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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Omnibus: Leonard Bernstein

Watching Leonard Bernstein Omnibus is like taking a masters class in music appreciation, only with a really cool professor who cares more about what you learn than any grade you achieve. Originally broadcast between 1954 and 1958, the Omnibus shows were a series of lectures that Bernstein gave on topics ranging from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to American Musical Comedy where the composer/conductor not only talks about music, but backs up everything he says with examples that he either plays on the piano or conducts the 100-piece house orchestra to play for you. His command of classical music is as complete as expected; its watching him let his hair down a bit (figuratively speaking) to talk about jazz and modern music that are unexpectedly entertaining. Learning has never been so effortlessly enjoyable.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Justice League: The Complete Series

It’s a cartoon series about super heroes, so it must be just for kids, right? Wrong. This hugely entertaining series may center on guys and gals in tights fighting for truth, justice and blah, blah, blah, but it does it with both style and substance. The stories are strong, mainly because the writers don’t take themselves or their characters too seriously. And the acting is effective, both from the regular leads and in episodes featuring guest appearances with talent ranging from Jeremy Piven as The Elongated Man to Mark Hamill as the zombie bad guy Solomon Grundy. While there’s a lot for the average viewer to enjoy, the show also does well by the hard core comic fans by not only giving the stars of DC Universe plenty of play, but delving deep into the archives to make sure every one of their heroes has a moment in the spotlight.

Edge of Darkness

A father and daughter are leaving their house when a masked gunman shouts out their name before firing both barrels of a shotgun at them. The daughter dies. The father, a police detective, lives but is haunted by the guilt that it was him that the killer was after. Or was it? As the investigation into the crime moves along, the father soon starts discovering things about his daughter that he never knew, things that make him realize she was the target that fateful night. Now he’ll do whatever he can to bring her killers to justice. This six-part BBC series is a real nail-biter thanks to some terrific performances, particularly Bob Peck as the detective and Joe Don Baker as the shady American operative.

Spaceballs: The Totally Warped Animated Adventures

If you pick up this series hoping to see some cutting edge animation like the kind they use in the Star Wars: Clone War series, you are going to be sorely disappointed. The animation in Spaceballs is primitive at best. If, however, you are a fan of the original Mel Brooks movie – or any Mel Brooks film for that matter -- then you will get a big kick out of these shows. Sure, a lot of the jokes are dumb, and there is way too much bodily function comedy for most tastes, but the sheer joy that Brooks has sending up the Star Wars franchise (and everything else he sets his comic sights on) is contagious

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Give ‘em Hell Malone

The only way this movie could be more fun to watch would be if director Russell Mulcahy had filmed it in black and white to truly capture the film noir feeling he was looking for. But if he’d done that, you’d miss all the blood and fire that his hard-nosed private dick, Malone (Thomas Jane) leaves in his wake as he investigates the case of a missing suitcase and the hot brunette. Jane makes a perfect PI, delivering withering wise cracks with a cool edge, and Ving Rhames is a force of nature as Boulder, his ex-partner turned heavy for the bad guys.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cliff and the Shadows

Fans of Cliff Richard, the only UK recording artist to have charted a #1 single in five consecutive decades, will thoroughly enjoy this entertaining night of nostalgia taped last year over a three night stint at the O2 Arena in London. It may take a while, though, for those unfamiliar with the man and his music to warm up to the show. Richards and his band work so hard to make you like them that it’s hard not to surrender to the pure pop sensation of the sounds they make.

Monday, January 25, 2010

WWII in HD

Don’t let the title scare you away if you don’t have a state-of-the art HD TV to view it on because this engrossing series would be worth watching on an Ipod. The producers combed through more than 3000 hours of lost and rare color archival footage to make this show, and the final result is absolutely fascinating. It’s also deeply disturbing to see some of the raw footage in the series, particularly the scenes of the bloody aftermath of battle. You can distance yourself when you see such images like this in grainy black and white, but seeing them in living color gives them an emotional depth that is undeniable.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bonekickers

While the cases they solve are a little too far fetched at times, the terrific cast of actors in this 2008 BBC action/adventure series make it work. Julie Graham is outstanding as Gillian Magwilde, leader of a university archaeology team with a knack for finding historical objects that always seem to turn into pieces of a much bigger puzzle. Hugh Bonneville is equally enjoyable as her curmudgeonly co-worker, Dr. Parton. The series does a nice job of bringing history to life, primarily through the passion that the characters have for the things they find, even though the big mystery they are all trying to solve is ultimately disappointing.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cranford

Anyone who thinks that a series set in a remote English village circa 1840 about a bunch of gossipy old ladies fighting for their right to run the town as they deem fit would be boring hasn’t sat down to watch an episode of this fabulous BBC series. The shows – both the original Cranford series and the equally delightful Return to Cranford sequel -- features some of the best British actors to ever step before a camera, including Dame Judie Dench, Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce and Michael Gambon. It’s great fun to watch them work, particularly their ability to be both comic and heartrending with equal effectiveness and honesty. Anyone who says there aren’t great roles for older actors these days – particularly older women – should watch this series and then shut up. The stories are extremely well written, able to capture the speech and mannerisms of the time in such a way to make it fresh and lively to audiences today.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Pawn Stars: Season One

Before there were check-cashing services and ATM machines, there were pawn shops, a place where a person could bring something of value and put it up for collateral to get a few quick bucks. As this fascinating reality show proves, one man’s treasure is another man’s trash, and watching the three generations of pawn brokers that run the store decide what anything is worth is a heck of a lot of fun. (How much would you pay for a civil war cannon or a slightly used talisman?) The fact that the show is set in Las Vegas where almost anything can be pawned for quick cash only makes it more entertaining.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Who is KK Downey

A chubby suburban white guy can’t get his novel about a truck stop hustler published because, looking at him, nobody would believe he wrote it. So he gets his punk rock friend to pretend to be the hustler and the public can’t get enough of them. But there’s a dark – and darkly hilarious – underbelly to their dreams of fame and fortune. Watching them find it, and then plow their way through it, is exhilarating.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

On the road with Charles Kuralt

Long before there was reality TV, there was Charles Kuralt and his CBS crew crammed into a mobile home driving along the back roads of American looking for interesting people to talk to. It sound a little quaint in a time when practically anybody willing to make a total ass of themselves on TV can get a show of their own, but what Kuralt and his team does simply talking to people about the everyday lives is absolutely fascinating. This isn’t reality TV in the cheap form it is celebrated today: It’s truthful journalism at its best.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Monster

This could be the perfect DVD for people who think of anime as just ‘cartoons.’ Directed by Masayuki Kojima, this engrossing mystery starts out as the story of an idealistic young doctor forced out of his highly respectable hospital job when he decides to save the life of a young boy against the wishes of his superiors, who ordered him to operate on a city official instead. The story soon grows exponentially to cover everything from the battle to catch a serial killer to a government plot to create a new master race. The artwork is strong, but it is the character development (and enormously effective acting of the voice talent) that makes Monster so compelling to watch. Even when the story seems to drift into unrelated areas, you can’t help but watch to see what will happen next. The way that Kojima ties it all together in the end is entirely satisfying.

Monday, January 18, 2010

In the Loop

While there have been a plethora of political films made over the years, few of them come close to the comic insanity of Amando Iannucci’s brilliant film, In the Loop. A flustered young British secretary named Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) accidentally makes a comment to the press about the Iraqi war that strays outside the official party lines. The innocuous comment starts off a landslide of commentary and controversy that soon stretches to the Pentagon, the United Nations and beyond. This is how politics really works

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Il Divo

Even if you don’t know anything about modern Italian political history or who Giulio Andreotti was, you will be totally enthralled watching this mesmerizing film directed by Paolo Sorrentino. In a nutshell, Andreotti wielded almost supreme political power for more than four decades, stopping at nothing, including murder, to help bend and shape Italy into his vision of what the country should be. The details of how he accomplished what he did, and the heavy price he and his associates paid for doing it, are best left to the film. Not only is the story fascinating, but the performances are exquisite, particularly the work of Tony Servillo (Gomorra) in the title role. On top of that Sorrentino is a master story teller with an artist’s eye as a director. The way he uses the camera not only adds to the visual pleasure of watching the film, but often acts as the seductive narrator of the story as well.

Passing Strange

It takes a special kind of talent to film a Broadway show and make it exciting for a theatrical audience, and few have done it as well as director Spike Lee does with this energetic and intense musical. It’s the story of a young Californian that’s fed up and frustrated with his boring middle-class life, so he packs his bag and heads to Amsterdam to find out what life has to offer him. He finds almost more than he can handle, but eventually discovers the connection between life and art that he’s been looking for.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Departures

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is living his dream of being a cello player in a symphony orchestra, but when the orchestra is disbanded he find himself moving back to his hometown to save some money and evaluate his life. He applies to a want ad for ‘departures’ thinking it’s a job with a travel agent, only to discover it’s actually a post as assistant to a man who cleans dead bodies for departure to the afterlife. From this odd outline director Yôjirô Takita (Blood Gets in Your Eyes) creates a film or rare beauty. See it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Chop Socky Chooks

What can you say about an animated show that follows the adventures of three strange looking chickens (including one with a huge Afro) with mad kung fu skills battling the evil Dr. Wasabi (who looks like a slab of the spicy green condiment) and his army of monkey henchmen? Only that it rocks! Created by Aardman Animations, the same studio that makes the Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit films, this is about as offbeat a show as you will ever see, from the highly detailed martial arts action to the eye-popping animation. Call it a guilty pleasure.

Haunted Histories Collection

If you already believe in the existence of ghosts, ghouls and other things that go bump in the night, then you probably already have a copy of this impressive collection of History Channel programs. It’s the skeptical among us that really need to pick one up because the great thing about this 20-disc set is just how skeptical the people telling the stories can be. For example, you’ll be watching the show about haunted houses and just when you start thinking the people being interviewed are kooky (and wondering why all the people who see ghosts have mullet haircuts) there will be an interview with a scientist or other expert who says out loud just what you were thinking. Such balanced reporting, especially on such controversial subjects, is rare these days, and it’s impressive that the makers of this series are able to strike that balance again and again.

Bonanza: The Official First Season

Way back in 1959, Ben Cartwright and his three boys – Adam, Hoss and Little Joe – brought their adventures to homes across America in the first western series ever shown in living color. Fifty years later their stories are finally out on DVD the way they were meant to be (and not in some hacked up/bargain bin collection that’s not worth watching). While not everything about Bonanza has aged well – the caricatures of the Chinese people feel borderline racists at times – there is a timeless element to these shows that still makes them hugely entertaining to watch. Each episode is like a mini-movie, complete with plenty of action, courtesy of Adam (Pernell Roberts), plenty of humor, courtesy of Hoss (Dan Blocker) and plenty of romance, courtesy of Little Joe (Michael Landon). Overseeing it all is the patriarch of the Cartwright clan, Ben (Loren Green), a Bible/Shakespeare quoting curmudgeon who loves nothing more than his three sons (from three different wives, mind you), unless it is the 1000-square miles of land he owns called The Ponderosa, land, we are told in almost every episode, that everyone else in the west wants to take from him.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Ichi

The legend of a blind swordsman who takes on – and defeats – just about any bad guy who messes with him as he wanders from town to town is ubiquitous in Japanese action cinema. The twist that director Fumihiko Sori puts on it is to make the battling blade master a beautiful young woman (Haruka Ayase). And it works. The action is well done, but what makes Ichi more than just another blood-spattered kung-fu movie (not that there's anything wrong with that)is the fact that Sori takes the time to let the characters develop as people and not just sword-wielding action figures.

10 Things I Hate About You

It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since this charming teen comedy was in theaters, but the good news is that the film, like the cast, has aged well. Directed by Gil Junger, the film is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, with Julia Styles playing the shrew and Heath Ledger playing the part of the shrew tamer. The script is smart and funny, two things you usually can’t say about a teen comedy, and the characters are believable. Styles and Ledger are impressive, bringing real heat to both their verbal jousting and their make-up scenes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is equally good as the young man smitten by the shrew’s sister (Larisa Oleynik). Even the adults, especially the dad (a hilarious Larry Miller), are well thought out and likeable. And if that isn’t enough, the soundtrack still rocks.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Tower of Druaga

This entertaining anime tells the story of Jil, a young hero-wannabe and his quest to climb the tower, kill the monster at the top and capture the Blue Crystal Rod that will make his wish of bringing peace and prosperity to the land come true. His only problem, besides a definite lack of fully developed heroic skills, is the huge number of others who are making the same quest, but for very different reasons.

Rome The Complete Series

The Sopranos and Sex and the City may have gotten all the headlines for HBO, but this fascinating series is every bit their equal on every level, and it does it set hundreds of years in the past. Every episode drips with blood, sweat, nudity and political intrigue, but it’s the fantastic acting that makes the series pop. Kevin McKidd is mesmerizing as Lucius Vorenus, the old school centurion having trouble adapting to Caesar’s new ways. Ray Stevenson, on the other hand, as his partner Titus Pullo makes being a Roman soldier look like the most fun a man can have in a toga. History has never been this much bloody good fun before.

Kassim the Dream

This story of World Champion Boxer, Kassim "The Dream" Ouma and his triumphant climb from the ghettos of Uganda, where he was kidnapped as a child and forced to join the rebel army, to the heights of the boxing world is entertaining, thought provoking and heartbreaking. Until the end, that is. After taking 90 minutes to let us know the man behind the macho posing, and following him on a pilgrimage back to Uganda to see the family he left behind a decade ago, director Kief Davidson abruptly pulls the plug and lets the screen go dark without giving us any of the “where is he now” information the audience is clamoring for. It ruins an otherwise fantastic documentary.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Traffik

Long before it was a Steven Soderbergh movie, Traffik was a six-part British miniseries that took viewers on a roller coaster ride through the drug world, from the poppy fields where the raw opium is grown right along through to the homes of the London teenagers who shoot the refined heroin into their veins. It does a masterful job of showing how these lives are touched by the drug trade along the way while exploring the clumsy way that politicians and law enforcement officials try to deal with a problem they really don’t understand. It’s a masterpiece.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

20th Century Boys

This movie has everything that an action film fan wants from a DVD -- kung fu fighting, giant robots, explosions, chases and more. Based on a popular manga series, it's the story of a group of adults who discover that the end-of-the-world comic book they drew as kids is becoming a reality. Now they have to work together to find the original story (which they no longer remember) and try to find a way to keep the world from actually ending. Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi (Happily Ever After) knows how to make things blow up with style, but he is also a gifted comedic director who nicely balances the violence and the laughs in the movie. The way he weaves in the stories of the present day adults with scenes of their bonding as young nerds is particularly effective.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Exiles

This exciting two-disc set features a beautifully restored version of Kent MacKenzie's remarkable 1961 debut feature chronicling one night in the lives of a group of young Native American men and women (transplants from South West reservations) as they flirt, fight, party and dance in the Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles. The film is great to watch on its own, but to really appreciate the historical and cultural significance of MacKenzie's work dive into the second disc of commentary, short films, and other treats. You will be amazed.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Prisoner


This is one of the greatest -- and weirdest -- shows ever created. And even though it's been off the air for 40 years, its still worth watching. It stars Patrick McGoohan as a British secret agent who tries to leave his profession. On the day he quits, however, he is gassed in his apartment and wakes up as a resident at a mysterious village full of strange people determined to keep him there at any cost. Describing what happens to the agent, labeled No. 6 by his captors, would only spoil the fun. After all, how can you tell anyone how terrifying a large white balloon can be unless they've seen it chase down No. 6 in an episode of The Prisoner? You can't. You just have to tell them to watch it themselves.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Toi & Moi

You'd have to be dead not to fall in love with this frothy French bit of comedy about two sisters looking for love in Paris. The film stars Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose) and Julie Depardieu (Rush Hour 3) as siblings stuck in bad relationships who learn to open their eyes -- and their hearts -- to the romantic possibilities surrounding them. Cotillard plays Lena, a concert cellist who begins to question her long-term relationship after she starts having feelings for a sexy guest conductor. Depardieu is a writer of popular romantic picture stories (tales told through steamy photos and detailed captions) whose unrequited love for a shallow cad keeps her from realizing that true love is literally right outside her window.
Director Julie Lopes-Curval fills the screen with bright images, setting the stage for this perfect romantic comedy.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Chai Lai Angels


Five undercover agents, each with their own speciality -- and own unique sense of fashion -- combat international terrorists in Thailand. It's a silly movie, but event he cast seems to know it which makes it all the more fun to watch. If you are looking for Bourne Supremacy-style action, you need to look somewhere else. But if all you are looking for is a decent action movie with some very pretty girls doing the ass-kicking then this movie is for you.