This Week in Geek (8-14/07/13)


It was my birthday last week, and a few friends got me a batch of geek stuff including a couple of boxes of HeroClix which we use as stand-in miniatures in superhero RPGs (scored Deadman and New52 Aquaman among others), and some Original Series Star Trek drinking glasses (cool because I'm thirsty!). I also got myself some DVDs - The The Tracey Fragments, Adoration, the Lone Wolf and Cub boxed set (all 6 movies) and Warehouse 13  Season 4 - and a video game to get me through the summer, Borderlands 2.


At the movies: Giant monsters and giant robots, Pacific Rim creates a believable and detailed world where those two things exist, a world with consequences, lots of little details, and despite the jeopardy, a certain sense of humor about itself. It certainly schools Man of Steel in how to make destruction porn WORK, and it does so with dropping a single 4-letter word despite the military context. Oh it's a simple story, but well told, with enough twists of fate, beautiful visuals, decipherable choreography and badass moments to entertain all the way through. The weak link is Charlie Hunnam in the main role, the kind of jocky square-jawed hero that's almost a non-character (to go with his non-accent), and a dull narrator to boot. The film makes up for it with casting that makes it seem like the director is watching all the same shows I am, giving us memorable characters played by Idris Alba, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, Max Martini, Rinko Kikuchi and Ron Perlman. Ultimately, does it deliver on kaiju vs. mechs in a solid plot with engaging characters? Yes it does.

DVDs: I flipped the first season of Adventure Time, and it was as much absurdist fun as I thought it might be though I perversely remain a bigger fan of the licensed comics (but that's because I read them first; this was the first time I even heard Finn and Jake's voices). Needless to say, what Pendleton Ward has created is what the dreams of little boys are made of, and probably little girls too. Completely loopy as as fun for grown-up geeks (the D&D references) as it must be for kids (fart jokes), and it doesn't skimp on action and adventure. You hardly notice the episodes are only 11 minutes long. The DVD includes commentary on 8 of the 26 episodes, 4 of them on animatic versions (one of them cuts in one of Ward's student animation films, be sure to check it out for the origin of one of the monsters), a brief bonus episode and a couple of music videos (one of which is basically Adventure Time in live action, the other a montage of examples of fan art and cosplay). Then there's the making of featurette, which is really a spoof with cartoon character running around the offices, and a making of of the making of which is itself a spoof, not at all showing how the Roger Rabbit-type featurette was achieved. Both have their moments though they suffer from bad sound and cheap filming. I do have to give props to the DVD box's design, which has you flipping discs to Finn's brainy center.

Life of Pi was next, and I don't think I was ready for its heartbreaking imagery. And by heartbreaking I mean it put a lump in my throat even when it wasn't overtly trying to be sad. This one has stayed with me; I'm still feeling its effects several days later. It starts as a quirky Wes Anderson-type comedy about an Indian boy called Piscine (nickname Pi) and then becomes an emotional and fantastical journey as Pi loses everything in a shipwreck and finds himself trying to survive on a lifeboat with a savage Bengal tiger. The special effects are entirely amazing, sometimes begging the question of how they were done (even the effects-focused making of can't really dispel the illusion), but the effects are only a tool to tell a story that is at once sad and life-affirming, funny and tragic, and even more than a little profound. I wasn't disappointed when Argo won the Oscar this year (it was one of the few films nominated I'd seen), but had I watched Life of Pi before the awards ceremony, it would have been my pick. A wonderful achievement.

Pina is a documentary about dance choreographer Pina Bausch by acclaimed German director Wim Wenders, a project he almost abandoned when his friend Pina died during pre-production, but was convinced by her dancers to do it as a tribute to her. There are interviews with the many dancers who worked with her, and these are poetically rendered, voice-over on silent expressive faces, but the screen is mostly filled with astonishing dances performances. Four of Pina's dance plays were filmed, and we get long extracts of these, and dancers also got to do solos and duets in public -  a Berlin street, on a train, in a quarry, etc. - showing off things they workshopped with Pina. It's a love letter to dance as a medium, and to its untapped possibilities as a story-telling tool. And it was shot in 3D, a 3D Blu-ray version included for those who have the equipment (I don't). The making of features lots of behind the scenes footage all narrated by Wenders in both French and English. He talks about the project and his personal connection to Pina, as well as the challenges associated with 3D film-making. A great many deleted scenes are included, which give more dancers a chance to show off their solos, as well as scenes cut from the longer group performances. A small photo gallery and some cardboard postcards complete the package.

What if E.T. and the Thing had a baby, and horribly, that baby was Jeff Bridges? That's Starman, proof that John Carpenter is a romantic at heart. Not unusually, Bridges goes all in as a sweet alien in human form, and Karen Allen grounds the film in a certain believability as the woman whose dead husband's body he took. Whether the romance between them works is up each individual viewer, as Carpenter merely presents the facts and lets them speak for themselves. There are no long-winded scenes to expressly tell us that Jenny finds solace and ultimately closure in this man that looks like the man she still grieves for, no lip-biting self-doubt about whether she's doing the right thing giving in to these feelings. Things happen, and they are informed by past events the audience has been made aware of, draw your own conclusions. So Carpenter is a romantic here, but not sentimental. I think that's why this movie stands the test of time.

The Essential Atom Egoyan DVD set includes four early features from the acclaimed Canadian film maker, and Next of Kin is his very first (1984). Though short at less than 70 minutes, you can already see Exotica or The Sweet Hereafter's director behind the themes and style. Next of Kin is a rather fascinating story about a listless rich boy who after a video-taped family therapy session, sneaks in to watch other people's tapes and becomes interested in an Armenian family and decides to visit them, playing the role of their long-lost son, given away for adoption as a baby. Now, Egoyan admits to his failures on the fascinating commentary track; the importance he gave to camera moves that don't actually register strongly with the audience (though I could tell SOMEthing was up, it's true the intent wasn't clear enough) would have made the film about identity and spiritual theft. But Next of Kin takes a life of its own, and regardless of intent, doesn't register as a failure. The role-playing theme is far less sinister in large part because the adopted family is so charismatic and lively, and as much as Peter wants to heal them, they end up healing him. The movie quite simply rejects its rookie director's pretentiousness. The DVD also includes a photo gallery and several rehearsals.

Tai Chi Zero is a martial arts movie filtered through the Scott Pilgrim aesthetic and such, completely absurd. If you embrace it, you'll be fine. If you don't, the anachronisms could get annoying. The story is a simple one about a talented boy who must learn Tai Chi for reasons I won't go into. To be allowed to do so, he must prove himself to Chen Village who own its secrets, a village with its own problems because the Emperor and the White Man want to run the railroad right through it. Cue steampunk monster. Over that slightly crazy premise, the production throws lots of comical tricks, giving the film the feel of Pop-Up Video, with CG labels popping up all over the place, including movie trivia to go with integrated credits (so many at times, not all are translated in the subtitles). There are visual references to video games and silent films alike, so in addition to Scott Pilgrim, you might put something Kung Fu Hustle in its DNA as well. A wild ride, certainly amusing, and... to be continued in Tai Chi Hero. I'm going to have to put it on the schedule for August. The DVD includes a music video and short making of featurettes that briefly tease the second film.

Still want to go through my BBC Shakespeare collection in suggested order of composition, but I was dreading the Henry the Sixth cycle. 10 hours (not counting Richard III, which follows directly from the three plays) of some of the Bard's early historical work. And while it's true the poetry isn't quite at the level it would one day become, and the scenes can best be described as sketches meant to tell the history rather than breathe life into characters (with some exceptions), director Jane Howell creates a surprisingly lively series. One of the things she does is set all four plays in the same set, a large arena surrounded by palisades that acts as various interchangeable courts and battlefields, and which loses color the further in we go, as Henry loses France, the peace and finally the crown. She also uses the same basic cast of actors, the dead living again in later plays as different characters. So it's very much "of the theater". Because she's got such a huge cast of characters to juggle, she draws us in with comedy. Part 1 means to make fools of the English who badly advised the young king, and of the French whose Dauphin is just as ineffectual and who puts a girl in charge of his armies (Joan of Arc). Fake horses, lots of comically played asides, the rush in and out of battle making everyone look like cowards, it's all very fun. By the end, the death toll has gotten quite large, and Howell doesn't skimp on blood and battle, and we're into more serious fare. By then, we're ready for it, we're involved in the history at least intellectually. It's a neat trick. The comedy IS justified by the text, of course, as it can easily be read as slander of the Catholic Church. It was pulling the strings on one side of the conflict, while God was fighting for the French through Joan, Shakespeare's most interesting character in the play, more a strumpet than a saint, who beds the Dauphin to best manipulate him and just about the only person who knows what's up in the entire thing.

In Part 2, Henry loses France and civil war erupts when he marries Margaret and she turns out to be an unforgivably evil queen. One thing I didn't mention before is the cycle's greatest weakness - the casting. Not that the actors aren't good, but because many of them have to play young, adult and aged versions of the same character, they seem miscast in Parts 1 and 2. Not young actors aged, but older actors playing young. Henry and Margaret are the worst examples of this, and through the whole cycle of plays, none of the "love at first sight" scenes seem credible as a result. We're in Part 2 and they STILL don't seem age-appropriate. Another casting hiccup (though I don't fault it as much) is Trevor Peacock as the rebel Jack Cade. It just seems strange because Peacock was such a major presence in Part 1 as Talbot. Still, Jack Cade IS the best character in Part 2, funny and valiant, like a Falstaff with courage (and who comically prefigures communism). Between him and Joan, it certainly looks like Shakespeare is throwing in with the commoners. I suppose that's to be expected in a story about ineffectual and/or selfish nobles.

By Part 3, Henry VI's action becomes almost unbearable. It's been battle after battle after bloody battle since at least the middle of Part 2, bells, drums and trumpets. All credit to Howell for giving each set piece some interesting twists in staging, weapons and editing. The War of the Roses that found its origins in Part 1 is in full bloom, and the sense that York (Bernard Hill) would make a better king than too-nice and too-easy to manipulate Henry is clear. If only Margaret hadn't been a jerk (and a warrior queen), and if only York's son Richard hadn't been such a duplicitous schemer. Richard III is definitely brewing and the Henry VI cycle is definitely interesting as a prequel to that play. As for the character of Henry himself, he only really gets sympathy here at the end where he's portrayed as a true Christian king, a good man if not an effective leader, at least not in a Court where everyone else is most unchristian-like. There's even a mirror of the famous scene in Henry V where the king walks among common men, though of course that scene had yet to be written. So I'm on course for Richard III (same set, same actors), the play in which Shakespeare started to show his true genius.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
IV.v. Ophelia's Madness - Hamlet 2000
IV.v. Ophelia's Madness - Fodor (2007)

Your Daily Splash Page this week features a splash from every DC title, alphabetically, from The Monolith to Nathaniel Dusk.


-Peder said...

Did you watch 'Life of Pi' on DVD or on the big screen? I saw it in a movie theater and I'm wondering if it suffers on a TV or not.

Siskoid said...

DVD first and only. I can't make a comparison.


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