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Friday, December 31, 2010

Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo

Every year for the past 70 years, officials at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary have allowed a select group of inmates to take part in the world’s only behind-the-wall rodeo. In 2007, they decided to let female inmates compete for the first time, an historic moment that director Bradley Beesley brilliantly captures in this fascinating documentary. While a big part of the film is taken up with the women preparing for and competing in the actual event, it is the intimate portraits that Beesley captures of the inmates that give the film its true power. It’s one thing hear the statistics – about how many young women are facing spending large chunks of their lives in prison because they did something stupid – but listening to these individuals talk about their families, their life inside prison and their dreams of what life will be like for them when – or if – they ever get out will haunt you.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Despicable Me

An evil genius named Gru finds his world turned upside down when he adopts a trio of little girls to help him in his plans to defeat his arch enemy, Vector. Stripped of its big screen 3D effects, the film is still a delight to look at, but what it may lack in big screen effects it more than makes up with in terms of character, particularly in the relationship that develops between Gru (voiced by Steve Carrel) and the girls. And the Twinkie-like minions are still hilarious comic relief.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Horde

You have to give directors Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher credit for the relentless energy they have put into this zombie movie about a street gang and a band of cops who have to work together to survive being trapped in a condemned high rise apartment as hordes of the undead try to eat them. Even in the few quiet moments in the film, when the cops and robbers try to sneak down darkened hallways without attracting any zombie attention, are cranked up to 11 on the tension scale. That’s the good news. The band news is that the directors show little restraint when it comes to the gory action scenes. There’s nothing wrong with blood, but there’s something boring about watching live people empty their guns into a walking corpse and never even hitting them in the head.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

An Ultimate Gulliver Collection

Legendary animated film maker Max Fleisher almost made film history with his full-length cartoon of Gulliver’s Travels. Released in 1939, it just missed being the first full-length animated feature to be released in theaters, a feat Walt Disney achieved when he released Snow White. Still, the charm of Fleisher’s work is well worth seeing, as are the seven spin-off cartoons made with Gabby, the pint-sized comic relief of his Gulliver’s Travels. The 1902 film by George Melies added to the disc is a curiosity, but at just 4 minutes running time hardly worth the effort. The 1965 anime of Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon is fun, but probably for anime fans only.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Gene Simmons Family Jewels: The Complete Seasons 4 & 5

Dad’s an egomaniac rock star. Mom is a former centerfold (who is still pretty damn hot). The kids are spoiled brats. Yet despite all the negatives, there is something oddly compelling and almost endearing about watching the blood-spitting, fire-breathing bassist for KISS act like a parent. Whether he’s out on the road rocking to hundreds of thousands of fans or doing some menial chore around his palatial home, you just can’t help but like the guy. The insight you get into the mind of a rock star who is also one of the world’s great businessmen is a bonus.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Bastard Swordsman

A lowly servant in the home of a powerful clan turns out to be the bastard offspring of the clan leader. No wonder the leader spent so many late nights in disguise training his illegitimate son the art of kung fu. When the leader is killed, it’s up to the son to rise from the bottom of the social ladder and defeat his clan’s enemies. As complicated as it may sound, the plot to this classic movie, directed by Chang Cheh (Five Deadly Venoms) is little more than an excuse for 90 minutes of high flying martial arts action. The wire work is impressive, but it’s the other-worldly effects of the lethal Silkworm Technique that make the movie unforgettable.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Groucho Marx TV Classics

The actual games are unimportant unless you are a fan of trivia from the 1950s. The real reason to watch these classic shows is to watch the mind of Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx at work as he interviews the contestants. With one of the world’s greatest straight men, George Fenneman, at his side, Groucho lets his rapier wit slice away at the laughing guests. Not all of the jokes work, but with Groucho there is another, and probably, funnier one on the way so just stay tuned. The extras, especially the stag reel of jokes the censors wouldn’t approve back in the 1950s, are a real treat.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Charlie Brown Christmas Tales

While it simply can’t hold a candle to the classic Charlie Brown Christmas, this animated short stands nicely on its own. Each of the major characters gets a chance to shine by sharing their Christmas wish, be it Linus trying to send a Christmas card to the little girl he sits next to in class or Snoopy’s valiant attempt to share peace on earth with the ferocious cat next door. It’s a new and unique way to share the season with the characters you grew up with.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Yogi Bear’s All-Star Comedy Christmas Caper

Rather than hibernate through the holidays, Yogi and Boo Boo decide to head into the city to spend time with their cartoon friends. While hiding from the rangers who are on their trail, the pair hides out in a department store where they meet a little girl whose Christmas wish is to spend more time with her busy father. It’s a simple, but sweet story that will warm you holiday heart, especially if you are old enough to remember the classic Hanna-Barbera characters that make guest appearances throughout the show. Same goes for the bonus episode about Yogi’s surprise birthday party.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Billy the Exterminator Season 1 & 2

Let’s face it: The reason you watch most reality shows is to laugh at the people on it. They may be beautiful, but their stupid behavior makes you laugh and feel better about yourself. Billy the Exterminator doesn’t play that game. The star, a mullet-wearing metal head from Louisiana, is one of the most likable guys on television and you can’t help by admire him as he goes about his daily job, particularly because his job could be anything from cleaning a house of rats to wrestling an alligator that’s almost bigger than he is. The fact that the guy tries to do his job without actually exterminating any animals is a bonus. There’s plenty of family drama to draw you into the lives of Billy and his clan, but they, too, avoid the usual clichés of reality TV to stand out as just regular people who deal in normal ways with the problems we all face. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the tawdriness of most reality TV.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Birdy the Mighty: Decode Season 02

Fans of the first season of this anime series may have a bit of trouble adjusting to Season 2. The humor and silliness from Season 1 have been replaced with a darker edge as Birdy tracks down the criminals responsible for the events that almost destroyed the world at the end of the first year. Once you’ve settled in with the mature tone, though, Birdy Season 2 becomes much more satisfying to watch, the art is still good, the characters strong and well acted, and the story wraps up on a rich and completely satisfying note.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Caught up in all the summer 3D movie hype, this story of a young man who discovers he’s made for something greater than he ever imagined didn’t get the audience it deserved. Now here’s your chance to sit back and watch it on its own terms. The story is good and the effects are string, but what makes it so darn watchable (and enjoyable) is the fine acting from Nicholas Cage as the Sorcerer and Jay Baruchel as the apprentice, not to mention the delightful scenery chewing of Alfred Molina as the bad guy.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Gun X Sword: The Complete Series

Gun X Sword is one of the strangest anime series you will ever see. It starts out as the adventure of a tuxedo-clad gunman hunting down the evil guy who killed his wife and ends up as a battle to save the human race from being wiped out so it can be reborn. Some of the episodes wander way too far off the mark to be a memorable part of the plot, but it somehow all pulls together in the last few episodes to be something you will never forget.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

David Bowie: Rare and Unseen

Ones level of interest in this patchwork presentation of old interviews with David Bowie will depend in large part on just how much you care about the man, his music and his place in rock history. If you want to know everything you can about the man, then this is DVD will be essential for you. If you only have a passing interest in Bowie _- in other words if you only know him from either Space Oddity or Young Americans (and not both) then you may get lost watching his switch personalities from interview from interview the way other people change outfits.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Peanuts Holiday Collection

Let’s face it: What would the holidays be like if you didn’t watch Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang in their annual adventures? Whether you are watching them dance, listening to Linus give his heartfelt explanation of what Christmas really is all about or giggling every time Charlie Brown gets a rock instead of candy on Halloween, there’s something to warm the cockles of your heart in these classic stories (and yes, that means even the one for Thanksgiving).

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Love her or hate her, as a person or as a performer, you will at least learn to respect her after seeing Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. This fascinating documentary, directed by Ricki Stern and Ann Sundberg, gives viewers an intimate, in-depth look at a true comedy legend and at just what it took for her to reach the pinnacle of her career, and then stay there for close to half a century. It’s not only a fantastic insight into the life of this talented, if abrasive, comic diva, but a great reminder to anyone who thinks they can be the ‘next’ Joan Rivers that it takes a lot more than a few jokes to climb to the top of the show business pyramid. It takes real chutzpah, and Rivers has plenty.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bee Gees: In Our Own Time

For some, they will always be the English boy band who sang about the Lights Going Out in Massachusetts. For others, they’re the three white guys who taught the world to strut their stuff with the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. As this fascinating documentary shows, though, there was a lot more to Barry, Robin and Maurice (not to mention Andy) than the hits on the pop charts. Even if you think you hate their music, you will learn to admire the men who made it when you watch this DVD.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Girls Bravo: The Complete Series

Like a lot of anime aimed at the teenage boy market, a lot of the action in Girls Bravo centers around finding new and inventive ways to get the scantily clad buxom stars to bounce around as much as possible. And that’s fine as far as it goes. What makes this tale of a lonely young boy who discovers a portal to another world – a world full of lonely women – through his bathtub is the way it uses the sexy sight gags as background for some interesting storylines that have little to do with the jiggle factor.

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Known today as either the luckiest guy in the world or a dirty old man, this excellent documentary does a good job of setting the record straight about what Hugh Hefner is all about. Sure, he’s made millions selling a magazine known more for its centerfolds than its editorial content, but in his younger days Hefner used his money, his personality and the power of his publication to help change the way America looked at sex, race and each other. Hef haters may not find enough here to make them change their opinions about the guy, but at least they will be better informed about what his legacy will truly be.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Space Precinct: The Complete Series

It is clear from the first few episodes why this series was never a hit. It’s basically a generic cop show set in a low budget alien world that gives the producers a chance to distract the audience form the cheesiness of the plots by having half the cast appear in Halloween masks that look like they were purchased at a Spencer Gifts fire sale. It’s also clear from those first few episodes why Space Precinct has become such a sought after cult phenomenon. The rubber masks and model sets might have been state-of-the-art when it was first released, but time has painted the series in a patina of pure campy goodness that makes it almost irresistible.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Human Weapon: Complete Season 1

Two guys travel the world looking for new ways that different peoples use to beat the crap out of each other. They learn the new fighting system and then challenge a local expert to a fight using what they just learned. It’s a silly idea, but it’s also addictive as hell. It’s part travel show and part Saturday night fights. Jason Chambers and Bill Duff aren’t great hosts, but the sweat equity they put into the training makes up for their lack of personality. Watching them get beaten up in the final scenes makes it all worthwhile.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Iggy & Lou 1971-1973

They are rock legends now, during the years that this documentary focuses on the music world came very close to losing David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed forever. Label problems, personal problems, drug problems and just about every other problem a creative mind must face gathered above them like angry storm clouds ready to wash them down into the gutter. Somehow, they discovered each other and not only survived, but changed the music world forever. The archival interviews and concert footage are fantastic reminders of the men and their time. However, the endless barking of David’s ex-wife Angela almost ruins the film.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cairo Time

With the glut of sickeningly sweet and stupid romantic comedies that have flooded theaters over the past few years, it’s absolutely delightful to sit down with a film that reminds us what real emotions can be between two believable adult characters. The film stars the always enjoyable Patricia Clarkson as Juliette Grant, the wife of a professor who goes to Cairo to meet with her husband. When he is delayed getting to her, his friend Tareq (Alexander Siddig) offers to show her around the ancient city. The story unfolds slowly, but the strong acting of the two leads makes the time fly by as you try to guess what will happen as we watch them fall in love.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Waking Sleeping Beauty

After years of budget busting box office bombs, the animation branch of Walt Disney Studios was close to closing its door forever. A combination of fresh blood among the artists who drew the pictures and an infusion of cash from a corporate takeover took the drawing departments off life support and lead them to a new golden age, an age that produced new classics like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King. While it certainly celebrates the achievements of the studio, the film doesn’t shy away from shining a harsh light on the power hungry people behind the corporate office doors who almost ruined it all.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Pastor Shepherd

This story of a freeze dried pet salesman who becomes a televangelist is one of the strangest comedies to come along in years. And that’s a good thing. While most directors would be tempted to let the audience in on the joke, Edwin L. Marshal plays his cards close to the vest, so that the weirder the story gets the straighter the cast plays their parts. Pastor Shepherd—a standup comic whose video ministry, prayerhour.com, is an internet sensation -- deserves a lot of credit for the wide-eyed wonder he brings to every scene, no matter how insane it becomes, and the supporting cast should get a medal for not guffawing every time he opens his mouth.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

2010: Moby Dick

This updating of the Herman Melville story about a mad sea captain obsessed with finding and killing the gigantic white whale that bit off his leg is that rare kind of film that’s so bad, it’s good. Barry Bostwick leaves no piece of scenery unchewed in his manic performance as Cpt. Ahab, a submarine commander with a passion for nothing beyond his hatred of the gigantic mammal, and that’s just as it should be. The only thing more outrageous than his acting are the effects, especially the scene where Moby Dick rises from the ocean to devour an army helicopter in a single bite.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Batman Beyond: The Complete Series

Over the years, The Dark Knight has been reinvented more times than just about any other comic book superhero, but none of the past reincarnations of Batman have had the guts to show him as an old man who no longer has the physical strength to fight the next generation of evildoers. So he does the next best thing and takes on a protégée and trains him to be his replacement instead of his tight-wearing sidekick. The animation is as good as any of the Batman’s to come before, but what makes Batman Beyond work so well is the open antagonism between the old Bruce Wayne and young Terry McGuiness.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Deadwood: The Complete Series (Blu Ray)

Forget every romantic notion you ever had about the Old West and settle in for this gritty series about what life in the gold rush was really like. There’s plenty of action to be seen over the course of this HBO series, but it’s the powerful acting that makes each episode worth watching over and over again. Timothy Olyphant is great as the reluctant sheriff who brings law and order to the town of Deadwood, but it’s the priceless profanity-laced performance of Ian McShane as the ruthless Al Swearengen that gives the series its edge. Repeated viewings – and you will watch it more than once – reveal that while history likes to tell us that the men may have ruled the Old West, the women were every bit as tough as they were.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Six Million Dollar Man

When you think about it, the only thing you probably remember from this hit 70s ABC series is the cool sound Col. Steve Austin made when he jumped into the air using his bionic legs. Now here’ your chance to time travel back and rediscover exactly why the show was such a hit. Unlike a lot of rereleases, this box set offers more than just a trip down memory lane. The majority of the shows still stand up well, particularly in the strong stories of the early seasons. The 90-minute pilot movie is particularly effective as it concentrates more on the emotional side effects that Austin goes through as he wakes in a hospital bed to hear doctors talking about how they will rebuild him. Lee Majors does a good job of keeping the focus of the series on the man and not the machine he became, and Richard Anderson is perfect as Oscar Goldman, the military man who helps Austin find his way in life.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Special Relationship

It’s official. More people have seen actor Michael Sheen portray former Prime Minister Tony Blair than have actually seen Tony Blair, but that’s OK because, frankly, nobody is better at it. What makes this HBO film different from the others is the cast that Sheen gets to work with, particularly Dennis Quaid and Hope Davis as Bill and Hillary Clinton. The story takes place at the dawn of Blair’s emergence as a power in British politics, a time when his special relationship with Clinton gets put to the test when the Monica Lewinski scandal hits. The dynamic between the actors portraying the two world leaders is palpable, as is the tension that Davis brings to every scene as the woman who rose above it all.