This Week in Geek (1-7/12/14)


Oh Christmas sales, what have you done? So I got a truck load of DVDs this week, including Chef, Blue Jasmine, Edge of Tomorrow (or however they want to call it now), Adventures in Time and Space, Fargo Season 1, Orange Is the New Black Season 1, The Newsroom Season 2, the Harry Potter Collection (long been a Potter denier, but at 3$ a movie, I could catch up on my pop culture) and on a suggestion for daily reviews some time in the future, all 9 seasons of the X-Files, the 2 films, and 3 seasons of Millennium (hey, same world, and Lone Gunmen is slower to come from another seller). And may God have mercy on my soul. At least it was all on the cheap. Also got a couple of geekery-related shirts, because I need to renew my wardrobe, if not my overall man-child look.


DVDs: So if you've been following the blog, you'll know I started on a December project I describe as 31 indie SF films in 31 days. Daily themes give it structure, a little cheating on the definition of any of those terms is allowed, and the list includes only very few films I've already seen. So it started on Dec.1 with Time Travel Monday, and Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel, written, as I found out, by Jamie Mathieson who wrote the best pair of episodes in the most recent season of Doctor Who. You know in World's End when Pegg, Frost, et al. go into the pub's bathroom and find bluebloods? Well, imagine the same thing, but with a temporal anomaly. That's it in a nutshell, with Chris "can do no wrong" O'Dowd as the star, and some crazy playing around with time travel tropes and very funny dialog. Geeks will certainly recognize themselves, their conversations and/or their opinions in this. It was so similar in subject matter to Edgar Wright's stuff that I kept wanting it to have that extra visual oomph - more comic camera or editing play, more hidden references - but alas. Doesn't mean it wasn't a perfectly enjoyable comedy to start this "marathon" on.

Mad Science Tuesday, I watched Extracted. In this low-effects SF puzzler, Sasha Roiz (from Caprica) plays the creator of a machine/process that can allow you to visit your own, or another person's memories. A malfunction traps him inside those of a convicted killer for years, until contact is made and they start working together they get themselves out of their situations. More Eternal Sunshine than The Cell (thankfully), Extracted is full of twists and turns that keep the story moving, and explores the unreliability of memory in an interesting way. Using a murder mystery is an apt device, since eyewitness testimony is so often unreliable. What about the testimony of the alleged killer himself? This is exactly the kind of film I wanted to discover in December, positing a cool premise without the benefit of a big budget, and exploring real issues and themes almost as a result.

Astronaut Wednesday? I watched Moon again. A film well worth revisiting. You can find my original capsule review HERE.

Before getting Oscar attention with Mud, Jeff Nichols made Take Shelter, my pick for ApocaThursday. As it turns out, it's only borderline sci-fi, but does a film that only discusses an SF apocalypse count as SF? I say yes. And there's one way to interpret the film (i.e. literally), where it really does happen. An acting showpiece for Michael Shannon (Man of Steel's Zod), he plays a family man who has dreams and visions about a world-ending storm and struggling over whether or not this is the onset of some mental illness or actual premonitions, he starts screwing up his life to keep his family safe. It's a slow, quiet film, but riveting nonetheless. As a drama that's potentially about schizophrenia, it works. As a metaphor for the economic collapse of the West, it DEFINITELY works. The character's anxieties are no doubt share by many families, and the feeling that something bad is about to happen is only symbolically represented as weather. The family has to deal with poverty, loss of employment, medical bills, and so on. There's been much talk about the so-called ambiguous ending, which even DVD's commentary track featuring the director and star didn't want to address (nor the brief making of, nor the Q&A with some of the actors). So spoilers ahead: In the metaphor, it tells us the storm is real, whether it's a weather even or not. As a twist, it puts the film in the same category as many sci-fi short stories. At the same time, it's also a comment on a family's cohesiveness, and that familial love and shared destiny that transcends other concerns. The DVD also includes a couple of deleted scenes.

Fridays have no theme. I usually have guests and let them pick from the master list. Snowpiercer was the choice, and yes, I've been called on it that this was sort of a cheat. It's got a big budget, major stars, loads of action, and was to be distributed by the Weinsteins. But it wasn't made by Hollywood, and there are several indie moments in it, however, where I just had to think any right-minded studio would have cut and bailed. Which is sort of what happened on the release end of it, relegated to limited art house theater release because director Bong Joon-ho wouldn't cut it and put Blade Runner narration on it (there's a sushi scene, so they could have used the same inane dialog). For one thing, the premise is completely bonkers. Based on a French graphic novel, Snowpiercer imagined a world where the last of humanity are on a huge, ever-moving train that circles a dead, icy Earth over the course of each year. This is the end of Year 17. It's a blunt metaphor for class warfare, with the 1% up front in the luxury cars, and the lower classes living in squalor in the tail. Its heroes have done things to survive that will make audiences uncomfortable, but the excellent action sequences, while brutal, aren't as gory as one my expect from a Korean director. There's heavy drama side by side with dark, twisted comedy, and a truly international cast, crew and sensibility. Unless you've read the source material, you only think you know where the story is going. So I'm not surprised it got hit with distribution problems. Its uncompromising, bleak vision no doubt helped make it a critical darling (the DVD's commentary track brings a lot of those critics to bear as evidence). Definitely a case of "buy the premise, buy the bit", and I bought the premise. Has the potential to become a cult favorite dystopian action film, alongside the likes of, say, The Road Warrior. The aforementioned commentary track is the only extra on the DVD, and it's of limited value, the speakers more interested in talking about film criticism than the film itself, in places.

Saturdays are for romance... TiMER is a quirky romcom which actually subverts the genre's tropes and asks far more questions than you'd expect. The premise is set up as science fiction, but really has no basis in science, so is really fantasy: Since the 90s, a wrist-implanted device called a "timer" has become ubiquitous because it counts down to the moment you'll meet your soul mate. Emma Caulfield (from Buffy) plays Oona, a woman obsessed with finding that soul mate, but stuck with a blank timer (i.e her "one" doesn't have a timer yet), but various other problems are explored through other characters. What would you do if you knew you'd only find true love in 14 years? what if you met them when you were a teenager? And what would you do if you fell in love with someone else in the meantime? The film doesn't end the way you think it will, but is more truthful that way. And you know the "Edgar Wright" humor I found lacking in FAQ About Time Travel? There are actually some very funny moments like that in TiMER. This is writer-director Jac Schaeffer's first feature film, and for now, her only one, but I hope she gets to make another sooner than later. In fact, there's no one in the cast I wouldn't watch in something else. The DVD includes the director's commentary, a couple of making of featurettes, several deleted scenes (that give a more definite fate to Oona's sister Steph), and a gag reel.

While I was watching my self-imposed film list, I was also trying to flip all the extras on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Extended Cut. We're talking about a 186 minute movie, with a commentary track by the director and co-writer, and more than 9 hours of super-entertaining making of material. People ask me how I can sit through all of that, but these extras have always been what's made me eager to see the next film in the series, much more than seeing the film again ever has. For me, seeing the amount of work and detail that goes into them is what's made me love them. Is that strange? Some of the fun bits: Peter Jackson doing stunts with a cup of tea without losing a drop, Stephen Colbert's cameo, Stephen Fry lying his head off in interviews, how they turns two films into three, who Cumberbatch stole Smaug from, and the rather unbelievable means taken to achieve the dragon's hoard. And those extra 25 minutes of film? A little less obvious than on other films, mostly scene extensions I guess, but you'll be surprised to find a mad dwarf in shots where there was none in the theatrical. Can't wait for Five Armies now.

I also flipped the DVD for Doctor Who's The Sensorites. The story is generally slow and cheap-looking, but still one of Susan's stronger vehicles. You can read my reviews of each of its 6 episodes from the daily pilgrimage starting HERE. The DVD release has more to offer, thankfully. Who expert Tony Hadoke juggles a large revolving cast of guests on the commentary track, including William (Ian) Russell, Carole Ann (Susan) Ford, Joe (2nd Sensorite) Greig, Martyn (1st Human) Huntley, Giles (2nd Human) Phibbs, director Frank Cox, designer Raymond Cusick and make-up designer Sonia Markham. Hadoke also stars in a featurette where he goes looking for the mysterious writer of The Sensorites, Peter R. Newman. So little is known about this man, Toby doesn't expect much and is surprised by his success. It's all rather poignant to see history reach out to us through this investigation. A highlight. There's also a short  piece on vision mixing, a pieces shorter still on the Sensorite voices, and the usual production note subtitles and photo gallery.

Audio: Continuing Big Finish/AudioGo's Destiny of the Doctors anniversary series, Shadow of Death by Simon Guerrier is the 2nd Doctor's story (with Jamie), as narrated by Frazer Hines. Guerrier is always quite good with the black and white Doctors, though in this case, the trad story felt a bit ordinary to me. Harder SF, with a pulsar and some temporally displaced aliens. What AudioGo is able to do that Big Finish can't without them is use elements from the new series, and when there's mention of those elements, your heart tends to jump a little bit. No clue if all these Destiny stories will tie into each other somehow, or if they're just a big showcase for Doctor Who history, but there IS a cameo from the future in here (and in the next episode). So it gets cool towards the ending, but the first two thirds aren't particularly memorable. As usual, Hines does a great job; he voices the 2nd Doctor like a pro.

Vengeance of the Stones by Andrew Smith is the third Doctor story, narrated by Richard (Yates) Franklin, and featuring that character and other members of UNIT. This is meant to be Yates' first meeting with the Doctor  - shhhh, don't ask how this screws up the extracanon - and involves stone circles and the aliens that built them. Not a new trope for Doctor Who, which has a number of similar stories, but not a bad one, well told by Franklin, if rather traditional (again). Third Doctor stories in novels and audios often seem to be rather limited, perhaps because the "UNIT era" was too. I don't know. Again there's a cameo from the future, but the character isn't explicitly named, and I can't tell who it is from Franklin's delivery. Oops!

Theater: The 4th-year drama students at the university here put on a French-language adaptation of Darlene Craviotto's 1990 feminist comedy Pizza Man (called Service non compris!), and these are kids I know and like, so it was naturally a pleasant enough night at the theater. I do have issues with the text however. Pizza Man seems to me incredibly overwritten, and I don't think it's a problem with the translation (though that could be part of it). She makes points and then makes those points again. A more ruthless director would have cut a lot of material that was evident from the actors' performances, no need to go into exposition mode. That might have helped them focus on punching up what was left so the jokes fell more sharply. But there's such a steady stream of verbiage at times, the funny gets lost in the shuffle. The story about two women trying to rape a pizza delivery man so they can get revenge for their hardships doesn't feel as controversial as it sounds, but their work situations and aspirations seem to come from the 1950s or 60s, not the 90s, and certainly not 2014 (a picture of Emma Watson at the U.N. was an explicit set dressing element). I understand the author was trying to say things have not changed enough since the feminist revolution of the 60s and 70s, but I found the anachronistic attitudes distracting. Lately, the drama department's shows have tried to be cinematic with montage, score and the odd stroboscopic slow motion sequence, and I can't decide if it's become a gimmick. I'll get back to you. I'm very critical because this was, to my mind, a lesser text. I've liked these actors better in other things, because those things were better. They've got one more play this year to show their stuff, so that's good.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
Other Hamlets: What Shakespeare Says About Coca-Cola


Toby'c said...

I'm a huge fan of the Harry Potter books, not so much the movies, aside from the first two.

Coincidentally, I finally got around to buying The X-Files season 3 myself this week - several months after finishing season 2 and several years after [I]buying[/I] season 2. This'll give me a reason to speed up a bit.

Siskoid said...

No rush, Toby. I still expect to start the new year with Space 1999.


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