This Week in Geek (29/06-05/07/15)

Buys

Postal service doesn't run on July 1st on account of Canada Day, so getting my Johnny Canuck hardcover the day before was fortuitous!

"Accomplishments"

DVDs: Nightcrawler follows a sociopathic news gatherer played by Jake Gyllenhaal, taking us into a world we don't know a whole lot about - that of independent cameramen who scan police bands and film accidents and crime scenes to sell to the highest bidder. Paparazzi for the so-called serious news, if you will. It also work as an indictment of sensationalism, and by making its protagonist a sociopath who will go to any length to get the money shot - even staging it - it makes us question the ethics of what we, as news consumers, are shown. Not that I think news is "faked", but I've worked in communications long enough to know a lot of it is, shall we say, "posed". This extreme, for entertainment's sake, is merely a hyperbolic presentation of what's actually happening. And the more active the protagonist gets (as opposed to merely passive observer), the more the film takes the bent of an action flick. Note the great chase scene. The DVD comes with a short making of that, among the people interviewed, includes guys who really do this kind of work.

5 Academy Award nominations, touts Foxcatcher's DVD cover. While I can't say it lost my attention exactly, I WAS losing some of my resolve by the midway point. Based on the true story of bazillionaire John duPont who moved gold-medal Olympic wrestlers to his estate so he could fulfill his ambition of coaching the sport at its highest levels, leading to tragedy, Foxcatcher is a triple character study that will probably lose some of its audience in its slow pace, awkward silent moments, and haphazard biopic structure. It's a little uninvolving, though the film makers call it mesmeric; if I was riveted, the rivets weren't on the edge of my seat, but I did see it through and am glad I did. Sorry about the ambivalence. There IS a point to it, of course. It presents a picture of two men - played by the famously transformed Steve Carell, and a musclebound Channing Tatum - who though they comes from completely different circumstances, are both incredibly isolated and lonely. The always excellent Mark Ruffalo plays Tatum's well-adjusted brother as a point of contrast. Carell's duPont is the true definition of the "idle rich", shielded from failure all his life, but also from real human contact. He can only buy the things he cares about; tanks, wrestling teams, friends, it's all the same to him. Tatum's Mark Schultz is so single-mindedly obsessed with victory that it poisons his relationships. That these two "crossed in the night", so to speak, in no way produces a healthy friendship. And as much as I respect all of that, I wouldn't be eager to watch the film again. The DVD has a fairly short, but still interesting making of documentary, and a few deleted scenes.

The Corruptor tries to be the kind of Chow Yun-Fat movie John Woo was making back in Hong Kong. It's got the slick and moody cinematography, the kinetic camera work, and that particular star doing some gun fu moves. If it failed to capture the American imagination, it's that Chow Yun-Fat's awkward accent in English prevents him from giving the best possible performance, and can even be intelligible. Saddle him with the less than emotional Mark Wahlberg, and you've got little star power to actually draw on. It's too bad too, because the movie really does look good, and the buddy cop formula is well used to create a world where neither cop can truly trust the other, one where being "crooked" is possibly the best way to accomplish some good. New York's Chinatown is presented as benevolent triad territory, so long as no one really gets hurt. So are the cops really going to create a vacuum that can only be filled with gang violence? Would have been better in straight-up Cantonese. I watched this on the "4 Film Favorites Martial Arts Collection", and be warned: It promises widescreen, a commentary track and other extras, but none of it is true.

I've enjoyed the fact that Brit Marling has been writing/producing/starring in genre pictures with indie budgets and indie feels. The East isn't science-fiction like Another Earth or Sound of My Voice were, but a much more straightforward (corporate) spy thriller that, like Sound of My Voice, takes its inspiration from Marling and her writing partner's time in a counter-culture group (anarchists, cults, call them what you like). Her character works for a security company that infiltrates eco-terrorist cells to prevent acts of sabotage. Marling gets into a group called The East who have "eye for an eye" ideas of how to attack the problems caused by big corporations, but is seduced by their lifestyle and polemic. Or is she? This isn't cut and dried because, like her, we're also made to wonder if corporate criminals don't have it coming. Not quite the "puzzle movie" her other efforts have been (those that I've seen, I hasten to add), but generally more enjoyable as a narrative. An unusual thriller that makes some good points without sounding preachy. And though it's an indie, you'll recognize a lot of faces, including Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgård, Julia Ormond, and Patricia Clarkson.

Hitchcock's Torn Curtain is a spy thriller with lots of good ideas, but casting Julie Andrews as the female lead is probably not one of them. Apparently, Hitch was forced into it by her rising star, off the success of both Marie Poppins and The Sound of Music on Broadway. It starts with her under the covers with Paul Newman, and that's a little uncomfortable. But she's fine, generally. In the film, Newman's physicist takes it upon himself to defect to East Germany so he can steal scientific secrets from their leading scientist. His plans and his escape from behind the Iron Curtain is complicated when his fiancée follows him there. From what I understand, Hitch felt the script was rushed into production by Andrews' schedule, and found a lot to fault about Torn Curtain, but it's still full of great moments. The extended murder of a East German operative is one of the best things Hitchcock has ever filmed, immediate and visceral. The sequence in the bus is a great example of turning any situation into a thriller. The character of the Polish aristocrat is a quirky triumph. Even the way Hitch makes math exciting in the theft of the MacGuffin formula is brilliant. So don't be so down on Torn Curtain, Mr. Hitchcock. It's not perfect, but it's damn entertaining anyway. The DVD has a making of narrated by a film expert, which makes it more stodgy than other films' in the boxed set (which are mostly structured around interviews). It also features scenes as they were originally scored by Bernard Hermann before he was replaced, and tons of archive photos and graphics.

In Topaz, another Cold War spy thriller, Hitchcock adapted a best-selling novel based on true events surrounding an exposed Soviet spy in the French government. Though it has its Hitchcockian moments - the dress that simulates a pool of blood, the way he uses silence to suggest secrecy, and generally how scenes are put together - this feels more like a procedural than a thriller. It keeps changing protagonists, for example, making use of a large international cast with variable accents. No big stars, as critics are fond of saying, but I recognized several actors from the TV of that time, giving Topaz the feel of a Mission Impossible episode at times. A lot of attention is paid to real-life spycraft, which I like, and Hitch really does make something of every sequence, even if those sequences seem to belong to different stories. The music, I thought, was one of the film's weaknesses. I miss Hermann, I guess. The DVD has Leonard Maltin mounting a defense of the movie, which is a loser move from the DVD packagers, if you ask me, though it's fun to see the preview audiences report cards from the time; they read like my Twitter feed when superhero casting's been announced. The film itself is in its longer, unedited form, and ends with the better of three endings, all presented on the disc. You'll also find a few storyboards, promotional pics, production notes and the trailer (as usual for these).

Orange Is the New Black Season 2 presents Piper now as something of a veteran of the prison system, but also finds ways to shake her up, even threatening to blow the show up in an episode where she's moved to another facility. But no, don't worry, the cast of Litchfield returns entirely, and we're now allowed to follow some of the girls without the prism of Piper's POV. The black tribe is tested in particular when a manipulative inmate is thrown into the mix, calling on old school values and leadership. The writers joked that they threw a little bit of Oz in there to see how their characters would handle it, and yeah, it does become a lot more violent and thrillery. Not that there's anything wrong with that, not when you're able to keep what makes Orange unique and interesting, which is that blend of comedy and drama, as you get to know the characters as women who just so happened to commit crimes. As usual, each episode flashes back to an inmate's past, and you'll be surprised at who gets a turn. Still must-see TV. The DVD includes audio commentaries on key episodes, as well as four long-ish featurettes mostly concentrating on the writing and development of the characters.

Now that I look back on it, it's somewhat clear The Newsroom's third season was always meant to be the last, but it didn't really hit me until I saw the DVD copy, "Every story needs a final word". Politically annoying to some, irritating on a story level for others, I can see why this was HBO's ugly stepchild. I loved it anyway, and with Season 3, I thought it had shed some of its more obvious Aaron Sorkin clichés, or at least, treats them in new ways. Certainly, at only 6 episodes, it has a clearer overall theme - the rise of the "citizen journalist" and how the immediacy of the Internet is corrupting information. This it attacks in several ways and formats, and makes its points well, defending an "elitist" view of what news should be, which I can't disagree with. Me and The Newsroom? We've been on the same page since Day 1. And it ends with a sort of secret origin of the show, which is a great place to end/not end things. The DVD includes a commentary track on the finale, and short conversations with Sorkin on each episode.

Just watched Republic of Doyle's final (6th) season, and yeah, it made me tear up. At only 10 episodes, it's the most contained of the Newfoundland crime dramady's releases, and benefits from the shorter format. At this point, they knew it was the end, so they were allowed to really push the story as a runaway train that couldn't possibly end well. It DOES feel a bit rushed, here and there, one major villain getting caught off-stage, for example, but it still found a way to tell a number of fun action mysteries, bringing back some of the better guests in the process. I don't think Republic of Doyle ever reinvented the wheel, except to show that you could make quality TV in every corner of this country and develop the infrastructures and talents locally over time. It's a great success story, and was never anything but a pleasant program. The DVD includes fun commentary tracks on every episode - boldly, one of them is in French, with no translation, so kudos from this bilingual fan - and 10 fun webisodes (one of which is a blooper reel) to accompany each chapter. Can't wait to see what all these folks do now.

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