DVDs: With Syriana, writer/director Stephen Gaghan tried to do for Big Oil what his script for Traffic did for drugs, i.e. use multiple story strands to tell a Big Picture story. It's not quite as successful as that earlier film though. The best strand by far is the Matt Damon/Alexander Siddig story about the son of an Emir who wants to do the right thing for his region, if the world will only let him. George Clooney's washed-out CIA operative holds our interest, but the film takes too long to make all the pieces fit, and the strand about corporate malfeasance, while it has some good lines, feels way too technical. This film needs the audience to focus, which isn't a bad thing, but I fear the picture being painted is too complex and often plays as a documentary before they put the voice-over on it. The DVD includes some deleted scenes, and a relatively short making of with good interviews with both cast and crew.
The Diggle/Jock version of The Losers failed to capture my imagination, so I didn't read beyond the first trade, but I AM a big fan of the Kirby original (I would go see THAT movie in a heartbeat). The "new" Losers movie was... a fun entertainment! Though it didn't feature Captain Storm, etc., it still felt like a Losers story, with each victory actually turning into a defeat. I see the Internet thought it was an A-Team rip-off, but I've never really been an A-Team kind of guy, so that comparison is lost on me. The Losers has some fun action, stylish "Hong Kong" style tricks, and perhaps most importantly, strong acting from the cast (many of which are becoming veterans of genre films). If there's a weak spot, it's the over-the-top villain. In movies like this, participants sometimes go too far to make the villain irredeemably evil, to the point of cartoonishness. This is such a time. The DVD has only one featurette, on how Zoë Saldana did on a "boy's picture". Slim, but pleasant, like the movie.
Staying on an action vibe, I watched Robert Rodriguez' Machete. The fake trailer for this thing was heralded as the best thing about the Grindhouse project, and Rodriguez was happy to oblige us and his man-crush Danny Trejo with a full-length picture in the Grindhouse style. Now here's a film where over-the-top is required, and we get it in spades. Ridiculously violent and filled with exploitation flick clichés (it's a Mexican Shaft, really), Machete still manages to be inventive, crazy and a whole lot of fun. And if you need some convincing, here's a list of a few actors in this thing: Steven Seagal, Robert DeNiro, Jessica Alba, Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan and Don Johnson. I'm sure there's someone you'd like to see in that hodgepodge. The DVD has little in the way of extras: Interesting deleted scenes mostly featuring Jessica Alba's twin cut from the final picture, and an audience reaction track, which I skipped because if I'd wanted to see movies with loud crowds, I'd go see them in a theater... in New York or something.
Challenge of the Masters (1976) features Gordon Liu as Wong Fei-Hung only in name (and musical cues). What he actually plays is a young man who learns Kung Fu from a master in order to avenge his uncle's death. Director Lau Kar Leung plays the villain and in this film refrains from injecting his trademark comedy. One thing Lau Kar Leung always has in his films, however, is a real love of martial arts. His movies are ABOUT martial art traditions and ethics. Liu's character not only learns some awesome staff moves, but also about respect for his fellow man and the evolution of his own spirit, making a fairly bloodless revenge story. There's also a plot about rival schools vying for dominance at a pao competition (sticks are shot into the air and participants must fight to retrieve them), a traditional game I knew nothing about, but that Lau Kar Leung is happy to teach me about. The DVD includes a 2008 interview with Chen Kuan Tai who plays the Master.
I think I've discussed Doctor Who Series 5 enough on this blog (just click the Doctor Who tag below and scroll back), so let's just talk about the DVD boxed set's extras. A third of the episodes has an "in-vision" commentary track, and they're all good enough, though the Moffat ones are obviously of more interest. However, I have to ask: Does anyone like in-vision? I find no redeeming value in seeing people talking while looking at a screen. It's not even always obvious who is speaking, the inset screen sometimes hides a detail they're talking about, and to make matters worse, I can't access proper episode subtitles while in-vision is on. The set also has video diaries, which are a mixed bad. Tennant was such an articulate actor on the subject of Doctor Who, you kind of miss him in these flightier efforts by Smith, Gillan and Darvill. There are outtakes, but taken more from Doctor Who Confidential than the show itself. Speaking of Confidential, each episode of the making of series has been cut down to under 15 minutes, and looks at the show from different angles, from actors to special effects to locations to writers, giving us (as in with past sets) a good cross-section of how the show is made over the course of 13 episodes. A few monsters get their own featurettes, also edited from full Confidentials. The most surprising features are a couple of "Meanwhile in the TARDIS" scenes, new material exclusive to the DVDs that take place in between episodes. It's a cool idea, but the scenes are fluff. Amy gets stuff explained to her, and it has a certain charm, but you could take them or leave them. Overall, the return of commentaries (missing from the last couple releases) is welcome, even in the silly in-vision format, making this the best New Who set in a while.
Audios: Nocturne is a 7th Doctor, Ace and Hex audio from Big Finish that takes the TARDIS to a planet where art is thriving during an intergalactic war. I won't give too much away by saying that art... can be deadly. Dan Abnett writes a good story, making this artist enclave believable, and creating some fairly memorable moments (such as the Doctor's low-tech trap). The principals are well written, especially the younger characters, though the Doctor gets stuck in a "arrest him/how do we know we can trust you?" scenario, which makes you long for the psychic paper. The CD also finds room for interviews with the guest cast, something that's on the next release as well. I like these. Why SHOULDN'T audios have extras?
Renaissance of the Daleks marks a change in the packaging of Doctor Who audios, with a slightly less cut-and-pastey look to the covers, part of the changes instituted (in 2007) by new line producer Nicholas Briggs (which you know as the voice of the Daleks). Are the interviews included as extras also part of his vision? If so, I like what I'm hearing (and no spoilers even for those included at the end of CD 1). Renaissance is a Dalek tale "from a story by" former Doctor Who script editor Chris Bidmead, a credit resulting from his taking his name off the project apparently because he felt the edits changed his story too much. And still, his fingerprints are all over this, including Logopolis-like scientific/mathematical concepts that could just as well have been technobabble for all the audience can understand of it. The story, featuring the 5th Doctor and Nyssa, deals with Daleks dropping out of history and trying to return in a more victorious role. It's not bad, but there are perhaps too many guest-stars boarding the TARDIS and an confusing ending that takes the air out of the various intriguing concepts in the first chapters.
Books: If you watch Castle and would be interested in reading his Nikki Heat novels, there are two on the market right now (ghost-written, of course). I just finished Heat Wave, which would have been written after the first season, and in fact, we see Beckett reading it as a guilty pleasure over the course Season 2. I'm no expert on detective fiction as I can't say I've read very many mysteries since I was a youth and devoured Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie, but Heat Wave is very close to what you'd expect Castle novelizations to be like. Except for the names and a few details (and the odd sex scene or PG curse word), this is Castle. Nikki Heat (Kate Beckett) is followed by Rook (Castle), a journalist (novelist) doing research for an article (book). Even the supporting players are there under different names. I won't say it's the most tightly written piece of prose I've ever read, but it does read like something the tv character would write, amusing and easy to follow despite the large cast of suspects. A solid entertainment and a great idea for a tie-in with a tv show. (On a side-note, I'm totally rocking my New Year's resolution to read a book at least every 2 weeks.)
Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
II.ii. Brevity - Classics Illustrated
II.ii. Brevity - French Rock Opera