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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Toy Story 1 and 2

With the next installment of the adventures of Woody the Cowboy and Buzz Lightyear scheduled to hit theaters this summer, it was almost unavoidable that the first two Toy Story movies would be released, too. Well, if you haven’t seen them in a while, the good news is that they are as much fun as you remember; in fact, TS2 may be even better. There are plenty of extras, including a fascinating Black Friday outtake that shows what Woody might have become if the evil Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg had gotten his way.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Wizard of OZ 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition

The movie, lovingly restored to its Technicolor beauty, is as amazing as you remember it. Dorothy and her friends are just as lovable, the Wicked Witch is just as scary and the flying monkeys are still (at least to this reviewer) absolutely terrifying. What makes this two-disc set so much fun, though, is the extras, including lengthy cast biographies, outtakes, documentaries and a special reading of the original Frank L Baum book by Angela Lansbury. It’s a true collector’s edition, one that you can spend hours enjoying.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Gunslinger Girl: The Complete First Season

While there is more than enough action in this anime series for it to live up to its title, it is the depth of the stories being told that make it worth watching. The story of a government agency that takes dying young girls and turns them into cyborg assassins is creepy, but it pales when compared to the emotional journey each of the young girls takes as her human side starts to regain consciousness. They still want to kill when their handler commands them, but when they stat wanting to be loved in exchange for their efforts things really start to get intense.

The African Queen

Why it took this long for such a classic movie to be released on DVD no longer matters: The African Queen is here and it’s been worth the wait. This Oscar-winning tale of love between two very unlikely characters – an uptight spinster and a rough riverboat captain – is as charming as ever. Sure, the special effects used to recreate their treacherous trek down a wild African river are no longer very special. In fact, they look pretty bad at times, especially the toy boat going down the rapids. But any unintentionally laughable moments are quickly forgiven as you watch two screen legends – Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn – light up the screen the way few have ever been able to do since. It’s still romantic as hell. The DVD also features an excellent documentary about just how hard everybody worked to make the movie in the first place. Watch the movie, then the documentary, then the movie again. You can’t ask for a better night at the movies.

The Judy Garland Show: Volume 3

One would think that a black and white variety series from the 1960s would have limited appeal. Well, think again. There’s something so fresh and unpretentious about The Judy Garland Show that it will win you over even if you don’t know anything about the host beyond the fact that she was in the Wizard of Oz. The woman can really sing, and her list of guests brings their A-game to the show knowing they will share the stage with her. But it’s equally delightful to watch Garland sit back, light up a cigarette and shoot the breeze with her celebrity guests between numbers.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Top Chef New York

Stefan vs. Hosea. More than any other season, the battle between the overconfident (some would say obnoxious) Euro-chef and the good natured cook from Colorado had fans glued to their TVs every week. And what about poor Carla? Was her chance to better the boys intentionally sabotaged by one of the other cooks who was acting as her sous chef? And wasn’t it awesome to see the chefs cook for The Foo Fighters? With more drama than a season of Italian opera, this season of Top Chef is even more fun to relive on DVD.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sita Sings the Blues

Director Nina Paley does the unimaginable in this movie, combining just about every style of animation you can think of with the 1920's jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw to tell the epic Indian tale of Ramayana. The result is unlike any film you will ever see. It’s visually stunning, intellectually thought provoking and, above all, hugely entertaining.

The Princess and the Frog

You have to give the Disney Studio credit: While the rest of the animated movie making world is obsessed with making everything in computerized 3D whether the story really calls for it or not, the Disney animators have gone back to the drawing board – literally -- to make their first traditional, hand-drawn 2D animated feature in years. The result is also their best animated feature in years, a colorful and enchanting tale that the entire family can enjoy. While the acting is strong and the songs are a lot of fun, the real treat of watching The Princess and The Frog is the hand-painted look of the film itself. While there are plenty of scenes with lots of visual razzle-dazzle, particularly the ones involving the voodoo chants of the Shadow Man, it’s the lushness that the Disney style brings to the characters throughout the story that makes the film feel so warm and familiar, the way a great Disney movie is supposed to feel. And The Princess and The Frog is a great Disney movie.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox is an almost hallucinogenic trip into the weird and wonderful world of director Wes Anderson. Based on a book by Ronald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), it’s the story of a fox who is forced to give up his wild chicken-stealing ways when he finds out his mate is expecting a cub. He settles down, gets a regular job – as a newspaper columnist -- and moves his new family out of their burrow and into a better house. But try as he might, he just can’t seem to keep his wilder side at bay, and his need to feed on stolen chicken soon creeps back into his life.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Freebie and the Bean

Filled with tons of gratuitous violence and more car crashes than The Blues Brothers, this 1974 comedy is also one of the funniest cop/buddy movies you will ever see, thanks to the great chemistry between stars Alan Arkin and James Caan. The pair plays a couple of San Francisco detectives who are out to build a case against the local numbers runner. They’re good cops, but everything they touch turns to crap: witnesses die, leads turn violent and ugly and, more likely than not, they crash their car halfway to their next clue. The idea that violence can be funny may be politically incorrect these days, but Freebie and the Bean (a nickname for Arkin’s character that refers to his Mexican heritage – how’s that for political incorrectness!) are throwbacks to the old Keystone Cops films rather than the descendants of 1971’s Dirty Harry. If you can’t see the comedy in a car crash, don’t watch it. Or better yet, watch it with the remote in your hand so you can fast-forward through the accidents (which means you should fast forward just about every time they get into a car) and enjoy the acrobatic banter between two great actors at the top of their game.

Friday, March 19, 2010

MST3K XVII

Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 have been salivating over the release of this set for a long time now, primarily because it features The Crawling Eye, the first MST3K episode released to the world at large (and not just local KTMA viewers in Minnesota). While it’s interesting to see the debut, truth be told (as host Joel Hodgson explains in the bonus opening credits to The Crawling Eye) the episode is interesting more as a starting point than as a stand-alone fun fest. Thankfully, the three other movies in the set – The Beatnicks, The Blood Waters of Dr. Z and the awesome The Final Sacrifice -- are among the series’ best.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ripley’s Believe it Or Not

The unusual items and facts featured in this series of theatrical shorts – be it the world’s smallest book or a man with horns growing out of his head – are fun to watch, but what makes this series work is the host himself. Robert L. Ripley is about as unlikely a series host as you can imagine -- his prominent overbite wouldn’t even be allowed on screens these days – but his enthusiasm for revealing the wonders of the world to an often incredulous audience is infectious. (Available exclusively at the Warner Archive: http://bit.ly/WAC_Ripley)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Real Wolfman

While solving the crime of a mysterious beast that viciously attacked and killed 102 villagers in the French village of Gevaudan in the mid 1700s is a perfect topic for a History Channel show, it’s the Odd Couple teaming of cryptozoologist Ken Gerhardt and veteran criminal profiler George Deuchar that makes this DVD so much fun to watch. They may never be friends – in fact, one gets the feeling that there are plenty of outtakes left off the DVD of the pair going at each other pretty intensely – it’s fascinating to see how this dysfunctional duo put their personal feelings about each other aside to try and get to the truth about who – or what – killed all those people.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Service

The Pineda family goes through more drama in a single day than most families go through in generations. The fact that all their family laundry gets aired in their place of business – a rundown porno house in the Philippines – only adds to the trials they face. In less talented hands this could have been a maudlin tale, but director Brillante Mendoza fills the seedy story with the spice of life that can only be found among families who truly love each other no matter what.

Fix

Fresh out of the county jail, Leo (Shawn Andrews) has less than 24 hours to get to a court mandated rehab facility or face going to prison for a long time, so he cons his brother and his girlfriend to drive him there. What starts out as a mission of brotherly mercy soon turns into a wild road trip when Leo decides to say goodbye to everyone he knows along the way. Will he make it on time? Will he scrape up the five thousand he needs to get in to the center? Find out for yourself. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Good Intentions

Featuring an extremely likable cast, lead by Luke Perry and Elaine Hendrix, this countrified comedy tells the story of the lengths a housewife will travel to make sure her kids get the chance they deserve. Even if it means dressing up in a ski mask and robbing your husband’s liquor store before he can spend the money on another one of his hair-brain get-rich-quick inventions. The story gets a little unwieldy at times, but director Jim Issa does a pretty good job of keeping it on track, while the cast does an excellent job of making it come alive. Hendrix, playing the housewife, steals the show with her sass and near perfect comic timing, while singer Leann Rimes proves she’s more than just a pretty face with a great voice. She can act, too.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Castle of Sand

It starts off as a routine police procedural, with two detectives investigating the mysterious death of an old man at a Tokyo railway station. As they gather clues and build their case, the cops start to discover that the mystery of the murdered man stretches far beyond anything they imagined, right to the doors of a concert hall where a young composer is premiering his new symphony, Destiny. Tetsuro Tamba and Kensaku Morita give good performances as the cops, but director Yoshitaro Nomura is the real star of this film. The way he transforms a generic series of flashbacks into an operatic exploration of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man – all done with music and images, no dialogue -- raise this movie to the level of true cinematic art.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Paris

Director Cédric Klapisch (Russian Dolls) takes the audiences on a tour through the lives of a group of Parisians as their paths intersect along the boulevards of the lovingly photographed City of Lights. Those looking for a neat narrative that ties the stories together will have to look elsewhere, though. Klapisch is more interested in creating an impressionistic portrait of the city and its people. More than give you a full meal about Parisians, he wants to give you a tasting menu of scenes designed to whet your appetite for more.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Jerry Lewis Show Collection

Like scotch and milk or overripe durian fruit, the unique comic style of Jerry Lewis is an acquired taste. If you enjoy his comedy, then you’ll love this collection of highlights from 13 episodes of The Jerry Lewis Show that aired on NBC from 1967-69. If you’re on the fence about him, give it a shot, too. The characters he portrays – nebbish Sidney Portnoy, Professor Frobisher and Oriental detective Sam Lichee to name a few – are still very funny (if a bit dated) and the guest list is top notch. Even if you don’t think Lewis is funny, watch these shows long enough and you’re bound to laugh.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Amelia on Blu-ray

Directed by Mira Nair (The Namesake), Amelia is filled with beautifully photographed shots of refurbished antique airplanes flying through cloud covered skies and over beautiful scenery. It’s lovely to look at, especially on Blu-ray. Unfortunately, the film is not a travelogue, but a biopic of legendary female aviator Amelia Earhart. While it manages to spell out the details that made Earhart’s achievements so memorable, it does a lousy job of bringing those details to life despite a strong performance by Hilary Swank who, as the newsreel footage in the Blu-ray extras prove, does a near-perfect impersonation of Earhart. The making of documentaries show how earnest everyone was in making the movie, too, but earnest doesn’t always equal entertainment.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tom & Jerry’s Greatest Chases Volume 4

Before there was Ren & Stimpy and before there was Itchy and Scratchy, there was Tom & Jerry, a lovable cat and mouse comedy team who spent their days beating the crap out of each other and generally wreaking havoc along the way. Creators William Hannah and Joseph Barbera don’t bother too much with plot or subtle meanings. They just fill every cartoon with colorful comic gags. And as the episodes in this delightful collection prove, they were brilliant about it.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Straight Time

People who think of Dustin Hoffman only as the star of The Graduate or Tootsie will be pleasantly surprised – or horrified – with the actors gritty portrayal of Max Dembo, a career criminal who tries, and fails, to go straight after serving six years for armed robbery. Hoffman gives an uncompromising performance, never taking the easy way out by acting too cute to make his character likable or more viewer-friendly. He also doesn’t try to make him too tough or dangerous. As played by Hoffman, Dembo is an average guy who eventually realizes he’s just not made to make it on the right side of the law and then embraces his criminal career with devastating circumstances.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

We Live in Public

Josh Harris is a genius. He’s also a madman. As one of the first dot.com tycoons, Harris amassed a fortune of more than $80 million dollars which he used to fund everything from the first internet television stations to a bizarre underground living experiment where he treated people like mice in his own personal lab experiment. When he decided to film his own life 24/7 and broadcast it across the world, the experience nearly drives him insane. This fascinating look at one man’s experience with overexposure on the internet is a cautionary tale for every Facebook and Twitter user posting their details online today.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Elvis

Two years before they teamed up to unleash Snake Plissken on the world in the classic Escape From New York, director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell took on the challenge of making a TV movie about the biggest pop music icon of all time, Elvis Presley. Concentrating on the early years of the singer’s career, and avoiding the fat Elvis demise of the star, the pair put together a mini-masterpiece, the kind of film that brings the icon to life in a unique and believable way. Russell gives a phenomenal performance in the film, particularly in the more intimate moments from the celebrated singer’s life. He has a great stage presence, too, showing the audience just how Elvis changed the world with his voice – and his style – without depending on too many impersonation clichés.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Bitch Slap

You probably think can tell from the title and the cover whether this movie is for you or not. Well you’re probably right. There is plenty of action and scantily clad women in Bitch Slap, but the movie also has the best tough-girl dialogue you will ever hear this side of Kill Bill, and the story is told with style to spare. If he’d had a bigger budget, director Rick Jacobson could have made a blockbuster action movie, but the cheap special effects somehow add to the charm of it all. Here’s hoping that the DVD does well enough for the Bitch Slap Trio – Trixie (Julia Voth), Hel (Erin Cummings) and Camaro (America Olivo) – to get a sequel.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Poldark

After years of fighting a losing battle in the American War for Independence, British Officer Ross Poldark returns home to his Cornwall estate to find his home in ruins, his fiancé engaged to another man and just about every other facet of the life he left behind torn completely asunder. Watching the man fight to put it all back together is just about as exciting as a mini-series can be thanks to a terrific cast, particularly the handsome Robin Ellis in the title roll. This is an epic you don’t want to rush through; sit back and savor every episode.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Whip it on Blu-ray

Whip It tells the story of Bliss Cavender (Ellen Page), a Texas high school misfit looking for a way to connect with somebody – anybody – who senses that life has more to offer than a career at the local barbecue joint. She finds what she’s looking for when she joins a local roller derby team and starts competing. Director Drew Barrymore shows a great knack for storytelling and getting strong performances from the ladies in her cast. She doesn’t seem to know what to do with the men, though, especially Jimmy Fallon as the annoying roller derby track announcer. The Blu-ray extras – a few deleted scenes and a Fox Movie Channel special on author Shauna Cross – are disappointing.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Dead Snow

Two words: Nazi zombies. That’s all you need to know about this stylish horror flick from director Tommy Wirkola. If you like gory zombie films, this story of a group of young adults on a ski weekend who get attacked by an army of rotting SS troops has everything you desire, and then some. If you are the least bit squeamish about such things, then stay away. It will give you nightmares.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Gary Moore: Definitive Montreux

It’s not that often that you get to watch a musician’s career as it develops, but that’s just what you get to do with this fascinating 2-disc set. The film culls the best from more than a decade of the bluesman’s shows at the Montreux Jazz Festival, showcasing Moore’s excellent guitar playing and versatility as a singer. What makes it really fascinating is watching the Gary Moore from 1990 and then switching to the Gary Moore from the 2001 shows. There may be a big difference in the look of the man through the decade, but the passion for playing remains the same.