This Week in Geek (12-18/01/15)


Taken from a bargain bin: Taken (hm, there was a pun to make there), Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and Speed Racer. Not taken from a bargain bin: Boyhood, Treme Season 4, Girls Season 3, and the Doctor Who 2015 Annual.


At the movies: Selma is the best "true story" movie from this Oscar season, and I've seen a number of them. It's not, as first might appear, a Martin Luther King biopic. He's certainly the main character though. Rather, it specifically revolves around the events of the civil rights movement that happened in Selma, Alabama, in a struggle to get unimpeded voting rights in the state and the rest of the U.S. As someone who works with activists in his professional life, I definitely connected to all the behind the scenes action - strategy meetings, using the media, the cult of personality, juggling protest and lobbying, the divisions, the incremental victories, the crushing reversals, and the doubts and discouragement. The acting is unimpeachable. The injustice heartbreaking, but not overly sentimentalized. The portrait painted accurate and powerful. It'll put fire in your soul, and in that sense, it is completely appropriate that people feel moral outrage about this year's white-washed Oscars.

DVDs: Republic of Doyle's DVD releases are up to Season 5, and the little action-comedy from Newfoundland has a lot of mythology to work with. In fact, the episodes with returning guest-stars are the best, while the program sometimes struggles creating involving story lines without them (not to say it doesn't happen, but even the memorable new characters are rather... supervillainy?). Regardless, if you liked the previous four seasons, it's more of the same, with a considerable raising of the stakes as we near the season finale. The DVD extras have the same problem as past releases, i.e. badly mixed commentary tracks on key episodes at times drowned out by the main track. It also contains guest cast interviews and comedy "webisodes" featuring the Duke's bartender.

Friends have been telling me to watch The IT Crowd for a while now, and since 2014 was the Year I Discovered Chris O'Dowd, I jumped on the chance to get the DVDs during a Christmas sale. I was surprised, given the elements involved, to find it was a traditional sitcom with a laugh track and everything, but still got into the characters and situations in Season 1's six episodes. It's a bit "sketch comedy" in places, with some winking at the camera, but they let go of that in the next season (I'm cheating, I've watched a couple of episodes from Season 2, we'll talk about it next week). I'm into it. It's got a good blend of slapstick, sitcom misunderstandings, and uncompromising nerd/tech humor, along with thoroughly likable stars. The DVD's 8-bit menus are worth watching cycle all the way through, but AFTER you've seen the episodes, or else you won't get the jokes. The disc also features some good deleted scenes, a hilarious making of spoof, L33t subtitles, and a short film called "Hello Friend" by IT Crowd creator Graham Linehan about a computer system that ruins your life (it sits somewhere between IT Crowd and the Paranoia RPG; worth it).

It's been sitting on my shelf for a while, and was also next in my I-MUST-Check-Movies 2015 list, so I finally saw Pan's Labyrinth. I don't know why I waited so long, because I generally like Guillermo del Toro's work quite a bit (and his commentary tracks are excellent and insightful, no different on this release). It LOOKS like it's going to be only a hop and skip away from the Chronicles of Narnia, but the film is much, much darker than that. If you don't know it (and I always feel silly giving even a brief synopsis of films on this list, because the whole point is that I'm the only cinephile alive who hasn't seen them), it's about a young girl who hides from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War by entering a fantasy world. That's how people describe it, but it's a little misleading. Ofelia's world intersects the real world, but what motivates her is the possibility of entering it fully and permanently. It's a world that is mirrored in the real events of her life as well, intricately designed by del Toro, in the tradition of many Latin American writers' magical realism. This isn't a puzzle movie that forces you to decide whether magic is real or it's all in Ofelia's imagination, because both realities are true. To ask the question is to miss the point. Powerful, well shot and acted, surprising, thematically coherent... del Toro has yet to equal or better this masterwork. The DVD includes poster art in addition to the aforementioned director's commentary.

For John Carpenter's birthday, we watched They Live, a strange little science fiction film in which a down on his luck construction worker (Roddy "Rod" Piper of all people) sees his world fall apart when he discovers the world is run by the 1%, and that 1% is alien. Mayhem ensues. It starts off slow, and you might think of giving up during the first act. The unfolding mystery seems padded by Roddy's long walks through slums, but this is all part of the point. Once he has his epiphany and the ability to see the truth, he becomes a violent 80s action hero, that violence tempered by Carpenter's wry sense of humor. If you were a bystander in this story, it would be a dark and upsetting tragedy. In Roddy's head like we are, it becomes an absurdist comedy, though one with a very real message about the proverbial opiate of the masses. By the time you reach the improvised 9-minute fight, you'll have completely forgotten that dull-ish first act. This thing's even more relevant today than when it was made at the tail end of the Reagan era - discover it!

Audios: Doctor Who can do any genre, but one genre that's not easy to do is superheroes. There have been moments, usually to do with the Land of Fiction, but the 9th Doctor chapter of Big Finish/AudioGo's Destiny of the Doctor, Night of the Whisper by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright, manages it without that. In the futuristic New Vegas, a vigilante has been created to give the crime bosses a bloody nose, but it's all gone wrong. It's a good and complex tale, worth listening more than once, though I must admit I was disappointed at first. You see, though it features the 9th Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack, none of these were on hand to narrate the story. That they had to go to Big Finish's Nicholas Briggs instead kind of breaks the series' format. After a while, I wasn't thinking of that though, because Briggs IS an able voice actor (even when he's not doing the Daleks, which I must hasten to add are not in this story) and manages to get Eccleston and Piper's inflections right a good portion of the time. Still, the 50th Anniversary didn't have much for 9th Doctor fans, did it?

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Olivier '48


Madeley said...

Out of interest, when watching non-French and non-English films, do you use the French subtitles?

Siskoid said...

No, I use English subs. French subs aren't always available, for one thing, but English is faster to read (a more compact syntax) and I generally have fewer issues with the translations (especially when it comes to slang).

Hey, I've got to use my English degree SOMEhow, right?

Anonymous said...

I've heard one criticism of "Selma" and that is that it doesn't portray President Johnson (LBJ) as genuinely committed to the cause of equal rights.


As for how the film portrays Lyndon B. Johnson: There’s one egregious and outrageous portrayal that is the worst kind of creative license because it suggests the very opposite of the truth, in this case, that the president was behind J. Edgar Hoover’s sending the “sex tape” to Coretta King. Some of our most scrupulous historians have denounced that one. And even if you want to think of Lyndon B. Johnson as vile enough to want to do that, he was way too smart to hand Hoover the means of blackmailing him.

Then, casting the president as opposed to the Selma march, which the film does, is an exaggeration and misleading. He was concerned that coming less than a year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there was little political will in Congress to deal with voting rights. As he said to Martin Luther King Jr., “You’re an activist; I’m a politician,” and politicians read the tide of events better than most of us read the hands on our watch. The president knew he needed public sentiment to gather momentum before he could introduce and quickly pass a voting rights bill. So he asked King to give him more time to bring Southern “moderates” and the rest of the country over to the cause, but once King made the case that blacks had waited too long for too little, Johnson told him: “Then go out there and make it possible for me to do the right thing.”

To my knowledge he never suggested Selma as the venue for a march but he’s on record as urging King to do something to arouse the sleeping white conscience, and when violence met the marchers on that bridge, he knew the moment had come: He told me to alert the speechwriters to get ready and within days he made his own famous “We Shall Overcome” address that transformed the political environment. Here the film is very disappointing. The director has a limpid president speaking in the Senate chamber to a normal number of senators as if it were a “ho hum” event. In fact, he made that speech where State of the Union addresses are delivered – in a packed House of Representatives. I was standing very near him, off to his right, and he was more emotionally and bodily into that speech than I had seen him in months. The nation was electrified. Watching on television, Martin Luther King Jr. wept. This is the moment when the film blows the possibility for true drama — of history happening right before our eyes.

So it’s a powerful but flawed film. Go see it, though – it’s good to be reminded of a time when courage on the street is met by a moral response from power.

Siskoid said...

Thanks for the link and copypaste.

Films are not historical documents or documentaries, and they are necessarily products of the "passionate eye". For simplicity's sake, thematic coherence, and production/budget concerns (which I bet is the reason they couldn't do Congress), things are changed.

I don't think LBJ comes off badly at all. It felt all very true to life - speaking from experience here - and his reasons for not being able to act are the same reasons given around the world at every level of power. King created the conditions that made it possible for LBJ to do the right thing, but it doesn't mean he was forced into it. To say LBJ is somehow a villain in the film is wrong, and perhaps Moyers is a little too close to the subject.

He has it right when he says that the film is worth seeing regardless of its historical accuracy. Works of art are "true" in a way that is different from the way historical documents are true.

Michael May said...

Good news about Selma. Thanks for the review! Makes me look even more forward to it.


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