Weekly Volcano Blogs: Walkie Talkie Blog

December 30, 2013 at 10:57am

Nerd Alert!: The finest nerdy projects of 2013

Sharlto Copley (District 9) stars in trippy sci-fi mystery "Europa Report" about a crew of international astronauts sent on a private mission to Jupiter’s fourth moon.

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Besties, this is Nerd Alert, the Weekly Volcano's recurring events calendar devoted to all things nerdy. I myself am a Star Wars fan, mathlete, and spelling bee champion of long standing, so trust me: I grok whereof I speak.

Welcome to the first week of January, aka the annual geek doldrums. Good movies came out at the end of December to qualify for Oscar nominations, leaving only a sad Paranormal Activity sequel debuting this week. With the nerd-neutral exception of Downton Abbey, TV season premieres don't begin till later this month. There are no geek events planned locally this week. There isn't even a new play opening (though I will be at the debut of Lakewood Playhouse's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Friday). I thought about filling this void by compiling a Best of 2013 list, but the truth is I haven't caught up on all last year had to offer. Instead, please allow me to rattle off the finest genre projects I have been able to take in over the last 12 months. That'll at least give you some quality entertainment to binge on through this cold winter hiatus.

No one ever accused Doctor Who of excessive consistency in tone, but when it's on its A game (usually meaning showrunner Steven Moffat, who also runs the excellent Sherlock, wrote the episode) it's as entertaining as anything on TV. I thoroughly enjoyed a cuddly telefilm about the origins of the series, An Adventure in Space and Time, and the massive episode it introduced, "The Day of the Doctor." All this was to set up the departure of 11th Doctor Matt Smith, in Christmas Day's poignant ep "The Time of the Doctor." Here's the good news: the BBC's rerunning the lot of it on New Year's Eve.

I can't pretend to be a fan of modern horror, thanks to its overreliance on shock effects and sadism. (Seven Saws plus two branded video games in a decade? No, thanks.) The Conjuring was a rare and welcome exception, however, thanks to great performances from Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor, plus a goosebumpy script by the Hayes brothers of Portland, Ore. It's available now on Netflix, including Netflix Streaming, and I dare you to watch it with the lights off.

Though it probably slipped under your radar, the "found-footage" sci-fi film Europa Report gets impressive mileage from a mere seven-digit budget. An international team of scientists is en route to an ecologically promising Jovian moon when its ship loses communication with the earth. What happens next will remind you less of Prometheus and more of 2010: The Year We Make Contact. The action and settings feel unusually plausible, and it's a fun change of pace from less cerebral efforts. (Oh, Pacific Rim ... where should I even begin?) Europa Report is also available on Netflix Streaming.

While Gravity fudges near-terrestrial orbital mechanics for maximum impact, it also boasts a fine performance by Sandra Bullock, plus what I think we can all agree are the most dazzling visual effects of the year, maybe ever. Sadly, Alfonso Cuarón's epic two-hander vacated Tacoma and Olympia cineplexes, but it arrives on Blu-ray, including a 3-D edition, Feb. 25, flush with what I expect will be a raft of Oscar noms.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is, however, in area theaters. If you passed on it because you found its predecessor lacking in the thrills department, now's a good time to reconsider. Every conceivable aspect of this installment is better, thanks in large part to a change of director. It has visceral excitement, better effects, richer acting and a promising setup for Mockingjay, Parts 1 and 2. Between this and American Hustle, that lovely young Jennifer Lawrence is having quite an annus mirabilis.

I'm working my way slowly through critics' top 10 lists of 2013 novels, having just finished Meg Wolitzer's expansive The Interestings, but few include the book I found most un-put-down-able: Lexicon, by Australia's Max Barry. It's about an underground society in which so-called "poets" wield linguistic "persuasion" tricks to manipulate the masses, for crusades both kind and abominable. It's a riveting thriller with a cerebral, satirical pulse, my favorite since Ready Player One.

If you have Xfinity On Demand, you can binge-watch all 10 first-season episodes of the BBC's Orphan Black for free, and you totally should. It's amazingly good, y'all, especially the manifold performance of Tatiana Maslany. That she didn't receive an Emmy nomination casts that entire nominating process into serious doubt. Here's the setup: A young British woman named Sarah (Maslany) spots another woman, Beth (also Maslany), in a tube station, just before Beth leaps to her death in front of a train. Sarah then swaps identities with Beth to get herself and her daughter out of a jam. That's how she meets Katja (uh, Maslany) and Alison (holy crap, Maslany again), plus three more vivid characters - all played by, yep, Maslany. Defiance be damned, Orphan Black was far and away the smartest sci-fi telly of 2013.

That said, I sure enjoyed me some Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Season 5. Memories of embarrassing prequels faded thanks to killer episodes like "Point of No Return," culminating in a series-finale arc in which a young Padawan is wrongfully accused of mass murder. It's true Clone Wars was all over the tonal map, perhaps by necessity, but it sure made my DVR fun on Saturday mornings. All five seasons are available on DVD or Blu-ray, harder to find on legal streaming services.

The summer movie season was bracketed by two apocalyptic comedies, This Is the End and The World's End. Both were hysterically funny. Both are available on something called HitBliss Streaming, or for disc rental on Netflix. Neither, I promise you, is G-rated, but only the former includes Jonah Hill getting menaced by a priapic demon. So yeah. Good luck wiping that image from your brain.

This was an unexpectedly strong season of The Walking Dead, especially episode 3.8, "Made to Suffer." Oh! And I gather there was some sort of wedding on Game of Thrones? I don't subscribe to HBO, so my wife and I are eagerly awaiting the Blu-rays Feb. 18. Don't you dare spoil anything for us! Nothing warms our hearts more than a glorious wedding. Felicitations and mazel tov, you beautiful Stark kids!

Until next week, may the Force be with you, may the odds be ever in your favor, and vartix velkor mannik wissick, may you send me a stack of Regal gift cards courtesy of the Volcano head office.

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