TV on DVD 11/17/09 – Far away to Farscape, on the road to Rome

The first trademark hit for the Sci Fi channel (long before they rebranded themselves SyFy), Farscape spanned four seasons (1999-2003) plus a mini-series to wrap the story that should have been the fifth and final season (fans were close to revolt when the Sci-Fi Channel abruptly cancelled their cult space opera). ADV, a home video label that otherwise specialized in Japanese anime and a smattering of live action Japanese genre cinema, has released the show in any number incarnations, constantly repackaging the episodes in larger and larger sets but never pulling it all together. Farscape: The Complete Series (A&E) finally does just that. If you missed the trip through the wormhole, here’s the gist of it: Ben Browder is John Crichton, an American astronaut flung to the far side of the galaxy through a wormhole and into a living ship filled with fugitives from a Fascist authoritarian force ironically named Peacekeepers.

Farscape, circa Season Two
Farscape, circa Season Two

There’s the usual panoply of exotic aliens, marbled worlds, and spacescapes that look ripped from the cover of Amazing Stories, but Farscape was more than space opera and pulp adventure. There’s huge cultural gap between the crew of six motley fugitives who band together to survive, all with their own (often clashing) agendas, and they are desperate: in one episode in the first season, DNA Mad Scientist, they’re offered a way home in exchange for a sample of their DNA and one of Pilot’s arms. They hack the appendage off with mercenary efficiency and then turn on each other. The crew is filled out by former peacekeeper soldier Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), the blue-skinned plant woman and priestess Zhaan (Virginia Hey), lion-maned, hot-tempered warrior Anthony Simcoe (D’Argo), overthrown emperor Rygel (a furry, self-involved Muppet), the giant mantis-like Pilot (another impressive Muppet, this one a huge creature whose scale we only discover in the above-mentioned episode DNA Mad Scientist) and, joining late in the first season, wild-child Chiana (Gigi Edgley). That’s right around the time that Scorpius, the ash white half-breed alien with an SS streak in him and the best villain on sci-fi TV of the past 20 years, starts his obsessive hunt for Crichton and the wormhole technology that is hidden somewhere in his brain, and their wanted status makes them a target any time they try to land. As you can guess, the totalitarian worlds and mercenary survivors they meet are a far cry from the Federation friendly universe of Star Trek and the dark art direction and wild, often grotesque creatures (courtesy of Jim Henson studios) made this the most imaginative and unpredictable science fiction show on TV in its pre-Battlestar Galactica day.

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DVDs for 1/13/09 – ‘The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV’

Louis XIV makes a spectacle of himself

In the final act of his storied career, Roberto Rossellini turned from the cinema to television and from contemporary stories to historical pieces. Criterion releases four productions from Rosselini’s cycle of historical films this week. Blaise Pascal, The Age of the Medici and Cartesius, all from the seventies, are collected in Rossellini’s History Films Trilogy –Renaissance and Enlightenment, a box set under the Eclipse imprint, Criterion’s budget-minded offshoot. (My copy arrived too late to review for this piece.) The 1966 The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV, Rossellini’s first film in this cycle, comes out as a Criterion proper release, with supplements and a booklet. Part history lesson and part political treatise, it is a strange and fascinating film with exacting attention to sets and dress and realities of the period. In the view of many critics and Rossellini scholars, it is the greatest of his history films and one the director’s masterpieces

Rossellini directs less like a drama than a pageant, with a largely non-professional cast arranged like figures in a painting from the era, right down to the formal poses and the full-shot framing. The sets, the props, the costumes are splendid and lavish but never distracting – they are part of his recreation of the world. The unemotional readings and unflustered reactions of his star, a non-actor named Jean-Marie Patte, is transformed by Rossellini into a confidence and a calculation behind the pageantry. It’s remarkably effective once he inhabits the center of the Versailles court, walking through the role without betraying an emotion, all part of the act. The dialogue serves not as revelations of character and motivation but as explanation and exposition, a series of history lessons that are startlingly clear and direct.

I review the DVD at Parallax View and in my DVD column at MSN here.

In the TV section of the column this week are a couple of British shows: Skins: Volume 1 is a raucous and exceptionally colorful British series about a group of high school teens in Bristol, England, and Saxondale: Complete Seasons 1&2 is another distinctive creation by actor/writer Steve Coogan. Skins opens with an episode that spotlights the most reckless and irresponsible behavior of these schoolkids. It’s an attention grabber, to be sure, leading off with sex, drugs, nudity (but only by the adults), bad behavior, and language that you can only hear on pay cable stateside. But as the series develops it dials down the shock value to delve farther in to the lives of the kids and their often fractured home lives and screwed-up authority figures. Bad judgment is not limited to just the kids here; they have merely made an art of it. In Saxondale, Coogan’s Tommy Saxondale is a retired rock band roadie and one-time counter-culture creature, well into middle age and trying to hold on to his ideals while getting by in suburbia. Pudgy, gray and often to be found behind the wheel of his beloved Ford Mustang Mach 1, Tommy is not a genius but every once in a while the wisdom of his years comes through.

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