This Week in Geek (19-25/12/11)


My kid sister got me the gorgeous Spy vs. Spy Omnibus for Christmas, which is awesome. And KFF buddies Isabel, Furn, Marty and Nath surprised me with a bag of goodies: Lego-compatible Cybermen, a vanishing TARDIS mug, and strangest of all, a small Hard Boiled pin featuring Tequila holding the baby. Also, I got myself a copy of Futurama vol.6, the second part of Season 5.


DVDs: Community's second season finds a good middle ground between the first season's subversive take on soap opera, and its occasional forays into genre parody (so less of the former and more of the latter). But while I enjoy both (and there are some very fun takes on the documentary style, clip shows, Apollo 13, Charlie Kaufman, conspiracies, zombie movies, and of course, a double-length paintball episode), what really got me into it was how Community has become the Deep Space 9 of comedies. The "sad" claymation Christmas episode is a good representative of an entire season that, while chock-full of laughs, also had a tendency to end each episode on a downbeat note. I love that. The Dungeons&Dragons episode (while quite far from any game I've played) is another standout, and the turning point in Pierce's turning against the group. Great extras too. Each episode has a fun commentary track (though moving to unrated makes a few of these descend into chaos), each disc has outtakes and deleted scenes from its episodes, and there are making of featurettes for both the paintball and Christmas episodes. The latter can also be viewed as animated storyboards, but you won't get much out of the halfway-through version that combines storyboards and finished claymation, except a few shots where the blue screens and wires show. Cast evaluations have become a tradition and a chance for more comedy.

While 30 Rock makes me laugh about as much, it's very different kind of comedy. I can never accuse it of having a lot of heart. It's extreme caricature, but probably the best being done on tv right now. Season 5 continues the show's traditions of high end guest-stars and self-deprecating humor, petering out only for the last couple episodes (not the strongest of finales). The stand-out is a live episode, redone with a few different jokes for the west coast 3 hours later (the second one is included on Disc 3's extras, if you're looking - 30 Rock didn't screw us out of it like West Wing did - yes I'm still sore - it's causing run-on sentences and everything). The double-sized 100th episode is a nice celebration too AND another subverted clip show. Commentary on almost half the episodes is a mixed bag, as usual, and in another 30 Rock tradition, there's some stunt casting there (McBrayer's parents, Val Kilmer, and Aaron Sorkin NOT on the episode he guested in). There are also a lot of deleted scenes, a useful behind the scenes featurette on the live show, 3 Jack Donaghy - Executive Superhero animated shorts, and the full run of Jenna's obituary song.

Season 3 of the Sarah Jane Adventures is strongly advertised as having the last scenes David Tennant shot as the Doctor, but The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith, like all episodes bearing her name, is a great episode for Sarah Jane, not for the Doctor. He meets the kids and everything, but he doesn't steal the spotlight (good), nor does it feel like some kind of farewell (too bad). The Trickster's back, of course, and there are new alien threats, but SJA is the place where goofy animatronic Who villains go after their run on the parent series is done. This season, we get Judoon and Slitheen, and the SJA team is allowed to develop these species further. It's perhaps ironic that while the kids are starting to get older (Luke becomes an irritable teenager, Clyde and Rani start a subtle flirtation), there's a fart joke in almost every story. I guess they don't want to lose the younger, fart-loving demographic. But that's my only complaint about the otherwise charming series. The extras are limited to a teaser for another of Sarah Jane's audio books, which is disappointing.

You know it's a Christmas edition of This Week in Geek when Siskoid reviews some torture porn, but I did watch and flip Eli Roth's Hostel on Christmas weekend. I do it injustice by calling it torture porn, though it does share in that genre, it's a bit better than others in the category (not that I watch that stuff). There is a story here, and you don't get to that kind of horror until the third act, just before it actually turns into more of a thriller. The plot focuses on douchebags backpacking through Europe who get lured to a hostel that is a front for rich men who pay to torture and kill people. The theme is human exploitation, using the exploitation movie as a framework. I don't think it succeeds on every level though. The violence, gore, drug use and sex of the genre make the worthy thematic underpinnings of the film especially hard to see on the first viewing. And the twists, while good, do undercut whatever subplots were running. By the time you care for a character, you're into the portion of the film that's making you wince. This is a case of the DVD being worth it, even if the film alone might not have been though. There are four commentary tracks in which the director discusses different elements either alone or with guests (including one with producing partner Quentin Tarantino), and an alternate ending. The behind the scenes 1-hour making of doesn't take itself seriously and is frankly entertaining. And then there's a second disc, with a more official 30-minute making of, various featurettes (on the sound, effects, sets, etc., but also one that teaches you how to eat a lamb's head), 20 minutes of deleted scenes, a radio interview with the director, loads of pictures, and a short interview with horror director Takashi Miike who had a cameo in the film. Like good DVD packages should, it makes me like the movie more than I did first way through.

1933's King Kong is a revelation. I wasn't expecting to see claymation so well integrated into live action. I guess it's mostly done through rear projection, but still, the level of planning and innovation is just spectacular. The effects are frankly better than a lot of films made more than 50 years later, and I sometimes wonder how they were even achieved. The animation is expressive and detailed, and the film is surprisingly violent and even sexy from what I imagined of the era (perhaps it's the reinstatement of the "censored scenes". A true classic. My one-disc DVD features a commentary track with legendary effects veterans Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, clearly inspired by this film, with edited in bits of interview from director Merian C. Cooper and, minimally (like, two sentences), by actress Fay Ray. They don't talk enough about how it was made for my tastes, but it's still a loving track. Also on the disc, 8 Cooper film trailers, including King Kong, Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young.

I posted the live tweetage from last Thursday's Van Dammathon - a Kung Fu Friday Special Event - but promised some capsule reviews. Because I only own 3 of those films on DVD, I can't tell you about whatever extras the other 4 have (if any), but we can still talk about the movies. The one I do own are Hard Target, Sudden Death (both on the same Van Damme 4-pack, no extras) and JCVD (a couple of deleted scenes). So, chronologically...

We started with Bloodsport, a cheesy 80s favorite that used to run (still does?) all the time on tv, and that has probably the best claim to being a KFF movie thanks to a huge number of martial arts duels, so many it turns into a montage. I wonder how much of the film is actually based on Canadian Frank Dux, the first Westerner to win the super-secret kumite competition. Don't look for a coherent, interesting or innovative plot, but the wealth of fighting styles makes it a fun fight movie.

Roland Emmerich's Universal Soldier, co-starring Dolph Lundgren and Ally "Profiler" Walker, is a big, dumb movie (it's Emmerich, isn't it?) that doesn't even try to give the two male leads any acting opportunities. Van Damme is at his most robotic and Lundgren's ear fetish leads to some horrible puns and a nice fleshy line of jewelry. Can I recommend the action, as with Bloodsport? Not entirely. It's not bad, but the unimaginative gunplay prevents Van Damme from doing what he's really good at - martial arts. The best thing I can say about "Unisol" is that it isn't Cyborg.

The KFF vibe returned with John Woo's Hard Target, in which he plays an ex-Ranger, Cajun drifter up against a greed-driven manhunting ring. Woo's style enhances everything with the essence of cool, and you really have to accept that everything is made out of explosives. Stunts, fights, music... it's all great. Wilmford Brimley playing Chance Boudreaux's moonshine-swilling uncle is probably the best thing about the movie though. Chance should have appeared in other films, but his other "Cajun" movies used a different persona. Too bad, because Uncle Douvee could have made a comeback.

I wasn't sure I would get into Street Fighter, given that I know next to nothing about the game it's based on. I've seen the last iteration on Xbox, but I'm not a fan of fighting games. To me, it was complete nonsense, but I got into it thanks to Raul Julia's campy (and sadly, last) performance as the villain Bison (and partly because Ming-Na can do no wrong in my book). But a Van Damme movie? Not so much. Just too many characters from the game running around to develop "Guile" very much. He only gets to fight Bison at the end because he's Van Damme.

The originators of the Van Dammathon each had a request, mine was Sudden Death, possibly my favorite Die Hard formula film, pitting fire inspector Van Damme against super-cool Powers Booth in a hockey arena during the Stanley Cup playoffs. I'm not much of a hockey fan, but I do come from that culture, and there isn't a single piece or element of the arena that isn't used in some way. Van Damme even spends time on the ice during the game! But fair warning: The looked at Die Hard and matched it beat for beat. There's no innovation beyond the setting here (but that's more than enough to recommend it).


Double Team had quite a reputation, but seeing director Tsui Hark's name on credits (a nice KFF surprise!) filled me with hope. I can't say I was disappointed, even if I can't say the movie made sense. Tsui Hark rarely plays it safe, and while he's made classics like Once Upon a Time in China and Seven Swords, he's also experiments, not always with great results, in such films as Zu Warriors and Time & Tide. What works about Double Team is 1) the action and 2) the whacked out ideas. In that respect, the film is extreme. There's a set piece where JCVD has to escape from what is basically the Village from the Prisoner, and the finale has a baby put in jeopardy by a minefield, a motorbike, a tiger and Mickey Rourke... simultaneously! What DOESN'T work is the plot and dialog and the casting of Dennis Rodman. But crazy, right?!

We kept the best for last. JCVD is an unusual (mostly)French-language film in which Van Damme plays himself (or a version of himself). He's hitting rock bottom in his personal and professional life when he gets caught up in a bank hold-up run by Belgium's equivalent of the Three Stooges. It is VICIOUSLY funny, taking shots at the film industry, at the relationship between celebrity and fandom, and at the media. But at the center of it is a confessional by Van Damme that is completely heart-wrenching. There is a nakedness and honesty to this film that makes it a real gem, and it's a story cleverly told too. The big question is: Has JCVD always been this good an actor, only held back by either language or directors' expectations? For comedy, he's a great straight man. For tragedy, he's a revelation. The extras were over too soon, just a couple of deleted scenes. Too bad because I wanted to find out more about this film without going to my local wiki. Will show up in my Top 5 films seen in 2011.

What's your favorite Van Damme?

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
III.i. The Nunnery Scene - Tennant (2009)
III.i. The Nunnery Scene - The Banquet
III.i. The Nunnery Scene - Slings & Arrows
III.i. The Nunnery Scene - A Midwinter's Dream


Toby'c said...

The only ones I've seen him in were Universal Soldier and Derailed. Probably preferred the latter, it did a better job as a Die Hard/Under Siege 2 rip-off than Universal Soldier did as a Terminator/Robocop ripoff. I'm keen to see Street Fighter, albeit only for the memes.

Incidentally, have you seen his one-episode guest appearance on Las Vegas?

Siskoid said...

Can't say I have! Do tell.

Mitchell Craig said...

On the two-disc edition of King Kong, there's a feature which involves Peter Jackson's WETA Productions re-creating the spider pit sequence that was cut from the film. It's a fascinating piece in which the re-creation is done in the way Willis O'Brien shot it.

Toby'c said...

In the episode "Die Fast Die Furious", Van Damme is filming a movie at the Montecito Hotel and gets killed in a sabotaged motorcycle stunt. The episode ends with the disclaimer "No actual Jean-Claude Van Dammes were killed in the filming of this episode."

Thanks to various crossovers, this also means that he is dead in the universes of The Office, Passions Heroes, Crossing Jordan, Knight Rider and Medium

Siskoid said...

Mitchell: That does indeed sound awesome.

Toby: I bow to your superior knowledge of Van Dammery.

Randal said...

For no possible reason that I can think of, because as far as we know nobody ever saw the movie, but my college circle (this was around 1991) and I took to screaming "Lionheart!" at inappropriate times. Was it in the trailer or something? It just seemed like something that needed to happen.

So that's my favorite Van Damme memory, which wasn't what you asked, but I felt like sharing.


Siskoid said...

It's in the 4-pack I have, so I will one day watch it!

idiotbrigade said...

I still want you to watch CYBORG, but then I like you so I don't.

Toby'c said...

Street Fighter was on TV last night so I watched it. Not a fan of the games, it was strictly for the memes, OF COURSE!


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