Friday 11 February 2011

Film: Stranger Than Fiction (2006); Outcasts (BBC TV)

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.
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.


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I loved Stranger Than Fiction but I watch most of Will Ferrell's movies. Haven't seen Outcasts yet but may have to check it out. I wanted to comment on the BBC and their programming. I used to not be a fan of BBC stuff, however, that all changed with Merlin which in my opinion, is one of the best shows out there. Now I watch just about anything BBC that the SyFy channel picks up here in the states. I think the Brits have a superior handle on quality science fiction and fantasy than just about anyone else right now.

M Pax said...

I liked Stranger than Fiction, too. I watch all Will Ferrell movies, too. Will be on the look out for Outcasts.

Anthony G Williams said...

Nice to hear that SF programmes crossing the Atlantic isn't all one-way traffic!