Friday, October 29, 2010

DOLLHOUSE - Season 2 (Blu-ray)

Written by Pirata Hermosa

With a show created by Joss Whedon and starring Eliza Dushku as the main character, how could it not be a hit? As Whedon found and comes to admit during the special features section, it takes more than a pretty actress and an overreaching creator to guarantee success.

This is the second television series in a row of his that has failed to take off and be embraced by his fans. There are several issues that make it difficult for audiences to accept, and Joss himself admits that maybe this idea wasn’t a good fit for network television. The subject matter is a little difficult to digest as the “dolls”, as they are called because their memories and personalities have been erased, are reprogrammed most of the times as prostitutes. Echo (Dushku), who is the main character, has no real personality, and what she does have changes from week to week as she is changed into another person. This leaves no real identifiable character for the viewer to bond with. The other characters on the show that have personalities are slimy, morally ambiguous, and are essentially the bad guys.

Season two starts off the same way as the first season and tends to drag along for the first six or seven episodes. But with the knowledge that they barely managed to survive cancellation during season one and were not expecting a renewal after season two, the pace picks up dramatically. At this point Echo becomes self-aware and does not feel the effects of the memory wipes after each of her adventures. Instead, every new personality is remaining in her mind mixing and melding with the others, which ultimately creates her own original personality and allows her to access various skills at will.

Finally everyone can see where the show is heading and have a character that they can relate to. But the problem is that it’s already halfway through the second season and way too late to save something floundering that badly in the ratings.

Once Echo is her own person, she begins to fight back against the dollhouse with the help of Paul (Tamoh Penikett), the former FBI agent who has become obsessed with saving her. But not only do they rebel against the dollhouse, but they manage to convince those running it to join their side and fight the greater evil of the Rossum Corporation who runs all of the world’s dollhouses.

The audience gets to see what happens when a doll is sent to the attic, Victor (Enver Gjokaj) and Sierra (DichenLachman) have their original personalities returned, a rival dollhouse is infiltrated, a traitor is exposed and the Rossum Corporation is brought down. The last half of season two is definitely worthy of being a part of the Whedonverse, all questions are answered and all loose ends are tied up.

But then, there is the final episode “Epitaph Two: Return,” which is a follow-up to the unaired episode from season one. It is ten years in the future and most of the world’s population have had their minds wiped, leaving them uncontrollable zombie-like creatures. Echo must return to the original dollhouse in order for Topher (Fran Kranz) to get the technology to undo the effects that his creations spawned.

While it’s nice to get a definitive ending for a television show, the leap of ten years is just too jarring to be enjoyable. Everybody’s personalities are completely different and so is the world in which they live. It would have been a more satisfying ending to have finished with the previous episode “The Hollow Men” where Rossum was taken down.

The video quality of the Blu-ray is exceptional and is of the quality of a feature-length film, but the audio is not used to its fullest capability and is only truly tested during the few gun battles in the last couple of episodes where bullets can be heard flying from all directions. The video is in Widescreen 1.78:1 format with a 5.1 DTS-HD master audio.

The special features include the usual commentary on select episodes, deleted scenes, and outtakes. There is also one feature titled “Defining Moments” where Joss Whedon explains his process, thoughts, and development of the show. It’s the most interesting feature because he discusses his mistakes and how the knowledge of cancellation drove the storyline.

The only other major feature is “Looking Back.” It had the potential to be really interesting as the entire cast along with Joss sit around a table having dinner while discussing their characters, storylines, and the creative process. Unfortunately, it comes across rather awkward and bland.

The exclusive 28-page Darkhorse comic that is inside is little more than a pamphlet showing multiple scenes of random individuals answering their cellphones while having their minds wiped causing them to rage out of control and start killing anyone in their path.

While season one drug along at a very slow and awkward pace, it is good to finally see in season two what the real vision of the show was and what it was meant to become. Unfortunately, it just took way too long to arrive at that point. And even though there are six exceptional episodes during the final season, having to wade through all the ones that came before them just doesn’t seem worth it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Written by Fantasma el Rey

What happens when Werner Herzog has a project and David Lynch says, “when can we start?” My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is the result. Herzog directs and Lynch produces this non-linear look at insanity that is well acted and directed with an odd story based on fact. And yes, it is a bit weird, as both are known for; no let down there at all.

Werner Herzog had been kicking this idea around for years before having the time and backing to get it onto film. The basic story is simple: guy goes crazy, gets really into Greek tragedy, and runs his mum through with a saber. That’s seriously the gist of the true aspect of this tale. Back in the late ‘70s a guy from San Diego, California, Mark Yavorsky did just that and served years in a mental ward for it. Co-screenwriter Herbert Golder thought this would make a great film, so he began his many interviews with Yavorsky that would span years before finally being joined by Herzog in their last interview in 1995. A script was soon written but sat on the self for years until Herzog met Lynch and the script was finally put into production and released in 2009.

The film moves away from the facts of the case very fast as the majority of the film is fiction and delivered in a way that Herzog described as "a horror film without the blood, chainsaws and gore, but with a strange, anonymous fear creeping up in you." That’s a good way to put it as he builds the suspense in a non-traditional way. In the first five minutes we know who the killer is but not why, which is what the film builds on, as goes the tag line, “The Mystery Isn’t Who, But Why.”

As the film rolls on we are introduced to more characters and the roles they play in the drama. Of course, there’s our lead nut job and mama's boy Brad McCullum, played briliantly by Micheal Shannon; his overbearing mother, Lynch-regular Grace Zabriskie; and his devoted girlfriend (Chloe Sevigny). Rounded out the main players are Willem Defoe as Detective Hank Havenhurst (one more odd detective role for Defoe), the outstanding Udo Kier as theater director Lee Meyers, and Brad Dourif as McCullum’s weird ostrich-raising Uncle Ted.

The plot thickens as the story moves from Brad’s trip to Peru where he finally, for some reason, flip outs and sees the world in a new light to his return home where he freaks out his friends and family with his new insight and view of life. He gets the lead in a play, loses it, but continues to obsess over it, and the real sword he received from his uncle to use as a prop, which he carries all the time and becomes too close to. With sword in hand and more odd gestures and acts of insanity, he continues to further freak people out and becomes more reclusive as he loses more of his mind.

Eventually he kills his mother in a neighbor's house and keeps police at bay while he holes up in his boyhood home with his two hostages. That’s how the story unfolds and brings us to the abrupt ending. The real story lies in the unraveling of Brad’s mind. We get certain glimpses of his past and some reveling moments of what he hopes his lasting impact will be. We also get a hint of that with some of his more sane acts throughout the movie.

Herzog paints the picture of insanity well as he spins this tale of a man’s mental breakdown. He wanted to focus on the poetry of the insanity as opposed to the clinical aspect of it. He has actors freeze or slow up in certain key moments to show some points where things change or become different or more clear. Some elements in the story have to be read into a bit more to really catch what Herzog is getting at. The ostriches and how they hide their heads in the sand, which is never shown but can be seen as metaphor for how McCullum’s family and friends don’t really speak out or try too hard to figure what really broke his brain. Besides the obvious meddling of his mother in his life, we can only guess that he was somehow more abused as a child than is being shown on film or mentioned or perhaps one day he simply snapped and that’s that, as they say. But watch and interpret as you will, viewers, I can only say what I see and bring my own thoughts to the film as should you.

The DVD features an audio commentary track by Herzog that is very insightful as well as a thirty-minute interview with Herzog and members of his team with some good behind-the-scenes footage. Also included on the DVD is a short film by Ramin Bahrani, “Plastic Bag” that was narrated by Herzog. Another odd film about the life and adventures of a plastic bag and where the wind takes it.

Article first published as DVD Review: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done on Blogcritics.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Mary Tyler Moore Show: The Complete Seventh Season

Written by Hombre Divertido

More than thirty years after the final episode of the iconic series aired, 20th Century Fox delivers the last season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show on DVD. Season seven hit the shelves on October 5th, and though the presentation leaves quite a bit to be desired, there is still enough energy left in the cast to make many of these episodes worth owning.

Though aired often over the years, the final episode of the series may be worth the purchase of the final season. Well written and executed, like the entire series, the final episode is simple but brilliant. No extended-length episode, just a simple farewell to those who worked in the WJM newsroom and those who loved them.

Another gem to be found in season seven is Episode 23 (The second to the last) titled “Lou Dates Mary” where our two stars do indeed date, and even kiss, in one of the more memorable moments of the entire series.

Yes, season seven includes classic moments and some notable guest-star performances by Eric Braeden, David Ogden Stiers, Helen Hunt, Vincent Gardenia and others, but it is clear nonetheless that the series was ready to retire. With Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman long since gone off to their own shows, the private life of Mary Richards has faded into the background with the series revolving around her life at WJM. This did allow the characters of Sue Ann Niven (Betty White) and Georgette Baxter (Georgia Engel) to step in to the forefront, but the added energy was not substantial enough to fill the void left by the afore mentioned talented ladies.

Episodes such as “What’s Wrong with Swimming,” in which Mary hires a former Olympic swimmer (Caren Kaye) to do sports on the news broadcast, are tired and trite and not worthy of the show as a whole. The episodes revolving around Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) and his family also seem desperate, and only serve to give us less of Mary, Lou (Ed Asner) and Murray (Gavin MacLeod).

Ultimately this is an amazing series, and one that certainly deserved better treatment than provided by 20th Century Fox in this release. The packaging looks cheap, there is no bonus material, and though the rarely seen curtain call after the final episode is touted on the packaging as being included, it is not. Research shows that if you call the 800 number on the back of the DVD case, you can have a replacement disk sent to you that does include the curtain call.

Recommendation: Tough call. The series is great and the final episode is a must have for the true fan, but the presentation is bad. Yes, the show does look and sound good here, but one can only hope that a better release of the entire series will be forthcoming.

Article first published as DVD Review: The Mary Tyler Moore Show: The Complete Seventh Season on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Human Target - The Complete First Season

Written by Pirata Hermosa

Based on a comic book character created in 1972 by Len Wein and Carmine Infantino, Christopher Chance (Mark Valley) is the ultimate bodyguard. Instead of sequestering his charges, he puts them out on full display using them as bait to flush out the would-be assailant. In the original comic he would assume the identity and become the victim, but as mentioned during the DVD commentary it just wouldn’t work well with a TV audience to have the hero changing his identity every episode. In order for a television series to work, a bond with the main character is of utmost necessity.

And bonding is even more important when there are only three major characters. Winston (Chi McBride) is the face of the organization. It’s his job to find the new assignments. He’s also responsible for paying the bills, working his connections at the police department, getting Chance anything he requires for his missions, and sometimes ends up on the front line himself.

The final person in their operation is Guerrero (Jackie Earle Haley). His character is very ambiguous and is best described as a cleaner. While he often helps Chance and Winston in their endeavors, he’s got a lot of other angles that he is working in the background. He doesn’t seem to have any morals and is completely unpredictable.

It’s very unique to have such a small cast, but the relationships between the three men really work for this type of show. It’s shot like a feature-length action film, kind of like a combination of James Bond and Indiana Jones. There are always a number of fights, car chases, explosions, and of course a different pretty woman every week. You can also expect at least one stunt to press the envelope on what’s truly possible.

There are only a few deleted scenes on the DVD that could have been edited into the episodes and would not have changed the story or added anything new. Other than that there are only a couple of Special Features.

“Confidential Informant” is a discussion with cast and crew about the idea behind the series, who Chance really is and how the three characters interact with one another. There is quite a bit of insight into the characters and brings up some interesting information about each one, giving a new perspective of why they have come together.

“Full Contact Television” focuses on the action sequences, how they are done, where they come up with ideas, and why it’s unique to the television genre. The coolest thing to learn from this is the fact that Mark Valley does nearly all of his own stunts. Not too many actors can say that.

Human Target is exactly what it says it is. It’s a series of mini-action films that you can sit down and enjoy at any time. You don’t need to follow a complicated plotline and if you miss an episode you won’t lose any of the story. The action sequences and special effects are of superior quality and you won’t find yourself getting bored or distracted.

Article first published as DVD Review: Human Target - The Complete First Season on Blogcritics.

Friday, October 15, 2010


Written by Senora Bicho

I love scary movies, intense, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat, scary movies. Most today do not live up to my definition; they involve lots of blood, gore, and torture but little suspense. The Exorcist is arguably the standard to which all truly frightening movies must live up to.

Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress raising her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) with an absent father. It is evident from the start that mother and daughter are very close and share a loving relationship. Regan is a very happy and normal young girl. Due to the close nature of their relationship, Chris notices immediately when Regan's behavior changes. What starts with seizures and possible physical ailments turns into something much more disturbing and psychological. Doctors prescribe medication and therapy but nothing is working and while the behavior intensifies Regan must be isolated and locked in her room.

Chris comes to believe that Regan is possessed and her only solution is an exorcism. She meets with Father Karras (Jason Miller), a priest and psychologist who has started to doubt his faith while dealing with the guilt of his mother's death. He reluctantly agrees to meet Regan but eventually comes to the same conclusion. He convinces the church to bring in Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) to perform an exorcism which results in the ultimate battle between good and evil.

The new two-disc Blu-ray collection includes the Extended Director's Cut from 2000 and the original theatrical cut. There isn't anything particularly noteworthy with the extra material except for the spider-walking scene. While they were able to improve the scene with new technology, it still feels out of place and over the top. The extended cut disc offers a new documentary broken into three parts: "Raising Hell: Filming the Exorcist", "The Exorcist Locations: Georgetown Then and Now" and "Faces of Evil: The Different Versions of the Exorcist". There is also a new commentary by director William Friedkin, which is one of the rare commentaries worth listening to because he provides interesting insights and background information heightening the meaning of scenes and the film overall.

The Original Theatrical Version disc includes an introduction by Friedken and separate commentaries by Friedkin and by William Peter Blatty, who adapted his novel for the screenplay. There is also a 1998 documentary, interview gallery, and original ending.

The Blu-ray comes in a digibook and has been given a 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer displayed with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio that is hit or miss. The print looks good but suffers from intermittent artifacts appearing throughout. The image shows the expected softness of its age but still offers good details. The level of grain rises to distracting levels at times, such as a scene with Father Karras and Chris walking together. Colors are strong. Blacks aren't as consistent and suffer from occasional crush.

The EDC has a DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 surround track and the OTC has a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. There is good ambiance coming from the surrounds and the Devil makes good use of the subwoofer. Objects are positioned well and can be heard moving through the soundfield. While the enhanced subtle sound effects are amazing and really add to the creepiness of the film, intense scenes that should draw the viewer deeper into the action do just the opposite. Those scenes are so much louder that they actually threw me out of the story. They feel less believable because the effects are so aggressive they become unrealistic, in part, because they don't balance well with the dialogue, which gets buried at times.

While The Exorcist still offers thrills and chills, this Blu-ray package isn’t the best showcase as the Extended Director's Cut is unnecessary and the move to high definition is problematic in some areas.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Phineas and Ferb: Very Perry Christmas

Written by Fantasma el Rey

It's Christmas come early with Phineas And Ferb: A Very Perry Christmas now available on DVD. Phineas And Ferb is a cartoon series that airs on the Disney Channel and by taking 2009's Christmas special and adding in other episodes that are Perry the Platypus-themed we have a very nice present that can be viewed all year round. Being jam-packed with bonus features only makes this DVD that much more of an awesome Christmas gift.

Talkative Phineas and seldom-speaking Ferb are stepbrothers who spend their summer vacation creating elaborate, imaginative, sometimes massive things and making the most of every day; the opening title sequence pretty much says it all. In the meantime their pet platypus Perry, who leads a double life as Secret Agent P, slips off to stop the Evil Dr. Doofensmirts from attempting some kind of evil scheme that always involves a “____-inator” of some sort.

All this happens each day while older sister Candice tries to bust them by getting mom to come home early and catch the boys red-handed. But she never does because somehow the day’s projects are always disposed of or neatly destroyed just as mom shows up like The Cat in the Hat. The brothers also somehow manage to get their neighborhood friends involved in the fun and adventure as well. Each episode usually features a catchy song or three with clever lyrics that describe what’s going on that day.

“That’s what the whole show is about” you say? Yes, yes it is. But creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, along with their team of writers and contributors, manage to make each episode funny, smart, and entertaining. The Disney Channel usually runs two episodes back to back.

With A Very Perry Christmas we have five episodes, one being the 34-minute holiday special “Phineas And Ferb’s Christmas Vacation.” In it, Agent P must stop Dr. Doof’s evil plot to make the whole city of Danville seem naughty so Santa will pass them by. But that plan backfires, as always, and the boys with help from two of Santa’s elves bring Christmas to the city. The boys even get to meet their hero, Santa Claus, by building him a massive rest area on top of their house Thrown into the usual formula fun are snow- and winter-based projects which include giant flying snowball angels, bed sleds, massive snowmen, the city decorated by wonderful gizmos and much more (just listen to the special reworked title song). Oh, and lets not forget Santa’s rest stop. Plus we can view our lovable friends all bundled up, singing songs with holiday tones and we get to see the gang open their gifts on Christmas day.

The other four, as mentioned above, are Perry themed. “Interview With A Platypus” has the boys making a device to translate what Perry is thinking. “Oh, There You Are Perry” finds Perry or rather Agent P, temporarily reassigned to a new evil genius. “Chez Platypus” has the boys build a trendy Platypus-themed restaurant. And “Perry Lays An Egg,” has the boys and Candice mistakenly believing that Perry has laid an egg.

The bonus features are very cool and include "Dr. D’s Jukebox-Inator;" which lets you cut to one of the Christmas songs; "Christmas Perry-oki" where you can play the movie and follow the bouncing Perry during songs; and a behind-the-scenes look at how the creators write a song. The highlights have to be bonus episode “Doof Side Of The Moon;” letters to Santa where Old St. Nick reveals what Phin, Ferb, and friends have asked for; and “Phineas And Ferb’s Virtual Fireplace. That’s right a new twist on the TV Yule log with a half an hour of an animated fireplace with the cartoons characters popping in from time to time to spread some Christmas cheer and laughter

A Very Perry Christmas is true joy for those who love the show and enjoy its wit, animation, and creatively simple songs. It has wonderful appeal for fans young and old.

Article first published as DVD Review: Phineas & Ferb: Very Perry Christmas on Blogcritics.

THE DARJEELING LIMITED - The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)

Written by Musgo Del Jefe

Musgo has his favorite directors - the usuals really - Hitchcock, Kubrick, Malick, etc. While they all have different styles and work in different genres, they have one thing in common - they know how to tell a story. Texas-born, Wes Anderson is one that immediately appealed to me. With the release of Bottle Rocket in 1996, Wes came on the scene as more than just the typical indie director. There was an understanding of film techniques and ways to build a story around larger themes that separated him. The release of Rushmore and couple years later showed a continuing maturity. The 2001 release of The Royal Tenenbaums was a cumulation of lessons Anderson had learned over the previous couple films. The opening scene where we learn the characters and the history of the family is still one of my favorite initial scenes - few directors can set the themes for the film, establish characters and backstory in such a succinct manner.

Since The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes has continued his pace of a movie roughly every three years. In 2004 he released The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and in 2007 he veered slightly with The Darjeeling Limited - a film that, while having many thematic commonalities with his previous films, is a loving tribute to many of his influences. The depth of his stories and unique stories have made his previous films great additions to The Criterion Collection. It's never a stretch to examine his films on different levels and look back on them with the perspective of his following films. October has brought us The Criterion Collection release of The Darjeeling Limited for Musgo to examine.

The plot is the most limited of Anderson's works. It's the story of three brothers played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman who are getting together for the first time since their father's funeral to take a train through India to find their mother. The rich tradition of movies on trains is one of my favorites. While set in current time, traveling by train gives the movie an "out of time" feeling. The train is a superb metaphor for life - the different compartments of our life, all moving forward down the tracks. The train is symbolic of the feeling of powerlessness in the life of the boys- they are on the train having a cigarette and drink and watching the world pass by outside the windows. The train is taking them away from the death of their father and reuniting them with their estranged mother. But they are derailed a number of times - figuratively and literally. At one great point in the film, the train gets lost. Confused, the brothers ask how that can be since it's on tracks and they're told that they haven't been found yet.

The oldest brother, Francis, is played by Owen Wilson. He's been in all of Wes Anderson's film and I've come to view him as Wes' alter ego. And in many ways, he's the "director" of this trip. He's the one who has planned the journey - providing them with laminated itineraries with their days planned to the last detail. When we finally meet their mother - we see that all of his little idiosyncrasies are all the same as hers. He is very much the mother of the group. The character is covered in bandages from an accident throughout the film - symbolic of the suffering and pain due to his father's death. We later learn that it's from a suicide attempt - giving even more depth to his need for the spiritual journey.

The middle brother, Peter, is played by Adrien Brody. He holds the memories of the father. He was the one present at his father's death and keeps many of the father's possessions. The most telling symbol is that he has his father's glasses (never having changed the prescription) - he see's the world as his father did. The fact that Peter is about to become a father himself makes the connection even deeper. The most traditionally comedic scene of the film happens when Peter claims he was the father's favorite - causing a fight between Francis and Peter.

The film's themes that revolve around abandonment and death culminate around a scene that takes place right after the fight. They are left off the train because of the fight and forced to realize they might not complete their journey. On the way back to civilization, they see three boys (younger versions of themselves?) crossing a river. The boys' raft overturns in the river. The brothers are able to save two of the boys but the one that Peter holds on to ultimately drowns. Are we seeing this grief as Peter or through the eyes of the father? The death and funeral is a way for the boys to deal with their father's death that they couldn't at his funeral.

The youngest brother, Jack, is played by Jason Schwarzman. In the world of Wes Anderson films, Jason is the trickster. Jason's character, Jack is certainly the most subversive of the brothers. Jack is a writer and spends the trip not engaged in the spiritual journey but as an observer of it. He has an affair with a stewardess - but he's so distanced from her, he calls her "Sweet Lime" and is so caught up in seeing how she might fit into a story that he fails to realize how she needs his love. At each stop, Jack doesn't talk to his girlfriend, he listens to her answering machine.

It is right after the funeral for the young boy that the movie switches to a flashback scene. The scene is one of which Jack wrote a short story that he insists was not about the real events and characters. So in an interesting twist, the viewer is left wondering, are we seeing a true flashback or are we seeing it as viewed through the eyes of Jack? I lean towards it being right out of a short story. The scene with the three brothers on their way to their father's funeral, stopping to get their father's Porsche from the repair shop. The importance the brothers place on getting their father's prized possession causes them to miss the start of his funeral and it's there that they find that their mother isn't attending the funeral.

The catharsis of this scene leads the viewer back to the present and an emotional reunion with their mother who will abandon them again. But the importance of the journey wasn't getting to their mother - it was dealing with their father's death in their own way - finding their identity within the family dynamic. The relationship between siblings is at the heart of Bottle Rocket and especially The Royal Tenenbaums. The final scene ends with the boys running to catch another train - this time symbolically and literally abandoning all of their luggage to get on the train. This train has multiple cabins that represent the worlds of all the characters we've encountered along the way. But this time everyone is satisfied and spiritually at peace.

Like any good Criterion release - this one is loaded with features that help illuminate everything behind-the-scenes. This review is for the DVD version - on two discs. There's an audio commentary from Anderson,Schwartzman and cowriter Roman Coppola. You get the short film "Hotel Chevalier" which is a prequel of sorts that gives further backstory to Schwartzman's character as his ex-girlfriend shows up at his hotel room in Paris. I think pieces like this are important for the actor to know as backstory but as a viewer I don't think I missed anything by not seeing this first. The second disc includes a documentary, on-set footage, deleted and alternate takes, a discussion on the music of the film, and Wes' great American Express commercials.

There's so much to talk about with a Wes Anderson film. I feel like I don't have the true perspective on this film yet. Often, it takes the next movie to place the previous one in its place. He has released another film, Fantastic Mr. Fox but that didn't feel like part of his Wes-verse. The Darjeeling Limited is a timeless film that address the types of themes that will always appeal to viewers. It's a nice tribute to Indian directors like Satyajit Ray and a love letter to the beautiful country of India. But maybe the "limited" of the title is what holds me back - there's so much here, it's superior to most releases but I want this train to go off the tracks and get even more lost.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown (Remastered Deluxe Edition)

Written by Fantasma el Rey

Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts gang is back on DVD and as enjoyable as ever in this television special from 1968, He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown. This remastered deluxe edition also features a bonus TV special, Life Is A Circus, Charlie Brown from 1980. Both feature that lovable pup Snoopy and showcase two different sides of his personality but no matter what he does the gang as well as the rest of the world adore that beagle like he was their very own.

In He’s Your Dog Snoopy’s pranks become too much for the gang to handle and they turn to Charlie Brown (who asks why he has to do something to which the gang shouts loudly the title of the special) to put his dog straight. To accomplish this, good ol’ Chuck decides to send his pup back to the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm where he was born for obedience training. Snoopy doesn’t make it past his first stop though, Peppermint Patty’s, where he spends a week with no rules, doing nothing but playing all day and living well.

When Chuck finds out Snoopy hasn’t made his destination, he heads over to Peppermint Patty’s, leash in hand, to bring his dog home. More trouble ensues as Snoopy dislikes the leash very much and see’s Chuck as a warden escorting his prisoner of war, the World War I fighter ace, off to prison. Snoopy escapes back to Patty’s but this time he’s forced to pull his own weight and do chores around the house, ranging from scrubbing floors and doing dishes to vacuuming and yard work. Yet even though he starts to miss Chuck and home he would still rather do all that than be put in “chains.”

Meanwhile the gang begins to miss his antics around the neighborhood and is glad when he finally decides to comes home, after having to sleep the night in Peppermint Patty’s garage. After reuniting and making good with Chuck, he’s back on the block and raising a ruckus, stealing Linus’ blanket and spinning him around, then showing his boxing skills by slipping and dodging Lucy’s punches while landing his own barrage of licks and kisses. Another great example of classic 1960s Peanuts fun.

The bonus feature, Life Is A Circus, Charlie Brown, is another cute and enjoyable Peanuts romp. This time Snoopy wakes up early to the sounds and music of the arriving circus train. He wanders over to the circus grounds to watch them set up and see all the strange animals. One in particular catches his attention and makes him starry-eyed. An attractive show poodle named Fifi puts Snoopy in a love trance he can’t break and he winds up in the show where all his neighborhood friends see him and wonder how he got there? Snoopy discovers that, as with many other things in life, he has a knack for this circus stuff and finds success as “Hugo The Great,” a highwire unicycle-riding, back-flipping part of the dog show.

Alas stardom and show business go too far when the circus owner wants to dye Snoopy and his lady love pink! Snoopy grabs his gal and they flee, making it to the bus stop just in time to catch a lift but to his dismay Fifi finds the call of the Big Top irresistible and heads back to the life she has known for so long. Heartbroken, Snoopy boards the bus and heads for home, where all his friends and that boy named Charlie Brown anxiously await his return.

An enjoyable entry in the Peanuts television specials, it's great entertainment for the whole family although some may argue not as good as the ‘60s and ‘70s shows.

Also on the DVD is a new featurette “Snoopy’s Home Ice: The Story Of Redwood Empire Ice Arena.” It is a half-hour look at the ice rink that Charles M. Schultz rebuilt for the community in Santa Rosa, California and where Shultz loved to spend many of his days skating and playing hockey. Many Snoopy ice shows where preformed and televised there as well as the annual Snoopy’s Senior World Hockey Tournament. A nice look at what Shultz did and loved in his daily life and one more reason to add this DVD to your Peanuts collection even though I’m sure true fans have He’s Your Dog on the Peanuts 1960s two-disc set already.

Article first published as DVD Review: He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown (Remastered Deluxe Edition) on Blogcritics.

Scooby-Doo! Camp Scare

Written by Musgo Del Jefe

Halloween is perfect time for a little scare. And it's the perfect time for a little mystery. So, Musgo was pleasantly surprised to find the latest Scooby-Doo direct-to-video movie coming out just in time for the Halloween season. The newest film Scooby-Doo! Camp Scare is the fifteenth film in this series of releases and it's the second one for 2010. After the 2008 release of the lackluster Scooby-Doo! and the Goblin King at the Halloween season, Warner Home Video released the next two films as spring releases. As the market for direct-to-video releases disappears, I'm always interested to see how they plan on capturing an audience. The holiday tie-in is certainly a key factor that only happens this time of year.

This film marks the fifth time in a row that I've dropped into the Scooby-verse for a review. Some of my own reactions to the films have been gauged by the way my littlest Musgo has watched them. The four-year-old that laughed through the excellent Chill Out, Scooby-Doo! is now a more pop culture savvy seven-year-old. This film has to match up against some all the other Scooby episodes and series that we've watched since then.

The movie starts with a traditional campfire story. None of our Mystery Inc. heroes are present as the camp counselor tells the legend of a ghoul named The Woodsman that haunts the area. The animation is computerized but clean. It's in the same style as the current Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated series that's airing on Toon Network. I'm not a huge fan of this style but it certainly isn't as distracting as some of the cheaper styles that plagued these films in the 2000 - 2003 era. Of course, The Woodsman turns out to be real and scares everyone away and leads us into the opening credits.

Like the previous two films, the opening credits are quite a departure from the artistic and music style of the film. Like Scooby-Doo! and the Goblin King, the credits have an upbeat very summer-themed song with bright colors and tiny, almost anime versions of our heroes. I think I'm getting used to this style for the credits but I missed the more orchestral theme of the previous film. The summer song helps set this in more of the traditional summer-camp film genre.

The plot is quickly established after the opening credits. Our Mystery Inc. gang is headed to Fred's old summer camp, Camp Little Moose. Approaching the camp, we see that Camp Little Moose is overshadowed by Camp Big Moose that is much fancier and has all the amenities. This sets up to be quite the traditional summer-camp film - with the privileged camp and the misfits camp (recently played out also in TV's Huge). At Fred's old camp, the recent hauntings are forcing the camp to close. His old counselor recognizes Freddy ("I'd know that ascot anywhere.") and as three misfit kids arrive on a bus, Fred has volunteered our gang to become the camp counselors. In a nice twist, the Park Ranger is attracted to Velma - causing Daphne consternation at every compliment not aimed at her.

There are some nice techniques being used in the beginning third of the film that is possible because most viewers are so familiar with the flow of a Scooby-Doo! mystery. The 72-minute format has the advantage over the 22-minute format of letting the viewer settle into the setting before the plot takes over. The next time we see The Woodsman looking over our heroes, you would expect the typical Scooby musical montage chase to start but it doesn't. The first montage with music is actually a set piece for Big Moose Lake. Another summertime-themed song plays and the animation is all bright colors as opposed to the darker hues used for Little Moose Lake. It makes for nice thematic variation.

Almost like clockwork, the movie starts to hit the same beats that the viewer is expecting based on previous films. At the 27-minute mark we are introduced to a second monster - The Fishman Monster, another legend that is based on a campfire story. After meeting Jessica, a counselor from Big Moose Lake, the group is chased by The Woodsman. I loved the departure from the traditional musical chase song at this point. Going for more of a nod to the camp based horror films, the chase scene has a classical horror film score underneath it. That little change creates more tension and for the little ones, quite a bit more suspense.

After the chase, there's the legend of a third monster, the Spectre Of Shadow Canyon that's told. The group - Mystery Inc., Jessica and two of the three kids, splits up to find clues. At this point, the movie becomes more of a traditional mystery than these movies have been in a few years. Each group is chased by a separate ghost of the three - eventually sending all the characters back together to compare their clues. The plot isn't complex but it also isn't connected to magic and the supernatural like many recent films. The mystery here is right out of the original TV series. There's the needed suspense of having a time element - the mystery needs to be solved by sunrise on the solstice.

The mystery is solved just in time and all the clues are explained. The movie wouldn't be complete without the "meddling kids" line and it doesn't disappoint. The movie bookends the start with a campfire story. These touches all gave the film a very comfortable, classic feel. The plot is probably not exactly in need of 72-minutes to tell the story but it's also not just a 22-minute plot with chase-scene fillers. The nod to both summer-camp films and horror films set in summer camps make this enjoyable for the adults in the viewing audience. It's a great direction for the series to take - sticking to the mysteries will keep this show relevant.

The DVD contains the pilot episode of Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated - it's a brilliant additon to get the audience back into the TV show format. The episode flows right along with the feel of this film and makes me want to search it out. The other extras include trailers and a lame "Scooby-Doo! Scary Camp Stories" feature that's aimed at a much younger audience than would probably watch this. But Musgo and family are getting older and find that Scooby is aging well with us.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Family Guy: Partial Terms of Endearment

Written by Pirata Hermosa

Finally, the episode too controversial for television is released on DVD. If you know anything about the show, you can make a pretty good guess what the story is about.

When Lois (Alex Borstein) returns to her college reunion, she runs into her former roommate she once experimented with. When Peter (Seth MacFarlane) finds out, he expects a threesome, but much to his chagrin she wants Lois to be her surrogate. Against the wishes and opinions of the rest of the family, Lois decides to go ahead with the idea. But as soon as she becomes pregnant she hears that her friend and her friend’s husband were killed in an automobile accident. That leaves her with the difficult decision of what to do with the child now that she would be responsible for taking caring of the baby. And of course, everyone in the family has an opinion. Thus starts the abortion debate.

It’s pretty obvious why this one episode isn’t allowed on network television, but compared to a lot of other things they deal with on Family Guy it seems pretty mild. And if you compare it to an episode of South Park, it’s extremely tame. Overall it’s not worth all of the hype it gets or the “Banned From TV!” headline. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from any other episode other than the fact that they deal with the abortion issue, which is always a hot topic.

The DVD only contains this one half-hour episode from the series. There are also a handful of extras and a commentary with MacFarlane and the cast.

“Seth and Alex’s Almost Live Comedy Show” – A half-hour variety show that aired in 2009 with MacFarlane. There is some animation, musical numbers, and guest stars while both actors do impressions and comedy skits. It’s just okay and a little odd watching MacFarlane doing all the different voices.

“Live and Uncensored Table Read” – The cast sits in director chairs in front of an audience and does a table read of the Partial Terms episode.

“Animatic” – The storyboard presentation of the episode. It’s a very rough drawing and includes some additional jokes that were cut out or changed in the final edit.

Family Guy Songs” – You can place the DVD into your computer and download nine songs used on the show in the MP3 format. The songs are “Drunken Irish Dad”, “The Friendship Song”, “Give Up the Toad”, “Me And Jesus”, “My Fat Baby Loves to Eat”, “Prom Night Dumpster Baby”, “You and I Are So Awfully Different”, “You Do”, and “You Have AIDS”.

If you’re a collector and have to have every episode, then you’ll most likely go out and get Partial Terms of Endearment. But if you’re just a casual viewer it’s probably a good idea to weigh the price versus getting just one episode.

Article first published as DVD Review: Family Guy - Partial Terms of Endearment on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

THE THIN RED LINE - The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)

Written by Musgo Del Jefe

There's something to be said about be prolific. Take Alfred Hitchcock's work for example - there are runs of three-four films over a two- to three-year span that are so brilliant that you are willing to forgive the clunkers like Torn Curtain. But there's also something rare and amazing about the director that picks his pieces carefully. Terence Malick hit the ground running in 1973 with Badlands. The well-received film set in South Dakota and middle America in the 1950s starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek has gained in respect since its release. His second film came five years later in 1978, Days Of Heaven - it was another period piece (set in 1916) in the Texas panhandle starring Richard Gere and Brooke Adams. In those five years, Malick found it easier to tell the story he imagined with less dialog and let the cinematography tell a rich story - pulling inspiration from the paintings of Edward Hopper. Malick took a mere twenty-year break before releasing his next film, The Thin Red Line in 1998 - a World War Two film based on a book by James Jones. Musgo has the pleasure of sitting down with the new Criterion Collection release of the movie on Blu-ray and taking another look at a rare work from one of his cinematic heroes.

Twenty years is a long time between films. There was plenty of time for Malick to think about life and death and moviemaking. The war film of this period in cinema was approaching the end of a arc started by Apocalypse Now to start the 1980s, peaking with Platoon in the mid-'80s and seemingly ending with the triumph of Saving Private Ryan earlier in 1998. These movies increasingly were getting away from telling the stories of the soldiers and were leaning more towards letting the war itself be the story. Malick would use the techniques he had in his previous two films to tell a story that was much more about human beings and life than about soldiers and war.

In a literal sense, the movie tells the story of Company C during the battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific during World War II. Like other movies of the genre, war films require a rather large ensemble cast and this film is no different. There are so many actors that lined up to work with Malick that he couldn't even fit all of them into the final cut. Ones that made the cut include Sean Penn, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody and John Travolta. Those left on the cutting room floor include Gary Oldman, Mickey Rourke, Martin Sheen and Billy Bob Thornton. But this film isn't about military tactics or finding lost soldiers - this movie is set to shed light on higher philosophical ideals of nature and humanity.

The film starts with a shot of an alligator slipping into a swamp - blending into its surroundings like a perfect predator. It's the same way that the jungle and later the long grass of the mountains will swallow the soldiers. Nature will be a main focus of the film. This film looks wonderful on Blu-ray - the idyllic shots of long green grass against improbably blue skies jump off the screen. Nature is dangerous - there are snakes and bats and predators throughout the film, but they don't interact with the soldiers. This illustrates Malick's philosophical style. He raises questions without really delivering any answers. For some it's frustrating - for others this makes perfect sense. Is Nature evil? Is Man more evil? Or are we powerless against the force of Nature? These are all valid questions to Malick.

The other important element of The Thin Red Line is in its unique use of narration. The film is more narration than actual dialog, I believe. The narration isn't a plot device to summarize the battle, fill in story details or even to explain what we are seeing onscreen. The narration is more a combination of internal monologue as if we are watching a Shakespeare play. Or it's akin to journal entries being read while we see scenes that inspired the words.

"What is this great evil? How did it steal into the world? From what seed, what root did it spring? Who's doing this? Who's killing us? Robbing us of light and life? Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known?"

Almost all of the actors have narration. And there are many points where the voices blur together and it's almost impossible to keep track of who's words we are hearing. That creates the feeling of an "everyman" narrating the film - that what is being observed is more of a universal experience. As the Company overwhelms a Japanese encampment, the narration raises questions. But allows the viewer to ponder the answer. "What is this great evil?" That's not directed specifically at the enemy. As soldiers shoot each other, the lines are blurred. Have we become evil? And how did it happen? Most other war films have not found a way to ask these questions.

The sound design is amazing. In the essay that accompanies the disc, it is mentioned that Malick suggests you watch the film at a loud volume (it also appears in subtitles at the beginning of the disc!). I wholeheartedly agree. There is way too much going on that you would miss at normal volume levels. The island is alive with sound - natural and man made. Malick manipulates sound to establish themes and tones. Unlike a movie like Saving Private Ryan - the battles aren't a cacophony of sound. While there are some traditionally filmed battle scenes - they aren't presented in ways that you have seen them. Malick uses isolated sounds and Hans Zimmer's soaring score to emphasize emotions over action. The battles to take a machine-gun nest on the hill don't become about taking the hill - they are about loss and futility - underscored by the swelling music and the sporadic narration.

The movie is summed up for me in a pivotal scene about halfway through the almost three hours between Lt. Tall (Nick Nolte) and Captain Staros (Elias Koteas). Lt. Tall has been passed over for many promotions and he's looking to make a name for himself in this battle. Lt. Tall is not "tall" in any way - he is the shallowest man on the island - oblivious to anything but his own needs. At one point, Tall orders Staros to take the hill with a frontal assault. The orders are being relayed to him over a battlefield phone. Staros and his men are pinned down by enemy fire. Staros refuses to obey the order. The argument between the two that ensues is brilliant. As we cut back and forth - Nolte is a raging volcano - shaking with anger as he orders Staros to attack. Staros responds in a calm, reasoning manner. There are tense moments of silence as the viewer takes in the scene waiting for the next response. Lt. Tall allows Staros a reprieve as he comes up to the frontline. By the time he arrives - the situation has calmed down and there appears to be no reason that Staros couldn't have attacked. Ultimately, I see the futility of the war in this argument. Neither man wins - Tall doesn't get his shining moment and Staros eventually gets relieved of his command. Emotion and reason both lose.

In the years since the movie's release, there seems to be a renewed interest in the War in the Pacific. Ken Burn's The War focused equally on the war in both theaters - including extended attention to Guadalcanal. And the HBO series The Pacific did a great job of capturing a bit of the thematic threads of the Malick film. It was certainly informed by some of the filming decisions he made here. But this movie could easily be about any war - it aims much deeper.

While Malick is influenced by many sources - in the twenty years between films, you get the feeling he was absorbing all kinds of art that would add depth to his cinematic voice - there is a big nod to The Heart Of Darkness. It's not the Apocalypse Now take on the piece though. The title itself refers to the thin line between sanity and madness. It is truly an ensemble cast but our journey begins and ends with Private Witt played by Jim Caviezal (oddly as a very Christ-like character). We start the film in the bright idyllic Eden-like world with him among the natives. He travels through the film into the jungle and darkness. We end the film with Pvt. Witt peacefully learning to accept death as he sacrifices himself for his men. Sean Penn's character, Sgt. Welsh wonders what difference one man can make. That question lingers as the troops pull away from the island.

"Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining."

The video is presented with a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer at an aspect ratio of 2.34:1 and a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track. The disc is loaded with extras including commentary from cinematographer John Toll and others from the crew. There's some great audition footage included. Plus, I'm a big fan of the newsreels of the battle of Guadalcanal. It puts the film in perspective that Malick probably didn't think would be important. An impressive movie that will prompt you on a philosophical level.

Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals

Written by Hombre Divertido

Released on DVD from HBO Home Video on September 28th, Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals is more than a story of two basketball players. It is more than a story of two athletes. This is a story of two men. Two completely different types of men brought together by a game, but kept together by what is quite possibly their only similarity: passion.

Ervin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird are arguably two of the greatest basketball players ever to lace up their shoes, and each has a legacy worthy of its own documentary. This new release does an excellent job of telling both their individual stories, as well as that which will have them intertwined forever.

With narration by Liev Schreiber, the team at HBO has produced an excellent documentary that transports the audience to the streets of Michigan and Indiana so that an understanding of where the lives of these two men started, and how their lives were shaped, can be realized and appreciated.

Many credit the rivalry between Magic and Bird with revitalizing, if not downright resurrecting, the NBA. As seen in the documentary, their participation in the 1979 NCAA Championship also clearly laid the groundwork for what is now “March Madness” and one of the most popular sporting events of the year.

Yes, two great players with incredible careers, but more so, two unique men with different backgrounds and personalities, that developed a bond that remains strong today. It can easily be argued that Magic and Bird played the game of basketball with a passion and intelligence that is only rivaled by each other. Their respective basketball intelligence quotient is seen throughout their careers, while their completely different off court personas are chronicled as well.

HBO manages to tell a complete story, and that is what ultimately makes this project work. With the exception of 1992 Olympic Team experience, the documentary gives the audience the perfect amount of time on each segment of the two stars' careers and their time together. Their first real off-court experience while filming a commercial gives a wonderful account of the two men finding common ground and developing an off court respect for each other.

In the case of the Dream Team, this segment of their lives could easily fill another documentary, and though it was at the end of their respective careers, more time should have been dedicated to their time together during this experience as well as this time in their lives.

The basketball highlights are excellent here, but it is the interviews that keep this piece moving and truly bring it to life. More time with the two of them together on camera would have made this a perfect investment in time.

Recommendation: You don’t need to be a basketball fan to appreciate what these two players accomplished, who they are as people, and how they were brought together on and off the court. Great entertainment and education for the whole family.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Modern Family - The Complete First Season (Blu-ray)

Written by Pirata Hermosa

A new comedy on ABC that looks into the lives of today’s typical modern family. Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill) is the patriarch of the family and has two adult children. He lives with his new and much younger Columbian wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and her son Manny (Rico Rodriguez) who considers himself a modern-day Casanova

His son Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) lives with his boyfriend Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and the two have adopted a little Vietnamese girl named Lily. Mitchell feels that he is a disappointment to his father and is always trying to prove his manliness in order to impress him.

His daughter Claire (Julie Bowen) lives with her not-so-bright husband Phil (Ty Burrell) and their three children. Claire is always in a competition with her brother Mitchell since she is daddy’s favorite.

While the main theme is about having a blended family filled with all kinds of different people, it also breaks itself down into the three smaller familial groups. And even though they are all distinct with different personalities, each of those three subsets has one character that tends to be the center of the smaller group.

Manny is the catalyst for Jay and Gloria, with Manny sometimes being more of the adult than they are. In Mitchell’s group, Cameron seems to dominate with his ability to be the Jack-of-all-trades. One minute he is sensitive, the next he’s threatening to beat up a guy harassing Mitchell, another he’s Fizbo the clown or playing drums in a rock band. In the final group it’s Phil who draws all the attention. He thinks he’s the cool, hip, understanding parent as he bumbles and stumbles around looking more the fool than anything, but fortunately, he has a big heart which makes him very likeable.

Most of the time the show is shot from a perspective much like you are watching a documentary as opposed to a fixed camera angle prevalent in many sitcoms. It also breaks through the fourth wall as each of the family members does “Couch Confessionals” and speaks directly to the audience.

Each 50 GB Dual Layer Blu-ray disc comes with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and is shown woth a 1.78:1 Widescreen ratio. The biggest issue that I had was with disc three in the set. While the others were very clear and bright, disc three seemed to run a little darker than the others. Along with the slower loading speed from the formatting that all of the discs had, disc three took even longer and had to be reinserted for it to work.

Each disc has Deleted, Extended and Alternate scenes. These extras are so good that it would have been nice to see them actually inserted into the episodes on the Blu-ray to give it a little more context instead of having to watch them in a special features section.

There are also several more features that include the typical Gag Reel, discussions with the cast on what they were doing before, and the making of two specific episodes, “Family Portrait” and “Hawaii”.

For being a new show, there are quite a few celebrities in the first season. Shelly Long, Elizabeth Banks, Edward Norton, and Minnie Driver are just a few to make guest appearances. The show recently won several Emmy awards for a comedy series, and rightfully deserves every one of them as each episode has a number of laugh-out-loud moments. It is certainly a must-see event every Wednesday night.