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.

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

New reviews – ‘The House Bunny’ and ‘Transsiberian’

The House Bunny (dir: Fred Wolf)

“Aren’t we just the luckiest girls in the world?”

Shelley (Anna Faris) is an orphan living out her idea of a fairy tale – living in the Playboy Mansion and being the closest thing to a legal version of a professional courtesan, or at least the American frat-boy redefinition of a geisha. When she’s booted from the Mansion after her 27th birthday (that’s 59 in Bunny years, you know) with little more than a form letter, she finds a new career, shaping minds and bodies of the social misfits of a sorority of nerds and outcasts on the verge of losing their charter and their house (the latter to a snooty sorority of vicious social-climbers).

I review the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

Behind each of the frumpy outcasts of Zeta House is a hot chick just waiting to reveal her cleavage to drunken college guys. Bubbly blond airhead Shelley (Faris) is just the girl to show these sorority sisters (spunky square-peg Emma Stone, rebellious Kat Dennings) how to party, flirt and strut their stuff.

“I’m not a prostitute,” the big-hearted, benevolent Shelley squeals at one point, though the film treats the mansion girls as little more than hookers on retainer. That’s apparently fine with Playboy, whose brand is all over the PG-13 movie, right down to an appearance by Hugh Hefner himself.

Anna Faris is so funny in the lead (a part she helped develop for herself – Faris is also a producer on the film) that she helps distract from the vacuum of creativity in the script and the messed-up message behind what should be your basic nerd empowerment movie for the girls. Director Fred Wolf builds the whole thing around Faris, which is great when she’s on screen but doesn’t leave much for the co-stars. Emma Stone (from Superbad) is earnestly intent as the socially-clueless smart girl and Kat Dennings (soon to be seen in Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist) is all attitude as the surly goth rebel, but neither of them have any material to work with, and (nothing against them) they haven’t the magic to spin gold from straw that Faris somehow possesses. It’s Faris’ film in every way and she’s great. I wish the film was half as good as she was.

Read the complete review here.

"The House Bunny" - Dedicated to releasing the hot chick behind every sorority misfit
"The House Bunny" - dedicated to releasing the hot chick behind every misfit sorority sister

Transsiberian (dir: Brad Anderson)

The romance of the railway journey isn’t the fist thing you think of as you chug through the endless snow-covered wilderness of Siberia in this thriller. The rattling no-frills train is no Orient Express but a relic from the old Soviet days. This outfit’s idea of entertainment is a close-circuit music track that floods American easy listing hits of the seventies into every cabin, and our Americans passenger can’t find the off switch.

That’s the least of their worries in this The Lady Vanishes for the 21st century, with drugs in place of espionage intelligence and Russian mobsters in place of Nazis. Even the innocents abroad feel contemporary: generous modern day missionary Roy (Woody Harrelson, all aw-shucks sincerity) and his wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer), ostensibly saved from her wild past by Roy’s warm support and idealistic outlook and now focused on her photography, but you wonder if she’s just hiding her impulses behind her lens.

Their cabin mates in the sleeper car aren’t quite so benevolent: attractively dangerous Spaniard Carlos (Eduardo Noriega, who sets off alarm bells by his very presence) is making moves on Jessie, and just may have gotten Roy out of the way to clear his path. The look in the eyes of his young American traveling companion (Kate Mara) says “beware.” Jessie should pay more attention to her. Especially when Soviet narcotics cop Ben Kingsley, fresh from the scene of a murdered drug smuggler, shows up on their train and immediately ingratiates himself with the Americans.

Woody Harrelson loves a good train journey
Woody Harrelson loves a good train journey

I review the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

Anderson, who co-wrote as well as directed, makes effective use of the locations — the unending landscape of snow-covered forests is both handsome and unnervingly isolated — and plays with expectations by tossing in ambiguities and suspicious twists. While it keeps the audience off balance and complicates the motivations, the plotting often feels arbitrary and lazy, just a way to slow things for the brewing character drama and Jessie’s struggle with her reckless impulses.

Transsiberian feels like one of those international thrillers that Cannon Films kept pumping out through the ’80s, with a story tailored to opportunities (Siberia! Train!) and a multinational cast to seal foreign sales. Like the best of those films, it’s a little sloppy and full of convenient coincidences, but at its best roils with edgy character tensions. And Anderson’s stripped-down direction becomes unexpectedly unforgiving when he finally lets the throttle out for the inevitable collision.

Read the complete review here.

Hamlet 2 (dir: Andrew Fleming)

“Hamlet 2?”

“The deuce. That’s right.”

Steve Coogan is failed actor turned failed high school drama coach Dana Marschz in the erratic but often hilarious comedy from director Andrew Fleming and writer Pam Brady (of South Park and Team America fame). When you get the obvious stuff out of the way – a terribly untalented drama coach faces a class full of kids who are stuck there because their first (and second and third and fourth) choices were all shut down – the film is a parody of all of the inspirational teacher movies. Dana wants to be that teacher, at least as defined by glossy Hollywood movies like Dangerous Minds. It’s also the story of an untalented man who wants nothing more than to be an artist. And what’s worse is that, in his moments of clarity, he knows that he has no talent. But that doesn’t stop him from creating.

It’s a slow start and the humor, mostly based on audience discomfort over the awkwardness of its main character, is more conceptually than practically funny. But Steve Coogan make much of it work. He reaches back to his fictional “Alan Partridge” persona and then builds on it, creating a seriously nerdy figure whose tastes in art and cues for drama are utterly banal.

I interview Steve Coogan about Hamlet 2 and other films here.

Interview – Steve Coogan

Steve Coogan blew through Seattle to promote his latest film, Hamlet 2, in early August. I had the pleasure of talking to him not just about that film, but his work with Michael Winterbottom and his television creations for the BBC. A small portion of that found its way to “A Moment With… Steve Coogan” on the Seattle P-I.

On his screen persona:

I think there’s going to be a common denominator in a lot of the comic characters I play. I always gravitate towards characters that are inadequate and lacking self-consciousness.

On how Dana is different from his other screen characters:

Dana’s more of an innocent who is also quite emotionally open. He wears his heart on his sleeve. But there is another big difference: The Dana character believes in art and creativity. He believes that he can genuinely make these people’s lives better through his efforts. There’s a certain moral compass to the world of Dana Marschz that I think doesn’t really exist for Alan Partridge.

On his busy schedule of acting and writing and creating TV shows:

It’s the only thing I’m really very good at — it’s what I do — and I like it and I try not to be complacent about it because there’s still a kind of paranoia that I might be one day unemployed, so I’d better keep working and keep busy. I don’t know what else to do. I stare into the abyss unless I’m working.

I also talked to him about what he’s been watching on DVD for MSN’s “What’s in You DVD Player?” series:

Steve Coogan in "Hamlet 2"
Steve Coogan in "Hamlet 2"

What’s in your DVD player?

I have a kid so I watched Monsters, Inc., and I saw Harold and Maude, the Hal Ashby movie that I showed to a pal the other night. I saw a Henry Fonda film called The Wrong Man, which is a Hitchcock film, and a movie called Once, an Irish movie, an independent movie. I’ve seen it twice now and I’m kind of in love with it.

I take it that a lot of your film watching is on DVD.

Yeah, I do. I have one of those pay-per-view things with like 500 movies you can choose from and I still find myself thinking, “There’s nothing here I want to watch.”

There aren’t a lot of classics on those channels, and you seem to like the classics.

I sometimes like to watch an old movie through the perspective of the present to see the attitudes and perceived values of its time. I like to educate myself with what’s been out there. A lot of people, especially people in the industry, are surprisingly ignorant of their film history, which they ought not to be if they’re in this industry. It’s like doing homework, a very enjoyable homework.

But the lion’s share of the interview can be found at Parallax View:

You made two films with Michael Winterbottom, 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy. There had to be a lot of challenges on those two films, where there were so many levels of engagement with the character, and then stepping back and commenting on the portrayals.

With Michael Winterbottom, in those films, there’s a very simple thing I do that I don’t do in other films and other work I do. In other films I do, especially comic films, there’s a lot of control and craft involved in what I’m doing, whereas in those movies with Michael, I trust him enough to, if you like, let go of the controls and see what happens. And I’m never quite sure what I’m doing and that’s quite liberating because I can trust him. So I just sort of forget about almost everything and go with whichever way the wind blows and whichever way he pushes me and just dive in and don’t think about it too much. It’s just an organic, instinctive thing, there’s not much of an intellectual process going on for me in those movies. When I’m talking to the camera, I’m just talking to someone about what’s happening to me. I don’t over think it, I trust him. It’s a very different way of working.

In addition, you write and produce so many of your own projects for television. Do the Winterbottom projects give you a chance to stretch yourself in other ways?

It does. It allows me to because I don’t have the responsibility for what I’m doing, which is quite liberating, as long as you trust the person you’re working with and trusting them to be responsible. It enables me to do things I wouldn’t normally do because it’s a way not, even though I’m proud of working with Michael, it’s not my voice, it’s not my vision, it’s his and I’m just there to facilitate that and to help render that, which is nice, whereas when I’m doing my own stuff it is my point of view, it’s from me.

Read the complete interview here.