Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Bug’s Life (Blu-ray)

Written by Senora Bicho

Released in 1998, A Bug’s Life was Pixar’s second animated feature. The film had high expectations after the huge success of Toy Story. While I think that Toy Story is the better film, A Bug’s Life tells an imaginative story that can be enjoyed by the whole family.

A Bug’s Life is a cross between Aesop's fable "The Ant and the Grasshopper” and The Seven Samurai-based comedy The Three Amigos. The ants spend their time working hard harvesting food for the lazy grasshoppers. One of the ants in the colony, Flik (Dave Foley), building inventions designed to make the work easier. However, his latest causes the destruction of the entire harvest. The leader of the grasshopper pack, Hopper (Kevin Spacey), gives the ants until the end of the season to come up with their food or else. Flik decides to leave the colony to help find warrior bugs that can take on the grasshoppers. During his visit to the big city, he mistakes a band of circus bugs looking for work for the warriors that he is looking for. The circus bugs believe that Flik is hiring them for dinner theater and follow him back to the colony. Once the truth is discovered, they band together to try and outwit and defeat the grasshoppers.

What helps Pixar films stand apart from other animated features is the depth of their characters and the strength of their stories and A Bug’s Life is no exception. The vocal talents of Foley and Spacey lead the way along with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David Hyde Pearce, Madeline Kahn, and Phyllis Diller just to name a few. Denis Leary gets a special mention as the perfectly cast angry ladybug who always gets mistaken for a female.

In addition to this strong foundation, the animation looks fantastic presented in 1080p High Definition with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The blades of grass and all other aspects of nature look so realistic it is hard to believe, at times, it is animation. The bugs really come to life on screen with vivid colors and lifelike movement. The detail and clarity are stunning, no doubt helped by the having a digital-to-digital transfer of the source.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio earns the word “master” with this soundtrack. The team has created an immersive experience for the viewer, whether the characters are in the country or the city. The subwoofer becomes invaluable during the thunderous sounds of storm clouds and grasshopper swarms. And yet with all that goes on in the sound mix, the dialogue is always clear and understandable.

There are a couple of new bonus features in the Blu-ray collection. “Filmmakers’ Roundtable” offers a discussion between director John Lasseter, co-director Andrew Stanton and producers Darla Anderson and Kevin Reher on the making of the film. “A Bug’s Life – The First Draft” is an animated storyboard version of the original story narrated by Foley. A digital version of the film is also included.

Several extras that had been previously released are re-visited. There is an audio commentary by Lasseter, Stanton and supervising film editor Lee Unkrich. “Geri’s Game” is an entertaining Academy Award-winning short from 1997. “A Walt Disney Silly Symphony: Grasshopper and the Ants” is a 1934 cartoon that provided inspiration for the filmmakers. In-depth information on pre-production, design, production, sound design, and release is available for the biggest fan. Outtakes are usually silly and a waste of time but here you have truly creative and hysterical moments. The outtakes were originally shown during the end credits of the film but were so popular that additional ones were added with new prints during its extended release.

I already owned the original DVD release. After watching the Blu-ray version I popped the old one in to see if there was that much of a difference and there is. The colors are much more vivid and the picture is crisper. The sound is also more impressive. A Bug’s Life is meant to be seen in Blu-ray and warrants an upgrade. A free movie ticket for Pixar’s Up is included as extra incentive to add this to your collection.

Friday, May 29, 2009

UP (2009)

Written by Hombre Divertido

Up is too much of a downer.

On May 29th, Disney/Pixar released Up and proved once again that they simply cannot make movies that are consistently funny anymore, or even cute. Yes, some will find it tugging at their heartstrings as dreams become fulfilled, but fundamentally the story is too inconsistent to engage an audience that is looking deep.

Up has some wonderful moments but takes far too long to get going, and has too many violent and unnecessary emotionally depressing moments for children. The trailers clearly denote a comedy, and though it has some very funny moments, it tends to indicate there might be something to hide when the funniest moment in the trailer does not actually make it into the movie.

Hide is exactly what Up does. Behind the veil of a summer animated comedy is a story that is more heavyhanded than other Disney/Pixar offerings, but has comedic moments thrown in that are too obvious and appear to simply be an effort to even things out.

Where Up does shine is in the vocal talent. Though Disney/Pixar has suffered in the past from casting name actors in roles rather than lesser known but more experienced voice actors, Ed Asner does an excellent job as Karl Fredrickson, the 78-year-old man who ties thousands of balloons to his house, and floats away to South America in hopes of finding the place he and his wife had always hoped to visit. Jordan Nagai adds consistent comedic delivery as Russell, the stowaway on Karl's trip, as does Bob Peterson as Dug, one of many talking dogs in the film. Christopher Plummer is fine as the antagonist, but the writing lets him down as the character of Charles Muntz has inconsistent motivation.

The story by Bob Peterson, who co-directed with Pete Docter, is all over the map. The premise is just cute enough for the audience to enjoy, but unnecessary factors continue to get thrown in that will leave you scratching your head. The story is also an emotional roller coaster as it starts out cute, and actually gets depressing before the story even…takes off.

Visually the film is also inconsistent. The film looks good in certain scenes, but seems to lack the attention to detail that was appreciated in other Disny/Pixar endeavors such as Cars.

The fact that Peterson wrote, co-directed, and provided vocal talent, may have proved to be too much and negatively impacted the final product.

Recommendation: The adult audience at the 12:01 am showing appeared to enjoy the film, but children may have a completely different reaction.

As the first animated release of the blockbuster season and first Disney/Pixar release since the highly overrated Wall-E, it’s bound to make a mint over opening weekend. The film is something new and shiny to look at but is inconsistent in its energy, and does not capture the consistent humor of previous Disney/Pixar films such as Toy Story I and II. Finding Monsters vs. Aliens still in the theatres will provide more laughs.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Best of Star Trek: The Next Generation

Written by Hombre Divertido

Less than a week after the new Star Trek motion picture hit the big screen, Paramount rushed two single-disk “Best of” DVD releases to the store shelves with no bonus material, and a mere four episodes per disk. One might accept four episodes chosen out of the 79 episodes from the Original Series, but, one could reasonably expect more to be included in The Best of Star Trek: The Next Generation considering the complete series consists of more than twice as many episodes as its predecessor.

One might also expect better than what’s included. They aren’t terrible, but all represent writing that rush the all-to-convenient endings almost as much as these DVD releases were rushed into production. The four episodes include a two-part outing featuring the relentless Borg, a story revolving around the rights of Data to control his “life”, and a story with time travel at its center, which has become a tired theme in the Trek franchise.

The first offering is “The Best of Both Worlds” (Part 1) which aired on June 18th, 1990 and served as the cliffhanger conclusion to season three of this iconic series. Written by Michael Piller and directed by Cliff Bole, we find the Federation unprepared for the inevitable encounter with the hostile Borg with whom we became familiar in episode sixteen (“Q Who”) of season two. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is captured by the Borg and assimilated. Riker (Jonathan Frakes), who is dealing with an aggressive up-and-coming officer who is after his job, and concerns about his career choices, must give the order to blow up the Borg vessel with Picard (now called Locutus of Borg) aboard.

“Worlds” (Part 1) is a fine episode that will set the stage for many storylines to come, including the war between the Federation and the powerful Borg, the after affects of Picard’s assimilation, Riker’s career choices, and more. The aspects of the production are good, though there are some disappearing Borg drones between the assimilated Picard and the away team when he is first spotted, that create a distraction.

Season four opens with “Worlds” (Part 2) and finds that Riker did indeed pull the trigger on the Borg cube, but the weapon failed and the Borg, and the assimilated Picard live on. Unfortunately the writing in the second installment is more reflective of the other two episodes in this Best of release, in that the plot simply gets resolved all too conveniently i.e.: Picard is rescued, de-assimilated, Borg ship destroyed, etc. The facts related to the respective accomplishments are too convoluted, and the impact of the battle between the Federation and the Borg ship is not truly dealt with in this episode, though the impact will be felt in future Trek endeavors. “The Best of Both Worlds” is one fine story, but not worthy of taking up half of the Best of release.

Next up is “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” which aired on February 19th, 1990. Directed by David Carson with numerous writers involved, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” deals with a rift in the space/time continuum that allows for a previous Enterprise ship to come 22 years into the future, changing the timeline and the lives of the current Enterprise crew. The Federation is now at war with the Klingon Empire, some characters are gone, and others have returned. This paradox creates a very interesting story. Unfortunately it is far too reliant on the fact that Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) is the only one who is aware that the timeline has changed, must convince the Picard that the previous Enterprise must return to its own time even though it is doomed, and she is unable to be specific regarding her knowledge. This aspect of the story is annoying, as are references to what current history records reveal about the history of the visiting ship. This is the most enjoyable episode in this release, despite the previously mentioned flaws, simply because it has more depth of story than the others.

The final episode on the disk was written by Melinda M. Snodgrass and directed by Robert Scheerer, and aired on February 13th, 1989. In “The Measure of a Man” Data’s rights as a sentient individual are put on trial with Picard defending Data, and Riker reluctantly leading the opposition. This episode has some of the best dialog in the release, but simply does not go deep enough and is resolved too easily. The story fails to adequately play out the concept.

Recommendation: There is enough Next Generation fun here for the price, but no bonus material; providing only four episodes, two of which are one story; and ignoring seasons five through seven is inexcusable. Good, but should have been much better to be The Best.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Best of Star Trek: The Original Series

Written by Hombre Divertido

On May 12, 2009, Paramount released The Best of Star Trek: The Original Series. Though the release seems a bit rushed as there is no bonus material, and the packaging does not mention the re-mastered aspects of these classic episodes, this is Star Trek at its original best.

Yes, one could certainly argue the choices made in picking the four episodes to include under the header of The Best of, but these four episodes certainly will serve as a pleasant reminder to the Trekkies/Trekkers of the world as to why they fell in love with the series in the first place, and trying to spot the new and improved footage makes watching what you seen hundreds of times, fun all over again. For those new to the series, these four episodes serve as a nice introduction to not only the action of the series, but the lighthearted aspects as well.

The four episodes chosen include two from the first season, and two from the second, yet they don’t come up on the menu in the order in which they originally aired. First up is “The City on the Edge of Forever,” which is generally considered by many to be the best episode of the original series. Written by Harlan Ellison and directed by Joseph Pevney, “City” aired on April 6th, 1967, and featured a fine guest performance by Joan Collins as Edith Keeler, a social worker on earth in the 1930s.

After McCoy accidentally injects himself with a volatile drug that causes paranoia and delusions, he manages to beam himself down to the planet currently being orbited by the Enterprise, and enters a time portal that refers to itself as the Guardian of Forever. McCoy’s entrance into Earth’s past causes time to be changed, and the Enterprise disappears from orbit stranding the landing party. Kirk and Spock follow McCoy back in time in an effort to correct the change.

The story is well crafted and the performances are top notch, making it quite clear why this episode is so highly regarded. The episode is certainly not without its distractions. The heavy filter used on close-ups of Collins gets rather annoying, as does some of McCoy’s make-up. It’s certainly not clear why the drug would cause his teeth to yellow. The drug also seems to impact McCoy’s physical abilities, as one who was never much of a fighter in the series, manages to effectively subdue the transporter chief with two martial-arts type blows.

The second episode on the disk menu, “The Trouble with Tribbles” was actually the last of the four to air. Written by David Gerrold and also directed by Pevney, it aired on December 29th, 1967. In “Trouble,” the Enterprise is summoned to space station K7 where they encounter pompous politicians, Klingons, and Tribbles. The Tribbles, affectionate little hairballs that multiply at an amazing rate, eventually fill the Enterprise and the space station, but do manage to reveal a Klingon plot to sabotage the Federation’s colonization of a highly sought-after planet.

Certainly one of the most comedic episodes in the three-year run of the series, “Trouble” sports fine supporting performances, and displays a more competitive than combative relationship between the Earthlings and the Klingons. The guest stars include classic character actor William Schallert, and William Campbell who had appeared in the first-season episode, “The Squire of Gothos.”

“Trouble” opens with an interesting conversation being held in one of the conference rooms between Kirk, Spock, and Chekov. Chekov displays his comedic Russian loyalties as the threesome appear to be discussing some of the storyline from the first season’s episode, “Errand of Mercy.”

The fourteenth episode of season one aired on December 15th, 1966, and was titled “Balance of Terror.” Written by Paul Schneider and directed by Vincent McEveety, in this episode, we are introduced to the Romulans, and the history between them and the Federation. After a long war, a neutral zone was established, and Federation outposts set up along the border. In the “Balance” we find that the Federation outposts are being destroyed, and the Enterprise is in pursuit of the ship causing the destruction. The enemy ship is indeed a Romulan vessel that possesses the ability to become virtually invisible and an extremely powerful plasma weapon.

An exciting chess game ensues between Kirk and the Romulan commander portrayed by Mark Lenard who would have an extensive run in guest-starring roles throughout the Star Trek entertainment franchise. The episode also features an appearance by Lawrence Montaigne who also appears in the last of the four episodes in this collection.

We learn in “Balance” that the Romulans bare a strong resemblance to the Vulcans, and this fact allows for tension within the episode as paranoia strikes many members of the crew. This is one of many times in the series that racial issues would be at the forefront of the episode themes.

One notable distraction is the phaser fire that appears to be photon torpedoes. This seems like something that could have been easily remedied during the re-mastering process, but it remains in its original state.

The final of the four episodes, and quite possibly the least worthy, is “Amok Time” which aired on September 15th, 1967 as the first episode of the second season. Written by Theodore Sturgeon and directed by Peveny, “Amok Time” delves deep into the Vulcan society as it deals with Spock and the Vulcan mating cycle.

With the Enterprise in route to an important diplomatic ceremony, Mr. Spock begins to display behavior extremely unusual for a Vulcan, and requests a leave on his home planet. Kirk disobeys orders and changes course to Vulcan in hopes of saving the life of his friend. Kirk and McCoy accompany Spock down to the planet where they attend a formal Vulcan ritual, and Kirk eventually participates.

The major distraction in “Amok” is the constant switching from actors to stuntmen in the fight scene between Kirk and Spock. For those familiar with this episode, the re-mastered additions will be interesting to see, but this episode is more appealing to those who know the show’s mythology. Many others could have easily replaced this episode. “Amok” marks the introduction of not only Walter Koenig as Chekov, but also the Vulcan salute.

Recommendation: For those who don’t own any Star Trek episodes on DVD, this is certainly a great way to start a collection, but, with complete season and series sets available, it may be the inexpensive price that will attract most fans. For those who were introduced to the iconic series through the release of the new motion picture, this is a great way to explore the roots of Star Trek.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - Centennial Collection

Written by Fantasma el Rey

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
is more than your average western; the team of master director John Ford and legendary star John Wayne make sure of that. When the two of them are on a project, it tends to be an overall good film with a story more than just cowboys, Indians, and cattle drives. Those elements are sometimes involved but are used to further the tale along and usually mean more than what is simply shown. Meeting on film for the first time are James Stewart and John Wayne, who would pair up again years later on The Shootist. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a love story, a vengeance tale, and the classic confrontation of old versus new now available in a two-disc set as part of Paramount’s Centennial Collection.

Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), an older lawyer turned politician heads back to the town that launched his career to attend the funeral of an old “friend.” While there, Stoddard recounts to a newspaperman the true tale of the events that led to his election. As the tale unwinds we hear how the young Stoddard got tangled up with outlaw Liberty Valance (played well by Lee Marvin), met his wife Hallie (Vera Miles), and met the now-deceased local rancher that no one’s heard of, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne, ‘nuff said). Stoddard’s whole career was built on the fact that this law-abiding Easterner shot down the meanest, baddest gunman to roam “south of the Picketwire”or did he?

All is not as it seems or as legend has it. Stoddard’s arrival in the town of Shinbone upset the applecart of lives already established there. Doniphon and Valance were already set to clash and it was only a matter of time; now Stoddard is determined to put the villain behind bars instead of six feet under. Doniphon was also set on wedding the beautiful Miss Hallie and taking her back to his ranch. With Stoddard now in the picture, things shift and he is now in the spotlight and set to steal some thunder. As times goes on Doniphon can see that Stoddard is the way of the future and the key to settling a wild land. He knows that in Stoddard the people have a greater champion and Hallie has a brighter, more eventful life ahead of her. Doniphon is now a guardian angel of sorts that will assist the lawyer and his love in the only way he knows how, with a six-shooter, even if it means that no one but a very few will ever know of his deeds as he goes on to live out his life alone.

Filmed mostly on a soundstage in black and white is a bit different for Ford as he loved to film on location in Monument Valley and in color. Reasons differ as to why Liberty Valance was shot this way. Ford said he wanted to shoot in b&w to give the picture more depth while others say Paramount was cutting cost especially with stars Wayne and Stewart in the mix. There is also the theory that due to Ford’s poor health the production was shot on the backlots. Another point on the dual stars is that both were portraying younger men with Stewart was to be fresh out of law school. Filmed in color, it would have clear that Stewart was nowhere near that young. Wayne too was starting to show he was getting up years and moving to the next phase in his career. Although Wayne’s character can get away with being a bit of an older man in the west, Stewart’s role was clearly that of a very young man at the beginning of his life’s path.

The two-disc set is packed with great bonus material, including commentary by Peter Bogdanovich and his archival recordings with John Ford and James Stewart. The other commentary also consists of archival recordings by Dan Ford with John Ford, Stewart, and Marvin. There is a seven-part featurette, “The Size Of Legend, The Soul Of Myth” that further delves into the facts behind the making of the film. Also included is an eight-page booklet with more details and tidbits of information along with a few photos. I love booklets and they seem so rare to find unless you purchase some massive gift set that contains a ton of overkill. Just a simple booklet is all I ask for studios and distribution folks.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an excellent western that I appreciate more now that I’ve seen it though adult eyes. I can see the deeper story of doing what’s right for the greater good at the risk of losing all that you have worked for. Filming in black and white is perfect for this film as it becomes more expressive in its dark take on the western myth of outlaw and lawmen. The film also boasts a good supporting cast. Not only is Lee Marvin cast in his first major heavy role that sent him on the road to stardom, we see as his sidekick another young Lee, Lee Van Clef, who would go on to greater roles in many westerns. In smaller roles we also get to see some old Hollywood staples in Andy Devine, John Carradine, Woody Strode and Edmond O’Brien.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

El Dorado (1968) - Centennial Collection

Written by Fantasma el Rey

El Dorado
was directed and produced by legendary director Howard Hawks and stars western great John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. It is one of a just a few oaters that Hawks would work on; three others starred Wayne as well: Red River, Rio Bravo, and Rio Lobo. The two together made some great westerns that rival the work that Wayne did for fellow directing legend John Ford. Now El Dorado has been released in a two-disc edition as part of the Centennial Collection from Paramount.

The story is a fairly simple one. A hired gun rides to town to assist in a war over water rights. While in town he is confronted and given the lowdown by the sheriff, who's an old friend, as to which ranch is “good” and which is “bad.” Now armed with the facts over said “war,” gunman decides to decline the offer made by bad rancher, rides on to leave the job to someone else. Little does he know that he will eventually be involved at a later date and fighting on the other side. That’s the plot in a nut shell. Not too complicated at all.

El Dorado is often seen as a remake of Hawks’ earlier work Rio Bravo, and for good reason. Wayne plays a fast-handed gunslinger of sorts in both films. Mitchum replaces Dean Martin as the drunk sheriff. The young James Caan is the new kid named after a state (Mississippi this time as opposed to Colorado), lending a helping hand. Arthur Hunnicutt is the old-timer along for support and some comic relief, aided in this version by the knife-throwing Caan character. There are also strong Hawksian women that can hold their own alongside such strong men. In El Dorado, we have the older, wise woman, played by Charlene Holt, who knows both sheriff and gunman, and the young, aggressive, slightly tomboy-ish, and highly attractive Michele Carey. Both add wonderfully to the film.

Similarities to Rio Bravo don’t end there as Leigh Brackett, who worked on both films, adapted the screenplay. A sheriff left devastated by a girl loses self in a bottle, an old friend and situation force him to sober up, and a young kid and old coot are aids. This time the band of four fights for the side that is right and wind up doing the majority of dirty work as the “good” rancher is out matched by his foe’s hired gun fighters. More plot matches include the capture and exchange of a man from both sides as the film comes to a climactic bullet-riddled conclusion. Hawks even stole scenes from himself: look at the saloon scene where a recently sober sheriff follows a fleeing suspect by blood trial.

The assemble cast do a fine job in the roles they are given. Watching them all work together make El Dorado a joy to watch, even if it is a rehash of a better film with a stronger cast. Also, Edward Asner gives a fine performance as the wealthy ranch boss trying to bully his neighbors. Not a likely western heavy, he gives his baddie a new spin by coming off as more of a New York brawler type, complete with hat and fist on hips stance.

As part of the Centennial Collection, the DVDs are filled with excellent extras. Disc one has two audio commentary tracks: one by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and the other by critic/ historian Richard Schickel along with Asner and author Todd McCarthy. Disc two contains two standout featurettes, one being the 40-minute “Ride, Boldly Ride: The Journey To El Dorado.” Broken into seven parts, it is detailed look at how El Dorado came to be. “The Artist And The American West” is a vintage short that explores the world of western painter Olaf Wieghorst (he has a small part as the gunsmith who provides Mississippi with his blunderbuss of a sawed-off shotgun) whose paintings are featured in the film’s opening sequence and which Hawks does a beautiful job in bringing to life on the silver screen in bright vivid color. The two-disc set also comes with a nifty little booklet that contains some good photos and a bit more info on how El Dorado came to life.

Monday, May 18, 2009

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - The Complete First Season (Blu-ray )

Written by Senora Bicho

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
first aired on October 2, 2000 in its first timeslot of 9:00 on Friday nights. In February 2001, CBS moved the show to Thursday nights at 9 while moving another new show, Survivor, from Wednesday to the 8:00 slot. This set up a hugely successful line-up for CBS, ending NBC’s “Must-See TV” dominance. CSI has been solid in the ratings since and has spawned two spin-offs CSI: Miami and CSI: New York.

I have been a huge fan of the original CSI since the premiere episode and was excited to see the first season finally make it to Blu-ray. One of the unique aspects of this show is its look, which is one of the stars alongside the actors. The cinematography is at times dark with a trademark blue hue during investigations and is contrasted with the bright and beautiful Las Vegas location with all the color and light of its casinos.

The first time I watched a CSI episode with my HDTV cable box it was amazing and brought the show to a whole new level. This Blu-ray release provides the first season in 1080i High Definition with a 16:9 aspect ratio. The colors are vivid, the details sharp, and the contrasts distinct.

In addition to being able to enjoy the heightened look of the first season it also provided a chance to go back and see how it all started. The pilot episode doesn’t do a lot of initial set-up; the viewer is immediately brought into the action at the first murder scene. It is clear that Doctor Gilbert “Gil” Grissom (William Petersen) is in control of the lab. Each of the other main characters, Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger), Nick Stokes (George Eads), Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan), Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox), Greg Sanders (Eric Szmanda) and Captain Jim Brass (Paul Guilfoyle), are also introduced. There is not much character information, which is what I like about the show; you get hints of it but the episodes stick to being focused on the crimes and forensics. The team starts off referring to themselves as being from Criminalistics, later changed to Crime Lab, a much smarter and less nerdy referral. It is fun to go back and see events that will have a big impact on the characters in later seasons. Willows struggles with her soon to be ex-husband, Brown’s gambling problems, and the future romance between Grissom and Sidle are all initiated here.

All of the actors look much younger but what is most disturbing is the appearance of Helgenberger. I thought that she was beautiful and is one of my favorite characters for being a strong female role model. In later seasons, she has become much more sexed-up with more makeup and tighter, more revealing clothes. I have noticed it as the seasons have progressed but to go back to the first season makes it that much more obvious and disappointing. There was absolutely no reason to do this and it makes her less credible along with being a sad progression for a female character.

The audio is presented in 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and makes a point of immersing the viewer within the ambiance of the scenes, regardless of whether it’s sounds in offices or out on the streets. The soundtrack and score are balanced well and the dialogue is clear and distinct.

The special features include deleted scenes, series and episodic promos, and a gag reel. There is also a director’s cut of the pilot along with an audio commentary by director Danny Cannon. “CSI People Lie . . . But the Evidence Never Does” is a featurette from 2003 which offers interviews with the creators, cast and crew. “CSI: Season One – Rediscovering the Evidence" (HD) presents new interviews and a look back a season one. The extras are nothing special and are not the reason to purchase this DVD collection.

CSI is still one of the best crime drama’s on television and the first season set the stage for all that was to come. Whether you are a new viewer or longtime fan here is your chance to see the first season in all of its glory.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade Of Cartoon Comedy

Written by Fantasma el Rey

Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade Of Cartoon Comedy
is 54 minutes of cartoon shorts where nothing is off limits as “Family Guy” creator MacFarlane and crew pop off and give their off-kilter look at the world. In 50 uncensored shorts nothing is safe from the flying poop attack these comic monkeys hurl. The animation is the same found on the hit television show except that his main characters are missing, replaced by all sorts of subjects from the cartoon world as well as the real one. It’s pretty much a Family Guy episode without the plot but that’s OK as most of the shorts are funny and hold their own.

Some of the better shorts are the twisted looks at the “Frog Prince;” “Super Mario Saves The Princess;” “Die, Roadrunner, Die;” and “Fred and Barney at the Club.” “Frog” is just a jerk who gets off on having stupid chicks fondle him, while “Super Mario” can’t even get a kiss from the prissy princess. “Roadrunner” is a look at what happens when the coyote actually catches that damn bird, not at all worth the catch. “Fred And Barney” is a glimpse of what hell it would be for those two to try and get into a modern hipster nightclub.

Other top offers are the funny “Sex With…” that takes a look at what sex would be like with various names in the news and pop culture such as Mr. Sulu, a folk singer, Dick Cheney, Gilbert Gottfried, and a midget. More hilarity ensues as a gay knight who refuses to fight the dragon, backstage with Bob Dylan, and two Persians try to pick up chicks. MacFarlane also gives us a further look into his atheism beliefs in “Monkeys Talk Religion.”

Some of this stuff is just really painful to watch. A short list includes “Flintstone Shit” which is just a stupid scene of Fred in a stall as he takes a dump. Some kid finding out he’s adopted is pretty bad to boot but the worst is sitting as AIDS Patient Zero meets and has sex with a monkey. It has its giggles when I think about it but the short is just wrong and at the moment simply seemed horrid.

Overall, Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade Of Cartoon Comedy is an entertaining hour to sit and watch even if you are stunned at times and have to pick up your jaw after shaking your head and saying, “Really?” Again, it is from the creator of Family Guy and follows the humor laid down by said show so everyone should know more or less what to expect. So if you’re truly offended, then it’s your own damn fault.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Waltons - The Complete Ninth Season

Written by Hombre Divertido

Warner Home Video has now released the final season of this iconic series. Unfortunately The Waltons goes out with far more of a whimper than a bang. We can only hope that this release will be followed by a collection consisting of the six made-for-television movies, which served to not only reunite the original cast, but to reunite fans with a beloved series that had been tarnished over the years by the departure of cast members, tired writing, and the fact that CBS kept it going two seasons too long.

The Waltons, which came to television in September of 1972 after the warm reception received by series creator and narrator Earl Hamner Jr.’s The Homecoming a year earlier, was based on the Walton family, and the show was anchored by the strong acting of Richard Thomas as John-boy, Michael Learned as Olivia, Ralph Waite as John, Will Geer as Grandpa, and Ellen Corby as Grandma. Along with stellar writing, the show would flourish for many years to come.

Unfortunately, by season nine in 1980, the above mentioned actors were no longer appearing on the show for a myriad of reasons, with the exception of Waite who does appear in several episodes, and the writing had become stale. The primary cast now consisted of the adults who were originally cast as supporting characters when they were children. Though they had matured as people, the majority of them simply had not grown into competent performers. Along with the series regulars was Robert Wightman, who replaced Richard Thomas as John-boy in 1979. The shoes were far too big to be filled, even by someone less awkward on camera than Wightman, and the questionable choice to recast a lead character who left a successful prime time series, without explanation within the script, would certainly rival the replacement of Dick York by Dick Sargent as Darrin on Bewitched. Ironically, Dick Sargent appears in season nine of The Waltons.

The writing is not bad throughout season nine; it just appears that the writers are out of ideas. This is evident in the opening two-part episode “The Outrage,” which is titled after the main storyline of John Walton trying to assist Harley (Hal Williams) who is arrested for an old crime. Though this storyline is concluded far to conveniently, it is still entertainingly dramatic and poignant. Unfortunately, numerous other plots that are well below the standards established by the show over the years, and are poorly acted, surround this main story that supports the title.

In viewing the series, one could wonder why season nine was even done, but since the boys had gone off to war in season eight, season nine served to bring them home. The stories of the boys at war that are quite prevalent throughout this season lack the intensity necessary to convey the stories being told, and are extremely limited by the locations, sets, and special effects. This season is not without some nice moments, and the last regular season episode is pleasant as the entire cast gathers at the home of the Baldwin sisters (Mary Jackson and Helen Kleeb) for a celebration.

One would think that the final regular season would be a prime opportunity to fill the three-disk release with bonus material, but alas, there is none to be found. Guest appearances by the previously mentioned Dick Sargent, as well as Marc McClure, William Schallert, Mary Wickes, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, are enjoyable distractions, from what is essentially a poor product. The packaging contains some nice photos, but the disks themselves are poorly marked.

Recommendation: Season nine is the weakest of the series, and is only for those who need to complete their collection. Regardless of your opinion of the quality of season nine, each episode ends with the music of Jerry Goldsmith and narration by Earl Hamner Jr., which is sure to place a reminiscent smile upon the face of the faithful who grew up with The Waltons.

Saturday, May 09, 2009


Written by Hombre Divertido

Star Trek will certainly feed the hungry fans, but the meal is a bit overcooked.

In 1994 Paramount transitioned the Star Trek movie franchise from the original cast to the Next Generation cast in Generations, which conveniently served its purpose. Not a great film, but it worked. Captain Picard and his crew followed Generations with the huge home run First Contact in 1996, but then killed the franchise with the two yawners that were Insurrection (1998) and Nemesis (2002). Since then Trek fans have had little to embrace other than the under-appreciated television series Enterprise which lasted until 2005.

The year 2008 was to be the rebirth for the franchise, but the writer’s strike kept anxious fans waiting another six months. On May 8. 2009, the highly anticipated re-tooling of the original series hit the big screen courtesy of Paramount and current Hollywood wonder boy J.J. Abrams.

Much like Generations, the film certainly serves its purpose in launching what is sure to be a profitable string of films, but unlike Generations, this film tends to be a bit over produced.

The 2009 version of Star Trek reintroduces us to the original cast of characters from the 1966 television series, in relative infancy in their respective Starfleet careers, as they set out to stop a rogue Romulan ship from destroying the planet Vulcan. Most of the new cast takes their own interpretation on the roles, with the exception of Karl Urban who steals every scene he is in with a dead-on portrayal of Deforest Kelly's Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy.

The other six lead characters tend to be hit and miss as they attempt to settle into these iconic roles. Chris Pine shows enough untamed energy to make his Kirk work, and has a more obvious sense of humor than that which Shatner displayed. Zachary Quinto may need another film or two to figure out how he wants to play Spock, as the half human/half Vulcan complexities may have been a bit out of his range. The experienced comedic actor Simon Pegg makes some very strong character choices as Scotty, but it will remain to be seen if the comedic portrayal of the chief engineer will be as endearing in future endeavors.

Making safer choices with their interpretations are Zoe Saldana as Uhura, and John Cho as Sulu. Both performances are adequate. Neither attempts an impression of their predecessors, and both bring some slight new dimensions to the characters. Anyone who has seen Trek alum Garrett Wang do his Sulu impression must wonder why he was not considered for the role. Anton Yelchin rounds out the cast as Chekov, and his accent adds some early smiles, put his painfully slow delivery eventually bogs down many scenes.

J.J. Abrams displays an ambitious style in his direction of a story by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, but, as clearly shown in the scene where Kirk is being chased by ridiculous CGI creatures, just because you can create something, does not mean you should. Some of the special effects, such as the previously mentioned creatures, simply look awful and are well below the standards set by previous sci-fi fare.

Abrams' need for extreme close-ups of his actors becomes increasingly distracting as the film progresses, and detracts from many action scenes. An action sequence, such as the bar room fight between Kirk and some Starfleet cadet goons, has not been ruined this bad by poor directorial choices since the on-foot chase scene with Keanu Reeves pursuing Patrick Swayze in Point Break.

The only thing more distracting than some of the directorial choices is the heavy handed musical score by Michael Giacchino, who often appears to be trying to create excitement or drama that simply is not there, and in some case shouldn’t be.

Where Star Trek does work is when it keeps it simple. There are some wonderful dialog driven moments, and Trekkies will be all smiles as gems such as where the nickname “Bones” stems from, how Christopher Pike (Played with subtle brilliance by Bruce Greenwood.) ended up in a wheelchair, or Kirk in bed with a green Orion Slave woman (Though some may say that scene ignores facts revealed in an Enterprise episode).

A solid villain is always key to the success of such endeavors and Star Trek does not disappoint on this front as Eric Bana's psychotic revenge-seeking Nero definitely leaves the audience wanting more. Unfortunately Nero is piloting a huge mass of jagged metal pieces that we never see all of, nor is its weaponry ever clearly defined, and the battle between Kirk and Nero on a platform within the ship looks far too similar to a scene from another sci-fi franchise, that may have fans waiting for Nero to announce that he is Kirk's father.

Recommendation: Star Trek is bound to make a mint, as fans that have been waiting far too long for anything Trek-related will transport themselves to the theatre in droves. There are enough shout-outs to the faithful in the first half of the film to keep them smiling through what is essentially a weak story. There is certainly enough action to leave the non-Trekkies satisfied as well. Nonetheless, time travel as a solution is tired, the story has too many holes, the direction and score are too heavy handed, some of the special effects are weak, and more of the characters would have been better. As Trek films go, this one will be hard pressed to crack the top three.

Obviously more liberties can be taken in future outings now that we are on a new timeline, but lets hope that writers will keep it simple, and focus more on dialog and the characters that fans want to see, know, and love.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Looney, Looney, Looney Bugs Bunny Movie

Written by Fantasma el Rey

The Looney, Looney, Looney Bugs Bunny Movie
from 1981 is a collection of classic Looney Tune shorts that where strung together and edited with new links connecting them. The 79-minute feature film highlights of course its title star Bugs Bunny along with Yosemite Sam, Daffy Duck, Sylvester, and Tweety along with a few other characters that dotted the Looney Tunes landscape. Divided into three acts with different themes, the shorts tie together well but you can tell the classics from the new links. Directed by veteran Friz Freleng and featuring the vocal talents of the amazing Mel Blanc, The Looney, Looney, Looney Bugs Bunny Movie serves as a nice introduction to the classic Looney Tunes world of cartoon comedy.

The movie opens with the award winning “Knighty Knight Bugs” in which court jester Bugs must retrieve the “singing sword” from the black knight, Yosemite Sam, and his fire-breathing dragon. After that we get a quick intro by Bugs telling of how the cartoon comics, with their over-the-top, impossible slapstick come along and kicked out the preceding funny men known as the baggy pants comics led by Charlie Chaplin. With that said the movie goes into Act I “Satan’s Waitin’” with Yosemite Sam making a deal with the devil to replace his spot with Bugs, that’s if he can trick the rabbit into being killed. Sounds worse when you think of it that way; it’s only a cartoon. Sam’s out to get Bugs as Bugs continuously outwits him through different settings, Rome, the Wild West, and desert sands before Sam gives up and willingly dons the horns and pitch fork.

Act II is comprised of Mobster cartoons and dubbed “The Unmentionables.” Here Bugs is an Elliot Ness-type named Elegant Mess, trying to bring down the notorious Rocky and his gang of thugs. Daffy Duck and Porky Pig pop up in these ‘toons along with Sylvester and Tweety, who wind up being the unlikely heroes of the day. Mel Blanc is helped out by the voice talent of June Foray (gotta love that name) as Granny and Ralph James as narrator.

Act III, “The Oswald Awards” finds the gang at an awards show created just for them to see who is the Best Leading Actor. Before Bugs and Daffy duel it out, we get to see “The Three Little Bops,” which is a retelling in jazz bop of the story of The Three Little Pigs. Not too bad even though a bit too corny with its bop crazy soundtrack, with Big Bad Wolf vocals provided by Stan Freberg. Also shown is another clip from a Sylvester and Tweety short before Bugs and Daffy continue their classic long-running rivalry, which as always Bugs wins. Damn duck just can’t catch a break.

For being a collection of somewhat edited shorts The Looney, Looney, Looney Bugs Bunny Movie isn’t all that bad. A bit long as we’re used to five-minute shorts but no way is it as bad as the last few features put out under the Looney Tunes banner. The DVD also contains three bonus cartoons from some time in the 1990s, which again just don’t have the appeal of the originals. The DVD Feature is a good intro for those unfamiliar with Looney Tunes, if that’s possible. The shorts chosen contain a few clever sight gags (the knights names for instance) but if you can afford it, start or rent the multi-disc Golden Collection series: all original, no cuts and well worth the extra loot.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Knots Landing - The Complete Second Season

Written by Senora Bicho

Knots Landing
, a drama centered on the lives of four marriages in a small suburb of Southern California, was created as a spin-off for the hit show Dallas. It started off slow in the ratings and not as popular as Dallas, but it ended up being on the air longer, and running from 1979 to 1993, and received more critical acclaim. As time went on it became much more of a soap opera and season two started this trend with the addition of Abby Cunningham (Donna Mills).

Starting off with a bang, Sid Fairgate (Don Murray) is arrested for raping a hitchhiker. While in the midst of fighting the charges, Sid discovers that his younger sister Abby is divorcing her husband and is considering moving to San Diego. Sid’s wife Karen (Michele Lee) hosts a dinner for Abby and invites all of their neighbors, although it is very obvious Abby is much more interested in the husbands in attendance and flirts openly with all of them. Val Ewing (Joan Van Ark) is drawn to Abby’s daughter and spends most of the evening reading to her while her husband Gary (Ted Shackelford) ignores Abby’s advances. Kenny Ward (James Houghton) invites himself to the party in an attempt to make up with his wife, Ginger (Kim Lankford), after she caught him cheating at the end of the first season. Laura Avery (Constance McCashin) is excitedly telling everyone about her new real estate job her corporate attorney husband Richard (John Pleshette) allowed her to take after he wanted to borrow money from her father. This party was a very ingenious way to provide new viewers with an opportunity to meet all of the main players at once while giving returning viewers a recap.

Abby stays in town to help fight Sid’s rape charges and in the process becomes fond of Knots Landing and the inhabitants, deciding to make it her home instead of San Diego. Initially, everyone gets along great but soon Abby’s conniving ways come to the surface and trouble ensues. The rest of the season includes Gary’s battle with alcoholism along with his involvement in organized crime, Richard losing his job, Ginger ending up pregnant, and Val’s fight with cancer. There are also relationship struggles that include plenty of adultery and an overabundance of lying and scheming.

Season Two also includes some visits from members of the Dallas cast. J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) and Kristin Sheppard (Mary Crosby), infamous for being the culprit who shot J.R., show up to cause some mayhem, and Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) also comes to town to support his brother Gary.

Knots Landing is exactly what you would expect: melodramatic moments, beautiful women in tight clothes, and outrageous storylines. There is nothing particularly exciting or engaging in this season. Abby adds an interesting dynamic to the show and is the highlight. I am looking forward to the release of the later, more popular seasons, especially once William Devane joins the cast. Season Two definitely has some soap-opera moments but it isn’t nearly as much of a guilty pleasure as what is to come.

Friday, May 01, 2009


Written by Musgo Del Jefe

This review for the newly released Scooby-Doo and the Samurai Sword marks my third straight review of one of the direct-to-video Scooby-Doo movies. In 2007, I gave Chill Out, Scooby-Doo a warm reception. I felt that it kept the spirit of the original series I remembered from the early '70s and it maintained the quality of production that was started with the first movie, Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island in 1998. In 2008, the Halloween-timed release of Scooby-Doo and the Goblin King held much promise. But those were quickly dashed with a bumbling, magical story line that didn't have the humor or mysteries that make the series so enjoyable.

This year promises to be a busy one for the Scooby-Doo franchise. In the Fall we will get a new animated series, Scooby-Doo - Mystery, Inc. which promises to wash out the bad taste left from the oddly animated, Shaggy & Scooby-Doo Get a Clue! That return to more old school mystery solving will coincide with the direct-to-TV release of a new live-action film, Scooby-Doo 3: The Mystery Begins. Both of these series promise a return to the mystery-solving premise of the original series. So, I was left wondering what I would get with Scooby-Doo and the Samurai Sword.

This film starts promisingly with an actual "real" setting of Tokyo, Japan. The pre-credit story gets rolling with a classic set-up of a father and son working in the museum and the father needing something to save the museum. There's a brief history of the Black Samurai and some armor is taken. The opening credits offer a nice change to the usually busy opening that often includes some form of chase through the opening titles. This one had an almost theatrical feel with more traditional movie instrumentation.

The new take on the Scooby-Doo score continues into the film. As we first meet the gang, I really enjoyed the cool, funky music that sounds like it was coming from real instruments. Warner Bros. has always had the best orchestra in town, I hope they've unleashed some of that for these features. The gang is all back and we know that we're moving into the 21st century with cell phones and text messages. By next movie, Daphne will be sending Tweets of their progress in solving the mysteries.

The razor-thin premise is pretty easy to pick up. Daphne has been invited to a Martial Arts Tournament because she's a world-class martial artist (yeah, that's right). This is actually an interesting set-up. Daphne is involved in a tournament that seems to be part Enter The Dragon and part Fantasy Island. I would be curious to see either of those plots developed. Don't forget too, a little of Karate Kid thrown in as Daphne seems to be overmatched but wins her fights. Plot-wise, these martial artists are also doing a double duty of protecting something called the "Destiny Scroll" which is something the Black Samurai would desire to steal. This is a good time for the gang to hit every Japanese stereotype including fireworks, Sumo wrestling, sushi, and some geisha. That is . . . until they are attacked by ninjas.

The second act begins at the 20-minute mark with our first "music video" chase scene. This battle with the ninjas is accompanied by a painfully titled song, "Doing The Samurai" (wait till I tell you about the next one). Like we've become accustomed to in the previous series and films, this scene includes clever costume changes, fooling the bad guys, and general slapstick humor. The difference here is that the ninjas actually steal the Destiny Scroll. Or, I should say, they think they do. It turns out that our gang still has the "real" Destiny Scroll and they use it to find the Sword Of Doom. The movie turns into much more traditional riddle-solving at this point. These are the fun moments of the film and I wish they could draw out the "mystery" aspect of it a little more. Solving a mystery doesn't always mean unmasking a bad guy. Sometimes it's more entertaining to have the clues put in front of the viewer and give them time to unravel the riddle. Here we are led to a Green Dragon where another riddle quickly leads us to the Sword Of Doom.

The discovery of the Sword of Doom lends itself to an almost too painfully recreation of the booby traps in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. As the gang is running away from the big rolling rock, you know exactly what is going to be on the other side. Of course, the Black Samurai is waiting and takes the sword. A chase ensues that seems like it will be the second "music video" but at the 40-minute mark, the Black Samurai is caught and unmasked. Just the "whatchu' talkin' 'bout, Willis", every character gets in their catchphrase in this scene, including the "meddling kids" line. All of the beats of a "normal" episode have been fulfilled. The movie could be over. That is . . . until they are attacked by robot ninjas.

The third act begins at the 50-minute mark with our second "music video" chase scene. The battle with the robot ninjas for the Sword of Doom takes place to the upbeat tune, "Domo Arigato, Sayonara" As painful as the song sounds, the action is pretty well choreographed. This time, our boys aren't successful and the "real" Black Samurai is going to have the Sword of Doom. Up to this point, the story has remained grounded in the "real" Scooby-Doo universe where monsters and ghosts are men in masks. It's at this point that I really checked out on the plot. Much of the excitement and action of these films is the comedy of the chase and the thin but fun mysteries that need to be solved to save a farm or hotel or museum.

From this point on, Shaggy and Scooby train to become samurai, meet a green dragon and find something called the Sword of Fate. The plot and effects are all overblown through the third act. What really works in a film like Chill Out, Scooby-Doo is the return of the human element to the stories. Battling ghosts and dragons with mystical weapons is best left to the Anime side of the aisle. The movie ends with a nice circle back to the beginning of the film, but the lessons of friendship and loyalty that are promised in the beginning are wasted by the sheer size of the story the writers try to tell in the end.

A terrific start for 2/3rds of the film is wasted in an overdone ending. I don't figure this is the end for the Scooby-Doo direct-to-video franchise. Alien Invaders and Cyber Chase couldn't kill it, I don't think this one will. I hope that the new series coming out will encourage a return to more mystery stories. It's a fantastically fun universe to play in - the writers know all of the beats they need to hit and it's fun even when you know they're coming. I hold this series to a little higher standard and I'm anxious to see what movie number fourteen holds in store.

The DVD includes only one Special Feature (I don't count Trailers as Special Features) - "Scooby-Doo Dojo!". What promises to be a look at the world of martial arts, is in reality, a disappointing feature that spends most of its time trying to teach kids moves that are so basic, you'd cover them in your first five minutes of a Free Pass at your local martial arts gym.