At the movies: You might have heard Paddington was this year's Lego Movie, and I will confirm it. This is that rarest of things - a live action family film that will make the kids and adults laugh (among other emotional manifestations) in equal measure. The CG bear is adorable, that goes without saying, and he gets into all sorts of well-choreographed slapstick, but Hugh Bonneville as his adopted family patriarch gets all the best lines, an insurance man who sees Paddington as little more than a liability at first. The whole family oozes charm, and hey, I'd have watched anything with Peter Capaldi in a phone booth anyway, but the film doesn't leave it at that, also pushing us in "Amelie" territory with some beautiful flights of fancy. If there's a weakness, it's the needless villainy of Nicole Kidman's taxidermist. While well integrated into the story, I feel like the film didn't need a Cruella De Vil cliché. A minor point. I was otherwise charmed to the gills by this picture.
DVDs: We're on the road to the Oscars, so had to watch Boyhood before next Sunday. Getting a lot of buzz for being filmed over 12 years, there IS some thrill to seeing actors age and grow up before your very eyes, but in a sense, that's not entirely different from Linklater's Before Sunset/Sunrise/Midnight cycle. Having it all in one film (until he makes Adulthood or something, I wouldn't put it past him to still be filming this story) is what makes it transcendent. Though entirely "slice of life" (or more properly, slices plural), the structural conceit shows an evolving world through the eyes of a Millennial, makes us ask questions about how one's personality is defined by the events of one's life, and is above all, TRUTHFUL. I can understand why Boyhood's critical opponents would call it plotless, or winge at the variable acting of its young stars, but I can't agree with them. Life is essentially "plotless", and yet we make narrative sense of what happens to us, and the film engages the audience on that level. Furthermore, Linklater surely didn't have a script all laid out 12 years ago, but shaped his story with his actors, how THEY changed, how the world changed from year to year, and taking what they could bring to their performances into account. If Ellar Coltrane isn't the most expressive actor, especially during his teens, well, neither is Mason, the character he plays, and so on. Though I'm of the parents' generation rather than Mason's, Boyhood put me in flashback mode right from the start. I, too, am from a broken home, have a sister, and spent some time in Texas as a kid (and the similarities don't end there), but I think everyone who's ever grown up (and that's all of us adults) will find truth here. And that's Boyhood's true power - it puts something we've all be through in a new context. Do wish the DVD had extras that discussed some of the film's challenges though.
Though The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency was never likely to become a hit for HBO - no nudity, violence or cursing?! - its 7 episodes (practically 8 considering the first is twice the size), based on the novels by Alexander McCall Smith, are incredibly charming and deserve more attention. The show takes place and was filmed in Botswana, a warm African country where our heroine, Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott) becomes a private detective after her father dies and leaves her enough money to start her own business. What follows is an authentic series of mysteries and misadventures with a unique African spin. And I don't mean that we're always going on safari or some other stereotypical nonsense, but rather that the resolutions to the stories are far more community-driven than they would be in a North American context. It's not about punishing wrong-doers, it's about finding the solution that help the greatest number of people. And these are, for the most part, stories that couldn't be told in another setting. I didn't even know HBO could do feel-good television, but since the series was so brief, I'm just going to have to invest in the books. The DVD includes a small featurette narrated by the author for each episode, as well as longer making of pieces looking at the filming, the actors, Botswana, etc.
I've been going through my Hitchcock boxed set in order, which gets me to Rear Window this week. It's something like #17 on my "I-MUST-CheckMovies" 2015 list (icheckmovies' most checked and favorited I somehow missed in my life), and though I'm only on #10, I skipped ahead. A great, great film, much better and richer than I imagined. We're all familiar with the basic premise - man in wheelchair sees possible murder from his rear window - but there's so much more to it than that. Hitchcock has created an entire world in Jimmy Stewart's back yard, and though yes, the murder (or is it) drives the suspenseful plot, there are several other stories unfolding, and these are the ones the audience is likely to gravitate to on subsequent viewings. Well beyond the premise and the impressive technical achievement, there's some crisp witty dialog that brings in concerns such as sexual politics and some great black comedy. You truly feel like you're in the hands of a master. The DVD acknowledges it with a documentary that's twice as long as the norm for this DVD set, and a further interview with the script writer. Plus, vintage trailers, production photos and art, and production notes.
My regularly scheduled I-MUST-CheckMovies 2015 Project entry (#10 of 52, going by my chosen order) was Into the Wild, a film I simply can't believe is that high up on icheck's list. Sean Penn directs this meandering biopic (though I didn't realize it was based on a true story until the end) about a college graduate who burns his money and chooses a life of transience so he can connect to nature, though he keeps missing the point that you should also connect to other people. The so-called "free spirits" like this I've known were all "people-connectors", so I'm not sure who this guy was, even after seeing the film. And I'm not sure the film knows either. The way it is shot, it glorifies the protagonist's lifestyle, even though the strict plot would seem to condemn it. Worse, it's pretentious in all the ways I hate (as opposed to my own brand of pretentiousness, which I delight in), and the main character is never anything to me but a thoughtless intellectual who was, one day, inspired by the wrong university lecture and never reexamined it. He never really goes through a character arc, never learns anything, never changes, until it's perhaps too late and then it doesn't matter. His sister's voice-over is pretentiously poetic and stands as the only criticism of his selfish actions, but it also breaks from the movie's focus. Over-long at 148 minutes, and filled to the brim with a distracting parade of guest stars, Into the Wild didn't make me think so much as rage.
Audios: Big Finish's A Death in the Family by Steven Hall is the best Doctor Who audio I've listened to in a long time. Continuing on from the previous release - Project: Destiny - this 7th Doctor, Hex and Ace adventure shows what would happen if the Doc7 died. Obviously, you know it won't stick, but how the master manipulator gets out of it is very clever, with some great meta-text courtesy of returning villain the Word Lord. But it's not just a clever story in which the Doctor must return from the dead. It's also a powerful and touching character piece where Hex and Ace each fend for themselves in different corners of time and space, getting on with their lives and dealing with the death of the most influential person/force in their lives. It also features Evelyn, possibly the greatest audio companion ever, which can't be a bad thing. In fact, it's a very, very good thing that sheds new light on the character's ultimate fate. I can't praise this one enough.
Lurkers at Sunlight's Edge by Marty Ross rounds out this cycle of the 7th Doctor's adventures (the next trio of audios features an older, companionless Doc7), and is disappointing in comparison. Oh, it's a perfectly fine Lovecraft-style horror/SF story about an island that one day emerges off the Alaskan coastline, one that contains a prison for creatures Man was not meant to know. There's even a mental patient based on H.P. Lovecraft. But while it's well done, with the required number of twists and turns, we've just come off two stories that focused heavily on character development. Lurkers really doesn't, and it doesn't tie in as tightly to the cycle as Project: Destiny and A Death in the Family did, acting more as a stand-alone you could listen to out of order. And that's fine. I don't want to condemn it for what it's NOT, and for what it IS, it's a perfectly good and exciting story for Call of Cthulhu gamers to borrow from.