This Week in Geek (18-24/07/11)


One book, this week, and that's Wil Wheaton's Just a Geek. Reading it now. As for DVDs, bargain bin buys include Superman Returns (for Reign), Planet of the Apes (the 1968 version of course), The Omega Man, and Midsummer Night's Dream (with Kevin Kline). Found outside the bargain bin, we have the BBC's Tragedies II boxed set (King Lear, Antony & Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, Timon of Athens and Coriolanus), The Double Life of Veronique, and Doctor Who Series 6 Part 1.


DVDs: From the previous post, you already know what I think of the 40s Superman shorts. But what about the DVD itself (entitled Superman: The Ultimate Max Fleischer Cartoon Collection)? It contains all 17 shorts (which usually range from 7 to 10 minutes each) plus the army training Super-spoof, "Snafuperman". All are in good condition, though the prints are a little murky here and there. The rest of the package is a bit disappointing however. The text cards provide detailed but redundant synopses of each episode and what they call "fun facts", mostly a collection of nitpicks like "the bullets don't bounce off according to physics" (some of them I'd go so far as call insulting). We also get a phone interview with Joan Alexander, the voice of Lois Lane. I'm not sure an interviewer was even needed, as she starts talking about her talent and illustrious career without much prompting. Plenty of self-aggrandizing comments and name-dropping, but not a whole lot of discussion about the animated shorts themselves. Rounding up the extras is a trailer for the live action Superman serial.

The original V mini-series was way better than it had any reason to. The next year's follow-up, V: The Final Battle, doesn't quite match it. Though it has some memorable moments (I've never forgotten Blair Tefkin giving birth to a lizard, for example), and is full of incident (each "episode" advances the story and provides victories and setbacks), it just doesn't have the allegorical depth of the original. V explored a mock-Nazi invasion (with aliens), and every strata of society affected. It was about the Holocaust, about informing on your neighbors, about Hitler Youth. The Final Battle (which would not prove final since it spawned a short tv series that never even got a finale - sound familiar?) was a Resistance story, first and foremost, and consequently feels padded with chases and gun fights. And while there are interesting elements - a priest trying to bring God to the Visitors, internal politics on the mothership, and of course, Robin's pregnancy - the ending is a nigh unforgivable piece of metaphysical nonsense. No really, what the hell was that!? (No extras to ask forgiveness either.)

Why did it take me so long to see Charlie Wilson's War? After all, its credentials are pretty spectacular - Aaron Sorkin script, Mike Nichols directs, Philip Seymour Hoffman co-stars (AND Amy Adams)... I'm going to blame Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, two actors who are perfectly good (and excellent in this film, by the way) but that, through overexposure at one point, just turned me off. Well, never too late to do/see a good thing. Charlie Wilson's War is the true story of how three people used their marginality to make the Soviets lose the war in Afghanistan, and subsequently caused the fall of the Soviet Empire. Real and quirky people, armed with Sorkin's wit, lending humor to real world events you've likely never heard of, and all of it steeped in a certain irony knowing, as we do, how those events are in many ways responsible for the current situation in that country (without making a meal of it or hitting the nail right on the head). The DVD includes about a half-hour of interviews, about half of which are given over to the people who lived it, confirming what you might have thought was artistic license.

Daytime Drinking is a small indy picture from Korea with a premise that goes like this: Lovesick Hyuk-jin is convinced by his friends to go on a trip with them. He shows up, they don't. Awkward hilarity ensues as Hyuk-jin encounters strangers on the road, where the steady stream of alcohol may or may not be responsible for several more misunderstandings. It's a run of bad luck that would make Peter Parker go white. In the hands of Hollywood, this would be a fast-paced romp à la The Hangover or even Sideways. But no, it's a quiet film that actually plays on the boredom of the doomed trip, capturing the act of drinking alone. Hyuk-jin is a timid character who doesn't say a lot, but the people he meets are always eccentric and interesting. A lovely change of pace, made especially interesting to me because Korea in winter looks a heck of a lot like New Brunswick in the spring. Slightly taller mountains and more pine tress, sure, but this could have been filmed HERE. I have half a mind to adapt it for Canadian audiences. Of course, I'd need to change the soju for Colt .45. Less than 5 minutes of extras include a couple of deleted scenes and a montage of behind the scenes clips and pictures. Korean drinking rules are explained on the inside of the box.

Every week in July, I'm comparing/contrasting two versions of something, and this week, it's King Lear. The 1974 Thames Shakespeare Collection version was up first, a somewhat old-fashioned, 2-hour effort starring Patrick Magee in the title role. His Lear has the shakes and frequently appears drunk (though bonus material says the inveterate drinker swore not to drink a drop during production). It's not a bad performance, though at times strange and distracting, and at others, making you understand why his daughters would disrespect him. This is a version I'd seen before, long ago on PBS or somewhere, and it's responsible for my long-held opinions of the play. It seemed King Lear was never going to be my cup of tea. For one thing, there's too much madness in it. Lear is driven to a sort of senility, while Edgar is quite over-the-top in his feigned madness. It's likely I never got to the end before. So re-evaluating it now that I'm older and (cough) wiser, I find that Edgar and Lear still annoy me, but that the play really hangs on the manipulative Edmund, and the moral center of the play, Kent. Both these roles are well played. Patrick Mower bringing sexiness to his scenes with the sisters as Edmund, and Ray Smith is strong and dependable as Kent. The production really does show its age though, with awkward fights and a really very dry storm. Being studio-bound is one thing, but the director doesn't quite seem to know how rise above those limitations. The DVD includes a half-hour interview with Mower, and it's a fun, candid one. The actor has some good recollections, does impressions of his co-stars and takes no prisoners when discussing the play and the production.

The BBC 's King Lear from 1982 is superior in almost every way. First, it restores a full hour of text, and I'm once again impressed at how plays I didn't particularly care for are completely redeemed in my mind by the use of the integral text. Suddenly, motivations make SENSE and the play doesn't appear so creaky. Second, the production has style. A severe, sober color palette speaks to Lear's decay, the storm is a grand affair that could be the death of the actors, and there's real directorial flair in many of the shots, and this despite being just as studio-bound as the Thames version. Michael Hordern is a more lively Lear, and thanks to the restored text actually has a sense of humor. His evil daughters (one of which is Penelope Wilton, yay!) are more clearly humorless psychopaths who see their father's frivolity as dottiness. John Shrapnel as Kent is excellent, and Michael Kitchen is wry and funny, looking into the lens to take us into his confidence (here again, the restored text gives him better reason to act against his brother and father). As for Edgar, he's still a sore point for me. Here, they dress him as Christ on the cross, and he's just as loony and annoying as ever. Anton Lesser is quite affecting when he ISN'T playing mad though. This is one version of Lear I'd revisit gladly.

I also flipped the tv classic, I, Claudius, based on the Robert Graves book and starring the most excellent Derek Jacobi, as well as John Hurt, Patrick Stewart and many others. The history of the Roman Emperors from Augustus to Nero (and the women who manipulated them) is one so steeped in scandal, murder, incest, violence and debauchery that there seems only one way to play it - as the blackest of black comedies, and as a master class in manipulation. Fans of HBO dramas should feel right at home and may use the series Rome as a prequel. (I like to then use Doctor Who's The Romans as a sequel. I think both portrayals of Nero match up.) Sadly, no DVD extras explore the making of the 12-episode series or even Roman history itself. There's an old 1960s documentary about the making of a never-completed film production of I, Claudius (starring Charles Laughton), but that's hardly consolation. Still, interviews with Graves and long film clips (as well as outtakes) do interest the modern viewer.

Doctor Who: The Awakening is a short 2-episode story for the 5th Doctor, Tegan and Turlough, and it's one that should have been stretched to 3 (or only cut to 3, as it was originally designed as a standard 4-parter). It's about an ancient evil that's forcing a small town to act out the English Civil War and has good production values, performances and the very first appearance in Who of a CRACK IN TIME. No really, it kinda looks like the Series 5 meme. Unfortunately, the ending is so rushed that it's hard to understand just what's happening, what the Malus is, or how it is defeated. Sadly, Peter Davison doesn't show up for the commentary, the only one of his stories where he's failed to do so. Toby Hadoke moderates an actually lively discussion with the script editor and director. The DVD also includes a good making of filmed in one of the villages used for filming, as well as "Then and Now" location comparisons. A private collector still has the Malus, and he shows up to say a few words and the monster's designer and model make are reunited with the prop to share their memories. All that plus some deleted scenes and a famous Doctor Who blooper too. It's a nicer package than these short stories have usually merited.

Fast forward 26 years as I also flip Doctor Who's A Christmas Carol. 10 and 1 things about it are already on the blog, so I won't repeat myself except to say it's still one of the better Doctor Who stories ever. The DVD includes a whole episode of Doctor Who Confidential, hanging its behind the scenes material on the first read-through, returning to it and using it as a structure. It makes sense and gives the Confidential more unity. And then there's Doctor Who at the Proms 2010, a concert of Murray Gold's music for Series 5 with appearances by the lead actors and many of the monsters to frighten the kids in the audience. I loved the previous Proms, and this one has a lot going for it too (though not Karen Gillen's hosting, she's too flighty and nervous for it). One highlight is Matt Smith as the Doctor, not on tape, but interacting with the crowd, finding a young volunteer to save the theater, etc. Very fun. And another is the heart-swelling montage of each Doctor's regeneration scene, with Gold's music playing over it. Well, I'm a big crybaby.

Audio: Though The Crusade is included in the Lost TV Episodes Vol.1 set, it's not a completely lost Doctor Who story. Indeed, the Lost in Time DVD set includes all four episodes, though 2 and 4 are audio only. On CD, however, William Russell's linking narration adds a lot, especially to the last episode's action beats, which are just random noise and non sequitur dialog on the DVD. I had originally listened to those missing episodes while looking at tele-snaps. Worth owning in two formats? Sure. The Crusade is one of the best historical stories (or any stories, really), with a broad canvas, a cast of dozens (including Jean Marsh and Julian Glover), Shakespearean-style dialog and paints its historical figures, both Richard the Lion-Hearted and Saladin, as atypically ambiguous figures, neither good nor evil. I may even like it more than The Aztecs.

Books: Tina Fey's Bossypants is full of her trademark humor, but it isn't a "stand-up" book like many comics write. It's more biographical than that, and its main theme is the role of women in comedy, from improv to sketch comedy to producing her own sitcom. I can totally relate. Not because I'm a woman, because I'm not, but having been involved in improv for some 25 years, I've come across more than my share of people who think women can't be funny, or as funny as men (many of them insecure female improvisers). Funny men are sexy, funny women are ugly. Tina Fey dares to be the ugly girl. I'm playing on those clichés, but I of course believe none of them. Men give themselves greater license to be funny, and Tina doesn't miss a trick when comparing the sexes in the comedy workplace. It's not all "feminism", of course. There are plenty of stories about her family, her college days, her cursed honeymoon... But fans of hers will find much to like in the sections about Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. It's a light read with a few pictures, reprinted script pages and funny cover blurbs. I certainly recommend it to the improv girls in my life (of which there are more and more).

New Unauthorized Doctor Who CCG cards: 13 new cards as I begin working on my game's 2nd Edition. Tentatively, because rules design is still going on, but I like what's been produced so far (most from A Christmas Carol).

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
II.ii. O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I - Classics Illustrated
III.i. Briefings (the text)


Anonymous said...

Glad you enjoyed the Bossypants! And Tina Fey, if you are reading this: try some apple butter on vanilla ice cream. (That goes for the rest of you too.)

Siskoid said...

If Tina Fey reads this, I'd be incredibly surprised.

Then again, I google my name all the time.

chiasaur11 said...

So, planning to see Cap?

Or are you still bitter over the War of 1812?

Because it's a good movie. Lots of Nazis get killed, good jokes, fine character moments, all that.

Siskoid said...

I'm a Cap fan despite my nationality. I think the character transcends his own.

I just make it a point to avoid opening weekends because I hate crowds generally, and opening weekend crowds especially.

Toby'c said...

V: The Final Battle is a big step up from the ending of the remake, which, thanks partly to the cancellation, now looks like a 22-episode cautionary tale against bad planning. I kept my faith in it far longer than I should have.

Anonymous said...

Years and years ago, Mark Gruenwald explained why he felt Cap was the fifth great comics archetype (the others being Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel). Cap was the only one you could simply choose to be: be decent, be brave, be committed, and you can make the world a better place. Nothing specifically American about that, and every good portrayal of Cap portrays him as a man of all people, not just one nation.

Even this slightly eccentric self-made Captain America thing gets it:

Siskoid said...

Toby: Definitely. I gave up after maybe 4 episodes because it felt so PADDED. Like old episodes of Doctor Who where the TARDIS crew get captured, escape and get captured again. Scenes to remind us of subplots without really advancing them, many places even within those early episodes where we're "back to square one". The announced 4-year arc was prematurely optimistic, and you can't shout on every roof that your story will take 4 years and then actively stretch things out so that it does. I was reminded of Heroes season 2 and the never-ending "escape from Mexico" subplot.

Anon: So true.

Austin Gorton said...

Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, two actors who are perfectly good (and excellent in this film, by the way) but that, through overexposure at one point, just turned me off.

Ditto. Both are good actors, but at this point, I have to overcome their presence in a project in order to want to see it.

I did enjoy Charlie Wilson's War as well (though not surprised I did, with the Sorkin script). Definitely underrated.

Toby'c said...

I stuck with it until early in the second season, before putting it in the "Wait of the DVD" list, although I did come back for the final (having missed very little, in seems). My problem wasn't padding so much as the recurring incompetence of the resistance, which was especially well illustrated by Lisa and Erica in the last episode.

The sad thing is that it had potential to be better than the original - the Paranoia Fuel approach worked every bit as well as it did in Animorphs and Battlestar Galactica, and I'd argue that the majority of the cast ended up being more interesting than their counterparts in the miniseries.


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