This Week in Geek (6-12/08/12)


In addition to whatever comics, I'm happy to report I got Jeff Lemire's Underwater Welder graphic novel. Can't wait. I also spent the week re-charging my Kung Fu DVD shelf before I had to break out the really terrible stuff somehow in my collection (like Ninja Squad) for my Kung Fu Friday weekly event. So I got Drunken Master, Running Out of Time 1 and 2, Full Contact, and two 4-movie items, the Martial Arts Collection (Rumble in the Bronx, The Corruptor, Showdown in Little Tokyo, and Bloodsport which we watched a while ago) and Legendary Heroes (Legendary Weapons of China, Shaolin Intruders, Deadly Breaking Sword and the Shadow Whip, Shaw Brothers all). Annnnd seeing as I fell in love with Gosford Park all over again last week, I immediately bought its TV descendent's two first seasons. I'm talking about Downton Abbey, of course (see below).


At the movies: You know, I'm a little ambivalent about Amazing Spider-Man. It's not a bad film, not at all. It's actually on par with the Sam Raimi original. I'm just not overly enthusiastic about it. What it does right is put its focus on different things than the Raimi one, thus avoiding negative comparisons. There's more of Peter Park's family - especially the wonderful Uncle Ben played by Martin Sheen - an origin integrated into the larger story, Gwen instead of Mary Jane (Emma Stone is much more compelling than Kirsten Dunst), a bigger role for Flash, and the police (and Captain Stacey) instead of the Daily Bugle and JJJ. You don't have Spider-Man as selfish entertainer, but they do restore his web-shooters. So if you missed things from the Spider-myth in the first movie, you might find them here instead. It's also got a "New York stands behind Spider-Man" that has been the heart of the previous films. These always get me. What it doesn't do so well is the Lizard. Always happy to see him with a labcoat, even for a few brief seconds, but without an animalistic snout, he just looked like one of the V aliens to me. He's fine, he's just not great. Props for not bringing back the same old villains though, and I do have an interest in seeing who the shadowy figure in the end credits teaser is supposed to be when ASM 2 comes down the pike. My money's on Mysterio.

DVDs: The original Planet of the Apes (1968) was and still is a classic. I love it. When you haven't seen it in a while, it still manages to surprise you, and it's a joy when the famous lines are spoken. Its parable about race relations and the way it upends the social order (East/West, North/South and Dark/Fair) still works today and the ape make-ups, though a bit stiff by today's standards, are still surprisingly expressive. Charlton Heston's George Taylor is a surprisingly misanthropic character, and Ape society is at once its mirror, its response and its solution. Much deeper than a Monkey Planet movie has any right to be. The DVD is, however, disappointing to the point of being irritating. There are three commentary tracks, the best of which is a Doctor Who-style text commentary that's only slightly intermittent, and always informative. The audio track with composer Jerry Goldsmith is REALLY intermittent, and dull to boot. Can a couple of actors and the make-up designer do better? Nope. They break in only rarely in what sounds like interviews divorced from the pictures. That'll teach me not to get a special edition with full documentaries, but still, these could and should have been merged.

Tim Burton's 2001 version of Planet of the Apes is a DVD I won in our annual Oscar Pool. I saw it back in the day and it made me swear off Burton's movies forever more. Forcing myself to watch Apes 2001 reminded me why. It's perhaps unfair to evaluate it as a science fiction parable, because it doesn't have a clear message. As SF adventure, it fails as well, because it's so full of plot (and premise) holes, sure, but mostly because many of the leads are so dull. Wahlberg is nowhere near the screen star Heston is, and his character is an emotionless cipher and not the moral center of the film he should be. Tim Roth is way over the top as the villain and quite irritating. Some of the other apes (Bonham-Carter, Clarke Duncan, Giamatti) are much better, but their talents are wasted in a muddled effort whose best quality is perhaps that at least it didn't try to remake the original's story. Then again, maybe it should have. It would have been redundant then, but at least it wouldn't have been terrible and boring. This DVD too tries my patience. The director's commentary is good, though through it you can sense a certain measure of back-pedaling (and it seems the drive behind making this film is that Burton has a fear of chimps), and the composer's (Elfman, of course) is less bare than Goldsmith's, and at least acts as a music-only track for his unremarkable score when he's not speaking. There's a small Easter Egg that's like a 40-second edit made by apes. It's the "Enhanced Viewing Mode" that's the disappointment, replacing a proper Making of with bits of behind the scenes footage and cast and crew interviews in in-set screens during the film. These are exceptionally intermittent and feature some comments that make Burton sound like George Lucas, i.e. "he's a genius so all his ideas are genius" even when they are rather ordinary, obvious or silly. Ironically, Burton takes a shot at Lucas in his commentary. The DVD also has Nuon features. Whatever, dudes.

This Ape-fest was all supposed to lead me to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a film I HADN'T watched before. Now THIS is a modern Apes movie I can get behind! The franchise is ABOUT something again, in this case dehumanization. It upends the original's scheme of a man treated like an animal by animals, making it about an animal that gains human intelligence but is still treated AS an animal. In their various ways, both films achieve the same basic effect, but Rise was made in different times, and where the focus used to be on bigotry, it now seems a stronger statement about the treatment of prisoners and "special" children. It also manages to tie into the original series remarkably well, acting not just as an origin story, but making lots of mostly clever little references to the original films. The action is exciting, and the effects excellent. I found some parts of it more difficult to watch because I have a hard time watching animals suffer, even computer-generated ones it seems, but that's in now way a complaint, only a warning to those faint of heart among my readership. Bring on Dawn, the Planet of the Apes is BACK! The DVD includes a couple of all-too-brief making of featurettes and two very short alternate scenes that show what might have been.

In Blood and Bone, Michael Jai White plays a Lone Ranger figure, coming into town to right some wrongs by making a splash on the underground street fighting circuit. Along the way, he showcases his considerable martial arts skills and those of real-life fighters playing parts in the movie, like Kimbo Slice and Gina Carano. But it's the villains who steal the show, especially Eamonn Walker (from Oz) who is just awesome in this. Blood and Bone comes as a major surprise. On paper, it looks like ordinary exploitation, but on the screen, it's filled with quirky, interesting characters, memorable dialog, smart heroes story telling, and some totally badass street fighting. The DVD, borrowed from KFF member Furn Sai Yuk but I think one I'd gladly add to my own collection, includes a commentary track that speaks to the fun they had making the picture, and a strong and entertaining 15-minute making of as well. Will Bone ever star in a sequel? I'd get in on that.

Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes' TV answer to Gosford Park, is soap opera, veering on melodrama, I'll grant you that, but it's a very well written and produced example of such, and deserves the acclaim it's gotten. Taking place in the 1910s, it chronicles an aristocratic family blessed only with daughters' attempts to deal with a rather working-class heir in the wake of losing those rightfully in line to inherit the estate in the Titanic disaster. Being cut from the same cloth as Gosford Park, it's also about the house's servants, where we find both the show's moral center and its nastiest villains. It's not all drama, there's comedy too, often thanks to the power struggle between the great ladies of the manor played by Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton. I'm not sure what to think of the show's timeline, which covers several years over the course of 7 episodes, because it means the subplots must be moving at a very slow pace (the characters' ages too, though that's not a problem with Season 1). I can't decide if it's odd because it doesn't follow television rules, or if it's actually more realistic this way (especially at a time when communications and travel were slower). What it does do is use history to its best possible advantage, having current events impact the world of Downton (something that reaches a certain crescendo in Season 2). Either way, I'm hooked. The DVD includes a couple of making of pieces, including one on the real house used as Downton Abbey (which is also part of an included tourism ad).

Season 2 covers the World War I years, history having its way with Downton Abbey and its inhabitants. The 8 episodes are all 5 minutes longer, and the DVD also includes the Christmas special (also sold separately, so completist beware), all the better to tell the many stories of the show's large cast. The first season's villains struggle for redemption, but new villains do show up and they may be even nastier, while some of the "heroes" may fall from grace. There are two things that motivate a piece like this - will they/won't they relationships, and the notion that no one has the right to be happy. If you care for the characters, and I think it's easy to by this point, this is compelling no matter how manipulative those elements are. The specter of war makes this a gloomier season than the first, but excellent research coupled with good writing and complex characters keeps things going very nicely. The DVD includes fine features on the story lines, costumes and historical elements of the season.

The Legion of Super-Heroes animated series is really a Superman story which shows Clark Kent join the 31st century club before leaving home for Metropolis. In the Legion, he'll learn to become the hero we know him to be. It's the WB's usual mix of dynamic action and comedic character moments, though it takes a handful of episodes to really get things going, with the first few falling a little flat for me. The character designs are more alien than in the comics, but there's a good range of characters to look at, and more are added every few episodes. It's the Legion, so there were certain expectations, which the series met admirably. Yes, there are try-outs, and an election, and jerk moves. Even a Substitute Legion episode, which made me real happy. Skewed just a bit younger than, say, Justice League Unlimited, Legion is nevertheless an aspirational series that teaches kids about team work, leadership and friendship. It's also abominably packaged in a way that may well kill the second season's release. The first season can be bought as a bundle, but it's really in three volumes, each with only 4 or 5 episodes (13 in total), and you can tell they're not in the right order because early episode reference things that only happen later. The single volumes are not a good value and a poor way to sell a TV series. Come on, WB! The sole extra is on vol.1, a short making of featurette.

A very different kind of animated series is Archer, and based on the pilot episode showcased on a It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia release, I got and watched the entertaining first season. Archer is basically a spoof of James Bond, Man from UNCLE, etc. with deceptively simple animation and the irreverent humor FX series are known for. While there are spy missions involved (which invariably go wrong), the show is more about the office politics. Archer is only the top asset because his overbearing mother is the director of I.S.I.S. His ex-girlfriend is the actual top asset, now dating a regular office schmoe. And then there's the Miss Moneypenny type obsessed with Archer, and the HR person who blabs everyone's secrets. It's funny if you like comedies about unlikable people (and I do), and I was impressed that the soap opera elements are coherent and that the characters' personal stories are evolving, not being reset to premise with every episode. Bring on Season 2! The DVD includes an alternate version of the pilot, which is really a single joke played out to 20 minutes (fast forward through it), a very technical series of making of material, that nonetheless use a fun approach, a few deleted scenes (or trims really), and an unaired network promo. It also includes the pilot episodes of both Louie and The League, neither of which I'm likely to invest in.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
III.iii. The Confessional - Olivier '48

And please, if you haven't seen my grand experiment with creating more content at Your Daily Splash Page, do check it out. I'm trying to cover most DC Comics series alphabetically and talk about them. It's not just pictures anymore.


De said...

I'm one of those folks who prefer the Planet of the Apes films to the Star Wars trilogy. I like that even the thinnest of the Apes films (Battle for the Planet of the Apes) is *about* something. I'm still kicking myself for not buying the Blu-ray set last Christmas (I own two DVD sets of the series, as well as the Japanese laserdisc set).

For an interesting take on what was happening between scenes, I highly recommend Drew Gaska's novel, Conspiracy on the Planet of the Apes. He has another novel coming in 2014 to coincide with the next film called Death of the Planet of the Apes.

I didn't hate Burton's Apes film because its ending was quite reminiscent of Pierre Boulle's novel (I own both a translated and a non-translated edition) and the makeup was outstanding. Unfortunately, the rest of it is platitudes and puffery punctuated by action sequences.

Anonymous said...

Seasons 2 and 3 of "Archer" are much MUCH better than the first, so if you were pleased with the first season, well, even better things are in store for you.

Siskoid said...

De: You won't hear any argument from me. Star Wars is so not my favorite thing.

Anon: That's good to hear! Amazon has already shipped me S2.

Mitchell Craig said...

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was one of last year's nicer surprises, especially in the way it appears to be revamping the earlier series continuity into something more coherent. I guess I'll find out when the Dawn is released in 2014.

Anonymous said...

... here, the episode of QI with David Tennant as one of the panelists:

You may also recognize Bill Bailey as one of the soliders in the "The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe".

Austin Gorton said...

I more or less share your assessment of Amazing Spider-Man in that I enjoyed it but didn't love it. I thought the casting was spot-on and the score very good, but was bothered by other things (the muddling of the central theme, Peter ending the film by glibly breaking a promise he made to a dying man, and returning to the origin and making it even more ponderous).

I also enjoyed the resistance to use a new villain, and am looking forward to see how the next film is handled.


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