This Week in Geek (23-29/12/13)


I have great friends with an eye for geekery, so I got some sweet gifts for Christmas: Star Trek glasses, a pizza cutter shaped like the original Enterprise, a life-sized TARDIS blanket, a Firestorm action figure (it's Jason, and for no reason, he's got a giant rocket launcher coming out of his back) and a little book of vintage Sci-Fi comics. In return, I gave everyone Doctor Who-themed socks (because 50th Anniversary trumps Christmas) and a copy of my homemade Waking Life card game.


There's a theme to the movies I watched this week: They all clock in at more than 2½ hours, usually closer to 3. After the first few, it's basically how I chose what to watch next.

At the Movies: Went to see Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street on Christmas day and thought it was a hilarious black comedy. What a way to finish the Goodfellas/Casino triptych! The first person narration is more cheeky than usual, Leonardo does some great slapstick work, and I'm always game for some POV gags (what the character sees as opposed to what really happened and such). It IS a Scorsese film, so it goes on for a bit. The three hours go by fairly quickly, but around the Wolf's second divorce scene, I felt like I'd been shotgunning a whole season of some HBO program. Not boring, but could certainly have been nipped and tucked without losing anything crucial. And obviously, it's about American decadence, which has somehow become controversial because some people out there are afraid people will come out of this movie wanting to become like the Wolf and his cohorts, completely missing the point that this was an indictment of such behavior. Did Goodfellas make you want to go into the mob? Same thing, really. But there are two kinds of people - those who get that this is anti-drug, anti-crime and anti-amoral capitalism; and those who want to be what's pictured on screen. That can't be helped. After all, it's based on a true story, and the people represented in the film started out with just such ambitions. Controversial? Pff. It's not even the most controversial Scorsese film I watched this week! (And maybe even the least controversial film, period, if I include nerd rage as proper controversy.)

After seeing The Hobbit in theaters during the holiday season last year, we had to go see Part 2 or 3 this year, and partly because I don't think Tolkien is a sacred cow, I thought The Desolation of Smaug was huge fun. What Peter Jackson has done with the original book is turn it into a trilogy of action movies, expanding each scene and turning them into crazy set pieces. So the dwarves escaping in barrels? A fine trick in the book becomes a hugely entertaining sequence full of cool fighting and memorable gags. As with the first film, Jackson is also using The Hobbit as a prequel to the Lord of the Rings, looking in on such characters as Legolas and Sauron before they were stars, so to speak. Some have bristled at the inclusion of a love triangle and a new female character, but that's no different from Arwen's role in the other trilogy. I have no problem at all with developping stories for the dwarves in the company, especially since the book makes most of them ciphers, names and not much else to make up the 13. Frustrations? Some, but very mild. Cumberbatch as Smaug is kind of wasted, since the dragon's voice isn't recognizable as his, and the motion cap (which he did) is too inhuman to register AS an actor's performance. No musical numbers, which is too bad because it's a break from the first film's style. And it ends on much more of a cliffhanger than the first film, so doesn't feel like a complete chapter, despite its running time.

DVDs: In the two days before going to see The Hobbit 2, I watched the extended cut of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and all attendant DVD extras. Though Peter Jackson added only about 20 minutes of material (including a couple of musical numbers), they didn't call attention to themselves so that I couldn't quite spot what was new a year after seeing the theatrical cut. And though he included the same kind of in-depth "appendices" as were found on the original Lord of the Rings extended cuts, there's only one commentary track (with him and his co-writer), or else I would still be at it. Also missing are the design galleries that were on the first three releases. But we do get about 9 hours of making of material, chronicling pre-production, shooting and post-production in detail, with lots of fun and interesting stories from everyone involved, as well as dedicated featurettes on the dwarves, Bilbo, the design of each place, culture and character, the songs, and more. The cumulative effect was to give the viewer a much better sense of who the dwarves were especially, and made me regret not watching the extras before I did the film (which I would never do), to better appreciate the acting and background action. In short (not a dwarf joke), it did what a DVD package should do, and that's make me appreciate the film even more than I first did.

Django Unchained is another film I'd seen in theaters last year, and enough time had passes that I could be surprised by it again. Well, I wasn't all that surprised, as it was a pretty memorable film to begin with, and the one extra, a nevertheless nice piece on the production designer who passed away during shooting, didn't create a better understanding of the film or anything. But where the original viewing experience could be uncomfortable, a repeat viewing in the home, without other peoples' presumed discomfort around you, full knowledge of what was about to transpire, and I suppose, broad critical acceptance of the film, turned it into a more sedate affair. It's like we didn't know we had permission to laugh during a film about slavery, but now we do. I didn't have any great revelations about the film that didn't occur to me first time around, but did rediscover the soundtrack, which is unsurprisingly eclectic and cool.

It was interesting to me just how much Sergio Leone puts a film together just like Tarantino does, making a twisted collage of things he'd admired in other films. I think that's how Once Upon a Time in the West can be at once the most iconic western ever, and yet be so fresh and inventive. The plot about a railroad baron and an important plot of land involves a beautiful widow (Claudia Cardinale) and three gunslingers (a black as death Henry Fonda, a soulful Jason Robards, and stealing the show with a minimalist performance as the Man with No Name, Charles Bronson), and manages to be at once a love letter to the western film tradition and a critique of its values. Apparently, the script only had about 15 pages of dialog, so it is minimalist indeed, playing on silences, exaggerated sound, and music. It's an incredibly visual film, and the characters only open their mouths when they have something particularly awesome to say. Shame about the dub over Italian and Spanish actors, the voice-over artists aren't very good and certainly don't have the right accents, but that's a small defect in an otherwise grand opera. Just wonderful. The DVD does a great job of finding the survivors from both cast and crew, with some archive interviews of some who are no longer with us, including Leone, as well as getting the impressions of film critics and directors influenced by the film. These also feature on the commentary track, which is interesting enough, though some of the interventions (like John Carpenter's) are less than useful. The making of totals a bit more than an hour, and are supplemented by a production photo gallery and another on locations then and now.

As long-ass films week continued, I watched The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the David Fincher version (never seen the Swede original, or read the book), and I was pleasantly surprised and am looking for future installments in the trilogy. Based on Se7en and Zodiac, Fincher is a great choice to direct a dense mystery about a serial killer, and his acidic, grubby color palette certainly works for this Nordic tale of lost women. Daniel Craig is good as the journalist seeking professional redemption by investigating a notorious cold case in a remote part of the country, but it's Rooney Mara who steals the show as the eponymous tattooed girl, a brilliant investigator that comes in the most unusual of packages. We spend quite a good deal of time following her dark tale before it intersects with the journalist's, and it's equal measures harrowing and air-punchingly satisfying. She's on par with Sherlock Holmes, this one, and I'm very interested to see where both characters go next. Fincher provides a strong commentary track that shows how thoughtful a filmmaker he is.

And back to Scorsese with The Last Temptation of Christ, a film I'd rented in the early 90s, but didn't remember much from except the eponymous climax. In fact, I was under the impression the whole film was that "Last Temptation". But no, we're taken through much of Jesus' recorded life before that moment on the cross. Now THIS is controversial, because matters of faith always are, and those who boycotted it missed out on one of the better and most faithful portrayals of Christ ever put to film. This isn't a historical Jesus that debunks the Bible and tells us he was man but not God. God speaks to him, Satan is real, and in case someone wants to claim it's all in his head, he really accomplishes the miracles from the Gospels. This is the Biblical Jesus. What seems objectionable to some is that Jesus struggles with his mission, tries to delay it, is afraid of it, as second thoughts even once he embarks on it, and comes very close to abandoning it. But this is from Scripture, folks. Those moments are recorded in the New Testament, including the idea that he doesn't start until he's 30 despite knowing his true nature since he was a child. Dramatizing this can be shocking to those who thump a book they haven't read or understood, I understand. But the flaw isn't in the film. In the Bible, God asks his son to sacrifice himself for humanity's sins. It's not much of a sacrifice if this is easy to do, and Last Temptation gets this completely right. The Passion of the Christ tried to do this by showing torture and suffering of the body, but Last Temptation presents suffering of the soul. That's a much stronger and more truthful idea. That said, the New York accents of the cast, and general casting, can be distracting. There's an odd modernity to the voices and faces. But the film is thought-provoking enough to make all that moot.

Gaming: A few people in the group got some Tabletop-style games for Christmas, so last night we threw a gaming night together and opened a few new boxes. We started with Kill Doctor Lucky, which is very much like a prequel to Clue, where your characters try to murder a Mr. Magoo type, failing and failing through chance until his luck finally runs out. Very well designed, I thought, with plenty of strategies to consider while still remaining fairly simple. I was the most aggressive player in the game, which almost worked out for me, but gaming buddy Fred was smarter and figured out how to best use the game's movement rules to win in the end. Then we played Once Upon a Time, a collaborative story-telling card game in which you narrate a fairy tale until someone steals the narration from you, trying to empty your hand and play your Ending card to win. We weren't cutthroat about it and no one hogged the narration, letting everyone have a turn. And it was Fred again who won, bringing a rather strange story of body dysmorphia to a close successfully. Finished off the night with an old favorite, Apples to Apples, which Fred's +1 won. Now that's a power couple.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction - Kline '90

Your Daily Splash Page this week features a splash from every DC title, alphabetically, from Tales of the Unexpected to Teen Titans.


idiotbrigade said...

Definitely winnin' Christmas this year.


CalvinPitt said...

Once Upon a Time in the West isn't my favorite Leone film - it's behind Good, the bad, and the Ugly and Duck, You Sucker - but I do like it a lot. I don't think I'd even heard of Jason Robards before I saw it.

Also, I totally agree of John Carpenter's commentary. It had clearly been so long since he watched the movie he was a couple beats behind in describing what he was seeing.

He was on the commentary for a version of Rio Bravo I watched. Not sure why. I don't picture Carpenter as much of a Westerns guy.

Siskoid said...

I'm nowhere near the Leone expert, but I want to see more for sure. Jason Robards I already knew, from The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (yeah, I'm a Peckinpah fan), All the President's Men, Magnolia, etc.).

Mitchell Craig said...

CalvinPitt: Carpenter is very much a fan of Westerns. He'd probably be making cowboy pics if they weren't out of fashion these days. Assault on Precinct 13 is a modern riff on Rio Bravo, the latter I had the good fortune to see on AMC this past Christmas Day. However, Carpenter isn't much for snappy dialogue.

Doc Savage said...

The book by Kazantzakis is so much better than the movie,which I thought was fairly dull. Read it?

Siskoid said...

No, the only book of his I've read (or read in part) is The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel.


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