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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

Children will get it right away: A cartoon about Vikings fighting dragons? Take me. Take me. Adults, however, who may think that going to see an animated movie is strictly for kids may have a little trouble surrendering to the idea of going to see How to Train Your Dragon. Well, get over it, because everybody -- young, old and in between – will find something to enjoy in this thoroughly entertaining film about a young Viking who proves his worth to his clan by doing the unexpected and becoming friends with the Viking’s mortal enemies, the dragons. It’s not only filled with action and comedy, but the film has the kind of strong, well developed characters you just don’t find in many movies today. Of course, you wouldn’t expect less from directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, the creative team who made the classic Disney film, Lilo and Stitch. The two films actually have a lot in common: They share the same spirit of adventure, the same sense of humor and the same understanding that a film needs to be about something (in both cases, the need for family) to be truly worth watching.  How to Train Your Dragon just does it all with a lot more action.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Warlords

Set in China during the Taiping Rebellion of the 1860s, The Warlords is filled with tons of huge action scenes, the kind that fill the screen from edge to edge with warriors on horseback charging into hordes of sword wielding soldiers while arrows darken the skies above them, all gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Arthur Wong. It’s violence raised to the level of art, and for fans of that sort of thing The Warlords is intensely satisfying. But even if you have to avert your eyes when the blood starts spattering onto the camera lens, there is a lot to love about The Warlords, thanks to a well written script and some truly strong performances from the cast. The screenwriters do a really good job of making sure that even as the action intensifies, the audience never loses sight of the fact that the people up on the screen aren’t just nameless and faceless cannon fodder. Sure, not everyone gets a full story, but enough of the supporting cast are included in the tale to keep it interesting, which also helps to support the main story about the three blood-oath brothers who lead the army into battle and the woman who is destined to change their lives more than any battle ever could.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jonah Hex

It sounds strange to say it, given the generally bloated nature of the movies these days, but Jonah Hex needed to be longer. With a brisk running time of 81 minutes, the film never really slows down enough to give you a chance to truly understand or appreciate the characters and why they are doing what they are doing. The information is telegraphed in short burst of violent imagery and painfully inept exposition crammed between the gigantic action scenes. It’s as if the filmmakers were so anxious that people wouldn’t really appreciate the story – or the generally unlikable nature of the ‘hero’-- that they decided to deliver the highlights in cinematic shorthand and hope nobody noticed. And that’s a shame because even though he may not be as cool with mainstream audiences as other comic book characters, the facially disfigured Hex is one of the more interesting examples of the genre, from his back-story as a confederate soldier in the Civil War to his uncanny ‘gift’ of being able to communicate with the dead.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Winter's Bone

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, in a performance that’s as raw and real as any you will ever see, the film tells the story of a teenage girl named Ree (Lawrence) as she struggles to keep her family together under some truly harsh circumstances. When her absent dad gets arrested for cooking meth, he puts his house and land up as collateral on his bond without telling his family. Knowing he’s not likely to show up for his court date on his own, Ree sets out  to find him and make sure he does the right thing so she and her family don’t end up homeless. Like all great movies, Winter’s Bones is a multi-layered masterpiece. You could watch it just for the mystery of the missing father, or you could watch it just to see the phenomenal acting from the entire cast. You could view it as a searing commentary on the life of people who live on the other side of the poverty line whose only real means of survival is to make meth, or you could see it as an equally emotional story about real family values and the lengths a young girl will go to in order to preserve them. The important thing is that you see it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Predators

The new Predators starts out with the adrenaline levels cranked up to 11 as the hero of the story, Royce (Adrien Brody) wakes up in free fall wearing a parachute that he can’t get to open until its almost too late. Other bodies – and other things – start dropping out of the sky and Royce soon finds himself the leader of a ragtag group of mercenaries ready to hunt down whoever dropped them from the sky in the first place. Fans who have been waiting almost a quarter century for a good Predator movie will be delighted with what director Nimród Antal and his cast have done with this rebooted version of the franchise; what’s even better, though, is that they’ve created a movie that will be just as exciting for a new generation of Predator fans as it was for those who were there back in 1987 when Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) first declared, ‘If it bleeds, we can kill it.’

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Based partially on a section of the 1940 Disney animated movie Fantasia (the one where Mickey steals the magicians hat and makes the brooms come to life), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a delightful adventure about a young nerd named Dave (Jay Burachel) whose life is turned upside down when the mysterious sorcerer Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) shows up one day to tell him he’s not only going to be an apprentice, but needs to learn magic very, very quickly if he wants to save the world from being destroyed. Directed by John Turteltaub (National Treasure), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice if filled with special-effects and action scenes, all of which look great. Of course, effects are nothing but eye candy if the story isn’t strong and the actors aren’t good enough to make it come to life on the screen, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice doesn’t disappoint on either level. The script is well paced, with just enough snappy dialogue between the Sorcerer and his apprentice to give the movie a nice comic tone.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam

While this DC DVD is certainly worth watching for the main story – a classic battle between the Man of Steel, Cpt. Marvel and a magical menace from the future – the real treat is in all the extras packed onto the disc. The episodes involving Jonah Hex, Green Arrow and The Spectre all appeared on Blu ray editions of past releases, but each stands on its own and it’s nice to have them collected on a single disc. Plus, there are plenty of episodes from past TV series to enhance the experience. It’s like finding a stack of cool comics and curling up with them on a rainy afternoon.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Murderland

Long before he started playing Hagrid in the Harry Potter films, Robbie Coltrane had a career playing some great serious roles as a detective on several British TV shows. This mini-series about a child witnessing the murder of her mother is one of his best. In it, Coltrane plays Detective Douglas Hain, a cop whose reputation and life get put on the line when the investigation of the murder turns out to be more personal than anyone expected. The show powerfully combines scenes of the original investigation, where Cain worked with the daughter who may have witnessed the crime, with present day scenes of the now grown daughter still searching for the man who killed her mom.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cher: The Film Collection

You probably already know the classics contained in this box set, like Cher’s Oscar-winning work in Moonstruck and Silkwood, but what makes it worth buying even if you already own some of the films, are the inclusion of two rare Cher gems. Good Times, the only movie she made with husband Sonny Bono, is a Beatle-esque romp through Hollywood as the pop pair tries to come up with an idea for their first movie, and it’s a lot of silly fun. The fact that it was directed by William Freidkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) is amazing. Even better is the film called Chastity, which features a Sonny-less Cher as a hippie hitchhiking free spirit out to discover the world.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia

Fans of Disney’s big budget extravaganzas based on the popular C.S. Lewis stories may have a bit of trouble adjusting to his much humbler version of the story of four children who discover the doorway to a magic world at the back of an old wardrobe. But what the BBC version lacks in special effects it makes up for with better acting, better overall storytelling and a better attitude towards its audience. Instead of trying to wow watchers with fancy effects and CGI -- not to mention hiring famous movie stars to provide the voices – this series encourages people to use their minds and their imaginations.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Robo Geisha

Just when you thought Funimation Entertainment couldn’t possible top their release of the epic Frankenstein Girl Vs. Vampire Girl, they send this twisted tale out into the world, and film fans couldn’t be happier. Directed by Noboru Iguchi, who made the classic Machine Girl, Robo Geisha follows the adventures of a pair of sisters – the older one a famous geisha and the younger one a geisha wannabe – who are kidnapped by a crazy steel baron and trained as part of his robotic army of geisha warriors. Crazy as it sounds, it’s nothing compare to the delirious fun of actually watching Igushi’s twisted vision unfold on the screen.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sherlock: Season 1

If you thought Robert Downy Jr and Jude Law did a good job of updating the classic Arthur Conan Doyle stories of London’s first great detective, wait until you see what Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman do as Holmes and Waston in this enormously entertaining BBC series. Set in modern day London, the show never so much as winks at its audience in allusion to any Holmes that has ever come before. This Sherlock is a modern man – with his own crime advice website – who helps Scotland Yard solve the seemingly unsolvable. The fact that he sometimes sends them the solution in a text message only adds to the quirky charm of the show. The rapport between Cumberbatch and Freeman is spot on, too, particularly in the timing of their banter as they race to find the bad guy. Even in its infancy (the first season just came out in America on DVD) this series already ranks as a Holmes for the ages.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Compulsion

Rather than marry the man her parents have arranged for her to wed, a young Indian women makes a dirty deal with the family chauffer: If he takes care of the problem, she will sleep with him for a single night. The plan doesn’t go well on any level, but if you think you know what happens next, you will be surprised. There are plenty of plot twists in Compulsion, and every one of them is believable thanks to some terrific performances from Parminder Nagra (Bend it Like Beckham) and Ray Winstone (Beowulf). The ending will shock you.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Yoga

The story, about a group of women signing up for an intensive yoga class in the hope that it will make them more beautiful than they already are, is silly and the acting, for the most part, is awful. So why should you watch this film from director Jae-yeon Yun? Because it will scare the crap out of you. It’s not just the startling visual imagery of the film, although after you watch it you will have a hard time getting to sleep and not dream of having a poisonous black snake crawl in your mouth. The true terror of the film comes from the way the director paces the story to build the tension from the minute the women sign up for the class to the final scenes where one of them gets her wish to be beautiful forever.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

V

What starts out to be just another day turns decidedly weird when the skies overhead are suddenly filled with shiny UFOs that, it turns out, are filled with humanoid aliens who come in peace. Or at least that’s what they say in the beginning of this entertaining Sci-Fi television series. It soon becomes clear that not only do the visitors from another world have a hidden agenda, but they also have a hidden army already on the planet, disguised as the very humans they are out to enslave. The special effects are good, but it’s the acting that keeps you coming back to see what will happen next.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Trigun: The Complete Series

Vash the Stampede is wanted everywhere he goes, with a $60 Billion price on his head, dead or alive, for the murder of thousands of people and the destruction of an entire town. Or at least that’s the legend. In fact, Vash is a nerdy guy in a long red duster who just happens to have the worst luck in the world when it comes to trying to make his way in the world: everything he touches is eventually destroyed. The series starts out as a slapstick comedy of errors as Vash travels around the desert planet he’s been stranded on, but as his adventures continue, the story takes a decidedly more serious tone when Vash stars to uncover who he is and what he’s really doing on the planet. The change is gradual, almost seductive, and the way it pulls you into the mystery of Vash is addictive.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Kisses

Anyone renting this Irish tale of two children off for an adventure expecting to see a Disney-esque version of Dublin and its inhabitants will be in for a shock. This dark tale follows a pair of youngsters on the run from their abusive parents who soon discover that the bright lights of the big city may light up the streets of the tourist areas, but they also cause dark shadows to be thrown in the alleys where these kids are forced to try and find a way to survive. Kelly O’Neill and Shane Curry give fantastic performances as the kids.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Slings and Arrows

Few shows have captured the life of a theater company as completely as this Canadian television series. The good news is that even if you’ve never stepped inside a theater to see a play in your life, you’ll still be delighted watching the backstage drama (and comedy) of this imaginary Shakespearean theatre troupe. Paul Gross is fantastic as Geoffrey Tennant, a passionate (and borderline insane) thespian willing to do anything in the name of art, and Stephen Ouimette is his perfect foil playing his mentor, a recently deceased director who haunts the theater.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Back to the Future Trilogy

Hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since crazy Doc Brown and Marty McFly (Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox) first turned on the flux capacitor in their supped-up Delorian and traveled through time, and while some of the moments in the films haven’t stood the test of time (the old age makeup in BTTF 2 is almost laughable) there are plenty of extras crammed into this package to remind you (or perhaps bully you into believing) how timeless this trilogy really is. As for the movies, it’s pretty much how you remember it: The first one is good, the second one is pretty bad and the third one is a mess.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Shonen Knife: The Ultimate Live DVD

Shonen Knife has been touring the world playing their unique version of pop/punk songs for more than 25 years. This lively DVD of their show at Mohawk Place in Buffalo, New York shows why they are still going strong. Combining Ramones-style riffs with some of the silliest, catchiest lyrics you’ve ever heard (try listening to Banana Chips and not getting the chorus stuck in your head), this powerful trio keeps the energy level cranked up to 11: Just try not to dance along with them.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

You Don’t Know Jack

For years, Al Pacino has been coasting through his career playing roles that do little more than remind us how great an actor he was way back when he was young and hungry. This excellent HBO movie proves that it was the material, and not the man, that got lazy. Under the excellent direction of Barry Levinson, Pacino dives into playing the part of Dr. Jack Kevorkian so completely that you almost forget who you are watching. The emotional intensity of the story and the debate over the right to live or die you will have with people after watching it, pale in comparison to the sheer joy of watching Pacino give such a fine performance.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Japan’s Longest Day

Ask almost anyone how the Second World War ended in the Pacific and they will sum it up along the lines of something like America dropped the bomb and Japan surrendered. Kinhachi Okamoto’s excellent film from 1967 shows that the actual events surrounding the signing of the treaty to end the war were much more complicated; in fact, the world is lucky the war ended the way it did. There were plenty of factions in Japan who wanted it to go on until the last man, woman and child gave their life for their country.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Dirty Pair

While they prefer to be called The Lovely Angels, there’s something about Kei and Yuri – it may be their attitude, it may be their outfits or it may be the way they seem to leave a trail of total destruction in their wake wherever they go – that makes the world know them as The Dirty Pair. Set in the years 2138-43, the sci-fi action in the 13-episodes in this box set is entertaining and the 80s-style anime artwork is a delight, but it is the snappy banter between the two lead characters – not to mention their girl power attitude -- that really gives The Dirty Pair its spark.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Pacific

In 2001, Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks joined forces with HBO and created one of the greatest television events of all time, the epic World War II series Band of Brothers which followed a group of American soldiers as they lived the events that lead up to the D Day invasion. Almost a decade later, they have regrouped to look at a different group of men fighting a very different kind of war in The Pacific. While there may be a similar stylistic feel to the two pieces, the stories told in The Pacific are totally different, and in a way far more intense, because of the completely different style of war fought by the Japanese. The battle of Guadalcanal in the series opener is a perfect example, particularly the firefight where the Marines go up against wave upon wave of Japanese soldiers to the point where they can’t see the enemy because the dead are piled too high. The battle scenes are, of course, epic throughout the series, but it’s the way each episode shows you how war impacts the individual soldiers that makes The Pacific so absolutely haunting.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Skeletons

This could be one of the strangest –and best -- films you see all year. Simon and Bennett (Will Adamsdale and Andrew Buckley) play a pair of mysterious strangers who you can hire to dive into your subconscious and discover whatever secrets you have hidden as a way of cleaning your personal slate to get a fresh start. Their skills get put to the test when a woman hires them to find her husband and Simeon and Bennett are forced to take their job a little too personally. The acting is top notch and the story filled with enough twists to make a slinky jealous.