This Week in Geek (15-21/12/14)

Buys'n'Gifts

Yes, it's starting to look like Christmas, and I've already had one gift exchange. Many thanks to the people in my life for getting me Doctor Who: The Shakespeare Notebooks, William Shakespeare's Star Wars Trilogy (I feel a theme coming), Cloud Atlas (the book), and Castle Panic (as seen on Tabletop). Cubicle 7 also sent me a second copy of the 2nd Doctor Sourcebook for DWAITAS free of charge, because the original had a slight misprint. That's above and beyond, it really is. In the "buys" category, I also got the subscriber's pdf of the 8th Doctor book, or as it should really be called, Time War! Plus, a few DVDs, including Lone Gunmen (so now I have everything X-Files related for when I want to go daily on it), Muppets Most Wanted, Closer, Thor: The Dark World, IT Crowd Seasons 1, The Shield complete series, and Arrested Development Season 4.

"Accomplishments"

At the movies: I know the Hobbit series has its detractors, whether it's because they can't stand it being a sequel to the other trilogy and not a very close adaptation of the actual book, at once too serious for kids and too silly in its action beats, but I don't care. I love it and love returning to this world, its look and its sound. Battle of the Five Armies is a huge action blow-out to end things, but it still manages some effective character moments, like Thorin's corruption - foreshadowing one of the themes of The Lord of the Rings - and what Bilbo comes away with at the end of his 13-month journey. Of the characters developed for the films, Bard is the best, a good Aragorn stand-in, while Tauriel strikes me as a little melodramatic. She's better as context for the relationship between Legolas and his father. Alfryd the toady is used for comic relief, but without Lakeville's lord for him to bounce off, he grows tiresome. That's one character that could use a trim in an extended cut (ironically). Big, fun, and exciting. It'll be interesting to watch all 6 films in chronological order this time next year (when I find 20some hours to spare).

DVDs: True Detective made a big splash this year with a take on the cop drama that vacillates between realistic procedural (a case that takes years to solve) and philosophical (if it's about anything, it's about confronting nihilism). Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are excellent as deeply flawed Louisiana State detectives, and the show - really an 8-chapter movie - uses different time frames to force the audience to consider a different mystery than the one the cops are investigating, namely what happened between the mid-90s and today between the detectives to get them to where they are, and how does a contemporary case relate to the principal one? I find this secondary mystery much more engaging than the Satanic crimes angle, though I understand its connection to the "Heart of Darkness" tone of the piece. Addictive viewing from about episode 2 for me. Not sure how people thought a second season could also feature these same leads - it's very much a closed novel - but I'll be curious to see what characters and themes the second season will explore. The DVD extras are somewhat disappointing: Showrunner and composer commentary on two episodes, with long gaps where they're just watching it themselves; featurettes for each episode, interviews with featured commentators and stars, and a standard making of are all clip-heavy; a few deleted scenes complete the package. There's some nice discussion of themes and so on, but you get far less than the list of extras would seem to imply.

31 indie SF films in 31 days... Sunday's high-brow selection was Richard Ayoade's The Double, based on the Dostoyevsky novella about a bureaucrat who meets his perfect physical double, a man social and charismatic in all the ways he is not, and who proceeds to steal his life. It's absurdist existentialism and doesn't hinge on some Fight Club-esque plot twist, though it certainly explores a similar theme. Jesse Eisenberg does an excellent job as both Simon James and James Simon, by turns funny and sinister. Ayoade creates a world I can only describe as Kafkapunk, something that could be part of the same universe as Terry Gilliam's Brazil or Soderberg's Kafka. A parallel reality where the Eastern Bloc designed your cubicle. The DVD includes a number of short making of elements - interviews, behind the scenes footage, etc. - well produced and with a good handle on the film's themes.

Time Travel Monday, I watched Safety Not Guaranteed again. I've got only a handful of films I'd previously seen on my list, films I wanted to revisit and share with friends. My original capsule review is still available HERE.

Science goes mad every Tuesday, but rarely this mad... John Dies at the End, based on the popular David Wong novel, is, I'm unhappy to report, a real mess. On the cast and crew commentary track, the director calls it a selection of scenes from the book, which is exactly what it is. They've gone and taken the book's best moments, but we're missing certain transitions, reveals, and pay-offs! It's crammed with cool ideas, but each one feels unfinished and unresolved. Not a complete wash, since each sequence has something to offer, whether that's old school monster effects, clever dialog or monologues, or cool directorial notions (the opening, the cartoon massacre, etc.). But it's just too disjointed. Might have worked with crazier editing, going back and forth in the time line more often (instead of just in the first act), but alas... John Dies at the End the Book could and should have been three films or at least three episodes of a TV series, but I realize indie filmmakers don't have that luxury. In addition to the commentary track, the DVD includes deleted scenes (that still don't resolve what I wanted resolved), a fairly good making of, a featurette on creature effects, a Fangoria interview with supporting player/producer Paul Giamatti, casting videos, and a trailer for the book's sequel.

Astronaut Wednesday starts us off on a series of movies that can be a shock to your system, but get better the more you see them. Mars' look is somewhere halfway between Waking Life and Sin City - an impression corroborated by the DVD extras - basically looking like you put the Posterize filter on everything. The actors were trapped in a green screen world and the environments and props added with animation, a neat way to get around budgetary concerns. The story follows three astronauts on a doomed mission to Mars where they might or might not find out there is life, at a time when the movie admits we're not very good at space travel anymore. It's a comedy with some outrageous elements (the portrayal of the President of the United States, for example), but deadpan to a fault. Mark Duplass is the male lead playing the same basic tone he does in Safety Not Guaranteed. And that would be fine if the majority of the cast wasn't playing the same tone. There's simply too much air in this film, and harsher editing would certainly have helped crisp up the pacing and the humor. Also, what's the deal with the crazy changing hairstyles? That's a joke that didn't fly. Nevertheless, lots of background details, an evolving relationship, and an ambiguous ending (the deleted scenes show one that's far more pessimistic) make it (backhanded compliment here) not as bad as people say. For a geek like me, it was fun to see cartoonist James Kochalka have a small recurring part and be featured on the commentary track as well (the director also did the Monkey vs. Robot video and the film uses Kochalka's Elfboy font). The DVD also includes a lot of deleted and alternate scenes, some in animation, some in the green screen studio, as well as a short making of.

ApocaThursday featured a short one-hour Canadian film that also made use of a green screen studio: Manborg! This crazy throwback to 80s genre B-movies is either AWFUL or AWESOME. You need to put yourself in the right frame of mind. Though made in 2011, it's got juddery stop-motion monsters, rubber masked Nazis from Hell, and characters you'll recognize from flicks of the era speaking in clichéed one-liners. While Manborg the character is a cross between the Six Million Dollar Man and Robocop, he has a team behind him, including a Mortal Kombat character/kung fu movie escapee, the jerk from The Karate Kid, and... is that anime girl supposed to evoke Princess Mononoke? Huge fun. We laughed and laughed and rewound and laughed again. At some 60 minutes, it doesn't overstay its welcome, though I'm sure mileage will vary depending on your familiarity with the source material.

Another shock to the system, The American Astronaut is an indie black-and-white comedy musical set in the wider solar system, about a smuggler and his complicated deal in a world where there are only women on one planet (Venus). Let the all-man dancing contests begin. I think the best part was probably having to explain the first act to someone who walked into the apartment at the 30-minute mark. Because this thing is insane. Like Manborg, it's a throwback, this time to the 40s and 50s, with a wink at Flash Gordon but generally looking more like, say, Doctor Who's The Space Pirates. How The American Astronaut gets around its lack of budget is clever and amusing, and somewhat artsy. It's funny, and not just because of the odd homoeroticism, though it sags around the start of the third act with the introduction of a gimpy character whose plot function is rather obvious. As a musical, it's really bananas, a kind of rockabilly punk that mocks the musical's traditions yet also gives itself up to its tropes. I've got to find that soundtrack.

Romance Saturday, we watched Miranda July's The Future, a film I'd already seen (capsule review HERE) and that is only marginally SF (the third act plays with time and parallel universes in a poetic way), but I had friends who really wanted to see it. More than happy to oblige and it led to a very interesting discussion of its central theme, the inability to act (in the larger sense; it's not a dig at the acting).

Audio: Trouble in Paradise by Nev Fountain was the next entry in my listen of Big Finish/AudioGo's Destiny of the Doctor series. This one features Nicola "Peri" Bryant as narrator, and is a 6th Doctor story (Nicola's pretty good at doing his style) where he meets Christopher Columbus. It's not a "guest historical" Columbus though, nor is it exactly the "historical revisionism" version, though he's a terrible human being. I'd rather say he's a parody of the latter, a kind of ridiculously unaware evil wrapped in comedy egoism. Part of the problem is Cameron Stewart's performance, which is way over the top. Stewart doesn't seem to have any other mode here; he plays other sailors and the frankly absurd alien Buffalo alien with the same irritating gusto. It's like everyone in the production has agreed that the 6th Doctor era was bollocks, so they decided to make an audio tale that was as stupid as possible. Even the Doctor doesn't come off too well, either wishy-washy or morally dubious. Only Peri is done well and has thoughts worth hearing. She's the real star here, so in that sense, it really ISN'T like the 6th Doctor era as portrayed on TV. It's not BORING, I'll give it that. I might find myself tuning out sometimes, listening to an audio, and have to rewind a bit. Not with Trouble in Paradise, though perhaps I was riveted by how ill-advised it all was.

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