This Week in Geek (2-08/09/13)

Buys

Amazon had a sale on Breaking Bad, which I've never seen but heard plenty about, so I got five seasons for a song. Plus, Sleepwalk with Me, Happythankyoumoreplease, and Valhalla Rising.

"Accomplishments"

DVDs: When Peter Capaldi was named as the 12th Doctor, I immediately went to You-Tube to find out why he was better known for vulgarities. The character he plays in The Thick of It, government spin doctor Malcolm Tucker is the reason, and the complete 24 episodes became available on DVD in Region 1 the Tuesday following the announcement. No coincidence, I should think. Think The Office or Parks & Recreation - without the personal interviews, more voyeurism than documentary - in a British government department without a lot of power. Tucker has the most presence and colorful language (to say the least), but by the end of the series, we've come to know a large cast of characters, both coarse and pathetic, from both sides of the aisle and in the media. It's very funny, and there are a LOT of deleted/alternate scenes that are too, but offers up a lot of pathos too, for important people tend to fall from grace, even when they don't deserve to. Even when an episode or arc makes you wonder if it's going anywhere, the end result is, I think, satisfying. Good stuff, well acted and (sometimes) improvised. In addition to deleted material (well edited together, it's not a tedious button-pushing experience), the DVD set has boisterous cast and crew commentary on most episodes (and on photo galleries too), some behind the scenes material and interviews (mostly for Series 1 and 3), and outtakes too.

Being Human's fifth series is its last, and even so had to prove the show could work without any of the original cast. While some of the middle episodes made me wonder if we hadn't been here before with other characters, but at only 6 episodes, Series 5 is a concise arc that services all three stars well, and three recurring villains as well. The participation of the Devil himself keeps things apocalyptic, and the new ghost, Alex, quickly carves out her un-Annie-ness, just as Hal and Tom managed to differentiate themselves from (and dare I say, exceed) their original cast homologues. The ending is a little crazy, and I think show runner Toby Whithouse gets to have his cake and eat it too thanks to an exclusive DVD epilogue. It turns one ending into three, all emotionally true. Though the DVD features interviews with cast and crew, most of the materials are bonus scenes, either webisodes, bonus scenes or deleted scenes. Just a little more time to spend with these characters after it's over. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Toby Whithouse for Doctor Who show runner!

I identify with almost everyone and everything in Josh Radner's Liberal Arts. Marketed as a romcom about a thirtysomething who goes back to his old college and falls for a student, it's actually about two things close to my core being. First, it shows very accurately what it is to have a liberal arts degree, and how it shapes your thinking. Second, it's really about the malaise of age, whatever age that might be. We meet characters from four distinct age groups, and none are happy with how old they actually are. The film isn't so much about boy meets girl as it is about acting and feeling your age and finding contentment in that. As someone of Radner's generation who works AT a university AND have an English lit degree, I know exactly what he's talking about. The film is funny, touching, truthful and filled with great actors, conversations and moments. The DVD includes a good commentary track shared between Radner and his producer, some deleted scenes and a disappointing making of that's really just an extended trailer with behind the scenes footage.

Butter is a strange little film that's halfway between Little Miss Sunshine and Best in Show, about the cutthroat world of butter carving. On the one hand, it's a touching story about a little girl bounced from foster home to foster home, and on the other, a savage satire and behind the scenes tell-all that could be about beauty pageants or local politics with Jennifer Garner as an uptight and ambitious wife who thrives on power. The little girl and her latest family are from the real world, entering the absurd comedy of the butter carving competition, and for me at least, it works in a way that each wouldn't separately. Alone, the little girl plot might seem cloying, while alone, the satire would be cold and dull. Still, the film sometimes seems to have too much going on. The stripper who has an affair with Garner's daughter, for example, is one side-trip too many. But full marks for creating a mad little world where this could happen. I was also surprised at Daily Show correspondent Rob Coddry's effectiveness as the girl's father. I want to see him in more dramatic roles. On the DVD, a gag reel and some deleted scenes.

Another indie film that can't easily be pigeonholed is Richard Linklater's Bernie, a docudrama about a real life event in an East Texas small town in which the town's nicest and most beloved man, an extravagant funeral director here played by a restrained Jack Black, murders the wicked old widow he'd become a slave to. The twist is that the town didn't want to see him prosecuted for it. Though Linklater uses Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConnaghey and other actors to play the story, he also uses the real town folk of Carthage, TX as "gossips" who speak directly to camera and tell the story as it was actually reported in the day, all hearsay and opinion. Some of it is scripted, some improvised, and some probably actual recollections. It works as a dark comedy, but the documentary testimonials are the best bit. The DVD has featurettes on the making of the film and the actual case, as well as lots of deleted scenes and some of the original auditions for the town gossips.

For a Chang Cheh film, Life Gamble has a surprising number of strong female characters! They're actually a bit better defined that a lot of the male characters, who are so often just assigned a basic personality, a nickname and a special weapon of their own, though that's often par for the course in kung fu films from Shaw Bros. This one has a huge cast, but that shorthand makes it possible to understand what's going on. It's an interesting if convoluted flick about a group of bandits who gamble to see which of them will have the precious piece of jade jewelry they acquired. Of course, everyone in the world wants that jade for both altruistic and selfish reasons, so it's a race to see who will finally get their hands on it and KEEP their hands on it, with plenty of inventive battles along the way. The main heroes are three actors I enjoy - Kwok Choi (AKA Philip Kwok) who is my favorite and much underused Venom, the tragic and endearing Fu Sheng, and My Young Auntie's Kara Hui - though are plenty of other familiar faces from Shaw's usual roster. Fun and never boring, which is what I want from my vintage martial arts cinema.

1946's Abilene Town is what I can only describe as a perfect example of a black and white western. Nothing more and nothing less. As such it keeps one's attention without being a classic of the genre. Randolph Scott plays the marshal of Abilene, Kansas (and here I watched it because I once live somewhere close to Abilene TX, damn) where homesteaders are clashing with cowboys. The movie does a good job of contrasting the two ways of life, though in unsurprisingly black and white fashion - piety vs. drunkenness, family vs. individualism, rurality vs. modernity. And everything you would expect from a western is there, from shootouts to fist fights to wagons set on fire, and more besides: a romance, comic relief from a bad sheriff (which doesn't really work), and one too many musical numbers. In fact, Ann Dvorak as the can-can dancer and singer Rita frequently steals the show. She has some good songs (I just didn't need them repeated later in the film) and gets some of the film's best dialog. Scott's got some good hard man lines here and there, but she's always on. Watch for a young Lloyd Bridges as a homesteader too. The DVD is part of the "Great American Western Collection", and as such has no extras. The picture quality is variable, sometimes murky, sometimes washed-out, but nothing that ruins the experience.

Audio: The Jigsaw War by Eddie Robson is a Companion Chronicle from Big Finish, starring Frazer Hines as both Jamie and the second Doctor (it's such a perfect impression!) and one that plays with the audio format in an interesting way. Jamie is being interrogated on some planet, suspected of working with a pacifist cult that gets violent whenever they congregate into too large a group. At the same time, an entity is playing a game with the Doctor and Jamie that forces Jamie to figure out in what order his scenes should actually go. In other words, it's asking the listener to do the same with the CD's tracks! (And having listened to some of these CDs on shuffle by mistake, I completely understand Jamie's problem.) He's experiencing the scenes in the order you're listening to them, but his interrogator isn't. A fun idea that should reward repeated listens.

Theater: "Paul et la mer" (Paul and the Sea) is a short one-act play put on by friends of mine (including the downstairs neighbors) for their Théâtre de la Cigogne (Theater of the Stork) troupe/project, and written specifically for them by a up and coming writer, Montreal's Mathieu Héroux. At least I hope he up-and-comes (ooh, didn't mean for that to sound so dirty) because I liked the text a great deal. The play is about a young man whose sisters send out into the world to find love, or at least, a girl to marry, so they can have their inheritance. The two actresses also play all the ladies he meets (and one man), and hilariously so. Great comic characters in a comic book world (which is the sense the four-color sets, costumes and props give off) brightening up a script that often plunges into poetry. They're given to telling stories, imagining futures, presents and pasts, and narrating their own point of view. For Paul, the sea is a world that forces him to sink or swim, in which he may be lost or might just carry him to better shores. On a pendulum swinging between elevated metaphor and down-to-earth comedy, Paul et la mer left me hungry for more from this writer and what I consider three of the best drama students to graduate from the local university in the last few years. And I'm not just saying that because they're friends of mine. They know me for my brutal honesty. Thanks for the show, guys!

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
IV.v. Laertes' Return - Kline '90

Your Daily Splash Page this week features a splash from every DC title, alphabetically, from Resurrection Man to Saga of the Swamp Thing.

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