DVDs: My summer vacation DVD-flipping frenzy continues with Due South Season 1, a mid-90s show I'd never really watched much of, but I'm a big fan of Paul Gross generally, and the complete series was on sale on Amazon so... Let's get the bad out of the way first: The series is most annoyingly packaged with the pilot NOT in the Season 1 set where it belongs, but as a "bonus" in Season 3's. Good thing I bought all four seasons together then, right? Other than this absurd decision (which I bypassed), Due South is an incredibly charming buddy cop show about a straight-arrow Mountie from the Northwest Territories (a cross between Dudley Do-Right and Sherlock Holmes) forced to move to Chicago's Canadian consulate where he can't help but help the police solve crimes, partnered with his wolf Diefenbaker and an obnoxious American detective. Going far beyond its fish out of water premise and American-Canadian jokes, Due South features quirky characters, occasionally spins into a kind of wonderful magical realism, uses songs especially well, and is both exciting and heartwarming. Surely one of Canadian TV's best exports.
The Lovely Bones is a very strange choice of project for Peter Jackson post-Lord of the Rings, and though it has fantastical effects sequences and is a book adaptation, it doesn't feel at all like his other work. I was impressed both by its stylish shooting and its touching human drama, so that wasn't a complaint. Essentially, the film is a ghost story from the point of view of the ghost. It delves into upsetting territory - a 14-year-old girl killed by a serial killer and the events that follow - but somehow remains tasteful. It's horrifying, and yet keeps a sense of wonder and is ultimately uplifting and delightful. Quite odd on the emotional spectrum. Jackson prepares us for the crime from very early on, building tension while we fall in love with the family, and then (as the book does, I imagine) confounds expectations in the aftermath. Saoirse Ronan is affecting and believable in the central role, and there are some great performances by the likes of Susan Sarandon and Stanley Tucci. I was less convinced by the parents, Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, bringing a numbness probably called for, but that felt so underplayed they weren't technically able to render emotion appropriately. Overlooked in between Peter Jackson's more epic genre fare, it's definitely worth the watch.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (the 2000s are going to be known for their impossibly long movie titles, aren't they?) is the third and probably final Narnia adaptations to make it to the big screen, and its structure is sadly one that turned me off fantasy fiction when I got out of high school, i.e. incidents strung along a narrative like connected short stories, glorified random encounters as you head towards an eventual plot-related finale. That's the book, and the film makers do their best to tighten it up, but to no avail. The first film had the perfect mix of magical wonder and epic battle scenes. The second replaced wonder with battle scenes almost exclusively. The third goes for magical wonder, but very little fighting. So magic/CG stuff happens for an hour and a half, whatever. But then the last half hour arrives, with its cool sea monster, great big battle, redemption for the new cast member Eustace, and a touching farewell to some of the characters and all is forgiven. They say it's the journey, not the destination. In Narnia 3's case, it's the opposite. The DVD features some brief deleted scenes I would totally have kept in the final film, and a pretty good producer and director commentary.
Next up, Red vs. Blue Season 9, re-edited as a movie, just like Rooster Teeth did with the rest of the popular web series. Now, Season 8 felt like an ending and a good one, so I was curious as to how Season 9 would proceed. Well, half of it is a flashback from the beginning of Project Freelancer, while the other is a virtual reality that recreates the Blood Gulch seasons with a twist. The former is heavy on CG, motion capture and incredibly exciting fight scenes, while the latter is more old school machinima, with lots of talking and purposely bad effects, a true mix of old and new. The marriage sits uncomfortably, in my opinion. There's the feeling that the old school stuff doesn't matter because it's happening in the "matrix", and the new school stuff features many characters we already know to be dead. Even so, the jokes are funny and the action is totally badass. It's the plot that by now is so completely opaque it's giving Neon Genesis a run for its money. All the RvB releases have had sound issues, but Season 9 really did give me problems with levels, the sound getting very loud or very low from scene to scene. DVD package is awesome though. Fun and informative commentary track, a half-hour's worth of interviews with actors and making of materials, and the usual quite funny selection of deleted scenes, animated outtakes, promos, PSAs and animated menus. There's also a trailer for Season 9 that is a completely original scene that acts as episode 0.
Because our Kung Fu Friday selection was to be Throne of Blood, Kurosawa's adaptation of MacBeth, I decided to watch the 1983 BBC production of the play (featuring Nicol Williamson in the title role) the day before. Not one of the great ones, but then I've always had trouble with the Scottish Play, subscribing to Slings & Arrows' contention that it is a very difficult play to stage effectively. It's not a bad production by any means, but the MacBeths' motivations border on the psychotic, which makes them difficult to relate to. There is a strong sense that what drives them mad isn't guilt, but rather the fear of being caught, and Jane Lapotaire's Lady MacBeth does that very well. As we get into the MacDuff stuff at the end, the play gets more involving, but ultimately, this is a very murky DVD, dark and on soft video, and could have used better restoration to bring the performances alive.
In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa addresses many of my problems with MacBeth by changing and/or clarifying the lead couple's motivations, and the wonderful casting certainly helps. Toshiro Mifune is always watchable, but it's Isuzu Yamada as his Lady MacBeth that really steals the show. Very, very creepy, almost like she's a figment of his tortured imagination rather than a real person. This is a rather experimental film for Kurosawa, one that holds shots far too long, crosses the line, uses aggressive musical stings, and creates spare kabuki spaces, make-up and expressions to make the audience uncomfortable. It may seem boring to modern audiences, but embrace it and all will be well. It is a mood piece, first and foremost, and a visual masterwork with an incredible arrow-laden climax. Part of the Criterion Collection's much more affordable Essential Art House series, it nevertheless comes with a lavish booklet and an enthusiastic film expert commentary track.
Theater: Not done with Shakespeare, it seems, last night we went to see Shakespeare in the Park's local production of Midsummer Night's Dream. Though the acting was uneven and they cut a lot of the Bottom stuff, which I like much more than the magical rom-com, the language still carries the play, and it was lovely to discover new things about the Dream from the often low-brow take on the material (hey, Shakespeare works on all those levels). Getting teenagers to play the young lovers basically as petulant children actually works well, and the players found ways to use different areas of Victoria Park here in Moncton to good effect in the staging. Even the accidental things, like bands of kids and dogs throwing themselves into the park's fountain in the background, fit into the faerie world of the forest. A very nice evening, thanks all!
RPGs: Our Hong Kong Action Theater session this week was a "film" called Gun Fu Zombie, pulled mostly wholesale from the HKAT book itself. A fake review HERE. It was a total slaughterfest - a Total Party Kill - which doesn't really matter in HKAT (your Actors are still alive, of course) and appropriate for a zombie flick. The players, I hope, learned that they really should keep some Star Power for the climax of the adventure, because they would surely have gotten a more satisfying result had they not wasted all their points in the opening fight sequence. The adventure was also an interesting look at something that doesn't happen very often in standard RPGs, characters that plainly hate each other and are on different sides. Players relished turning on each other as soon as zombies weren't an immediate threat. The next game will be straighter Gun Fu fare, because I don't think we really captured the epic stunt-heavy feeling of those films, what with the undead running amok and all.
Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
III.iii. The Confessional