This Week in Geek (29/10-4/11/12)

Buys

My only buys this week are two DVDs: Freaks and Geeks the Complete Series, and Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz.

"Accomplishments"

DVDs: This week, we started an attempted Bond-a-thon in honor of Skyfall's upcoming release, watching the official Bond films in order whenever our schedule permitted. Got through five before this post went online, and managed to "flip" them by listening to the included commentary tracks, which is the only feature on the DVD version of the Bond 50 boxed set. Up to this point, they're all pretty much the same, an assemblage of expert narration and interview clips with as many of the cast and crew as possible (Connery is rarely heard though). They're all good (and sometimes a film will have two) and wouldn't be any better if they were a visual talking heads documentary feature. So we started with Dr. No, obviously, and while modern audiences may see it as slow-paced, it's nonetheless incredibly iconic. The superspy's life is, in fact, more glamorous on his spare time than it is on the job, where there's a fair bit of actual spycraft before Q Branch comes in on later films and fills the screen with another way of doing things. And yet, there's the girl in the sexy bikini, Ken Adam's huge, crazy sets (Dr. No's interrogation chamber of genius), and a mad scientist with robot hands. Bond's hyper-reality is clearly being born. Some aspects just have to catch up, that's all.

From Russia with Love is, in even more down to earth than Dr. No. Though the locations are more varied (Turkey is especially well used) and SPECTRE is involved, there's no mad science on show, even when you consider Q Branch's first official appearance. This is about Bond "turning" a Russian agent to get his hands on a cypher machine, not realizing that both he and the girl are playing into SPECTRE's hands. Plenty of twists, and as a consequence of the added realism, the final fight is dirty and edgy. A special prize must go to Pedro Armendáriz, however, whose Ali Kerim Bey is a most delightful and zesty character. It was his last role and having been recently diagnosed with an illness, he knew it and brought everything to it. Very funny, and I'd love it if his army of sons showed up in a Bond film some day.

Guy Hamilton replaces Terence Young as director with Goldfinger, a film that re-energizes the franchise and really defines the genre as it is still known today. For good or ill, I should say, since of Goldfinger's features were taken to abominable extremes in the Roger Moore era. From now on, the Bond films are more outrageous and comedic (the laser table scene is only the best known example), are full of neat gadgets, and we can really call them action films as opposed to spy thrillers. Auric Goldfinger and Oddjob are iconic, Pussy Galore has that name and a squadron of Amazon pilots, there's a weird murder that leaves a girl painted gold, and the villain builds a huge model of Fort Knox's environs because, well, because Ken Adam is the god of production design. We also get the first proper teaser before the story begins, and it's as sharply written, violent, sexy and witty as the rest,a nd the first proper "hit song" with credits rolling around on girls. There are only two things missing from the formula and that's exotic location work (Kentucky highways are really a step down, though I appreciated the Swiss Alps), and James Bond actually being effective. This is a story in which he spends most of his time as a captive, he rebuffed by two Bond girls, stupidly crashes the Aston-Martin, and is shown up by an unnamed extra in the climactic atomic bomb scene. But we're almost there! The DVD has two commentary tracks so everyone can have their say.

Terence Young returns for one last engagement with Thunderball, his last word on the Bond universe, or if you will, his version of the Goldfinger model. While it has some excellent set pieces, everything seems to go on just a little bit too long, and the whole comes off as padded and indulgent (one of the two commentaries features interviews with the editor talking about how the producers made him extend the iconic underwater fight scene and other bits he would have lopped off for pacing reasons). It's not so bad when you watch a number of these back to back, mind you, because each location (including the teasers) become like shorter episodes, some related to a larger story, some not, though it means I can't always quite tell which bit was in which movie sometimes. Thunderball is clearly trying to top Goldfinger in every way and I can't say it doesn't succeed. It's just trying way too hard and forgets itself sometimes. While there are two commentary tracks, they probably have enough interviews for 1½, so they supplement the second with alternate sound, like the alt-theme song Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and Bond in other languages.

You Only Live Twice takes us to Hong Kong and Japan a few years before the kung fu craze, features one of the biggest sets ever built (I still can't believe the volcano interior was all practical), and has our first full-frontal look at SPECTRE's #1, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. I'm afraid the latter is a bit of an anti-climax, a reveal that at once comes a bit too late in the movie AND has been ruined for me by Mike Meyers. He's hard to take seriously, with his cat trying to flee when the explosions start happening (best kitty acting EVER), and all that. I'm also not that keen on Bond's Asian transformation in which he looks, at best, like a Romulan or something. And what is SPECTRE's plan here? They're stealing spacecraft from orbit (what is this, Moonraker?) to foment war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.? Ridiculously complicated. So what's to like? Japan is an interesting place, their superspy Tanaka has his own personal subway car(!), and Aki's a pretty competent Bond girl. The vehicle action is cool too, and of course, it's hard to beat that ninja-filled final sequence.

The Bond-a-Thon will return with... On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

It's interesting to me that Tsui Hark's Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame makes use of alchemy because the lead character seems to have suffered a number of alchemical transformations over time. Ostensibly a historical magistrate of the Tang Dynasty (Di Renjie), he became a folk hero and protagonist of an 18th century Chinese novel (as Di Gong An), which was picked up by Robert van Gulik who translated it and then went on to write a whole series of books (and comic strips!) featuring the character (as Judge Dee) through the 40s, 50s and 60s. Today, it's French author Frédéric Lenormand who, since 2004, has been publishing new stories (as Juge Ti) as well. And then it returns to China by way of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes with a heavy dose of Crouching Tiger. What we get is a very well made fantasy action mystery thriller set in the opulent Tang era, with fantastic weirdness always lurking around the corner and enough suspects to keep you guessing. Plus, Andy Lau as Detective Dee. A prequel is in the works, and I hope more installments will be on the way. The DVD has a few making of featurettes that are brief but good, and some picture galleries.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's seventh Season was, you know, about the same as the other seasons. Terrible people doing terrible things, and for some reason I enjoy them doing it. Perhaps a puke joke too many, but there's some fun to be had with the gang going on location to the Jersey Shore, or going to their high school reunion. Thought they'd make more out of Mac's weight gain, which seems a rather important sacrifice for an actor, but there ya go. The DVD includes a couple episodes' worth of commentary tracks, a blooper reel, and Artemis' drunken tour of Philly, a short mockumentary very much of a piece with the show's wicked sense of humor.

Zines: Finished the Diary of the Doctor Who Role-Playing Games #8, labeled the "Events Issue". I thought I might be in for a number of convention reports that, while interesting, wouldn't have much to offer as a resource, but no, there's a lot more to the zine. Ok yes, there's a visit to the site of Somewhere in Time (kind of odd), the Tolkien Archive, a DWRPG carnival booth, Doctor Who pub night and Snowcon 2011, but all are rather brief. Based on the Living Dungeon experience at the latter (well illustrated), the zine provides a Doctor Who Living Dungeon that's easy to set up and play. In addition, the issue provides some more standard tabletop scenarios that feature among them a Cyberpunk future, Krynoid stats, and a long dungeon-style mapped adventure. The gaming articles cover TARDIS crew balance, predictability of foes, how to differentiate your character from your normal persona, and traps (the latter is perhaps a bit basic, but good advice for new GMs). These are rounded out by a couple of toy reviews. For the new LARP ideas alone, I'm glad I read this one.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
III.iv. The Closet Scene - BBC '80

Your Daily Splash Page this week features a splash from every DC title, alphabetically, from Captain Atom to Catwoman.

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