This Week in Geek (19-25/03/18)


In theaters: Peter Rabbit marries Beatrix Potter's animal stories to a Looney Toons sensibility that creates a fun, energetic, and most importantly, funny universe where wildlife can speak and wear clothes, but the humans don't notice much. I thoroughly enjoyed and found myself giggling throughout, in particular at the recurring gags featuring the supporting cast of creatures (the rooster, the deer, the birds...). The Potter reader I saw this with confirmed it evoked elements of Potter's original, even if it went its own way with both the story and tone, and yes, it does use Potter's illustrations in ways that are useful to the story. And though the action and humor isn't necessarily Pottery, the harshness of her world is there. Peter Rabbit takes his war with McGregor too far, and is not entirely sympathetic. That said, there are some weaknesses in the script. I'm not sure Young McGregor is really convincing as the object of Bea's affection, and the confusion surrounding who is narrating the tale is an unnecessary complication. But for older kids (younger kids yammered throughout the human scenes because getting promotions, selling houses and falling in love just doesn't interest them) and at least THIS adult, Peter Rabbit offers a charming and amusing storybook adventure.

At home: The Hitman's Bodyguard provides a competent but not very memorable action vehicle for Ryan Reynolds (as a down-on-his-luck security expert) and Samuel Jackson (an assassin who must testify at The Hague) who most definitely play their usual screen personas. And while their star power (and that of Selma Hayek) is what keeps the boat afloat, it's also part of the problem. There's just very little here I haven't seen before aside from the specific premise. The action is nicely shot, but rare is the choreography that's anything but routine (the hardware store fight comes closest, I guess). So when the actors give a performance that's exactly like their other performances on top of the formulaic action runaround, well, there's not a whole lot to recommend. I mean, it's perfectly fine, but no more than that.

Jim Hensen's passion project, The Dark Crystal, creates a world that is totally original, and notably, completely devoid of human characters. It's a feast for the eyes that you nevertheless wish had a more colorful color palette (part of it is 1982's film stock limitations). The story, while a pretty straightforward chosen one quest, has interesting philosophical and psychological underpinnings, resolving into a tale of duality and balance. And it's pretty adult despite the Muppetry; the characters are in real danger. The Dark Crystal's weakness lies in its narration and dialogue. It relies much too heavily on the former at the top of the film, to the point where you wonder whether you're watching an animated story book, and then the hero Jen is too long alone and projecting his thoughts AS narration. According to the deleted/alternate scenes included on the DVD, the film was originally conceived with subtitles for the villainous Skesis, so we dodged a bullet there. But whatever its faults, The Dark Crystal remains a unique and imaginative work, and one of the 80s' better attempts at pure fantasy. The DVD also includes a one-hour making of, an isolated music score, and character files on the Skesis and Mystics.

The original "Chronicle of Riddick", Pitch Black, does a lot with a little. It never over-explains anything, letting its claustrophobic world get built from inference. Vin Diesel's limited performance creates an ambiguous and therefore deceptively complex anti-hero. And the desert setting with its fortuitous eclipse is a natural ticking clock on a world where mutant bats only come out at night. This is how, though "Alien" type sci-fi thrillers are a dime a dozen, this one rises a step above the rest. It's also got some intriguing, if under-developed, secondary characters (the Imam, Frank, the reluctant captain, even the douchey bounty hunter is not all he seems) for the monsters to eat through. It's not a revolution in the genre, but a surprisingly solid entry in it.

The Chronicles of Riddick sacrifices the first Riddick film's tension for scope, making this entry in the franchise closer to a sword & sorcery epic than a monster-driven thriller. Riddick's ambiguity is also traded off for simple, bold character traits (his irrepressible will and knack for escaping from any situation), and less usefully, for genetic heritage. The universe of Riddick expands to include many human races and several well-realized worlds as it turns out he's the "chosen one" to defeat an evil Necromonger bent on converting all the known worlds to his faith. There's a lot of money on the screen - sets, effects, costumes, and cast (Judi Dench, Thandie Newton, Colm Feore...). Some might bristle at this very different take, but I quite like the idea of the character's "Chronicles" changing his fortunes with every film and going into different territory. Alas, the third film is fated to betray that promise.

The third "Chronicle" of Riddick, simply called "Riddick" (man, the titles are all over the place on this franchise), quickly does away with the Necromonger setting to return the character to his roots, i.e. stuck on a ticking clock planet with crazy monsters. Sadly, though I feel by now invested in Riddick's story, the film's structure is a let down. Each of its three acts feels disconnected from the rest, with Riddick surviving alone in the wild in Act 1 (the best part), kind of disappearing in the second when mercenaries show up to get his head (this includes a man connected to the first film, as well as a terrible role for Katee Sackhoff), then joining forces with them in the third to survive against the monsters when the shit hits the fan. It also happens to be the weakest part of the film, its action tedious and repetitive, and its resolution working against Riddick's usual coolness. Though mostly watchable, I'm afraid the Chronicles went backwards and got stuck in the mud there.

All's Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare's most underrated comedies, but then, it's part of the late cycle of plays where the romance tends to leave a sour taste in the audience's mouth. Nevertheless, the language is wonderful, and the story takes many surprising turns (and it starts with a parody of Hamlet!). The story? Helena is low-born but in love with a young Count, and she'll do anything to make him hers, up to and including healing the King of France and faking her own death. Shakespeare's throws in a cowardly soldier (Parolles) for good measure, and a naughty clown. All's Well is full of memorable characters. But the Count is a sore spot. He is such a douchebag, you don't WANT Helena to end up with him, and his praise of Paroles is as much an indictment of his bad judgement as his rejection of her. Not for the first time, the BBC production of a Shakespeare play miscasts a heroine - Angela Down is a bit too plain and dull for the part - but I love Donald Sinden's wise King and his warnings about deceiving appearances, and Peter Jeffrey is a good Paroles. The production actively uses mise en scène from Vermeer paintings, though this does lead to some unflattering lighting at times. But overall, I quite liked it.

The Globe Theater production of All's Well That Ends Well brings the play to life before an audience, and as with their Much Ado About Nothing, which I rated highly, it's a format that really enlivens the comedy inherent in the text. Strict film productions can be lively, but there's nothing like seeing it performed in front of people to really make it funny. Lafeu, Parolles and Lavache are most advantaged by this, taken from intellectual zanies to outright comic "heroes", but Janie Dee is unsurprisingly great as the Countess as well. Not a big fan of the King in this one, but Ellie Piercy is a sympathetic Helena. There's an attempt to make the Count more likeable, by making him more of a giddy thing, perhaps taken in by Parolles, or speaking without thinking then acting out of pride. He's not an ass, he's just an idiot, and one that does seem to fancy Helena, but is perhaps afraid of marriage (shades of Shakespeare perhaps exorcising his own guilt at leaving a wife and kids in Stratford for years on end). I'm not sure it QUITE works, but it's certainly an easier pill to swallow.

Patrick Stewart's 2008 Tony award-nominated turn as MacBeth was made into a film in 2010, setting the Scottish Play in a sort of Stalinesque netherland, mostly represented by a lugubrious and disaffected mental hospital. So it's a real horror show, with the Three Witches dressed up as nuns/nurses tooling around with body bags and, in what is no doubt the strangest and least viable choice of the production, dancing around like they're in a music video. My problem with MacBeth is that it CAN BE and so often IS a horror show. Stewart gives a great performance, tracking the Scotsman's ambition to his paranoia and psychopathic madness (as does Kate Fleetwood with Lady M), so it does mitigate the problem of whether or not you can feel any kind of sympathy (necessary for the tragedy's catharsis) for him. As I usually seem too, my attention strays in the later parts of the play, partly because MacBeth has become a monster, partly because there are so many scenes that exclude him. And for what is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy, the movie version sure seems long, the direction taking side-trips or stage-setting. Don't get me wrong, it's a strong adaptation, I'm just reacting to it as I do most stagings of MacBeth.

Doctor Who Titles:  Tobe Hooper's Night Terrors is a strange phantasmagoria of a horror film that makes good use of its Egyptian (actually shot in Israel) setting, but makes a real mess of its story. In the film, Zoe Trilling plays the daughter of an archaeologist who runs afoul of a cult based on de Sade's writings (Robert Englund plays both the cult leader and de Sade himself in off framing sequences set in the past), causing her to have bad dreams and hallucinations, mostly involving snakes. Hooper's visuals are frequently interesting, but who the hell knows what's happening half the time, or why we should care? It's like he's trying to channel Dario Argento, but failing. But as failures go, it's not an uninteresting one.
#The TARDIS lands in the film... The 7th Doctor, Ace and Bernice Summerfield find themselves jumping from de Sade's dungeon to modern-day Alexandria to uncover the mystery of the strange sadist cult and rescue Genie from it.


Ryan Blake said...

I saw Patrick Stewart's Macbeth live I didn't realise It had been realised thanks for the review and the hot tip

Siskoid said...

If I lived in or near London, I'd spend all my money on theater, probably.


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