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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom

The film world can now be divided into two parts: those who have seen this excellent Criterion edition of Pasolini’s controversial film, and those who have not. Unlike today’s torture porn (The Human Centipede, Hostel), though, which challenges the audience to watch horrific acts as sheer endurance with no artistic payoff, the experience of watching Salo leaves you both exhausted and, oddly enough, exhilarated. You feel like a survivor who wants, no…who needs to go back and see it again because underneath the horror is absolute cinematic artistry. What the story of the four fascist libertines living out their ultimate desires in a remote villa means to you — or does to you — is a personal experience unlike any other you will have from watching a movie. And, as the six essays in the booklet accompanying the film show, that’s OK. Just know that once the final scene ends, you will never be the same.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Gamera Trilogy

Godzilla and King Kong may rule the movie monster world, but as this excellent collection proves, there is always room for a guy dressed in a giant rubber turtle costume when it comes to saving the world. And, as fans know, that is said with all the love in the world. Although it’s easy to make fun of Gamera — he is, after all, a giant turtle who flies by pulling in his legs and blasting rockets out of the leg holes (which causes him to spin like a spiralling firework when he flies) — this set reminds us that these films weren’t played for laughs. They’re action/adventure movies made with the same seriousness as Jurassic Park, only with a tenth of the technical skills and a millionth of the budget.

A Haunting in Salem

Maybe it’s because it was shot in 3D and needed to be lit in a certain way, but there’s something definitely off about this haunted house film from director Shane Van Dyke: It’s too bright! It’s creepy, and there are a few good scares in it, but the fact that most of the scenes, particularly the ones set inside the house, are shot in such stark and unflattering light, that it bleeds the tension out of the scenes. And that’s too bad because even though it’s a bit predictable, at least in terms of the story, it’s a pretty good horror movie. The acting is strong, particularly from Bill Oberst, Jr, as the head of the family being haunted by the ghosts who live in the house, and Jenna Stone as his daughter, the one that the ghosts use as a medium to deliver their message.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Beavis and Butthead: Mike Judge’s Most Wanted

Watching this collection of cartoons featuring the world’s most famous animated underachievers is an absolute blast, particularly if you are old enough to remember when Beavis and Butthead first aired on MTV almost 20 years ago. These episodes seem tame, even quaint, when measured against today’s animated bad boys from South Park or Family Guy, but as the excellent DVD extras remind us, the establishment really hated and feared Beavis and Butthead when they came out because they knew if kids watched Frog Baseball they’d want to go out and play frog baseball. That probably never happened, but the influence of Mike Judge’s creation runs deeper than parents could ever imagine.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Fast Five

If all you are looking for in Fast Five is a couple of hours of fast cars racing around and wrecking stuff through the streets of Brazil, then you will be extremely satisfied with what director Justin Lin has slapped together to make this movie, the fifth in the series. Trying to imagine if what these guy do — stealing a vault from a heavily guarded police station, for example – could actually be done is as useless an exercise as trying to find out why they never seem to get hurt no matter how many times they crash, get shot at or beaten up. Stop thinking about anything but the cool factor of the film and you’ll be just fine.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Escape From Vampire Island

When young Akira (Hideo Ishiquro) finds out that his missing brother is actually being held captive on a remote island, he bands together with his friends to rescue him. Akira soon discovers that his brother isn’t a prisoner; he’s actually on the island trying to defeat an army of blood-thirsty vampires bent on destroying the world. What follows is 90 minutes of martial arts mayhem as Akira and his crew hack and slash their way through the vampires to get at their leader. Director Tae-gyun Kim has a stylish eye when it comes to directing the action scenes in the movie, and he sure isn’t shy about spattering the blood and gore around. At more than two hours, though, it’s almost too much of a good thing.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Dracula: The Vampire and the Voivode

Don’t let the terrible title stop you from checking out this well-done documentary that explores both the life of Bram Stoker, the man who gave the world its most famous vampire, and the real life ruler that inspired the legend. While the film, directed by Michael Nayley Hughes, does a good job of detailing the history behind the Count, it is the interviews with the modern day followers and fans that really makes the movie come to life. Whether it’s the local Transylvania merchants who have built a cottage industry out of making Dracula crap to sell to tourists or the people from the same village who think the whole idea stinks, it’s a new angle to an old story.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Elvira’s Movie Macabre: Santa Clause Conquers the Martians, Beast From Haunted Cave

Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) has made a career out of making fun of really bad movies, but she may have met her match with Santa Clause Conquers the Martians. Directed by Nicholas Webster, this low-low-low budget film follows a band of Martian dads as they try to kidnap Old St. Nick so their children back home (who learn about Christmas from watching pirated earth TV) can have a Merry Christmas. It’s just the kind of movie that Elvira can so delightfully skewer, with one exception: It’s actually so bad, it’s good. The spots the Mistress of the Dark does before the show (one of this series best) and during the commercial breaks are pretty funny, but the pop-up interruptions just aren’t as fun to watch as the movie itself. Beast From Haunted Cave, on the other hand, some silliness about bank robbers and a giant spider, is just bad and deserves everything Elvira throws at it.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Hollies: Look Through Any Window 1963-1975

With a running time of more than three hours, this might seem like the kind of DVD that only die-hard fans of the legendary British group will enjoy. The fact is that even the casual fan, the kind who recognizes the songs but didn’t know it was The Hollies who recorded them, will find plenty to enjoy here. The interviews are good, and the movie does a great job of putting the band and their music in perspective, both in relationship to their peers (The Beatles and The Rolling Stones) and with music history (The Hollies were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2010). Best of all, the majority of musical performances in the film are live, which adds a lot of energy to the story.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Moby Dick

It’s a story that’s been filmed so many times that it’s hard to imagine what new twist anybody could bring to it to make Capt. Ahab’s obsession with the Great White Whale worth watching again. You get the answer about 10 minutes after this fascinating mini-series begins when Ahab, played with subtle restraint by William Hurt, makes his first appearance. Just the fact that we see Ahab interacting with his family before the Pequod ever sets sail is a nice improvement to the usual Moby Dicks, which always keep Ahab locked in his cabin like an evil spectre. In fact, there’s a sense of understatement — and realism –throughout the story that really highlights the battle of one man versus the greatest achievement nature ever put on this earth. The only real disappointment, strangely enough, are the not-so-special effects used to show us what Moby Dick looks like.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Elvira’s Haunted Hills

While en route to Paris to start her career as a cabaret star, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, is sidetracked when her carriage breaks down on a desolate highway. (The film is set in 1851) She accepts a ride from a passing nobleman and soon finds herself at the center of a mystery involving a spooky Lord (Richard O’Brien from The Rocky Horror Picture Show), his dead wife (played by Elvira) and other assorted creepy characters. There aren’t really many scares in the movie, but there is a lot of the campy burlesque-style comedy that has made Elvira (real name Cassandra Peterson) a living legend. While she’s best know for her commentary on her popular Movie Macabre series, it’s nice to see Elvira get a chance to stretch out and do more than make fun of other people’s films. She’s best whens he pokes fun at herself.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lego Hero Factory Savage Planet

Sure, it’s geared towards kids, but animated film fans of any age will enjoy watching this clever story about a factory that actually builds and equips heroes for specific assignments. In Savage Planet, a group is put together to stop a rogue Hero called Witch Doctor whose plans to steal the energy source he needs to be more powerful is destroying the planet he’s mining it from. The story is filled with messages for kids, everything from the importance of friendship to environmental issues, but it never lectures its audience. The creators are far too busy making sure the action figures on the screen look and act cool. And they do. Having people like Malcolm McDowell, Henry Winkler and Mark Hamill give their voices to the characters only makes it cooler (especially to adults).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Goosebumps: Attack of the Mutants

Skipper Matthews isn’t just a comic book fan; he’s a comic book fanatic who is close to getting grounded for life by his parents if he doesn’t put his comics down and do his homework. So is it any wonder nobody believes him when the comic villains and heroes he is reading about start to come to life? Like the popular R. L. Stine book series the story is based on, this DVD is inventive, entertaining and full of unexpected plot twists. The acting is good, and the added bonus of having Adam West show up as one of the comic book heroes is perfect. The DVD includes a bonus movie, Phantom of the Auditorium, about a high school production haunted by a scary guy in a mask.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Robocop 2

As if life in Detroit wasn’t bad enough, there’s a new, highly addictive drug called Nuke that is sweeping the city and it’s up to Robocop (Peter Weller) to clean things up. It doesn’t have the edge that made the original Robocop so much fun, but director Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) does a decent enough job of filling the screen with so much action that you never really have time to stop and worry about the plot. Weller seems to be having a blast playing the cyborg policeman, and Tom Noonan (Manhunter) chews the scenery with gusto as the drug kingpin, Cain. The special effects are a bit dated, especially the computer imagery used for Cain’s face when he is transformed into a machine, but it somehow adds to the camp quality of the film (a quality they probably didn’t have in mind when they made the movie).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

First Light

A young pilot named Geoffrey Wellim (Sam Heughan) finds himself thrown into the deep end of aerial combat when he joins a fighter squadron on the eve of Britain’s greatest air battle. The film would be worth watching just for it’s gorgeous aerial photography, including some intense dogfight scenes. The fact that it’s also a well-written drama about an 18-year-old boy going up against the greatest challenge a man can face is a bonus. The acting is strong, particularly Heughan performance as Wellum, and Tupence Missleton as Grace, the girl who has to face her own challenges when the man she loves is called away.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Battle of Britain

Long before he ever dreamed he would grow up to be Obi-Wan Kenobi in a Star Wars movie, Ewan McGregor, and his older brother Colin, dreamed of being fighter pilots. Not modern day fighter pilots, mind you, but one of ‘The Few,’ the members of the RAF who fought to protect their country in The Battle of Britain. Ewan grew up to be a movie star, while Colin actually joined the RAf and flew jets in Iraq. Their love of the WWII heroes of their youth remained with them both, however, so when they got a chance to do a documentary about the battle, they couldn’t resist. The film has a lot of documentary footage, but what makes it so engaging is the interviews the brothers do with some of the men who flew the actual flights. Their enthusiasm to talk to these real-life heroes is palpable, as is the joy Colin feels when he actually gets to fly a vintage Spitfire.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Holly’s World: The Complete Seasons 1 & 2

For 5 seasons on The Girls Next Door, Holly Madison was not only Hugh Hefner’s #1 girlfriend, but kind of the unofficial house-mom of the Playboy mansion, keeping an eye on the rowdier Bridget and Kendra. Now that she’s out on her own, its fun for fans to see Madison let her hair down a bit as she starts her new life in Las Vegas. The insider view the show gives you to Sin City is impressive because it avoids the usual travel show cliches. The show stumbles a bit by surrounding Madison with an entourage of friends who add little but shrillness to the show, unless you count the jaw- dropping sound bites of stupidity that come out of the mouth of her friend, Laura Croft.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Pretenders Loose in L.A.

Is there anything sexier (or more rock and roll) than Chrissie Hynde strapping on a guitar and stepping up to the microphone to sing a Pretenders’ song? OK maybe it’s Hynde putting down the guitar to let us use our imagination as she struts across the stage singing Brass in Pocket. Or when she starts playing the harmonica in Middle of the Road. Heck, even her clumsy dance at the start of Mystery Achievement will get your motor running. Get the picture? Unlike today’s pop tarts who think acting like a stripper without a pole is sexy on stage, Hynde embodies everything that’s hot about rock just by being herself. This excellent Blu-ray concert film captures it all, including the excellent sound. The backstage footage on the extras gives fans a chance to listen to the band talk about how (and why) decades after first hitting the scene with their classic debut album, The Pretenders only get better with age.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mordock Scramble (The First Compression)

A troubled young girl named Balot falls in love with the first man who shows her kindness, unaware that he’s a serial killer who enjoys burning his victims and turning their ashes into blue diamond jewelry. Instead of being his latest victim, though, the girl — more precisely a clone of the girl — wakes up in a secret government lab with a chance to train hard and join the people who want to catch the killer before he can strike again. Directed by Susumu Kudo. Mordock Scramble is eye-popping adventure set in a future that looks like the world depicted in Blade Runner, only drawn in bright neon green. The characters look cool, the action is exciting and the story is so compelling you almost shout out loud when The First Compression ends suddenly on a seriously gun battle cliffhanger.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Iggy Pop and the Stooges: Raw Power Live

History, at least rock and roll history, was made on Friday, Sept. 3, 2010 12 as the reformed Stooges’ (Iggy Pop, Scott Asheton, James Williamson, Steve Mackay, Mike Watt) took to the stage at the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival to play all eight of the songs from their iconic album, Raw Power, live for the first time in decades. Thank god there were cameras there to capture the moment. The footage is as raw and messy as the music, but it’s perfect for watching the 63-year-old front man wiggle and dance his way across the stage as the powerful force of the music attacks the crowd. Fans have been waiting a lifetime for this disc; now it’s time for the rest of the world to watch one of the greatest garage bands to ever plug into an amp turn it up to 11.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Phantom Carriage

Most people think of silent movies as grainy black and white films filled with either slapstick comedy or melodramatic romances, all acted out to the sound of swirling organ music. This 1921 film from Swedish director Victor Sjöström should help fix that problem. Using the 1921 version of cutting edge special effects, that still look pretty cool today, the movie brings to life the folklore tradition that the spirit of the last person to die on New Year’s Eve will be forced to spend the next calendar year as Death’s servant, roaming the globe collecting spirits for the underworld. When David Holm (Sjöström) dies at the stroke of midnight, he starts a journey that forces him to look at his past life and search for some sort of final redemption.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget Story

Long before Kate Bosworth made surfing look cool and sexy in Blue Crush, American girls had a different idol hanging 10 with the boys, an idol named Gidget. Featured in a series of hit movies and a popular televisions series (starring Sally Fields in the title role), the image of the free-spirited girl next door who loved having fun on a surfboard is an important part of American culture. Who knew she was based on an actual girl? The answer, with the exception of the few people who actually were part of the 1950s surfing scene where it all began, is writer/director Brian Gillogly. In his fascinating film, Gillogly does a nice job of balancing the facts of the real Gidget’s life with the fiction that American pop culture has built around her over the years. The best part is listening to today’s surfers as they proudly proclaim what Gidget has meant to them.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Stool Pigeon

About the only thing more dangerous in movies than a rogue cop is a cop with a conscience. Detective Don Lee (Nick Cheung) heads up a successful police information department that finds, trains and uses a network of paid informants to help the local cops fight crime. When one of his pigeons is nearly killed by the drug dealers he was snooping on, and later goes mad from the experience, Lee is tortured by the guilt. But that doesn’t stop him from hiring an ex-con (Nicholas Tse) to take his place. Directed by Dante Lam, the film is stylish and action packed. What makes it better, much better, than just another martial arts film is the way Lam gives the characters plenty of time to explore the emotional impact of the violent acts they commit. He doesn’t give the audience an easy answer to it all, but he sure gives them plenty to think about beyond just how cool the movie is.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Echo Game

Strange behaviour from her daughter leads a mom on a journey through her past where she finds some dark and disturbing secrets, secrets that are soon coming back to haunt her. Directed by Brian Feeny, this taut thriller is a great balance of mind games and gut-churning gore, the kind of movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat trying to figure out what will happen next, and never disappoints when that next thing hits the screen. The acting is strong, especially from Alisha Seaton as the mom and Jeannie Bolet as her wife. That’s right, wife. One of the best things about The Echo Game is the fact that the parents of the little girl in danger are lesbians and, with the exception of a quick question from a detective at the beginning of the film, noting is ever made of it one way or the other. They are just parents trying to save the child they love. Cheers to that.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Art of the Western World

It may sound like the last DVD box set you wan to settle down to watch at the end of the day, but don’t let the title or any leftover classroom fears fool you into missing this one. Host Michael Wood does such a good job of explaining art that you won’t even realize you’re leaning something until the next time you walk past a bank or town hall and make the mental connection of just where the inspiration for those pillars in the front of the building came from. The series doesn’t stoop to using all sorts of flashy bells and whistles to make the art ‘come alive,’ which is a relief. Instead, it lets Wood set the scene for why the art is important, historically speaking, and then lets your imagination do the rest.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Deadtime Stories Volume 2

In the fine tradition of such classics as The Night Gallery and Trilogy of Terror, not to forget Deadtime Stories Volume 1, this disc features three well-made horror stories whose only connection with one another is the introduction by the host, legendary director George Romero. The stories aren’t big on surprises or twist endings, but they sure do crank up the gore … in a good way. What’s the point of telling a story about hikers trapped in a cave who resort to unspeakable lengths to survive (The Gorge) if you don’t show the audience what those lengths really look like?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Footloose

Time sure can be cruel to the films of your youth. When he first danced his way across Smalltown, USA almost 30 years ago, Kevin Bacon looked so cool in his skinny tie, tight jeans and soft-punk hairdo. Now he looks kind of silly. And that soundtrack you played so much you wore grooves in the vinyl? It’s now kind of lame. What’s weird is that although the things you used to love look silly, the things you probably ignored back in 1984 — like the performances of Bacon and costars John Lithgow — are a lot better than you remembered. It’s actually a good teen drama with something to say. They just dance when they aren’t saying it. There’s plenty of extras, including a cool interview with Bacon that provides some great behind-the- scenes tidbits, like the fact that his cool haircut cost the studio $1500, and that’s in 1980s dollars.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Cleveland Show: Season 2

Boom goes the dynamite! It doesn’t get as much attention as its parent TV show, and maybe that’s a good thing for this spin-off from the Fox animated series Family Guy because it’s given the creative team a chance to build something really special. And really, really funny. The animate adventures of Cleveland Brown and his new family run the gantlet from the familiar (celebrating Thanksgiving with family) to the fantastic (the hilarious ‘live’ episode), with the pendulum often swinging from extreme to extreme in a single episode. It may start out as a story about equal rights for the overweight, but when the characters leave Stoolbend to go to Wisconsin is where everybody is almost too fat to walk, it’s both weird and wonderful.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Raising Hope Season 1

When was the last time your jaw dropped watching something so funny on TV that it took your breath away? Welcome to the wonderfully weird world of the Chance clan, three generations of scrappy survivors who set a new standard for family values in this hit Fox series. Their adventure begins when young Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff) has a one night stand with Lucy (Bijou Phillips), an on-the-lam and seriously sexy serial killer. The result of their one night in a van leads to the birth of baby Hope, while the result of her killing leads Lucy to the electric chair. Rather than ‘drop the baby off at the firehouse” as his mom (Martha Plimpton) suggests, Jimmy decides to do the right thing and raise Hope himself. Or with the help of his equally clueless family. The comedy is outrageous, but extremely smart and well written, while the fantastic acting adds depth and soul to the ongoing shenanigans.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Carlos

In our Post-911 World it’s fascinating to settle down with this compelling series to watch how terrorists operated decades before the Twin Towers fell. It’s not the differences between now and then that amaze us; it’s the similarities that scare us. Édgar Ramírez stars as Venezuelan revolutionary Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, known to the world as Carlos, a brutal, charismatic killer who was responsible for a wave of terror attacks in Europe and the Middle East in the ’70s and ’80s. Director Olivier Assayas manages pull off the unthinkable in his movie: he makes the dialogue as explosive as any of the actual detonations taking place on the screen. When Carlos talks, you listen. More than that, thanks to a seductive performance by Ramírez, you completely understand why people listen, then act on what they’ve been told.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Trigun: Badlands Rumble

Twenty years ago, legendary (and reluctant) gunfighter Vash the Stampede stopped a musclebound outlaw named Gasback from robbing a bank. Rather than kill him when he had a chance, Vash let the man go to prison instead. When he gets out, Gasback decides to get his revenge. While you don’t really have to have watched the original Trigun series to enjoy this feature-length anime, it may be a good idea to go back and do it just to enrich the experience. Knowing just how Vash became an outlaw/hero helps understand a lot of what happens in Badlands Rumble. Plus you’ll have a better sense of characters like Meryl and Milly, the two sexiest insurance investigators you will ever meet, when they turn up.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Modern Family Season 2

A lot of TV shows have trouble putting together a single decent story line week after week. The creators of this Emmy Award-winning FOX TV series somehow manage to put together not one. but four in just about every episode, one for each of the main three couples in the film and a fourth based on the ways the various family members interact (in some cases collide) with each other. It’s a phenomenal achievement, one that really hit its stride in Season 2. The show has a real knack for taking the most mundane situations, from getting ready for Halloween to changing the batteries in a smoke detector, and raising them to the level of art. We’ve all been through what these people are going through, and it’s cathartic to laugh at they way they handle it.