This Week in Geek (3-09/03/14)


As you'll soon see, it's no surprise I got the China Beach Season 2 DVD set as soon as it came out. Plus, American Comic Book Chronicles - The 1950s; it's about the period in comics I probably know the least about, and if I like it, I might invest in other volumes of the series.


DVDs: I was a huge fan of China Beach (it created a life-long crush on Dana Delaney) and it's finally coming on DVD. I wonder why it took so long? Music rights issues, I'll bet, because there's a lot of period music in the show. It wasn't the restoration effort, that's for sure, because the video is often murky and grainy, though it gets a pass because that seems to fit the Vietnam War setting. Otherwise, this feels as fresh and relevant as it did in 1988. Its subject matter is pretty universal. If you don't know it, China Beach is about the women lending support to the troops during the Vietnam War. A nurse (Delaney), a performer, a prostitute (Marg Helgenberger!), an officer, a Red Cross worker; with male support personnel completing the cast - a doctor (Robert Picardo before he became a literally archetypal doctor), a lifeguard, a coroner, a pilot, and so on. Tonally, it sits closer to lyrical films like The Thin Red Line or Apocalypse Now than it does to, say MASH or Tour of Duty. The pilot is remarkable, and if not for one or two unresolved subplots, plays as an effective, touching and thoughtful feature film. The second episode is a bit of a tonal mess, but otherwise, strong stuff all the way through (the first season was a mid-season replacement apparently because there are only 7 episodes). The DVD includes a retrospective featurette about how it all started, highlights from a touching 2012 cast reunion, a commentary track on the pilot, and the full interviews made with Dana Delaney and Chloe Webb. The latter was only on the show that first season and is far less eloquent than Delaney, but both are emotional and touching in their own right.

It's post-Oscars week, so I was in the mood to watch films that were nominated this year and last. Started with Silver Linings Playbook, a twisted romantic comedy about people struggling with mental illness. I was impressed by the performances and how David O. Russell could wring humor out of what could easily have been too controversial and touchy a subject. It's not just the main characters either, almost everyone in the film has a little "madness" going on, and somehow that just makes the cast more endearing, and the film more hopeful. The first step is acceptance, and these characters have no choice but to give it. The DVD includes deleted scenes, a making of that focuses a lot on tackling the issue of mental illness, and short behind-the-scenes bits during dance rehearsals and shooting. (Yes, there's dance in this film, and I like how it translates what the characters are going through in visual terms.)

Another film nominated last year is Les Misérables, which is not, I admit, my kind of musical (sung-through is a bit TOO artificial for me), AND I'm no Victor Hugo fan (the opposite might be said), but I was up for it because I AM a fan of director Tom Hooper's thoughtful approach to film-making. I did like it, even though Hugo's melodrama weighs heavy and the music has too few themes for my tastes, and certainly respect the achievement recording the singing on set represents. Basically, it puts emotion and performance first, as actors can vary their their tempo and delivery in performance. Once your ear is tuned to heightened style, it makes the film far more naturalistic than the usual lipsynch process. The actors bring a lot to their characters, adding motivation, humor and other touches to the stage musical and even novel, and they mostly have good voices, Russell Crowe excepted (he has both good and bad moments). Well constructed and worth your time if you're in the mood for something long and heavy. The DVD includes an insightful director's commentary and featurettes on the casting, production design and Victor Hugo.

From one literary masterpiece I never liked to another: The Great Gatsby. I read Fitzgerald's short novel at university, but had to rush through it, didn't connect to it, and found it boring. I probably would have given the film a pass too if it hadn't been on sale on Amazon, and if Baz Luhrmann wasn't the kind of visual director who could make anything at least INTERESTING. Well, for one thing, it's clear I remembered nothing at all from book except its setting. And now, I kind of want to read it again. While visually gorgeous, Luhrmann highlights some of the best lines (and not just in dialog) and makes his adaptation properly honor the literary work. The music and feeling is often anachronistic, but is meant to convey the feeling readers at the time would have gotten from the book. What was opulent, flashy and outrageous in the 1920s is not the same as what is today, so modern ideas are used as translation. It works, and perhaps that's the connection I wasn't able to make on that St-John-Digby ferry ride in the winter of 1993 (see? I remember the circumstances of my reading the book more than its content). The DVD has a collection of featurettes looking at everything from character to production design to shooting to music, plus behind-the-scenes material, deleted scenes and the trailer for the 1926 silent film version of the story.

Man of Tai Chi is Keanu Reeves' directorial debut, teaming up with martial artist Tiger Chen (as a fictionalized version of himself) and his Matrix choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping for what is essentially a pure fighting movie. The script is rather thin, though the idea of a tai chi adept being taken on the "dark path" is an interesting one, and the police subplot is only useful because it features Simon Yam in a small role, and I'm all about Simon Yam. Reeves himself plays the villain, a billionaire who promotes underground fighting that's an evolution towards dark Reality TV, and (to steal the words out of @MartyLight's mouth that night) he channels his inner Nick Cage to do it. Neither he nor Chen are particularly good actors in this, but to be frank, you should be watching it for the fight choreography, which is excellent. A lot of styles, a lot of philosophy, some cool settings, and remarkably, very little blood. The DVD has a pretty terrible commentary track in which neither Reeves nor Chen do much talking, sitting silently and calling out people's names as they come on screen. The 7-minute featurette is much better; I wish those versions of the two stars had been in the sound booth instead.

When it comes to Much Ado About Nothing, my favorite of Shakespeare's comedies, I'm able to revisit it several ways (in addition to, you know, READING it). I love the Branagh film, of course, and Joss Whedon's recent modernization, as well as the Globe Theatre performance and the Shakespeare Re-Told episode. The one I had in my collection, but not watched yet was the BBC's from 1984. Wow, a disappointment. It seems to me the characters in this version of the play are almost perpetually angry, giving the comedy a toxic, cynical feel that robs it of its charms. It's like the actors are desperate not to make it either funny or emotional. There are some bright spots - Vernon Dobtcheff is a quiet, suave Don Jon; the uncut friar makes the story much clearer; and Robert Lindsay's Benedick can be quite good, especially towards the end - but Dogberry is too straight to be effective, the Prince is effete, Hero is shrill and unlovable, and Beatrice - on whom the play's success hangs - is too glib and flippant by far. Cherie Lunghi (Guinevere in Excalibur) is a real beauty, but needs to show more vulnerability if we're to believe she's fallen for Benedick. A third dimension is missing. And overall, I think the production needed to have more fun with it. Not one I'll revisit as often as my other options, sorry.

Audio: Flip's first arc as companion to the 6th Doctor is Wirrn Isle by William Gallagher, a strong entry that cements her place aboard the TARDIS and in listeners' hearts. There have been three Wirrn stories on audio now (or three Nerva sequels to The Ark in Space, at any rate) and this might be the best one. It takes place 40 years after humanity has reclaimed the Earth and finds an effective way to cut the Doctor off from the TARDIS using transmat technology. From there, it's a claustrophobic thriller in an arctic clime, harking back to The Thing as much as the original Wirrn story, with a family on the frontier under threat and every member of the cast given a strong and active role. A good adventure, and I'm looking forward to purchasing and reviewing more Flip stories (I just kind of wish her name wasn't so silly).

But first, back to the Lost Stories. Philip Martin reworked his own script (and novelization) for Mission to Magnus, the second entry in the range, and it suffers from having too many elements. Sil, the Ice Warriors, a Time Lord bully from the Doctor's Academy days... You can tell this was ordered by the JNT regime. It's also about gender politics, which classic Who has never done right. This is no exception. Martin seeks to balance out (as he says on the audio extras) man-hating Amazon aliens with a terribly sexist Time Lord guest-star. They don't balance each other out, they just BOTH come off as misogyny! Still, Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant are as good as ever (as is Nabil Shaban as Sil), and I'm happy to report the child in the story is actually played by a child actor and not a woman with a high voice. There's a timey-wimey element to the story, and the Ice Warriors have a big brash plan, so Mission to Magnus is entertaining, but flawed.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
IV.vii. Ophelia's Death - Kline '90
IV.vii. Ophelia's Death - Hamlet 2000



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