This Week in Geek (12-18/03/18)

Buys

Got three Doctor Who RPG volumes (in print and pdf): The Black Archive, Paternoster Investigations, and the GameMaster's Companion.

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: Red Sparrow could have been a Black Widow movie, or an "Atomic Blonde"-type vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence, but it's all a bit too straightforward for that. On the longish side, the post-Cold War Cold War thriller about a broken ballerina who becomes trained as a seductress-spy might well have benefited from a less linear structure, and certainly avoided scenes where the nevertheless solid and watchable - if expressionless - J-Law is forced to tell people the back story we all saw. Once the double-dealing starts and it's less obvious who she's working for, the movie gets more interesting, and I think comes to a satisfying conclusion. I call it straightforward, but it's also a straight take, the brutal violence never over the top, and humor almost absent. It's only very rarely a FUN flick (Mary-Louise Parker's character is about it), the sexual violence makes sure of that without necessarily making you feel it viscerally. It's a tale told adequately, but rarely stylishly. I liked it for what it was and several of its characters (the women mostly).

At home: I came to the ITV Manchester-based cop drama Scott & Bailey because its two leads once appeared on Doctor Who (Lesley Sharp in "Midnight" and Suranne Jones in "The Doctor's Wife"), but I'm not gonna lie, it's Amelia Bullmore as their superior officer who's the series' MVP, straight up as important as they are. Sort of the UK's answer to Cagney & Lacey, Scott is a level-headed detective and master interviewer, while Bailey leads a messy life that bleeds into her work. All the characters are complex and interesting, and the show manages to make you care about an extended cast over its 5 series and 33 episodes. One of the show's most interesting aspects is how it delivers procedural elements without repeating itself, giving us researched glimpses into this aspect of police work (including the careerism of it) or that, depending on the episode. There's also a lot of variety as far as structure and editing, which is pleasant. The mysteries are well built, and the solves predicated both on Sherlockian leaps and deftly catching suspects in a lie. I gotta tell you though, I gotta stop binging on crime dramas for a while because I'm having too many vivid dreams/nightmares where I'm arresting people.

Joel Potrykus' Buzzard is rightly compared to Office Space, but its humor is darker, and there are shades of horror, though a mundane kind of horror. The monster creates himself, but isn't so much evil as he is clueless. The film concerns Marty, a slacker and small-time scam artist, whose life starts to spiral out of control when he gets too big for his britches. Thing is, he does wrong without really knowing why not, and what the consequences might be. His strange Millennial innocence is at once endearing, or at least pitiable, and irritating. Made on the very cheap, the film presents a portrait of disaffected youth that needs no bells and whistles, but still manages a couple of jarring images, and may get a wry laugh from you if you're willing to like the unlikable. The DVD includes a trip to a film festival and some outtakes.

Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days is a minute-in-the-future cyberpunk (Dec.31 1999, but 4-5 years in the production's future) where, sort of as a sequel to Brainstorm, experience-recording technology exists, and you can get the tapes on the black market. Ralph Fiennes plays a tape dealer and ex-cop who gets embroiled in a web of murder and snuff "films", but it's a nice surprise that Angela Bassett is actually the one to get all the great badass action. Bigelow knows how to do kinetic and visually-appealing action, so when the movie rocks, it really does, but it is somewhat hampered by James Cameron's script's structure. There's too much world-building up front (and really, how much does the time gap require?), so our protagonists get involved in the thriller later than the audience does, and then there are too many villains to defeat, requiring a tiring second climax.

With Say Anything..., Cameron Crowe creates a sweet summer romance between John Cusack's well-meaning underachiever and Ione Skye's brainy valedictorian, that on the surface of it, is an echo of John Hughes' films, but not given to the the latter's excesses. The result is that it hasn't dated as badly. The film stands as a realistic portrait of whirlwind teenage love, sweetly comic, but also dramatically consistent, and begs the question whether the whirlwind necessarily need stop blowing. And can you underachieve is an all things, but still achieve in relationships? Or vice-versa? Say Anything... is deceptively simple, but should provoke thought, some of it nostalgic. A good ensemble cast of supporting characters completes the picture, and it's Cameron Crowe, so you know the music is well chosen too.

The Beast with Five Fingers is famously the inspiration for Doctor Who's The Hand of Fear, dear to my heart because it was the first serial I ever saw. And I'm glad to see there more to it than being part of the disembodied hand genre (if slightly). The 1946 movie, about an evil pianist's hand coming back to life to do its dead owner's will in an Italian villa populated by many characters, is long on set-up, but the last half hour is really worth the ticket price, with Peter Lorre eating up the screen as a paranoid astrologer whose madness may be connected to these strange and creepy events. Despite a powerful third act, the coda very nearly kills the movie, entirely too silly coming on the heels of such effective classic horror fare. Still, I still don't know how some of these effects were achieved, and that's a triumph unto itself.

1953's MGM production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar feels rather old-fashioned and consequently doesn't stick too firmly in the mind. The large Roman sets are a highlight, and some of the leads give strong performances, but the direction is a little dull, and the story seems to crash to a halt rather suddenly. I don't normally take issue with American actors in Shakespeare, but sometimes the mish-mash of accents can be distracting; so it is here. But James Mason is sympathetic and watchable as Brutus, and Marlon Brando's Marc Anthony gets all the big moments he deserves and knocks them out of the park (at the time, this was completely against type, as he'd always played naturalistic mumblers and grunters). John Gielgud is Cassius, so you know the character is in good hands. I'm not sure Louis Calhern necessarily gives me something interesting with Caesar himself though. In any case, performances aside, this production hits all the necessary beats, but never wows me.

It's 2012 and the world has fallen to plague in The Ultimate Warrior, a back lot apocalypse movie from Enter the Dragon's Robert Clouse, starring Yul Brynner in the eponymous role, a man hired to take the Commune's pregnant daughter out of the dangerous city. This Omega Man/Logan's Run hybrid almost works as a kind or urban western. The survival aspects give the world a sense of truth, and there's plenty of violence to sell the stakes. Unfortunately, once Brynner leaves the safety of the compound (where Max von Sydow at least adds another strong presence), the movie doesn't have the means to keep building the world. Getting jumped by lawless men in tunnels and streets becomes tedious punctuation and the film resolves in stills rather than action. Doesn't clear the bar set by better known 70s dystopias.

Doctor Who Titles: MGM's 1938 production of A Christmas Carol feels so simplified as to seem cartoonish at times, yet still finds time to invent new scenes, mostly of Christmas cheer, like people playing in the snow, or the definitely-not-struggling Ratchetts' Christmas dinner, course by course (I'm not sure why Scrooge would feel the need to crash the party on the redo). It's A Christmas Carol with its teeth pulled out, is what it is. Poverty is never shown. Bob is visibly well-fed, and Scrooge makes his turn super-early. I'd even call it tedious in its optimism. Maybe it's the one you start little kids on, I dunno. Little kids afraid of Muppets, I guess. And you don't have the Mickey Mouse one handy either.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... Before the 11th Doctor pulled a Christmas Carol on Kazdan, the 1st Doctor pulled something similar on the real Ebenezer Scrooge.

The Doctor's Wife is an animated short by Julian Grant (on YouTube HERE) very much in the style of Tim Burton's stop-motion creations about a mad scientist (who looks like a mummy) desperate to revive his dead wife. The little Gothic operetta - with music and lyrics by The Clockwork Quartet - looks nice, and only really suffers when computer effects are laid on in spots. And well, it leaves off at a strange place, either too soon or too late. The bit needed either more mystery or resolution, but ends at the midpoint between those two brands of satisfaction.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 11th Doctor, Rory and Amy get to see what happens next, and it's not pretty. You shouldn't bring the dead back to life...

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