Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reign of the Supermen #406: Son of Superman

Source: Son of Superman GN (1999)
Type: ElseworldsIn this Howard Chaykin, David Tischman, J.H. Williams III, Mike Gray effort, we're transported some 20 years into the DCU's future (as seen from 1999). Superman's been gone, presumed dead, for 15 years. LexCorp has bought out the U.S. government. The rights and freedoms of the 99% have been curtailed. And the Justice League has been co-opted by the State. Except for Wonder Woman, the Justice Leaguers haven't aged well at all. But then, all the women in this HAVE. Lois Lane is a saucy blond-dyed milf writing screenplays for blockbuster films (let's just say she's reached the top 1%), and Lana looks good too. She and Pete Ross are running an Occupy the DCU movement, adopting Superman's insignia and calling themselves "the Supermen".
Amazonium armor (guess who's secretly financing them?) helps them commit what the Lex-controlled media calls "terrorist acts".

Enter Jon Kent, Lois' son. He never knew his father Clark, and now in his teens, he lacks direction. That all changes when a solar flare event activates latent Kryptonian powers (think Superman in the days when he could just leap over tall buildings). His mom would rather he didn't, but by gum, he's gonna be a superhero. Suddenly, he's lifting cars and kissing girls and getting consideration from the JLA. Instead of the big leagues, he winds up following the Supermen to a secret facility in Arizona, where he finds and liberates...
...his father!

But that's a Superman for another time. See you next week for the thrilling conclusion!

Doctor Who #39: A Change of Identity

"It's a pity you're surrounded by such fools."
TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 3 of The Reign of Terror. First aired Aug.22 1964.

IN THIS ONE... Barbara and Susan are liberated by rebels and Ian escapes the Conciergerie, so they're not there when the Doctor shows up disguised as a regional officer to bust them all out.

REVIEW: What I like about The Reign of Terror is how subversive it is. In the midst of the French Revolution, it has its own little revolts, subverting audience expectations. Historicals have thus far been rather ennobling of the era represented, a heightened, even Shakespearean reality. Not this version of France, though. As the Doctor walks into Paris, he wrinkles his nose at how it stinks (much like Barbara did at the jailer's breath in the previous episode), old women run around coughing loudly, and you half expect the contents of some chamberpot to come splashing down on him. It's an earthy, smelly version of history. But it's still not a realistic one. Melodrama and comedy jostle with the very real threat of public execution. It's a fiction. But writer Dennis Spooner subverts that element too. We're naturally expecting the Doctor to bust his friends out of prison, but by the time he gets there, they've already escaped!

The plot leaves some things to be desired, however. For example, it strains credulity that a tailor shop would have badges of office the Doctor can use to fool the authorities. They're just asking for impostors. Ian also seems to delay his escape upon seeing the girls taken to the guillotine. While the piece of business with they key is well worked out (and I like how Ian's presence was kept strong despite the actor being on holiday), it still means the girls are probably dead by the time he gets out. You would have thought he'd have taken more of a risk in that situation. Then there's the traitor among the rebels, who pretty much has to be Léon because there's no one else. I could be wrong, of course, but from this episode's point of view, there's no mystery to the mystery. And of course, there's the matter of Susan being more than useless in this episode. What's wrong with her? (See Theories.)

What I can forgive is the melodramatic coincidence of how Barbara and Susan are rescued by the same people who got Rouvray and D'Argenson (from episode 1) out to that cottage. Somehow, it's like something out of Victor Hugo (an author I dislike, but still relevant to the period). Speaking of plot twists, there's also Lemaitre who seems to predict the jailer will end up jailed (will he?) and his letting Ian escape so he can lead him to the mysterious Sterling. It's hard to care about this subplot because it's unfolding so slowly, but events to date have shown that it's all connected. It's the Doctor who gets all the best scenes though, as he talks circles around the shopkeeper and the jailer, although the former isn't really fooled as we find out in the cliffhanger. It's also the first time the Doctor uses forged papers, but we're still very far away from psychic paper.

THEORIES: It's not really addressed, but following The Sensorites as this story does, we have to wonder if there isn't a connection between the Sensorite telepathic field and Susan's constant headaches. Might her brain have been damaged by the telepathic activity? Or might she even be in withdrawal? (Of course her illness can just be the result of having been thrown into a drafty 18th-century jail, but she's uncharacteristically irritable very early on, and "Theories" is all about over-analyzing stuff.)

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - There are too many plot holes to wholeheartedly recommend this episode, but it has amusing scenes and a diverting structure.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Kung Fu Fridays in January 2012

New year, new month, new poster... Meet Jim Kelly AKA Black Belt Jones. On tap next month for my KFF Krew, films from four different countries...

Black Belt Jones (United States) - There's an important - if not necessarily "good" - part of Blaxploitation films that taps into the Kung Fu phenomenon, and Black Belt Jones is surely its purest manifestation. We last saw Jim Kelly in Enter the Dragon, but here he's the star and probably won't wind up on a meat hook.

Flying Guillotine (Hong Kong) - AKA Master of the Flying Guillotine AKA One-Armed Boxer 2 AKA The One Armed Boxer vs. the Flying Guillotine, this was a major inspiration for the Crazy 88s battle in Kill Bill, and it's finally out, fully restored and in the original Cantonese from Dragon Dynasty. About time.

A Better Tomorrow (South Korea) - While I'm waiting to get a good DVD version of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow (1986), we'll watch the Korean remake he produced in 2010. It's probably awesome anyway.

Norwegian Ninja (Norway) - Can Norway produce a proper martial arts film? The film's pedigree sounds insane. It stars Arne Treholt, who in 1985 was convicted of high treason and espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union and Iraq, as the leader of a ninja group saving Norway during the Cold War. It was written and directed by first-time director Thomas Cappelen Malling, author of "Ninja Technique II: Invisibility in combat 1978". How to achieve cult status in 3 seconds flat.

So that's how we're gonna warm the winter months. Secret handshakes will get you in for free.

Doctor Who #38: Guests of Madame Guillotine

"I suppose you think you're very clever." "Well, without any undue modesty, yes!"TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 2 of The Reign of Terror. First aired Aug.15 1964.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor is saved from the fires and heads for Paris, stopping on the way to forcibly join a work detail. In Paris, Barbara, Susan and Ian are jailed. Ian gets a strange mission, the girls get the guillotine.

REVIEW: We're kind of in a holding pattern with this one. While not without incident, three quarters of the cast spends its time in jail, while the other takes a long walk to Paris. If Ian (on film - it's William Russell's turn to go on holiday, if you're tracking this) hadn't gotten a strange mission from a dying cellmate and the Doctor been saved by the boy from the previous episode (Jean-Pierre), you could miss the episode and wouldn't even be the wiser. And yet, there's much to love in the character moments and direction by Henric Hirsh. The latter features some fun transitions, from Barbara trying to dig her way out of her cell to the Doctor digging as part of a forced work detail, for example. Or there's the stock footage of the guillotine at the start, reminding us that unspeakable violence is happening off screen, and linking all the way to Barbara and Susan's unseen fate in the cliffhanger.

Barbara is strong in this episode, refusing to give up even when Susan turns to pessimism. I'm pretty sure she'd have managed an escape too if it weren't for those darned rats. Is the Doctor's absence and possible death behind the girl's hopelessness? Or is this more of Susan's wish to stop traveling? An earlier prison scene has Barbara becoming the object of the jailer's lust, which earns him a hard slap, and her the worst cell in the block. It's played for laughs, of course, with Barbara rolling her eyes, but there's still a certain menace in the air. It's like the production can't quite go as dark as the historical era would have it. Ian, in a cell across the way, accepts the mission given him by a dying man, to find one James Sterling and see him safely to England. In this subplot, the only one that advances the story, really, we also meet Lemaitre, a mysterious rebel buster who obviously has the power to remove Ian's name from the execution list. More to come, I'm sure.

And then there's the Doctor, leisurely moving towards Paris in fields and country roads (the show's first location shooting, albeit with a stand-in). It's a long trek, and instead of telling us, Hirsh shows us. For example by revealing the stone the Doctor was resting on was actually a 5 km marker. Not unlike Barbara, the Doctor has an encounter that's at once threatening and humorous, in his case, with a greedy taskmaster driving a work party of tax evaders to exhaustion. His arrogance gets him drafted, but his cleverness gets him out again. The interplay between him and the "overseer" is good stuff regardless of their power dynamic, and though a little shocking, the fact the Doctor hits him on the head with a shovel is pretty funny. He's not hurt. He's snoring as the Doctor puts the coin the man coveted on his eye. So here again, harsh realities smoothed over with comedy. Those contrasts successfully, I think, make the episode ebb and flow between suspense and relief.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Good character moments, but almost plotless. Hopefully, the story will soon go somewhere without sacrificing any of its characterization and humor.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Old 52: Atari Force

If you haven't read it, it's new to you. Every month I try to supplement the New 52 with a series from the Old 52. Series I've never read, but have always meant to.When it was new: Atari Force was published by DC Comics for 20 consecutive issues between 1984 and 1985, with a Special in 1986. The first 13 issues were written by Gerry Conway, with art mostly supplied by José Luis Garcia Lopez, with Mike Barron and Eduardo Barreto taking over after that.

Premise: By the year 2028, humanity has resettled on New Earth, somewhere in the wide multiverse. Atari Force tells the story of a group of human and alien outsiders who face incredible odds to destroy a threat to all existence, while their own people are after them for stealing the ship Scanner-1.

Insert cartridge: I have no doubt that Atari Force's uncollected status is due to the long-lapsed licensing agreement with Atari, relegating this book to publishing limbo like Rom Spaceknight and the Micronauts. Not that is has very much to do with Atari aside from the name, the logo, and the fact the forgettable first volume of the comic came out in specific Atari 2600 cartridges (the whole story is retold in volume 2 as flashbacks, no worries). It's too bad, because its 20 issues represent a complete story with art by a handful of comic book rock stars.

Somehow, Conway and Barron have managed to craft a space opera with characters that have powers, abilities and code names (or at least a cool Will Magnus pipe) that would fit superheroes, without turning it into a superhero book. It's pretty obvious the focus was originally going to be the strained relationship between space explorer Martin Champion and his multiverse-powered son Chris, until the sexy mercenary Dart and her tragic love story with the one-eyed Blackjak pulled much of the attention. Which is awesome because Dart is a kickass female character. Joining them on the mission to find and stop the Cthulhoid-made-flesh Dark Destroyer are: Morphea, the charmingly sympathetic empath; Babe, a baby mountain (at least, that's what these aliens eventually become); Pakrat, a rat-like thief and frequent comic relief; the pet-like Hukka; and late-comer Taz, whose secret will surprise the reader. It's a full generation after the events of the first series, and the first year's arc ends on an epic note, after which Mike Barron takes over as writer, dealing with the aftermath and more resolutions. The series has a definite ending, albeit an open-ended one if you care to let your imagination run away with it. The 1986 special is somewhat disappointing, but it keeps the integrity of that ending by taking place at different points before it. There's an origin story for Dart, a Hukka comedy piece, and a lackluster story where the whole Force appears.

But as competent as this series is, it wouldn't be anywhere near as good without its unusually strong sense of design. Lopez's work is simply wonderful, full of innovative page layouts, dynamic action and detail. When he takes a breather for issues 4 and 5, he still inks over Ross Andru's more traditional pencils. Barreto definitely follows the style Lopez brought to the Atari universe, and when the book started doing comedic back-ups with some of its goofier stars, editor Andy Helfer brought in the big guns: Keith Giffen and Marshall Rogers on the Hukka (not simultaneously), Klaus Janson on Babe, Mike Chen on Pakrat, and Ed Hannigan on Taz. The unsung hero of Atari Force, however, is letterer Bob Lappan, who integrates sound effects into the art and creates more than a dozen alien languages and accents on the fly. Without him, the book would simply not have worked as it does, as evidenced by the Special, where his absence is deeply felt.

Trade in for one of the New52? Oh, for sure. I'd happily do away with something like Red Lanterns (trading aliens for aliens) to read such beautiful work.

Doctor Who #37: A Land of Fear

"If we are to escape from France, we must have faith! If all people are incapable of our trust, we shall take the Terror with us!"TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 1 of The Reign of Terror, a story that should come out on DVD in 2012. Episodes 4 and 5 are missing - though a dozen short clips do exist - and will be animated for the DVD release. In the meantime, the extant episodes are available from Internet sources such as Dailymotion. First aired Aug.8 1964.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS lands in Revolutionary France where Barbara, Ian and Susan are captured by soldiers and the Doctor is left to die inside a burning cottage.

REVIEW: By the start of this episode, the harsh tone of the previous cliffhanger has smoothed itself out somewhat. The Doctor is still in a bad mood, but he claims to have gotten the teachers home, as opposed to getting ready to throw them out even if they landed in an alien volcano. It certainly plays better that way, and Ian and Barbara do try to leave on the best possible terms, even if it does lead to an odd scene in which Barbara bats her eyelashes and picks lint off the Doctor's jacket. This incarnation was rather susceptible to flattery, wasn't it? It's the closest thing Susan will have to a goodbye scene with her favorite teachers (as we'll see), rushed and tearful hugs before running off to her room. But of course, the Doctor HASN'T gotten them home, which is made plain to the audience, if not the characters, as soon as we see that scruffy, hunched over boy. The teachers are wistful more than disappointed, and of course, Susan cheers up. In a cottage, they find a chest that acts as a "going native" kit, and they're ready for adventure in what turns out to be 18th-century France in the dangerous days of the Revolution.

Writer Dennis Spooner uses the "Reign of Terror" quite literally, keeping the characters well off-balance. For example, when we meet Rouvray and the terrified D'Argenson, the show's logic would dictate that they be this story's main "ally" guest-stars, but they are shot and killed before the end of the episode! The soldiers are a jovial, but uncontrollable lot, not quite following their captain's instructions and taking pleasure in simple death and destruction. Ian, Barbara and Susan are captured by these men, and nothing is certain. On a whim, they set the cottage aflame, a rather well-realized moment, with the Doctor suffocating inside. Rouvray asks our heroes to pick a side, but when both sides are equally antagonistic and unstable, is there really a smart choice to make?

I must say how glad I am to be back in historical waters after the dull nonsense of The Sensorites. The production team is so much better at it in every way. The writing follows a theme and none of the morality it simple or childish. The costumes look great, as do both the cottage and the forest. And the music has gone from cliched, melodramatic stings to something far more lyrical from composer Stanley Myers, with the Marseillaise coming in to evoke the period.

THEORIES: The TARDIS sure does love its trouble spots. While we might suppose that we're never shown the smoother, more vacation-oriented trips, there's enough evidence in the show's long history to suggest that if the TARDIS is going to land somewhere, it's probably going to be near some trouble, alien or otherwise. I've long held this opinion, but never really asked the reason "why?". There's a possible answer in this episode. We learn that the Doctor's favorite period in human history is the French Revolution (it might be why Susan wanted to borrow a book on the subject in An Unearthly Child - probably because the Doctor talked about it a lot). Barbara's was the Aztecs. Is the TARDIS tapping into their minds and sending them to places they want to see (consciously or unconsciously)? In 6 trips, they've gone at least twice to such destinations. The TARDIS is most connected to the Doctor's mind, of course, so it may stand to reason that it goes to trouble spots because the Doctor has a need for troubleshooting. The first Doctor is not yet an "active" hero, more of a "reactive" one, but he'll come around to it. Is he resisting his destiny in these early episodes? It's the same line of thought that will lead the lonely Doctor to somehow find a new companion the next trip over. The TARDIS is attempting to supply what he needs at any given moment. (I mean, a granddaughter substitute is the only human around on the trip following Susan's departure? More than a coincidence.)

VERSIONS: Even though 4 of The Reign of Terror's 6 episodes still exist, the BBC did produce an audio CD version of all 6, with linking narration by William Russell.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - The start of another well-made historical. The tension ramps up as audience expectations are subverted.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Halo 3: Penalties and Rewards

Batman and the Outsiders #9 - Pages 22-23
It's about to end, I swear! All Halo has to do now is find a way to punish the high school kidnappers and get Greg back to the stadium for the marching band competition. But these guys are all future lawyers!Yeah, they barely qualify for Gotham's juvie hall for the criminally insane. Halo on the other hand... she's got the crazy eye goin':
The hot pink aura is heat, if I'm not mistaken, so she's roasting these pigs!
Better not examine the panel too closely for phallic symbolism though. You could do yourself grievous psychological harm. And don't worry, they're not dead...
...but Halo did just steal their car keys AND encourage them to acquire useful car-thieving skills. Now, explain that next panel to me:
Halo just burned off their clothes, but spared the boys? How is that possible (remember, this IS Halo we're talking about). Looks like they had time to take them off and lay them in a small pile before they were turned to cinder. And now they have to stay close enough to use the blanket as a modesty shield, yet far enough that they don't actually touch. Takes all their concentration, so I doubt they even realize Halo's pun makes no sense. Let's just get Greg home.
Was there any doubt as to your identity, Greg? "It IS me!" seems a very strange realization. And he left April in quite a worrisome state, what with all those shadow band members lurking about.
Gee Halo, she IS telling him. She was WORRIED. That's a FEELING! But go ahead, play Cupid even if you have no idea what a relationship actually is.
Blast aura to the fanny seals the deal. Halo is all about fine-tuning her powers in this story. Unless her blasts have always been really weak? Maybe she can push Coldsnap and Heatstroke into each other's arms in the next issue. More evidence that Halo doesn't know what the hell she's doing: She just gave her best friend a boyfriend. We're never going to see April again.
Clark Kent's glasses? Meet Halo's colored hair streaks. Secret identity SECURED. So did Greg's pep talk do the trick? Or did they lose because Greg and April were making out under the bleachers? How can Glee be a hit, but Community is slated for cancellation? All good questions. I can answer the first two anyway:
Halo and her cloth-moving aura, eh? And now for the big twist. Ready?
The back-up story connects to the main one! See?
Except Katana is decidedly less animated and Halo is holding the flute in the wrong hand. (Yes, I went there.) But you know what this means. It means Halo's breaking the fourth wall is not a stylistic framing choice, it's actually part of Outsiders continuity. She was down there talking to "readers" when the call to action came in. It HAPPENED. Adjust your character sheets to include the Reality Check power on Halo. (Wait. You're role-playing HALO?! I've had a player use Red Tornado, but that would be ridiculous.)

As Halo says, "this is the end". Until we meet again in Outsiders #10 and the conclusion of the Masters of Disaster story. But that's gonna be, what, in March or April maybe? One issue per season is more than enough for this old blogger.

Doctor Who #36: A Desperate Venture

"Oh, it's ages since we've seen our planet. It's quite like Earth, but at night the sky is a burnt orange; and the leaves on the trees are bright silver..."TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 6 of the Sensorites. First aired Aug.1 1964.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor finds insane humans in the sewers, and the evil Second Elder is caught.

REVIEW: There is a scene in here that is a memorable gem, and in fact, important to the Doctor Who mythology. That's the bit where Susan describes (the still unnamed) Gallifrey (see quote above). It's a description taken up by the 10th Doctor in the new series, so you might recognize it. Sadly, most of what surrounds this scene is badly written and directed. There are bright or at least interesting spots though. Barbara's return is most welcome, and she immediately starts acting as the voice of reason and a calming influence. To keep Susan from becoming a deus ex machina in the future, it's explained that she tapped into the telepathic field on the Sense-Sphere, so likely won't be able to do so elsewhere. The Doctor is confident, however, that she could continue to develop her abilities when they get back to their planet and it's strongly hinted that they aren't exiles so much as lost in time because of that fussy old TARDIS. Maybe it's all a big misunderstanding. Maybe the Doctor did steal the TARDIS, but thought he'd be home for tea, no one the wiser.

Otherwise, A Desperate Venture is a big mess. The Doctor and Ian find the humans who have been poisoning the water supply, and they've gone insane from exposure to Sensorite telepathy. They are in the ridiculous position of having no way to know if the Sensorites above are alive or dead, but allowances must be made since they're clearly mad. Still, since they are the root of all the problems, it would have been nice to get to know them. As it is, the writer doesn't even give them names. It's the Commander, Number 1 and Number 2. Sheesh. The Sensorites aren't any better characterized, as the First Elder continues to refuse to believe a Sensorite could commit crimes when he has one jailed at that very moment. That their society is built on trust is fine, but makes no sense given the City Administrator's behavior. Since the Doctor cured the plague, he can no longer be motivated by wanting to protect his people. He's just evil now, and wants power for its own sake. The cliffhanger in which the Doctor snaps at Ian and promises to throw him off the ship at the next destination is a likewise suspect piece of writing.

As for the direction, Frank Cox is surely one of the worst directors to work on the program (he also directed the previous episode, and the second part of The Edge of Destruction). Pinfield's one good staging idea, the dark aqueduct, is now fully lit. The less of those pipes you see, the better, in my opinion. Worse, it leads to a terribly staged struggle between Ian and one of the madmen, which ends with Ian telling the Doctor - who was only a few feet away - that he thinks it was a man and not a monster. He produces a piece of cloth torn away as evidence. Well, that's all very fine with it occurs in pitch darkness, perhaps with the torch creating abstract shapes, but the scene is fully lot. The dialog makes no sense in that context. The worst sin of all is that the former City Administrator, now Second Elder, is caught and punished... off-screen! With 6 episodes, you'd have though there'd have been room for a final confrontation, a moment where he is defeated. Instead, the First Elder seems to have finally accepted the evidence against him and tells the cast it's all been taken care of. We're denied the satisfaction of seeing this unpleasant character get what he has coming.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-Low - There's that stand-out scene, and the cast performs quite well. The story itself is mishandled in the extreme.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: Low - Though there are some historically meaningful moments, and perhaps an Ood connection for New Who fans, the story is almost uniformly badly written, designed and directed. Too bad, because it announced itself as a strong vehicle for Susan's character. No wonder she's starting to say she'd like to put down roots.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Halo 2: Unsafe Tactics

Batman and the Outsiders #9 - Pages 19-22
And we're back! Hope the Christmas hiatus was good for you, and it certain helped your humble blogger not to have to look at Outsiders panels for the duration. But that Halo story has to end somehow, and we're almost getting to it. To recap: Halo has joined the marching band, and on the eve of a big marching band competition, a rival school has kidnapped Greg, the star of the show. She haloes in pursuit.No, the big time crime you've been trained for, is actually pretty medium (I'm being generous to Cryonic Man, Meltdown, Agent Orange and the rest) and yet, the Outsiders have consistently had trouble with these C-listers. So high school pranksters... maybe you've got a shot. Halo IS starting to think like a Gotham City superhero though. You know how Batman hates guns? For Halo...
What in her back story makes her hate cheaters? What back story? Halo remains such an unknown that it would be a miracle if these guys even knew who she were.
Glow-Girl, that's right. Hey, I'm impressed they've even heard of the Batman's side-band. "No-names" is right, Cliff. As for Halo, she does the right thing. She asks: What would Batman do?
And then she does something else. "Sugar in the gas tank" is one of her auras, thankfully.

And now for the best page of the entire comic, BAR NONE (that's a pun by the way). It's a Sgt. Rock/Ed McMahon story called The Toughest Ticket, by Joe Kubert.
Kubert didn't phone in ANYTHING, not even ads or PSAs. And now, back to Halo 2, already in progress.

So they would be evenly matched with Halo, these kids aren't very smart. A superhero they call Glow-Girl is after them, and their reaction is to hide in the dark. Dudes. Think about that for a second.
Fun test: Did you read those panels in the right order the first time? If not, artist Bill Williamson fails the test! Speaking of test, can Halo pass Batman's secret identity test?
As usual, the answer is "Oops." She also fails the "don't let anyone get hurt" test, by putting a holographic Greg across an unsafe bridge.
Was that even necessary Halo? Of course, her nemeses have to be about as smart as she is:
Well, ok, you're Halo and have 8 aura powers to choose from. What do you do in this situation? If you said you'd use your tractor beam aura to grab the kids out of the air, you're almost right.
You grab a BLANKY out of their car and catch them with it! Nothing could have gone wrong with THAT plan. (Well, actually, plenty. No blanket in the car, blanket doesn't get there in time, kids miss blanket, kids rip through blanket, kids get hurt by falling one on top of the other, power fails because of kids+blanket weight...). And that only takes care of two kidnappers, the third one has to grab her legs.
And I bet she's not gonna clean up the bridge debris either. That's a train track down there. Guess what tomorrow's headline in the Gotham Gazette might be. Anyway, time for punishment:
"Oops."

Tomorrow: Punishment and what you've really been waiting for - who wins the big marching band competition?

Doctor Who #35: Kidnap

"To see all the time is not a good thing."TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 5 of the Sensorites. First aired Jul.25 1964.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor survives an attack by "monsters" in the dark. The Second Elder is killed by the City Administrator, but he fails to successfully frame the Doctor for it. And the Doctor and Ian set off for the aqueduct again, armed and ready.

REVIEW: While I wasn't exactly enjoying Mervyn Pinfield's direction in the first four episodes, I think Frank Cox is actually worse on this 5th chapter. The staging is invariably stiff and lifeless, as characters stand around and deliver their lines with their arms unmoving on the sides of their bodies. When the Sensorites appear more animated than humans like Carol and John (who otherwise have some charming "first contact" type scenes with the scientist), you know you have a problem. The one nice thing (carried over from A Race Against Death) is how dark the aqueduct is, sometimes played only with a spotlight, creating a sense of place without the use of sets. Puts the flat lighting of the above ground scenes to shame.

But of course, it's not the only one. The Sensorites continue to be the least impressive species in the universe, so much so even Carol calls them out on their use of sweeping statements. There can be no plot because they have a perfect society and everyone is content, and yet the "evil" City Administrator has like-minded cohorts. Their frame-up is easily exposed as a lie, in part because they make very bad liars. And there's a tangible lack of urgency in finding the real killer. A couple punches kills the Second Elder, so they're pretty feeble physically as well, and their warriors deliver weapons, but don't look like they could handle a fight. And wait, why would you have a warrior caste and weapons if no one would even dream of committing murder or go to war? Maybe that's why the warriors look so paltry - they were just drafted from their proper caste when humans showed up only a few years ago. To keep the story going, the Doctor has to be relatively dense too, but I suppose there's some irony in the fact he's instrumental in giving the City Administrator a promotion (or is he? he was already third-in-command).

And it doesn't even stop there! Ian, who was at death's door in the previous episode, now seems fine. They seem to have forgotten the antidote was never delivered (he eventually gets cured off-screen, of course). Where do the Sensorites get the Doctor's cloak? It doesn't look like standard Sensorite issue. Susan sadly returns to her childish ways, giggling and making fun of the way Sensorites walk (a characterization that is frankly, pretty ridiculous for a young Time Lady). But worst of all is the episode's title. Not only did it undercut the previous cliffhanger, but it has NOTHING TO DO with this episode. The kidnapping of Carol occurs in THE LAST TWO SECONDS!

THEORIES: Still tracking the Doctor's number of hearts? Here, he was hit under the heart, singular, but that's just a choice of words. I've always felt the use of the plural in the new series to be more than a little affected.

REWATCHABILITY: Low - I'm sorry about all the nitpicking, but when an episode is this flat and boring, you have to entertain yourself somehow. It's done with love, I assure you, but also with a lot of irritated sighs.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Doctor Who #34: A Race Against Death

"It's not always possible to do these things at the snap of a finger."TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 4 of the Sensorites. First aired Jul.18 1964.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor finds an antidote for the Sensorite "plague" and goes down into an aqueduct to find the source of the poison while the City Administrator's plots keep the cure away from Ian.

REVIEW: On the surface, this is an acceptable "find the cure in time" scenario, with a montage and everything, ending in an intriguing revelation. However, it all falls apart because the Sensorites are so STUPID! These creatures have a scientist caste and laboratories, disintegrators and space travel, and yet the Doctor pretty much has to teach them how the scientific method works. They've been living with a plague for years, but haven't yet realized it's not a disease, but a poison. They've tested the water, but only from a single source, and found nothing. Worse still, it takes a comment from Carol to give the Chief Administrator the idea to switch badges of office with someone as a disguise, because apparently, even the Sensorites can't tell each other apart without them, at least not without prolonged exposure. That's fine for unique positions, but what about the middle class? You would have thought their telepathic abilities would have given them some kind of non-visual cue to their identities. That's IF they were really identical, which they aren't. Body shape and voices vary quite a lot. It doesn't end there. Because there are strange noises in the aqueduct, a scientist says there are monsters down there, so no one goes anymore. So their water supply cannot be serviced because of superstition, basically. These guys are just bad at questioning assumptions, as shown repeatedly by the Chief Administrator's unwavering mistrust of the humans. He dooms his people by trying to protect them from the wrong thing. It would be ironic if it weren't so dubiously motivated.

The Doctor and Susan are only smart in comparison, because even their deductions are slow to come. Even with little-to-no familiarity with the serial, I was way ahead of the Doctor on every plot point. I bet the kids in 1964 were too. When you compare this to stories like The Aztecs that has adult narrative strategies and themes, it's almost like it's not even from the same series. The poisoned water is OBVIOUS. That the Sensorites are the victims of sabotage is equally OBVIOUS. Their own story says that of 5 humans, 2 took off in the ship that exploded. Can't ANYONE do the math and realize 3 were left on the Sense-Sphere? Their assumption that the other three stowed aboard and were destroyed is just like the rest of their assumptions, taken as fact.

And the hack production values don't give much relief from the plot holes. The sets are so cheap, you have to wonder if they spent all their money bringing in a fountain. The musical stings go "Tan-tan!!!" every few minutes. And what can I say about that silly list of districts? I'll spare you the rant. The cliffhanger is also problematic because while we hear a monster's growl, the next episode card reads "Kidnap". Not only is that a very dull title for an episode, but it completely undercuts what the cliffhanger is trying to do.

REWATCHABILITY: Low - Cheap-looking, but the real flaw is that the Sensorites are real dunderheads. Things happen only because the characters are stupid. Lazy writing makes for an annoying viewing experience.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

This Week in Geek (19-25/12/11)

Buys'n'Gifts

My kid sister got me the gorgeous Spy vs. Spy Omnibus for Christmas, which is awesome. And KFF buddies Isabel, Furn, Marty and Nath surprised me with a bag of goodies: Lego-compatible Cybermen, a vanishing TARDIS mug, and strangest of all, a small Hard Boiled pin featuring Tequila holding the baby. Also, I got myself a copy of Futurama vol.6, the second part of Season 5.

"Accomplishments"

DVDs: Community's second season finds a good middle ground between the first season's subversive take on soap opera, and its occasional forays into genre parody (so less of the former and more of the latter). But while I enjoy both (and there are some very fun takes on the documentary style, clip shows, Apollo 13, Charlie Kaufman, conspiracies, zombie movies, and of course, a double-length paintball episode), what really got me into it was how Community has become the Deep Space 9 of comedies. The "sad" claymation Christmas episode is a good representative of an entire season that, while chock-full of laughs, also had a tendency to end each episode on a downbeat note. I love that. The Dungeons&Dragons episode (while quite far from any game I've played) is another standout, and the turning point in Pierce's turning against the group. Great extras too. Each episode has a fun commentary track (though moving to unrated makes a few of these descend into chaos), each disc has outtakes and deleted scenes from its episodes, and there are making of featurettes for both the paintball and Christmas episodes. The latter can also be viewed as animated storyboards, but you won't get much out of the halfway-through version that combines storyboards and finished claymation, except a few shots where the blue screens and wires show. Cast evaluations have become a tradition and a chance for more comedy.

While 30 Rock makes me laugh about as much, it's very different kind of comedy. I can never accuse it of having a lot of heart. It's extreme caricature, but probably the best being done on tv right now. Season 5 continues the show's traditions of high end guest-stars and self-deprecating humor, petering out only for the last couple episodes (not the strongest of finales). The stand-out is a live episode, redone with a few different jokes for the west coast 3 hours later (the second one is included on Disc 3's extras, if you're looking - 30 Rock didn't screw us out of it like West Wing did - yes I'm still sore - it's causing run-on sentences and everything). The double-sized 100th episode is a nice celebration too AND another subverted clip show. Commentary on almost half the episodes is a mixed bag, as usual, and in another 30 Rock tradition, there's some stunt casting there (McBrayer's parents, Val Kilmer, and Aaron Sorkin NOT on the episode he guested in). There are also a lot of deleted scenes, a useful behind the scenes featurette on the live show, 3 Jack Donaghy - Executive Superhero animated shorts, and the full run of Jenna's obituary song.

Season 3 of the Sarah Jane Adventures is strongly advertised as having the last scenes David Tennant shot as the Doctor, but The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith, like all episodes bearing her name, is a great episode for Sarah Jane, not for the Doctor. He meets the kids and everything, but he doesn't steal the spotlight (good), nor does it feel like some kind of farewell (too bad). The Trickster's back, of course, and there are new alien threats, but SJA is the place where goofy animatronic Who villains go after their run on the parent series is done. This season, we get Judoon and Slitheen, and the SJA team is allowed to develop these species further. It's perhaps ironic that while the kids are starting to get older (Luke becomes an irritable teenager, Clyde and Rani start a subtle flirtation), there's a fart joke in almost every story. I guess they don't want to lose the younger, fart-loving demographic. But that's my only complaint about the otherwise charming series. The extras are limited to a teaser for another of Sarah Jane's audio books, which is disappointing.

You know it's a Christmas edition of This Week in Geek when Siskoid reviews some torture porn, but I did watch and flip Eli Roth's Hostel on Christmas weekend. I do it injustice by calling it torture porn, though it does share in that genre, it's a bit better than others in the category (not that I watch that stuff). There is a story here, and you don't get to that kind of horror until the third act, just before it actually turns into more of a thriller. The plot focuses on douchebags backpacking through Europe who get lured to a hostel that is a front for rich men who pay to torture and kill people. The theme is human exploitation, using the exploitation movie as a framework. I don't think it succeeds on every level though. The violence, gore, drug use and sex of the genre make the worthy thematic underpinnings of the film especially hard to see on the first viewing. And the twists, while good, do undercut whatever subplots were running. By the time you care for a character, you're into the portion of the film that's making you wince. This is a case of the DVD being worth it, even if the film alone might not have been though. There are four commentary tracks in which the director discusses different elements either alone or with guests (including one with producing partner Quentin Tarantino), and an alternate ending. The behind the scenes 1-hour making of doesn't take itself seriously and is frankly entertaining. And then there's a second disc, with a more official 30-minute making of, various featurettes (on the sound, effects, sets, etc., but also one that teaches you how to eat a lamb's head), 20 minutes of deleted scenes, a radio interview with the director, loads of pictures, and a short interview with horror director Takashi Miike who had a cameo in the film. Like good DVD packages should, it makes me like the movie more than I did first way through.

1933's King Kong is a revelation. I wasn't expecting to see claymation so well integrated into live action. I guess it's mostly done through rear projection, but still, the level of planning and innovation is just spectacular. The effects are frankly better than a lot of films made more than 50 years later, and I sometimes wonder how they were even achieved. The animation is expressive and detailed, and the film is surprisingly violent and even sexy from what I imagined of the era (perhaps it's the reinstatement of the "censored scenes". A true classic. My one-disc DVD features a commentary track with legendary effects veterans Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, clearly inspired by this film, with edited in bits of interview from director Merian C. Cooper and, minimally (like, two sentences), by actress Fay Ray. They don't talk enough about how it was made for my tastes, but it's still a loving track. Also on the disc, 8 Cooper film trailers, including King Kong, Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young.

I posted the live tweetage from last Thursday's Van Dammathon - a Kung Fu Friday Special Event - but promised some capsule reviews. Because I only own 3 of those films on DVD, I can't tell you about whatever extras the other 4 have (if any), but we can still talk about the movies. The one I do own are Hard Target, Sudden Death (both on the same Van Damme 4-pack, no extras) and JCVD (a couple of deleted scenes). So, chronologically...

We started with Bloodsport, a cheesy 80s favorite that used to run (still does?) all the time on tv, and that has probably the best claim to being a KFF movie thanks to a huge number of martial arts duels, so many it turns into a montage. I wonder how much of the film is actually based on Canadian Frank Dux, the first Westerner to win the super-secret kumite competition. Don't look for a coherent, interesting or innovative plot, but the wealth of fighting styles makes it a fun fight movie.





Roland Emmerich's Universal Soldier, co-starring Dolph Lundgren and Ally "Profiler" Walker, is a big, dumb movie (it's Emmerich, isn't it?) that doesn't even try to give the two male leads any acting opportunities. Van Damme is at his most robotic and Lundgren's ear fetish leads to some horrible puns and a nice fleshy line of jewelry. Can I recommend the action, as with Bloodsport? Not entirely. It's not bad, but the unimaginative gunplay prevents Van Damme from doing what he's really good at - martial arts. The best thing I can say about "Unisol" is that it isn't Cyborg.




The KFF vibe returned with John Woo's Hard Target, in which he plays an ex-Ranger, Cajun drifter up against a greed-driven manhunting ring. Woo's style enhances everything with the essence of cool, and you really have to accept that everything is made out of explosives. Stunts, fights, music... it's all great. Wilmford Brimley playing Chance Boudreaux's moonshine-swilling uncle is probably the best thing about the movie though. Chance should have appeared in other films, but his other "Cajun" movies used a different persona. Too bad, because Uncle Douvee could have made a comeback.




I wasn't sure I would get into Street Fighter, given that I know next to nothing about the game it's based on. I've seen the last iteration on Xbox, but I'm not a fan of fighting games. To me, it was complete nonsense, but I got into it thanks to Raul Julia's campy (and sadly, last) performance as the villain Bison (and partly because Ming-Na can do no wrong in my book). But a Van Damme movie? Not so much. Just too many characters from the game running around to develop "Guile" very much. He only gets to fight Bison at the end because he's Van Damme.





The originators of the Van Dammathon each had a request, mine was Sudden Death, possibly my favorite Die Hard formula film, pitting fire inspector Van Damme against super-cool Powers Booth in a hockey arena during the Stanley Cup playoffs. I'm not much of a hockey fan, but I do come from that culture, and there isn't a single piece or element of the arena that isn't used in some way. Van Damme even spends time on the ice during the game! But fair warning: The looked at Die Hard and matched it beat for beat. There's no innovation beyond the setting here (but that's more than enough to recommend it).

 


Double Team had quite a reputation, but seeing director Tsui Hark's name on credits (a nice KFF surprise!) filled me with hope. I can't say I was disappointed, even if I can't say the movie made sense. Tsui Hark rarely plays it safe, and while he's made classics like Once Upon a Time in China and Seven Swords, he's also experiments, not always with great results, in such films as Zu Warriors and Time & Tide. What works about Double Team is 1) the action and 2) the whacked out ideas. In that respect, the film is extreme. There's a set piece where JCVD has to escape from what is basically the Village from the Prisoner, and the finale has a baby put in jeopardy by a minefield, a motorbike, a tiger and Mickey Rourke... simultaneously! What DOESN'T work is the plot and dialog and the casting of Dennis Rodman. But crazy, right?!

We kept the best for last. JCVD is an unusual (mostly)French-language film in which Van Damme plays himself (or a version of himself). He's hitting rock bottom in his personal and professional life when he gets caught up in a bank hold-up run by Belgium's equivalent of the Three Stooges. It is VICIOUSLY funny, taking shots at the film industry, at the relationship between celebrity and fandom, and at the media. But at the center of it is a confessional by Van Damme that is completely heart-wrenching. There is a nakedness and honesty to this film that makes it a real gem, and it's a story cleverly told too. The big question is: Has JCVD always been this good an actor, only held back by either language or directors' expectations? For comedy, he's a great straight man. For tragedy, he's a revelation. The extras were over too soon, just a couple of deleted scenes. Too bad because I wanted to find out more about this film without going to my local wiki. Will show up in my Top 5 films seen in 2011.

What's your favorite Van Damme?

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
III.i. The Nunnery Scene - Tennant (2009)
III.i. The Nunnery Scene - The Banquet
III.i. The Nunnery Scene - Slings & Arrows
III.i. The Nunnery Scene - A Midwinter's Dream

It's Christmas and Batman's at the Door. Do You Answer?

From Batman #219 by Frank Robbins, Irv Novick and Dick Giordano.

And to all a Merry Christmas and/or Doctor Who Christmas Special Day (observed)!