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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Winnie the Pooh

There have been some changes made since Winnie the Pooh first appeared on the big screen back in 1966 in Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. Some of the characters have new voices, such as Jim Cummings replacing Sterling Holloway as the voice of Pooh. And you can tell that the new film uses a lot of CGI effects that just don’t have the same warmth as the old-school hand-drawn animation did. Oddly enough, the best thing about the new Winnie the Pooh movie is that directors Stephen J Anderson and Don Hall have resisted the temptation to update the story or the characters in some misguided attempt to be hip to today’s young audience. Instead, they’ve stayed true to Pooh’s roots and created a delightfully entertaining family film.

Monday, January 30, 2012

City of Life and Dearh

There have been a number of good films about the Japanese invasion (and destruction) of the Chinese capital of Nanking in 1937 (an infamous tragedy now referred to as the Rape of Nanking). Director Lu Chuan’s version of the story, the stunning City of Life and Death, is one of the great ones. Shot in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Yu Cao, the film makes the bold choice of leaving the politics of the war behind in favor of telling the story of the people on both ides of the fighting — the invaders and the invaded — to show how they lived and died in the three-day siege of the city. The fact that more than 300,000 people died in the battle for Nanking is a terrible reminder that a lot of people didn’t survive, but the power of the story comes from the fact that some did.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Composing Outside The Beatles

Together, they were the probably the greatest pop music writing team of all time. Once their days as the founding members of The Fab Four were over, though, ex-Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney struggled to find their solo musical voices. Combining a bit of archival interview footage from the musicians themselves and a lot of pontificating from rock music critics, this case this DVD tries to make about Lennon and McCartney consciously competing against each other is weak at best, but that’s OK. The trials and tribulations, successes and failures that they each go through in the seven years covered by the film stand on their own. The film is also a great reminder of how much good music — and musical history — Lennon and McCartney made once The Beatles broke up.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Name of Love

When was the last time you fell absolutely head-over-heels in love with a leading lady? That’s just what will happen as you watch the wonderful Sara Forestier (Perfume) in this delightful romantic comedy. In the movie, Forestier plays Baya, a liberal young woman who has a unique way of changing the political world: she sleeps with the right wing politicians she doesn’t agree with until they change their outlook. Then she moves on to the next. Her plan for French domination hits a snag, though, when she meets a lonely bird expert, Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) with no political or personal inclinations of his own beyond making her happy. The film’s probably a lot more scathing to French audiences who get all the political barbs thrown by director Michel Leclerc, but lack of insight into Parisian politics won’t stop you from loving every frame that Forestier appears in.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Fire of Conscience

It starts out feeling like just another police corruption drama, until about the halfway mark when the story – and the action – starts to accelerate to a breakneck pace that will leave you breathless. Police Captain Manfred (Leon Lai) isn’t averse to bending the rules – or breaking a few heads – if it means putting the bad guys away, but his penchant for using whatever means necessary get pushed to the limit when he partners with an inspector (Richie Ren) whose investigation of the police department may be a cover-up for a much darker problem. The script is complicated, but director Dante Lam (Vampire Effect) keeps it tight while filling the screen with lots of eye-popping, bone crunching action

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ray Charles Live in France

Back in 2004, director Taylor Hackford and actor Jamie Foxx did a pretty good job of dramatically bringing the life of pioneering musician Ray Charles to life in the biopic, Ray. Good as it was, though, the movie failed to capture the raw excitement of Charles in concert. This excellent concert DVD gives audiences a chance to see what it was really like when Charles and his band took to the stage. Filmed in 1961 at the Antibes Jazz Festival, Charles’ first time playing live in Europe, the DVD gives you a close up view of the band as they play a set of Ray Charles classics, along with some special surprises that show how diverse their repertoire really was. The constant cutting away from the band to show the audience gets a bit wearisome after a while, mainly because you want the camera to stay on the band as they play.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Nazi Hunters

There are so many movies and documentaries out there about WW II that it takes something really special to capture, and keep, your attention, and this National Geographic series has it. Each episode focuses on a Nazi war criminal – Adolf Eichman, Klaus Barbie, Herbert Cukurs and others – and gives viewers an in-depth, step-by-step explanation of how they were found and how they were captured. While the interviews with the men who actually did the capturing are fascinating, it is the way the plans are detailed, and then acted out in reenactments, that will keep you glued to the screen.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Music Lovers

Ken Russell was a mad man. Long before he brought The Who’s rock opera Tommy to the big screen, the British director created this madcap film biography of Russian composer Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky and his struggles to create great music while battling against his homosexuality, a battle he all but loses when he marries a nymphomaniac whom he cannot satisfy. The music is, of course, gorgeous, and the way Russell uses it to tell his story is brilliant. It is the acting, though, that will haunt you long after the soundtrack has left your mind. Richard Chamberlain is stunning as Tchaikovsky, as is Glenda Jackson as his wife, Nina. They are the kind of performances that will mark each actor forever in your imagination.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Last Circus

Whoever said that clowns weren’t scary hasn’t seen this thriller from director Alex de la Iglesia. It’s the story of a Javier (Carlos Areces), a clown of the sad tradition, meaning he never tries to make the audience laugh, but serves only to be the butt of the jokes of the more traditional, if abusive, happy clown, Sergio (Antonia de la Torre). While their act is a big hit, their personal lives are a mess, particularly when Javier gets it in his head to rescue the beautiful trapeze artist Natalia (Carolina Bang) from her abusive relationship with Sergio. Words can barely describe what happens in Iglesia’s movie, because there’s more to the film than the gore and the madness (although there is a lot of both). There is also a high level of cinematic art that needs to be seen to be truly appreciated.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Kuroneko

It may seem tame when compared to today’s horror movies, but what it lacks in graphic gore this film from director Kaneto Shindo more than makes up for in sheer creepiness. The story opens in a remote farmhouse where a young woman and her mother-in-law, left alone when the man of the house is sent off to war, are brutalized and murdered by a gang of passing samurai. Just before they die, the women beg the gods to let them become ghosts who will haunt the world and drink the blood of samurais until there is no blood left to drink. The local authorities try to rid their town of the ghosts, but only add to the body count. A young hero returning from the war is charged with killing the ghosts once and for all, unaware that he is bound to them in surprising ways.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Captain America: The First Avenger

Steve Rogers was always the Boy Scout of the Marvel Universe: He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t womanize and he didn’t agonize over the hand fate had given him when he was turned into a Super Soldier by an army experiment. He is a product of the 1940s, when Capt. America was created to defeat the ‘bullies’ of Nazi Germany, and remains so even when he is thawed out after 70 years of frozen slumber in an iceberg. So why is Captain America: The First Avenger one of the best superhero movies in recent memory? It’s because that instead of trying to update the character to appeal to a younger crowd, director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) embraces the ‘uncool’ qualities of Captain America’s personality and lets the action of the film (and the humor) show us how great a hero he really is.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Better Life

With a track record than ranges from American Pie to New Moon, it’s seems odd for a director like Chris Weitz to get behind the camera to tell the story of a poor undocumented gardener from East LA working hard to try and make a better life for his son. The scale of the story told in A Better Life somehow just feels too small.Although there is some humor in it, A Better Life is not an inherently funny story, and certainly isn’t filled with the kind of bawdy humour that made American Pie such a huge hit. And although it’s a simple story, it’s doesn’t have the kind of mega-franchise millions behind it that guarantees an audience no matter how simple it is, like the Twilight sequel did. Maybe the unexpected is just what Weitz needed to do to revive his career following his flopd with big budget book adaptations (one of which, The Golden Compass, failed to win critical favor or find an audience), because A Better Life is his best film to date.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Red State

Who knew? After directing the worst movie of his career, the lame action comedy Cop Out, Kevin Smith has made what is arguably his best film, Red State. It’s the story of a religious cult in ‘middle America’ whose violent anti-gay agenda is being used as a cause to kill. Three young locals boys, lured into the promise of a menage a trois with a woman through an Internet ad placed by the cult, are kidnapped and sentenced to be executed because more than one man in a sexual act with a woman makes him a homosexual, according to cult doctrine. When the kidnapping is exposed, the local cops, followed by the FBI and DEA, descend on the cult compound with disastrous results. With the exception of the dialogue between the boys before they get kidnapped, the script has virtually none of Smith’s trademark humor; in fact, it’s pretty bleak, but still powerfully directed. The action scenes are taut and tension filled, and the ending will leave you stunned.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Valerie

This 1957 western starts with the bleak image of a man walking into a remote farmhouse and shooting everybody inside. When the sheriff comes to get him, he surrenders because he ‘just did what any man would do.’ Learning that the people he shot were his wife and her family is just the first of many surprises sprung on you as the story unfolds. By the time you find out the wife is not only going to live, but will testify from her hospital bed about what really happened in the farmhouse, you’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat. Sterling Hayden gives a fantastic performance as the guy with the gun, able to seduce you in one scene and repulse you in the next. Anita Ekberg is equally good as the wife, even if she her long false eyelashes and perfectly manicured finger nails make her look a little out of place as a rancher’s wife.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Captains

It’s difficult to judge what non-Trekkies will think of William Shatner’s cinematic quest to track down and interview all of the actors who have played Captains in the Star Trek movie and television universe. The interviews aren’t very in-depth, and Shatner’s interview style is a manic mix of pit-bull aggression and fawning reverence (often in the same question), but there’s a sincerity there that can’t be denied. Shatner really wants to know why these other actors wanted to sit in the captain’s chair after him. And it doesn’t take very long to realize how important that phrase — ‘after him’ — is to the original Capt. James T. Kirk. The passion they all bring to their parts, and the fondness they have for the fans who helped make their accomplishments part of entertainment history, is palpable.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Ray: The Complete Collection

Ray is a talented and beautiful surgeon with a special gift: She has X-Ray eyes that enable her to look at, and then into, any patient and immediately tell what’s wrong with them. As well as being the key to her success, her special eyes are a link to her past in a creepy orphanage that used children to provide product for a black market organ donor ring. Sound pretty weird? Just wait. The pay off for this anime series is right on target, although the story wanders around so much through the first few episodes that you will be tempted to stop long before you get there. Too many stories follow the same pattern: A strange medical case is found that only Ray can solve. Ray solves it. The real plot of the story is buried, with only hints of something better than the same old thing just around the bend. When it hits, though, it’s a knockout.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Bones: The Complete Sixth Season

When fans last saw the cast of Bones at the end of Season 5, they were scattered to the far corners of the earth, so wrapped up in their own problems that there was a feeling in the air that the band might not get back together after all. Yeah, right. As the opening episode of Season 6 shows, the primary characters are all back and ready to fight for justice for those who can no longer fight for it themselves (the recently and not so recently dead). The stories are strong in Season 6, particularly the recurring plot lines involving sniper Jacob Broadsky (Arnold Boslo), but like the previous five seasons, it is the sparkling chemistry between the characters, especially between forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance “Bones’ Brennan and FBI agent Seeley Booth that makes the show so ridiculously addictive.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Street: The Complete Collection

This fascinating BBC drama series may be set among the residents of a single working class street in Manchester, but it is packed with a veritable who’s who of British acting royalty, from Jim Broadbent and Bob Hoskins to Jane Horrocks and Anna Friel. The stories swing between Shakespearean-level tragedy to pure soap opera, but no matter what the plot, the level of talent makes it come alive on the screen. Horrocks, best known for her comedic work as Bubbles in Absolutely Fabulous, does some of the best work of her career playing Angela, a lonely housewife trying desperately to make more of her life.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Queensryche: Mindcrime at the Moore

Along with being one of the most thunderous metal bands of the past few decades, Queensryche is also one of the most theatrical, as this hugely entertaining Blyu-Ray shows. Using videos, live actors and the dramatic power of singer Geoff Tate, the band brings their two classic Mindcrime albums to life in front of a sell out crowd in their hometown of Seattle. Although their sound is definitely based in power, the intricate twin-guitar sounds of Michael Wilton and Mike Stone is also very melodic in the way it not only supports Tate’s lyrics, but adds emotional color to the themes he sings about. Hats off to the beautiful, and powerful, Pamela Moore for her performance as Sister Mary in the Mindcrime stories.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Page One: Inside the New York Times

While it certainly has a lot to say about the state of the newspaper business today, the really fascinating part of watching Andrew Rossi’s new documentary, especially for journalists, is getting a chance to peak behind the curtain and see how the New York Times operates on a daily basis. It’s great to share in the passion of the people who write the stories, the ones who edit the stories and even the ones who publish the stories, or at least decide which ones will be published for the next day’s edition. The harsh reality may be that the Internet and other publishing innovations have seriously dented the newspaper industry, but, as the movie proves, the idea of a world without a New York Times on the stands every day is unimaginable.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Robber

According to the reviewer blurb slapped across the cover, this movie from German director Benjamin Heisenberg contains “Chase Sequences to Outdo Hollywood’s Finest.” Well, don’t believe the hype from the Village Voice. The chase scenes in The Robber are actually pretty tame by any standards, but that’s what makes it work. The film tells the story of Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust), a marathon athlete who makes a living by robbing banks. Stealing is more than a job, though. It’s a compulsion as strong as his need to train. The disdain with which he hides the cash in his room shows how little he thinks of the spoils of his crime sprees. He robs banks for the thrill, to get his adrenaline pumping. The fact that he’s so good at both only fuels his determination to run more marathons and rob more banks. It’s only when he starts sharing his lonely life with another human (Franziska Weisz) that Rettenberger stumbles.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Red Chapel

Film crews have been trying for decades to get access into North Korea to make a movie about what life is really like under the dictatorial rule of Kim Jong-il. Maybe if they had employed a spastic Danish comic, like director Mads Brügger did for this hilarious movie, they might have had a better chance. The movie follows a cultural exchange program between Denmark and North Korea, spearheaded by Brügger and his co-stars (and co-conspirators), a two-man comedy team called The Red Chapel. In exchange for performing their ‘act,’ the trio get a chance to tour the country and meet its people. Under the tight control of the government, that means they get to see what the government wants them to see and meet who the government wants them to meet. Since they have to turn over their footage at the end of every day to be edited by the government, too, there isn’t much chance to say much about what they see. That is, of course, unless you let a spastic whose speech is almost untranslatable to the officials, do the talking.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Batman: Year One

The Batman origin story has been told so many times before in comics that it seemed silly to have someone do it again. Then Frank Miller proved everyone wrong by writing his version and changing The Caped Crusader’s world forever. This animated film based on Miller’s work does the same thing; it’s not just the idea of putting a new spin on the story, but breaking it down to it’s core values and building it back up into something new. The film covers young Bruce Wayne returning to Gotham City and his first attempts to become a costumed vigilante. It weaves into it the story of James Gordon as he tries to stay an honest cop and survive in the corrupt world of the GCPD. It’s pretty cool. What’s even cooler is the Catwoman episode included as a bonus, featuring the sexy voice of Eliza Dushku.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Halloween Double Pack

This inventive box set from Dreamworks includes two holiday spin-offs from their popular past animated films: Scared Shrekless, featuring the characters from the Shrek series, and Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space with the cast of Monsters Vs. Aliens. Unlike a lot of direct-to-video products, these two not only stand on their own, but come close to surpassing the films they were spawned from. Scared Shrekless is a trio of scary (but very family friendly) stories based on other Halloween movie classics like Pycho and The Exorcist. It also contains a pretty funny parody of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. The Aliens Vs. Monsters movie has the heroes fighting a bunch of mutant pumpkins, created when an alien space craft empties it’s bathroom waste into a farmer’s prize crop. These are the kinds of DVDs you’ll not only enjoy now, but be taking down from the shelf every October.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Devil's Playground

Just when you think there’s nothing new that can be added to the zombie film genre, director Mark McQueen comes up with a bit of brilliance: zombie pakour. The film is set in the near future, where a big British corporation has come up with a new energy drink product to help people get through their busy day. They test it on 30,000 people and 29,999 turn into the flesh eating undead, only flesh eating undead that are jacked up on the energy product so they’re not only strong and fast, but over-caffeinated to the point of leaping and jumping over everything in their path (that they aren’t eating). It’s not played for laughs, but for the high-octane thrill, which adds to the dark comedy of the situation as the few survivors try to get the one non-dead test subject to a lab so they can make a cure from her blood.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Drinking Made Easy Season One

Imagine a wild night of partying with you friends, the kind of night where you not only get drunk, but actually do fun and interesting things while you get there. Now imagine somebody taped the whole thing so you can enjoy it the next day while pounding down a few beers to make the hangover go away. That’s what you get to experience virtually in every episode of this series from HDNet. Host Zane Lamprey and his friends travel across the country to take part in every drinking ritual they can find, with hilarious results. Lamprey is the perfect host for a show like this, and not just because he can out-drink just about anyone on the planet, but because, like most great drunks, he’s a great storyteller. The bonus feature of the show hosts performing stand-up comedy is proof that they haven’t killed all their brain cells filming the series…yet.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Buster Keaton: Go West/Battling Butler

Screen chemistry is an elusive enough thing between two human actors to begin with; developing a believable relationship between a man and an animal is virtually impossible, but that is just what silent film legend Buster Keaton creates with his costar, a cow named Blue Eyes, in Go West. While just the picture of the sad-faced clown dressed in western duds is funny, it is the emotional attachment he has with an orphan cow that gives the film heart. The scenes of a cattle stampede through the streets of downtown LA are priceless. The second film has Keaton a a foppish young man mistaken for a prizefighter. The boxing scenes are classics of physical comedy, as are the scenes of Keaton training to be the man his intended thinks he is

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Leap Year

Directed by Michael Rowe, this story of a young girl looking for a relationship that lasts beyond a single night is one of the most haunting films you will ever see. Lara (a brilliant performance by Monica del Carmen) spends her days writing articles for a Mexican financial magazine and her nights in the clubs searching for a man who can give her the passion her everyday existence lacks. She gets more than she bargains for when she brings Arturo (Gustavo Sanchez Para) back home to her apartment. Their coupling is as robotic as the rest we have seen up to the point that Arturo slaps her in the heat of passion. The act opens a deeply hidden door in Lara that leads to a part of her she had been hiding from. At first Arturo is as excited as she is, but when he realizes Lara likes the abuse, in fact needs it from him, he gets scared. So do we.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Dragon Ball Z: Box 6

The great thing about the Dragon Ball Z series is the wild way the stories can swing from low brow comedy to intense action to heartfelt emotions, often in a single episode. One minute we’re watching a cheap fart joke with a character called Mr Satan, the next we’re witnessing a mad sniper shoot and kill a cute little puppy. Sure, fans of the series know the puppy will turn out to be only wounded in later episodes, but that doesn’t keep the scene from being emotionally intense. Unfortunately, while this set has a lot of interesting moments scattered throughout it’s six discs, the continuing story line of the good guys lining up to battle the indestructible bad guy, a bubblegum-colored blob named Boo, wears thin after a while.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Submarino

Do yourself a favor before sitting down to this excellent movie from director Thomas Vinterberg: check your internal well being. If you are feeling the least little bit depressed about anything, then save it for another day because while it’s fascinating to watch, Submario is absolutely bleak. It’s the story of two brothers who survived an abusive childhood to become two very damaged adults. Nick (Jakob Cedergren) is an ex-cop whose attempts to reform his life get derailed when he tries to help a friend, and his brother, Martin (Peter Plaugborg), is a junkie trying to keep his addiction under control so he can raise his son. Although their lives are intrinsically intertwined, the film follows each of the brothers’ stories separately, saving the end to show how even when they aren’t together their past keeps them linked forever. It’s deeply disturbing, but worth the effort.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Trip

The movie is side-splittingly funny, particularly if you are a fan of Steve Coogan and/or Rob Brydon. The pseudo-documentary nature of the film, directed by Michael Winterbottom, gives these talented comedians a chance to stretch out and riff off each other like great jazz musicians, only their instrument is humor. Watching them do dueling Michael Caine imitations is worth the price of the DVD. What makes the film resonate beyond the laughs, though, is Coogan’s delicate dramatic performance as a middle aged man facing loneliness. He never wanted to bring Brydon on the trip to begin with; he only took the assignment to travel around and try fancy restaurants because he thought it would be a romantic getaway for him and his lady. When that falls through, the complications that it creates forces the man to reexamine his life in fascinating ways.