NOT OPTIONAL takes a quick weekly look at some essential releases, some recent, some not.
Vernon Chatman is half the brains behind the insanely wonderful Wonder Showzen as well as an important behind-the-scenes player on both South Park and Louie. (In other words, he’s someone whose weird impulses are worth paying attention to.) A few years ago, Chatman released Final Flesh, in which he sent ridiculous scripts to porn-film companies that would then film them. Mindsploitation, his new book, does something similar, though less horrifying: Chatman attempts to see what kinds of crazy requests the companies that write college papers for desperate students can handle. The answer is that they will essentially write anything, and badly, to make a sale. Mindsploitation gathers the back and forth between Chatman and these companies; he gives them “assignments” like writing a paper on the death of his grandmother, which they dutifully write—even making up the facts surrounding her death, and generally in very broken English. It’s absolutely absurd, like a series of written crank calls in which you’re never entirely sure who’s getting the joke. (Most of these companies clearly aren’t.) When Chatman gets into multiple revisions, things get even more crazy, funny, and painfully real. [Josh Modell]
In the years leading up to Fez’s release in 2012, most previews focused on the game’s ingenious way of twisting the familiar 2-D run-and-jump template around a 3-D spindle. And indeed, this is a very cool sleight-of-hand. With the push of a button, you can rotate the whole landscape 90 degrees and get a whole new perspective on things. But after Fez came out, players realized that it’s much more than a space-bending parlor trick. The floating islands of this tranquil, glittering world hold secrets, and those secrets lead to even more profound secrets. It became de rigueur last year to play Fez with a notebook close at hand, filling its pages with little maps and hieroglyphs. That’s Fez’s best trick: It looks like a game that’s going to test your lizard-brain reflexes and ends up testing your higher-level thinking. Fez was originally exclusive to the Xbox 360, but this week a PC version was released, at a price of 10 bucks. [John Teti]
The Bletchley Circle
Thanks to Hulu and other streaming sites, Americans now have far greater access to interesting TV from England and other parts of the world. Somehow, this has only exacerbated a strange prejudice of mine: If a British dramatic series, especially a period genre show, turns up on PBS unattached to the marquee of one of its umbrella titles, like Masterpiece or Mystery!, I tend to assume that the network programmers found it mixed in with the Styrofoam peanuts at the bottom of the latest package of Downton Abbey. Anyone who feels the same way, and who missed Sonia Saraiya’s rave review of the first episode, may need to catch up with The Bletchley Circle, a terrific three-part miniseries that wraps up this Sunday. Set in 1952, it stars Anna Maxwell Martin, Rachael Stirling, Julie Graham, and Sophie Rundle as four women who worked as codebreakers during World War II. That experience has left them too wide-eyed and awake to the possibilities inside themselves to put up with domestic boredom and male condescension, and they reunite to use their skills to catch a serial killer who’s too smart for the local police. It’s a murder-mystery that feels like a spy thriller, with a sly feminist edge. [Phil Dyess-Nugent]
Warner Archive Instant
For fans of films and television series that have fallen out of print or into obscurity, Warner Archive is a well-known commodity that’s taken more than a few dollars from many of us. But sometimes, no matter how fascinating you might find a particular title, you just don’t have the disposable cash to plunk down on a DVD that you might end up only watching once. That’s undoubtedly why Warner has decided to prey on the more financially sensible members of its fan base by starting a new service: Warner Archive Instant. Before you get your hopes up too high and start envisioning the hours you’ll be able to spend watching all those films and series you never got around to buying on DVD, be forewarned that, like most video-streaming sites, Warner Archive Instant doesn’t offer the opportunity to view everything they’ve made available on disc. If you’re like me, though, and you’ve had a Warner Archive wish list that’s done nothing but get longer and longer over the years, there’s plenty on there to make it worth $9.99 per month. For instance, so far I’ve been able to watch the campy goodness of Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze, revisit Russell Mulcahy’s Razorback (an unheralded ’80s classic), and right now I’m just deciding which to watch first: Carl Weathers’ lone outing as action hero Hurricane Smith, or Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly in Three The Hard Way. Tough call, that one. [Will Harris]