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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Catch .44

A trio of sexy bad girls gets one last chance to make good to their boss for botching their last assignment. All they have to do is wait at a roadside café, intercept a drug deal and bring both the drugs and the money back to their boss. Before you can say “I know what’s going to happen” the girls’ plan goes horribly wrong and the bodies start piling up behind the diner counter. Directed by Aaron Harvey (The Evil Woods), this slick little thriller is filled with lots of well-staged action, but it’s the crazy characters doing all the killing that make watching it such a blast. Oddly enough, the girls are pretty generic and bring little to the film but hot bodies and an attempt at a bad attitude. It’s the guys who make it work, particularly Forest Whitaker as the hit man that’s more than a few cards short of a full deck, and a delightfully slovenly Bruce Willis as the pecan-munching gangster behind it all.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Dolphin Tale

Based on true events, Dolphin Tale is the story of Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), a troubled young boy who builds a healing bond (in every sense of the phrase) with a dolphin he finds stranded on a beach. Although the dolphin is rescued by marine specialists, the damage done by the crab trap he was tangled in before stranding is too severe to save his tail, which has to be amputated. Unable to swim ‘normally,’ the dolphin faces being put down anyway so he doesn’t suffer for the rest of his life unless, that is, Sawyer and the other humans in the movie can come with a plan to save the dolphin. On the surface the story of Dolphin Tale sounds almost too over-the-top cute to be believable. While it does occasionally veer off course and head towards cloying cuteness, the movie is actually that rarest of films, one that everyone in the family can honestly enjoy.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Blackthorn

It’s one of the most iconic images of American cinema, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) frozen in time as they launch themselves against the Bolivian Army in a desperate last stand that both of them know they will never survive. But what if they did? What if the characters killed at the end of the 1969 George Roy Hill movie didn’t die? That’s the interesting kernel of an idea from which screenwriter Miguel Barros and director Mateo Gil have grown one of the best movies of the year, Blackthorn. Like its protagonist, Blackthorn is a soft-spoken movie that speaks volumes. And standing at the center of it all, making sure every word (spoken and unspoken) is driven home with an iron fist, is Sam Shepard, a real-life figure as iconic as the legendary character he is playing.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Two Minutes to Glory

This is a football fan’s Citizen Kane. As the great Vince Lombardi says in the movie, football games are won and lost in the final two minutes, and the clips in this delightful DVD back him up 110 percent. Depending on your age, you probably can remember seeing most of these awesome two-minute drills happening in real time, but that doesn’t make reliving them any less fun, particularly if you are a fan of the team that snatches defeat from the jaws of victory just as the clock expires. (And even if yours is the team that gets beat, it’s still worth watching if only for the ‘football miracle’ angle.) Some of the best moments in the movie, though, are the ones from the glory days of football, back when they didn’t even have face-guards on their helmets and the goal posts were located in the middle of the end zone. While a lot of the circus catches that make for memorable moments in the modern era are cool, there’s nothing like watching a bunch of really tough guys slug it out inches from the end zone to remind you how awesome football can be.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Simpsons Season 14

After being a part of our lives for so many years, it’s easy to take the creative geniuses behind The Simpsons for granted. Then you start watching the episodes from Season 14 and you realize that while other animated shows may try to be smart and subversive, they don’t hold a candle to the adventures of the family from Evergreen Terrace. Among the highlights of Season 14 is a show where Homer goes to rock and roll camp (How I Spent My Strummer Vacation), complete with special guest stars like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards providing their voices, and a heartfelt, but still very funny episode where Mo the Bartender becomes protective of Maggie. The standout of the season, though, just may be Large Marge, an episode where Marge goes into the hospital for liposuction and accidentally gets breast implants instead. It’s silly, sexy and seriously funny.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

To celebrate the coronation of China’s first female ruler, Empress Wu (Carina Lau), the government builds a gigantic Buddha overlooking the palace. During a final inspection of the statue, one of the officials spontaneously bursts into flames and dies. Is it a plot to stop Empress Wu from taking the thrown? Are the gods angry that the proper religious rites haven’t been followed? Is it murder? When nobody else can find the answer, the Empress decides to let the famous Detective Wu out of prison (she put him there in the first place for sedition) to solve the mystery. Director Tsui Hark (Once Upon a Time in China) is an expert at directing action scenes, and Detective Dee contains some of his best set pieces to date. He also does a great job of capturing the supernatural elements of the story on film in unique and interesting ways. And he does it without ever taking away from the strong performances of the actors, particularly Andy Lau as Detective Dee.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Not just a remake of the original, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a reboot of the story of how apes come to rule the planet. It starts as the story of a young scientist named Will Rodman (James Franco) who is trying to develop a new miracle drug to cure Alzheimer’s Disease. Early tests of the drug look promising, but when one of his test chimps goes berserk and rips the lab apart the project is terminated, as are the test apes with the exception of a little chimp Will takes home and raises it himself. Directed by Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist), Rise of the Planet of the Apes manages to take a variety of different movie genres (sci-fi movie, prison film, action flick, message movie) and blend them into a satisfying whole. The well-written script and fast pacing of the film not only keep you from caring about the look of the computer generated chimps, but also keeps you from thinking too much about the implausibility of it all. You just hang on and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Tokyo Drifter

Everything about this 1966 mob film from director Seijun Suzuki is cool, from the stylish look to the jazzy soundtrack to the powder blue suit and white bucks worn by it’s ‘hero’ Tetsuya ‘Phoenix Tetsu’ Hondo (Tetsuya Watari). It’s not just a fashion statement, either, but an important part of the film, especially in the way it celebrates gangster life, or at least the gangster life as we find it in movies. In the film, Tetsu is a young Yakuza hit man who decides to go join the head of his family in going legit, even if it means they’ll have to go toe-to-toe with every gun-carrying bad guy in Japan. When the tide of the gang war starts to go against him, though, the old leader tries to double-cross Testu, leading to an all out war that looks more like a Technicolor MGM musical than a bloody gangster film. There’s even a catchy song that will be rolling around in your head for days after you see the movie.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Loups=Garous

In the wake of a devastating viral infection that wiped out more than half the world’s population, life is tightly controlled, from the government processed food you eat to the way you spend just about every waking moment of your life under the watchful eye of the Big Brother cameras located on every street corner and in every room of you house. So how is a serial killer getting away with the murder of school children? That’s the mystery that a group of young girls try to solve before they become the next victims in this new anime from director Jun’ichi Fujisaku. The story is strong and the voice acting a cut above what you hear coming from the mouths of most teenagers in anime these days. What raises Loups=Garous to the level of art are the gorgeous images that fill the screen. The style of the film does a terrific job of setting not only the scenes, but the tone of the film, perfectly capturing the paranoia the people are living with.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City

In the original movie, directed by Takashi Miike (Audition), mild-mannered teacher Shin’ichi Ichikawa (Sho Aikawa) saw his dreams of being a vigilante superhero become a reality when he turned into Zebraman to save the world from an alien invasion. This sequel, also directed by Miike, is set 15 years in the future during an apocalyptic time when the high moral standards of Zebraman have been twisted to the point where there is now a government sanctioned 10-minute Zebra Time every day at 5 am and 5 pm where murder and mayhem are not only legal, but endorsed by the government. How did things get so out of control? Don’t ask Zebraman because he’s now a homeless amnesiac. The ultimate answer to how things went wrong and what has to be done to set it right will all be revealed during the two-hour roller coaster that the movie takes you on. It doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but that’s hardly the point. It’s a hell of a lot of fun just waiting to see what Miike comes up with next as the story barrels along at breakneck speed. That, and a dementedly sexy performance by Riisa Naka as the evil Zebra Queen, makes this a keeper.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Vampires

‘They’re not scary, sexy or trendy. They’re just Belgium.’ With a tagline like that, who could resist a movie like this? The good news is that this mock-documentary, directed by Vincent Lannoo, is more than just a clever marketing campaign. It follows a film crew as it tries to capture the everyday — make that every night – life of a vampire family in Belgium. The fact that this is the third crew invited in to film the vampire community – and that the first two were accidentally eaten by their interview subjects – pretty much sets the tone for the movie. Lannoo doesn’t spare the audience when it comes to the gore factor of the film, but it’s hard to be scared or grossed out when you’re laughing so hard as you start to get to know the vampires, from the ever droll Georges (Carlo Ferrante) to his rebellious teenage daughter Grace (Fleur Lise Heuet) who dreams of one dying ‘just like a human.’ Vampires is not only the perfect antidote to all that Twilight nonsense out there in the world, but good enough to stand on its own as a vampire movie classic.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Chaos Head: The Complete Series

One of the great things about anime is that there are almost no rules the animators have to follow: if the writers think of it, they can animate it. The creative team behind Chaos Head, however, deserves special recognition for what they’ve done here. It’s not that the images themselves are so wild; it’s the way the story – and the images – plays with the idea of reality that messes with your mind as you watch it. Chaos Head is the story of Takumi Nishijō, a high school student at a private academy who is more comfortable in his imagination than he is with the day-to-day reality of his life. Takumi lives in a old shipping container on the roof of his family’s apartment building where he spends his days playing video games and watching anime. The lines between Takumi’s imaginary world and the ‘real’ world are increasingly blurred, especially when he becomes suspect in a series of gruesome murders.

Friday, February 17, 2012

West Side Story

It might have been made more than half a century ago, but watching West Side Story on this deluxe 50th Anniversary blu-ray edition is as exciting as anything you’ve seen in theaters since. The classic retelling of Romeo and Juliet, set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is filled with great songs and dance numbers, the sheer physicality of which will amaze you. The acting is good throughout, too, especially from Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her performance as the fiery Anita. The deluxe package is filled with extras that only enhance the experience, including some amazing song-specific commentary from lyricist Stephen Sondheim and a terrific look at the dance numbers in the movie from the people who made them come alive on the screen.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Nickel Ride/99 44/100% Dead

It’s been a long time since theaters showed an actual double feature, but this classic set from Shout Factory is a perfect example of what you might have seen back when you got two movies for the price of one. The Nickel Ride stars Jason Miller (The Exorcist) as Cooper, a small-time mobster facing some heavy competition from an up-and-coming young hood. Cooper has a plan to pull off one big score to regain his control over his territory, but he’s racing against the clock to make it happen. The second film stars Richard Harris as Harry Crown, an independent hit man hired by one mobster to kill his rival to stop a bloody turf war from getting out of hand. Both movies stand on their own as solid B-action movies, but there’s something about watching them back to back that makes for a great night at the movies.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Super 8

While making a zombie home movie with their super 8 movie camera, a group of nerdy teens witness a gigantic train wreck, inadvertently capturing the carnage on film in the process. As bad as the wreck is, it is what escaped from the train when it went off the rails that will eventually get the kids in a lot of trouble while giving audiences a near-perfect summer movie thrill ride. Directed by J. J. Abrams, Super 8 is that rare kind of summer movie that is filled with state-of-the-art special effects which are there to actually enhance the story and not just to distract the audience so they won’t realize how lame the story -- or the acting -- is. In fact, cool as some of the effects are (and some of them are really, really cool) it is the characters that stay with you long after the movie is over. The fact that the characters are played by kids, many of whom you have never seen in a movie before, somehow makes it even more enjoyable.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rushmore

It’s still as quirky and charming as you remember it to be, but what makes settling in to watch this Criterion Collection edition of the Wes Anderson’s 1998 comedy so cool now is getting a chance to watch the amazing Bill Murray give one of the best performances of his film career. In the movie, Murray plays Herman Blume, a millionaire steel maker whose life is on the skids. He’s got a wife he doesn’t love, children he can’t believe are his and an outlook on life so bleak that if it wasn’t for booze, he’d probably have already killed himself. Then he meets perpetual Rushmore student Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) and rediscovers that there’s more to life than drinking and ignoring the people around him. Murray brings such a perfect blend of comedy and pathos to the part that it gives Anderson’s quirky comedy the heart it needs. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Rolling Stones Some Girls Live in Texas 1978

Talk about catching lightning in a bottle. When they hit the stage in Texas for this concert, The Rolling Stones didn’t surround themselves with a lot of showy stage sets or pyrotechnics. They didn’t have host of backup musicians playing behind them. It was just the band and a batch of new songs from their latest release. Ten minutes into it, you realize that’s all they needed. The year 1978 was a proving ground for The Rolling Stones, who were feeling the pressure of becoming passé as the punk rock movement came along, so there’s a fierceness to the band’s playing in the show that reminds you how good they could be when they wanted to be. The extras showing them playing on Saturday Night Life are a bit redundant, and the sketch of Jagger being interviewed by Dan Aykroyd as Tom Snider is embarrassing, but the 2011 interview Jagger gives about the show, and the band in 1978, is illuminating.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Helldriver

If ever a movie needed to come with its own splatter guard, this is it. As anyone who has seen some of his earlier films, like Tokyo Gore Police or The Machine Girl, will tell you, director Yoshihiro Nishimura has never been shy about spraying buckets of blood and gore across the screen. They will also tell you that he does it with such absolute glee that it’s hard to be too horrified by what you see, as long as you’re not too squeamish to begin with. Helldriver takes place in an apocalyptic future where half of Japan has been turned into crazed alien zombies and the other half seem to be addicted to the powder made from the ground horns that sprout from the alien zombie’s foreheads. It’s up to Kika (Yumiko Hara), a beautiful high school girl armed with a chainsaw sword powered by an artificial heart, to save the day by killing the zombie queen Rikka (Eihi Shiina). It’s a wild ride.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

New York Dolls – Lookin’ Fine on Television

The actual quality of the performances captured in this 70s documentary of the legendary New York Dolls is anything but ‘fine,’ but somehow the rawness of the performances, as well as the rawness of the band members in the interview segments, is a perfect match with the music they were making. The Dolls were always a smashup of glamour and trash: it’s hard to be anything else when you’re a six-foot dude from the Staten Island like David Johansen who just happens to put on a dress, heels and a lot of makeup before he steps to the microphone to sing. The best thing about this film, shot by legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen and his wife Nadya, is that it captures The Dolls in the moment just as they were reaching the peak of the new wave they were riding and makes that moment feel as fresh as it did back then.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Littlest Angel

Unless you have young children, this animated tale from director Dave Kim (Elf Bowling the Movie: The Great North Pole Elf Strike) may be the last thing you would think of sitting down to watch. But don’t let the cute angel and dog on the cover keep you away; it’s actually a fun little film. Based on the best-selling children’s book by Charles Tazewell, it’s the story of a young angel who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble in heaven. Putting his restlessness down to some things he left behind on earth, the Littlest Angel goes back to set things right. Although the film is obviously based on Christian beliefs, the religious aspect of the tale is never hammered home too hard. The end result is a fine film for the family to enjoy no matter what their beliefs may be.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Passionate Woman

After years spent as a pop singing diva and a sci-fi cultural icon, for her work as Rose in the Dr. Who series, Billie Piper needed to find a grown-up role to prove she was more than just a pretty face, and that’s just what this BBC mini-series gives her. In it, she plays Betty, a young mother and housewife circa 1950s London. Trapped in dull relationship, Betty finds passion with a downstairs neighbor named Craze (Theo James), whose marriage to a local girl is equally troubled. Piper is captivating as the young woman discovering her passionate side, and there’s real chemistry between her and James. She also has a knack for making the domestic suffocation of her character palpable to the audience. Betty’s youthful indiscretions are only half the story, though, as the series also lets us see what her life is like as an older woman (played by Sue Johnston). The second part of the story stands on its own, but it’s ten times as effective to watch because of the strength of Piper’s performance.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Blue Velvet: 25th Anniversary Edition

It’s one of the weirdest – and most rewarding – movie experiences you can have, only now it’s even more intense thanks to close to an hour of new ‘lost footage’ contained in this excellent 25th anniversary blu-ray of the David Lynch classic. What’s Blue Velvet about? Words can hardly describe what you will see – let alone feel – when you watch it. It’s a dark mystery about a night club singer (Isabella Rossellini) being blackmailed by a deranged psychopath (Dennis Hopper) with a passion for listening to classic crooners and huffing oxygen while committing unspeakable acts of violence. Blue Velvet is also a sweetly innocent love story about a two crazy kids falling for each other as they try to unravel the mystery that starts when one of them (Kyle MacLachlan) finds a severed ear rotting in the weeds of an abandoned house lot. Like we said, words don’t do it justice, Just check out the Siskel & Ebert review on the extras. Even they don’t know how to describe what Lynch has created.            

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Cars 2

Cars 2 picks up pretty much where the 2006 hit left off, with Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) at the top of the racing circuit while his best friend Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) stays back in Radiator Springs thinking up ways for them to have fun together when the race season is over. A challenge to take part in a global rally designed to prove that a new fuel alternative is just as good as gasoline puts their plans on the back burner and Lightning and Mater head off on an adventure that soon has them joining a British spy car (voiced by Michael Caine) to stop a mysterious bad guy from taking over the world. If you strip away the fact that the story is being told by animated cars with eyes where their windshield should be talking though their bumpers, the plot to Cars 2 is a reheated rehash of spy movie clichés dumbed down for kids. So to keep the audience interested enough to ignore the obvious plot points of the story, co-directors John Lasseter and Brad Lewis fill the screen with eye-popping images, from the neon lights of Tokyo to a photo-realistic re-imagining of London.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Tabloid

When was the last time you watched a movie and the story — not the acting, not the special effects, not the usual bells and whistles Hollywood uses to fill the gaping void of their stories — but the actual story made your jaw drop in astonishment? If you can’t remember when, or worse can’t remember it ever happening, the prepare to be astonished. Directed by Errol Morris, Tabloid is a documentary about a former beauty queen who rescues her fiancé from a dangerous religious cult. It’s also the story of a Mormon missionary who is kidnapped by a deranged woman and forced into being her sex slave. It’s the story of a virginal girl who gave up everything in her life for her one true love. It’s also the story of a prostitute who specialized in playing bondage and discipline games with any man who could afford her price. And just when you think you have a handle on what the story is all about, it quickly turns into the tale of a determined (or is that demented?) dog owner who pays a South Korean scientist a lot of money to clone her dog.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Justice

On the surface, this BBC series feels like any one of a dozen other courtroom dramas about a new law enforcement agent coming to a tough town and trying to make things right. Most series, though, don’t have somebody like Robert Pugh playing the guy bringing the tough justice to town. In the show, Pugh plays Judge Patrick Coburn, a local lad who went away, made good and is now returning home to Liverpool to run an experimental courthouse designed to give offenders a better chance of making a new life for themselves. Just when his work in the courtroom starts having an effect, a newspaper reporter starts digging up facts about the judge, particularly about his life in Liverpool before he left, that could bring his career crashing down. Well paced and extremely well acted, the series doesn’t worry about giving every episode a cliffhanger ending because it knows, with characters like this, you’ll come back for more no matter what.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

When they think of spy movie’s most people think of James Bond battling Blofeld or, if they’re in a silly mood, Austin Powers going up against Dr. Evil. They don’t think of a bunch of pipe-smoking middle aged British guys sitting in a conference room deciding the fate of the world oh-so-politely. That’s what they get in this BBC series, and if they give it a chance they’ll see it’s just as exciting, and far more satisfying, than anything 007 ever did in a movie. Alec Guinness stars as George Smiley, a retired secret agent who is called back to duty to investigate charges that there’s a mole in the secret service, a mole placed at a very high level. The conversations that follow, so thick with spy speak that the DVD set comes with a glossary of terms so you can understand what everybody is talking about, are fascinating. The performance of Guinness is spellbinding.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Thankskilling

One look at the cover will tell you if this is the movie for you: It truly is the “ultimate low-budget experience.” And that’s a good thing. Director Jordan Downey couldn’t have made a better movie if he had 10 times the budget. It’s the story of five teenagers who fall victim to an ancient Indian course that causes a deranged turkey/puppet to rise from its grave to seek bloody revenge. The special effects are laughable, but they’re meant to be. The script is a lot smarter than it pretends to be, especially to fans of horror movies that will recognize every cliché that Downey is gleefully exploiting. And the actors seem to be having as much fun in it as you will have watching it. Give it a chance.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Magic Beyond Words: The JK Rowling Story

Poppy Montgomery stars in this stylish soap opera about the struggles that JK Rowling went through before becoming a global sensation as the creator of Harry Potter and his wizard friends. The facts may be correct – Rowling was living on the ‘dole’ as a single mom before she started writing the books that would make her one of the wealthiest women in the world – but a lot of the movie feels overdramatized for television, particularly the scenes of Rowling’s first marriage to an abusive man she hardly knew. And the scene where a young JK tells a red-headed friend that he’s too ‘weasley’ to be a character in her book will make you groan out loud (even if it really did happen). Montgomery is delightful to watch, however, and does a great job of making you feel at the end of the film that you really know JK.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy

It’s been almost 20 years since Steven Spielberg made his first big dinosaur movie, the original Jurassic Park (1993), and it’s nice to report that time has basically stood still for the effects in the first film, as well as its two sequels: The dinosaurs still look great. Revisiting the films gives audiences a chance to look beyond the wow factor and remember that as cool as the T Rex and Raptors look, it’s the performances from the actors that really sell the reality of the big lizards. Just watch Laura Dern’s face when she is cornered by the raptors and you can feel her fear. The first film set the gold standard for the series by combining the effects and the acting with a great, well-paced story. The first sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, throws the idea of story and acting out the window, despite some strong talent like Juliane Moore, to be a full-throttled action film. Jurassic Park III just doesn’t have the energy to make it even a close contender to the first two films.