Sunday, December 30, 2007

NATIONAL TREASURE (2-Disc Collector's Edition)



Written by Musgo Del Jefe

I'm at a crossroads. Is it possible to really like a movie but not have anything substantially positive to say about it? Some movies, it appears, are not wholly a sum of their parts. National Treasure (2004) has been released again to DVD, this time on a 2-Disc Collector's Edition. I knew I had enjoyed the movie on its first DVD release in 2005 but couldn't remember why as I sat down with this new release.

To start, this is a Jerry Bruckheimer production. His previous collaborations with Nicolas Cage (The Rock and Con Air) had both been entertaining but lackluster performances for an actor that once gave us Leaving Las Vegas. I like Bruckheimer's television productions (CSI and The Amazing Race) and he hit the sweet spot with Pirates Of The Caribbean but his resume is filled with more style than substance.

The film starts with one of the plot devices that will instantly take all the momentum out of a movie. The movie starts in a flashback to 1977 and almost immediately flashes back within the flashback to 1832. If starting an action-adventure film is like starting a race, this is the equivalent of running five minutes in the wrong direction before turning around to start running in the correct direction. There's quite a bit of history to be conveyed to solve the clues to this treasure hunt, but most of them are explained without flashback (like the prop of the $100 bill in Philadelphia). This device only accomplishes two minor points. First, we here the "Charlotte" clue that perplexes treasure hunters for 172 years. Well, it's only a mystery for the viewer until the next scene after the credits when we discover that "Charlotte" is a ship. Secondly, the initial flashback to 1977 sets up Benjamin Gates' (Nicolas Cage) passion for hunting this treasure based on a story from his grandfather. This scene would serve as a better marker when he arrives at his father's (Jon Voight) house after stealing the Declaration. There's already a characterization there of the doubting father vs. the faithful grandfather. And it would help explain Dr. Abigail's (Diane Kruger) turn to see him as a romantic figure.

The first scene after the credits serves as real start of the action. Ben, his computer nerd sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha), and his money sponsor, Ian (Sean Bean), are in the Arctic about to find the long-lost Charlotte. Conveniently, the ship is located only inches below the snow. Looking for the treasure in the ship allows for lots of exposition, including Knights Templar history for those that haven't read or seen The DaVinci Code. Ben and friends don't find the treasure but another clue that tells of a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Like the opening scene of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, here we have Ben's partner, Ian turning on him to steal the clue and leave Ben for dead in the Arctic. This is a classic way to set up a rivalry and yet I feel like we never had time to see them as friends/partners so there isn't the same betrayal when Ian turns on him.

This introduction to the plot and characters leads nicely into Act 1: stealing the Declaration of Independence. Ben and Riley are backed into a corner where stealing it is their only choice. No one believes their story. The scene where Ben and Riley are at the National Archives telling Dr. Abigail Chase that the Declaration is going to be stolen is one of the best quiet moments of the film. The chemistry between the three shines through, Riley's "voice of reason" is set up, and Dr. Chase's initial reluctance to believe their story still shows a passion for history that will later allow her to change.

Act 1 comes to a close with the first tent pole of the film. The chase through the streets of Washington D.C. as Ian pursues Ben with Abigail caught in-between is wonderfully constructed but it's heartless. It feels too much like a computer-generated, generic chase. Maybe we don't care enough about Abigail yet or that the plot device of the second Declaration is way too obvious that we aren't concerned about the outcome of the chase.

Act 2 starts with the possession of the Declaration. The fact that Special Agent Peter Sadusky (Harvey Keitel) has started his investigation gives the plot a bit of a boost. Now, we have a second group to keep track of and stay ahead of. The Declaration sends them to Philadelphia in search of more clues. I like the way the clues build upon themselves, forcing the group to take along the previous clues in order to use future tools. The clue on the back of the $100 bill gives them a time constraint, always a good thing in an action film. The last clue in Philadelphia sends the groups to New York City.

This Act ends with the second tent pole of the film. There's a long chase through the streets of Philadelphia that feels strangely like an on-foot replication of the chase scene in D.C. Once again, the chase seems placed here just to mark the end of the Act, not as a necessary plot device. In fact, I'd argue that after finding the glasses that gave us the last clue to head to Wall Street, that the movie didn't need a chase scene. Let each group figure out where to go and have the race be to the treasure.

The final Act takes place as everyone races to the treasure. The sets are beautifully constructed, if not too influenced by the Indiana Jones series. We've got all of the important characters back together as we approach the end. When it looks like the treasure isn't there, we discover the "real treasure" - the father's pride in his son. This is where I think the scene back at the father's house is wasted. If we build up the son's want of acceptance by his father, then this last scene is a much bigger payoff. Once they discover their family pride, then they are allowed to discover the real treasure of the Knights Templar.

The DVD includes the usual suspects of extras - deleted scenes, on location, on the set, featurettes and an alternate ending that is better than the actual ending in many ways. The actual ending has Ben and Dr. Abigail at their new home talking to Riley about the treasure. The alternate ending builds upon a "new" relationship between Ben and his father. Here they're at the National Archives and hint at more treasure-hunting together. This familial message puts a nice bow on the plot. It was dropped because it felt too much like a set-up for a sequel. What? Since when has that been a problem for a movie? Whether you're planning one or not, it's always good if you can leave yourself that opening.

So, I'm not sold on the producer. I don't think that the lead actor gave his best performance. I think that the main theme of father/son family pride was buried. The chase scenes felt dull and uninspired. And I often felt like it was borrowing liberally from the Indiana Jones series. Yet, I was with the story the whole time. The mystery saves the day. One clue leads logically to another and the clues build upon the knowledge of the previous ones. No blood, no sex, and no foul language allowed me to watch this with my younger children. You can't always put your finger on what makes you like a movie. I find it hard to say anything other than fun.

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 2 (Extended Edition)



Written by Pollo Misterioso

There is something so pleasing about Disney’s made-for-television movies. It is just like watching an episode of one of the Disney shows, but longer and usually with more attractive actors. Delivering on all levels that a Disney-original movie should, High School Musical 2 is a fun, lighthearted film that brings a hip feel to the musical genre, geared towards young adults.

Disney didn’t realize how big of a hit the first High School Musical would be. It spawned a fad, the soundtrack being one of the best-selling CDs of the year. Naturally, they decided to follow it up with a sequel that brings back the entire original cast and surprisingly it stands on its own.

The film picks up where the previous one left off; it’s summertime now and the Wildcats all need to get jobs, even middle-class basketball stars need to work. Apparently it is the only way you get into college. Troy Bolton (Zach Efron) gets a job working at a resort and he brings his entire gang along, getting them jobs too. As for the leading lady, Gabriella (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) she just wants to have a summer that is worth remembering because this is the first time that she hasn’t moved schools. The favorite brother-and-sister combination, Sharpay and Ryan Evans (Ashley Tisdale and Lucas Grabeel) are members of the resort and plan on competing in the end-of-summer talent show, of course there are ulterior motives for Sharpay, she wants Troy.

Unlike the last film, which was about these kids coming out of their shells—which happened to be singing for both Gabriella and Troy— now it is about growing up and being true to yourself. Troy runs into trouble when his dreams of going to college and the future overshadow what is going on in the present, like spending time with Gabriella and playing two-on-two with his basketball boys. Ah, the problems of being a teenager!

Nobody has really difficult troubles in the film. The teenagers get to let off steam through song. Take for instance, Troy’s solo “Bet on It” where he belts out his frustration about his future plans on a golf course. One of the most dramatic duets between Troy and Gabriella ends with her hopping into her mother’s minivan after she hands Troy the necklace that he gave her in the beginning of the movie. But this isn’t real high school, this is jazzed-up, glossed-over, beautiful school—where everyone is good looking and everyone can sing and dance, even when they say they can’t.

The music and the dancing are what this film is about. It is so much fun to watch these cliché and over-the-top characters, and the songs are so catchy, although the music in the first film was more genuine. The High School Musical phenomenon has taken the musical genre, made the problems more relatable to its target audience, and cast fresh, young faces in the roles—its perfect.

Director and choreographer Kenny Ortega, who directed the first film, used some of the old set in the beginning of HSM2, the opening takes place in the halls of the school, but got to work with new settings including a baseball diamond and swimming pool which gave the film a different flare. It was a very refreshing twist for the sequel. There is talk of a third film for these characters. They don’t have much more of high school to go, but fans of the first two films will gladly see what they are up to next.

It’s nice to see made-for-television films that deliver exactly the way they are supposed to. This isn’t Sondheim or Fosse but that is why it is so fun. It is just so over the top that you have to watch more, making High School Musical 2 another guilty pleasure.

The DVD for High School Musical 2: The Extended Edition contains a deleted musical sequence that is quite funny and entertaining. The other features on the DVD include karaoke sing-along, where you can follow along to your favorite songs from the movie. One of the most interesting features would have to be the Rehearsal Cam extra, where you can watch the rehearsals and then that song/dance clip from the movie is shown.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Batman - The Complete Fourth Season


Written by Musgo Del Jefe

The Batman's been around since 1939. In almost 70 years, he's existed in print, on the silver screen, on the television, in video games, and loads of other mediums. It's hard to imagine someone that hasn't interacted with Bruce Wayne's universe in one way or another. The character has essentially remained the same in every incarnation and reboot; it's usually the themes, surrounding cast, and tone that change. I first encountered Batman as a young child, just getting home off the bus and running in to catch reruns of the campy TV show from the Sixties. Batman existed for me in the various incarnations of the Superfriends on Saturday mornings also. The character had never truly crept into my imagination until my college days when I came across The Dark Knight Returns in 1986. This Frank Miller take on the character struck a chord with this young adult at the time. That dark vision of Batman's future was a heavy influence on the Tim Burton Batman films and I was hooked. That fandom led me to the ultimate comic adaptation of this character in the Bruce Timm-produced, Batman: The Animated Series. While following the different incarnations of this universe through the Justice League Unlimited project, another Batman project flew in under my radar.

Since 2004, an animated show called The Batman has been airing on Kids' WB (now The CW). I came to this show fresh with no prior knowledge of the show with the latest DVD release, The Batman - The Complete Fourth Season. As a relatively knowledgeable Bat-fan, I immediately knew that I had dropped into a fan-friendly universe. The Fourth Season starts with the episode "A Matter Of Family." This episode introduces us to Dick Grayson, who'll become Robin by the end of this story and a mainstay for the whole season. It's the little nods to the rich tapestry of Batman's history that make this so accessible. Dick's father is voiced by Kevin Conroy (voice of Batman from Batman:TAS). Tony Zucco is voiced by Mark Hamill (voice of The Joker from Batman:TAS). Dick's origin mostly follows the initial DC Comics story with a slight nod to the wonderful Batman: Dark Victory mini-series, but the core of story remains strong, Bruce and Dick both lose their parents in front of their own eyes and initially seek crime-fighting as a way to find revenge. This link, this understanding is the basis of their relationship. In the end, Robin saves Zucco's life, but the question of "justice" remains.

There are two episodes in this season that illustrate the power of good storytelling. The power of not talking down to kids. The first is "Strange New World." The episode starts with a shot of helicopters, reminiscent of the opening sequence of Batman:TAS. The story starts with Batman surrounded by zombies and we are taken back 48 hours to see how we got to this point. Dr. Strange is behind bars at Arkham Asylum and threatens to turn all of Gotham into zombies. Slowly, Dr. Strange's prophecy starts to come true. Eventually, Batgirl and then Alfred and eventually Robin are turned into fast-moving zombies and Batman is all alone. By starting at the end, we know that Batman is going to come to a point in which he's surrounded by zombies. He has what he thinks is the antidote, but he's not sure. The delicious detective work he pulls and the "Twilight Zone"-ish ending are worthy of some of the best issues of the comic series. It's a rare episode of any superhero series that pulls in both the fun villains like zombies in combination with the great Moriarty/Holmes relationship that Dr. Strange and Batman have.

This episode is followed by the strongest episode of the season, "Artifacts." This story is a fresh break even in a 13-episode season. The story starts in 3027 and flashes back to 2027. In the far future, the Batcave has just been discovered. Investigators follow the clues in the cave to reconstruct what happened in 2027. This episode shares many elements with The Dark Knight Returns. The Batman of 2027 has the same scar as in the book, drives a tank-like Batmobile that's similar to the book and Batman Begins, and Mr. Freeze even utters the line, "the Dark Knight returns." But the plot isn't beholden to the story of the book, nor does it expect the viewer to necessarily have knowledge of that story. It's a testament to the writers that the story is influenced by other projects, but it commands the characters in a way that fits the universe that it exists in. Dick Grayson is now Nightwing and Barbara Gordon is now the wheelchair-bound Oracle.

Like in "Strange New World," there's a time element to add to the suspense. The investigators in 3027 need to find the right clues or New Gotham will be destroyed. As their investigation unfolds, so does the parallel story in 2027 with Batman battling a more powerful Mr. Freeze. The viewers are assembling the clues along with the future cops. And once the 2027 storyline is completed, there's a solution to the problem in New Gotham. Yet, there's a way that Batman, even 100 years later shows us that his "legend" lives on.

The Fourth Season has a nice variety of villains - Joker, Penguin, Clayface (two of them), Killer Croc, and more. The weakest of the bunch is Black Mask (in "The Breakout") who comes across as a very poor man's version of the Red Skull. Some stories are straightforward: bad guy commits crime and Batman and family catch them. There are also a good balance of stories that require more detective work to solve, which has always been an important part of the Batman mythos. This season introduces Harley Quinn in "Two Of A Kind", interestingly written by Paul Dini who created her in Batman:TAS. Here he has the rare opportunity to reboot his own character and does so by making her more of an equal to the Joker instead of his lackey.

The season ends with an interesting two-parter that introduces J'onn J'onnz as the Martian Manhunter. "The Joining Parts 1 & 2" tells the story of an alien invasion of Earth. While a good story, the core invasion story seems to get ignored in order to characterize the great chemistry between Batman and J'onn J'onnz. The aliens are a boring combination of The Borg and War Of The Worlds and their downfall is too easily predicted based on that comparison. All this leads to Batman's invitation to join the Justice League of America in an orbiting tower that looks much like the Hall of Justice from Superfriends.

Season Five will no doubt take place on a grander scale with Batman teaming up with other superheroes and fighter bigger battles. But, for me, it's those little moments in "Strange New World" where Batman is surrounded by zombie versions of his "family" and there's that moment of indecision. Has he solved the mystery, can he save his "family," or will they face the same fate as his parents? This series isn't a dark, adult version of Batman, but it is smart. The Batman doesn't have the best soundtrack, nor is its animated look the most desirable (why does The Riddler look like Marilyn Manson?), but it has something that I didn't expect to find. It has a heart.

BRAVEHEART: SPECIAL COLLECTOR'S EDITION



Written by Fantasma el Rey

Braveheart is one of the finest Hollywood epics to hit the screen, sparking a new wave of historical battle films centered on legendary heroes. Whether your veins pump Scottish blood or not, you can’t help but cheer and wish that the outcome of Braveheart’s true events were a bit different. The film does stray at times, giving way to dramatic license but again it works and pushes the movie, adding to the allure of William Wallace and the fight for Scottish freedom. It’s a well-rounded film that’s story drives it far beyond scenes of battle and blood, drawing you deeper into its tale of love and honor.

Director and star Mel Gibson delivers a fine performance in both roles telling the story of William Wallace, c. 1270-1305, through his mind’s eye and cinematic vision. Wallace was a Scottish hero/rebel outlaw that plagued the life of one of England’s most respected kings, Edward I, known as “long shanks.” Edward I is the epitome of evil in this tale and to the Scots I’m sure he was, but we must remember that the man used what became known as the English longbow so effectively in battle that this weapon changed the way large armies fought and is considered by some as the modernization of warfare. We can’t forget that parliament took its modern form under his reign as well. Yet as with all men of power, he’s one man’s hero and another’s devil. From 1297 to about 1305, Wallace was a thorn in Edward’s side, fighting a few pitched battles while doing the majority of damage with his guerilla tactics.

The battle scenes in Braveheart are huge indeed, packed with action, excitement, and blood, a necessary evil in bringing the horror of the age’s warfare to life. Now for a round of fact vs. fiction and that dramatic license mentioned earlier, let’s focus on the events at Sterling (Bridge). In the film the battle is a big affair with both sides charging at one another. In reality the fight was on a bridge that Wallace had his men weaken, giving him the chance to attack as the English troops came off the bridge disorientated by its collapse. At this time Wallace was co-captain of the Scottish forces along with Andrew de Moray, who was left out of the film entirely, which is understandable since the film is about Wallace and Moray did die from the wounds he suffered on the bridge. Even with these discrepancies the movie works as far as historical dramas are concerned.

Braveheart is well written thanks to Randall Wallace, who wrote the script while researching his Scottish heritage. Randall’s script is filled with humor and moments of light-hearted laughter brought on by believable supporting characters. This humor fits and matches the brutal/ beautiful world which we are locked into for nearly three hours, lost in the story and Scottish/Irish landscapes where Gibson filmed. The story of love is a big part of the Wallace epic and has been ever since Blind Harry wrote it down in the epic poem over a hundred years after Wallace was captured and quartered. Wallace’s love for his murdered wife, his love for his friends, his home, and freedom for generations to come is what lies at the center of the tale.

Another fascinating aspect of Braveheart and Wallace’s life is his relationship with the Scottish nobility and one noble in particular, future King of Scots, Robert Bruce, younger Earl of Carrick. Bruce is said to have sold out his friend Wallace in order to secure his seat on the throne, and it is also speculated that at one time Bruce may have fought for the English. Nobility at any time is known to have their own favor in mind and it’s easy to believe these stories to be fact. Yet as wonderfully illustrated in the film Bruce went on to lead the Scots in the Battle of Bannockburn, which become the cornerstone for Scottish independence. Wallace’s loyalty and leadership is what motivated Bruce to push to be a true king, something more than simply being recognized as such by the English and holding the title in name only.

In the Special Collector’s Edition, Braveheart’s picture has been digitally remastered and some good special features have been added to further explain the film and the Wallace legend. Gibson does a fine job on his commentary, speaking when necessary and not just rambling, giving a good feel for what inspired him along the way. There is also an hour-long look at the making of Braveheart that features interviews from the time of filming and editing back in 1994-95. Two features I enjoyed most were “A Writer’s Journey” which gives Randall Wallace a chance to tell his story about his connection to William Wallace and the spark that set the script in motion. The second being an awesome 30-minute documentary on the life of William Wallace himself and is a good way to clear the fiction from the fact, although Gibson does a good deal of that in his audio commentary.

So for fans that already own a copy of Braveheart on DVD go out and put the money down for this version, which is far superior to previous editions. I know the film studios pull this stunt often, but in this case it has been awhile since the original release and there are many great special features to make the purchase worthy of your hard-earned cash.

Monday, December 24, 2007

THE LAST LEGION


Written by Fumo Verde

In the final days of the Roman Empire the last of Julius Caesar’s bloodline is fleeing for his life to the Empire’s northern-most stronghold in hopes of securing the alliance of a legion to support the boy Emperor. Director Lefler takes these ending moments of antiquity and weaves a tale into the next mark on the timeline of this human race, the Dark Ages. The fall of Flavius Romulus Augustus Caesar was considered the end of the Western Roman Empire and after his capture by Odoacer, the Germanic-Goth leader, the boy Caesar was never mentioned in history again. This DVD is fantasy mixed with history, or as I call it “histasy,” and Lefler stretches it into the story of King Arthur.

Colin Firth plays Aurelius the Legion Commander who has come back to Rome to serve as the Emperor’s special guard. He is loyal to Flavius, Rome, and his Eagle (the Legion Standard). While not really happy with this duty, he understands that Rome’s enemies are at the gates and are ready to over take the city and kill off the Emperor. With help from his most trusted soldiers and a secret weapon from Constantinople, Mira (Aishwarya Rai) a beautiful but deadly fighter. As Aurelius prepares to protect the young leader, the Goths attack and take the boy prisoner.

Flavius has luck on his side in Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley), who is the boy’s teacher and mentor, and seems to be kind of a mystic. Ambrosinus is taken with Flavius to an old Roman island fort. Once imprisoned on this remote island Ambrosinus realizes their jailhouse actually holds a magic sword made for Julius Caesar back in the day. The sword has great power and has a prophecy that anyone who controls it rules the world. Grabbing the sword and escaping with the help of Aurelius and Mira, the small band make their way to Britain in the hope that the 9th Legion will still hold their loyalty to Flavius.

There are things I liked about this film and things I didn’t. Likeable was Firth who made his role believable in subtle ways, such as being faced with overwhelming odds and giving a look of “you’ve got to be kidding me” rather than the standard Hollywood Hero’s “I like the odds” look. The fight scenes moved too fast for any complexity like in 300 and they weren’t unbelievable. Kingsley’s character at one point looks as if he is throwing fireballs at the enemy, when in reality catapults are launching them. A little comedy comes through here. This movie gave a sense of reality to the story with little things like this. I also fell in love with the beauty and acting of Aishwarya Rai who I hope to see a lot more of.

Some of the things I didn’t like were how the Goths were played. When someone says “Barbarian,” how come Hollywood comes up these dirty, hairy, jacked-up hillbillies who can only speak at decibel 15? Just because someone is barbaric doesn’t mean that they always have to be dirty and can’t talk without popping a few blood vessels in the forehead region.

The last discrepancy I have with the film is the underlying theme, the sword. This sword of power was forged in Britain for Gaius Julius Caesar back when he invaded in 55-54 B.C. Problem is two things: number one, Caesar was there from August to September, enough time to forge a sword, but Caesar was too busy trying to survive. With poor weather holding back his logistical support back on the Normandy beaches and the Britons attacking him. I seriously doubt he would have wasted manpower to make a sword, which brings me to number two. The sword is too long. Every Roman solider has a short sword. It goes with their tactics, and during Caesar’s rise the short sword was a staple for the Roman Legions. The sword ends up in the hands of a future king of Britain and gains the name “Excalibur.” Also, the last Legion stationed at Hadrian’s Wall was 6th Vitrix, the 9th was in York for a time but seemed to have been disbanded after the campaign was over.

The extras weren’t anything special or out of the ordinary. The commentary is always cool to listen too for those interested in making movies. The deleted scenes didn’t add to the movie, so in or out, we didn’t miss them. This movie has its moments but the story is weak and you keep thinking something big is going to happen but never does. It has a semi-typical Hollywood ending but what doesn’t nowadays. If you’re home on a rainy day and this comes on HBO and you have laundry to do, with a fatty and the right munchies this will entertain you for a while.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End



Written by Pollo Misterioso

Five years ago when someone said Pirates of the Caribbean the classic Disneyland ride came to mind, complete with “yo hos” and “dead men tell no tales.” Now with The Pirates of the Caribbean films, pirates have a whole new association, Captain Jack Sparrow has even been added to the Disney ride. Ridden too many times and a theme park attraction begins to lose its novelty, and like the ride that it takes its title from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the third and (hopefully) final installment the Pirates of the Caribbean films stretches stories and characters so thin, that its hard to remember why you loved it so much in the first place.

Both the writers of the film and I are under the impression that you have seen the previous two films, The Curse of the Black Pearl and Dead Man’s Chest, because if you have not then you are out of luck. In fact, if you have not seen them back-to-back, it is hard to pick up on all of the references used in the film. As a disclaimer, see the other two first, and with that aside, this is the final chapter to this trilogy.

The last that we left our favorite crew, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) had just been brought back to life to help retrieve Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) who is in Davy Jones’ Locker, something like purgatory. We begin At World’s End with Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), William Turner (Orlando Bloom) and the rest of the crew trying to find a ship and map to Davy Jones’ Locker. The problem being that Jack must be brought back because he is one of the nine Pirate Lords that complete the Brethren Court. They must unite to fight against the East India Trading Co., which has been slowly taking over the seas with the control of Davy Jones.

The film is about freedom, the freedom of choice, of honor and of the self. Every character wants something different, but in the pirate world betrayal and backstabbing are a part of it, so it gives the themes a little twist. But this is where the problems lie; there is just too much going on in already very long movie.

Will Turner is trying to save his father, so that involves making plans with the British, with Davy Jones and Jack Sparrow. Jack wants The Black Pearl and that involves Davy Jones and his heart, the British and Turner. Davy Jones wants his heart so that he can control his actions and that involves the British and everyone else that is trying to get to it first. This isn’t even getting into Elizabeth’s or Captain Barbossa’s stories. This being my point—there is just too much plot to get through that it doesn’t impact the viewer when important things happen.

The film becomes exhausting on so many levels, but the visual effects are incredible; fantasy merging with reality never looked so good. The most interesting scenes occur in Davy Jones’ Locker, when Jack Sparrow goes crazy, but this strays from the linear story so director Gore Verbinski took some chances with it and it worked. Everything is filmed at such a grandiose scale that it leaves the viewer in awe. In fact, the characters even become larger than life, escaping more than just death, but immortality.

If you liked the first two films, then you should see this one. It picks up where the last one left off and leaves many questions unanswered, but that really isn’t the problem. It is entertaining, made to be a blockbuster hit. And for that, it delivers, giving you the thrill of the first time, but only the first time. But by the end of this movie, there are so many loose ends left to be tied that the fourth film is inevitable, if only anybody knew that three times was too much and I want to get off the ride.

This DVD comes with another disk of all the bonus features. For somebody interested in the making of this film, they will be very happy with some of the options. One of the more interesting features is “Keith and The Captain: On Set with Johnny Depp and The Rock Legend.” It is fun to watch the way that Johnny Depp and Keith Richards interact with one another on and off set. Also, for any CGI buffs, take a look at “Anatomy of a Scene: The Maelstrom” because here they show how the sets of the boats were created, the blue screens used and the time that went into just creating the last scene. Another interesting feature is “The Pirate Maestro: The Music of Hans Zimmer,” which goes into the recording studio to show how they approached this film score different than the previous two films.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

THE PRINCESS BRIDE (20th Anniversary Edition)



Written by Pollo Misterioso

Everyone loves a good story, especially one that can stand the test of time. Twenty years later, after two decades of filmmaking, The Princess Bride (1987), a simple fairy tale, is still entertaining and heartwarming, a true testament to its timelessness and perfection of a well told story.

The Princess Bride tells a story within a story, framed by a grandfather reading his grandson the book. When the grandfather begins The Princess Bride, we follow along, as the narrative unfolds in front of us. We are introduced to the lovers of the tale, Westley (Cary Elwes) who is a poor farm boy and Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn). They are separated when Westley leaves to find fortune but word gets back that he is killed at sea. Five years later it is announced that Buttercup is to wed the evil Prince Humperdink and ultimately marry into the royal family. It is when she is kidnapped by three robbers, that the rescue of Buttercup becomes priority for both Humperdink and a mysterious man in black, who is most obviously Westley, also Dread Pirate Roberts, in disguise. Westley is challenged by the robbers, one of whom is a talented swordsman who goes by Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), leading them with wits is Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and the other a giant named Fezzik (Andre the Giant)—two of them ultimately team up with Westley to help each other in their quests.

The story is simply a tale about true love, and everyone is involved someway in the fight for it. Besides our main characters, the sub plots provide much of the intrigue and entertainment. Inigo Montoya has been searching his whole life for a six-fingered man, a man that killed his father and according to him, must prepare to die.

This film is brilliantly cast, even down to the smallest cameo roles; these actors embody their characters. Inigo is such a wonderful character and Mandy Patinkin gives him such life and warmth, the Spanish accent helps. Robin Wright Penn sparkles on the screen, being that she is easy to photograph but her performance is heartfelt and believable. Billy Crystal makes an appearance in one scene as Miracle Max, and even this character plays an important part of story. The care and attention given to these characters makes it believable that they live on in their fairy tale world.

The Princess Bride is charming for its clever way of making fun of its own genre. Very subtly, through dialogue and plot points, it satirizes the familiar story that it plays upon. The film makes fun of iconic danger spots, namely The Cliffs of Insanity, or the Pit of Despair, also the danger comes in all sort of sizes, from giants to the ominous Rodents of Unusual Size.

Most importantly, this film has heart—from the relationship of a grandson to his grandfather, all the way to the fantasy love story of Westley and Buttercup. Fantasy can change lives, being that it cures the little boy of his illness by the end of the film and this film can cure the decades of bad film that have followed. Like an old story retold at bedtime, The Princess Bride is as reliable now as it was the first time.

The extras that accompany this film share the nostalgic love for The Princess Bride, with featurettes “The Princess Bride: The Untold Tales,” with interviews with cast members and “The Art of Fencing,” which gives background information of the swordfights in the film. The DVD features the official The Princess Bride game, called “True Love and High Adventure” but the game, definitely geared towards children, calls for Internet play as well, so the game is incomplete. Hopefully the purchase of this DVD is for the movie and not the interactive game, because then it is worth the purchase.

MOMENTS WITH FIDEL



Written by El Puerquito Magnifico

First Run Features has released Moments With Fidel, a rarely seen film from the Cuban Film Archive, as part of their Cuba: Paths to Revolution series. It’s a collection of archival footage that highlights some of the more important moments in the Cuban leader’s lifetime, from the toppling of Batista’s imperialist regime in 1959, to present day.

I reviewed this movie hoping to learn a bit more about a subject in which my knowledge is sorely lacking. The fact that this movie was not made in America made it all the more appealing, as I knew it wouldn’t be tainted by an anti-Castro slant. I was hoping to get a more balanced look at this controversial figure than the American media typically provides. Moments With Fidel didn’t quite deliver on all counts, but it did offer a little more insight into Fidel’s motivations.

The filmmaker seemed to assume that the viewer had a decent knowledge of Cuban history. As I mentioned before, I have only the vaguest knowledge, which worked against me, as I couldn’t keep up with a lot of the information. I didn’t walk away with any more knowledge of Cuban history than I did before, but I did get to see a bit more of the personal side of Fidel Castro. Footage showcasing visits to a schoolyard does not show the vile dictator we’ve been taught about on the news. Rather, it shows a very genuine man who cares about the people and the culture of his country. Politicians can stand on a pulpit and lie through their teeth, but seeing Castro play baseball and basketball with a group of school kids shows both a love of the game and a free spirit. You can’t fake that.

I was also impressed with various speeches that were part of the documentary, speeches in which Castro was more than willing to admit mistakes the Party had made, and accept responsibility for setbacks that had befallen the people of Cuba. In a world where leaders are quick to pass the buck and blame everyone but themselves, it was shocking and refreshing to see this very humble behavior. Again, I walked away feeling like there’s a lot more to this man than we are usually told.

The extra features on this DVD release are three rare films. My Brother Fidel is a 1977 conversation between Fidel Castro and a 92-year old man who met Cuba’s national hero, Jose’ Marti. The First Delegate recounts the history of the Communist Party of Cuba, and Condemn Me, It Does Not Matter discusses Fidel’s role in the Moncada Assault of July 29, 1963. Once again, it seemed that a slightly more than rudimentary knowledge of Cuban history was necessary, and I felt a little lost watching these short documentaries.

Despite my lack of knowledge and mild trouble with these films, I still enjoyed them. At the very least, you will get to see another side to a man so often maligned in the American press, and perhaps learn a little something. On another note, it’s worth it just to watch Castro deliver a speech to the Cuban people. His oratory skills, even though he speaks a language I do not understand, are inspiring and captivating. I was very glad to spend just a few moments with Fidel.

The Best Of Crank Yankers Uncensored


Written by Musgo Del Jefe

It must have sounded like such a great idea for a show. "We'll make some crank calls and re-enact them with puppets." It's certainly unique. It's a step above The Jerky Boys and slightly different than the similar guest comedians featured on Dr. Katz and not nearly as clever as the interviews of Creature Comforts animated as zoo animals. Crank Yankers started as a Comedy Central show and has moved to MTV2 in recent years. The set-up is simple and opens itself to many possibilities. A number of comedians make actual crank calls in the guise of a recurring character. The calls are re-enacted with additional props to add a visual element to the verbal comedy of the phone call. In theory, the visual element of the puppets should help flesh out any lack of comedy in the phone call. It does work but really only in small doses.

The Best Of Crank Yankers Uncensored is three hours and over 50 phone calls of the Comedy Central episodes of the show. The cast of characters has grown with each new season of the show. Each comedian portraying their different characters have a unique method of trying to keep the callers on the line as long as possible. The problem is that often the character is a one-joke character and the bits go on past the point that they continue to be funny.

Special Ed (Jim Florentine) relies on repetition of phrases and the occasional "Yaaaaay!" Ed is annoying from the very beginning of each call, often calling men "Miss" or women "Hey, Mister." It's his affection of being mentally retarded that usually gives the "mark" a little patience with him.

My favorite character is Gladys (Wanda Sykes). Her bit is that of an African-American women who is usually angry or needs help because of a unique situation that she is in. She's had a turd in the back of her car that she picked up after being towed or been glued to her toilet seat. These scenes play well because the situation is so absurd and played seriously that it's hard for the "mark" to tell if she's telling the truth or not. The more they don't believe her, the more indignant she becomes.

Boomer and The Nudge (Jimmy Kimmel and Patton Oswalt) are obnoxious morning DJs. Their calls to unsuspecting "marks" are just over the top enough to be believable. Their fast-talking banter is usually generic enough to convince the "mark" that they are from a real radio station. Trying to get a man to put his hands down a coworkers pants is funny but it goes on at least a minute too long.

Spoonie Luv (Tracy Morgan) is the least funny character included in this collection. Like some other Tracy Morgan characters, he's completely in his own world. The characters lewd suggestions such as what he wants to include on a note with some flowers he is sending is stereotypical and usually proves to make the call an obvious prank.

The best character for the actual prank call is Adam Carolla's Mr. Birchum. He's perfected this character on radio for years. Mr. Birchum always starts as a believable 62-year-old Vietnam veteran who's missing three fingers on one hand and part of a leg. For example, when he calls the "mark" about being abducted, he starts off very mild to gain the "mark's" trust. Once they believe him to be a serious caller, he turns the conversation to stranger and stranger topics until the "figure it out". The experience he's had with the character shows in the complete back-story that he can pull out at any time of the conversation.

The prank call is a dying art. Done well, it's an impressive offshoot of improvisational comedy. But it's still typically a one- or two-joke format. While the puppetry here is unique, it's not enough to save a bit that outstays its welcome. This Comedy Central release doesn't contain any extras. It doesn't really need them. Three hours of prank calls are really too many and you become numb to the jokes. There's a Tenacious D puppet video at the beginning of the disc. More non-prank call scenes may have made this disc more enjoyable. Experienced in small doses, this series reminds us that there are lots of talented improvisational comics around today, but this isn't the best format for their comedy.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Mod Squad: Season 1, Volume 1



Written by Senora Bicho

The Mod Squad
is a police drama that originally aired from 1968 to 1973. The show is centered on a small undercover unit within the police department that can get inside the youth crime scene. The trio includes Pete Cochran (Michael Cole), a runaway from a rich family, Lincoln Hayes (Clarence Williams III) from Watts, and Julie Barnes (Peggy Lipton) who is all about flower power. They are all young, living off the streets, and causing trouble until police captain Greer (Tige Andrews) talks them into they becoming undercover cops in order to avoid jail after they get each busted.

Bud Ruskin, a real life police officer who ran an undercover narcotics unit, created the show. It is said to be partially based on his experiences with that unit. The Mod Squad was also Aaron Spelling’s first television success for his newly formed production company with Danny Thomas. Spelling always had his finger on the pulse of the youth market and his first show is clear evidence of that. It offers hip kids with cool clothes, great music and a beautiful locations.

The series achieved modest popularity along with several Emmy and Golden Globe nominations with Lipton winning a Golden Globe in 1971. She was one of my favorite actresses on Twin Peaks and I always thought she was gorgeous with an air of grace, but in The Mod Squad she is hot and feisty although sometimes her broken spirit surfaces. She is the best part of the show and was very deserving of the Golden Globe. She was nominated four out of the five years that it ran while the series was nominated three out of five.

Season one sets up the story and background and features cases including murder, counterfeiting, kidnapping, and lots more. It is your typical police drama but what sets it apart is the group’s youth and the bonds they form. What is also unique is that the unit tries to help out both sides, being young they understand the problems and issues that the people they are trying to arrest are going through. This presents them with a lot of internal struggles and who exactly are the good guys and the bad guys

The time frame of the show provides a interesting element too. The clothes, slang, music, and attitudes of the ‘60s are fun to watch and really come shining through. There is no gratuitous violence and the trio doesn’t even carry guns. One marketing tag line of the show was “One White, One Black, One Blonde” which illustrates the groundbreaking aspect of the show. Putting a black guy, a white guy and a woman together as a tight-knit group let alone working together as cops was unheard of at the time.

This DVD collection includes the first 13 episodes of the first season, there were a total of 26, along with some special features. “Forming The Mod Squad” provides information about the creation of the show and includes interviews with Lipton and Cole. “Inside ‘The Teeth of the Barracuda’ 1968” offers more interviews with Lipton and Cole and focuses on the year 1968. “The Friends of The Mod Squad” is about the guest stars of the show and has interviews with Lou Gossett, Jr., Leslie Ann Warren, Tyne Daly and Ed Asner.

There is some interesting information presented here but I would have preferred if they had included all 26 episodes from the season instead, especially considering that it is selling for $30. The price tag is a little pricey for only 13 episodes. If you are curious, rent it first.

THE SIMPSONS MOVIE



Written by Fantasma el Rey

Hey, gang. It’s the movie we have all waited so long for, finally out on DVD, The Simpsons Movie. Here are all our favorites from the television show in a 90-minute feature film. Marge, Homer, Lisa, Bart, Maggie and the entire town of Springfield gather together to provide…well, not much at all really. So join me now as I reflect back on the hour and a half of my life that I will never get back and could have spent doing something more productive, like watching episodes from the first five seasons of the show, way back when they were funny.

So here is the plot in a peanut shell. Homer adopts a pig about to be slaughtered after a Krusty Burger commercial shoot and takes the thing home, naming it Spider-Pig. After two days Spider-Pig’s waste, which Homer stores in a homemade silo, is full. What to do? Homer being Homer decides in a hurry to dump the silo into Lake Springfield, which by the way has recently been somewhat cleaned up thanks to the efforts of Lisa. The pig’s waste mixed with the existing gunk in the lake turns the entire body of water toxic and the town has to be contained in a glass dome. And now it’s up to Homer to redeem himself by saving the town, his family, and his friends from the mess that he created.

Along the way we get a couple of laughs, well mostly just light chuckles, smiles really and not many at that. The film has moments and that’s it, much like the current state of the TV show. We do get to see some firsts, such as Lisa’s boyfriend, Bart’s embrace of the Ned Flanders way of fathering, Marge says “God damn,” and we get to see Bart’s “doodle,” but it still isn’t enough to make me want to see this one again in its entirety, ever. The DVD does contain some okay extras that might be worth the purchase for die-hard fans, one being the commentary by James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Dan Castellaneta, and Yeardly Smith, the others being American Idol segments and Homer’s monologue for The Tonight Show.

Besides the fact that I think this film is ten years too late I couldn’t help but get a bit excited at the opening credits, seeing as I chose not to see this thing in the theater and save ten bucks. That excitement was fleeting for even in the opening minutes of the movie I could see it was going nowhere fast and was reminded again why I no longer watch the show and haven’t for years. I do enjoy catching the reruns of those early seasons when Homer was an average, not-so-bright dad and Bart was a true hell raiser. Ah the good ol’ days.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

KISS LOVES YOU



Written by Tío Esqueleto

In 1993 KISS was experiencing moderate commercial success with their latest studio album, Revenge. It was nowhere near the attention they had received back in their 1970s grease-paint glory days, but compared to recent offerings, and with two singles, “Unholy” and “Domino” getting rock radio play, Revenge was by all means a success. Gone were the day-glow spandex and ripped blouses of the previous ten years. Instead it was a return to black leather and studs and all things metal. The fans took note, as this was one step closer in the direction they had all been longing for, but were told would never happen. Could it be? Were the make-up and boots to follow? Or, better still, a full-blown reunion with all four original members? Over the next five years fans would get their wish, for better or for worse.

KISS Loves You is a documentary by Jim Heneghan that looks into the world of KISS fandom at this particularly crucial point in the band’s history. Its focus is on convention-goers at the time and, in particular, follows rival tribute bands, Strutter, Firehouse, The KISS Family, and one-time Ace Frehley tribute artist, Bill Baker, as their idols triumphant return leads to unexpected consequences.

Heneghan sets the mood by first taking the viewer to the show floor at a KISS convention where we meet the many colorful characters (many painted up as their favorite member) in attendance. Think heavy metal trekkies, if you will. It is here we learn that it is the fans, not the band, who are responsible for putting on the event, and the fans would love nothing more than to see their idols put aside their differences, put on the make-up, and give it one last go around as the KISS they had originally fallen in love with.

It is also here that we meet rival tribute bands, Strutter and Firehouse, each aptly named after defining songs from KISS’s seminal first album. Also in tow are likable, up-and-coming tributists, Dressed to Kill. All three attempt to make a living on the rapidly growing convention circuit, but it is the bitter and childish rivalry between #1, Strutter, and #2, Firehouse, that is on display here. It would appear that life emulated art when faux Peter and faux Ace of Strutter (the premiere KISS tribute band at the time) had had enough of the way they were being treated by faux Gene, and broke off to form their own tribute band. What ensues is an entertaining, tactless, array of cheap shots (some even aimed at supposed idol, Peter Criss), backstabbing, and questionable business practices in this surreal arena of competitive impersonation.

In the end, all is for naught as KISS first start to hold their own official KISS conventions where they perform live (still no make-up, no Peter, no Ace), shutting down any unofficial KISS conventions along the way, and cutting out any potential tribute gigs for the rivaling camps. When asked what a reunion tour would do for the tribute business as fans could now opt for the real deal, faux Ace of Firehouse speculates with confidence that it could only help to create more buzz and more bookings in small towns in rural America where the “real deal” wouldn’t be playing. Ultimately, after the full-blown reunion extravaganza begins in 1996, both bands find themselves out of work and are forced to make amends, pool what members and resources they have left, and champion on once again as Strutter.

Heneghan also focuses his lens on the family Ventrice, or The KISS Family, as the patriarch lovingly refers to them throughout the film. They are a four-member unit each with his or her own favorite member. You have Dad, a drum fan, as Peter Criss; mystery family member #2, who doesn’t say a word, but is clearly the Gene fan of the brood; a four-year-old son who says he loves Paul Stanley, but looks a little coaxed, if not just a shy four-year-old, and finally, there is Mom, who admits she just got into KISS, and has conveniently chosen to go with Ace.

As with the other fan focuses on display here, we follow The KISS Family through the unofficial conventions, where they take it all in and further their son’s Paulophillia. Next we rejoin them at the official convention, where the family (in full regalia) has shelled out $100, each, for tickets, as well as go through the trouble of getting a custom-made plaque professing their son’s love for Paul Stanley complete with a photo of junior in full make-up and firehouse helmet, in hopes that they can maybe present it to Mr. Stanley, himself. A lot of work went into this plaque, and it eventually makes its way to Paul during a Q & A, only to be left behind after the band has left the building. The filmmakers retrieve the forgotten plaque from a stagehand at the venue who agrees just how embarrassing it would be to go through all that hard work and sentiment only to have it tossed aside at the end of the night. The whole plaque debacle is a real crusher all the way around.

We revisit the Ventrice family six years later. The reunion tour has come and gone and, sadly, so has the family Ace. Mom and Dad are now separated, with Dad’s new lady-friend now part of the mix. The filmmakers tell Dad that his son’s plaque was left behind and that they retrieved it from the venue that same day way back when. It takes a couple of minutes before he realizes exactly what happened and clearly he is hurt and disappointed. Junior is now ten years old and, sans Paul make-up, is ready to move on to something new.

Bill Baker is also under Heneghan’s microscope. Tribute artist and one-time friend of Frehley’s, Baker’s focus is strictly on Ace. He looks like Ace, can talk like Ace, and even owns a great deal of original Ace artifacts, including the star earring he wore on the first album cover, original Destroyer and Love Gun costumes, and those amazing Japanese marionettes (you know the ones) often seen in fan-club pictures of Ace back in the day. Aside from collecting and impersonating Ace, Baker also befriended Frehley in the early ‘90s while doing work on his guitars. It was this guitar work that landed Baker his collection, as he would tech the guitars in trade for memorabilia and time spent with his idol turned friend. As with a lot of KISS fans, Baker separates Ace from Gene and Paul, pointing out how cool and down to Earth he is (we even get to hear a message Ace left on his answering machine saying he’s really sorry he missed him at a recent gig and to give a call back), and conveying just how lucky he was that he had picked “the good one” to emulate. It is clear that Baker is not only a Frehley fan, but Frehley’s friend.

Flash-forward, we learn that ever since the MTV Unplugged special and reunion tour that followed Frehley hasn’t been in touch with Baker nor will he return his phone calls. Basically, a phone call from the majors was all it took to cut Baker out of his life completely. Now it is here, and only here, that Baker let’s slip that Frehley would occasionally ask him for money, putting to rest any viewer speculation as to why the sudden disconnect. Hurt, Baker has since sold most of his collection (affording himself a home) and has now moved his focus towards Elvis, ultimately trading in one lighting bolt for another.

KISS Loves You is a backhanded love letter that reads both ways, from fan to artist and artist to fan. Its focus is on those of us who took that ride from Revenge to reunion, and its aftermath. From wishing for something I would never get (to see the original four in make-up), to finally getting everything I had asked for and more (multiple shows on multiple tours and an album), to just plain over saturation (KISS bathrobe) and overkill (KISS caskets?). It was hard. I was there. I got KISS fever from a Revenge-era videotape called KISS: X-Treme Close-Up that a friend had to force me to watch. Up to this point, all I knew of KISS was the pinball machine at the old roller rink, the song on my first K-tel record (“I Was Made for Lovin’ You”), and the guy with the tongue was in that Tom Selleck movie with the robot spiders. Very limited. The first half of the tape chronicled the early years of the band, from inception to breakup, and I must have watched it fifty times. Being a superhero freak, and a horror-movie geek, this was so up my alley. Add to that my recent obsession with everything 1970s, and I was a bonafide born-again KISStian.

Heneghan could have easily turned his lens on my friends and me at the time and gotten similar results. I was at many of the same events, including the now infamous convention in Troy, Michigan, when Gene and Paul showed up unannounced and reclaimed some original costumes that had gone missing from their private collection only to show up later on the convention circuit, all of which is caught in Heneghan’s film. To say this little film turned out to be strangely personal to me, would be an understatement. That is not to say that a KISS fan under different circumstances couldn’t or wouldn’t enjoy it, or the same of a non-KISS fan for that matter. Like all good docs, it takes a very specific subject and reports it in a matter that’s both interesting and engaging, regardless of prior affiliations. However, I took this very same ride, in a lot of ways, bumps and all, and now I have a nice little 70-minute film as a souvenir. First piece of KISS merchandise I’ve picked up in quite a while.

Lost: The Complete Third Season



Written by Hombre Divertido

Season three was definitely a season of risks for Lost. The decisions to show six episodes from October to November of 2006, and then show no episodes again until February certainly tested the loyalty of the fans.

Though a goal of not showing reruns may have been honorable, a show with this much depth and plot twists may have benefited from allowing fans to watch episodes a second time without having to go to the internet.

Nonetheless season three did kick off in October of 2006 with a large fan base anxiously waiting to find out what had become of those taken hostage by the mysterious Others, as well as the outcome of numerous other storylines.

Another risk taken this season was allowing so much of the first episodes of season three to focus on the Others. The mystery that was this group of people inhabiting our island with the passengers of the downed Oceanic Flight 815 had made for some great television the previous two years, and revealing too much about them could take away the intrigue surrounding them.

Though the first six episodes are good, they do spend far too much time with Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Sawyer (Josh Holloway), and Jack (Matthew Fox) being held captive in storylines that seem repetitive, and leave us wondering what is going on with the rest of the stranded group.

When Lost came back in February of 2007, it did so with a bang. Sawyer and Kate return to the camp and eventually so does Jack. The writing is some of the best of the series including a brilliant episode where we find out how Ben came to the island and achieved his current status, and one of the best episodes of the season “Tricia Tanaka is Dead” where the writers clearly display their ability to create comedy.

The world of Lost expands substantially in season three with new cast members, new islands, new stations, and much more. It is fun to watch the storylines and characters grow along with their environment.

There are some wonderful bonus features in this set along with some real duds. “The World of the Others,” “Lost Flashbacks,” and “The Lost Book Club” are thoroughly enjoyable and serve the ultimate purpose of bonus material in that watching them will make you want to watch the episodes even if you have already seen them. On the other side of the coin is a short feature with Terry O’Quinn, who plays John Locke, showing how to throw a knife. This segment is a waste of space. A few of the deleted scenes are interesting, but most were clearly deleted for a reason. The cast of Lost now has three seasons of bloopers that look staged.

Recommendation: This is good stuff for the fans. It’s a must for those who own the first two seasons, and there is enough bonus material to make it worthwhile

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Little Britain: The Complete Series



Written by Musgo Del Jefe

Little Britain is an incredible collection of characters covering all levels of British society from the Prime Minister's office to the small village of Llandewi Breffi. All these characters are created and played by Matt Lucas and David Walliams. The show consists of 20-30 short sketches per 30-minute show featuring recurring characters, most with a collection of catchphrases. The sketches are linked by the inventive narration of Tom Baker (the 4th Doctor from Doctor Who). His narration has little to nothing to do with the scenes and is usually nonsensical statements about Britain - "British justice is the best in the world. Anyone who disagrees is either gay, a woman or a mental." Little Britain falls squarely in the tradition of great sketch shows somewhere just south of Monty Python and right around the level of Kids In The Hall.

Why does this work? The answer is simple: volume, volume, volume. At around a minute per sketch and with over 20 established characters, each with a couple catchphrases, there's almost always going to be something for everyone. There's going to be a character or two that everyone knows in their real life. If you don't like a character or sketch, there's another one coming in one minute. For the characters that you know and love, like Carol Beer the travel agent, you know immediately how the sketch is going to play out, with her saying "Computer says no . . . (cough)" as the customer gets more and more frustrated. The anticipation is itself the pleasure.

The characters are the stars. Once each character's particulars have been established, there's less need for set-up for each joke. This is the brilliance of the recurring character in a sketch show that Saturday Night Live perfected years ago. Once we know the character, like Emily Howard (a rubbish transvestite) ("Well, being a lady, I do ladies' things"), we only have to put her in the scene like at the community pool and we can immediately play out the jokes before they happen. We immediately fast-forward to her having to decide which locker room to change into her bathing suit even before she's standing at the two doors at the end of the sketch.

My favorite characters are Andy and Lou. Lou takes care of his wheelchair-bound friend Andy oblivious to the fact that Andy does not need the wheelchair. The Andy/Lou sketches are built upon two possible combinations. One is Andy picking out something we know he won't like (e.g. a plain cone without any ice cream in it or a pet snake) and Lou asking "Are you sure you want this one?" before giving in. And then Andy saying "Don't like it" once he gets what he picked out. The other joke is Andy getting up out of his wheelchair with Lou isn't looking (e.g. to do toilet or even jump off a diving board) and sitting back down just before Lou catches him. It's a simple set-up but just those two possibilities lend themselves to view anticipation at the start of each sketch and delicious payoff.

In addition to a steady diet of established characters and a humorous narrator, Little Britain builds its universe with recurring locations like the pool, the courtroom, and the Chinese restaurant. Although the different characters don't interact, there's the feeling that they do exist in this world of Little Britain. Ending each episode of Season One with a set of characters (Ian and Ian) making a failed attempt at a Guinness World Record (my favorite being the "Most Beans In A Bathtub") puts a nice consistent bow on each episode.

The DVD release of the Little Britain: The Complete Collection is a comprehensive marker for the careers of Matt Lucas and David Walliams. With the duo working on an American version of the show to air on HBO in 2008, this is the perfect time to see where the journey started, catch our breath, and prepare for the rest of the strange trip that Little Britain provides. The DVD release does not cheat you on extras.

The Complete First Series includes funny commentary on all eight episodes and the pilot episode and four live sketches. The Complete Second Series includes commentary on all six episodes, an LB documentary, and some hilarious sketches from the 2005 Comic Relief with Elton John and George Michael (being asked by Lou to come to Andy's birthday party). The Complete Third Series includes commentary on all six episodes and a South Bank Show Little Britain Special. Also included is Little Britain Abroad which is essentially a Christmas special that takes the characters to other countries (including Marjorie Dawes taking her Fat Fighters to the U.S. and Andy and Lou being trapped on a deserted island). This disc includes commentary and a "Little Britain Down Under" documentary. The last disc is Little Britain Live which is recorded from a Blackpool Opera House performance and still includes Tom Baker narration, although it is prerecorded. The Live disc includes commentary and deleted scenes.

There's so much material to get through here that it can overwhelm the actual brilliance of the show. It's simple. Character, setting, catchphrase, end. The biggest complaint of the recurring Saturday Night Live characters was that a "Wayne’s World" or "Church Lady" sketch could go on too long and just peter out of jokes. That isn't allowed to happen here. Daffyd is going to say "I'm the only gay in the village" and within 30 seconds we're moving on to another character. The characters aren't overexposed. Like Marjorie says, "by eating half the calories, you can have twice as much." Less is more here. I hope the future is bright here in America for this show. If it isn't we'll always have this box set to remind us of the good days.

Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.: The Third Season



Written by Hombre Divertido

Take a boy from Mayberry and put him in the Marines and you have the incredibly simple plot that is Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. Luckily this was not a simple show. The easy road could have been taken here and a show could have been built that relied solely on the talents that Jim Nabors displayed as the lovable Gomer on The Andy Griffith Show for a little more than one season. Nabors could have carried a show for a season or two, but then we would not have Season Three, new on DVD. Instead of taking the easy road, Nabors was surrounded with a solid ensemble including Frank Sutton as Sgt. Vince Carter, Ronnie Schell as Pvt. Gilbert “Duke” Slater, William Christopher as Pvt. Lester Hummel, Roy Stuart as Cpl. Chuck Boyle, Barbara Stuart as Bunny, and Elizabeth MacCrae as Lou Ann.

The fine group of character actors really hit their stride this season, as Nabors began to settle into his role, and Pyle settled into the Marines. The stories are well rounded, and display a continuity that was ahead of its time.

At the core of this show is the relationship between Pyle and Carter, and how said relationship was allowed to evolve over the course of the five-season run. By the third season Pyle had begun to become less of a constant thorn in the side of Carter, and a father-son relationship began to develop, and signs of friendship began to appear.

As in the previously mentioned Andy Griffith Show, this is simple comedy. Not outrageous or hysterically funny, just simple, subtle, and completely enjoyable. Gomer gets into fun adventures whether he is sightseeing in Hollywood and meeting Deborah Wally as a Hollywood Starlet, or dealing with a young Rob Reiner in two of the season’s episodes.

There are thirty digitally re-mastered episodes in this set, and though not all gems, the color is sharp, and they have a good look to them.

Recommendation: Of the rural comedies on CBS in the sixties, Gomer Pyle was consistently one of the funniest. Though there are no extras in this set, it is still worth owning. Whereas most shows of this era get tiring when attempting to watch more than one episode in a session, each episode of this classic leaves you wanting to see what is coming next. The writing is fresh and contains little re-hash. Should make a good Christmas gift.

Beverly Hills 90210: The Third Season



Written by Senora Bicho

In the third season of Beverly Hills 90210 the whole gang are now seniors at West Beverly Hills High School and there is a lot of fun and drama to experience throughout the year.

The series was created by Darren Star, produced by Aaron Spelling, and originally aired from 1990 to 2000. It started out as the story of Brandon (Jason Priestley) and Brenda (Shannen Doherty), twins who moved from Minnesota to Beverly Hills. They experienced quite a culture shock as they tried to adjust to the California high school scene. The show quickly gained popularity and soon became more of a soap opera that dealt with many serious teenage issues.

I was a junior in high school when the show started. I had just moved to another state and could relate to the Walsh twins. As the show continued this group of friends became my friends; I cared about them and tuned in every week to see what would happen next. Even though it is overly dramatic, there is a down-to-earth quality about the show and its characters.

The third season was one of my favorite seasons. Best friends Brenda and Kelly (Jennie Garth) have their friendship tested when Kelly and Dylan (Luke Perry) have an affair. The relationship between Donna (Tori Spelling) and David (Brian Austin Green) continues to flourish while Donna tries to hold on to her virginity. Andrea (Gabrielle Carteris) is still the straight-A student who dreams of a romance with Brandon. Steve (Ian Ziering) continues to be the troublemaker and even gets suspended for hacking into the school’s computer system. Brandon gets a gambling addiction, Kelly gets an eating disorder, and Dylan gets closer to his dad but it is too little too late. That night sound like enough drama, but there was plenty more where that came from.

Along with the 29 episodes there are some special features included. “7 Minutes in Heaven” is a montage of clips from the entire season. Funny enough the Melrose Place: The Third Season offers up “7 Minutes in Hell,” which illustrates perfectly the contrast between these two shows. “The World According to Nat” provides insights from Joe E. Tata who plays Nat, the owner of the Peach Pit, the main hangout of the group. “Everything You Need to Know About Beverly Hills 90210 Season 3” is another carbon copy of a feature on the Melrose Place DVD. Comedians Michael Colton and John Aboud, who star in several shows on VH1, put a playful spin on the storylines from the season. There is also a commentary track on the season finale by executive producer/writer Charles Rosin and writer Karen Rosin.

Beverly Hills 90210: The Third Season
offers a great cast of young stars, well-written storylines with relevant issues, and entertaining drama. If you were an avid fan of the show then, you will still enjoy it now. It is being released just in time for the holidays and is a great gift for those who you know that loved it as much as you did.

LOOK



Written by Fumo Verde

Ever wonder what happens outside of the walls of your own room? What others do when you or anyone else for that matter isn’t around? Take the view of the surveillance camera, what does it see? Four billion hours of tape are recorded by over thirty million cameras in the United States capturing the average American around two-hundred times a day. From that vantage point, writer/director Adam Rifkin gives us a perspective only seen in the control rooms or on videotape.

The cameras follow the lives of some very different people: a young female student trying to have sex with her married teacher, a lawyer leading two lives, a department store manager who uses his stockroom for more than just stock, two guys living the lives of convenient store clerks, the office nerd and the people pulling the pranks on him, and two psychopaths’ who go on a streak of robbing and killing. What the cameras see in a week’s time in this small town will leave you wondering what really goes on when you aren’t around. It also makes you wonder who the frack is watching you too.

I enjoyed this movie though it disturbed me a little which is a good thing because any movie that moves you emotionally I consider to be a good film. For example, a woman gets held up at gunpoint as she was just getting money out of the ATM. The bandits lock her in a trunk of some stolen car and leave it at the far end of a mall parking lot. As night turns to day and day back to night, you know the woman is dead. Like life itself, happy endings are few and far between. I don’t think it was a scene like these that disturbed me; it’s just the thought of knowing that people like that are out there. As a surfer I know sharks sit 300 yards away from what I consider the line-up, but I don’t talk about them or even think about them when I’m in the water. After viewing this film, every time I see a surveillance camera I think about what I don’t see.

This just reminds me that we live in a harsh world, and Rifkin has done a superb job by merging the lives of his characters as they appear in different locales while the “watching eyes” keep tabs on what they are doing. The stories feel real and are played well by all of the actors. One of my favorite scenes happens in the police department when the young teen who had sex with her teacher gives a gory, sobbing detail of how her teacher rapped her. To her surprise and the surprise of her parents who believe her, the police inform them the school has an extensive surveillance system. Once her parents see what really happened, her crocodile tears turn to true tears of sorrow.

Oh, the camera sees all, twenty-four seven, so just remember, you are being watched. If you don’t think so, each time you go to some store or are at some intersection just move your eyes about and you will see the camera watching you, take your time and just LOOK.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

AUGUST RUSH



Written by Hombre Divertido

Rarely has so much potential been squandered on poor writing and poor directing. The premise was solid, an excellent cast was assembled, and said cast gave good performances considering what they were given, yet this Oliver Twist meets Serendipity with a splash of Searching for Bobby Fisher thrown in results in 113 minutes of painful schlock.

Lyla (Keri Russell) who is an accomplished cellist meets Louis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) the up-and-coming rock star at a party. They have a one-night stand that results in her pregnancy. Unfortunately they are not able to meet up the next day and are incapable of finding each other again for more than eleven years. Don’t ask why. No brains involved in this production, and thus none allowed in the theatre.

Prior to the birth, Lyla gets in an accident and is told by her father (William Sadler) that she lost the baby. Actually the baby did survive, but Grandpa put the kid in an orphanage so as not to interfere with her daughter’s budding career.

So the child grows up in the orphanage, and Lyla and Louis both give up playing music due to the unhealed emotional wounds associated with the loss of their child and love respectively. Nope, no questions allowed here either.

We pick up our story meeting Evan (Freddie Highmore) who is eleven and has grown up in an orphanage. He is not only the odd kid amongst his peers, but believes his parents are alive. He eventually runs away to the big city where he is taken in by the Wizard (Robin Williams), who has the Fagin role in managing a group of parentless street performers. Evan’s musical gifts are discovered, developed, and eventually exploited, by the Wizard who renames Evan “August Rush” for marketing purposes. Luckily Evan/August manages to break free and ends up at Julliard. Yes, Julliard, where he magically becomes enrolled. Try to let it go.

On his deathbed, Lyla’s father confesses, and she sets out to find her son. Not a bad premise so far.

Also in the cast is Terrance Howard, as a social worker, and his performance is fine, as is the rest of the cast. The problems here are writing and directing. The script contains no turns that you won’t see coming, and a ton of turns that should have been taken that remain unexplored. The dialog is one–dimensional and you can see the actors straining to get out of the ties that bind them. The directing also contains too many bad choices. From scene construction, to camera angles, to editing, this film is just one frustration after another.

The music is good, and the film is attractive to look at. That’s pretty much it.

Recommendation: Don’t rush in August or any other month to see this sappy predictable piece of film on DVD or television. Let us hope that the American public has not set its bar so low that it will dive into and embrace this which has no depth.

24: Season Six



Written by Guest Reviewer Mary K. Williams

Whether you loved or hated Season Six, you have to admit there were still plenty of amazing moments: Jack Bauer neatly snipping off the finger of Russian Diplomat Markov with a cigar cutter, Abu Fayed drilling Morris to get him to arm his nuclear devices, Reed Pollock kidnapping Tom Lennox and planning a Presidential assassination in a White House boiler room. Gredenko with his arm. Gredenko without his arm. Kindly James Cromwell (Babe anyone?) suffocating his lovable son Graem in order to keep him mum on family and corporate secrets, and so damn many more. The seven-disc set captures those moments with the full 24 episodes, plus special features that include commentaries by the stars, writers, producers and even the Emmy-winning composer, Sean Callery.

The basic, if implausible, story takes place about 20 months after Day Five. Jack had successfully brought down the corrupt President Logan, but was then straightaway imprisoned by the Chinese in retaliation for his supposed misdeeds at the Chinese Consulate during Day Four. Now, nearly two years later, the U.S. is deteriorating from terrorist attacks. Finally, one Abu Fayed has alerted the American authorities that he will help them end the attacks by giving them the location of Hamri Al-Assad, the supposed mastermind of the recent terrorism.

The catch is that President Wayne Palmer (deceased ex-President David Palmer’s brother) must give up Jack Bauer to Fayed. After much effort, a visibly tattered and tortured Jack is released from China and brought to Los Angeles, only to be prepped for sacrifice to Fayed. While under custody, Fayed informs Jack that Assad is not the true mastermind, but is trying to stop the terrorism that he, Fayed is really responsible for.

The ensuing 20-odd episodes follow Jack’s efforts at finding suitcase nukes in L.A., and President Palmer’s failing health at the White House, along with side plots involving Chloe and Morris’s relationship, Vice President Daniel’s unwise dalliance with his aide, and Jack’s father, brother, sister-in-law, and nephew reappearing in his life in an unpleasant way. There is also a brief but strange resurgence of former President Logan and First Lady Martha Logan.

While it’s great to watch the whole season from 6:00 AM on, watching on a DVD format can be overwhelming, as most viewers will watch several episodes at one sitting. Although the continuity is a good thing, the unremitting tension is tough on the nerves. Now’s the time to turn on the special features, because a relentlessly serious show like 24 needs a break, even a little levity. While there is no blooper reel, there are some very funny moments beginning with a never-seen cameo that features Ricky Gervais (creator and star of the original BBC’s The Office and star of HBO’s Extras). Gervais plays a Presidential adviser waiting not so patiently on the sidelines during an Oval Office meeting. How Jayne Atkinson, D.B. Woodside, and Peter MacNicol kept from busting out into laughter is a credit to their acting skills.

But we do get to hear many of the actors cracking wise while they watch the show. Each disc has at least one or two episodes that have running commentaries by pairs of cast members, producers, or writers. Some of the funniest were the observations of Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe) and Joel Surnow (co-creator and exec-producer) as they watched 12:00 AM to 1:00 AM. They poked fun at Powers Booth’s character (Vice President Noah Daniels) calling him Barry White, and made kissy noises while Booth was lip-locked with Kari Matchett (Lisa Miller).

Jean Smart and Gregory Itzin were hilarious while they were covering hour 6:00 PM to 7:00 PM. Of course, this hour included their big scene at the “spa.” Remember? Martha found a place to store her paring knife? In seeing this scene again after so many months, I was struck (no pun intended) with the absurdity of the whole thing. Of course, Martha was supposed to have been somewhat unbalanced, and Logan’s visit would be just the thing to rile her, but still, it was silly. Smart and Itzin seemed to think so too, but they still had fun reliving the scene. And they both agreed that coming back to do the show for a limited run was like just “eating one potato chip.”

All those involved were genuinely appreciative of each other’s talents. They gave especially high marks to Powers Boothe, Peter MacNicol, Kari Matchett, and composer Sean Callery. Nearly everyone spoke of what a fantastic job he does of creating the right moods with his scoring. Callery himself was able to add his thoughts to the 10:00 PM to 11:00 PM hour, partnered with Adoni Maropis (Fayed).

Some of the other features were more basic overviews of how extras (or background talent) are directed, or how props are categorized and stored. Take it or leave it type stuff. But there is a nice section demonstrating all the set up for the opening hour’s Metro bus explosion and a “Look Inside the Writer’s Room” (pre-WGA strike, of course). And for more giggles, the DVD-ROM has the hidden feature of 24 Minutes: Jack Bauer on The Simpsons.

For those who typically don’t bother with commentary options on a DVD, give these a chance. It’s a real treat to get to know the person behind the character, music and story. They were all clearly were having a lot of fun watching the show, and it was more than refreshing listening to them and others do what I have done every week during while 24 is running. Enjoying the hard work, and getting caught up in the drama and suspense, but giving it the irreverent once-over.

Laverne & Shirley: The Third Season



Written by Senora Bicho

“Schlemiel! Schlemazl! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!" I’m gonna do it! I have decided to make my dreams come true by reviewing the Third Season of Laverne & Shirley.

Created by Gary Marshall as a spin-off from the popular sitcom Happy Days, the series originally aired from 1976 to 1983. It is set in the early sixties Milwaukee and follows the adventures of Shotz Brewery bottle-cappers Laverne DeFazio (Penny Marshall, Gary's sister) & Shirley Feeney (Cindy Williams). The show started off extremely strong in the ratings and was the #1-rated show from 1977-1979. Then, the network moved it from its Tuesday night timeslot to Thursdays. It dropped out of the Top 30 completely and even after ABC returned the show to it regular spot, it never regained its popularity and hovered in the Top 20s for the duration of its run.

I was only three when the show first aired, but I discovered it in syndication in the early eighties and learned to love it. I looked up to Laverne and Shirley as role models. They were best friends and roommates who worked, played, and did lots of dating. A lot of shows centered on strong females have come and gone since Laverne & Shirley, but unfortunately it doesn’t hold much of its original charm.

Laverne is the outgoing flirt with embroidered L’s on all of her clothes while Shirley is the demure innocent. There were some trademark aspects of the show that I had long since forgotten but that brought a smile to my face such as Laverne drinking milk and Pepsi and Shirley’s “Boo Boo Kitty” stuffed cat.

In Season Three, the girls find themselves in many wild predicaments such as flying a plane and helping out the FBI. They even go on a very glamorous vacation, a cruise through the great lakes. In addition to the lead actresses, the regularly featured supporting cast provides some chuckles. Laverne and Shirley’s dimwitted but lovable neighbors Leonard "Lenny" Kosnowski (Michael McKean) and Andrew "Squiggy" Squigman (David Lander) are one of the bright spots of the show and probably the most well known for their crazy antics. There is also Laverne’s father Frank De Fazio (Phil Foster) and his girlfriend Edna Babish (Betty Garrett), and Shirley’s on-again, off-again love interest Carmine "The Big Ragu" Ragusa (Eddie Mekka), a former boxer turned dancer. There are also a few noteworthy guest stars this season including Fabian and Harry Shearer as Mr. Shotz.

The show has a sweet and innocent nature but the laughs are a bit lacking with silly storylines and lots of bad one-liners. The friendship of Laverne and Shirley is the heart of the show though and still comes shinning through. The DVD set includes all 24 original episodes with no other added features.