Bargain bin buys: Gremlins, In Time, Zombieland and Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
At the movies: Wes Anderson's new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a crazy murder mystery set in an invented Slavic country of the type you'd find in Mission: Impossible or Tintin, and just about following those kinds of rules. It is wickedly funny, filled with strange and wonderful details, and features gorgeous and original art direction. Part of the fun is the wealth of cameos by known stars, some of them quite short indeed. The story's canvas is widened by framing tales that allow us to move through time to different eras in the hotel's life, each era represented visually by a different frame ratio and lenses corresponding to films of that era. The story really belongs to Ralph Fiennes as a super-competent (though unscrupulous) concierge Mr. Gustave, and his new bell boy Zero (Tony Revolori), who form a loyal bond, together through thick and thin. Filled with surprises and skewed comedy, TGBH is, just like the Hotel it portrays, a tribute to bygone eras of film-making, taking turns at being silly, violent, sad, funny, fantastical and cynical.
DVDs: Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cacutus and 2012 is an indie movie based on director Sebastian Silva's real-life experiences, which justifies the hand-held, free-flowing, improvised documentary approach, but doesn't actually forgive the film's longueurs. Michael Cera stars as an impatient young American seeking a very specific high in Chile from a San Pedro cactus. He and three brothers inadvertently pick up a hippie chick who calls herself Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann) who becomes the strangest member of the group. It's not quite the comedy the trailer makes it out to be. Instead, it's a rambling character study. And it does ramble. While the performances are raw and honest, it takes far too long to get to the beach where everything is going to happen (or not happen), and just as it gets interesting, it ends. It's frustrating. It takes more than hour to connect to these characters, and once you do, once you might even shed a tear for one of them, it's all over, things left unresolved. All the way through, it's like it's almost saying something important, it's almost metaphorical in how it deals with characters, but things never really come into focus. Maybe it bears mutliple viewings, but I'm not sure I have the patience for it. The DVD includes an all-too-brief featurette that doesn't come close to enlightening us on the film's mysteries.
Audio: Listened to a couple more Lost Stories from Big Finish Audio, still in the 6th Doctor/Peri cycle. The Guardians of Prophecy's original treatment was written by Johnny Byrne as a kind of sequel to The Keeper of Traken. Solid Jonathan Morris adapted it for audio. Long after the Traken Union was destroyed by the Master's entropic machinations, one planet survives to carry on Trakkenite traditions. It's the same kind of story, with an evil rising and corrupting the atmosphere of goodness, though this time the Melkur are real (not TARDISes) and the "Keeper" figure is an A.I. It begs the same question too: How can there be so much political wrangling and ambition where "evil" is an impossibility. Guardians is more vicious than Keeper, but that strange notion was also part of the original story. More vicious, but also more epic in scope and more interesting. The villains are strong, the regulars on point as usual, and the sound design rather authentic.
Power Play by Gary Hopkins would have shown up on television as Meltdown, which is probably the better title. Its claim to fame is that it guest stars an older Victoria Waterfield in a near future where atomic power is controversial. Kind of dated today, but in the 80s, maybe. While I like the villain very much - he could even become a regular threat - the story just doesn't do anything for me. There's a time travel element that's almost interesting, but doesn't go anywhere, for one thing. But mostly, it's that Deborah Watling's Victoria doesn't seem to have grown very much in the years since she left the TARDIS. To mention again how her voice hasn't aged very well would be unkind, but it's true, and it impairs her performance. As far as authentic music goes, it's SO authentic, it's just awful synth and noise, the bane of many 80s stories. I feel like I'm coming down too hard on it. I actually liked it for what it was, but I wouldn't be quick to drop it back into the CD player.
Improv: Last weekend, I was at an improv tournament for high school kids where I staged an improvised play for the participants, starring some of the coaches and judges with good improv experience. Because of its superhero theme, I thought it might interest readers of this blog. Basically, we took four team jerseys from the assembled kids, and used their logos as superhero insignias. The public decided which player would wear which, and I sprung the lamest powers on them based on that insignia. One player got to be the journalist who visited this B-team (Les Quatrastophiques, which is a play on Quatre/Four and Catastrophic) on a day where they had nothing to do (which we gathered was most days). The play was called "It's Quiet... Too Quiet". Oh, and a sixth player had prepared three karaoke tunes and would be in charge of the soundtrack, singing completely improvised songs (his specialty) at key points in the story. I basically acted as director, stage manager, ideas man, host, human special effect, and the voice on any phone call the heroes might make.
The characters were Cyclone a douchebag hero who could "move air" a bit, but thought he was God's gift to comics; Diachylon (fancy name for a bandage) who was super-sticky (and clingy?); l'Éclair (Lightning) who had power over static electricity; and Predator who, through the magic of animal masks, puppets and stuffed animals, could turn into any animal (no predators among them). Through the course of the hour-long play, subplots unfolded that would rend the team asunder, a tender love affair between Diachylon and Predator would surface (that's why he's crying into his beer above, all masks around his head to express his confusion), and Lightning would turn evil as per a secret given her by audience members (who got to play the horde of zombies they'd instructed her to have as minions).
In the end, the journalist, Chuck Sanderson, turned out to be a Clark Kent in more ways than one, and saved the day despite finding it a little under his usual caliber. Kids loved it, and aside from a short "what do we do now" lull after the zombie attack, the play was funny and driven all the way through. If people accuse you of having it scripted in advance, you know you're doing something right. So might thanks to my guest players Renée, Ann Marie, Marc, St-Pierre and Eric, as well as Justin on those amazing songs. Let's work together again soon, guys!