This Week in Geek (13-19/04/15)

Buys

A couple of TV series on DVD... Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 1, and the charming British sitcom As Time Goes By complete set.

"Accomplishments"

DVDs: Space Station 76 is a strange little film - made stranger by the fact it started out as a stage play! - that will confound expectations. In fact, if you have any expectations going in, you will likely be disappointed and frustrated. It's a comedy, but the saddest comedy ever. It's a drama, but you will find the absurd jokes and 70s references jarring. It's science fiction, but space is just a metaphor for isolation and nothing really happens in the usual sense. But I liked it. On the surface, it looks like a parody of 70s SF shows like Space 1999 and the original Battlestar Galactica - the look especially - with amusing nostalgia from the era (fashions, home decoration, giant cassette tapes, etc.). But that's only the setting. It's really about lonely people trying to deal and connect with each other, and the "comedy of discomfort" that ensues. The two main threads involve Liv Tyler's barren career woman befriending the only child on the station, and the suicidal captain having a hard time accepting his sexual orientation. It's not a laugh a minute, not at all, though the robot psychologist is pretty funny, and Marisa Coughlan's extreme 70s housewife a revelation. Some elements might seem like an ill fit, but watched with an open mind, I think it has its rewards. The DVD includes a short but useful making of, funny outtakes, and a couple of deleted scenes.

The Fountain is the forgotten Darren Aronofsky film, the one he made between Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, and that I didn't even know existed until a few weeks ago. It stars Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz and takes place in three time frames/realities, each telling the same story through different elements/metaphors. In the near future (as played by Montreal), Jackman's character is a scientist trying to find a cure for the tumor that's threatening his wife's life; Weisz has accepted that she's dying, and wants him to finish the book she started writing after she's gone. In the past, Jackman is a conquistador who goes to the Mayan Empire to find the fabled Tree of Life on orders from Weisz's Spanish queen. In the future, Jackman is in a bubble floating in space, tending to the dying Tree of Life. Are the latter two simply tales from Weisz's novel, or is the book a retelling of their own "immortal" lives? The movie trailer makes it seem like the latter, but the film is far more ambiguous. That said, the artiness of this tragic story does create obstacles to the audience's capacity to emotionally connect with it. The present is emotional, but the past is a little hard to get into, and the future a real head trip like something out of Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain. It'll work for some, but not for others. For my part, I connected with it intellectually because of the correspondences between the time frames, and the overall puzzle of its structure. The DVD includes a half-hour's worth of behind the scenes featurettes that don't really get into the film's themes and what it's all about, just how it was made.

As if in keeping with the science fiction theme of the week, my I-MUST-CheckMovies Project forced me to watch Avatar (no, not the Last Airbender, the other one, the Pocahontas in space one). As you know, I'm a fierce opponent of the 3D revolution and have absolutely no interest in seeing any film in 3D. If I know myself, I'll probably get into it around the time they start making movies in 4D. So I'd always resisted James Cameron's 3D game-changer, especially since everyone told me the story was nothing special; it really was just about the effects I claimed not to care about. So I watched it in 2D obviously, and yeah, while it's a well-paced SF action adventure, and features a well-realized world (even if it is at times ludicrous - I think the term "unobtainium" basically admits to it - with floating land masses, etc.). We discover the world in the first half, then should care about its destruction in the second. But it's not exactly subtle. The villain is an ironically two-dimensional caricature. Cameron uses well-worn tropes, and elements he's featured in other films (battle suits, cryogenic sleep, Sigourney Weaver, etc.), as well as an easily recognized stock plot (Pocahontas, yay, a White Messiah story) and an ecological message that's hammered until the nail almost goes through the wall completely. I do appreciate that Cameron was trying, with the 3D process, to create a more immersive experience AND THAT the story itself is about using an "avatar" to immerse oneself into an alien world. Form matches content. But otherwise, it was just... okay.

With season 3, Veep keeps itself fresh by putting Selina Meyer in the race to become the next president, ground rife for comedy. And even within those parameters, the show isn't content to let things stagnate, and there are lots of twists and turns. One of the characters that most benefits from these upheavals in the status quo is former White House insider Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simmons) who struggles to find his place in Washington's hierarchy. Is he a fringe blogger? A stooge for Selina's opposition? A pawn in a bigger game? He goes from pain the ass to secondary protagonist this season. The American version of The Thick of It continues to pull away from the British original because after all, it's a different political system and climate (there's even an episode when Selina goes to the U.K. to create that contrast, I suppose you could call it Veep's In the Loop). And it's all for the good. The DVD includes cast and crew commentaries on the last four episodes (of 10), deleted scene montages for each, and a promotional featurette for filming in Baltimore, no doubt a requirement of whatever deal the show has with its host city.

If you want to know what I thought of X-Files Season 1's episodes, you need only look back over the last month of this blog's content. But if I can talk a little about the season as a whole, I'd say the show really comes out of the gate running. It would take a couple of seasons to become really popular (it was on the relatively new Fox network, after all, we didn't even GET that channel in my area, so syndication was key), but all the elements are here already. They had the feel of it right away, and a strong look, good dialog, and innate chemistry between the leads. By the end of the season, they'd gotten the paranoia right as well, which would take the show in a more visceral direction later. When you're doing a project like this, reviewing tons and tons of episodes, you tend to go for the cheaper DVD sets, so these are rather bare bones. Season 1, for example, as multiple clips of various episodes dubbed in other languages (Japanese is the best fit, to my ears), a special effects clip, and a few deleted scenes from the pilot. Slightly disappointing, but I'm somewhat relieved I don't have tons of extras to go through as well.
Theater: As I usually do to encourage young actors from the local university's drama department, went to see their end-of-year production. I was very ambivalent about their December effort, not because of the acting, but because of the writing. And I have the same problem with Catalan playwright Sergi Belbel's Mobil (Sans Fil in French, Mobile in English). Its conceit is that the characters very seldom interact in person, they're always on the phone, which means they're basically monologuing the whole way through. A terrorist incident at an airport makes their relationships explode (talk about subtle) and they spend the rest of the play screaming at each other on their mobile phones. It hits its crescendo within the first 20 minutes and levels off, just irritating white noise, and the French translation was in Parisian French that really didn't sit comfortably on a French-Canadian stage. The few moments of silence and actual human contact kept my attention because the actors finally had something to PLAY, as opposed to following whatever limp direction they'd been given, because yes, the direction WAS tepid, with lots of bells and whistles which I always think takes away from a play and talks down to the audience - the good ideas weren't really pushed to their limits - with that particular drama professor's distracting propensity for making his actresses show more flesh than is necessary. A screeching, strident, over-written annoyance, I think the students were very badly served by the choices made by the department this year.

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