This Week in Geek (8-14/04/13)


This week, I got a few DVDs, including Doctor Who's The Ambassadors of Death, Shakespeare Uncovered, Downton Abbey Season 3, Outlaw Brothers and Julie Taymor's The Tempest. And because I really am done with Sleeping Dogs, I picked up a new game, Max Payne 3 for the XBox 360.


DVDs: Keeping extremely close to the dialog in Don DeLillo's novel, maverick Canadian director David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis is a sharp and somewhat minimalist satire of capitalist class structure, using few sets and deadpan, philosophical dialog to make its points, points that nonetheless remain ambiguous at the best of times, and even more so in Cronenberg's hands. I simply do not know what Robert Pattinson fans (Team Edward) will make of it. Me? I appreciate the journey of a man desperate to connect with the world below when the world above loses its fascination. It's a film that keeps asking questions and that seems even more relevant now than when the book came out in 2001 (it predicted Occupy Wall Street,a mong other things). If you don't it's a book, it seems perfectly contemporary. The book provides an atypical structure that's still satisfying, and forces Cronenberg to be less "squishy" than usual. The DVD includes a good director's commentary, and a comprehensive making of documentary that's actually a minute longer than the film! Unfortunately, the sound is not in synch with the visuals. A minor annoyance in something that's comprised of talking heads, voice-over and behind the scenes footage, but it's still too bad, as it's a remarkable document not just on the film, but on Cronenberg's method in general.

The Alien prequel, Prometheus, seems to have been met with resounding ambivalence, and I think that's in large part because it isn't really an Alien film. It takes place in the same universe, and Ridley Scott approaches some of the material the same way (on-screen titles, walking through the set, the thematic connection to sex and parenthood), but it plays less like horror and more like an exploration and first contact story. Even the music put me in mind of Star Trek. It's an Alien film with an actual sense of wonder. It's nowhere near as iconic as Alien or Aliens, but it's still way better than any of the other chapters in the franchise (I realize the bar wasn't set very high). It surprises with new monsters, earlier forms of the xenomorph, and their origin, and opens up the universe for further prequel explorations (a second film has been announced, but I don't know how solid that announcement is). It doesn't actually connect perfectly to what we see at the start of Alien and I can't quite explain the discrepancies when everything else is pointing in the right direction, but as a stand-alone film, Scott gives us a well-executed SF thriller, his visual style brilliantly playing with symmetry and asymmetry and making the environments come alive. The DVD includes about 10 minutes of deleted, extended and alternate scenes. Interesting, though nothing major.

Shaolin Rescuers isn't quite as sadistic as most Chang Cheh films, and starts out, in fact, as a comedy about two ne'er-do-wells who can't wait to quit their menial jobs and become martial arts heroes. These are played by my two favorite Venoms, Lo Meng and Kwok Choi, and though prone to douchebaggery, their schemes and irresponsible behavior as they destroy their work environments practicing their moves is pretty fun. Their lives intersect a larger, more violent plot when they take in, heal and protect a heroic Shaolin disciple in the wake of Pai Mei's treacherous destruction of the temple. In Chang Cheh style, numerous assassins, each armed with exotic weapons, come to town and tangle with our heroes. Recognizable stars (any of the group known as the Venoms) have the tightest fights, but the choreography tends to be weaker where others are involved, and though I'm used to Shaw Brothers films ending on an abrupt freeze frame sans epilogue, Shaolin Rescuers ends before I could properly process just who had lived and died. The movie is at its best when it's a comedy, and that's not something I would have expected from this particular director.

One last Key to Time Special Edition DVD to review, and it's The Armageddon Factor. As was obvious last week, I thought it was a furious mess, but what of the DVD extras? Because of the story's length, it occupies two discs. The first has the commentary tracks (including the always informative production note subtitles). The first track, from the original release, features Mary Tamm, John Woodvine (The Marshal) and director Michael Hayes, not bad but often falling to silence. The second is a lot more fun, but not all that informative, as the three regulars, Tom Baker, Mary Tamm and John Leeson enjoy each other's company and share anecdotes and laughs. On to Disc 2. Surprisingly, despite the story's length and variety, it has the shortest Making of of the season, but I admit it does the job, covering a lot of elements. There's a nice interview with director Michael Hayes on his Doctor Who career, and a somewhat cursory round-up piece about rogue Time Lords across the series. Pebble Mill at One material includes probably the best vintage Tom Baker interview I've seen, in which Baker ISN'T obviously bored with the presenter and being a douchebag, and a short report on Doctor Who sound effects. A separate, shorter bit on the same subject is also included. We also get an extended/alternate take on a scene, continuities and a photo gallery, for completeness' sake. And then the DVD goes loopy with the famous Christmas sketch for the BBC gag reel, in which the three heroes are drinking booze (K9 too) in the console room, and strangest of all, all five episodes of Tom Baker's Late Night Story (including one never broadcast). These 15-minute shorts have Tom Baker sitting in a study telling macabre children's stories to camera, all about children's relationship with death. Very nice performances, but a weird concept for a television show by today's standards. I enjoyed them despite their micro-thin relationship to Doctor Who.

Audios: I'm not quite as enthusiastic about the last three audios in the first Fourth Doctor Adventures range as I was about the first three (but not UNenthusiastic), and it may or may not be a coincidence that they all include returning threats from the series. Still largely good, but for me the season's back half was big on stunts and low on joy. Nicholas Briggs' Energy of the Daleks gives Leela her shot against the Daleks, and that's easily my favorite thing about this story, which is otherwise another Dalek plan to invade/destroy the Earth. Leela proves to be a great foe of the Daleks, in many ways representing the opposite of what they do, but the Doctor is consequently a little lost in the shuffle. THAT is probably what's bugging me. Leela and the Doctor keep getting separated over the course of these last three stories, and I miss their chemistry together. The Doctor is just so much better when he's with Leela than when he's bouncing off guest characters.
Alan Barnes writes a two-part finale, the first of which is Trail of the White Worm, a very strange story about an ancient giant worm in the English countryside, a repatriated colonial officer with a tank on his estate, and somewhere in there, the Geoffrey Beevers Master, as the audio cover proclaims. None of these elements quite come together satisfactorily, I'm afraid, though again, Leela is a highlight, this time very much at the Doctor's expense. Barnes sets it right with Part 2, titled The Oseidon Adventure, though I wasn't expecting greatness from the Kraal on the CD cover. But both the Doctor and Master come into their own (usually in the company of Leela, so there) and there are some pretty awesome twists and turns to keep things interesting and clever. Big Finish's first Fourth Doctor season ends on a high note, and though the next features Romana, season 3 will apparently use Leela again. Given how funny this pairing has been in this series, I'm very glad of it.

Gaming: I promised to talk about the last Sleeping Dogs DLC, Year of the Snake, in which Wei is reintroduced into the police force, but as a street cop. Not as thin as Nightmare in North Point, it uses all the other areas on the map, tells a longer story and has more secondary content (car bombs and favors, etc.). However, it's all more straightforward, in terms of genre, than Nightmare or Zodiac Tournament and leaves me wishing THOSE add-ons were the thicker DLC. The entire story takes place on (Chinese) New Year's Eve (it's the longest night ever) when insane cultists are planning to explode a bomb in Hong Kong. The Cult could have been developed a bit more as even their leader is a cookie-cutter terrorist quickly handled in the brief climax, but as far as gameplay goes, you get to arrest, taser and gas people with the best of them, and some new moves and weapons are available to your characters. And now I finally rest my Sleeping Dogs disc and look to play something else.

Theater: I went to see the university's 3rd and 4th year drama students play this week, a French adaptation of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream (Songe d'une nuit d'été), featuring a number of friends and acquaintances. I was, quite frankly, expecting a train wreck, but that's because I knew a lot of the behind the scenes gossip. The professor/director wanting to turn it into an orgy of transparent leotards and dominatrix costumes, or the translator being forces to change the text completely at least three times (in verse, in prose, then verse again, but the wrong verse length), and on and on. But though text and staging could have used a couple more weeks of refinement, what made it to the stage was quite reasonable. There were weaknesses - in particular the  poorly-rendered world of fairies - but with Shakespeare, I'm usually happy if a performance unlocks something about the play I hadn't considered yet. In this case, I'll give my highest thumbs up to Isabelle Bartkowiak (in picture), not just because she's a neighbor of mine, but because her Helena was so affecting. I wanted the play to be funny (and it was), but I wasn't expecting it to be so touching, and that was all down to her painful performance. I also want to commend Caroline Belisle who played Snug, a minor role to be sure, but just about the funniest thing on stage that night. Snug is SO simple-minded that he seemed to see across the veil and sense the audience, which made him as uncomfortable as he was during the play within the play. A fun meta-textual moment (for me anyway) as we became, I suppose, an invisible Court of Faerie, watching. Carole Belliveau's Bottom was good too, looking for all the world like Ron Swanson, but the ass jokes don't play in French. The third star I'll give is to the always-excellent Joannie Thomas who played an unusual animalistic Puck, Oberon's disobedient dog, a role for which she developed very specific movements with a mime expert. This girl looks like a pixie in real life, so it was quite interesting to see her go the opposite direction into the grotesque. Train wreck averted, I should think.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
Act IV, Scene 4 - BBC '80

Your Daily Splash Page this week features a splash from every DC title, alphabetically, from I, Vampire to Infinity Inc.


Michael May said…
I hadn't thought to rank Prometheus with the other Alien films, but in terms of quality I'd put it right where you did: between the first two and the last two. There are some really stupid moments in it, but it deserves points for ambition and just being so damn pretty.
Austin Gorton said…
The Alien prequel, Prometheus, seems to have been met with resounding ambivalence, and I think that's in large part because it isn't really an Alien film.

My ambivalence stems from what has become a stock Damon Lindelof "resolutions are for chumps" ending (I don't mind unresolved thematic threads but unresolved narrative ones drive me batty), some dodgy/unclear character motivations and plot holes throughout, and a cast of characters that includes arguably the dumbest scientists in the history of cinema.

That said, it was absolutely gorgeous (I originally saw it in 3D, one of the few films for which I'm actually glad I did) with a great score and strong performances from Fassbender and Rapace. I'd definitely place it in the same spot in the Alien canon that you did (though, as you say, that owes as much to the low quality of the last two Alien movies as anything).
Siskoid said…
There's every chance it fell prey to the "let's build a trilogy" attitude many big SFX properties do. If the film isn't embraced by the larger public, you're left with an incomplete experience when Part 2 doesn't materialize.