Author Topic: Film: Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and Outcasts (BBC TV)  (Read 3148 times)

Offline Tony Williams

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Film: Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and Outcasts (BBC TV)
« on: February 13, 2011, 01:07:49 pm »
I record any film on TV which I think looks as if it might be interesting, but when I watch them I reject most within a quarter of an hour of the start. I recently saw Stranger Than Fiction after deleting several films in a row, but this one hit the spot so I stayed with it to the end.

This comic fantasy, set in Chicago, has an unusual premise: the hero of the tale, IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) who lives a life of obsessive monotony , starts to hear a female voice in his head describing everything he is doing - or is about to do. He fears he is going mad, but is galvanised into action when the voice prophesies his imminent death. A psychiatrist can't help him so he turns to a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) who is intrigued that the voice appears to belong to an author who is writing a novel featuring Howard, but he can't identify her. He advises Howard that there is nothing to be done and that he had better enjoy life while he can, so Howard starts to fulfil childhood dreams and also plucks up the courage to approach the feisty baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) he has been investigating for failure to pay her taxes.

Meanwhile, the author (Emma Thompson), who lives in the same city, is suffering from writer's block and can't work out how best to kill off Howard to conclude her new novel, Death and Taxes. Howard recognises her voice in a TV interview and manages to track her down, leading to some unexpected twists and turns before the end.

This film held my attention and amused me throughout. It is a life-affirming story, well-acted by a high-quality cast and told with intelligence and wry humour. Highly recommended.
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Outcasts is a new BBC TV SF eight-part drama, of which I have so far seen the first two parts. The scenario is far enough into the future for humanity to have developed huge starships, one of which had managed to establish a settlement on the distant planet of Carpathia (named after the ship which rescued survivors of the Titanic disaster) some years before. The name is significant, as civilisation on Earth appears to be in its final throes, and the last starship is due to arrive.

All is not well on Carpathia, however, as the team of explorers who spend most of their time away from the settlement are planning a rebellion. The president (Liam Cunningham) aided by the head of security (Hermione Norris, who famously played a formidable MI5 agent in Spooks) try to hold the line while preparing for the arrival of the starship. All is not well with that either, as it has suffered some damage which threatens disaster if it tries to land on the planet, so it launches an escape pod to ensure that some survive. Just to complicate matters further, there is a band of renegade humans in the wild, rejected by the settlement years before.

The focus is on the human drama and the acting is reasonably good (Norris being the stand-out performer) although some of the dialogue still sounds rather stiff and awkward to me - a perennial screen-SF problem. However, the SF elements are weak so far, and even the big CGI effort of the starship is hopelessly unconvincing, simply because the plot requires this vast structure, with living space in two huge counter-rotating artifical gravity wheels, to try to land on the planet. Now you don't have to be an SF geek to realise that such a vessel cannot possibly enter a planet's atmosphere let alone make a landing, a fleet of shuttles being required for that task, but the programme makers don't seem to realise that.

Overall it's moderately promising so far and I'll keep watching; I'll return to it to make some final comments once I've seen the lot.

(An extract from my SFF blog)
Anthony G Williams homepage and SFF blog

Offline mightyjoeyoung

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Re: Film: Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and Outcasts (BBC TV)
« Reply #1 on: February 14, 2011, 07:15:28 am »
Stranger than Fiction has the unique distinction of being the only Will Ferrell film that I can watch without wanting to tear my eyeballs from my head while screaming hateful curses at the studios who employ him. This is a film so good that even he can't destroy it, and it would be worth watching for the plot alone. As for Maggie Gyllenhaal, I'd eat her muffin anytime.

Offline Tony Williams

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Re: Film: Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and Outcasts (BBC TV)
« Reply #2 on: March 18, 2011, 02:19:09 am »
This eight-part serial has now finished, so as promised I'll sum up. To refresh your memories, I'll include some of what I said after the first two episodes.

The scenario is far enough into the future for humanity to have developed huge starships, one of which had managed to establish a colony on the distant planet of Carpathia (named after the ship which rescued survivors of the Titanic disaster) some fifteen years before. The name is significant as civilisation on Earth is collapsing, and the last starship is due to arrive.

Almost all of the 70,000 humans are concentrated in one walled settlement, Forthaven. The president (Liam Cunningham) aided by the head of security (Hermione Norris, who famously played a formidable MI5 agent in Spooks) try to hold the line while preparing for the arrival of the starship. All is not well, as the ship has suffered some damage which threatens disaster if it tries to land on the planet, so it launches an escape pod to ensure that some survive.

All is not well on Carpathia, either, as the team of explorers who spend most of their time away from the settlement are planning a rebellion. Just to complicate matters further, there is a band of renegade artificial humans (advanced cultivars, or ACs) in the wild, rejected by the settlement years before, with whom there is intermittent but bitter conflict.

The focus is very much on the human drama and the acting is initially variable (Norris being the stand-out performer) with some of the dialogue sounding stiff and awkward; a perennial screen-SF problem. This seemed to get better as the serial progressed, or perhaps I just got used to it. Also developing through the serial was the role and relationship of two of the internal security officers, played by Daniel Mays and Amy Manson.

I was amused to note that the one clear villain - the former head of the evacuation programme (played by Eric Mabius), who arrives on the escape pod and immediately starts to worm his sly and manipulative way up Carpathia's hierarchy - is constantly criticised for bringing religion to the secular colony and cynically using this as his vehicle for building a power base. I suspect this might not go down too well in some markets…

The SF elements are initially weak, and by the half-way stage I was ready to dismiss it as a soap opera with a few unusual plot elements in a mildly exotic setting. It is a puzzle to work out what everyone does or how they live, as the town is surrounded by wasteland and hardly anyone ever goes outside the walls. The discovery of natural diamonds lying around to be picked up is acceptable, but the fact that they are mysteriously gem-cut rather than in the rough is not. However, the background music is worth a mention as it is one of the strong points. It reaches elegaic heights, powerfully reinforcing moments of high drama. Intriguingly, the more stacatto music used to accompany action scenes is very reminiscent of similar music in Spooks.

The second half of the serial contains a lot more science-fictional mystery, although it frequently doesn't seem to make sense.  First comes the discovery of fossils of early hominim remains, despite the fact that there is no other animal life on the planet - just plants and insects (I still don't understand that: hominims dying out, sure, but they would only have been the tip of an enormous pyramid of animal life - did that all die out? We are not told). This is accompanied by hints from one of the first men on the planet, who has been living rough in the wild, that the planet did not want humans there. Then people begin to report seeing loved ones they know to be dead, a convincing duplicate of one of the explorers appears (the fact that this duplicate is clearly solid, whereas others appear and disappear instantly, remains unexplained), a mysterious disease strikes and it becomes clear that the colony is facing a deadly but hidden threat. Meanwhile, a further and unsuspected starship secretly approaches Carpathia with malevolent intentions.

By the start of the final episode I was wondering how all of the plot threads, both human and alien, could possibly be resolved in just one hour. The answer is that they weren't; it ends on a huge multiple cliff-hanger, the point of maximum crisis for the whole story so far, evidently lining everything up for a second serial. This would be fine if a sequel was coming along soon, but the viewing figures were disappointing and the BBC announced immediately after the finale that the planned second serial had been cancelled. So, rather frustratingly, we will never know the answers to the many questions.

Why did it fail? I think it was too adult and slow-paced to appeal to the usual Doctor Who/Primeval band of TV SFF followers, while containing too many unexplained inconsistencies to satisfy more mature SF fans (a nit-picking lot, we are). And of course, few people who are not SF fans bother to watch any SF programmes unless they are so good that they transcend the usual genre prejudice barrier.

Outcasts is easy to poke holes in, but I found I had become strangely attached to it and will miss my weekly visits to Carpathia. Despite a slow start and the unexplained inconsistencies, it had managed to get its hooks into me.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

Anthony G Williams homepage and SFF blog

Offline Pigasus

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Re: Film: Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and Outcasts (BBC TV)
« Reply #3 on: March 18, 2011, 02:00:01 pm »
A lengthy review of Outcasts is now on The ZONE website...
http://www.zone-sf.com/screenscene/outcastv.html

Offline Tony Williams

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Re: Film: Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and Outcasts (BBC TV)
« Reply #4 on: March 18, 2011, 03:11:07 pm »
A lengthy review of Outcasts is now on The ZONE website...
http://www.zone-sf.com/screenscene/outcastv.html
Yep, I don't disagree with that.
Anthony G Williams homepage and SFF blog