This Week in Geek (29/12/14-04/01/15)


Stuff I got in at the turn of the year -DVDs: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Highlander, IT Crowd Season 2, Mad Men Season 7 Part 1. Gaming products: Trivial Pursuit Doctor Who Edition, Fate Worlds vol.1 Worlds on Fire.


At the movies: The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing, inventor of the computer, his role in winning the war for the Allies by breaking the German Enigma machine's cypher, and his struggles with Asperger's and being gay in that era. Benedict Cumberbatch somehow avoids being Sherlock, and the script is surprisingly funny, especially in the first act. Unlike The Theory of Everything, another science-related Oscar-baiting movie to come out this month, there was actually quite a lot of maths in it, and it's the better for it. Telling the story in three time frames creates a more complete picture and adds a tragic element. It loses me a little bit at the end, however, getting a bit cheesy when it hammers its point home two times too many, through Kiera Knightley's last scene and the over-obvious "what happened later" cards. Oh, and historical purists/pedants beware, there's a chapter missing from this for simplicity's sake.

DVDs: In Season 2, Orphan Black takes it central characters and gives them their separate storylines - I was going to say the cast was divided, but of course, most of it is played by the same person, a fact I seem to keep forgetting when I watch it (that's a good thing). It makes for a somewhat unfocused season, but certainly not one that rests on its laurels. There are more and more elements going after the clones, more clones to be discovered (though Tatiana Maslany has probably hit a wall, she can't really play a male), and villains being jettisoned perhaps a little too readily. Sheesh! One character that's really come his own is Donnie, so the Allison thread was my favorite for more than one reason (but yeah, a bit of comedy in an otherwise heavy show). Nice set-up for Season 3; bring it on. The DVD includes a couple of deleted scenes and a featurette on one of the better doubling effects.

Sapphire and Steel: The Complete Series collects all 6 "assignments" of the UK's favorite time element duo (and occasional friends) on 5 discs. You'll find my reviews of each episode daily December of 2014, as I discovered them. Such is the mystery and ambiguity built up by each installment that these reviews have me theorizing and changing my mind about things with every chapter. If I'd seen them before, I'd obviously have written them up differently. So if you want to read someone struggling with the material, letting himself be misled by red herrings or vague clues, basically trying to guess at what's happening with no foreknowledge, check them out. The DVD does not have any extras, which is too bad, though it means the stories will retain their mystery.

31 indie SF films in 31 days, the final countdown, only four left... Sound of My Voice is the OTHER film Brit Marling co-wrote and starred in in 2011 (along with Another Earth, which is the movie that inspired me to run this marathon), and it's even more mysterious. The plot is simple enough, and seems inspired by Marling and director Zal Batmanglij's joining an anarchist group when they were younger. A journalist and his girlfriend infiltrate a cult led by a woman (Marling) who claims to be from the near future, here to prepare them for the hardships ahead. It's a fascinating look at a cult recruiting techniques with a cool SF twist. You spend the whole movie wondering if she's for real or a fraud (as the protagonists do), and only after it's all over do you realize there was something else going on. Because what are those creepy scenes with the little girl Marling wants to meet. What about all the FBI agent stuff? The movie doesn't explain, only presents. It's up to you, usually on second viewing, to put the pieces together. There's a Terminator-type plot lurking behind the scenes. And yet, despite the abrupt ending, it works without you noticing any of that.

Lars von Trier's Melancholia is more accessible than his Antichrist, let me start by saying that, but the director's signature is so strong, you can't help but see both films as part of the same sequence. It hsa the same super-slick slow-motion opening, followed by documentary-style cinema vérité in a chaptered structure, which is quite distinctive. Melancholia is about depression and anxiety, and is true to both conditions, even though its central metaphor is a fanciful one: a planet about to crash into the Earth. For Kirsten Dunst's depressed character, it's an echo of how she blows up her own life due to her mental illness and is welcomed as a symbol of her own self-destructiveness. For her sister played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, it is the weight of her fears pressing down on her and paralyzing her. In both cases, they are met with a certain repulsion from the people in their lives, the very people who nevertheless want to support them, which is really true to life. It's bleak, it's true, it's art. I was entranced for 130 minutes.

Radio Free Albemuth is NOT, as I first understood it, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel VALIS. It's actually an adaptation of a later story which also uses the VALIS idea of beings from the stars talking to certain people on Earth, and guiding them towards a more enlightened society. I've seen a number of Dick books adapted for the screen, and some have been great, like Blade Runner, but none have been at all faithful to those books, merely taking the premise and crafting an entirely different story around them. Well, maybe A Scanner Darkly. And now this. It's Dickian to the point of being anti-cinematic. It's sci-fi with philosophical and existentialist stakes, has the sort of wooden dialog Dick has been accused of, and throws perhaps too much into its script, including an only slightly alternate history. There's meta-text as well, just like in the original story: one character plays Dick himself, and serves as a nice tribute to one of sci-fi's most interesting authors. If it left me a little cold, it's because it has such a 90s TV movie look. Not only is it lacking in style, but none of the TV actors in it are given showcase scenes. They're there. They say their lines. And we move on. I wasn't expecting much from Alanis Morissette, but Radio Free has poached actors from high end TV like Boardwalk Empire, so should be able to do more with them. One that will likely grow on me when I do a Philip K. Dick marathon or something. The DVD has a very good commentary track from the director.

The last flick on my list was the obligatory found footage movie of the lot: Europa Report. This faux-documentary chronicles an astronaut mission to Jupiter's moon Europa finally declassifying the footage from its onboard cameras. It's ground in part covered by Space Odyssey: Voyage To The Planets, the solar system documentary in the style of Walking with Dinosaurs, but has its own plot, more thrills and danger, and thrillery twists. Yes, there's a science-fiction element at the end of the journey, but it could have been just a procedural about a long voyage to the outer planets and I'd have been just as happy. I'm a big fan of real space stories like Apollo 13 and From the Earth to the Moon, you see, and its better fictional cousins like Gravity. Europa Report aquits itself very well, and it knows it has a relationship to 2001: A Space Odyssey (where astronauts made a similar journey), and plays with that subtly and gratifyingly. Much better than most found footage films.

So after 31 indie SF films ended, I was left without a definite movie-watching goal (except, y'know, clearing my damn unwatched DVD shelf), and immediately vowed to watch all the films everyone's seen but me, as per iCheckMovies' list of "most favorited", which accounts for about a fifth of the top 250. Trying for at least one a week in 2015, in order if at all possible. First up - The Godfather. I'd never seen much past the famous horse's head scene due to - and the irony isn't lost on me - family issues I won't go into. Another problem is that while I may ultimately like Francis Ford Coppola's movies, I always like them IN SPITE of his rambling. Man's never killed one of his darlings in his life (at least not permanently, see Apocalypse Now Redux). That's not to say there's extra fluff in The Godfather per se, but it's still got its longueurs. But that's to be expected, partly because Coppola (and his friend Scorsese too, in the same era) basically invented the modern gangster movie, so things he sets up here to create this world have become tedious by virtue of my seeing dozens of gangster films made since. I still agree it's a masterpiece, and I especially love its ironies. The climax, with Al Pacino's character renouncing Satan and his works while people die by his orders is the high point. Historically, it chronicles a change in the crime families from "respectable" community leaders to ruthless businessmen (drugs, the move to Vegas), and yes, I'm very intrigued by the second film which is also somewhere on my I-MUST-CheckMovies list. But is it, as its fans contend, the best film of all time? No, because I don't think there is such a thing. There's your favorite film, where objective artistic qualities intersect with the subject matter you're most passionate about. It has strong performances, smart writing, surprising violence, and innovative camera and sound work. Recommended, if you haven't seen it, and no need too oversell it you have.

Second in line - WALL-E. I've just missed a ton of animated pictures. I don't run to the theater to see these, and never get them on DVD. Always likeable, but not something I normally consider watching more than once. And it's not like I'm forced to - I don't have any kids! This Pixar starts out very strong, on a postapocalyptic Earth where a small robot is compacting trash, seemingly forever. It's melancholy and full of every day wonder, and all done mostly as a silent film. It allows me to think the film will end on a bittersweet note, if not an outright downer, which almost happens and would have been a spectacular surprise, if not exactly good for the intended audience (but then, a lot of kid-oriented things in my youth were sad). In that context, the runaround on the humans' spaceship undoes a lot of the magic and becomes a typical animated flick, with lots of running around, gags, making friends easily to suddenly boost the cast, comedy humans, and nasty villains (I did appreciate the 2001 references though). The shorts also included on the DVD include Presto, a very fun cross between Looney Tunes and Portal, and BURN-E, the story of robot from the ship which intersects more than we thought with WALL-E's own; it's cute, but insubstantial.

Audios: Shockwave by James Swallow is Destiny of the Doctor's 7th and Ace story, and a very good showcase for the latter. Sophie Aldred also narrates, and she's good at it. The story concerns a spaceship escaping the stellar shockwave with refugees from its home planet, including a cult who believes getting destroyed by the shockwave means rapture and ascension to another plane of existence. Obviously, they're going to try and prevent the ship from escaping. The Doctor has his engineering bits to do, but we're mostly with Ace and it's her humanity that will best deal with the problem. One cultist is a girl her age, after all. And throughout, electronic music that evokes the show in that particular era of the program, but not so much as to be annoying. One of the better entries in this Anniversary series from Big Finish and AudioGo.

Gaming: I have this thing about not wanting to review a video game until I've completely flipped it. That's why I never got a review out of Lego Marvel (the flying challenges are beyond me) or Star Wars Lego (I'm just not interested in the franchise enough to grind to 100%). Lego Lord of the Rings, though, was just the right length and difficulty level. 100%, and all achievements unlock. Bam! It's a nice sandbox that features every location seen in the extended cut of the film trilogy (and beyond! Tom Bombadil and Radagast are playable, though it's not the Sylvester McCoy version of the latter, obviously), with the original music (I confess, it's the reason I started playing it), and cut scenes using the original voice tracks, but with visual gags thrown in. It's a fun take on Middle-Earth, especially if you like the Lego game play as I do, and with a few extra wrinkles, like having to forge Mithril items, and getting to play the whole Fellowship in some levels, sometimes as a group, sometimes in two parallel dimensions. You even get to play Isildur fighting a giant Sauron in the prologue! My own regret: There's apparently no way to keep mounts for Free Play use. That would make walking up and down the countryside much faster when you're looking for mini-challenges and Mithril bricks.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Branagh '96


Eric TF Bat said...

"William Turin"? Is that your typo, or did they change Alan Turing's name in the story for some reason?

Siskoid said...


Or maybe it's all about Alan's cousin William, who wasn't very good at math and struggles with long division for the length of a movie.

Oh William. Why can't you be more like your cousin Alan?

Jeremy Patrick said...

"First up - The Godfather. I'd never seen much past the famous horse's head scene due to - and the irony isn't lost on me - family issues I won't go into."

You realize the only possible conclusion a reader can draw from this is that one of your family members is actually a mob kingpin and cut off the head of your favourite horse to send you a message?

Don't try to deny it. We won't believe you.

Siskoid said...

I can only respond with Omerta.


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