This Week in Geek (5-11/05/14)


Got a couple of DVDs this week - Veronica Mars the movie, and Futurama vol.7 - and a tabletop game as well, The Resistance. It should come in handy with my gaming group, because we're often too many to play most games and this plays 5-10, and even when we're just 5 or 6, many games become unbearably drawn-out; I think this game can play pretty quick.


At the movies: Amazing Spider-Man 2 feels a lot like reading a pile of Spider-Man comics, complete with ongoing subplots that will only get resolved later. It's a weak structure that can test one's patience, though I imagine it'll play better as a trilogy to marathon on DVD. Ultimately, it means there are too many climaxes. Spider-Man defeats Electro and then has to deal with the Green Goblin, and then we're into the epilogues, and back to the Rhino, and it all gets so LOUD. (Ok, I should admit right now that I was fighting off a fever, but I think even objectively, the last act is all explosions and Electro's dubstep powers. I wish I'd have had a remote.) Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy it. As with the first Amazing, it's the human moments that shine. Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and Sally Field are all incredibly affecting actors, and Field in particular made me tear up in almost every scene. I really liked the Peter-Harry relationship, and the action usually looked great (Electro's CG puppet was a bit jerky) and had good banter. Gwen Stacy is more than the damsel in distress, but Spider-Man's insistent partner in crime-fighting (Emma Stone is the best thing to happen to a character that was only ever a pretty drawing). I would have taken the Rhino sans suit, just as a crazy trucker, and as for Electro, he's actually made into a potent and varied threat (and somewhat sympathetic one), which is about as far from the Max Dillon of the comics as he can get. But heavy, real heavy. It's not without humor, but oof, they got Spider-Man's angst all right. By the way, the mid-credits scene being an X-Men: Days of Future Past tease? Complete bullshit.

DVDs: Another Earth reminds me of Primer, another indie sci-fi film that shows the genre can work without big or even medium budget effects (though the similarities end there). In the film, a mysterious second Earth appears in the sky, a perfect mirror of ours where you and I may well exist. But this is only background and subtext for the story, which is about a young girl who causes a lethal car accident, and after her jail sentence, engaging with the sole survivor of the family she killed. Primer was a hard sf puzzle film. Another Earth is a subtle, sensitive and existential drama with a "soft" Twilight Zone-like premise that acts as a metaphor for the central character's psychological journey. It has an ambiguous "puzzle" ending though. The film may prove too slow and quiet for part of the SF audience, but I believe Another Earth's subtleties and ambiguities make it a more rewarding film to watch again than most blockbuster FX movies. I do want to complain about the packaging though. This is one of those Blu-Ray+DVD+Digital Copy combos that are hopefully not becoming the standard. I'm just not sure who these are for. The guy who has a Blu-Ray player (not me), but also wants to play the film on his laptop using its DVD slot, but also only use the Digital Copy in his tablet? It's probably an incentive to eventually buy a Blu-Ray Player, because they've stuffed all of the extras (for a 92-minute film) on the Blu-Ray disc exclusively. What about the DVD-using shlub who bought your product? Apparently the various featurettes aren't too great, but still. Screw y'all.

Zombieland is a fine little zombie comedy that's entirely more clever than something like this really has any right to be. It doesn't overstress the jokes, doesn't condescend to the audience, and balances character and zombie-killing gags. Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg are well contrasted, which is what you need for a fun buddy movie team, with Emma "Can Do No Wrong" Stone as romantic interest and foil. She kicks ass too. It's interesting that this was originally supposed to be a television pilot, because yeah, these are characters I could have followed week to week. But was TV really ready for something like this? I know better than to ask for a sequel to ANYTHING, but definitely a world and characters that could be followed up on, and in no way am I a zombie fan. The DVD includes a fun commentary track with cast and crew, deleted scenes, and several making of featurettes.

Ron Howard's Rush chronicles the rivalry between Formula 1 rivals James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and does it very well indeed. I couldn't care less about racing as a spectator sport, but Howard puts you in the pilots' headspace and makes every race sequence different, exciting, and absolutely clear as to what's happening. The oversaturated colors are perfect for the racetrack environment of bright, fast cars, and evoke the look of old photographs from the 70s. But if the racing is impeccable, it's got to be about the characters, and it is. The film's real success is in how it might set up the likable Hunt as the "hero", but by spending just as much time with the more ruthless Lauda, insures you'll have trouble picking a side at the end. Both men can be admired or condemned; each point of view has his value. An exciting and effective biopic. The DVD features some deleted scenes, but that's it.

Finally watched The Iron Giant, Brad Bird's first and perhaps still best feature film, about a boy who befriends a giant robot from space during the month Sputnik orbited the Earth. Wonderful traditional animation, and a story with real heart and real stakes that'll you smile and will make you cry. I once read someone call it "the best Superman film ever made", and in many ways, it is. Bird's premise was "What if a gun had a soul?", which definitely ties into the idea of Superman as a metaphor for the value of self-restraint. It also evokes the 1950s beautifully, subtly and overtly, has some incredible action scenes all the way through, and never ever talks down to its audience. The Special Edition features a valuable director/crew commentary, some really cool partly animated deleted scenes, a stills/art gallery, and a collection of brief (interview) featurettes. Unfortunately, 13 of them are only available through a branching option while you watch the film, which I always find annoying. Hopefully I caught all 13, I'm just not sure now. The DVD also has a number of Easter Eggs.

There's something about The Impossible that makes me a little uncomfortable, politically. I mean, the 2004 Tsunami happened to Southeast Asia, but we follow a family of blond Europeans. Sure, ok, their story IS remarkable (the title is apt), but considering it really happened to a Spanish family, the whitewashing is a little off-putting. Of course, the director and crew are Spanish, and woman Naomi Watts portrays worked closely with them, well... I guess they make it okay. But objectively, I've got nothing negative to say about the film. The acting is excellent. The tsunami sequences are spectacular (and amazingly old-school) and nothing you'll have seen elsewhere. It's a survival film more than a disaster film, and shows multiple points of view through an unusual structure, as the family members are separated then brought back together, changed forever. Moving, harrowing, surprising and very true. The DVD includes a commentary track that brings together the real Maria with the writer, director and producer - it's insightful and addresses my concerns - deleted scenes, and two featurettes, one on casting and the other on the making of.

Our cultural exchange night had good buddy Fred present The Wicker Man (the original, I'm pretty sure no one needs to see the Nick Cage remake), and wow, that was quite an experience. I only knew it through references in other media, that it was one of the principal films parodied by Hot Fuzz, and that Britt Ekland had an iconic nude scene (thanks, Coupling - and boy, does she ever). In the story, if you don't know it, a repressed policeman played by Edward Woodward comes to a strange Scottish island to investigate a young girl's disappearance. He's shocked and horrified by the community's Pagan practices and mores, but you may or may not be. It's interesting that he comes off as the intolerant a-hole, the square come to tell all these young people to put some clothes on. Then again, they may be killers. We mentioned Hair around the living room, and there are certainly enough musical numbers (I'm as surprised as anyone, but witches love to sing) for that comparison to resonate. Quite wild.

Bored to Death is an HBO comedy written by humorist Jonathan Ames about a struggling writer called Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) who, after a bad break-up, puts out an ad offering his services as an unlicensed private eye. References to noir fiction abound, mixed with character-based comedy. At Jonathan's two elbows are his friends, comic book artist Ray (Zach Galifianakis) and rich magazine publisher George (Ted Danson). The trio gets up to all sorts of shenanigans, usually inspired by heavy marijuana use. I'm not a big fan of stoner humor, but while Bored to Death is more overt in showing drug use, it approaches the Bill & Ted films in tone. That is to say, there is so little cynicism in the characters, we're not inclined to judge them for their failings. These three men mean well; they're pure souls more than they are "man-children" (though they're that too). And there are intellectual jokes too, which certainly fits my sense of humor. The first season DVD offers cast and crew commentary on half of the eight episodes, a few outtakes, deleted (really, alternate) scenes, a making of, and a tour of Brooklyn, where the series is shot, with both the real and the fictional Ames.

With Season 2, I think the series really hits its stride. If the meld of mystery and comedy could be a little awkward in Season 1, here the private eye stuff is more exciting and daring, and the comedy more confident (especially the literary stuff written just for people like me). In fact, we're getting to know these characters enough that real drama and pathos can be injected without disrupting the balance. Where those story beats felt amusingly pathetic before, now they are genuinely touching. And despite having only 16 episodes under its belt by season's end, the show nevertheless manages to weave recurring characters in and out and create a veritable world. This DVD set has a commentary track on 5 of the episodes, outtakes, deleted scenes, and "inside [each] episode" conversations with creator Jonathan Ames, who can't help but be amusing.

You will know what I thought if the Sarah Jane Adventures' fifth and sadly, final season if you read last week's daily Who reviews. The three stories (6 episodes) contained in the single-disc set are what was shot in the Season 4 block, before Elisabeth Sladen became ill and passed away. There is a single DVD extra, an 18-minute retrospective special about Lis Sladen and Sarah Jane Smith, made about a year after the last episode was shot. Few people are actually interviewed, but these include some of her cast mates (Daniel "Clyde" Anthony, Anjli "Rani" Monhindra, and Matt "the Doctor" Smith), with old friend and Doctor Who expanded universe writer Gary Russell (who also speaks for RTD). It's a nice tribute that speaks to her personality on set, her work ethic, her popularity, and the impact of her character on the Whoniverse, and I naturally sobbed through the whole thing.

Books: Wanting to try the American Comic Book Chronicles series from TwoMorrows, I sprung for The 1950s by Bill Schelly, because I felt it was the decade I knew the least about. The book goes through the decade year by year, providing lots of full-color illustrations (covers, interiors and other documents), and covering all the companies and creators that made a mark on those years. Other volumes may or may not seem to concentrate too much on superheroes; in the 50s, they just don't dominate. However when superheroes are discussed, the author goes into some detail. This may be a conscious choice to link the past to the present through recognizable characters, but obscure ephemera gets some play as well. I won't commend Schelly's prose, which is at times clunky (but look who's talking), but his history is informative, doesn't shy away from criticism but keeps it balanced, and features quotes from industry pros and other critics to give a fuller picture. Though a chronology, there are some more sweeping articles (subjects include female and black creators, atomic fear, Dick Sprang's Batman, a critical analysis of the Flash's first story, Sgt. Rock, and others), and one highlight for me was the complete original Comics Code. So now I'm interested to see how the series treats other decades.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Zeffirelli '90


Randal said...

I buy the combos. Especially the Disney. Bluray for home viewing (3-d if possible), DVD for the car or grandparents, digital for the kids' iPads. There's a market.

Brian said...

Looking at that RUSH DVD cover, with long-hair Chris Hemsworth, makes me instinctively shout "new Thor action figure with race car accessory!"

Now to just photoshop Tom Hiddleston in place of Daniel Brühl there...

Zundian said...

I think my biggest problem with RUSH is that it glosses over so much of Lauda's story, which has the effect of making one of the most compelling rivalries in sports history nearly unwatchable.

Siskoid said...

Maybe it's because I didn't know anything about the story, but I got the opposite effect. In fact, I came out of it saying it was Lauda's story, not Hunt's.

Toby'c said...

I think The Wicker Man and its remake may well have the biggest gulf in quality between any two similar movies ever made, hence why I gave one 10/10 and the other 1 on IMDb. (Though if Film-to-TV adaptations count, it's tied with The Last Airbender.)

I likewise learned about the film because of that Coupling episode, which in hindsight looks a little disturbing given that even the in-universe TV continuity announcer seems to consider that more worthy of mention than the human sacrifice story.

Siskoid said...

The Wicker Man, Walkabout... what's the other iconic nudie film that should go on my list?

Toby'c said...

I remember Logan's Run got a mention (Jenny Agutter), and they talked about Helen Mirren and Sharon Stone (don't think they mentioned a specific movie).

jdh417 said...

I don't know if I can convince you to watch any racing, but it can be pretty dramatic. This years Indy 500 will be on Sunday, May 25.

Siskoid said...

You probably can't.

I only like sporting events live and in person. I have seen some stock car racing live, locally, for what that's worth.

If I think of it on the 25th, I'll see how long I can stand it.


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