Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story

Written by Fantasma el Rey

Mr. Rock ‘n Roll
is the story of legendary 1950s DJ Alan Freed, who coined the term “rock ‘n’ roll” and brought the sound of the city to the masses. This 1999 made-for-television movie stars Judd Nelson as Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll himself and features Madchen Amick as his loving wife. The film also boasts an appearance by Paula Abdul. Not to mention a classic rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack that covers many hits of the 1950s.

So with all that working for it this should be an interesting look at the life of a radio pioneer. Not so much. Mr. Rock ‘n Roll isn’t a completely bad glance at the life of Freed but 88 minutes isn’t enough time to cover the ground which was broken by him, to get past the surface of his story, or to go into depth with the artists and music that was so important to him.

The movie follows Freed from his start as a small-time Cleveland disc jockey where his coattail was pulled to the happenings of the rhythm and blues sound of the underground, so to speak. Having been bitten by the R&B bug, Freed fought to change his bland radio show to the more exciting, pulsing fresh sounds that young Afro Americans where forging in clubs, pubs, dancing halls, and inner-city juke joints. We see Freed meet the young front man of an R&B group, Jackie Wilson, who would go on to score major hits on his own. Freed attempts to promote live shows featuring Wilson and many other hot acts of the day.

As his popularity soars the big time calls and Freed is off to the Big Apple to further spread the R&B gospel, soon to be known nationwide as “rock ‘n’ roll,” which legend says is the name Freed gave to this dangerous, edgy music that all American white kids were beginning to now and love.

As the craze hits the nation, Freed comes under fire for his large shows and even larger “unruly” crowds of teenagers. So large and out of hand is this rock ‘n’ roll problem that J. Edgar Crossdresser and his gang get involved and begin the shut down of Freed, many other DJs, and record men. Thus beginning the dark period in the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll brought on by the scandal know as Payola, which found DJs taking money from record companies to push and play their music. And so goes the rise and fall of Alan Freed, Mr. Rock ‘n Roll. Oh, and his marriage suffers as his fame grows and he has an affair with Abdul's character.

So that’s “Mr. Rock ‘n Roll” Alan Freed’s life in a nutshell, wrapped in early, over-played rock hits. The cast does an alright job but it isn’t enough to make one take an active interest in them; again, not enough time to get to know people. Leon turns in a fine performance as Jackie Wilson and gets to recreate Jackie’s fancy footwork and boxing background in early live gigs.

For the casual fan or for those totally unfamiliar with Freed and the early days of rock, this one could be of interest, but for those of us schooled in the music of that time, we can see all the holes that show from start to finish. The songs selected and presented as background and key to Freed’s story are out of synch as far as timelines go. Songs from the late ‘50s are played in the early ‘50s, which is fine for mood in certain movies but for something like this, selection should represent time and place better. And sure we get to see the likes of Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, and too much Jerry Lee Lewis but what about the doo wop groups like the Moonglows that Freed dubbed after his own early radio show’s name, Moondog's Rock 'n' Roll Party. I guess the trade-off would be Frankie Lymon. I could go on and on about timelines and music, who played a bigger role in what, evolution of sounds, and why and how one group can’t be played before another, but that’s all snob stuff that takes pages and pages most don’t care about.

For the most part, this highly fictional account of the story of rock ‘n’ roll and Alan Freed is lacking overall. It’s no Walk The Line in its love story and no Cadillac Records in its tale of the founders of rock ‘n’ roll. Freed is presented as a slightly flawed saint but he had to be tough to deal with hardnosed businessmen and lords of the distribution rackets. Even though we do get to see him deal with some shady characters, there is no mention of his placing his name and receiving credit for composing songs he had nothing to do with. So with that can we believe he had absolutely nothing to do with the Payola mess and that his only sin was cheating on his wife? Maybe he wasn’t as bad as others in the business when it came to ripping off artists and by most accounts he treated the acts he promoted fairly well but sadly we only get the slightest glimpse of that in Mr. Rock ‘n Roll.

For those interested go check out American Hot Wax for another look at the life of Freed, its plays a bit better and was made years earlier.


Written by Senora Bicho

In 1975, Albert and David Maysles premiered Grey Gardens, a documentary that showcased the lives of mother and daughter, Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, at the New York Film Festival. Earlier this year, HBO aired Grey Gardens, a 17-time Emmy-nominated television movie, which utilized portions of the Maysles’ documentary to tell a more complete story of these reclusive and eccentric women.

The movie starts in 1975 when Big Edie (Jessica Lange) and Little Edie (Drew Barrymore) are living alone in their dilapidated estate, Grey Gardens, located in East Hampton. As the women reveal themselves to the documentarians, the audience is transported through four decades of their lives and learn what took place. Their stories are interwoven together beautifully. We learn they did not always live in filth and squalor. Being relatives, aunt and first cousin respectively, of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, they were used to a much grander lifestyle. Struggles with men draw them together and eventually lead to their secluded lives and downward spiral.

One of the DVD’s special features is an audio commentary with director Michael Sucsy and executive producers Lucy Barzun Donnelly and Rachael Horovitz, which offers extensive information on the production of the film and additional background details. It is interesting to hear the research that was done and how they accomplished flushing out more about the women’s lives.

Grey Gardens: Then & Now” is fascinating as it explores the differences and similarities between the film and documentary. Interviews with Albert Maysles along with the cast and crew of the film are included. This featurette illustrates the strong performances of Barrymore and Lange. Seeing the real women in the documentary is astonishing because it is hard to tell which is which. Lange’s impressive performance is reminiscent of her role as Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams. She is charming and portrays Big Edie’s struggles genuinely; you can feel her joy and pain. Barrymore is solid but her performance feels more like an act. Her accent is extremely distracting. Seeing portions of the real documentary does bring an added appreciation for her portrayal of Little Edie. The scenes of Barrymore and Lange together are the real strength of this film. They are able to express the deep emotion and bond between mother and daughter. Jeanne Tripplehorn is fabulous in a small role as Jacqueline Kennedy. Daniel Baldwin and Ken Howard are also strong in their supporting roles.

Grey Gardens offers a captivating story along with stellar performances. I can guarantee that if you haven’t seen the Maysles’ documentary, this will stir an interest. I am very anxious to learn more about these fascinating women.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

FOR ALL MANKIND (The Criterion Collection)

Written by Hombre Divertido

Containing eighty minutes of amazing footage from Apollo missions to the moon, this newly restored high-definition digital transfer, from producer/director Al Reinert, takes an already amazing product, and makes it look and sound better. From The Criterion Collection, this new release hit shelves on July 14th, and is sure to wow those interested in the footage of trips to the moon.

Reinert has done a remarkable job of gathering often never-before-seen footage of the adventures of the twenty-four astronauts who travelled to the moon. Combining said footage with an enchanting soundtrack by Brian Eno makes for an interesting look at some exciting footage.

Though Reinert may be a fine documentarian, he fails as a storyteller in this outing. By combining all the footage into a single trip to the moon, he confuses the audience as they try to determine whose voice is being heard, and why the faces continue to change. Once the film has ended, and some of the bonus material is viewed, you get a better idea of the goal, and the optional on-screen identifications do help, but it is not the combining of footage into one story that is the true tragedy in storytelling here. The omission of information regarding the return from the moon, re-entry, splash down, and simple questions such as what is it like when that hatch is opened for the first time back on Earth, or what is it like to step foot on Earth again? It’s somewhat laughable that in the bonus feature “An Accidental Gift: The Making of: For All Mankind” Reinert explains his reasoning for not telling the entire story, as he states that he felt the return was anti-climactic. Actually, it is the definition of climactic, and completely necessary to this tale.

Other bonus features include: audio commentary featuring Reinert and Apollo 17 commander Eugene A. Cernan, the last man to set foot on the Moon; On Camera, a collection of excerpted, on-screen interviews with fifteen of the Apollo astronauts; a short piece on astronaut Alan Bean and his artwork; NASA audio highlights and liftoff footage; and a booklet featuring essays by film critic Terrence Rafferty and Reinert. In many cases the bonus material helps to round out the feature.

There is no question that the footage in this release is spectacular, but combining the footage with the interviews found in the bonus material, and allowing the footage to stand on its own rather than trying to combine it into one trip to the moon, would have made for a better viewing experience. The addition of the experiences of the astronauts on the return from the moon, are crucial to rounding out this project.

Recommendation: Great piece of history that makes for an educational and entertaining viewing experience, especially for those too young to remember the events. Could have and should have been a more complete piece of storytelling.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Stargate SG-1: Children of the Gods (Final Cut)

Written by Pirata Hermosa

The original pilot episode of the long-running television show has just been re-released on DVD. But it is a new version that’s been re-cut, re-mastered, and has new special effects.

Since I hadn’t seen the pilot episode for quite some time, I had to pull out my original copy from the Season 1 box set and compare it to the new version. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a drastic difference or if it was just going to be a marketing gimmick with just a few minor changes to the original.

I noticed the differences immediately in the credits. They began as they would in a feature-length film, and gone was the traditional opening credit scene against the backdrop of the Stargate. But there were a lot more changes than just the credits. The special effects were redone, a lot of the dialogue had been shortened up, and the story had some significant changes.

In the original, Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) has a very gutsy introduction as a woman who can handle her own with the men and even makes a comment about just because her reproductive organs are on the inside doesn’t make her any less of a soldier. It is a little out of character for the Sam we will get to know throughout the series, but I really missed it in the new version.

There’s an awkward conversation between Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) and his close friend, Charles Kawalsky (Jay Acovone), where Jack explains about his son’s death that was cut out of the episode. It was an obvious attempt at filling in the audience, but really wasn’t needed and is something a good friend would have already known. In fact, the entire relationship between the two soldiers is much tighter in the new version. There are constant smirks and knowing nods between the two, and at one point they even make the same comment at the exact same time.

Another good change is the fact that the entire plot thread about how the team must return in 24 hours or else be locked out is completely removed. There is some talk of a second nuke going through the gate, but the artificial timetable in the original was just a terrible idea that didn’t work.

The renegade Jaffa, Teal’c (Christopher Judge), who defies his Goa’uld masters to help the SG-1 team, has an overhaul as well. The scenes where he actually picks the slaves to be implanted with symbiotes or killed has been removed, which helps to make his betrayal more believable. There’s also a scene at the end where his voice has been completely redubbed and he gives a much lengthier speech on his reasons for changing sides and how he himself carries a symbiote in larval form.

One of the most obvious changes in the pilot is the fact that there is no nudity. Originally, the show premiered on Showtime for a few seasons before switching to the Sci-Fi channel. The change makes it fit in better with the series as a whole, but the nudity isn’t just gratuitous. It gives the scene a slightly creepier feel as the symbiote looking for a new host crawls all over Sha’re (Vaitiare Bandera)

The changes are not just with story and dialogue, but the music score and special effects have been redone. The rippling of the water-like pool that opens when the Stargate has been activated is standardized throughout every scene. The wormhole effect when someone travels between gates is completely different. The most significant special effects addition is during the ending battle scene where more ships are digitally added to the fray. It really does make the scene fuller and more exciting. However, there’s a little too much added to the scene that it takes away from Kawalsky’s last-second heroics.

While most of the changes aren’t necessary to enjoy the episode, the last change that is made in the very last scene makes it a much more satisfying story. Originally, as the Stargate teams flee back through the gate to Earth, a symbiote leaps out of its dying Jaffa carrier and burrows into Kawalsky’s head. The last scene is the Goa’uld exerting its dominance over him and his eyes glowing yellow. After all that has happened in the pilot it ends on this really sour note. In the new version the entire incident is removed and gives the film a completely different outlook.

The DVD contains a commentary by executive producer Brad Wright and Richard Dean Anderson. There is also one short featurette, “Back to the Beginning” where Wright discusses some of the changes and his reasoning for them.

Overall, I would have to say that the new release of Stargate SG-1: Children of the Gods is a better version than the original. Mostly this is for hardcore SG-1 fans, but I would probably suggest this version to friends and family who are just starting to watch the series.

ER - The Complete Eleventh Season

Written by Hombre Divertido

On July 14th Warner Home Video released Season Eleven of this immensely popular series ER, and though it marks the last for popular regulars Ming Na as Dr. Jing Mei “Deb” Chen, Alex Kingston as Dr. Elizabeth Corday, Sherry Stringfield as Dr. Susan Lewis, and Noah Wylie as Dr. John Carter, their respective exits were anticlimactic at best, if even acknowledged at all. This season certainly represented a changing of the guard, unfortunately, with writing that took a step down from Season Ten, and one-dimensional performances, said guard-changing came a season too late.

Season Eleven was one of conflict. Some in the relationships within the show, but more so in the factions that existed within the cast and writers. Attempts to write stories for the cast members that had been with the show longer yielded poor results, and simply not enough storylines were given to burgeoning stars such as Shane West as Dr. Ray Barnett and Scott Grimes as Dr. Archie Morris. The performance of Grimes on ER would prove to be under-appreciated throughout his tenure on the show, as he brought a comedic element to the show worthy of The Office (US), long before it was a hit.

In Season Twelve, the writers would set things right as more storylines are dedicated to the people the fans want to see, and storylines such as the relationship between Luka (Goran Visnjic) and Sam (Linda Cardellini) are done away with in favor of those less annoying such as Luka and Abby (Maura Tierney). Nonetheless, much awkwardness is endured throughout this season.

Quality guest appearances are also few and far between here, and though Ray Liotta garnered an Emmy for his performance in “Time of Death,” it was the writing and directing that was worthy of awards more than the limited performance of Liotta. Legendary actor Red Buttons gives a superior performance as Jules “Ruby” Rubadoux, the husband of a former patient of a young Dr. Carter. He is now in the ER as a patient and wants nothing to do with the doctor that he believes killed his wife. Cynthia Nixon gives a fine performance as a stroke victim in “Alone in a Crowd.” The writing in is reminiscent and as innovative as an episode of M*A*S*H. We are also introduced to Charlie Pratt (Danny Glover), father of ER doctor Greg Pratt. Like much of the cast, Glover would have more opportunities to truly display his acting chops in Season Twelve.

Not much to be said of the performances of the regular cast member, though Maura Tierney gives a credible performance when she is kidnapped in “Skin,” which would have made a far superior season finale than “The Show Must Go On” in which we are left wondering what will become of Sam’s runaway son Alex (Oliver Davis).

Where as previous releases have included gag reels as part of the bonus material, Season Eleven only provides outpatient outtakes and unaired scenes, the majority of which were justifiably left on the cutting room floor.

Recommendation: Season Eleven simply as not as good as Season Nine or Twelve. There is probably enough here for the true fan, but little for those not truly hooked. Better that you check out of the ER for a year rather than checking out this season.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Family Guy, Volume Seven

Written by Fumo Verde

To be honest here, I have just gotten into this show a little over nine months ago, before then I tried but it never seemed to click. It took a few episodes, along with the Trix Rabbit pulling some Bruce Lee moves to get some cereal, to get to really see the genius behind the drawings. I’m not yet a regular viewer so getting a chance to review this three-disc set was an offer I couldn’t pass up. I have to admit there are still times when I find myself wondering about the joke that just passed over my head, but there are those rare moments that send me into a roar with tears pouring out of my eyes while my stomach hurts from laughing so hard I can’t breath.

Such was the episode where Chris met the cute girl at the vet. Two scenes stick out for me right off the bat. One is where Peter tries to cheer Chris up since his girl dumped him by buying him a frog. Instead of putting holes in the shoebox Peter put them in the frog, hence it was dead and this is where I lost it. The dead frog drops out of the box and Peter attempts to pick it up and throw it out the window without touching it with his hands. Using the box and its lid, he scoops and scoops yet the limp dead frog just won’t go back in the box. I, like others, have tried to get rid of a dead something while keeping it as far from our bodies as possible. The second scene in this same episode that got me howling happens as Peter and Chris sit in an out door café. Peter states, “I don’t know where your blind date is Chris. She answered the ad,” while Stewie enters dressed like a teenage girl. His reaction is a quick, “Oh no,” as he slips off the way he came. My sides are still aching from that one.

Fans who have already seen the episodes will be looking for the extras, like the deleted scenes of the Jewish Waltons or how Lois teaches Chris about the birds and the bees with the help of a turkey and a turkey baster. The visual made Brian’s mouth drop while Stewie wonders why the baster has to go into the dirty turkey. Again, some scenes I got and others went over my head. Another special feature is where the director speaks along with some of the crew. Three shows offer this: “Love Basically,” “Long John Peter,” and “The Man with Two Brians.” Other special features are the song “Take Me Out to Place Tonight” and how it came to be, and Frank Sinatra, Jr. even tells his part of this story.

For the true fans you will not be disappointed because even a clownshoe such as I, found myself laughing more often than not and repeating these little stories to others, like people did to me before I started watching. Some will say this show steals from The Simpsons, another show I never got into, but from what I have seen from both shows The Simpsons brushes up to the line, but Family Guy goes over that line and sometimes beyond. Seth MacFarlane is a genius and the team he has put together are true professionals. This chemistry brings out one of the smartest shows on television right now, and for a guy like me who is just getting into it, I’m glad I gave it another chance.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

ER - The Complete Eleventh Season

Written by Senora Bicho

ended its 15-year run in April 2009. I was a huge fan from the initial episode but lost interest after several key characters left the show. It just wasn’t the same without George Clooney, Anthony Edwards, and Eriq La Salle. Season 11 aired from 2004-1005 and saw a drop in the ratings from #8 to #16. While not stellar in the ratings, it did offer pivotal storylines, great acting, and intense drama.

Abby Lockheart (Maura Tierney) is forced to make the transition from nurse to doctor quickly after earning her M.D. at the end of Season 10. Neela Kaur Rasgotra (Parminder Nagra) is also a new graduate. She turned down an internship at the hospital due to an identity crisis. Dr. Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) recently promoted to Chief of Emergency Medicine convinces her to come back. Dr. John Carter (Noah Wyle) and his girlfriend Kem (Thandie Newton) are struggling to stay together after the death of their baby. Dr. Luka Kova? (Goran Visnjic) chases after girlfriend Nurse Samantha Taggart (Linda Cardellini) and her son who is on the run from her ex-husband. He manages to talk her into coming back and they eventually move in together. This season provides plenty of ups and downs for all of the characters along with challenging and profoundly influential patients.

In addition to all of the drama, there are some major casting changes. Shane West from Once and Again and A Walk to Remember joins the cast as Dr. Ray Barnett, an intern by day and rock star by night. Dr. Michael Gallant (Sharif Atkins) who left the series after three seasons for a tour of duty in Iraq makes a short return. Dr. Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston) and Dr. Jing-Mei Chen (Ming-Na) leave the show after eight and six seasons, respectively. The biggest and most impactful change is the farewell of original cast member Wyle in the finale.

The season had a number of well-known guest stars. Ray Liotta won an Emmy for his role as Charlie Metcalf in “Time of Death,” a unique and enthralling episode that involves no side plots and takes place in real time. Gorgeous Mädchen Amick appears in ten episodes as a love interest for Carter. Red Buttons reprises his role for the fifth and final time as Jules 'Ruby' Rubadoux in “Ruby Redux” while Danny Glover begins his recurring role as Charlie Pratt Sr., Dr. Greg Pratt’s (Mekhi Phifer) estranged father. In the fascinating and creative “Alone in a Crowd,” Cynthia Nixon plays a stroke victim that can still think clearly but is unable to communicate.

The DVD collection includes all 22 episodes. The only extra feature is deleted scenes labeled as “Outpatient Outtakes,” available altogether or per episode.

Watching Season 11 rekindled my appreciation of the series and makes other medical dramas, such as Grey’s Anatomy, pale in comparison. If you were ever a fan of the show and missed out on all this season has to offer when it originally aired, I suggest you fake an injury and spend sometime in the ER.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Written by Hombre Divertido

In the twentieth century there was no single title in sports more coveted than that of Heavyweight Champion of the World, and two of the greatest fighters to hold that title were Smokin’ Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. These amazing athletes fought a trilogy of fights that are arguably three of the best of all time. The third was titled the Thrilla in Manila and is chronicled in a Time Life Entertainment single-disc release that hit shelves on June 2nd.

With Mixed Martial Arts rapidly growing in popularity, boxing slowly continues to lose fans as the stars of the sport become harder and harder to market simply due to a lack of recognition. Though MMA is producing stars, it has yet to produce a rivalry that even comes close to that of Ali/Frazier.

This 110-minute documentary covers the history between these two great men, but the title is misleading as this is Frazier’s story. Though certainly informative and entertaining, the story certainly paints Frazier as the victim, and Ali as the bully. Input from Ali in the form of footage, interviews, or comments from anyone in his camp are sorely lacking, with the exception of Ali’s corner man and former boxing analyst Ferdie Pacheco. Unfortunately, Pacheco’s comments are so poorly communicated that they actually add weight to the case made by Frazier, his family, and supporters. When watching this endeavor, one cannot help but question some of the allegations simply due to a lack of an even perspective.

Perspective is not the only thing lacking from this documentary. Producers attempts to give the final product an urban feel worthy of the era and the streets from whence Joe Frazier stems result in what simply appears to be poor production value. Footage from the first two fights, that were included when the documentary aired on HBO, are now replaced with still photos, and the overall feel of the documentary is that of something thrown together to reap profit for those in need. The bonus material adds to the hodgepodge as the numerous additions, though informative from a boxing and human interest perspective, have little or nothing to do with the Thrilla in Manila.

The absence of Howard Cosell’s involvement, not only in this legendary fight, but also in boxing of the era, and in the careers of Ali and Frazier may be the most significant absence.

Joe Frazier was a great fighter and a classy, all-business champion, who certainly may have deserved better than he got. Muhammad Ali too was a great fighter and champion, but was also a sports-marketing genius who was well ahead of his time. Many things can be said about Ali’s antics outside of the ring as well as his religious and political choices, but few could argue that he did more to make the business of boxing successful than anyone in history.

Recommendation: These two men were amazing athletes who did indeed participate in one of the most legendary battles in the history of pugilism. The Thrilla in Manila certainly provides insight into this historic event, and is a worthwhile investment of time for both fan and non-fan alike, but it may leave you with a bad taste in your mouth as you long for not only the other side of the story, but an impartial perspective as well.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Eastbound & Down - The Complete First Season

Written by Musgo Del Jefe

Ben Best, Jody Hill, and Danny McBride have managed to do something that doesn't happen often enough with TV shows: they've pleasantly surprised me. The creators of the relatively unknown Foot Fist Way put together what is essentially a film divided into six episodes for HBO. In fact, the episodes are only numbered, instead of titled, lending itself to more continuous storytelling. Each episode picks up right at the end of the previous one.

The first episode covers quite a bit of ground in the first three minutes. But that's part of its brilliance. Danny McBride plays Kenny Powers. The Kenny Powers story follows just enough of some real-life characters that viewers can fill in the details. Kenny is in large part former Atlanta Brave John Rocker and bits of other baseball and sports jerks (including a nice homage to the Kenny Rogers incident with a cameraman in Texas). Kenny's career tops out at the very beginning with his 100-mph fastball as he helps his team clinch the World Series. What transpires over the next couple minutes of the opening montage is his fall from grace in the baseball world until he is with Seattle (the horror!) and can't throw out of the 80s. Eventually we see him stooping to moving in with his brother and subbing at the local high school.

The title of the series, Eastbound & Down brings to mind the Smokey and the Bandit films. But more importantly, it doesn't have anything to do with baseball or teaching Physical Education at the high school. I think that naming it anything to do with sports would have needlessly painted this story into a corner. The title tells you nothing and allows the characters to go in any direction without the viewer feeling cheated. The pilot episode is the weakest of the six episodes. Even with the simple set-up montage, there are lots of stories to introduce and it feels like they are cramming a lot of information into each scene. The story has to introduce Kenny, his brother, his high-school girlfriend who now works at the high school, the principal (who's engaged to his old girlfriend), Stevie (a teacher who idolizes Kenny), and other North Carolina friends. The characters are all cliche to begin. The story starts off all about Kenny (who's all about himself) and the supporting cast seems very thinly drawn.

At least until the writers hit their stride in the second episode. So many things happen in this episode that set in motion events that will lead us straight into Season Two (announced in April). The first is one of my favorite storytelling devices in recent memory. Kenny likes to listen to the book-on-tape of the book he wrote during his playing days, "I'm F---ing In, You're F---ing Out". This device serves to show how shallow and self-absorbed Kenny is but it also serves as a kind of narration for the episodes. The viewer can contrast the "old Kenny" against the "new Kenny".

The first two episodes continue to build up the foul-mouthed and self-centered personality. The Kenny Powers of the first episode and a half borders on unlikable. But then something starts to turn. Kenny is still in love with his high-school sweetheart April. His character being completely adolescent makes this seem even more like a teenage crush. And somehow it's endearing. Kenny is oblivious to the fact that she's engaged to his boss, the principal. But there's one thing that can always redeem a jerk. A bigger jerk. And that jerk is played by Will Ferrell as Ashley Schaefer, the owner of Schaefer Motors (the biggest car lot in town). Ferrell is made for this role because it requires overacting to the hilt. Ashley treats Kenny as a commodity and Kenny doesn't understand this either. In the second episode, Kenny refuses to throw a fastball at Schaefer Motors for Ashley. This self-doubt at his abilities and his comeback makes him vulnerable too.

The third episode marks what should be the second act of the film and it really feels like the story is taking over. Kenny has found the beginning of an unlikely friendship with Stevie and Kenny has started his training for his "comeback". Unfortunately the training involves a poorly edited video by Stevie and a healthy dose of steroids for Kenny. The fourth episode branches the story out just a bit further. We see more of the supporting cast here, including a good deal of April and her fiance, Terrance (the principal). They are having a BBQ that Kenny finds a way to get himself invited to. The BBQ ends up being the fulcrum of the series. All the relationships change in the course of this episode. Stevie becomes more and more like Kenny. Kenny and April have a "premature" start to their relationship. And Terrance and April will split partially because of this. But once again, despite his arrogance and terrible treatment of others, Kenny can get his feelings hurt so easily over April. These vulnerable moments are climaxed with Kenny out of gas in the middle of a lake on his jet ski. The episode ends with the end of his book-on-tape representing Kenny's total loss of confidence - the one thing he never seemed to lack.

The third act starts a new book-on-tape. After Kenny's "moment of clarity" in the previous episode, things start to turn around. Once again, it's the Will Ferrell character, Ashley Schaeffer who gets it rolling. The same guy that started to break Kenny down will be indirectly responsible for building him back up. Ashley sets up a pitching/batting contest with Kenny's nemesis from his playing days. Kenny is able to survive the showdown in a clever nod to The Natural, get the girl and by winning the girl, get his fastball back. Now our hero, you'll actually feel yourself rooting for this jerk by the fifth episode, has everything back again. In the sixth episode, he's on his way back to the major leagues. But unlike other TV shows, Kenny doesn't learn any lessons from his fall. In fact, Kenny comes full circle to the character we knew at the beginning. The season ends as Kenny leaves with April to pursue his dream. Or does he?

I found lots to like in this first season. The six-episode arc works well for the first time around and I'm glad it wasn't 12-15 episodes. There's a flow to the story in essentially three hours of show. Kenny is portrayed as a character with no redeeming qualities. And yet we see them through the show. Kenny doesn't seem to deserve redemption and yet the viewer can't help but cheer for it to happen. The writing here is above par for the type of show that it appears to be on the surface. It's easy to create an arrogant jerk; it's much harder to make us like the arrogant jerk. The closest I can come to this in current pop culture is either Curb Your Enthusiasm or the British version of The Office. By the time The Office came to America, Michael Scott became much less of a jerk and more of a likable buffoon. Kudos also to HBO for sticking with this beyond the essentially weak pilot episode.

The DVD release contains enough bonuses to make up for the unusually short season. There are the usual "Making Of" shorts, including "Stevie's Dark Secret" - a deleted scene that's disturbing and a must-see; commercials for Schaeffer Motors; and audio commentaries by the creators for three episodes.

I look forward to the return of Kenny in Season Two. They've created a fun ensemble of characters with lots of directions to go. And Kenny is still not a redeemed character. But we love him for it. As he says, "I'm a bulletproof tiger, man."

Monday, July 06, 2009

Tom and Jerry - Chuck Jones Collection

Written by Musgo Del Jefe

Tom and Jerry - Chuck Jones Collection
is another case of pop culture perfect timing. Tom and Jerry, created in 1940, already had 114 shorts (and seven Oscars for Best Short Subject) under their belt from creators Hanna-Barbera when MGM closed their animation studios in 1957. From 1960 - 1962, a Czech-based company picked up the series for only 13 shorts. The director, Gene Deitch hadn't seen many of the previous cartoons and didn't have an understanding of the series. After the bizarre episodes from Eastern Europe, MGM was looking for another studio to take over their beloved franchise.

Chuck Jones started with Warner Bros. Animation in the mid-1930s working with Tex Avery (who would do some of his own best work at MGM from 1942 to 1952). His first stint as a director was "The Night Watchman" featuring a cat that would later become Sniffles the Mouse. Chuck and his team would work on some of the best known cartoons for characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and his own characters - realizing his best work from the late '40s through the early '50s. He's best regarded for his work on the Coyote and Road Runner cartoons in this period. But much like MGM, Warner Bros. was forced to cut their Animation Department in 1962.

MGM wanted someone to take over the Tom and Jerry cartoons, and Chuck Jones had just started his Sib Tower 12 Productions. He brought with him most of the key members of his team from Warner Bros. including brilliant writer and director Michael Maltese and genius set designer Maurice Noble among others. The 34 shorts they would produce between 1963 and 1967 are included on this newly remastered two-disc set.

In many ways, the Tom and Jerry cartoons on this set represent a continuation of the creative work that was going on at the end of the Warner-era. But they also show the transformation that would lead to The Phantom Tollbooth, How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), and Horton Hears A Who! (1970). Tom and Jerry have survived the decades because of their adaptability. There are many types of stories that can come out of the cat-and-mouse dynamic. Chuck Jones keeps the stories fresh by continually changing the settings and plots. With no set rules, Tom can be the aggressor or the victim in the chase. Jerry can be the one being chased or he can just get in the way of Tom trying to chase another animal. Chuck's experiences from Warner Bros. color the characterizations and stories here - many feel like extensions of the Road Runner and Coyote shorts he did earlier. But there are also traces of Bugs Bunny ("The Cat Above, The Mouse Below" is essentially a retelling of the Bugs Bunny short with the opera singer, "Long-Haired Hare"), Sylvester and Tweety, the Tasmanian Devil, and even the Speedy Gonzales shorts.

Here are a few of the highlights:

"Is There A Doctor In The Mouse" - This familiar retelling of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that quickly devolves into a Road Runner and Coyote type of episode. This theme is very common for the first few shorts. Tom is usually trying to set a trap for Jerry that ends up backfiring on him. This short is remarkable in that you start to see facial expression on Tom that will make him look more and more like The Grinch as the series progresses. I love the clever use of sizes here. The Jekyll and Hyde bit lets Jones use all the different combinations of big/small cats and big/small mice.

Some of these shorts will feel repetitive. Both "Pent House Mouse" and "Bad Day at Cat Rock" take place on a construction site. "Ah Sweet Mouse - Story Of Life" and "Tom-ic Energy" both are set in a high rise building. Remember, these were theatrical shorts, so they were not being viewed like we are seeing them today. The moviegoer may not see every MGM film release and would miss some of these or see them over the span of months.

"Snowbody Loves Me" - This is the first short where I realized the quality of the music in these shorts. Being made for the theaters, the music is worthy of both the swinging time of the mid-'60s and of the MGM films that it would be playing in front of. This short is set in the snow with a frozen Jerry wanting cheese inside the warm house. And the reversal with Tom. When we see Tom going down the chimney, it is a direct antecedent of what will be The Grinch's trip down a chimney a few years later.

"The Brothers Carry-Mouse Off" - About a third of the way through the shorts and Jerry starts to get a little more malicious in these episodes. This has the feel of the later Speedy Gonzales and Daffy Duck shorts at Warners. But what really comes to mind are the "Itchy and Scratchy" shorts from "The Simpsons". Here, Tom gets deformed, flattened, and elongated throughout. That's almost a trademark of these Tom and Jerry cartoons from Chuck Jones, the characters are almost always getting deformed by explosions or heavy things falling on them.

"I'm Just Wild About Jerry" - I consider this the high point of the shorts on these discs. In six and a half minutes, Jones and Maltese tell a complete story that surprises and delights. The cartoon has a city setting with beautiful backgrounds by Maurice Noble and a properly film noir-ish jazzy soundtrack. At the end of a chase behind the credits, Tom is drawn out onto the train tracks and hit by a train. The short continues with each getting the better of each other. Even Jerry takes his lumps from Tom. Just when you think you know how the gags are going, then they start to have them backfire on the characters and blow themselves up. The long chase continues through a department store and eventually back into the city ending on a train track again with a train approaching. But this time, Jerry switches the track and the train avoids the cat. It's a simple twist and yet the story feels complete. Rarely do short subject cartoons have the pure physical humor of this short along with the classic storytelling and heart at the end.

"The Year Of The Mouse" - Here's the complete reversal of the series. In this and the following "The Cat's Me-Ouch", Tom will be the one terrorized by Jerry. Tom easily becomes a sympathetic character. In the first, Jerry works with another mouse to continually hurt Tom. In the second, Jerry gets a "tiny" dog who, like the Tasmanian Devil, will eat up Tom for multiple shorts.

The last third of the shorts start to show a lack of budget. There are two episodes "Matinee Mouse" and "Shutter Bugged Cat" that recycle footage from old Hanna-Barbera shorts. Three of the later shorts are set in space (a nod I'm sure to the Apollo missions) but their plots are all similar - including robot versions of both cat and mouse - and there is exact footage shared in all three.

"Cannery Rodent" is the last of the shorts to actually be directed by Chuck Jones. It's also the last in the series to really play with the conventions of the cat-and-mouse story. Set at a cannery, Tom ends up dealing with a very angry purple shark (the same shark will later be blue during "Surf-Bored Cat"). The episode has nice pacing as Tom has to balance chasing Jerry with being chased himself by the shark. It surprisingly ends with Jerry stepping in to save Tom from the shark. Both Tom and Jerry break the fourth wall by looking at the camera in the last sequence as both debate their good deeds towards each other versus ultimately going back to being enemies. There is only one answer to that question, but it's fun again to see Chuck Jones deal with it in a unique manner.

Money for such theatrical animation would run out again at MGM and Chuck Jones was already moving in a different direction creatively. These 34 shorts are a fun document of those times. And a worthy addition to any basic animation collection. There are two new special features on the disc. Both are great insights into the times and the creative mind of Chuck Jones - "Tom and Jerry . . . and Chuck" and "Chuck Jones: Memories Of A Childhood"

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Stargate Atlantis: The Complete Fifth Season

Written by Pirata Hermosa

While the final season of Stargate Atlantis may have come to a conclusion, the final story has not been written for the crew of Earth’s most famous and mythical city, Atlantis. Having reached the all-important fifth season where the show can reach its full syndication potential, it can now be spun off into films released on DVD as to take advantage of a fanbase now forced to pay for something that they once received for free.

The Sci-Fi Channel, which originally aired the series, has always been known for cutting shows too soon, but after watching the final season, they may have done it just at the right time. The show may have survived a change in command from Dr. Elizabeth Weir (Michelle Morgan) to Colonel Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping), and the loss of Dr. Carson Beckett (Paul McGillion) and his replacement by Dr. Jennifer Keller (Jewell Staite), but season five starts with a change in command once again.

Richard Woolsey (Robert Picardo), who was once a major opponent of the Stargate project, has now taken over for the Colonel after only one year of command. It is surprising that a show can withstand so many character changes, but it’s a sign that the other various behind-the-scenes issues might be affecting the show.

Two other indications that the show may have run its course show up in the episodes “Inquisition” and “Remnants.” “Inquisition” is nothing more than a typical clip show. The Atlantis team is abducted by a council that puts them on trial for everything that they have done during their five-year stay in the Pegasus galaxy. Not only is this type of episode incredibly boring, but it’s been done many times before. “Remnants” is almost as bad as a clip show, but without the clips. This is the equally boring performance-review episode where Woolsey must justify all of his command decisions to some appointed overseer who will evaluate him and decide whether or not he is fit to command. It is somewhat ironic, since Woolsey is the one who evaluated the original Stargate team, SG-1, in the previous TV series. Thankfully, there is a secondary storyline that is more interesting than the main plot.

Even with a few weak episodes mixed in with the regular season, the episodes still work. After seeing a group of characters evolve over five seasons, they become familiar. The characters grow and just their basic interactions with one another are fascinating and entertaining. It’s good that the cast and crew knew that this was going to be the final season. Unlike many other cancelled shows, Atlantis was given plenty of time to tie up a lot of storylines.

The love triangle between Dr. Rodney McKay (David Hewlett), Dr. Jennifer Keller, and Ronon Dax (Jason Momoa) is resolved in “Brainstorm,” an episode where the two doctors return to Earth for a conference on global warming presented by Rodney’s rival Malcolm Tunney (Dave Foley). Of course, things go horribly wrong, bringing the two closer and resulting in Jennifer making a last-minute confession of her feelings.

In “Prodigal,” Michael Kenmore (Connor Trinneer) invades the city of Atlantis in his final attempt at capturing Teyla Emmagan’s (Rachel Luttrell) son in order to use his human/wraith hybrid blood to change the evolution of the wraith. While originally a single-episode character, Michael transformed into a reoccurring villain that Teyla deals with in a very conclusive way.

In the series finale, “Enemy at the Gate,” the biggest loose thread is tied up. Todd the Wraith (Christopher Heyerdahl), who has had a strange parasitic relationship with the Atlantis crew over the last couple of seasons, appears with a new proposition and request for assistance. Originally, the plan is to stop his mutinous crew from increasing their power using stolen Z.P.M.s, but it quickly turns into a race for the survival of Earth as its location is revealed and a newly modified wraith hive ship races to destroy it.

Most of the threads have been tied up by the end of the series, but Todd is still alive, Lieutenant Aiden Ford (Rainbow Francks) is still on the loose and hooked on the wraith enzyme, and somebody has to make a decision on what to do with Atlantis. There are plenty of options for the story to continue in future feature films, but for a new Stargate TV series you only need to wait until the fall when Stargate Universe is expected to premiere.

The DVD has 20 episodes on five discs and contains the following Special Features:

Audio Commentary by Directors, Producers, and Stars - It’s always nice to learn about the creative artistry that goes into filming an episode.

Mission Directive Featurettes - There are many of these for season five, but my favorite one is “The Life and Death of Michael Kenmore.” It’s an overview on the character of Michael from his birth to his final moments, discussing his character evolution and why he is likeable even though he ultimately becomes a villain. I also enjoyed the featurette on “Brainstorm,” because the very entertaining Martin Gero hosts it. He also wrote and directed the episode.

Deleted Scenes - I’m not a big fan of deleted scenes because they are generally pretty dry, and not completely finished. On this DVD set they are all clumped together on a couple of the discs and it’s difficult to remember where they actually fit into the episodes. I’d rather they put them after the ending credits of each individual episode so you’d at least remember what context they were originally created for.

Photo & Design Galleries - Lots of still photos from episodes and general designs used in the series.