This Week in Geek (22-28/07/13)

Buys

A few DVDs again this week. On the strength of that first Globe Theatre performance, I got All's Well That Ends Well. For my Asian cinema fixation, Painted Skin: The Resurrection. And to further add to my Atom Egoyan collection, Chloe, Felicia's Journey, and Where the Truth Lies.

"Accomplishments"

At the movies: Every time I've gone to the movies this summer, there's been this stupid promotional trailer from Tribute Magazine that announced The Wolverine as taking place in "modern-day Japan", which I found incredibly irritating because you would think "modern-day" would be a default Japan that shouldn't need to be specified, especially with the bullet train sequence running on the screen. As it turns out, whatever Japan you're a fan of, The Wolverine kinda has it - Feudal, WWII, modern-day, even Neo-Tokyo. The film is loosely based on the seminal Frank Miller mini-series (without the narration), and is actually a pretty solid action flick, even if it falls into cliché at the end (does "characters fighting off vertiginous scaffolding" work for audiences anymore?). What Marvel movies usually do well, and that's true of Fox's too, is give each franchise or film its own feel. The Japanese setting makes sure this one does and justifies frenetic martial arts sequences and interesting locales. Purists might raise an eyebrow at two things however. One, they've pretty much stopped caring if Wolverine doesn't look 5'2". And two, for all its claw-on-skin action, the film is fairly bloodless. In fact, it came off as less violent than Man of Steel. And you know what, fanboys? I didn't care one jot. Let the guts spill under the movie frame, I don't need to see them, and the film works without them. And watch for the Nick Fury(ish) scene after the main credits.

DVDs: Made in Canada for BBC America, Orphan Black has an odd DNA, but I guess that's perfectly appropriate for this excellent new SF series about cloning. (Everyone who recommended it didn't want to spoil the subject matter, but the DVD case clearly does, so...) The premise has Saskatchewan's own Tatiana Maslany playing a variety of roles (and accents), as Orphan Black's protagonist, down-on-her-luck grifter Sarah Manning, sees her doppelganger jump in front of a train. She steals the woman's identity and gets more than she bargained for, including putting her feet right into a conspiracy involving more of her "selves". It's a tense 10-episode thriller, but it's also got a lot of heart thanks to the people in Sarah's supporting cast, and it never feels like it's written by the numbers. Every revelation adds a new wrinkle and makes you question what you thought you knew. Riveting stuff. Hate to have to wait for more. The DVD extras include interviews with cast and crew and are rather character-centric. There's very little, in fact, on how the show's effects were achieved. I'm not sure that's a bad thing because they're seamless to the point of invisibility. They couldn't have done any better if Tatiana had a couple of her triplets on set.

Nicolas Winding Refn's first film was Pusher, a Danish indie film that looks at the worst week of a drug dealer's life. Frank makes a couple of bad decisions, has a run of bad luck, and now he's on the hook for money he doesn't have. Events conspire to keep him in that spiral. I can see how this made Refn an over-night sensation. It has a grit that reminded me of Mean Streets, but the performances and dialog are so naturalistic, it feels like you're watching a documentary. An invasive, improbable documentary. Clothed in the genre conventions of the gangster film, it's really a character study, showing the thoroughly unglamorous life of petty crooks, and quite worthy of attention. The DVD includes a 50-minute documentary called Gambler, which isn't so much a making of Pusher II (though it has elements of its shooting), as it is about re-financing Refn's production company after bankruptcy by going back to the well and making two back-to-back sequels to his original success. Refn himself becomes one of his characters, in the same cycle of racing against the clock to find money after a deal gone wrong, as things fall apart around him. I thought it was strange to put this on the first disc of the trilogy, but it doesn't spoil any of the later films, though it may spoil your dreams of ever making movies yourself. The DVD also includes scenes from the so-called 2007 Bollywood remake, which uses Indian actors and pretty much the same script, though doesn't seem to have the same naturalistic acting. Nothing there I need to see.

Pusher II follows the same basic premise as the original Pusher of watching a character's life spiral out of control, with Mads Mikkelsen (which most people will know as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale) reprising his role as dumb cluck Tonny in Pusher 1. We're years later now, and Tonny has just come out of a short stay in prison (likely not his first) to find the world one in which he is not welcome. No one trusts him to do a good job. His father rejects him in favor of another two-bit crook. And a woman claims her baby is his. What's incredibly sad about Pusher II is that Tonny just isn't smart enough to process all this. He can only react on instinct, acting on the moment but not able to look ahead to the consequences. It's heartbreaking to see him try to impress a father that doesn't love him, or attempt to be a father to his nameless child. The film is full of touching impotence. Mikkelsen is the only actual actor in the piece, the rest of the ranks filled with people basically playing a version of themselves, people who've known the lifestyles portrayed, so the sense of vérité of the first film is retained. The making of on the DVD is all about casting, in fact, and the excellent commentary track (in English) talks about it too.

As protagonists are explored in each successive film, they disappear from the franchise, so Pusher III is about Milo (Zlatko Buric), the Serbian "boss" from the first film who finally gets HIS bad day. And it does take place more or less in the space of a day, a day that threatens to rob him of his business, his daughter, his sobriety and his self-respect. Again it's filled with non-traditional actors, and something that will be lost on English-speaking audiences, they hardly ever speak any Danish. This film was subtitled even in Denmark because it featured characters speaking Macedonian, Albanian, Polish and other languages you might not be able to tell apart. The film doesn't really suffer from losing that layer (it's usually clear when someone gets screwed by the translator), but it's still an interesting element of Copenhagen's ethnic diversity lost in translation. The DVD includes a casting-centric making of and a commentary track just like Pusher II's, plus this strange German cooking show (don't expect to know a recipe at the end) that interviews Buric as well as the people involved in the German dub. Buric is an interesting character in his own right, fun to talk to, and we get to meet people involved in the film industry we never get to see, though there is an element of repititon as threeway conversations feature translation from the host. Bottom line: The Pusher Trilogy boxed set is a good deal.

In my chronological watching of the BBC Shakespeare collection, I watched The Comedy of Errors, a minor, early comedy to be sure, a farce that ALMOST works but really doesn't. The production team did its best to make it lively, with a cool 360 degree set, the floor painted with a map of the Grecian world, and lots of street performers, and the casting is meant to create interest, with The Who's Roger Daltrey as Dromio. The city of Ephesus' connection to witchcraft makes the story a bit more credible too, or else you might simply not buy the premise of two sets of separated twins (two masters and two servants) reuniting in a flurry of misunderstandings because they are wearing the same clothes as their brothers on that day. But young Shakespeare's structure is clunky (loads of exposition at the front and unearned reveals at the end), and while there are plenty of moments where one character is taken for another for comic effect, these moments do not really create double meanings that could be comically exploited. It's a lot of "what are you talking about? I never said/did that!", far less satisfying than characters acting on what they THINK the other is talking about. Plus, a lot of comedy seems unkind to women, with disposable wives and insulting comments on their persons. Not a favorite.

I've now seen Seven Samurai a few times, and I've finally stopped trying to match each swordsman with one of the gunslingers in The Magnificent Seven. That's progress right? The truth is, the western doesn't actually have a one-to-one correspondence with Kurosawa's classic. For my part, I keep finding new things in the film every time I watch. It's so FULL. Full of action, character, humor, tragedy, directorial flair, memorable shots and music cues. It's well worth its reputation. It struck me this week how much it fits my socio-political spectrum too. Like Star Trek (if you'll permit the comparison), it presents a socialist ideal firmly grounded in the importance of individuality, with lordless ronin helping a farming town well below their own class. Not that it's that simple. Kurosawa can be critical and even cynical of his own apparent stance. Ultimately, it's about the characters as much as it is about Japanese society (feudal and of his day). Or enjoy it as a grand drama full of action. The Criterion Collection DVD has loads of extras that deepen one's appreciation, including two commentary tracks by experts (one of them shared by several, though not seven of them, disappointingly), who also show up in the only English-language featurette, a look at samurai culture and tradition, and the samurai films it spawned. Very interesting. There's also a retrospective look that talks to many of the people involved in the film, filled with anecdotes you won't get from the experts, a two-hour interview with Kurosawa about his life and films, a picture gallery and vintage trailers that contain behind the scenes footage. By the end, I knew a great deal about Seven Samurai and Kurosawa, but also about Japan in the days before and after World War II. Excellent package.

Though I admit two of the above would have fit our Kung Fu Friday tradition (I did at least see The Wolverine Friday afternoon), City on Fire was our actual selection. This early Ringo Lam gangster picture starring young Chow Yun-Fat clearly transitioning from the comedy roles he'd been known for up until then, was, unfortunately, only available with an English dub. I found myself not minding too much, to my surprise. In true Hong Kong tradition, Lam fills the screen with visuals, and his every shot holds interest, whatever the language. And it's a fun physical performance from "Hong Kong's King of Comedy" Chow Yun-Fat too, as an irreverant undercover cop who wants out, caught between a rock and a hard place and an unhealthy relationship with a girl. Not a major film, by any means, but a good piece of entertainment.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
IV.v. Ophelia's Madness - Classics Illustrated

Your Daily Splash Page this week features a splash from every DC title, alphabetically, from New Teen Titans to Nightwing.

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