocks and springing a surprise volley on Confederate forces. With his trap successful, Anakin begins his pursuit of a fleeing Grievous when a piece of shrapnel causes both Anakin and R2-D2 to careen off course, allowing the perpetually retreating General to make the jump to lightspeed. What’s worse, Anakin awakes mid-bacta session aboard the Resolute only to learns R2 was never recovered from his starfighter’s wreckage. I sure hope that droid from Episodes III-VI makes it out of this one okay!

That there is part of the problem in “Downfall of a Droid,” an episode that, for all its admirable character focus, botches most of its execution. Virtually no disbelief is suspended when Ahsoka informs Anakin of R2’s apparent demise, but the episode plays the moment like soap operatic beat anyway. The real issues however begin with the backhanded compliments, as Obi-Wan scolds Anakin that all droids are the same, and that attachments are dangerous for Jedi. Anakin then tells Obi-Wan that R2-D2 was important to him in a moment that feels very sweet — until he clarifies that it’s only because R2’s memory was never wiped, affording him an uncommonly vast amount of experience from which to draw. Imagine sending your dad a Father’s Day card that read I love you because who else can pay for my data plan? Make it one of those overpriced noisy cards too, but every time you open it the reader gets an earful of a faux Dust Brothers dance beat. 

You could even borrow one of the beats from this episode, since several baffingly pop up during an undercover droid shopping spree with Ahsoka and Anakin, now outfitted with a brand new R3-S6 unit. Nitpicking only lends so much value to criticism, but the inclusion of this supposedly superior astromech droid ruins a lot of the good faith in “Downfall of a Droid,” not the least of which involves R3’s miraculous incompetence nor the fact that Obi-Wan Kenobi had a perfectly functional R4 unit in Attack of the Clones. Battle damage or the occasional wiring malfunction seem organic enough, but this episode presents a veritable shitstorm in R3’s incompetence that  cheapens its beats. More importantly, it makes me believe Anakin’s appreciation for R2-D2 runs skin-deep, at least as deep as R2’s ability to follow commands allows.

New R3 unit in tow, Ahsoka and Anakin land on Trandoshan Gha Nackht’s freighter nestled within the battle’s debris field. The pair destroy several activated IG-86 droids in the freighter’s cargo hold, but find no traces of R2, despite Anakin hearing his beep and despite Gha Nackht looking all around very sketchy. Then again, learning that the Trandoshan is in fact holding R2-D2 for Confederate forces raises more questions than it solves. How does a shady junk dealer have General Grievous on speed dial? Did Grievous know Anakin and Ahsoka would come looking for R2? And if Master Obi-Wan himself assumed Anakin had cleared the droid’s memory, what other reason would the Confederacy have to believe this R2 unit was so important? Maybe Palpatine’s spy network runs pretty deep. Like, psychic deep.

Details aside, “Downfall of a Droid” doesn’t understand that what makes R2-D2 unique and really, the only relevant astromech in Star Wars, is his spark of personality, a “won’t take shit” spunk that balances trustworthy experience and childlike wonderment. One can only hope that what is clearly a multi-part  arc will redeem itself in future episodes. For R2’s sake.

Stray Observations:

  • Since when can Trandoshans talk?
  • On a related note, perhaps it’s my “Bossk bias” showing here, but Gha Nackht seems closer to Watto than the badass bounty hunter from Empire. And enough with the vague European accents.
  • It’s always great to see a TT-8L gatekeeper droid, but methinks the upped security also made Gha Nackht seem more suspicious in the end. Hide in plain sight, breh.
  • Apart from keeping continuity with the so-very-crucial Clone Wars movie canon, why include an older IG model here? Anakin and Ahsoka took them out like they were super battle droids. At least that explains Holowan Labs’ eventual upgrade?

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“Rookies” — S1/E5

The Clone Wars Rookies

The Clone Wars has answered my prayers, if only for the better part of twenty minutes.

How about them commando droids? It’s in the upgrade of the mostly useless Federation droids that “Rookies” decides to get wise, however the fifth episode in this first season also benefits from a thematically consistent arc on sacrifice and desperation — and that’s despite the on-the-nose opening parable about experience building confidence.

The Republic’s outpost on the Rishi moon is one boring place, so long as you never venture outside to contend with the giant eels. It’s the base’s same low-key happenings that General Grievous plans to exploit when springing his latest assault on the Republic: taking the outpost by surprise with a stealth strike force, thereby providing an entry point for Confederate forces to invade Rishi’s neighbor, Kamino, and capturing the wellspring of Republic clones in the process. The BX-series of droids is a marked departure from a show that’s thus far made few qualms about the broad strokes in which it’s painting, yet for all the episode’s back-patting and audible compliments, at least its characters are using their brain circuitry.

Some of them anyway. As its title makes clear — again, more than obviously — some of the Rishi base’s newest Clone troopers are pretty green. Thankfully, Captain Rex and Obi-Wan’s pal Commander Cody are on their way for a routine inspection, hopefully kicking some rears into gear, too. As the series has done on numerous occasions already, the episode re-appropriates filmic moments into its own storytelling. This time, “Rookies” riffs on Han Solo’s stilted conversation with Imperial offices in A New Hope, right down to taking lines wholesale and putting them in the mouth of a BX commando. The reference isn’t particularly flattering for Confederate forces — it’ll take more than easy humor to give more than two craps about the droid forces — but it does offer the series a chance to poke fun at the “Roger, roger” stupidity of battle droids, and that’s a creative choice I’ll rarely balk at.

Just as the Rishi outpost represents the Old Republic’s watch, its fallen soldiers humanize that necessity of security. While Hevy, Echo, Fives, Droidbait, and Cutup are by and large forgettable clones, Hevy’s sacrificial detonation of the liquid tibanna is a harrowing distillation of the base’s destruction for a greater cause. Grievous’ sneak attack is ultimately thwarted when the Rishi outpost’s explosion garners the attention of Republic forces. Anakin and Obi-Wan, whose roles here are reduced to brief patches of war room banter, introduce an excess of auto-erotic stimulation by the episode’s end. Both their gratitude as well as Captain Rex’s soapbox induction of Echo and Fives into the 501st legion hit their points home much too strong. At the same time, it’s essential that the series recognize  moments of valor and courage are what distinguish its players. In the Clone Wars, where Confederate casualties ring up more like an endless list of sales receipts, it’s sensible that the Republic humanize its losses and victories. In the case of “Rookies,” doubly so.

Stray Observations:

  • In case you’re wondering, those Han Solo lines the commando droids borrow are “Negative, negative” and of course a perfectly awkward “Everything’s fine here. Thank you.”
  • Today in analogies: Rishi moon : Republic forces :: Endor moon : Imperial forces
  • Some solid callbacks to John Williams’ musical cues here. I caught more than a whiff of the Federation’s invasion march from The Phantom Menace and notes from Attack of the Clones’ “Arena” battle.
  • Staying with callbacks, those “meteors” the commandos arrive in seem kinda sorta maybe familiar to the “meteorites” on Hoth.
  • According to Obi-Wan, the Republic has an “invasion alarm.” One can only hope drunk clone troopers get bored and sound it in the middle of the night.

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