This Week in Geek (15-21/07/13)


A few new DVDs on my shelf. Two Asian films - Tai Chi Hero and Assassins (both by popular demand) - and two TV series - Misfits Season 3 and Orphan Black (the latter a strong recommendation from several readers).


At the movies: Going to see Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing sparked a Shakespeare (and otherwise art house)-fest this week, so those looking for purer geekery (as opposed to nerdism), might want to skip below to Zines or RPGs). Duly warned. Now Much Ado is my favorite Shakespeare comedy, but I must admit in large part due to the Branagh film, so letting go of some of those "definitive" performances was key (especially Emma Thompson's). Whedon helps by making this totally unlike Branagh's version. His is a cheap black and white unaccented Shakespeare set in the present day (in fact, in his own house) featuring familiar faces from his other projects. Whedonites will certainly find some joy, as I did, simply from the casting. And it mostly works too, though I do take exception at Alexis Denisof's Benedick, much too deadpan and unemotional to Amy Acker's Beatrice. Acker wears her every emotion on her sleeve. Beyond reuniting the tragic couple from Angel, and some fine physical comedy from the both of them, the chemistry isn't quite what's required. Stronger are Nathan Fillion as Dogberry (perhaps the only performance of the character that hasn't relied on making the constable insane), Reed Diamond as the Prince and Clark Gregg as Leonato (both very funny). Nice twists include making Conrade a woman and the whole jazzy feel of the piece (with Maurissa Tancharoen doing very pleasant versions of the play's songs). I do think it'll be known as the alcoholic Much Ado however, no doubt in line with how this project was born.

DVDs: Because I was originally supposed to see the above on Sunday, and only wound up going on Tuesday, I cleansed my palate of the Branagh with the Globe Theatre On Screen version of Much Ado About Nothing. This was to be my trial of this range of plays performed at the actual Globe before a real audience. I must say the format works admirably. The shots aren't static nor the sound variable as you might expect from a live performance, and playing to the audience, especially in a comedy, creates a very different feel. This Much Ado has lots of audience participation, and actors have a great deal of fun with its reactions. Characters not usually funny on film - the wicked Don John and young lover Claudio - are very funny when allowed to play bigger and less naturalistic. The play's Claudio (Philip Cumbus) is especially fun, an awkward lout who really does need the Prince to woo for him à la Cyrano. Eve Best and Charles Edwards make a fine Beatrice and Benedick, characters who play a great deal with the audience, though they might sometimes let themselves break out of character over it, while Paul Hunter's Dogberry is perhaps unforgivably broad, and Ewan Stewart is sadly stiff and boring as Don Pedro. The one face American audiences will recognize is Joseph Marcell as Leonato; he was the butler on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He's quite good. Overall, a fun experience that's making me consider buying more DVDs from the range.

Back to my BBC Shakespeare Collection in general order of composition, the Henry VI cycle ends with Richard III, and it was made as such, with the same actors and set (now flushed with color again). I'm used to seeing this play, which contains the first inklings of Shakespeare's genius with character interiority, edited down to its best parts. In this more integral version, it's definitely closer to its three prequels. Richard III is over-written in the sense that things are explained, harked back to, and prophesied to keep everything in context at all times. And when Richard isn't on stage, there's the same feeling of watching "historical cartoons", scenes that depict rather than deepen history. Where the Bard achieves greatness, of course, is in Richard himself, though we're still a ways from more ambiguous villains like Iago and Edmund. We're "with" Richard because he explains what he'll do and then succeeds, though ultimately, there isn't enough doubt or regret in him for us to believe the moment before the battle where he's haunted to the point of self-doubt and self-recrimination. But perhaps that's the moment of Shakespeare's breakthrough with character, coming a bit late to unify the play.

For comparison's sake, I then watched Laurence Olivier's Richard III. I was disappointed. Not with Richard himself, which is played with unusual humor and bouts of real psychosis. I wasn't even that disturbed by Olivier's usual restructurings (he cuts well-known scenes, re-edits scene placement and even adds lines from a different version of the play). I think what put me off, mostly, was the look of the picture. Its Technicolor vibrancy and beautiful sets and locations give the story the feel of a fairy tale, which Richard III definitely is not. Yes, there's some intriguing work done with following characters' shadows, but I find the production design and cinematography at odds with the material. And though it seems Claire Bloom gets rave reviews about her Princess Anne, I can't believe the character's motivation. Olivier makes her desperately fall in love with his Richard over the corpse of her husband... it plays less well than a woman who now needs protection at court, in my opinion. She's good in that context, but I don't like the context. All the actors are fine, and my heart skipped at seeing Patrick Troughton as Tyrell, but I do find fault in Olivier's use of John Gielgud as Clarence. When you have an actor of that caliber, why would you so savagely cut half his scenes? Overall, a good film, but weaker than Olivier's Richard III or Hamlet (not coincidentally, it's the weaker play as well). The Criterion DVD has some nice extras however. An expert commentary goes through some basics, but also some interesting specifics about the play and the film. There's an enlightening 1966 interview with Olivier about the whole of his Shakespearean career that's the DVD's real treasure, and in addition, a long vintage trailer/featurette, and photo gallery with written commentary by Olivier.

Now for my finishing The Essential Egoyan, a DVD set with four of the acclaimed Canadian director's early films (I previously reviewed Next of Kin). All three remaining films deal with similar themes - being cut off from one's roots, and how technology distorts reality, in particular what we project on others. Family Viewing, for example, is about Van, a young man who still cares for his Armenian grandmother, left in a nursing home by his father, her son-in-law. All the scenes at his dysfunctional home are in washed-out video and played as a multi-camera soap or sitcom, while those with his grandmother are on more vibrant film. When Van discovers his father has been taping over old home movies of his mother and grandmother with his home-made porn, he purposes to leave home and get his grandmother out of the nursing home. As with all of Egoyan's films, it's structured like a mystery for the audience to solve, starting slow and eventually revealing what the relationships are and what dreadful secrets they hide. The television is omnipresent, and the question asked is whether a recording can replace an experience. As a formal experiment, it works better than Next of Kin, though perhaps not emotionally. The DVD includes a great director's commentary, a photo gallery, footage from rehearsals, and three of Egoyan's shorts, the longest and most interesting being Open House in which a strange realtor makes couples visit his parents' house for reasons of his own. The other two, Howard in Particular and Peepshow, feel like student efforts, more about form than story.

Speaking Parts is about what we project on others. Lisa stalks a co-worker and checks out the films he's appeared as an extra in, imagining there's more to these appearances. Clara, a film writer projects her dead brother on him and insists he be cast in his life story, even as she's being pushed off the project AND the story. It's a postmodern thriller that culminates into a very strange finale where video image and reality converge and leaves the audience - even with the help of the director's commentary - wondering what the hell just happened. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Arsinée Khanjian (Egoyan's wife who has been in each of these films) plays a most awkward Lisa, touching in her inability to connect with reality, and at time profound. It's also a movie that shows its age, somehow proving that in 1989, everyone, boy or girl, had a perm. The DVD also includes some deleted scenes, a photo gallery and a brief interview with Egoyan.

Calendar is the shortest of the Essential films, and the cheapest, but it's also the most personal. Egoyan and Khanjian play versions of themselves who go to Armenia to take pictures for a calendar. On the way, Khanjian may fall for their tour guide, for whom she translates, and remain behind. This video footage is intercut with the present day, over the next year, where Egoyan's character is repeating the same date over and over again with different women who must, at some point, make a phone call in a different foreign language. It's a mysterious portrait of a relationship between two people, yes, but also with one's own culture. Egoyan's character is estranged from both. Calendar is an intricate piece about not belonging to the culture you purport to be from. Egoyan invites his wife to do the commentary with him, though she speaks far less than he does, and the DVD also includes an interview and an excellent one-hour documentary about Egoyan's career up through The Sweet Hereafter.

Zines: Just wanted to mention I got published in two fanzines this week. One is the online-only Diary of the Doctor Who Role-Playing Games which printed a slightly modified version of my seasons of Doctor Who as RPGs covering the whole of the Hartnell era (there's also a short blurb on my Who CCG). The other is the print-only Enlightenment, which features three Big Finish Fourth Doctor Adventures reviews (I'm doing all of season 2 over the course of three issues). I guess that's why I haven't posted any reviews of 4DA Season 2 on the blog. I haven't been asked to be "exclusive", but I sort of feel I must, y'know? Thanks to Zep and Cam, respectively, for inviting me to contribute to their cool mags, really the only fanzines I read with any regularity.

RPGs: Justice Legion - A Fragile Peace, episode 1 - A Convention of Bats. That's the long title of our first session of my DWAITAS/DCAdventures hybrid about the 28th-century DC Universe. First off, no problems with the hybrid system. I've maybe got to watch for over-powered characters, but it was a session without any major physical threats, so the goons were meant to be easy to beat. The session was much more about world-building, setting up an Earth on the verge of EarthGov, having recently joined the United Federation of Planets, itself under threat from the Dominion and Khund empire. I also needed to set up Old Gotham as a mix of Futurama and Judge Dredd, and perhaps entirely too many references to Batman comics in place names, etc. The story itself was mostly poached from the DCHeroes Watchmen module Taking Out the Trash, repurposing its Republican convention as an international event. Moloch replaced by Vandal Savage, and the Brethren by the Bats, a gang of Crime Bible zealots currently led by the mysterious Enigma, one of two plot threads I've left dangling on purpose for future exploration. Great session, I think. Ferro Man was a punch-first think-later character that admits to being a little slow when his brain is made of iron. The brick Green Lantern was funny and inventive with its constructs, and its player respected the fact he played a mute character. And the revolving spot (the same player playing different characters each session) was filled with the Question, which he made a perfect amalgam of paranoid JLU Question and no-nonsense obsessive Rorschach. A lot of the world-building came out of improvs meant to cover the character's attention to detail, and he scored some spin-off adventures so we can explore some of the conspiracies he latched onto during the campaign.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
IV.v. Ophelia's Madness - Tennant (2009)

Your Daily Splash Page this week features a splash from every DC title, alphabetically, from National Comics to New Talent Showcase.



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