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Monday, October 31, 2011

August and Everything After — Live at Town Hall

On the radio, The Counting Crows are mid-tempo pop/rockers with a lead singer whose unique voice is a perfect fit for the MOR music they play. In concert, as this excellent Blu-ray concert video shows, it’s a different story thanks to the passionate, almost shamanistic singing of Adam Duritz. He doesn’t just put a song across; he uses his voice, his body and his palpable personality to make each song seem like a novel set to music. The band feeds off Duritz’s energy, delivering blistering versions of the songs you’ve been singing along with on the radio, making them feel fierce and fresh. If you aren’t a fan already, this Bl-ray will go a long way to changing your opinion.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Carmel

In the beginning of his latest film, writer/director Amos Gitai tells audiences that what they are about to see is not a traditional movie, that it’s more like a poem. If he’d taken the analogy a step or two further and provided some footnotes for the average viewer to unlock the mystery of movie, it might have worked better. Gitai mixes fiction and documentary, home movies and surrealistic imagery to trace his family history from the present day back to the Jewish- Roman wars that began in 66 A.D. The journey is fascinating, to a degree, and some of the imagery he puts on the screen seers itself into your mind. The story he is trying to tell, though, or better yet, the point he is trying to make with the film, needs further clarification. Or at least a few more viewings.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Doc Marten: The Movies

If all you know of the Doc Martin stories comes from watching the series, then this pair of TV movies that started it all may come as a bit of a surprise. The man that fans love to hate, the curmudgeonly village doctor played by Martin Clunes, is not nearly as acerbic in these feature-length films as he is in the regular series. But that’s OK. He’s certainly not perfect, or played that way by Clunes, and the stories are strong enough to cover up any gaps you may feel. Thankfully, there are still flare-ups of the man he will become, especially where dogs are concerned.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Prime Suspect Series 2

It may be the second installment in the Prime Suspect series, but if fans of the first TV film were expecting to see DCI Jane Tennison’s life picked up right where it left off at the end of the first movie, they will be shocked at the lady they see as Series 2 begins. And shocked in a good way thanks to the excellent script, crisp direction and, of course, the awesome acting from Helen Mirren as the aggressively ambitious detective. While solving the case in the first series has gained DCI Tennison some credibility in the force, the challenges of her second case, a racially charged investigation of a brutal murder in the African Caribbean community, could bring her fragile house tumbling down about her ears.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fringe: Season 3

Most television series only resort to the ‘alternate universe’ plot-line when they’ve painted themselves into a story corner — usually a really bad story corner — and can see no way of getting out of it other than inventing a alternate universe where the bad things never happened in the first place. The makers of this excellent TV series prove that the alternate universe can be used to add layers to stories that are important, effective and extremely entertaining. The season alternates between ‘our universe’ and the ‘parallel universe’ each week, with just enough threads left hanging between the two to give fans something to twist over week after week. The acting remains excellent, with Anna Torv really coming into her own (x2) as Olivia. The final episode, Entrada, where both universes collide, is some of the best TV you will ever see.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Scarface

It’s become such an iconic, culturally influential bit of cinema that it’s almost shocking to go back and watch this 1983 Brian De Palma and see just how outrageously over-the-top the movie was and still is. The performance by Al Pacino as the coke dealer Tony Montana is absolutely fascinating — nobody has chewed the scenery with such relish since. The accent he uses to play the part of a Cuban criminal thrown out of his home country as part of Castro’s cultural cleansing program is, in a word, awful. But it’s also fascinating as hell to watch him deliver his lines so passionately (or is that shamelessly?). The supporting cast, including a rail-thin Michelle Pfeiffer as Montana’s drug addict wife, fights like a pack of angry dogs to draw the audience’s attention away from Al, but it’s a hopeless act. This is Pacino and De Palma at their most operatic, so nobody else stands a chance. The extras on the Blu-ray give viewers a lot to look at, including a fascinating exploration of the film’s cultural influence.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Henry's Crime

While in prison for a bank robbery he didn’t realize he was committing,  Henry Torne (Keanu Reeves), comes to the realization that as long as he’s already doing the time, he might as well do the crime. So when he’s released from jail he puts together a plan to rob the same bank. The plot to Henry’s Crime is a bit too over-complicated for its own good, but the outstanding performances of the cast make it work. Reeves, whose monosyllabic style of acting doesn’t always fit the roles he’s playing, does a nice job bringing the uncomplicated Henry to life. James Caan also does a fine job playing Max, a confidence man who, after being Henry’s cellmate for three years, decides to join in on the caper. Good as the guys are in the movie, Henry’s Crime works as well as it does for one reason: Vera Farmiga as Julie, a local television personality who dreams of leaving Buffalo behind to become a real actress in Hollywood. It’s not a showy role. Julie isn’t dying of a rare disease or escaping from an abusive relationship. She’s just a regular woman working hard at making her dreams come true, and Farmiga knocks it out of the park.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Only in America With Larry the Cable Guy

Listen up America. If all you know about Larry the Cable Guy comes from his stand-up comedy or the few films he’s made, then prepare yourself for a huge surprise. There’s a lot more to the man that some redneck in a sleeveless shirt who says “Git’r Done.” As the host of this delightful History Channel travel show, Larry shows he’s actually a pretty smart guy with a huge appetite for anything America has to show him, be it a day spent making moonshine in the woods of Georgia or an afternoon learning proper etiquette with the descendants of Emily Post. Sure, he sprinkles every episode with corny, and often clever jokes, but the real fun of the show is watching Larry roll up his sleeves, so to speak, to share in the fun with the people he meets. It’s unlike any of the formulaic travel shows out there today, and that’s a good thing.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Nikita: The Complete First Season

There is so much eye candy in this cable thriller, most of it supplied by Maggie Q in the starring role, that you can feel your head getting fatter with each episode. But so what? Q is beautiful to look at, but she also has some serious fighting skills, and passable acting chops, to make the role more than pretty posing. Her equally pretty costars, particularly Lyndsay Fonseca as her secret sidekick and Shane West as her friendly nemesis are also effective in their perspective parts. If the scripts were a bit more believable, Nikita would be an excellent way to waste an hour or two. Unfortunately, the story of a rogue government agent (Q) fighting to bring down the black-ops operation that made a killer out of her is stretched too thin over the course of the full season. Of course, if you are worrying about the plot points, then you haven’t been paying enough attention watching Q strut across the screen.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom

If you have a fear of sitting down to see a silent movie, then this 1924 film from director Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky could be the key to opening up a new world of cinema to you. Beautifully restored by Cinematheque de Toulouse, the film tells the story of a pretty young cigarette girl named Zina who gets swept up in the world of movie making where she soon discovers the movie makers weren’t really interested in her  talents’ to begin with. As if that wasn’t enough, Zina finds herself the romantic fixation of three very different suitors. the movie would be worth watching just to get a glimpse of what Moscow looked like almost a century ago, but thanks to a good story and some strong performances (not to mention a killer soundtrack from Charlotte Castelat and David Lefebvre), it’s a near-perfect movie experience.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Norwegian Ninja

Who knew the Scandinavian Kingdom of fjords and  pickled herring was also the land of insanely funny martial arts movies? Written and directed by Thomas Cappelen Malling, this side-splitting action moves follows he adventures of Commander Arne Treholt (Mads Ousdal) and his Ninja Force as they fight any and all threats to their Norwegian way of life. The film follows the classic ninja movie blue-print, following the good guys from training camp to the ultimate showdown with the evil geniuses trying to take over the world, but every scene is more surreal than the next. The training camp looks more like a spa retreat, the fight sequences are outrageously choreographed and the effects are anything but special — and that’s just what makes the movie work so well. Watch the ‘making of’ docs on the DVD extras and you will be amazed at just how hard Malling, his cast and crew worked to make the movie so unique

Murphy’s Law: Complete Collection

You only have to sit through an episode or two to realize how tailor-made James Nesbitt is to play the troubled ‘hero’ of this dark series. Sure, he’s charming as hell and it’s easy to understand how everybody in the series — on both sides of the law — falls for his blarney time after time. There’s depth to the pain behind those smiling eyes, though, and it’s the key to making the show work as we follow Murphy, a damaged man haunted by the death of his daughter in Northern Ireland. A few of the shows get a little to procedural as the series goes by, but even when it’s following a connect-the-dots plot, Nesbitt makes it feel fresh and real.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Blues and the Alligator: The First Twenty Years of Alligator Records

While it’s a pretty good introduction to the Chicago Blues scene past and present, the real kick you get watching this documentary about the Alligator indie record label comes from the moments when president/founder Bruce Iglauer is on the screen. He’s the boss from hell, and you can’t help wonder why anybody would want to work with the guy, either as a recording artist or even as an office employee. Once he starts talking about the music he loves — Chicago style blues music — you quickly see why people put up with his crap just to be part of his mission to record, preserve and promote the music. There isn’t nearly enough actual footage in the film of the music being played, just enough to whet your appetite to learn more about the Alligator brand.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Secret Sunshine

Young actresses (and actors) should take care before sitting down to watch Do-yeon Jeon’s brilliant performance in this movie from director Chang-dong Lee. In the movie, Jeaon plays Shin-ae, a recent widower who decides to move with her young son back to her husband’s hometown in a misguided attempt to get closer to the man. It takes a while for her to get adjusted to her new surroundings, particularly given the way the residents love to gossip about her, but she eventually finds her niche among them. Her new world comes crumbing down when her son is murdered in a botched kidnap scheme and Shin-ae spirals into a deep depression that’s heartbreaking to see. Few actress could bare their soul on screen the way Jeon does. It’s almost too painful to watch what she goes though as she struggles to find meaning in life after the death of her son. It’s also too riveting not to.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Trollhunter

It starts out like a lot of low budget thrillers do these days, with a ‘confession’ from the filmmaker that what you are about to see is made up from documentary footage ‘found’ in some hidden location. It’s an overused trick, particularly because it’s usually used to cover up the cheap effects and inept direction of the film. That is not the case here. Director Andre Ovredal is an extremely talented guy who takes the found footage concept and cranks it up to 11. He not only delivers when it comes to actually showing the audience the creatures that are doing the damage of the film  — the trolls look like demented Muppets on steroids — but he also gives the audience a hero to cheer for in Hans the Trollhunter (played with steel and warmth by Otto Jespersen).

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Prime Suspect: Series 1

Take away the leading lady and you’ve still got one hell of a police procedural about a serial killer with a fixation for young professional women. But when you throw Helen Mirren into the mix as DCI Jane Tennison — one of the greatest fictional detectives of all time — you’ve hit the jackpot. Watching Tennison solve the case is fascinating, but it is what she goes through behind the scenes, battling sexism and cronyism at work while her personal life unravels at home, that raises her struggle to such heroic levels. Yet Mirren never plays her as a heroine; Tennyson is as haunted and damaged as any of her coworkers, but has to work twice as hard to hide it because she’s a woman, and it’s brilliant to watch Mirren make it come to life.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

If ...

Usually when you get a Criterion Collection Blu-ray you wait until after you see the feature before you delve into the juicy extras. With this classic 1968 film from director Lindsay Anderson, it might be better to watch the extras first so you get a better sense of not only the controversy the film caused when it was first released (with an X-rating no less), but the insight you get into the British boy school system it skewers is a big help, too, if you don’t already know much about it. Of course, you can just sit down and enjoy a stunning performance by a very young Malcolm McDowel as Mick, one of the leaders in the revolt at the school. That alone is worth the price.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Perfect Host

After more than a decade of playing the nebbish snob Dr. Niles Crane on the hit series, Frasier, David Hyde Pierce needed the kind of movie role that would make everybody forget he was Fraser Crane’s younger brother. This is that role. In the movie, Pierce plays Warwick Wilson, a man whose plans to host a dinner party get sidetracked when a wanted bank robber (Clayne Crawford) shows up on his doorstep looking for shelter from the cops. The fact that Warwick’s dinner guests are all in the host’s imagination is the least of the bank robber’s problems as he becomes Warwick’s prisoner. The film falls apart a bit at the end, but it’s still a thrilling ride, thank to Pierce’s pitch perfect performance.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Complete Jean Vigo

Before his untimely death at age 29 from tuberculosis, director Jean Vigo was being heralded as one of the shining lights of French cinema. Unlike his contemporaries (like Jean Cocteau and Luis Buneul), his potential was never full realized, although the four movies in this set give you a pretty good idea of how talented he could be. Of the four, the short silent from 1930, A Propos de Nice, is probably the most enjoyable indication of Vigo’s slightly surreal style. Taris, his 10-minute film with French swimmer Jean Taris, has some visual inventive flair, but not much else. His story of school boy revolution, Zero De Conduite, is amusing, but feels incomplete (it runs just 44 minutes). The feature length film , L’Atalante, the story of a couple honeymooning on a barge going through the canals of France, is, according to the DVD notes “one of cinema’s finest achievements.” It’s a bold statement that the actual film just doesn’t back up.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Vera

A lot of good actresses can play tough or bitchy, but few have the talent — or the nerve — to play just plain unlikable. So hats off to whoever decided to hire Brenda Blethyn to play DCI Vera Stanhope in this excellent series. Stanhope is the kind of a TV cop who sacrifices everything — and then some — to solve the crimes she gets assigned. Like a lot of good cop shows, Vera gives us a lot of interesting insights along the way into just why Stanhope makes the sacrifices she does. But there’s a catch: We don’t want to really know that much about her because we never want Stanhope to lose that nasty edge that drives her (and the series). It’s OK to love the actress, because Blethyn is breathtaking in the show. And it’s just as valid to dislike the lady she plays.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Eden of the East: Paradise Lost

If you aren’t already familiar with the Eden of the East anime series, then do yourself a favor and watch the original episodes as well as the first movie before you settle in for the conclusion of Paradise Lost. It may seem like a major investment of time, but since Eden of the East is one of the best anime stories of the past few decades, it’s well worth it. And doing the work ahead of time will make this final 90 minutes of the story all that sweeter. Paradise Lost starts where the last movie ended, with Saki and Akira on a flight back to Japan when Akira wakes up from a nightmare that his Selecao cell phone is attacking him. It’s a nightmare that spurs the young man on to uncover the remaining mysteries in the deadly game he’s been playing, as well as to put an end to the game once and for all. Although its sad to think the series is over, it’s one of the most satisfying story endings you will ever watch.

Alfred Hitchcock Legacy of Suspense

Rather than call it a Legacy of Suspense, this excellent box set of Hitchcock’s early films could be titled Film School in a Box. Covering the years 1926 through 1939 (with two shows from the popular Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series (1955-1962) throw in for good measure), the  set is filled with the movies Hitchcock made before he became the ‘Hitchcock” of The Birds and Psycho. Not all of them work as well as others, and its hard to sit through some of the silent movies in the set, but even the average films share a bit of the magic the master would bring to his later films. And the best of the set — The Lady Vanishes, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Sabotage — can stand alongside the best he ever made. The bonus documentary is good, and the trailers of the films not in the box are a hoot.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Robert Plant’s Blue Note

We all know he was the lead singer for one of the most popular and influential rock bands of all time, but as this fascinating documentary proves, there’s more to Robert Plant than his past with Led Zeppelin. A lot more. The movie spends a surprisingly small amount of time, in fact, covering Plant’s Zeppelin career, instead concentrating on the music he made before he met Jimmy Page, and the sounds he searched for once Zeppelin ceased to be. It’s a fantastic journey, even when it stumbles along through Plant’s misplaced musical experimentation with his solo career in the 1980s, because Plant’s pursuit for the music that feeds his soul is pure. His determination — and talent — to share it with others is just as impressive.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Across the 2nd Dimension

The story of two incredibly intelligent sibling nerds looking for a fun way to spend their summer vacation while their pet platypus Perry battles crime as a secret agent, Phineas and Ferb has been a hit on the Disney Channel since 2007. The animation is sleek and stylish, the scripts are smart and funny, and each half hour episode usually has an original song that’s both silly and singable. In their direct to DVD feature length debut, the creative talent behind the show, from the voice talent to the animators, pull out all the stops to make something special for the fans. Those who aren’t fans (yet) may not get the joke at the ends when Phineas and Ferb use creatures and creations from past shows to beat the bad guy, but so what? The movie is still a lot of fun if you’ve never seen an episode before

Friday, October 7, 2011

Live From Tokyo

It starts out blending imagery and sound like a modern day version of the 1982 epic Koyaanisqati, only instead of trying to show us a world teetering on the edge of destruction to a soundtrack of Phillip Glass music, director Lewis Rapking is using the various musical styles of Tokyo to show us the city that inspired the musicians to write and play in the first place. Eventually the story settles down a bit to include interviews of the various underground bands playing in Tokyo, all of whom seem to be in it for the pure pleasure of creating something new and not just to be famous or make money (the fact that most bands have to pay the club owners for the privilege of playing at all is a shocking tribute to how much they believe in what they do.) Watch it with a pen and paper handy, because although you may not love — or even like — some of the sounds you hear, chances are watching Live from Tokyo will inspire you to add to your own music collection.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Wainwright Walks – Lake District

Do not adjust the color levels on your television set. The scenery that host Julia Bradbury walks through in this British television series really is that lush, green and breathtakingly beautiful. It’s picturesque enough to turn down the volume and watch the landscape flow by, dreaming of the day you can get over there and see if for yourself. The good news is that the stories that Bradbury shares as she climbs the fells (mountains) of the Lake District, based on the writings of the area’s most famous proponent, Alfred Wainwrights, are just as compelling. It’s the kind of series that makes you want to go get Wainwright’s books en route to the travel agent to book a trip of your own.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Little Big Soldier

Best known in America for action comedies like Rush Hour and crappy comedies like The Spy Next Door, Jackie Chan has a parallel career of movies made for and primarily only shown to Asian audiences. Every once in a while, one of his Chinese movies arrives in America, and the case of this historical action film, it’s a delightful surprise. In the movie, Chan plays Big Soldier, a reluctant warrior who spends more time avoiding fights than taking part in them. Following a epic battle where everybody else in his army is wiped out, Big Soldier finds the general of the opposing army is the only survivor on the other side. Dreaming of a ransom that will let him buy a farm and get out of the army, Big Soldier captures the general and tries to bring him back home. He soon finds out a lot of other people have plans of their own for the general.The action is fantastic: both Chan and Leehom Wang (as the general) fly around the screen with skill and precision. It’s the story, and Chan’s performance between the fights, that raises the film to a level most US fans haven’t seen Chan work at in years.

John Wayne The Tribute Collection

This one may be more for fans of the legendary actor than those with only a casual acquaintance with John Wayne since most of it focuses on the B-movies from The Duke’s early career. Still, it’s fun to watch Wayne, looking tall and lean in his youth, as he battles bad guys and rescues frontier damsels in distress. Too many of the movies, however, start to feel too much alike after a while. The addition of a few of Wayne’s later hits, including the classic comedy McLintock featuring one of Wayne’s best leading ladies, the fiery Maureen O’Hara, help make up for the blandness of his early work.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Best of Jack Benny

Jack Benny was one of the world’s funniest people, and this “Best of” set does a good job of reminding the world of just how funny he was. Benny had the comic persona of being cheap, as well as a terrible violin player, and there are plenty of moments in the show that underline these traits (the documentary feature on the set does a nice job of explaining these and other “Benny-ism to the uninitiated). It’s when he goes outside the familiar that Benny shines, though. He had a near-perfect sense of comic timing, and woe be it to anyone who dared to stand next to him on the stage and try to match him joke for joke. There also wasn’t a mean bone n the man’s body, and although he often won any battle of the wits he was in, Benny was that rare kind of funny man who liked to laugh, too, even if it was at his own expense.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Beverly Hillbillies Meet the Clampetts

For almost a decade, the suddenly rich Clampett clan wreaked havoc on the Hollywood social scene in the popular Beverly Hillbillies series, and although some of the jokes in the episodes included in this box set haven’t aged well, the spirit of the show is still strong. While the premise was a bit narrow, the performances of the main characters, particularly Buddy Ebsen as Jed Clampett and Irene Ryan as Granny, are broadly entertaining. It’s fun to watch the characters grow over the course of the 40 episodes in the set, and the bonus documentary gives you a compelling look behind the scenes with the actors who created them. It’s a great nostalgia trip for original fans, and the perfect introduction for TV fans looking for something ‘new’ to watch.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Beaver

This gut-wrenching story of a man slowly descending into madness never really stood a chance at the box office because of the media frenzy surrounding it’s star. If you can separate the man from the media, though, this is a perfect reminder of how good Mel Gibson can be when he’s given a chance to be more than a wise-cracking action hero. Director (and co-star) Jodie Foster somehow finds a balance between the man and the puppet he uses to communicate with the world, a balance that allows you to enter the movie’s world in a non-judgemental way which is key to understanding the journey that it takes you through. Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence round out a superb cast.