This Week in Geek (27/12/10-2/01/11)


It's incredible, but a year and half into Kung Fu Fridays, I'm still corralling Kung Fu classics I don't have. Bride with the White Hair is one of these, quickly sought and found after seeing references to it in Royal Tramp and Forbidden Kingdom. Say, anyone know of a Drunken Master II (the good one) DVD with the Chinese audio track?


DVDs: A varied, not so say eclectic, week begins with my flipping Castle Season 1. You know, I frequently lift my nose up at the wealth (ha!) of police procedurals currently on tv, many of them falling into the "consulting expert" mold, but Castle at least had Nathan Fillion going for it. Turns out it's a fun show with witty banter and good characters, which is a must because mysteries of the week can't alone bear repeat viewing. I'll be getting Season 2 and catching up. The DVD includes commentaries on 3 episodes (so almost a third of the episodes - this is a short season), outtakes and making of featurette. In addition, there are two elements that feature tv writing legend Stephen Cannell (who guest-stars in the pilot), one on his mentoring of a director/executive producer, and the other a skit in which Fillion becomes his apprentice. All of it adds to the show's fun factor.

I knew the Dirty Dozen from the tv movies of my youth, but I'd never seen the 1967 film. It deserves its notoriety. In the original film, Lee Marvin builds a Suicide Squad-like unit of war criminals featuring the like of Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland for an attack on a chateau full of Nazi high-ups. For modern audiences, it's hard not to find the inspiration for many scenes in Inglourious Basterds. I was surprised at how long we stayed with the convicts' training and bonding, but that's what made it rise above more standard fare. The moral ambiguity evidenced throughout stands as its only real anti-war commentary. There are no "good" soldiers, nor are there "bad" ones. The DVD offers a lot of extras, including a commentary split between two experts. There's the sour Capt. Dale Dye, military expert best known for putting actors through boot camp on just about every modern military pic/series, who is much too critical and nitpicky about the film's credibility, even going as far as accusing the crew of bad faith, while at the same time sounding out the reasons he should be hired for my next military epic. Much better is film historian David J. Schow who reads from letters between the director and producer and plays clips of interviews he's made with various survivors of the production as well as the book's author. There's also a vintage, mod featurette, a modern making of, and a interesting feature on the real-life suicide unit known as the Filthy 13. One oddity is a marine recruitment film narrated by Lee Marvin that would have been more at home on The Pacific (seeing as E.B. Sledge features a lot). And let's not forget the inclusion of Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission, the first made-for-tv sequel, even if I'd really like to forget it. It is terrible. Lee Marvin tiredly repeats dialog from the first film made 18 years previously and trains much nobler, made-for-tv, convicts to raid a train on which rides a Nazi general intent on killing Hitler. The plot is ridiculous (how did the army think a black man was going to pass as a German soldier anyway?), the script lazy, the production values weak, and neither Gary Wilcox and Ken Whal can save it. I'd recommend ignoring it if you can.

Changing gears again, I watched The Science of Sleep by Michel Gondry, a sometimes hard-to-follow but lovely romance in which Gondry goes all out to create the characters' dreams (in camera, no less). Eternal Sunshine meets Be King Rewind, if you will. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, always artsy and elliptical, it managed the charm me by its inherent truth and clever images. What's hard to follow is the way the characters jump from French to English and sometimes even to Spanish, forcing a read-listen switch that isn't always easy because of the accents (and I'm a French speaker!). The commentary track likewise requires focus (and Charlotte Gainsbourg, the best English speaker, has far too little to say), and the DVD also includes a good 50-minute making of, a featurette on the prop maker (she's as pretty as the things she makes), and quite oddly, a couple of artsy cat shelter-related shorts.

What happens to struggling artists when they get old? That's the premise behind Chinese Coffee, Ira Lewis' two-man play about a couple of failed writers putting an end to their friendship. Al Pacino wanted to immortalize the character he in part created off-Broadway and expanded on it through flashbacks and flashforwards that work well indeed, giving relief from the play's claustrophobic theatrical structure. The dialog is intricate and layered with irony (and hypocrisy), and the performances (of Pacino, Jerry Orbach, and a couple smaller roles) are uniformly excellent, making the small film quite rewatchable. Pacino's commentary track is rather weak, self-derogatory more than insightful. You'll get all the information you need from him in the intro and 20-minute epilogue in which he speaks about the play, the film and his motivation.

From the same Al Pacino boxed set, we get Heathcote Williams' one-act (one-hour) play, The Local Stigmatic. This time, Pacino pairs up with Paul Guilfoyle in this ambiguous anti-celebrity statement that seems more relevant today than it was either when the film was made (early 90s) or the play was written (mid 60s). It's an off-putting piece to be sure, but worthy of attention. The dialog seems opaque and coded, but sinister, and ultimately, scary. I haven't seen such ugly characters since, I dunno, Mamet's Edmund, or perhaps LaBute's In the Company of Men, so it's not an easy film, but it is short. It wasn't a success on stage, so Pacino is a bit desperate to have it be discovered (it was never released until this 2007 set). The intro, commentary, epilogue scheme of Chinese Coffee is used again, but this time, he has more to say about it.

Looking for Richard is the actual reason I got this set, converting up from my old VHS tape. I've seen this docu-drama maybe a dozen times, but it never ceases to delight me. Al Pacino set out to do a documentary about Shakespeare's accessibility using Richard III as his example play, but it evolved into a film production of the play by American actors, including Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey and Wynona Rider. The docu-bits flow from funny to inspirational to educational and the play itself is well staged and acted. I wish we had a document like this for many other Shakespeare plays! The DVD has an intro and good epilogue "making of", but no commentary track. I miss it, but the other two extras do the work a commentary would have adequately.

The last thing in the boxed set is Babbleonia, a documentary that is essentially another extra appended to Pacino's three plays-on-film. It's about an hour's discussion in which he covers his theatre work in general with film professor Richard Brown (the effaced interviewer on the other films) and which should reward acting students and teachers alike. The scene index splits the hour apart in many chunks so that you can find the insight or piece of advice you're looking for quickly and efficiently. The only extra on this extra is Looking for Richard's trailer.

I got through the 1982-83 time travel series Voyagers! out of nostalgia and because I'm a sucker for time travel shows, even bad ones. Let's just say I now realize why it doesn't have more fans. Wow, this thing is very badly put together. Now, I'm used to this kind of thing being filmed on back lots, the hero and precocious kid running around Hollywood history more than actual history. I don't expect a lot of historical accuracy (even from a show that explicitly invites you to read books if you want to find out more - or just how the show got it wrong). But Voyagers! has many more problems. Holes in logic at every turn, regular deus ex machina, bad sound and picture, and underpar acting. It's not just the guest-stars either. Poor Hexum may be a handsome guy, but he pulls a stilted Adric here as Phineas Bogg, perhaps the dimmest time traveler ever. There's a sudden and marked improvement in the last three episodes there, but it's a bit late. The show would not return at any rate, as NBC wanted to beat 60 Minutes in that time slot with another news program. Apparently, Voyagers! would have otherwise gotten a second season. The new news show was a total failure. (All this info from wiki, since there are really no extras on this DVD to inform me.) The silver lining is a scene in which American hero Jean Lafitte fights pirates of the Caribbean with a battle shovel. Yee-haw!
More proper time travel fare - but not by much - is Doctor Who's The Time Monster (3rd Doctor & Jo). It's really not the best or most coherent story, but it IS highly entertaining in a batshit crazy kind of way. A boudhist fable, Atlantis, UNIT vs. knights and Roundheads, baby Benton, the Minotaur vs. the matador Doctor, the Master gets married, Jo's upskirt, a TARDIS inside a TARDIS inside a TARDIS, and the ancestor of New Who's Reapers. It's just one mad idea after another, presented with a certain jokeyness that doesn't cross the line into camp for me. The Atlantis bits are served up in a Shakespearian style I quite enjoy too. A guilty pleasure? The commentary track switches groups in between episodes, so we have the more standard Barry Letts/cast/crew stuff, but also John Levene (Benton) boisterously talking us through a couple, and a gruope of today's Who's writers giving more of a fan's point of view. The making of focuses on the science presented in the story and is weaker for the odd mix. There's also a short restoration comparison amid the usual extras.

More time travel? Ok. I also flipped J.J. Abrams' Star Trek. My opinion hasn't changed a whole lot since I reviewed it - I liked the same bits, disliked the same bits, was touched, laughed, cried at the same bits - so if you're interested, here is a link to Star Trek review #891. I'd say the only real change is that I can better justify any and all changes made to the timeline now, but that's my No-Prize brain at work. The DVD has a strong host of extras, including a dynamic commentary track, some illuminating deleted scenes with commentary, a well-edited gag reel, and a 20-minute making of seems cursory but shows off how many of the effects were done in camera. In any case, the "making of" is expanded into different features on the second disc. Some thought, fun and production value were put into each of these. Blu-Ray has even more, but I can't say. The disc also has a dreaded digital copy (do these really inhibit piracy?) and a demo version of the Star Trek D-A-C game for Xbox (it's just awful).

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
II.ii. Brevity - Zeffirelli '90
II.ii. Brevity - Kline '90


chiasaur11 said…
Ever seen "Life"?

Seems another show on the limited list of police procedurals you'd enjoy, if only because the main character is basically Vic Sage as a cop.

And it's one of the few shows I've seen with a genuinely satisfying resolution to the mysteries built up through the whole thing.
Bully said…
Those Pacino DVDs have a fantastic cover design.
Anonymous said…
Dirty Dozen is one of the classic war films. I read the novel, also, and the mission only appears in a report of the last 10 pages.

I think the novel was brave for its day, treating themes like racial discrimination in the army and repressed homosexuality. The last chapter, with Gilpin runing wild through the castle firing his gun, with a scissors through his arm crying "I'm guilty!" was strong.