Monday, November 18, 2013

How Many Doctors Do You Have?

There are two types of Doctor Who fans: those who have discovered the show when it appeared in PBS stations around the mid 1970s, and those who discovered him when he returned in 2005.

Thanks to YouTube, DVDs and BBC America,  those who say their first Doctor was Nine can discover who their favorite Time Lord was like long long ago. Remember, he was off the BBC for 16 years, not including Fox's attempt to revive him through Paul McGann and (unwisely) Eric Roberts as Master 3.0.

My first Doctor that I saw in the flesh was Jon Pertwee. He visited San Jose back in 1984. One thing I will always remember is seeing dozens of fans following him as he walked near the Hotel Saint Claire where the con took place.

Actually, KRON in San Francisco showed Doctor Who in the early 1970s, but it started with Pertwee's second episode when he encountered the Silurians. It would have been better if they showed "Spearhead from Space," which would have been a nice entry point for the uninitiated. Well, he didn't catch on until Tom Baker arrived, but Pertwee was a big hit in San Jose. Showing him a picture of the soon-to-be Sixth Doctor, then getting his reaction, was something I won't forget.

It was also back in the days when local fan clubs met to see bootleg copies of fresh episodes from the UK. A bunch met in a small room near San Jose's KTEH.  It was also where I saw my first Pertwee episode in more than ten years, "The Time Warrior". Ah, the popularity of circulating the tapes. I also helped out in a couple of Who-themed pledge drives for KVIE in the late 1980's.

Anyway, that led to the BBC and other groups bringing Doctor Who cast members, including Time Lords past and present, to the U-S and a a grateful public. It also led to a shrinking time gap of getting fresh shows. Thanks to those cons, I got the autographs of Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. They're all in the BBC's 20th anniversary book for the show. It also includes several companions, the Brigadier and the Master 2.0. If only I started taking pictures back then.

The book also has this postcard that was signed by McCoy. Using my status as a news director for a small radio station, I asked him if and when his unique sweater would be available. I actually got a response

Of course, thanks to the internet, people can sell such homemade versions of those sweaters, or even extra-long Tom Baker scarves. It can also lead to fans no longer having to wait until July to see the Christmas specials.

When I finally got to see a Time Lord in the flesh with David Tennant at Comic-Con four years ago, it was a fantastic feeling. I only wish I could have shaken his hand. Then again, it's not every day you get a taco served by Eleven a couple of years Comic-Con of course.

Since then, I have been lucky to get some autographs of companions including Elisabeth Sladen, Caroline John, Katy Manning, Wendy Padbury and Sophie Aldred (in the form of a first-day cover). I would love to get a 21st Century Doctor, but thanks to the internet (again) and big business, it's not as easy as it used to be. If I had steady paying work, I'd pay 100 bucks for Matt Smith or David Tennant's signature. That's unlikely right now, but I can always hope.

Still, I'm very satisfied and proud of my collection of Doctor Who autographs, plus some other relics of old-style Who fandom. It sets me apart from those who have recently discovered Doctor Who. I can say that I always knew him, even back when he had a mop of hair and a really long scarf. In a way, that was cooler than a bowtie and a fez---mostly.

An Odd Couple of AIDS Activists: Review of "Dallas Buyers Club"

Ron Woodruff is the definition of a Texas redneck. An electrician by trade, he lives hard and loves hard. He overdoses on women, drugs, booze and anything else.
In 1985, he finds out he is HIV positive, and has 30 days to live. He fights to have a little more time, and winds up being one of the most unlikely AIDS activists.

This is the story behind Dallas Buyers Club, which may also be an excellent example of two actors making major commitments to create the best performances.
First off, look at how Matthew McConaughey had to change his leading man look to be Woodruff:

He not only lost 50 pounds, but all the baggage from being in lame romcoms Kate Hudson and Sarah Jessica Parker. True, he's also done good work in recent movies like Killer Joe and Mud, but nothing like this.
When Woodruff gets the news, he does what most people do: deny it through any means necessary. When it finally dawns on him of what has happened, and maybe when it happened, he reads what he can about drugs like AZT, the first drug the FDA approved for treatment despite serious side effects. He also hears about alternative methods and drugs that haven't gotten FDA approval, or even noticed. To be clear, he's partially doing it to benefit others, but it's really because of himself and earning cash. McConaughey does a great job making sure that Woodruff is no saint, but still willing to provide treatment options aside from AZT. This includes impersonating a priest and a researcher to get "unapproved" drugs from China, Japan and Mexico.

The performance most people will talk about is Jared Leto as Reyon. He's on an AZT trial program, but sells part of his dosage to help someone else...and for the money. Soon he and Ron create a unique way to distribute alternative drugs and try to keep one step ahead of the FDA. Most people remember Leto from My So Called Life and his band, 30 Seconds to Mars:

Seeing him as Reyon will stun a lot of people. He is someone you don't forget.

It's safe to say Leto's return to acting will get a lot of applause, and lead to a few awards after the New Year.

Jennifer Garner is also good as Eve Saks, who helps run one of the AZT trials for a hospital in Dallas, but slowly realizes that Ron's unorthodox ways may have its merits.

One reviewer said in a podcast that the FDA's heavy-handed way to stop Ron was a bit far-fetched. Then again, this was during the days of the War on Drugs. The battle may have included anyone who made the FDA look bad, so how the FDA agent is portrayed made sense.

Dallas Buyers Club is not only a great story about how a real redneck made sure AIDS patients got care that would keep them alive, but it's also a fine showcase of two great actors.

As I said in my review of 12 Years A Slave, the battle for Best Actor at the Academy Awards will be an endurance race. While Robert Redford will be the sentimental favorite for All Is Lost, McConaughey and Chiwetel Ejiofor cannot and should not be ignored. That's why I'm hoping it will be a split vote right through the Oscars next March. As for Leto, it looks like he'll be the 2014 version of Anne Hathaway, although McConaughey may give him a run for his money for his performance in Mud.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Doctor Who's Past and Future Anniversaries

As Doctor Who's 50th anniversary gets closer, people are deciding whether to see "The Day of the Doctor" at home, at a pub, or in 3-D in selected theaters in the UK and America. Others are probably taking out their homemade DVDs or even old VHS cassettes, looking at really old Doctor Who episodes shown on PBS way back when. 

It's easy to forget that the BBC has honored the Doctor with big anniversary episodes in the 1970s and 80s. Never mind the dream matchup of David Tennant and Matt Smith, and their respective sonic screwdrivers, there was a time when three Doctors had to work together...and later four.

This is from "The Three Doctors", shown from late December 1972 to January 1973 in honor of the show's tenth anniversary. It was back in the days when stories lasted a month and were shown 30 minutes at a time.  An alien force kidnaps a scientist, while a black hole threatens the Doctor's home planet (which wasn't named Gallifrey until "The Time Warriror" a year later). It forces the Time Lords to have the Doctor get some unwelcome (he thinks) help from his second form. Between trying to explain this to Jo Grant and the rest of UNIT, and clashing personalities, they have to figure out who is responsible. The original Doctor was supposed to be in the TARDIS as well, but William Hartnell's health limited him to extended cameos in this story. Still, it's a hoot seeing Jon Pertwee as Three literally beside himself with his previous self, played by Patrick Troughton. It's also responsible for the classic line "You've redecorated, haven't you? Don't like it." It'll be said again next weekend, according to the trailer.

The Doctors and their friends find out they were kidnapped by Omega, who worked with Rassilon to develop time travel. Omega was thought to be dead, but he was alive, and demanding revenge upon his fellow Time Lords. This episode was important not only for having more than one Doctor, and getting a look at his planet, but it also freed him from his exile on Earth. The Time Lords admitted that having someone helping them out in the universe would be a good idea. Besides, the Master was still out there somewhere. 

Ten years later, the BBC made "The Five Doctors," a one-off story that also had what most would call an all-star cast.

Instead of all the Doctors working together from start to finish, they're kidnapped individually. First, the original Doctor (Richard Hurndall) is grabbed by something, then Two and Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, Three while driving Bessie, and then Five (Peter Davison) with Tegan and Turlough. It would have gotten Four, and to some people the real Doctor, but Tom Baker balked at the project. The special used clips from the unseen story Shada to "include" him. His decision also affected the story, although that works out in the end.

What makes this special is that we see someone who makes an unexpected return after 18 years...Susan, the Doctor's granddaughter played Carole Ann Ford. After escaping a Dalek, they're the first ones to figure out they're in Gallifrey. Sarah Jane Smith is also back, but she is paired with Three. The Master 2.0 (Anthony Ainley) is also involved, to rescue Five of all things. The Cybermen also show up, and a Yeti, apparently kidnapped as well. 

It winds up as a menacing version of The Wizard of Oz, as everyone has to approach a Tower, where it's revealed someone on Gallifrey wants immortality. 
We also get surprise appearanes by some of the Doctor's old aquaintances, like Liz Shaw, Jamie McCrimmon and Zoe Herriot. That may not mean much to those who discovered the show in 2005, but look them up. 

From what has been revealed, we know we'll get at least two Doctors in "The Day of the Doctor" on November 23rd. However, this webisode released by the BBC suggests two things: Eight (Paul McGann) should have had a longer run (thanks loads, Fox) ,and the final shot from "The Impossible Girl" didn't lie. 

By the way, the Doctor was on Karn. and it wasn't his idea. Stephen Moffat has more on the web prequel in this BBC blog.
If we got this, what else, or who else, will we get?

Amazon, of course, has The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors for sale, plus the time he was on Karn.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Happy 75th Birthday, Tower Theatre

This is the second time I attended a movie theater's anniversary. The other time was when the Crest in Sacramento celebrated its 60th birthday in 2009. It just had one special event and a birthday cake.

The Tower, however, went all out. It had three different shows for its 75th anniversary, replaced its usual movie posters with posters from the 30s and 40s, and featured a cake that looked like the building.

While I took a few photos, I decided to make a video of the event. It may not be fancy, but that's because I wanted to use my Kodak Zi8.

While it was a pretty good event, there was one drawback that is due to new technology. I had expected the theater to use real film to show cartoons and classic movies. However, like most theaters, it converted to digital projectors last year. It used DVDs to show cartoons, the Gary Cooper movie Sergeant York,  and a recreation of  the old way of showing a movie (namely a short subject, newsreel clips, a cartoon, trailers and the main feature, Algiers). Somehow, it wasn't the same. It was close enough, though.

It was a reminder of how the Tower has become an essential part of Sacramento's entertainment scene, even after 75 years. The Crest has abandoned showing movies every day thanks to cable TV and the multiplex down the street. It would be great if the Tower had "old-fashioned" movie nights every once in a while. At least the Crest's tradition of showing It's a Wonderful Life close to Christmas will be alive this year. It's one of those movies that just looks better on a movie screen, rather than a flat-screen TV.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Beautiful and Bleak: A Review of Nebraska

It's been a long time since we've heard from Bruce Dern. Although he was on HBO's Big Love recently, he's still remembered from his movies from the 1970's. This year, he made an impressive comeback by winning Best Actor at Cannes for a movie about an old man who thinks he's won a million dollars. The movie, Nebraska, has become a winner for Dern, but also for two other actors, Will Forte of SNL and June Squibb.

Although it won't be officially released until Friday, it was shown last week through the New York Film Critics Screening Special at a handful of theaters, including the Crest in Sacramento, and included interviews with Dern and director Alexander Payne.

The movie is short in black and white to show the bleakness and beauty of the setting of the three cities where the action takes place: Billings, Montana, where Woody is trying to walk to Nebraska to claim his prize, Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody's home town, and Lincoln, where he thinks his prize will be. Woody Grant is 77, an alcoholic who looks like he doesn't undertsnad what is happening.. He thinks he has a sweepstakes ticket worth a million dollars. He doesn't, but his son David (Forte) decides to take him to Lincoln to "claim" his prize. After having one too many at a stop in South Dakota, Woody cuts his head open. For the rest of the movie, he has a bandage on his head which shows him as damaged but not done yet. Another scene where he visits the farm where he grew up is also poignant. Here, he can remember what it was like. There's also a funny scene where he gives an interesting comment about Mount Rushmore.

Despite being best known for his comedy on Saturday Night Live, Forte is just great as Woody's son. Although he says he's on this road trip to humor his dad, he's also getting over a break-up with his live-in girlfriend. Maybe he'll get closer to his dad. He does, in unusual ways, like where David asks Woody why he got married.

When they get to Hawthorne, the town is also fooled into thinking Woody's a millionaire. Since it's one of the small towns that is slowly fading away, populated by mostly old people, it'll take any bit of good news. That includes Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), who expects Woody to give him a share of the prize that doesn't exist.

June Squibb is also great as Woody's wife Kate. When she arrives in Hawthorne, he gets a chance to reconnect with old friends. You also see why she loves Woody, dents and all. Seeing her visit a local cemetery is a hoot. (UPDATE: Enetertainment Weekly has that cemetery visit in a special video.)

This is a bleak and beautiful film about a part of the country that is slowly fading away, along with the people who live there. Woody is hoping that the "prize" will help him up for his failings, and that he can be a winner in the eyes of his family. It may remind some of The Descendants, which also includes a family trying to heal itself. Payne, of course, directed that movie, too.
Nebraska is a nice little gem to find among the upcoming wave of holiday movies over the next few weeks.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

12 Years A Slave: Solomon Chained

American history is filled with chapters that aren't easy to look at. That includes the years before the Civil War, where the nation had to deal with slavery and its treatment of African-Americans.

This chapter hasn't been seen too often: a free Black from New York state meets two men who promise him a job, but actually sell him to slavery. This was the story of Solomon Northup, who was 12 Years A Slave between 1841 and 1853, well before the Civil War and even the Dred Scott Decision. It's the basis of a fantastic drama starring Chiwetel Ejiofor. It's now in more than 400 screens a couple of months after its premiere at Telluride, and may get more later this month.

The movie begins with Northup as part of a gang of sugar cane harvesters. It seems to be a typical day of hard work and little food. Then we see him try to write something. We see he is not a typical slave. He was once a fiddler, a husband, and a father in Saratoga, New York in 1841. He is treated like anyone else. Then, he meets two men, Hamilton and Brown, who promise him a lucrative job in Washington. Instead, he wakes up in chains, and is told he's a runaway slave. He tries to identify himself, but without proof, he has lost his identity and even his name. The movie makes it clear that even a Free Black's status can be taken away by losing his papers, just because of his skin.

The movie, directed by Steve McQueen, doesn't pull any punches on how slaves were treated. Seeing some of the slaves whipped is a painful experience. Showing how they were sold, even nude, to people is even more shocking. When Paul Giamatti as Freeman presents slaves for sale, it's almost as if he's a used car salesman.

Northup, now called Platt, is sold to Shaw (Benedict Cumberbatch), who seems to be reasonable. However, Tibeats (Paul Dano) takes a disliking to Platt, mainly because he's smarter than Tibeats. Platt is later sold to Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is a cruel master, and sometimes has sex with Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), a field slave. How his wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) deals with this fact is even more disturbing. She doesn't like what Epps is doing, but she doesn't really stop him. In her mind, it's also Patsey's fault.

Through the years, Platt does what he can to survive and find a way to escape back north. As the years go by, that determination slowly breaks down. When he's with Shaw, he thinks his experience in building the Champlain Canal may make him a valuable part of the plantation. Tibeats does what he can to end that idea. In Epps' plantation, Platt is slowly broken down. Seeing his face in full despair is something you don't forget.

He does get some hope thanks to Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian carpenter. Even if Platt regains his true identity, he may still lose valuable things he'll never get back.

This movie has been touted as a possible favorite for Best Picture come Oscar time, but 12 Years A Slave isn't an easy movie to see. It is still worth watching. It shows a piece of American history that's not discussed very often, but should be to remind us how we've advanced.
Ejiofor is the best. His abilities as an actor has been getting a lot of notice from this movie and the Starz mini-series, Dancing on the Edge. Fans of the sci-fi movie Serenity, though, already know. Fassbender is chilling as Epps, who says he can do anything to his "property", even force Platt to do an unspeakable thing. Nyong'o is also great as Patsey, someone who has made some unpleasant decisions to survive. Cumberbatch is also good, showing that not all slaveowners were bad. At least he recognized Platt was not a typical slave.

It also shows the race for Best Actor might wind up as an endurance race. Ejiofor does through a lot of physical and emotional abuse in this movie. Tom Hanks battles pirates and their treatment in Captain Phillips. Matthew McConaughey loses a lot of weight to be an unlikely AIDS activist in Dallas Buyers Club, and Robert Redford battles disaster on the high seas alone in All Is Lost. It'll be one interesting awards season.