This Week in Geek (5-11/01/15)


This week I got IT Crowd Season 3 on DVD, and the Forbidden Island cooperative board game. Maybe we should beat Castle Panic at least once before I branch out though.


DVDs: When I was a teenager, everyone talked about Highlander. I saw on TV once and only once, and didn't really give it my full attention, so I just nodded along at the pop culture references when someone in my D&D group would make them (and after all, it did spawn more films and a couple of TV series). Almost 30 years later, I finally watch it again, as if for the first time, and in my subsequent research, discover public opinion of it has gone from cult favorite to disliked piece of dreck in the interim. Well - and I can say this without the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia - I'm going to defend it. Okay sure, it's got 80s affectations, like an action star who uses accented English and minimal acting skills, and dated clothes, hair and special effects. The B-movie clichés, like sometimes lame sword fighting choreography (Clancy Brown can't fake it) and the gratuitous sex scene, are less forgivable. But I can't agree with those who say the direction is terrible; it was the best thing about the film. On that score, it felt like Russell Mulcahy was drinking from the same water many Hong Kong directors were. It had cool transitions - especially when flashing back to MacLeod's history - and hid its choreography problems relatively well with atmosphere, surprising camera shots, and expressionism. Of course, the stuff even detractors DO like - the Queen soundtrack, the premise of Immortals fighting across history - is still great. It doesn't mean I'm going to run out and find the sequels and TV series - there can be only one - but the original is a fun, watchable product of its time that nevertheless has some modern style to it.

Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine got Cate Blanchett a Golden Globe and an Oscar, and it's obvious why. She's a powerhouse in this drama about a socialite who lost everything when her husband was sent to jail, including her mind, and is desperate to become her own person or else sublimate herself into another rich husband's ambitions. She crashes at her adopted sister's apartment - she's played by Sally Hawkins - a woman just as fixated on finding a man, though much more ready to settle so she can give her kids some security. This sets up a struggle between fantasy and reality, fueled by the lies the characters tell themselves and others, and a growing cognitive dissonance that threatens to push Jasmine once again over the edge (if, indeed, she ever truly walked away from it). It's Allen's best film since Midnight in Paris, though that's like comparing apples and oranges. Blue Jasmine has more truth and staying power than that. The DVD uses red carpet interviews and a press conference with some of the stars, clocking in at a fair length, to recount the making of the film.

Mike Nichols' Closer is a powerful character study based on the Patrick Marber play, a vicious romantic quadrangle that asks questions about whether it's crueler to lie or to tell the truth. (Well, it's far less cruel to NOT commit adultery, but these characters do.) Marber's heightened language is crisp and always interesting, and the film shocks the viewer into attention by crash-cutting through vast swathes of time without warning. Once a relationship starts, we might as well skip to its end. And it is more about endings than beginnings, in that sense. By the end, the characters (all very well drawn and acted, each at once morally repellant and sympathetic and relatable) are released from their obsessions by a surprising catalyst. No surprise, Nichols knows how to direct top-notch actors and structure a complex web of correspondences so the resolution is pitch perfect. The DVD's only extra is the featured song's music video.

On our weekly movie night, my roomie showed OSS 117: Le Caire - Nid d'espions (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies), a 2006 French 007 spoof starring The Artist himself, Jean Dujardin. Set in the mid-50s, it is really successful at achieving the look of a Sean Connery Bond film. It's got some laughs, though that rather depends on your appreciation of French comedy. I'm a native French speaker and I can't claim to always get it; we don't have the same cultural referents in Canada. But playing on classic Bond tics and movie-making techniques of yesteryear will work for everyone, and Dujardin is excellent at physical comedy. What will likely make you uneasy is the amount of "colonial" humor on display. OSS 177 is boorishly French and entirely mindlessly dismissive of Islam (since the film takes place in Egypt when it was throwing off the shackles of European imperialism). The movie goes out of its way to show HE'S the idiot, but after the events of this last week, it's hard to laugh at the casual racism of a character who's nevertheless meant to be sympathetic. Regardless, an amusing spy spoof, a lot more subtle than, say, Austin Powers or Naked Gun. There's a sequel and I'd be game to watch it to see Dujardin's silly-but-cool Connery again.

Now on to the I-MUST-CheckMovies projects - my resolution to watch the 52 most-favorited films on iCheckMovies that have somehow passed me by. First up, The Prestige, which is, I think, the only Christopher Nolan film I hadn't seen. Dueling Edwardian magicians (Wolverine vs. Batman), Nicola Tesla, based on a Christopher Priest novel... Should be awesome, right? I thought it was only okay. If you're paying attention, Nolan basically tells you from the outset how the film will be structured, which means you shouldn't trust anything you see, which means it's all much more predictable than it pretends to be. I won't claim I guess everything, but I at least knew what NOT to trust, so the closing revelations weren't particularly shocking. I did like the focus on stage craft and magical tradition, but the sci-fi element that probably worked in Priest's book, doesn't in the context of the film. It feels out of place. So while I can see why someone would watch it twice, the second with solutions in hand, I'm not sure a third viewing would be warranted. It's a little too obvious for that.

#4 on my list was Up, another Pixar I missed because I'm not really into animated films and I don't have kids who play these things on a loop. Up has a great opening, a touching mini-film that could essentially have stood on its own. While there are some funny and heartfelt moments after this prologue, the film never quite fulfills that promise. It just goes a little gonzo for me once the house/air balloon reaches foreign climes and turns into a Road Runner cartoon with pulp villains, talking dogs, and so forth. If the adventure had somehow been revealed to be in the old man's imagination (even ambiguously), it would all have worked better, but that's not the case. I don't have a problem with an arthritic old man restored to action hero agility by the spirit of adventure however - it IS a cartoon! The gags are funny, there are some surprisingly dark moments, and the theme of finding adventure in everyday life is well-rendered. But yeah, it's a bit "anything goes" in the second act. The DVD includes a couple of fun shorts: Partly Cloudy is a funny and charming Loony Tunes-ish stork story, and the dog's origin story is an amusing fluff piece.

At #5 is Requiem for a Dream - leading me into a pretty heavy portion of my MUST-Watch list - a surprising cultural omission since I've seen and own most other Darren Aronofsky films (I now see I've also missed The Fountain). All I knew about it is that it had a monstrous fridge. So a lot more hyper and frenetic than Aronofsky's direction in later films, though it has the same expressionistic aesthetic. We follow four characters as their drug addictions spiral out of control and destroy their lives. Unusually, there's an older lady in the group, hooked on diet pills  (which is why the fridge made the news), a story we rarely see unless made into a remedial TV movie of the week. Aronofsky uses lots of clever camera and editing tricks to get us in the characters' heads and track each descent into hell, and I love the sound design that replaces score with the sound of an orchestra tuning its instruments, as if they're always on the cusp of achieving their relatively simple ambitions, or else falling off the edge of the world. It all ends in a shocking crescendo you won't be eager to watch again until you've digested it. Strong stuff.

Audios: I also listened to Alan Barnes' Enemy Aliens, the 8th Doctor chapter in Big Finish/AudioGo's Destiny of the Doctor series. Going on a clue from the 11th Doctor, Doc8 and Charlie investigate an Edwardian mentalist act that's a cover for an alien invasion. But alien in what sense? India Fisher reprises her role as Charlotte Pollard and acts as narrator, and she's got a great voice for it. I was kind of sick of her as a companion by the time she left the 8th Doctor, subsequent appearances in other context have been excellent, and I found that's I'd missed the old dynamic after all. Though Charlie isn't meant to be the narrator, Barnes gives the story an Edwardian flair that sounds perfect coming from her, literate and evocative. The final revelations are just okay. I don't want to spoil anything, so I can't really discuss it, but I'd have preferred it if they'd gone the other way.


American Hawkman said...

Personally, I think that the Highlander tv series is the high point of the franchise, but it was the first of them I was exposed to. I really liked it, and recommend it today.

Siskoid said...

It can't have been too bad, it lasted like 7 seasons AND had spin-offs (Raven and such).

All I remember it for is being on Space a lot, Canada's answer to Syfy, because of mandated Canadian content on our cable channels. (It was made here.)

Anonymous said...

"Highlander" was always a film that was only as good as you wanted it to be. If you really, really wanted to see immortal swordsmen kick ass, you got that.

Clancy Brown behind the wheel of the car still makes me laugh. Seriously, there's some comic delivery on display there.

You may or may not know that the Kurgans were a real people (!) who are likely responsible for the spread of the Indo-European language family (!!).

LiamKav said...

"t can't have been too bad, it lasted like 7 seasons..."

Smallville lasted for 10 seasons.


Ten seasons.

Toby'c said...

And it was consistently pretty good, I would argue.

Maybe a better counterpoint would be Baywatch lasting for eleven seasons.


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