This Week in Geek (28/01-03/02/13)

My next video game sandbox will be... Sleeping Dogs. A GTA clone set in Hong Kong seems like a no-brainer to me. I also got Darwyn Cooke's three Parker adaptations, because 1) the movie started bringing them up on casual searches, and 2) it's hard to resist Darwyn Cooke (Before Watchmen is the only time I have).

DVDs: This is it. This is the week I flip the five remaining movies I won in last year's Oscar Pool win, five DVDs I really did not relish watching. And yes folks, I'm putting Star Wars Episodes IV through VI (the "good ones") in that pile. I told myself that I've been a Lucas-snob for so long now, maybe it's tainted my point of view, and that I should "rediscover" the original trilogy with an open mind. As it turns out, my opinion hasn't changed at all since the last time I saw these films, which was when the Special Editions first came out on video cassette (late 90s). All of them are well put together action fantasy movies, but I only like The Empire Strikes Back and it's the only one that kept my attention throughout. I respect A New Hope as an incredible achievement - how it presents a de facto world with minimal exposition, how it's completely different from science fiction movies at the time, etc. - but it suffers from over-familiarity. I've seen it and references to it so often by now that I basically knew every beat, every line, and not because they are particularly original (in fact, I find the dialog in all the Star Wars films very ordinary indeed). And then there are the changes wrought by Lucas in the Special Edition and even more of them for this 2004 DVD release (to bring it "in line" with the new trilogy, ugh), which I find intrusive and annoying. Lucas sounds more confident and in control than usual on the commentary track, but the real star in sound designer Ben Burtt, fascinating through all three films. The special effects designer is good too, and the only actor on there is Carrie Fisher, also good. It's in the Empire commentary, which includes director Irvin Kershner, that I figured out what I liked about Empire and disliked about Hope and Jedi - he really worked hard to give the scenes an emotional truth. R2 has never been more human, for example, and lines were often changed to make them better fit the characters. This is not true of the other two films. And of course, Empire has the least intrusive Special Edition changes, ends on a dark note and has the best music. It kept me engaged. Jedi has SOME stuff I want to watch, like Luke's final confrontation with Vader and the impressive dogfights, but a lot of stuff I DON'T, like the "Jedi Rocks" musical number and Ewoks fighting Storm Troopers, so I was off and on in that regard. The boxed set includes a bonus disc with a long making of documentary that's rather too reverent at first, but allows some of the participants (actors especially) to give frank interviews. Additional featurettes discuss lightsabers, the evolution of the characters from concept to screen, and the legacy of Star Wars. There's a huge collection of photos (all with informative or humorous captions), posters and trailers. You can play a chapter of the Xbox game, Battlefront, and there's a making of the game even if you don't. And a preview featurette of Episode III. Boo. So a very good package, if only it did what Bladerunner's briefcase edition did, and provided older versions of the film as well as the "Han and Greedo shoot at the same time" edit (yep, that was the 2004 controversy fix).

The other franchise I had to "flip" this week was The Brave Little Toaster. The original 1987 animated film based on Thomas Disch's book was a rather bizarre experience. It's clearly the precursor of such animated blockbusters as Toy Story and Cars, this time with home appliances in the lead roles, but also has a dark quality that doesn't seem to insure your favorite cartoon character won't be killed. You'll also wonder how some appliances talk and others are just objects, and how the film's heroes built such a strong bond with their "master" (and he with them). Somehow, it all works. Funny in places, tense in others, with a couple of good songs (and some forgettable ones) and an exciting finale. Definitely one where the kids will see one thing, and the adults another. Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman do a couple voices, but don't expect them in the sequels. The making of on the release is very disappointing since it mostly talks (and tries to sell) the third Toaster movie, the absurd-looking direct-to-DVD The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars, the only one I don't have.

I do have the 1997 direct-to-DVD sequel, The Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue, which is far inferior to the original because in my opinion, it cheats. Yes, the characters return (if not all with their original voices), but in addition to speaking appliances, we have talking animals (the "master" is a veterinary school graduate student). We end up spending so much time with these critters, the appliances get robbed of their screen time. The film is a hoot however because it presents the world of computers and the Internet as it was understood in 1997. I don't think kids today will know what to make of the talking equipment presented, that's for sure. The Internet in this movie is something to be sold to the audience, a magical medium that can do almost anything, and worth singing songs about. It's really crazy. That's where it wins a place on my shelf, as a capsule of a simpler time, but the story itself is fairly ordinary. They did keep some dark elements in it, which is good of them. The sole DVD extra is a brief storyboards comparison sequence.

I think I've figured out what's wrong with Cowboys & Aliens, a high-concept, well-executed movie that should have been rad, but fell a little flat. I think that it works so well as a western that we don't welcome the aliens into the story. Because I love Daniel Craig as a badass gunfighter, and there are some good characters there for Harrison Ford, Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell, evocative music, strong landscape, and a tragic story for the hero. But the science fiction elements, which I should have embraced seeing how much genre mashing I've done in my role-playing games over the years, kinda bugged me. Not that I don't appreciate the attempt to make the aliens like the Conquistadors, looking for gold and slaves, a bit of poetic justice for the white settlers of the West. It's not that the aliens aren't well crafted, but they can't ever be as interesting as the humans, and I wish I could have seen that western unfold without their appearance. That said, after seeing how much of the effects were practical in the extras (a fine commentary by director Jon Favreau, and three featurettes on the story, the aliens and the stunts), I think my opinion of Cowboys & Aliens has been raised. I'll probably like it better the next time I see it. After a single viewing, I find it "just ok".

Marco Mak's Cop on a Mission is a triad movie in the Johnnie To style, artful despite having some occasionally low production values, especially when it comes to sound (you often hear the ambiance, like buzzing lights and air conditioners, for example). Regardless, it's got Eric Tsang as a triad boss, and he's always good. Daniel Wu is the undercover cop trying to bring him down, but finding that power corrupts as he goes up the ladder. Part of the problem (for him, but part of the joy for the audience) is that he's too clever for his own good, too good at being bad, if you will. One of the strange things about Cop on a Mission is how sexual it is. Not that there's much nudity (Wu's butt in a couple of shower scenes, that's it), but it's like the style of the film conspires to make the hero and the gangster's wife sleep together, and highlights each of their desirability through expressionistic means. Strong themes, fun reversals, the tension you want and expect undercover cop movies to have, and good acting. More than enough to overlook the film's technical weaknesses. The DVD comes with an informative expert commentary and an odd picture gallery collage.

Audios: Marc Platt returns to the Companion Chronicles with the second series' Mother Russia, a 1st Doctor story told by Steven Tyler (Peter Purves does a hilarious Hartnell impression, by the way) about a shapeshifting alien coming to Earth during Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Thematically, it's not as gorgeously coherent as Frostfire, but Platt nevertheless creates an incredible sense of time and place, as our heroes spend a summer in the Russian countryside prior to these events. In addition, there's a bit of meta-textual flair thrown in as the shapeshifting element is used to make actors question who they really art, since indeed, they are not their characters, existentialism particularly relevant in a format where a single actors plays almost every part.

As with the first Companion Chronicles' first cycle, the second Doctor's story is the weakest (I'm partway through the 4th's, which is how I can make that claim without reviewing it). Jake Elliot's Halicon Prime, as told by Jamie McCrimmon, is a strange murder mystery that doesn't quite excite on its own terms. Where the audio redeems itself is, first, in the very strange, alien ideas that populate the eponymous location - some great images there - and second, in how well Frazer Hynes pulls a Troughton voice. Uncanny at times! It also does a good job of placing the telling of the story in Jamie's timeline, showing us a tidbit of his life, post-Doctor. So when I say it's the weakest of the second series, it's only by comparison. It certainly has its charms.

The third Doctor story Old Soldiers, by James Swallow, is really a Brigadier story, as told by the Brig himself, Nicholas Courtney. He, too, does a fair Doctor, somehow getting the timbre right without doing any real impression. Courtney gives the Brigadier some real humanity, the audio play being a kind of wistful memoir, recounting a UNIT mission about ghostly warriors bonded to an ancient castle, and the toll that adventure took on his men and on one of his friends. Stories like these and the previous series' Liz Shaw vehicle only serve to make us realize how much Whovians have lost when their actors passed away. It shows they certainly weren't done entertaining and touching us with their performances of these well-worn characters.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
Act IV, Scenes 1-3 - BBC '80

Your Daily Splash Page this week features a splash from every DC title, alphabetically, from Flashpoint to Freedom Fighters.


Wriphe said...

I found the problem with COWBOYS & ALIENS to be that the movie sets up Daniel Craig in the mold of Clint Eastwood (his scene where he kills the bandits is great!) then proceeds to make him a mostly passive audience surrogate as the rest of the film sort of plays out around him. He's more video game protagonist than the Western anti-hero we are told to expect. That disconnect leads to disappointment as the lead character never delivers on his established potential, and we are asked to accept that the real heroes are other aliens (pointlessly disguised as hot chicks) and "humanity fighting against-the-odds" (Harrison Ford). The hero of the American West may be violent, anti-social, and morally gray, but he cannot be passive. Once the film loses the protagonist, it also loses the audience.

Siskoid said...

I'm not sure that's entirely fair, but I get where you're coming from.

He's still quite active once the aliens arrive, jumping a ship to save Ella, getting his men back for the final fight, dynamiting the ship bay... But the movie goes from a lone hero Man with no name story, to an ensemble piece where he's only one of several characters that must be catered to.

And that happens when the aliens come calling, subverting the genre and the genre expectations built to that point.

Austin Gorton said...

As a diehard Star Wars fan, I just want to say that while I obviously disagree with your overall sentiment regarding the films/franchise, I appreciate you taking the time to examine (and re-examine) them and eloquently explain your criticisms.

Not that I'd expect anything less from you, but it's still refreshing to see reasoned criticism in this age of snark, especially when it comes to Star Wars.

And for what it's worth, Empire is my favorite of the films as well (and generally is considered the favorite amongst most fans), though I do have a contrarian friend who knocks it for being an incomplete film lacking an ending as a result of its cliffhanger.

Siskoid said...

Thanks for understanding. My geek cred often comes into question when I state these opinions (also, my dislike for Tolkien's writing). I think you'd find me much mellowed had Lucas not repeatedly tweaked the original films or diluted their potency with prequels that cross the line between leitmotif and repetitiveness. But he did, so I'm more annoyed with the films' flaws than I otherwise would be.

I completely understand those who love it, and who happily delve into its extended universe though. I just took a different path.

Austin Gorton said...

I hear you on Tolkien. Loved the films, more or less bored/disappointed/unimpressed by the books, which, as you say, is pretty much geek heresy in some parts.


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