This Week in Geek (29/07-04/08/13)

Buys

DVDs added to the collection this week: Ararat (yes, more Atom Egoyan), The Thieves (a Korean heist movie), and Breaking News (yes, more Johnnie To).

"Accomplishments"

DVDs: Something strange happened this week regarding my DVD consumption. After a while I noticed how all the jacket art had the same sober color palette and then started picking movies to watch based on that same palette just so this post would be aesthetically consistent. Is this a new low or a new high? And it all starts with...

Warehouse 13 Season 4! At 20 episodes, it's the longest season the show has had, though it's really two 10-episode seasons. SyFy fought the impulse to release it as two DVDs as they had with Eureka. Anywho, this is the season where things get a lot darker, as a real price is paid for getting out of the previous season's status quo-destroying cliffhanger. It's not all chills and tears, of course. W13 always balances its drama with comedy, but that drama really goes for broke. Can't believe there are only six episodes to go, but they'll be intense! I should mention the genre-centric guest-stars, something of a Warehouse 13 tradition. Season 4 features the likes of Brent Spiner, Anthony Head, Amy Acker, James Marsden and Polly Walker, with old favorites like René Aubergenois, Jeri Ryan and Lindsay Wagner returning. The DVD includes podcast-quality commentary on the first 10 episodes and only a couple from the last two, lots of deleted scenes, a gag reel, and this year's web series, a mostly animated adventure through the Warehouse diorama which beats last season's comic book adventure by a mile by deepening Warehouse mythology.

Guillermo del Toro's first film, Cronos, is like a Warehouse 13 episode in which the agents never show up. It's also a neat little vampire movie that never uses the word and so, transcends the genre. It's about an antiques dealer who finds a device that gives the user immortality and how it affects his family (his wife and granddaughter). Obviously, there's an old millionaire who wants it for himself and who sends his American nephew, played with great humor by Ron Perlman, to acquire it. The film stands on its own, but may be most interesting to del Toro fans because it is practically the blueprint for all that is to come - the merging of the supernatural with religious themes, the quirky characters that elevate the material beyond the genre formula, the humanized monsters and monstrous humanity, and the threat to family. The Criterion Collection DVD also includes a wealth of material, including two commentary tracks - de Toro in English and the producers in both English and Spanish - interviews with del Toro, star Federico Luppi, Perlman, and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro; a tour of del Toro's house/offices filled with collectibles; and Geometria, a short student film that's pretty funky, but is made interesting by the del Toro interview that accompanies it.

Another first film, this one for Ron Perlman, is Quest for Fire. This is an amazing achievement if only because it's basically a silent film without any subtitles, something that does not get in the way of telling its story of three cavemen seeking the fire they can harness, but not yet make themselves. It's not a documentary on primitive man, of course. I highly doubt Ice Age cave-dwellers could have walked to and from African huts, or fought such a variety of subhuman species. It's a fantasy that mashes up all eras of prehistoric man, and yet hits upon a truth about who we are and have always been. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud creates moments that turn the questing trio more and more human through contact with Aki, a girl from another tribe. They learn to laugh, make love and ultimately make fire. I've seen it before of course, and have always been impressed by how everything was done in camera, but this time it struck me as celebrating multi-culturalism. The tribe we follow is the only one that has vast differences in hair color and body type, and they easily accept Aki into their group, even gain mammoths as allies, so it speaks to (no doubt anachronistic) inclusive behavior that makes the tribe stronger. The DVD looks like this cheap thing from the front, but it's chock full of stuff. There are two excellent commentary tracks, one by Annaud and the other with Perlman, Chong (Aki) and a producer. Annaud also provides running commentary on a large number of photo galleries, discussing everything from inspiration to marketing the film. And there's a pretty good vintage making of featurette narrated by Orson Welles who makes it all sound impossibly dramatic. It made me laugh, but there's some good stuff in there regardless.

I'd been told Misfits got much weaker after the second season. I'm happy to report I found Season 3 quite enjoyable. The loss of Nathan in between seasons is felt early on (his Vegas webisode really should have been put up first rather than in the extras at the end), with the new character Rudy providing the lewd humor Misfits is known for without as much of the charm (he still somehow grows on you). By the end of the season, we'll have said goodbye to a couple more of the original characters, and in fact, there's enough of closure to the last episode that it could act as a series finale, no need to check out who else joins the cast for Seasons 4 and 5. The kids get all new powers, but the focus isn't so much on these as it was in earlier stories (except maybe Curtis' new power, because it's more about exploring character than about fancy effects). The time travel/Nazi Britain episode, in any other genre show, would probably herald our reaching the bottom of the barrel, except that it's actually an important game-changer, and for Kelly's line in the teaser. The DVD extras are comparable to the other releases (i.e. quite cool), with making of elements for each episode, additional featurettes on stunts, effects, the season as a whole and on-set shenanigans, and in addition to "Vegas", another short episode called "Erazer" about a super-powered graffiti artist.

Tai Chi Hero is the sequel to Tai Chi Zero, and while it sets us up for a third film in the trilogy, it provides a definite ending that makes the films work as a diptych. The production has certainly calmed down since the first one which was often over-busy with pop-up video elements. Now that the hero has been accepted by the village and we're invested in the characters, we don't need all those bells and whistles to keep us interested. Hero has a more traditional look and feels less like a Kung Fu Hustle-type spoof. There's still some craziness, but it's mostly through its anachronistic soundtrack and the steampunk (and Renaissance punk) elements that it achieves it. The action is on the same level, of course, with Sammo Hung directing the action and Yuen Biao making a gravity-defying appearance. Where Zero had a short making of featurette, Hero gives you an hour's worth, looking at both films from conception to completion, though the feature, called From Zero to Hero, is a bit of a mess, editing in short commercial featurettes and the entire origin story sequence from Zero before the documentary proper begins.

Of all the plays I watched this week as part of my "Order of Composition BBC Shakespeare" project, Titus Andronicus is the last I would think to prefer, and yet... The difficulty with this early tragedy is that it's at once too shallow and too gory to really work, so apologists make it a conscious parody of Marlowe's excesses or an exorcism of Marlovian influences. It may be that, and it's difficult to take the scene in which Lavinia brings Titus' truncated hand in her tongueless mouth because her own extremities have been chopped off without seeing it AS parody. By the time the Queen of the Goths has mistakenly eaten her own sons in a meat pie, the Grand Gignol has reached full fruition (except for the dead baby they must still parade on stage). So why does this particular production work? Well, I quite like Trevor Peacock in the lead role, as a man so filled with hubris he fails to question anything. Duty and tradition guide his decisions, and so he lacks the tools to deal with the new royal family's duplicity. But he's still one of Shakespeare's great moaners and not very interesting AS a character. The play is saved, as it always is, by Aaron (Hugh Quarshie), a monstrous villain in the Marlovian mold, but still the most human and sympathetic of the lot. When he rants about his villainy, I can only see someone who knows he won't be freed so might as well confess to all the evils of the world, hyperbolic evil more believable from a man of his complexion and status than the tamer truth. After all, he's a whispering devil in the play, but never commits heinous acts himself. I also found it interesting that director Jane Howell used the same concept for her 360-degree sets she did in her Henry VI sequence, though I'm not sure her surreal mixing of images quite works.

Love's Labour's Lost is Shakespeare's first high comedy, and the one that's least like a typical romantic comedy, even though it features a proto-Beatrice in Rosaline (Jenny Agutter) and a proto-play-within-a-play that will lead us to Midsummer Night's Dream. No, as the title suggests, there is no marriage to be had by the end of the play (except for the clown played by David Warner), making this play more than a little experimental for its day. Certainly, Shakespeare threw everything at it in terms of language and poetry, and keeping all of that intact makes this version better than Branagh's failed experiment at replacing a lot of it with Broadway tunes and dance numbers in his own version. Some parts of it work quite well, especially the women's machinations, Berowne's justifications for love, and the low-brow clowns, but I'm less impressed with the intellectuals whose humor falls flat for me and the way the play ends on too sad a song. Oddly, though most of the BBC adaptations are shot on video and kept the periods Elizabethan or in the time they are said to happen, LLL is shot on film and seems to take place in the 18th century. Not to its detriment, you understand.

A Midsummer Night's Dream too is shot on film, and I'll come right out and say it - it's never been my favorite of Shakespeare's comedies, even though it was the first play I ever read and have seen it live more than any other. Perhaps I've never seen it done right, or at least, never done right across the board. The faeries are often a problem, though in the BBC production, Helen Mirren's Titania comes closest to an acceptable performance. However, its Puck seems to be reading from cue cards, and there's this awkward directorial flourish that has dramatic music come in only when the fay are talking amongst themselves. Jarring rather than clever. Bottom and his band of would-be actors is usually the highlight, but they are not very funny here despite the participation of name actors like Brian Glover and Geoffrey Palmer. Their play is in fact marred by a terribly aloof performance from all its hecklers, especially the boring and tedious Theseus. Worst of all for me is that Helena is played as a foolish ugly duckling, in no way the mirror of more desirable Hermia, and in fact seems to be cast too old. It robs the character of any credibility and sympathy. The songs have nice melodies, but otherwise, I found the production dark and muddy. I know it's night, but shouldn't the forrest seem a bit more enchanted? And what's with the lines stepping all over one another? This is Shakespeare, let's not all shout our verses at the same time! A deep disappointment.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
IV.v. Laertes' Return

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

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