This Week in Geek (25-31/05/15)

Buys

I got a number of DVDs this week, either exploitation films (The Man with the Iron Fists 2, Dead in Tombstone) or continuing TV series (Archer Season 5, Downton Abbey Season 5, Orange Is the New Black Season  2) as well as a book, Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.

"Accomplishments"

At the movies: Saw Far from the Madding Crowd with a rather maddening crowd this week (talking, ringing phones, inappropriate laughter and applause, and we were the only ones not paying the Senior rate, so can't blame it on "the kids"), but it didn't pull focus too much from the film. Put Carey Mulligan, Michael Sheen and strong cinematography on the screen and you'll pull focus every time. Now, I've never read Thomas Hardy's novel, not being a particular fan of 19th-century melodrama, which is definitely was this is, but a film doesn't require the same investment of time. I can well imagine the story of a woman (Bathsheba Everdeen) who, despite suffering the attentions of three men (a shepherd, a solider and a land owner), doesn't see the point of getting married when she can well and truly run a farm by herself, would have been shocking and strange when the book was published, but today, it feels very much like the kind of feminist narrative we're used to. But for all of her protestations, it's a romance as well, and Hardy - through the filmmakers - means to school us on what a healthy marriage ought to be, but presents what marriage usually meant - the suffocation of a woman's identity. If you're looking for a well-acted piece of period melodrama, you could do much worse, and I know literary purists will have problems with the film's tone, which doesn't attempt to jar the viewer the way the book does its readers (because I've already read such reviews), but what can you do. It almost does in the quick editing at the start of the film, which felt modern in a way period films usually don't, but that was perhaps more distracting than upsetting.

DVDs: Though The Birds is an iconic, memorable Hitchcock film, I don't count it as one of the greats. Sure, I admire the effects and bird-handling achievement, but the crash of genres, something Hitch has successfully done before, doesn't work here. It starts out as a romantic comedy in which a woman follows a handsome stranger she met in a pet shop, to a coastal town to give him love birds and hopefully make a love connection. Then the birds (but never the love birds) attack without explanation, and attack her specifically, and her location numerous times, though she isn't the only victim. And through adversity, just trying to survive as the town is besieged, she gains the family she never had, and is accepted into her beau's. It's a good character arc, but one hidden under crazy bird attacks and reaction shots of horror that would frankly fit better in a comedy. If it's Hitch's gallows humor, it's way over the top and into cartoon territory. And then the movie just ends. Some would say eerily, but you'd be just as right to say unsatisfactorily. Because the real story is under the action, I dare say The Birds gets better with multiple viewings, but I'd seen it on TV 20 years ago and that was too long ago to really appreciate it that way. The DVD showcases the hilarious publicity campaign used to sell the film, Hitchcock of course its witty star, as well as storyboards, notes, and "deleted scenes" still in script form (or in one case, featuring some stills of a scene shot but lost).

Another animal attack movie, Zombeavers, doesn't take itself as seriously, but succeeds within the scope of its ambitions. It's the old cabin in the woods set-up, with obnoxious teens and their neighbors at the lake just fodder for zombie beavers, with plenty of B-movie gore, dumb sex jokes and gratuitous nudity. The beaver puppets are terrible, but that's part of the fun, and yeah, I was mostly cheering for them to win. I don't want to spoil just how outrageous the movie gets - because I fully intend you to see it, apparently - but writer-director Jordan Rubin understands the tropes well enough to throw some good twists at us. Speaking of twists, be sure to stick around for a bonus sequence after the credits, AND if you're tempted to check out that wonderful lounge hit "Zombeavers" (which is a perfect credit roll moment), let it be known that after the first 50 seconds or so, it starts spoiling the entire story. But if you don't give a dam...

Some while ago, we had a Jason Statham marathon in which we watched most of the Jason Statham Collection. The one we skipped was War, which originated as a Jet Li vehicle in which he plays Rogue, an unstoppable hitman pitting the Yakuza and Chinese Triads against each other. Then they got Statham to play the cop on his trail and it became a two-hander that better protects the film's final twists I think. Watching it now, it's certainly not as high-octane as the rest of the marathon was, choreographer Corey Yuen keeping the action rather realistic and, unfortunately, not that memorable. Music video director Philip Atwell's tricks keep us in a Hong Kong action film sort of mood, but is mostly serviceable (his commentary track certainly holds little of interest). Not bad, but I can see what it didn't become the trilogy its writers intended for it. Just needed an extra oomph its central mystery did not provide alone (that generic title may have something to do with it as well). The DVD certainly as a lot of extras though. In addition to the director's sparse commentary, the scriptwriters offer a more fun one, and a "trivia track" features not only information on the film, but the voices of both cast and crew on various subjects. There are also featurettes on each of the action scenes' style, filming and sound, and another on scoring the film as a whole. Plus, deleted scenes and a short but fun gag reel.

If you want to know what I thought of The X-Files Season 3, you need only track back through May on this blog (I cover the finale tomorrow), but in short, it really hit its stride with the introduction of black oil, more frequent mytharc episodes, giving characters like Skinner and the Cigarette Smoking Man more depth, and hitting the high water mark that is José Chung's From Outer Space. But let's talk DVD extras. As with previous releases, there are foreign language clips for many episodes, and imbedded deleted scenes (wait for that "X" to appear, groan!). In addition, commentary has been included on two episodes, but watch out for the Chris Carter one, he actively spoils various characters' future deaths! What the hell, Carter? Another annoying addition is that now each episode appears to have extras, because they all include "episode credits". Just a lot of back and forth with DVD menus for nothing.

Books: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen is the most engrossing novel I've read in a long time. It's a vicious comedy about a family whose matriarch wants them to come home for one last Christmas together, a comedy of anxiety and melancholy that I associate somehow more with British humor than American, though Franzen sets the book mostly in the American Midwest and Philadelphia. The book's structure is extremely fluid, the author able to shift his narrative through time and between characters smoothly and yet violently, the way memory itself works, without ever losing the reader. Quite the opposite, his rich tapestry of niggling thoughts and misapprehensions keeps informing what is to come. The dialog is funny, the characters superbly drawn, no paragraph ends before it's had a chance to create clever imagery, and the "corrective" theme carries through the whole of the book. It even ends on a touching grace note or two. Definitely one I was sorry to have to put down.

Gaming: I normally only review a video game when I've hit 100% on it, but that's not always possible. Watch Dogs has a Xbox Live component that I won't be addressing, so having completed the story line and all the side-missions and more besides, I think I'm ready to talk about it. The game is a Grand Theft Auto clone set in Chicago with the additional twist that you play a hacker and correspondingly have a lot of hacking tricks and puzzles that support this surprisingly strong theme. The story line is dark, your hero haunted by the death of his young niece, which his activities caused. Revenge is bittersweet, and like the computer world's John Constantine, being friends with him invites tragedy. GTA-type sandboxes are among the only games I play, and there's usually one element of the engine I find annoying (driving control, or the size of gun reticules, etc.), but not in this case. The physics are just wonky enough to create fun action sequences, getting killed or caught simply reloads your save point, game play is easy even if the challenges themselves can be hard to master... I guess one complaint I would have is that there weren't any songs I really liked on the soundtrack. As far as replay value goes, Watch Dogs has a lot of mini-games, some of which are great fun unto themselves (I play Madness all the time, in which you must hit as many demons as possible to charge your car up with soul energy, but there's one with a giant robot spider, a psychedelic flower bouncing challenge, and a shadowy game where you keep out of sight). Great repurposing of the Chicago maps, but the simpler stuff does have its amusements, especially the drinking game. Early on, you can also have some fun just spying on people's phones and discovering their dirty little secrets. I'll revisit Chicago again, that's for sure.

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