Monday, June 28, 2010

When You're Strange: A Film About The Doors

Written by Fantasma el Rey

Whether you’re a fan of The Doors, have a slight interest, or just like good films then When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors is a must-see. This is the first feature documentary on The Doors and it's going to be hard to beat this one. Fast paced, informative, and entertaining in its 96-minute run time, When You’re Strange is seriously a joy and a thrill to see more than once.

Written and directed by Tom DiCillo and narrated by Johnny Depp, the film recounts the roller-coaster ride that was the five-year lifespan of The Doors. You may have read the books and seen the bio-pic, but this documentary truly brings to life the twisted, dark dream-like world of Jim Morrison and The Doors’ music. The documentary is put together using film from those hectic, exciting days, much of it never before seen which makes the tale told here even more enveloping. The real photos, footage, and audio of the stories and events that are legendary are all here.

Archival footage rolls from the get-go as we see how director DiCillo cleverly blends scenes from a film Jim Morrison made and Jim Ladd's breaking news of Morrison’s death. The great footage from the period never ends as we follow along as two UCLA Film School guys (Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek) get together with a jazz drummer (John Densmore) and a classically trained flamenco guitarist (Robby Krieger) to put poetry to music. Along the way people and places come and go, introduced to us through the classic film and photos, so we see them as they were in days past. We hear and see people and concerts that we have read about or only seen clips of before. Not only did the cameras follow the on-stage antics but the behind-the-scenes moments in the recording studio as well as slices of everyday life with family and friends. We are with them in conflict and closeness, times together and time apart, watching as the band pulls together to pull Jim back down to earth.

When You’re Strange is more than a documentary; it’s a doorway through time that allows you to take part on the adventure through the classic years of The Doors. DiCillo puts you there as it happened and lets you get a feel, no matter how slight, of what it must have been like in those days bordering creativity and madness, through the dizzying highs and scary crashes. Depp’s calm voice and love for the band only intensifies the ride and keeps you watching with wonder and delight as we watch the events unfold like it was only yesterday they took place or last night you had this dream of old friends and strange days. The music is picked to match the scene perfectly and brings the film to life that much more. It’s easy to see why so much hype and acclaim have been showered on this film.

The DVD has only one real bonus feature but it’s enough as it is an exclusive interview with Admiral George C. Morrison, USN (Ret.) Jim’s father, who has never discussed his son’s life on camera. A very interesting look at the man that we had only slightly heard about, and mostly negative things at that. Here we see a man that may be looking back and finally seeing what it is his son was trying to do as a performer and artist.

When You’re Strange is a reminder that at a time when sunshine and flowers were the order of the day The Doors where there to remind us that there is and always will be a dark side to the world. So sit back for an hour and half and let the drama, tragedy, comedy, and of course, the music of The Doors take over and race you down the highway on a voyage where one hopes the doors of perception will be cleansed and we can see the world as it is, infinite

Article first published as DVD Review: When You're Strange: A Film About The Doors on Blogcritics.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

FAMILY GUY - Volume Eight

Written by Pirata Hermosa

The Griffin family is back for another 15 episodes on DVD. No, it’s not a full season. It’s the last seven episodes from season seven and the first eight episodes from season eight, a little frustrating for some fans that like to purchase and collect entire seasons at once. There are still plenty of episodes on the discs and each one can be played in either the original-airing mode or the uncut version.

People can argue about whether or not Family Guy is a good show, or that it’s lost that special magic it once had before its original cancellation. Even so, it’s still entertaining millions of people and on this DVD release has at least three standout episodes worth having.

“Not All Dogs Go To Heaven” reunites the entire original cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation after Stewie builds a working transporter and beams them all into his bedroom. Not only is this fun for fans of both shows, but it’s truly awesome to see Patrick Stewart slapping Wil Wheaton around and saying, "F*ck you" to Michael Dorn.

“Road to the Multiverse” follows Brian and Stewie as they journey through alternate realities entering worlds created by Disney as well as the world of The Flintstones, Robot Chicken, and many more. While other shows have had similar storylines, this episode is one of the best.

“Hannah Banana” is when everyone finds out all of the secrets about the evil monkey who lives in Chris’ closet and why he is really there. As an added bonus you also get to watch a cyborg Miley Cyrus get shot down off a skyscraper in homage to the famous King Kong films.

Along with the two versions of each episode, many of them have the usual director’s commentary. There is a deleted scenes section that contains several clips that could have just been added to the uncut versions. There is a karaoke feature that contains many of the various Family Guy songs throughout the entire series, a small booklet that contains the entire script to the “Road to the Multiverse” episode, and finally a featurette that discusses the making of that same episode.

Fans will be happy to add this three-disc set to their collection as it continues with its normal formulaic style and trademark stream-of-consciousness brand of humor.

Article first published as DVD Review: Family Guy - Volume Eight on Blogcritics.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Firefly: Still Flying: Celebration of Joss Whedon’s Acclaimed TV Series by Joss Whedon

Written by Pirata Hermosa

On the heels of his incredibly successful Buffy the Vampire television series, Joss Whedon introduced another creation called Firefly. With everyone expecting another smash hit from the mastermind, it was a complete shock to many that his new show, which was a cross between a western and science fiction, was not only canceled in its first season, but before all of the episodes had even aired. And it’s even more shocking because it has such a rabid fan base that has not only kept the stories alive for the last eight years, but it also pressured the film industry to make a major motion picture based on the show called Serenity.

But if you’re reading this review, you should already know that. And if you’re even considering reading this book, then you must be a fan of the show. If you haven’t even heard of the television show, then this book is not for you.

There have been two previous companion books released dealing with more specific details of the show, while this is more along the lines of what you might learn if you went to a science-fiction convention. There are a lot of comments about on-set hi-jinks, how much the fans have meant to them, and what it was like to be part of something that has had such longevity.

A number of the sections are broken down by the specific characters on the show. Each character has several stills from the show along with quotes from the actors about their character. All of these are taken from either website interviews or transcribed from what they said during any number of sci-fi conventions. Having been to a number of conventions myself, it was easy to picture them on stage and even imagine myself being at one of the Firefly conventions. It does make for an interesting read for that reason, but a lot of the uniqueness would probably be lost on someone who can’t pull from that similar experience.

The book is filled with photos from the show. Not only are the actors featured in these photos, but a lot of the props, sets and CG animation as well. There is a section showing various hand-held weapons, what they are really made of, and where the ideas came from. There is a section on the wardrobe of the cast showing various photos as well as the preliminary drawings. And of course, you can’t forget the drawings, models and animations of the space ships themselves.

There are also four new pieces of fiction from former writers of the show in the book:

“What Holds Us Down” is a very short story about Kaylee and Wash as they try to steal parts from a junkyard to fix Serenity, but find themselves being hunted down as Kaylee tries frantically to fix another ship and escape.

“Fun with Dick and Jayne” is two cartoons comparing the old Dick and Jane books we all read as children but substituted with a sick and violent Jayne from the show.

"Crystal” is another short story about River as she walks around Serenity telling the crew members what will happen to them in the future, but mostly how each will die.

“Take the Sky” is a look into the far future when Mal is old and he receives a message from Zoe that Jayne has died. It also gives a brief and sad look of what happened to the crew and where they are, just before Mal decides to do something that will once again alter the course of his life.

There is a lot of interesting material to read and experience in the book, but with a lot of the comments coming directly from conventions and entire sections dealing with the convention experience and what endeavors the current fan base is still involved in today, this is obviously a book dedicated to the fans. Certainly not a difficult book to read, but one that only true fans will understand and enjoy.

Article first published as Book Review: Firefly: Still Flying: Celebration of Joss Whedon's Acclaimed TV Series by Joss Whedon on Blogcritics.

THE KARATE KID (2010) Loses Too Many Battles

Written by Hombre Divertido

Set in present-day China, young Dre (Jaden Smith) is forced to adapt to a new environment after his mother (Taraji P. Henson) is relocated from Detroit by her employer. During his first day in China, Dre manages to make an American friend (Luke Carberry), meet the apartment handyman (Jackie Chan), catch the eye of a local girl (Wenwen Han), and gets beat up by the neighborhood bully (Zhenwei Wang).

Yes; “his mother”, “American friend”, “apartment handyman”, “local girl”, and “neighborhood bully” are all accurate, and the titles are as developed as the one-dimensional characters and performances in this film, which is ultimately its downfall.

The supporting actors in The Karate Kid are given little to do, while the lead actors, who are given room to stretch their thespian limbs, land extremely limited blows. Jaden Smith gives a reasonably enjoyable performance, but in many scenes, his inexperience is evident. He has managed to learn to deliver a well-timed, poignant look when needed, but the skill of doing the same verbally with any consistency still eludes the young actor. Even more disappointing in the film is the performance of Jackie Chan, though ultimately the responsibility for this falls on the writers and director. Chan has proven over his career that he posesses the ability to display not only energy on screen, but excellent comedic timing as well. In The Karate Kid Chan is relegated to lumbering around and delivering one solemn line after another.

Eventually Mr. Han the Handyman manages to teach The Karate Kid enough kung fu to defeat all the local kids, who grew up learning the art form, in a tournament and thus earn their respect. Unfortunately this takes well over two hours and plods along at a pace that seems as painful as trying to sit through an episode of the 1989 Karate Kid Saturday-morning cartoon series.

The comparison of this film to the 1984 is inevitable, and the 2010 version fails monumentally. Though advertised by many associated with the film prior to its release as not a remake, the 2010 version follows the same story as the original too excessive detail in storytelling and dialog. In essence, all that was done was to take a familiar story and place it in an unfamiliar environment, though there are other detrimental changes as well. The roles of the supporting characters have been whittled down to stereotypes, the humor and personality have been extracted from all involved, the creative training techniques have been reduced to wardrobe changes, and the action sequences are poorly choreographed and filmed. All this was done while somehow managing to make the story longer.

We may not have liked the villains in the original film, but they were relatable. They all had names; we knew who they were and what they were about. Not so in the new release.

We loved Daniel (Ralph Macchio), Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki 'Pat' Morita), and Mrs. Larusso (Randee Heller) in the original. They had a sense of humor. There is no humor in this new film, and the portrayal of Dre’s mother by Taraji P. Henson exceeds the level of one-dimensional annoyance established by anyone in the 1994 film The Next Karate Kid. Was Jada Pinkett Smith too busy to step in here?

Recommendation: The filmmakers should be chastised for taking the beloved, energetic, and humorous mentor Mr. Miyagi and turning him into the humorless lump Mr. Han, who does nothing but beat up twelve-year-olds, and yell “Focus!” throughout the entire climactic scene of the film.

The 2010 version of The Karate Kid is trite and manipulative storytelling at its worst. Showing us that Dre’s father is dead in the first scene of the film, and then later showing us that Mr. Han’s family was killed, in hopes of a bonding along with the characters shows little respect for the audience.

Don’t do it. Watching the original or its two sequels would be a far more pleasurable experience.

Article first published as Movie Review: The Karate Kid (2010) Loses Too Many Battles on Blogcritics.

Monday, June 07, 2010

CADDYSHACK: 30th Anniversary Edition

Written by Hombre Divertido

Caddyshack: 30th Anniversary Edition
Fails to Make the Cut, at least on DVD.

The new release on DVD, due out on Tuesday June 8th, from Warner Home Video contains nothing new. The packaging does not even indicate an anniversary is at hand. The Blu-ray, also due out on the eighth, includes a comprehensive feature-length 30th-anniversary documentary with the movie's cast and creators, but the DVD is left with only the retrospective featurette “The 19th Hole” which was included in the previous three releases (2000, 2006, 2007).

Yes, it has been thirty years since the classic comedy in which a group of outrageous characters converge on Bushwood Country Club hit theatres. Caddyshack garners the status of “classic” solely for its performances. Combining the talents of Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Murray, and Ted Knight, with the writing and performance of Brian Doyle Murray, and the direction and writing of a young Harold Ramis, ultimately resulted in golden performance and lines of dialog still widely recognized and often referenced today.

What started as a coming-of-age story revolving around young caddy Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) turned into an outrageous collection of comedy scenes when the above-mentioned talent signed onto the project. Unfortunately that did happen at the expense of storytelling, but this was quite common in the late seventies and early eighties, and it certain cases such as Caddyshack, the comedic segments are strong enough to carry a ninety-eight minute outing.

“The 19th Hole” presents wonderful insight into the making of the film. The featurette delves into the details of the scene between Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, touts the talents of the late Rodney Dangerfield and Ted Knight, discusses the contributions of Murray through improvisation during the six days he worked on the film, and provides great detail from Harold Ramis who is not afraid to convey the youthful energy that guided him through many mistakes often made by young directors. Questions are answered, myths are corrected, and footage not included in the film is shown. There is even a mention made to a scene which appears in cut of the film shown on television that did not appear in the theatrical version, and is thus, not on the new DVD release.

Recommendation: Caddyshack looks and sounds great here, “The 19th Hole” is a solid documentary, and the memorable performances of the stars are complimented by a great supporting cast including: Cindy Morgan, Scott Colomby, Sarah Holcomb, and many more.

There is no denying that viewing Caddyshack will make most laugh weather you are watching it for the hundredth time, or experience it for the first time. Yes, the humor can be cheap at times, but the performances are strong. If a candy bar being mistaken for fecal matter does not make you smile, you are still likely to chuckle at the pompous portrayal of Judge Smails by the legendary Ted Knight. Though the nudity in the theatrical version may rule out the young, generally there is something here for everyone, everyone except those who have purchased the DVD in the last ten years. In that case there is nothing here for you.

Article first published as DVD Review: Caddyshack - The 30th Anniversary Edition Fails to Make the Cut on DVD on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

CAKE BOSS - Season 2

Written by Musgo Del Jefe

Musgo has been around the Reality TV block a time or two. I grew up a fan of the Game Show genre which fell under the Reality TV umbrella with the advent of competition shows like Survivor, Big Brother, and The Amazing Race. My earliest exposure to the genre was the hidden-camera gem, Candid Camera which paved the way for the documentary style shows that dominate Reality TV as we know it today. The genre is subdivided into shows that follow famous people - The Osbournes, The Simple Life and a bevy of shows seemingly about Hugh Hefner's girlfriends. And there's the shows that follow everyday people doing their jobs. The genre, if not started by, is dominated by COPS which has been showing us different policemen doing their jobs for over 20 years. The most current craze is to show people with interesting or unique jobs. Shows like The Deadliest Catch and Miami Ink have set the bar for these shows.

When I think of the current trend of Reality TV - two networks come to mind, A&E and TLC. The A&E Network follows Dog The Bounty Hunter, Billy The Exterminator and The First 48 (which follows multiple homicide detectives). It's TLC that has made the biggest commitment to this style of TV - once known as The Learning Channel, now they are the home to shows about police women, little people (Little People, Big World; Our LIttle Life), big families (Jon & Kate Plus 8, 19 Kids and Counting), inked-up folks (Miami Ink, LA Ink) and now people who like sweets (Little Chocolatiers, Cake Boss).

Cake Boss premiered just over a year ago but in a world of "strike while it's hot", I'm reviewing the latest DVD release of Season Two just as Season Three is premiering on the network over the Memorial Day weekend. The second season which started in October 2009 ended in February 2010 with 17 episodes. The DVD release is spread over two discs with very little in the way of extras. My little darling daughter has been quite a fan of the show but other than brief glimpses, this was my first exposure to Carlo's Bake Shop.

Buddy Valastro is the "Cake Boss" of the title. He runs Carlo's Bake Shop in Hoboken, New Jersey with his mother, his four older sisters, and their husbands. The conceit of the Jersey accent and portrayal of the family on the DVD cover and beginning of each episode is that of a Mob family with Buddy as "The Boss". Their popularity also probably helped by other Jersey notables Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives Of New Jersey. When it comes down to pursuing this line in the actual episodes - the conceit falls apart. The worst parts of any episode are the forced "acting" we see when Buddy interacts with his sisters. These scenes feel scripted and forced. When the ladies change the voice recording in "Robots . . ." or when they change his painting plans in "Painters . . ." it's all painful and predictable.

Any channel that produces similar shows will develop a house style. NBC has it with The Biggest Loser and The Apprentice - both different style shows that are edited for storytelling very similarly. Same goes for TLC where a show like LA Ink about tattoo artists in Los Angeles is edited in a similar way to Cake Boss on the East Coast. In an average episode (and let me tell you they all run almost exactly the same pattern) Buddy will usually have to make two cakes. One will be a larger project for a company or charity. The other will be a smaller piece for an individual. At the beginning, Buddy will travel some place like a battleship ("A Battleship, Ballet and Burning") and after meeting the people will say "I have to make this cake. . .", Buddy will come up with the concept for the cakes and his crew will start on the process. At some point, they will encounter a problem and Buddy will chime in with "I don't know how we're going to get this cake done in time." But they will and it will be delivered over the end credits as everyone has a grand time. In between making the cakes, the secondary plot will usually revolve around Buddy making a bet or getting involved in a challenge.

Buddy is best as the lovable loser. I'm not sure that's how he likes to see himself portrayed in the show but when he's out playing golf in "Golf Greens and Gravity" or getting nagged by his sister over her birthday cake in "Apple, Arguments and Animal Prints", it's always fun to see Buddy as a Rodney Dangerfield persona. He talks big but rarely delivers and that's what's lovable about him. It's easy to separate out these boasts from the cake making. It's that dichotomy that can make the show more appealing - here's a guy with nagging sisters who thinks he's talented at everything but really he's just better than everyone at making cakes.

There are two comparative shows that put Cake Boss into perspective. The first and most obvious is Ace Of Cakes. The Food Network show focusing on Duff Goldman's bakery in Baltimore has been on for eight seasons since 2006. The basic structure is similar - constructing cakes and delivering crazy styles and sized cakes for huge clients like Radio City Music Hall or the cast of Lost. The Ace Of Cakes crew concentrates their 30-minute show more on the actual construction of the cake and less on the personalities behind the cake. In some ways that caters much more to the Food Network fan that may want to know more about the cake itself. Plus the cakes on Ace Of Cakes seem to have pushed the arms race a little more as each show tries to top the other for sizes of cakes.

The other show I'm more familiar with is TLC's LA Ink. In three seasons of the tattoo shop show, the producers have found just the right balance. Kat Von D is like the Buddy of her High Voltage Tattoo shop - she runs a family business with other artists helping out in her shop. There's a blend of ongoing soap opera-ish tales of the shop managers, Kat's boyfriends, other businesses, and drama from the lives of the other artists. In between these are the tattoos. Like the two-three cakes that Buddy is going to make per 30-minute episode, there are five-six tattoos per episode on LA Ink. The tattoos are really the effort of one artist whereas the cakes are a group effort. Buddy is the idea man but he can't make each of these cakes without the help of his team. The hour-long format for LA Ink allows time to tell interesting backstories behind each tattoo - these are the stories that make the viewer invested in the person getting the tattoo. The 30-minute format for Cake Boss doesn't allow that same freedom. I'd like more time to get to know these charities or the stories of the people buying cakes for their weddings and birthdays.

Cake Boss is a fun ride. I loved the cakes for the Hell's Angels in "Motorcylces . . ." and the Sesame Street cake and the beautiful cake for Disney Work in "Castles, Cannolis and Cartoon Characters". But like his cakes, the show can be all sweets and little substance. Buddy and TLC should learn from other shows in the Reality genre that it's the side stories that hook the viewers. It's the lives of other people that come through Buddy's life that fascinate us as much as his talents at making the cakes. That's what The Biggest Loser learned long ago - once you've watched someone lose weight over 16 weeks - it's hard to make it interesting the next season. Unless you invest the viewer in the backstories. The show might benefit from a longer format or from focusing in on the stories that happen outside of his family. Buddy is our guy, and we love him immediately - now give us something to sink our teeth into.

The DVD contains a few short pieces called "Sauce Boss". Buddy is our guide as he shows the viewer step by step how to make seven different Italian dishes. While the "Linguine w/ Giant Shrimp" and the "Mushroom Risotto" look tasty, I really was hoping for a peek behind the scenes at some of the wonderful cakes. I don't feel like some of them really got featured near enough - how about a still gallery to really see them.

Musgo will return to the Reality jungle undaunted by the size and scope of the genre. The Cake Boss enters a third season with plenty still to prove, more stories to tell and many more cakes to bake.

Article first published as DVD Review: Cake Boss - Season 2 on Blogcritics.

STAGECOACH (1939) - The Criterion Collection

Written by Fantasma el Rey

The Criterion Collection has added another masterpiece to their list in John Ford’s 1939 classic, Stagecoach. The title alone sounds like an epic in storytelling, a huge saga in the annals of the American West. And it is kind of that way. A story about people, all with a past, some good, some bad, and all really only hinted at. The location of the story plays just as big a role and is also in its own way shrouded in mystery. All this is put together well by a master filmmaker holding the reins of an unforgettable story. Along for the ride is an all-star cast, including one whose star will begin to truly shine here as a team will be forged that will last two lifetimes.

Stagecoach is the tale of travelers thrown together in tight quarters, forced to deal with each other for long hours on a trip that would become the stagecoach ride from Hell as they fight for theirs lives against harsh weather and Apache Indians. As our core players are assembled we notice that most are outcasts of some sort, looked down on by society and victims of “that foul disease known as social prejudice.” We have a fallen Southern gent turned gambler (John Carradine), a crooked banker (Burton Churchill), a drunkard doctor (Thomas Mitchell), a “lady of the night” (Claire Trevor), and an outlaw cowboy called the Ringo Kid (none other than John Wayne) recently busted out of jail and seeking revenge. Also present are the finer folks of society, the military officer’s wife (Louise Platt), the whisky salesman (the aptly named Donald Meek), our stage driver (western staple Andy Devine), and the lawman (George Bancroft) riding shotgun to keep an eye on the kid. As well as many others who had been in western films and would continue to for years to come including Tim Holt, Tom Tyler, Chris-Pin Martin and legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt.

A big cast might seem hard to follow or care about but Ford gives us just enough of each character to lure us into caring while never confusing us in their part of the journey. We want to know more about each and can’t wait to learn their fate after the stagecoach ride. The suspense and tension build as the stagecoach nears its destination of Lordsburg and the Apaches of Geronimo attack. We also have the tale of our cowboy’s feud with those who wronged him and had him locked away. Not only does Ford give us a thrilling Indian battle but a good ol’ shootout to boot.

Sounds clichéd and overplayed, doesn’t it? Ford knew that and spins his tale with action, humor, and drama in a way that makes it all fresh and new while setting the mark for all westerns that followed. This isn’t a Sunday-matinee B-western; Ford takes the clichés of the genre and makes them interesting. He used the camera, his actors, and the setting of Monument Valley to tell this old tale in a unique way with the directorial choices he made. He boldly announces the cavalry with blaring trumpets. The shoot-out is quick and mostly takes place off-camera. We are given the outcome of both plain as day yet each in a different way.

Ford would make two big connections while filming Stagecoach. One was Monument Valley to which he returned many times, and the other was his wonderful, lifelong friendship with star John Wayne. Ford announces the actor to the big time with the well-known, introductory shot of a zooming, slightly out of focus close-up. Those two men along with the awesome desert setting would make many more great westerns together.

The people at Criterion have done a fantastic job once again with this two-disc set. Disc one is a newly restored, high-definition digital transfer of the film and a good audio commentary by western authority Jim Kitses. Disc two holds all the great extras. Bucking Broadway is an early silent western by Ford, which is a simple story of a cowboy gone to the big city to get his girl back. There is a good interview with Ford from 1968 that’s over an hour long as well as five great featurettes ranging in run time from ten to twenty minutes. There’s a segment with Peter Bogdanovich who knew Ford and Wayne well, clips of Ford’s home movies with commentary by his grandson Dan Ford, and a video essay by Tag Gallagher on Ford’s visual style in Stagecoach. All are very interesting and shed a world of light and knowledge this classic.

Two more extras include a look at the man who brought Monument Valley to Ford’s attention and a look at stuntman/coordinator Yakima Canutt, who was a master at his craft and innovator in how many stunts were performed, rigged up, and pulled off. The DVD also comes with a great booklet that contains a short breakdown of the Criterion set and the original story “Stage To Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox that inspired the film.

As always, Criterion has done a masterful job in presenting another film that should be preserved, studied, and loved by all for generation to come. The Criterion Collection is a bit pricey at anywhere from 30-40 bucks but it's all worth it for the time and love they put into keeping these film classics alive in the best possible condition.

Article first published as DVD Review: Stagecoach (1939) - The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.