Books and Films of the Year – 2017

(As with every year I do this, my favourites are chosen from those I experienced this year. Actual release date is irrelevant)

Books

Honourable mentions go to SPQR and Black Flags. My three favourites of the year, in reverse order, are:

3) Narconomics 

Narconomics applies economic principles to the illegal drugs trade. Why does collusion between gangs make sense for them in one country but not another? Why is destroying drug crops mostly futile? Tom Wainwright isn’t just an economist dryly applying theories at a remove from the reality of the drugs trade, he gets in amongst it. Narconomics is both an original look at the industry and a fascinating insight into how it currently operates.

2) The Undoing Project

How can a book about behavioural economists can be so enjoyable? Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky pioneered the field. Michael Lewis, dominator of nonfiction bestseller lists, documents their work, relationship, and their intriguing lives.

Imagine a university economics professor. You’re probably picturing glasses, poor posture, perhaps tweed. Now imagine them leaving work early and rushing to the airport in order to fly home and command a battalion of tanks to protect their homeland. Moments like this (plus great writing and the pair’s strong bond) make a potentially dry book idea into something electric and cinematic. I could see this being another of Lewis’ books adapted into a film, if not for Israel being such a political hot potato (and you can’t really relocate the protagonists because they’re actual people). A great book, both as entertainment and an education on your mental biases and blind spots.

1) Sapiens

I struggle to explain what I got from this book because I got so much. It covers the rise of, well, us, from hunter-gatherers to farmers to knowledge workers. And religion, geography, slavery, evolution, and more. Its discussion of social constructs affects the way I think about many things now, including money (particularly relevant with Bitcoin currently so popular).

I’ve read a lot of books I’ve loved, but only two have had an effect on my everyday life: Antifragile by Nassim Taleb, and this. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Films

I managed to pick my top three but was unable to prioritise them.

a) Prisoners

Prisoners is about the abduction of two young girls and the effect that has on their family. It’s sad, brutal, tense and intriguing. There is some symbolism and references that, having researched after watching it, I didn’t fully pick up on. So I look forward to seeing it again

b) X-Men: Days of Future Past

Someone mentioned on Twitter that this was the best X-Men film by a mile. I’m a huge fan of X-Men 2. So I was like, ‘Lol, yeah, whatevs douche’, or whatever youngsters say nowadays. But I decided to actually do some research before commenting (which is not the Internet Way). X2 is great, but Days is greater. The most remarkable thing about it is how it constantly puts the right foot forward. Film-making is a vast series of decisions. Even with the best minds behind it, statistically, something major should eventually go wrong. But it nails everything. Like Professor X in Dude Lebowski mode, getting drunk at home in his dressing gown. It introduces a character (Quicksilver) who moves fast enough to be unstoppable and make others pale in comparison, but has the sense to exit him early. One of the final scenes is surprisingly brutal for this type of film. All great moments done exceedingly well. Days is on the highest echelon of ‘capes films.

c) The Disaster Artist

(I thought about putting this #1 on the list, but figured I may be guilty of recency bias because I just saw it two weeks ago).

I think seeing The Room (which is on Youtube) helps to fully appreciate this film, although you don’t need to have read the book of the same name. Although you should read the book because it’s brilliant.

I was never a fan of James Franco. Have you ever seen Keeping Up with the Kardashians and saw Rob constantly look like he’d rather be elsewhere? That’s how I felt about James Franco on a Hollywood set. The only time I actually enjoyed his acting was the brief moment in Spiderman 3 where his character suffers from amnesia and wanders around without a care in the world. Good films he was in (like Rise of the Planet of the Apes) were good in spite of him, not because.

But he did an amazing job with the Disaster Artist. Playing Tommy Wiseau is a tough gig — Wiseau is a real person (who’s ingrained in the minds of anyone who has seen The Room) with a bizarre accent, and is so weird that even playing him accurately could seem unbelievable to many viewers. Yet Franco absolutely nails him (which shot-by-shot comparisons between The Room and The Disaster Artist make clear) and manages to make the absurd Wiseau sympathetic.

Franco’s direction is even better. This is another film that has no flat moments. The ‘naked Tommy’ scene is incredible, with its humour, handheld camerawork and long takes adding to the tension, and Franco’s complete dedication to his role. I expect to see Franco nominated for Best Director and Best Actor at the next Oscars. Writing that feels wrong.

 

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Film Thoughts: Alien Covenant

Spoilers ahead

…Hey, Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a spoiler?

1.
Here’s a formula for you: David + Walter + flute = Boredom

A wannabee profound moment that was actually dull and embarrassing. I’ve read that the innuendo was written as deliberately comical. But whether the cringe was purposeful or not, that moment was jarring in how tonally off it was from the rest of the film. Most films need moments of levity. But not like this

2.
I thought Tennessee would be the most annoying character. Prometheus’ attempts at humour consistently fell flat. While Covenant has a different writing team, I thought Danny McBride would be tasked with delivering similarly bad lines, ticking off good ol’ country-boy stereotypes along the way. Yet Tennessee was the most watchable non-mechanical character in the film.  

The only problem with McBride’s performance is that Tennessee is the same person before his wife’s death as after. By its nature, film generally has to accelerate the grief cycle, particularly in an ensemble death-fest like Covenant. But Tennessee had almost no cycle. A few seconds of sadness, then he hits the emotional reset-button and is back on the clock. Maybe those scenes weren’t filmed chronologically. Perhaps McBride shot the scenes after the wife’s death before he acted finding out about it

Continue reading “Film Thoughts: Alien Covenant”

Film Thoughts: Moana

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1.
When I watch a (good) animated film, I forget the famous faces behind the cast. During viewing, those actors don’t exist. Their voice becomes that of the character.

The Rock, oddly, is an exception. For some reason, while watching Moana, I wasn’t watching Maui, I was watching The Rock, animated. Something in my brain was going, ‘Okay, The Rock is lifting that boat…The Rocks is turning into an eagle’. Why that happened with him but no one else in my history of watching animation, I’ve no idea. Also odd was that it didn’t negatively affect my experience

2.
Moana is a very good film. Solid from the very beginning, with near-perfect execution towards the end. My sole criticism is that there’s some slightly muddled storytelling around Maui’s reasons for taking the heartstone. I like that the film included these ideas — myth isn’t fact, people can ascribe reasons for actions that may not be true. But, particularly in a kid’s film, a clearer, more graceful exploration of the topic may have helped. You might say kids don’t care about such things. But I think they can subconsciously pick up on them, and lose interest in a story without fully understanding why

3.
I’m far from an expert on music or the work of David Bowie. But during the crab Tamatoa’s musical number, I noticed it sounded Bowie-esque. Was it a tribute to him? Bowie died in January 2016. Moana was released that November. Yet, given the film’s long production cycle, I doubt Bowie died before the song was conceived. Perhaps just a happy coincidence.

4.
One picky thing — at least here in the UK, the main Moana poster depicts her, Maui, and Pua the pig on the boat together. If memory serves, that configuration never happened. Heihei was the only animal with those two. A classic case of Roosterphobia. I blame Trump
5.
Alan Tudyk, of Firefly and Dodgeball fame and actual, proper actor, was the voice of the rooster. Would that clucking have been so different if not voiced by a trained thespian?

6.
Nicole Scherzinger voiced Moana’s mum. Mum? I’m writing this days after seeing the film. I remember Moana’s dad and her crazy grandma, but not her mum. In fact, I think at some point I actually wondered where her mum was, and concocted a theory about how she was dead

7.
The Power of Frozen. At one point Maui rapidly shape-shifts between a number of animals and fish. Each is only on screen for around half a second. He briefly changes into a reindeer. Three different kids shouted “Sven!” (the reindeer from Frozen). That damn film is never far from kid’s minds, even three years after its release

8.
The pirate attack was so well done. Great shots and editing, a full-fledged Hollywood-quality action scene

9.
Maui was on some Han Solo arrive-at-the-last minute steez during the lava monster battle. Somehow, characters get more audience appreciation for selfishly leaving, then coming back at the last possible moment, than they do for just staying there and fighting the good fight throughout. People have no appreciation for the real heroes

Sighborg: On Terminator Genisys

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(Spoilers)

After watching Terminator Genisys, I wondered: why did I just do that to myself? The reviews were stinking (38% on Metacritic); two people whose film opinions I generally respect had slated it. I don’t usually hate-watch things. Call me a madman, but I prefer to watch films I expect to be good. Yet, here I was, choosing Genisys over, say, Bridge of Spies.

Why?

I told myself I wanted to see just how bad a job they’d done. But maybe I was being open-minded and hoped it could be good. Then I thought back to a passage I’d written a few years ago about the Aliens game Colonial Marines:

Maybe I wanted to love Colonial Marines so I could be contrary, so I could say “This game is terrible. Except it isn’t”, and people would totally reply “Wow, this guy’s a renegade maverick genius

Was I doing this with Genisys? Did I want to like something most don’t, just so I could have an interesting opinion? Am I really that sad?

Continue reading “Sighborg: On Terminator Genisys”

Random Film Thoughts

A few unrelated thoughts on film and film-making

1.
The last few years have served as proof that Hollywood can no longer keep pace with popular culture. The World of Warcraft film arrived long after many had forgotten Warcraft existed. The Angry Birds Movie won the Oscar for Film No One Wants Anymore. Eye in the Sky commented on the military use of drones, a conversation everyone else had years ago.

Culture is accelerating. Something becomes part of the zeitgeist and is then forgotten at an ever-quickening pace. But the Hollywood movie-making machine still moves at a similar pace. Which leaves mainstream cinema with three options:

a) Continue to make films about modern culture that become increasingly out-of-date
b) Find a way to streamline and quicken the transition from script to screen
c) Simply give up trying to ride cultural waves

Continue reading “Random Film Thoughts”

Friday Links: 2nd December

Books

Reading:
The Everything Store , by Brad Stone (about the history of Amazon)
Decoded, by Jay-Z (which is a pretty book and probably best appreciated in physical form and not ebook)

Bought:
So much for not buying books. But these two were 99p on Kindle each on Black Friday (both back to full price now):
The Big Short, my Michael Lewis
The Godfather, by Mario Puzo

Online

Buy for $10k, sell for $80 million. Buy for $80 million, sell for $127 million. Madness.
On the film of The Big Short, and its director, Adam McKay

Brief Film Thoughts: Chappie

1.
I am a cinema sage with a great number of friends. So I’m often asked for film recommendations. If I suggest Chappie, they’ll ask what it’s about. These ‘friends’, however, simply cannot match my genius. Recognising their inferior intellect, I give the reductionist answer: “It’s Short Circuit meets Robocop”.

2.
While watching, I tried to ignore my Robocopian thoughts. Then I saw the Moose, which is a straight-up copy of Robocop’s Ed-209. There’s being overt with your inspirations. Then there’s letting others do the hard work.

3.
I edited these notes weeks after seeing the film, so I might have some plot points wrong. But did Moore (Jackman) really think that causing one model of his company’s robots to fail would make his model more attractive to their customers? If I bought a PC from Dell and it exploded and burnt down my house, I wouldn’t phone Dell to place another order for a different computer

4.
My favourite part was when Chappie was ‘born’. His body language perfectly conveyed recognisable child-like fear*. If someone whispered to him, he’d whisper back, which is what a kid would do. I also loved that his ears fell back when he was scared

* Chappie was ‘played’ by Sharlto Copley, star of District 9. At least according to Wiki (I’m too lazy to look elsewhere), Copley acted in scenes and was used as a reference by the animators, though he wasn’t actually motion-captured

5.
Many films can get away with tonal disparity. Yet after all the comedy moments throughout, it was difficult to get involved in a serious, dramatic shootout at the end. And was I supposed to feel for Ninja, who’d done nothing but bad things throughout the film?

6.
Great set design for Ninja and Yolandi’s home. Totally over the top

7.
Would Ninja and Yolandi really allow Deon to go home? They’ve just got this police superweapon, but they’re happy to let it’s creator go about his business, even though he could rat them out at any time?