This Week in Geek (25-31/03/13)

Buys

Got the two Season 4 Venture Bros. DVD sets at an acceptable price. I'm sure I'm not the only one having problems with how animated series tend to be packaged and sold these days, i.e. with fewer episodes than any given season contains. Are animation fans simply unable to wait a 13-episode season to come out that they must be catered to with slimmer, but more frequent releases? At least these are clearly marked as volumes 1 and 2. I can't even begin to understand the naming scheme for series I might want to invest in in the future like Adventure Time and Young Justice.

"Accomplishments"

DVDs: To get back in the groove before Season 3 airs tonight, I quickly flipped Season 2 of Game of Thrones, a season I found a bit slow and repetitive watching it week to week. I must admit. It didn't bother me as much on second viewing, in part because of the more rapid pace of viewing and because I'd since read the book (A Clash of Kings) and came at it from a different, more comparative, angle). I thought Denerys was screaming about her dragons a lot more than she actually did. But 3 episodes over 4 hours is much worse when we think of it as an entire month as broadcast. The flaw is that the show must cater to its actors, whereas the books have no such obligation to their characters. To keep them around each week when the plot has nothing for them to do, we get an invented romance for Rob, a heck of a lot of walking for John Snow and entirely too much of Denerys begging for money or her dragons' return. Not surprisingly, the best episode is the Battle of Blackwater where we DON'T cut to these various stories. The highlights are Tyrion's role as the King's Hand (no surprise there), a certain humanization of Cersei (not in the books), Arya connecting to Tywin Lannister's story, Theon journey of douchebaggery, and anything Brienne-related. Still plenty to see, and that opening sequence gets bigger and bigger. This was always going to be a more low-key season because the book itself is all set-up. Book 3 was awesome-balls though, so we're in for a ride (or a heck of a lot of cheap tricks to avoid showing the expensive action - please don't skimp on the Denerys thread). The DVD includes 12 cast or crew commentaries for 10 episodes (or really for 9, because episode 5 doesn't get one), as well as a thorough half-hour making of about the Blackwater episode, a half-hour round table discussion wtih a few of the actors (not in front of an audience), and a shorter bit on the religions of the world. No DVD space wasted on repeated encyclopedic text features, instead offering a booklet with the various houses and a fold-out map of the world, as well as a trading card.

The Hidden Fortress may just have jumped to #1 on my list of favorite Kurosawa films. I knew it was a major inspiration for Star Wars in how it told the story mostly through the POV of the clowns (and I swear you could put the SW soundtrack on the early scenes and it would work), but I wasn't expecting it to be so funny. Like, uproariously funny. I knew Kurosawa had it in him from Sanjuro, certainly, but in that film Toshiro Mifune's character was a clever kind of funny, a trickster character who spoofed the samurai code. In Hidden Fortress, you don't laugh with the protagonists, but at them. They're stupid, greedy, foolish, cowardly, and suffer constant reversals of fortune as a result. You want them to pay for their sins, but also to survive so they can get into trouble again. The slapstick is excellent too - I could watch two hours of these two guys trying to climb a slippery slope. Kurosawa somehow also makes this an epic story about getting a princess to safety across enemy lines, with some "cast of thousands" moments and a brilliant spear fight between the real hero of the story, again played by Mifune, and a respected enemy. The tomboy princess stradles the drama/comedy divide in the film, by not taking Mifune's crap AND allowing her experiences while disguised as a commoner turn her into an empathetic and wise leader. It's a very rich and satisfying film that smoothly changes tone to suit whatever characters are on screen.

The Key to Time season was one of the first Doctor Who DVD releases in Region 1, and for the longest time unavailable in the UK, so all six serials were in dire need of the Special Edition treatment and some proper extras. All that was on there, really, was a commentary track and the production notes subtitles. Coming so soon one after another in my review schedule, it was impossible for me to flip each story's DVD before moving on, but I'm slowly trying to catch up. Flipped The Ribos Operation at least. My thoughts on the episodes themselves were made clear in my DVD reviews (a great introduction for Romana, and wonderfully witty script), but if we're talking extras... The commentary track is the one from the original release, shared between Tom Baker and Mary Tamm who clearly enjoy each other's company and make for a fun commentary duo. The disc also includes a 20-minute making of for the serial, and an hour-long documentary on the whole of the Graham Williams era (season 15-17), which I found extremely funny at times (the documentary, I mean). Finally, there's a Season 16 vintage trailer, a few minutes of continuity announcements (from before or after the episodes, as broadcast) and the usual photo gallery. More as I get through the season.

Audios: No word on whether or not Sara Kingdom gets a second life aboard the TARDIS yet, but Simon Guerrier still gets to use her as part of the Doctor/Steven team in The Anachronauts, another double-length Companion Chronicles audio in which Jean Marsh and Peter Purves share the narration. Unsurprisingly, Guerrier brings his trademark sensitivity to both characters, but the plot is a bit confounding. It starts with the TARDIS crashing into humanity's first time machine, one meant to be used to escalate a war into the temporal realm. And then there's a long portion of the story taking place in Berlin during the Cold War that's pretty harrowing, but... What's real and what's not? Ultimately, some things are such red herrings that, while useful as characterization tools, large portions of the story aren't particularly germane to the plot. I'm going to say this one bears a re-listen in the future, when a more knowing ear will pick up on a certain thematic richness.

Richard Dinnick's The Wanderer sends the first Doctor, Barabara, Susan and Ian to 1903 Russia where they meet a figure from history (I won't spoil you), one who is affected by an alien artifact. As usual, William Russell is an emotional and convincing narrator, and the script is worthy of the voice he's been giving to his relationship with Barbara in this series. The story does meander a bit early on, but I think that keeps listeners from guessing at what's really going on, and there's some very effective acting from Tim Chipping as the eponymous wanderer. Or is that wanderer the Doctor? Or Ian himself? I was reminded of The Rocket Men in the way Ian's introduction was clothed in more introspective discourse, giving the story a bit more weight than its plot would otherwise give it.

In Tales from the Vault, Jonathan Morris makes use of two past companions that aren't part of Big Finish's licensing agreement, Grace and Chang Lee from the TV Movie, by casting those actors in new roles, UNIT officers working at the Vault, a repository of alien artifacts. They serve as a framing tale for short anthology tales featuring recordings made by Steven, Zoe, Jo and Romana I, which seem very cursory at first, but end up playing a part in UNIT's own story as everything comes together pleasantly. I hope their keep the promise of telling more stories from the Vault, as it's an effective showcase of the range's actors and variety of tones (the Jo stuff is hilarious). Good show, Mr. Morris, good show.

Gaming: I finished Sleeping Dogs on my XBox 360, a sandbox adventure (the only type of game I really play) based on Hong Kong action films. You play an undercover cop infiltrating the triads and getting more and more ambivalent as to where your true loyalties lie. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, you grow in ability, leveling up in Cop, Triad, Martial Arts and Face, and weapons are very hard to come by indeed. Instead, there's a pretty cool martial arts engine with plenty of moves, and even in-play violent animations when you pull a nasty trick on an opponent, like hanging them from a chandelier or dropping a car engine on them. To get 100% and all achievements wasn't all that time-consuming and far less frustrating than in similar games, even those there are plenty of side-games and side-missions available. One of the things that makes it easier is a restart from checkpoint option whenever you die or get arrested by incredibly competent cops. Lots of cool action, like bullet time, sideswiping races, and parkour, but also procedural stuff like hacking, safe-cracking and bugging (and karaoke), it all fits together nicely in an intensely dramatic story. As a major fan of Honk Kong cinema, it was cool driving around locations I recognized from so many movies (the trick is learning to drive on the left), though the map isn't a true sandbox. There are plenty of inaccessible spaces (jungles and even buildings) fenced off and acting simply as three-dimensional matte paintings. Overall, I quite enjoyed it and am thinking about getting the expansion packs that turn the story into a horror flick as everyone you killed comes back from the grave to haunt you.

Yesterday was Tabletop Day, an international event suggested by Geek & Sundry, and as a big fan of Wil Wheaton's Tabletop series, I wanted to do something. Decided on it last minute, but two or three friends accepted the invitation and we played a couple things, beer in hand. To break the ice, a Milk & Cheese board game (actually a magazine pull-out... I'm thinking, out of Wizard?), which we played with HeroClix just to spice things up. The ice broken, we sat down for a game of Cosmic Encounter, my very favorite strategy/board games, and Marty's giant-sized Macrons stomped all over my Amoebas and Nath's Subversives. Then Isabel arrived, but we were getting a bit tired, so it came down to another round of Milk & Cheese (Nath's dairy product domination was unchallenged) before we flipped the pull-out over and played its Madman board game and tried to get all the books Dr. Flem needs before moving to the True Love space. Marty won it while we were all stuck on that darned Dance Party. We should do it again sometime. Don't even have to wait 'til March 30th.
Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
Act IV, Scene 4

Your Daily Splash Page this week features a splash from every DC title, alphabetically, from Hawkman to Hitman.

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