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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sword of Desperation

It starts out with scenes of a group of nobles sitting in a courtyard watching a play. At the end, a samurai warrior (Etsushi Toyokawa) walks up to his master’s mistress and murders her for no apparent reason, apparent being the key word. The rest of the movie deconstructs the reasons that the samurai killed the woman, while at the same time building the story of the life he leads during his house arrest for the crime, and what happens to him once he is set free. It’s a masterful job of storytelling from director Hideyuki Hirayama. Fans of samurai movies may be a little put off by the lack of fighting in the first two-thirds of the film, but the carnage created at the end will leave them breathless.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Inside Out

Elliot Gould gives a terrific performance in this story of a guy too terrified to go out of his New York apartment. As long as the money holds out, he’s happy enough since he can afford to have the best of what the city has to offer delivered to his door – food, women, drugs and anything else he can think of. When his business partner swindles him out of his share of the business, though, the guy has to face his fears and find the courage to walk out the door. The ending is a bit soft, but Gould’s performance makes the film utterly fascinating.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Annie Hall

After years of making people laugh while trying to make them think, Woody Allen finally found the right combination in this Oscar-winning romantic comedy that made the world say “lah-de-dah.” Diane Keaton stars as Annie, an off-beat New Yorker who seems like the perfect match for the neurotic nebbish Allen plays. The film is about the journey of romance, though, and what starts out as the perfect match soon grows into something completely different, something Allen’s character can’t handle because he can’t control it. The film was, and remains, witty, wistful and wonderful.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Phantom of the Opera at Royal Albert Hall

Too many filmed performances of Broadway shows get bogged down trying to make the viewer think they are sitting in the theater watching the show. In capturing the historic 25th anniversary extravaganza staged to celebrate one of Broadway’s longest running shows, director Nick Morris embraces the cinematic to a dizzying degree, creating a movie that not only captures the energy of being in the hall, but raises it to its own unique form of art. The cast for the show is first rate. Ramin Karimloo is good as the Phantom, particularly in the way he uses his body and voice to show us the emotions hidden behind the mask. Sierra Boggess is stunning in the role of Christine, and she almost has to be because the camera is as captivated as we are whenever she is on stage so every gesture and look is captured in High Def. Theater has never looked so good on film.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lady and the Tramp

It may not be the first film you think of when you think of classic Disney animated features, and that’s all the more reason to pick up a copy of this delightful 1955 film. It’s the story of a pampered pooch, voiced by Barbara Luddy, who gets caught up in a series of misadventures with a mangy (but loveable) mutt from the wrong side of the tracks, voiced by Larry Roberts. There’s some classic songs, including a sexy (and not just by Disney standards) performance by Peggy Lee of He’s a Tramp, and the funny (if a bit dated and racists) song from the Siamese cats. And the dinner scene where Lady and the Tramp share a plate of spaghetti (and their first kiss) will still make even the most anti-romantic sigh just a bit.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Love Story

Love, as anybody who has ever seen this classic tear-jerker romance from 1970 can tell you, means never having to say you’re sorry. The same motto can be used when anyone accuses you of actually enjoying the movie. Sure it’s sentimental clap-trap, but it’s very well done sentimental claptrap that has somehow improved with age. Maybe it’s just the simple pleasure of watching two extremely pretty people – Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal – up there on the big screen where the really pretty (if somewhat vacant) people like them belong. Maybe it’s just fun to watch a love story that’s just so darned innocent that makes watching it such a guilty pleasure. Sure, it’s far from being a great movie, or even a good one, and it’s hard to keep from giggling (just a bit) when MacGraw says the famous tagline … but so what? Relax and enjoy it. Just don’t tell anybody you enjoyed it.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Jazz Singer

Long before he garnered critical acclaim for his ‘serious’ performance as Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s The Kind of Comedy, Jerry Lewis proved he was more than just a silly comic with his fine dramatic work in this 1959 television special. The film, which premiered on NBC’s Lincoln-Mercury Startime TV series, has been dug out of the comedian’s comedy vaults, given a bit of polish and is now available for all in a B&W kinescope of the broadcast and an extremely rare color video recording, one of the earliest surviving examples of color television. Whichever way you watch it, you’ll be impressed. Lewis keeps the funny business on the stage for when his character, a night club performer, does his act. And he’s pretty funny, too. It’s the serious side, the side he shows as the man who denied his family and faith to follow his dreams that sticks with you.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Gasaraki

It may take you a while to warm up to this series from director Ryôsuke Takahashi. The pacing feels a bit sluggish and there are so many characters being introduced that you almost need a pen and paper to keep track of who’s who. Stick with it, though, because Takahashi is slow cooking a great stew with this story of a pair of gifted young people whose hidden talents may hold the key to saving the world. There’s plenty of giant robot action to keep action movie fans happy, but it doesn’t dominate the complex story. What starts as some robot battles in a Middle Eastern war zone soon evolves into a conspiracy to return Japan to its former glory, or at least the formal glory that a few powerful – psychotic – individuals want to see brought back. And if that means wiping thousands of undesirables off the map, so be it. What is a bit of ethnic cleansing compared to a bright new future? It’s chilling how far the movie takes that idea.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Up the Creek

Ah, the 80s, a time when all you needed to make a comedy was a couple of underachieving drunken slobs, an equal number of spotless preppy scumbags, and a dozen or so women willing to take their tops off and flash to the camera. Most of them are now long forgotten, but a few of these slob comedies are still worth watching. This 1984 film from director Robert Butler (Turbulence) is still pretty funny thanks to the engaging performance of Tim Matheson as the leader of the slob pack, and the comic chemistry he builds with a dog named Chuck. Blonde bombshell Jennifer Runyon is the epitome of 80s style/no substance as the girl of every slob's dream.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Chalet Girl

The plot is predictable – downright corny in spots – but there is something so utterly charming about this rom/com that it’s almost impossible to resist it, and that something is Felicity Jones. In the movie, Jones plays a working class London girl trying to make ends meet with the money she earns from her dead-end job working the counter at a fast food joint. She gets a chance to spend the winter catering for a bunch of rich snobs at their alpine villa, and it isn’t too long before she steps out of her class and falls in love with the rich son. Sure, the subplot of the chalet girl actually being a professional skateboarder who gave up a promising career when her mom died is only there to let director Phil Trail shoot lots of stunt people doing cool things in the snow. But so what? Jones could stand there reading the phone book and you would be hooked.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Queen: Days of Our Lives

Most rock documentaries give you a Cliff Notes version of a band’s career. They cover the making of a few hits, drop in a couple of videos and wrap it up with a ‘where are they now’ finale. That kind of format wouldn’t do justice to a band like Queen. They were big in the US, primarily because of Bohemian Rhapsody and its head banging use in Wayne’s World, but Queen were huge to the rest of the world. The movie goes in deep detail about how the members met, their creative process, and how they dealt with the fame they eventually achieved. It also gives a pretty in-depth look at the lifestyle that front-man Freddie Mercury lived and how it led to his contracting and eventually dying of AIDs. The film’s not a dry detailing of facts, though; there is plenty of music throughout, which is probably the best reminder of how cool a band Queen really was.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Yamada’s First Time

It sounds like one of the raunchiest anime you could ever imagine, the story of a high school girl who is determined to sleep with 100 different guys before she graduates. If that’s what you are looking for, though, look someplace else. Director Yusuke Yamamoto is a master of innuendo (subtle and otherwise), and there are lots of raunchy references packed into every episode, but it’s only a cover for what turns out to be a sweet story about two young kids falling in love for the first time. Yamada may talk about ‘doing it’ all the time, but her bravado is easy for the audience to see through. The bittersweet note at the end of the story arc is perfect.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Other F Word

It’s easy to show the bad in people: all you have to do it turn on the news any night of the week to see just how bad things can get in the world, particularly in terms of broken families and domestic violence. How fantastic it is, then, to watch a film that celebrates something positive: men who take responsibility for their actions – or the end results of their actions – to be fathers to their children. The fact that the guys in this movie are also punk rockers who spent their youth fighting against everything their parents stood for is icing on the cake. They still make music, and they still take pride in the way they don’t exactly fit in with the other parents on the block, but they have their priorities straight, which is a rear and inspirational thing to see.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Outrage: Way of the Yakuza

Takeshi Kitano has been making movies – especially yakuza movies – for a long time now, but, unlike some of his peers, he shows absolutely no sign of being bored with the genre. If anything the energy he brings to each new project burns brighter than the last, and in Outrage, it’s almost incandescent. In Outrage, Takeshi plays Ôtomo, the silent but very deadline hit man for one of the warring families. Ôtomo is a faithful soldier, doing whatever his boss tells him to do, no matter how gruesome, without any questions or, it seems, very much thought. It’s not too long, though, before Ôtomo sees the bodies piling up on both sides of the war and he realizes his could be added to the pile soon if he doesn’t take action. And he does, in glorious Takeshi style, including a scene in a dentist’s office that will give you nightmares.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Elvis Found Alive

From the somewhat cheesy photo on the cover, you might think this movie is some sort of low-budget Bubba Ho-Tep rip-off. It’s not. Actually, it’s a pretty fascinating look at the career of one of the most iconic performers the world has ever known, narrated by what we are supposed to believe is the King himself as he is today, alive and well after living the past 30 years in the witness protection program. OK, it’s a bit cheesy after all, but director/interviewer Joel Gilbert is skillful enough in telling the story that although you may not believe it’s all true at the end – was Elvis really in Avatar? — you will at least enjoy the ride. The best thing about the film, besides the plethora of archival footage from throughout Elvis’ career, is the attitude of the King as he tells his story. It perfectly captures what Presley might have been as a grumpy old man.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Moment of Truth

Imagine if Rocky was stripped of all its Hollywood sheen and was a much grittier, more realistic story about a hungry, ambitious young man desperate to make a better life for him and his family even if it meant risking his life in the ring. Now replace the boxing ring with a bullfighting ring, Sylvester Stallone with Miguel Romero (an actual bullfighter), and replace the annoying Talia Shire character with a series of nameless 60’s era bouffant-headed barflies. Now you’ve got a movie! Director Francesco Rosi does a fantastic job of not just capturing the art of bullfighting on screen, but of taking the audience as close as they will ever come to the action, but only after they, like his hero, have learned enough about bullfighting to understand and appreciate what they are watching.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The World God Only Knows

Keima maybe a hormone-crazed high school student, but he’s such a nerd that the only contact he has with members of the opposite sex is by way of his many simulated dating games. His lack of interest in real girls is put to the test when he answers a mysterious email and accidentally summons a cute little demon from hell named Elsee. To send her back, Keima must meet, seduce and kiss a series of girls who are unknowingly being possessed by an evil spirit. The girls Keima must save are all familiar anime stereotypes, but the spin the series puts on them is fresh and fun. And although he’s supposed to be learning how to interact with living creatures, the way Kleima uses his video game knowledge to seduce them is clever. Some of the story-lines go on a bit too long, like the one with the pop singer who literally disappears into thin air when people don’t love her, but the pacing of most of the show is fun and effective.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wings

It’s the first film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Film, and 85 years later it’s still a heck of a lot of fun to watch, particularly if all you think of when you think of ‘silent movies’ is the slapstick comedy of Laurel & Hardy or the Keystone Cops. It’s the story of two best friends who go off to war, leaving their sweetheart behind to pine away waiting for them. Only there’s a twist or two thrown in to make the familiar feel brand new, like the way one of the girls (Clara Bow) isn’t content to stay behind and goes off to fight the war her own way. With a running time of more than 2 ½ hours, the film drags in spots, particularly in the scenes of one of the flyboys getting drunk on champagne during a Parisian furlough, but the exciting aerial footage makes up for it, particularly when you realize they were filmed long before Hollywood had discovered computer generated cheats.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Real Steel

Sure it’s cheesy. Sure it’s silly. It’s completely over-the-top with an ending that will make you laugh out loud at how unbelievably schmaltzy it is. But you know what? It works. You can sit there and pick apart everything that is wrong with Hugh Jackman’s new movie, Real Steel, or you can just sit back, unplug the critical synapses of your mind, and enjoy the show. Directed by Shawn Levy (Date Night), the film tells the story of a down-and-out boxer named Charlie Kenton (Jackman) whose fall from grace has taken him from being a contender to being a has-been forced to take part in barely legal back-alley club fights. The twist here is that although he actually used to throw the punches, Charlie doesn’t do the fighting anymore, but only remotely controls a giant robot that stands in the ring for him.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cast Me If You Can

This highly entertaining Japanese romcom tells the story of Hiroshi (Tôru Masuoka), a somewhat successful television actor who is about to leave his life as a character actor behind for the starring role in a Woody Allen-type movie. A paparazzi photographs him handing flowers that a woman left behind in a shop and he suddenly finds himself being portrayed in the scandal sheets as the lover of the woman, who happens to be the wife of a prime minister. He also finds himself booted from the cast of the big film. So he comes up with a plan – or a series of plans – to get his reputation, and his job, back. Along the way he meets a perky young actress named Aya (Hiromi Nagasaku) who helps him realize that there’s more to life than pretending to be someone else.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Punished

If you straightened it out and told the story in a linear fashion, this crime thriller from Wing-cheong Law would be a pretty run-of-the-mill movie. It’s because he doesn’t tell it that way, but instead weaves the various storylines and time frames together in a compelling mosaic that the film rises up into something special. It’s the story of a sleazy developer’s daughter (Janice Man), a wild child with a blossoming drug dependency, who is kidnapped and held for ransom. Whether it’s a real kidnapping or a fake planned by his daughter to get money out of him, the mob boss (Anthony Wong) decides he has no choice but to pay the ransom, but that doesn’t stop him from setting his top dog (Richie Jen) on the ones who set it all up. The action is as good as you could want – stylish, yet realistic – but it is the acting which makes the movie really work, particularly Wong’s performance as the developer.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?

This delightful documentary from director Taggart Siegel takes viewers beyond the headlines (which most of them have forgotten already) about bees dying off in record numbers to give them an intimate look into the lives of bees, and the lives of people who love them. It’s kind of like getting a spoonful of sugar – or in this case honey – to make the medicine go down: you won’t realize how angry you are about the bee problem until the movie is over. And of course, there are plenty of extras in the DVD to tell you what you can do if the film moves you enough to actually get off the couch and follow-up. Maybe you will become a beekeeper like the people in the movie who raise hives everywhere from open space gardens to inner city rooftops. Maybe you’ll decide to boycott almonds until farmers find a more environmentally friendly way to use the bees they need to pollinate the trees. And if you ever wanted to learn how a Queen bee can be artificially inseminated, the film shows you that, too.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Belle Du Jour

This 1967 classic from director Luis Buñuel tells the story of a lonely and bored Parisian housewife named Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) who comes up with a unique way to make her days a bit more interesting: She signs up to do a day shift at a local high class brothel. Scared at first, Séverine soon discovers she has a talent for entertaining men. Her illusions of control over the situation are shattered when a friend of her husband – as well as a truly ugly thug with razor sharp teeth – start demanding more and more of her time. Like all Buñuel movies, there’s a lot more going on in the movie than what the audiences see on the surface, but even if they don’t want to spend hours deconstructing the film they will be wildly entertained with the story. Of course, they can also just sit back and watch one of the most beautiful actresses in the world who, at the age of 24, created in this film one of the truly iconic images of world cinema with her portrayal of the Belle Du Jour.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Cold Sweat

Just when you think there’s nothing new to be added to the creepy people in a house horror genre, director Adrián García Bogliano throws a curve-ball that knocks you right between the eyes. A couple of really creepy old guys, refugees from the blood thirsty dictatorship that rules over Argentina in the 1970s, lure young girls into their home through the Internet and subject them to weird experiments using some very unstable nitroglycerin left over from their heyday. From the first explosion to the last, Bogliano fills the screen with some truly terrify images, but what makes it more than a simple gore fest is the way he never lets the tension ease up. It almost gets to the point that you wish something – or somebody – would blow up just for the release. Then it does.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Zombie Apocalypse

Months after a plague has turned 90 percent of the world into flesh-eating zombies, a band of survivors tries to make it to the coast where they’ve been told a boat will take them to safety on a plague-free island. The details may be slightly different, but the plot will sound familiar to anyone who has seen a zombie movie in the past decade or so. What makes this a cut above the rest is the cast, lead by Ving Rhames, who all bring an infectious enthusiasm to the scenes: they look like they, too, think zombie movies are cool. The effects are pretty good, too, although some of the zombie makeup looks like it was purchased off the shelves of the local Spencer Gift Store. The big surprise the survivors find waiting for them at the dock at the end of their journey, is worth the wait.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Jersey Shore Season 4

First off, let’s be humble and say, Italy, we’re sorry. Sending these MTV reality stars from New Jersey to their ‘cultural homeland’ (again, sorry) seemed like a good idea. Ten minutes after the plane landed, it was clear how big a mistake it was, at least in terms of future Italian/American relationships. On the lighter side, though, you have to admit it made for great TV. Whether it was watching Ronnie stumble around in a drunken stupor or Snooki fighting off the amorous advances of a drunken Situation or Deena drunkenly throwing herself at Pauly D, it was hard not to watch. The unreality of their lives is just so compelling, especially when they get a chance to sit alone in front of the camera (more or less sober, for once) and explain what they were thinking when they did what they did. You may not care about them, but it’s impossible not to stay tuned to see what they will do next.

Monday, March 5, 2012

City Under Siege

Don’t let the title fool you into thinking this is some sort of epic war movie. The latest comedy/action flick from director Benny Chan (Shaolin) is the story of a pathetic circus clown named Sunny (Aaron Kwok) who dreams of one day wiping the grease paint off his face and doing a knife throwing act instead. His dreams are shattered when he follows the other performers on a midnight adventure searching for lost gold that instead uncovers a stash of super soldier nerve gas left over from World War II. Exposed to the toxic gas, the performers all become mutants who go on a violent crime spree. Except Sunny, who instead grows extremely fat, and then grows back to normal size except he now has super powers he can use to fight the mutant bad guys. It sounds a lot more complicate than it is, and the fact is that the story hardly matters once the mutants and Sunny start beating each other up.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Final Destination 5

When the creators of this slick horror franchise announced in 2009 that The Final Destination was going to be the final movie in the series the only people who believed them were people who knew nothing about the films, never saw any of them and probably never will. The fans, who have cheered the Rube Goldberg style of murder and mayhem they’ve been enjoying for the past decade, knew if The Final Destination made money, the series would continue. And so it did. This time, the story is a prequel of sorts to the original film, but the plot is basically the same: A group of pretty young people cheat death by not dying in a horrific accident, this time on a suspension bridge, and spend the rest of the movie being killed in increasingly insane ways until death’s balance sheet is filled in. While the death scenes in the movie are nuts – particularly Olivia’s (Jacqueline MacInnes Woods) death by laser eye surgery – the palpable tension that director Steve Quale brings to the scenes leading up to the big event is really what makes it work.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Heavens Lost Property Complete Series

To high school student Tomoki Sakurai, a perfect day is one where absolutely nothing happens. His attitude gets adjusted in a hurry one day when an angel literally drops from the sky and starts calling him master. The first half of this series focuses on Tomoki trying to learn how to live with a very buxom angel named Ikaros constantly at his side. It’s full of slightly naughty adventures – despite his inherent laziness Tomoki works very hard trying to see the girls in the show get naked, or at least steal their panties – that get increasingly raunchy, and increasingly hilarious. There’s more going on than just boob jokes, though, thanks to a subplot involving the race of superior beings that Ikaros escaped from in the first place. They want her back, and they need it to happen before Ikaros fully awakens and recovers the awesome power hidden beneath her skimpy maid costume. The switch from sex comedy to action film works pretty well, too.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Vietnam in HD

Visually, it’s stunning, and it’s certainly not easy to watch at times given the graphic nature of some of the scenes. What makes this show so fascinating, though, is the story being told and the unique way writer/director Sammy Jackson tells it. Instead of trying to give a comprehensive overview of the war, Jackson concentrates on telling the stories of a few men (told in their own words) who were there at some of the crucial battles and events of the Vietnam War. Although the use of actors to ‘play’ the part of the men when the scenes flashback to the war is a bit clunky at times, especially when the voices needlessly overlap, the essence of the stories is always powerful and provocative.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Archer Season 2

If you aren’t already familiar with this hilarious FX series, then stop reading this and go get a copy of Season 1 and 2. Your life will never be the same … and we mean that in a good way. As Season 2 opens, Isis (the international spy agency where the series is set) is on the brink of financial ruin thanks to some bad investments in a ponzi scheme by the head of the agency, Malory Archer (Jessica Walter). Cost cutting initiatives, like trying to make the spy agency go green, lead to some pretty funny moments. It’s the sudden appearance of a hooker and an infant she claims was fathered by super-spy Sterling Archer (H. John Benjamin) that sets the tone for the rest of the season. The voice acting, as always, is first rate in Season 2, and the dialogue is sharper than ever. This may be an animated series, but it’s also the most adult comedy on TV, which is great because it makes the creators absolutely fearless in going where few other shows – animated or not — would dare.