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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Cirkus Columbia

It’s easy to tell a war story with a big budget, thousands of extras and plenty of gunfire and explosions. It’s much more difficult to tell a war story with none of the bells and whistles of mass distraction and show how war affects people on an individual, human scale. Director Danis Tanovic does a brilliant job of it in this riveting film set in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It’s the story of a young man and his mother and how their life is uprooted when the boy’s father – in political exile for 20 years – returns home to rule over the family and the rest of the town. The fact that he has his young future wife in tow is just one example of the cruelty the man brings with him, a cruelty based more on his bitterness at being exiled than in his belief in the future of his country. It’s not always an easy story to watch, but Tanovic is able to find humanity in even the darkest behavior, a saving grace in a story like this.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Films of Fury

Even if you are a self-proclaimed kung-fu movie ‘expert,’ this fine film is still worth watching. Using a clever bit of animation to tie the clips together, directors Andrew Corvey and Andrew W. Robinson have put together a shameless celebration of the movies they obviously love that’s a perfect introduction to those not familiar with the genre. Recognizing that most kung fu movies follow the same plot – REVENGE!! – they focus on the styles of the different directors, as well the personalities of the various actor/stuntmen who became stars. It’s a very positive portrayal of the film style, which is a big help to anyone who has seen a few kung fu movies and gone off on their own looking for films only to quickly discovering just how many crappy kung fu movies there are in the world. So be sure to make notes as you watch.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ralphie May Too Big To Ignore

Forget about being too big, Ralphie May is too damn talented to be ignored. It’s not just that he’s funny; May is one of those rare comic talents who can use humor to make people think about the world they live in, their place in it and how they can make it better. They may not know they’ve learned anything until days later, when they finally stop laughing, but that’s fine. The best thing about the DVD, though, may be the too brief behind-the-scenes movie included on the extras. It not only shows May interacting with fans, some of whom traveled “farther than (May) would go to see family” to catch his act, but gives viewers an idea of just how hard he works to make the shows as good as they can be.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Phil Collins Live At Montreux 2004

To paraphrase Bill Murray in the movie, What About Bob?, there are two kinds of people in this world, those who like Phil Collins’ music and those who don’t. While this extensive live concert Blu-ray will be a must-have for the former, it just may be good enough to pull a few of the “don’t likes” over to the other side. There are actually two concerts on the disc, a 2004 greatest hits style show with Collins and his band, and a 2006 show where Collins is joined by an all-star orchestra conducted by Quincy Jones. The combined set list is expansive enough that there’s something to please everybody, although it will be hard to find anyone who thinks Collins’ singing the Cindy Lauper hit, True Colors, was a good idea. Collins’ easy going stage presence works well in both sets, too. So even if you don’t think you like him, give it a shot.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

W.E.

For her second stint behind the camera, following 2008’s Filth and Wisdom, Madonna takes on the unlikely subject of the romance between the Prince Edward, the Duke of Whales and his twice-divorced American lover, Wallis Simpson. The film, written by Madonna and Alek Keshishian, also tells the present day story of a young woman named Wally (Abbie Cornish) trapped in a crumbling marriage with a hard-drinking psychologist (Richard Coyle). Try as she might, Madonna never really gets the two stories to weave together in a cohesive way; in fact, there are times the switch between the past and the present can be a bit jarring. One can’t help but feel there are two really good movies here that just don’t play well together. Still, Madonna shows a real talent for storytelling, especially in such bold strokes as having Prince Edward and his upper crust friends chew a bunch of uppers and dance to the Sex Pistols (nobody said great art has to make sense). And she is a good enough director to give the actors room to breathe, resulting in some unforgettable performances, particularly form Cornish.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Red House

When you think of Edward G. Robinson, you probably think of one of his classic gangster films like Little Caesar, or maybe you remember him as the dogged insurance investigator in the still thrilling noir, Double Indemnity. Watching his performance in this rare film from 1947 will add a different dimension to what you remember the actor for. Directed by Delmer Daves, the film tells the story of a young girl experiencing the first love of her life with a boy from her high school working on her family farm. Things seem normal on the surface, but there’s a secret hidden in the family closet, a secret that is slowly driving Robinson’s character insane. The story gets a little too weird at times, but the cinematography by Bert Glennon is stunningly atmospheric and beautiful.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Innkeepers

In their effort to try to push the gore envelope as far as they can, far too many of today’s horror movie makers forget that one of the keys to making an audience truly scared is, strangely enough, comedy. Get the audience on the edge of their seats with a few tense moments, break the tension with a laugh or two and then – WHAM! — hit them with the big scare. Ti West, director of The Innkeepers, gets it. As scary as the movie is – and it’s pretty darn scary – West never forgets the cardinal rule that an audience has to honestly care about the people in the movie. If you want the audience to feel real fear at what’s going to happen next, the characters have to be more than mindless meat bags waiting to explode.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Contraband

In his new action movie, Contraband, Mark Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, an ex-smuggler who is trying to build a life for himself and his family that doesn’t involve him breaking any international import/export laws. His new career running a New Orleans’ alarm company isn’t as exciting as the adrenaline rush of crossing a border with a couple million in counterfeit money, but it’s a lot safer. Whalberg, who has played the same kind of character before, gives a skillful performance, perfectly balancing the blue-collar Everyman he’s perfected over the years with some fresh twists, like the way he shows the audience that although Chris Farraday knows he’s doing the right thing by trying to be an honest man, he really misses the swagger he feels being king of the smugglers.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Shame

Actors are paid to bare their soul, but Michael Fassbender does a heck of a lot more than that in this intense drama about a lonely, obsessive New Yorker who uses sex to keep the world at bay. It’s a shame, so to speak, that Fassbender’s full-frontal nudity in the movie seemed to get more attention than his acting when the movie came out, but maybe watching it on DVD can help people get over their embarrassment (or excitement) at seeing him naked to become just as enthralled with his acting. Pay attention to Carey Mulligan, too, whose performance as the equally troubled sister is as raw as Fassbender’s, and ultimately more haunting. Director Steve McQueen has made an uncompromising movie that’s not easy to watch, but oh so rewarding to sit through

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Only In America Volume 2

Truer words have never been spoken to introduce a television show than when the host of this great History Channel series steps up and says, “I’m Larry the Cable Guy and I love this country.” In his second volume of adventures across America, Larry does everything from run through a marine camp obstacle course to help an Amish family make sauerkraut. He pans for gold, cuts down gigantic tress as a logger, spends a day as sheriff and, in a segment that gives him way too many easy jokes, learns to cut the cheese at a dairy. While every new experience is fodder for his unique brand of funny, the real treat of the show is watching Larry throw himself into anything that comes his way, whether it’s something he wants to do or not. He sees the value in anything that another person takes pride in, and that’s enough for him to roll his sleeves up and give it a try. It’s also the reason why he wants to share it with you in the first place.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Miss Representation

Whoever said movies can’t change your life, hasn’t sat through this fascinating documentary from writer/director Jennifer Siebel Newsom. The film explores the way women are treated in the media – how they are portrayed in movies, how they are objectified in advertising, how they are belittled in politics and places of power and, ultimately, how women today are fighting to change the way the world treats them. The film may get a little preachy at time, although that may depending on one’s personal level of enlightenment about the issues being brought up, but the topics are varied enough, and told in enough different styles, to keep you from ever being bored. By the end of the film you may be inspired to get off the couch and do something, or you may just use the remote to turn something else on. Either way, the fact remains that after you view it, you just can’t look at the world the same way again.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Mix equal parts James Bond and Jason Bourne, add a twist of Tom Cruise in full action hero mode, strain it all through the keen visual style of director Brad Bird and what do you get? More than two hours of thrilling high-octane movie madness. What makes Ghost Protocol more than just another big – make that huge – budget action movie is a combination of the sheer intensity of the stunts and the thoroughly enjoyable chemistry shared between Cruise and his IMF team. They don’t ever really come across as tough guys on a dangerous mission; instead, the team feels more like old friends hanging out and swapping stories at a back yard barbecue. They look cool when the bullets start to fly, too, but when they aren’t fighting, they fall back and relax with each other.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Legend of the Legendary Heroes: Part One

The story is as complicated as the title, and there are way too many characters and subplots woven into the plot for its own good. Having a hero who has to spout a cheesy incantation every time he wants to defend himself doesn’t help, either. If you stick with it, though, the ride you take in Legend of the Legendary Heroes is well worth it. The series follows the adventures of Ryner Lute, a bearer of a cursed, extremely lethal power called the Alpha Stigma, and his beautiful comrade Ferris as they search the land looking for the Heroic Relics their king needs to defeat his enemies and bring peace to the land. There’s a nice blend of comedy and action throughout the series, although some of the fights are a lot more graphic than expected.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Witches of Oz

Re-imagining a classic is never easy, but the creators of this TV mini-series do a heck of a job taking the story of Dorothy and her little dog Toto (or in this case, her German Sheppard dog Toto) and updating it in new and imaginative ways. Although she grew up on a farm in Kansas, the Dorothy in The Witches of Oz (played by Paulie Rojas) isn’t a little girl. She’s a grown up about to leave the farm and seek her fortune in New York City where an evil book publisher (Eliza Swenson) is about to make her a media darling as the author of a new series of children’s books about a mystical land named Oz. The fact that the stories in the books are her own suppressed memories, or that she holds the key—literally – to the fate of mankind, are just a few of the twists added here to spice things up. The effects are pretty cool, and the acting is good throughout. Be warned, though, the tone of this new Oz story is darker than any of its predecessors and may be a bit too intense for younger viewers.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Astonishing X-Men: Dangerous

Stop-motion animation comics are an acquired taste, especially if you are a fan of the top quality fully animated DVDs and Blu-rays that Marvel and DC put out. The jerky motion of the characters and the not always effective synchronization between the voices and the characters’ mouths can get annoying if the story isn’t strong enough to capture you from the start. And that’s what is so cool about Astonishing X-Men: Dangerous. With a script by Joss Whedon and visuals by John Cassaday, all the nitpicking complaints you may have about motion comics won’t matter a bit. You’ll be too engrossed trying to figure out who is killing the X-Man and what the team will do to stop it from happening again.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

We Bought a Zoo

It would be easy to be cynical and pick apart this heartfelt story of a single dad who uproots his family and takes them to live at a home in the country that just happens to come with its own wild game preserve. But don’t. Leave your cynicism at the door. Sit back, relax and watch that rarest of Hollywood creations, a really well-made family movie. Director Cameron Crowe, perhaps trying to get back on the mainstream movie track after veering wildly off course with Vanilla Sky (not to mention the abysmal Elizabethtown), keeps the story flowing at a pretty brisk pace, never letting the family drama get too heavy along the way. He depends a little too much on inserting close-up reaction shots of the animals whenever the story drags, but given the title of the film, you have to cut him some slack.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Surviving Hitler

Jutta and Helmuth were two people in love just looking for a chance to make a life together, but such chances were extremely hard to come by in Nazi Germany, especially when Jutta discovers that under the new German law, she is Jewish. Using a combination of archival footage, home movies and modern interviews, director John Keith Wasson weaves a hypnotic tale that takes you beyond the more known facts about WWII and Nazi Germany into the relatively small world of two people who make a stand for love and for what is right. It’s short running time (just over 60 minutes) is a bit frustrating, but only because the story is so compelling, but the ending makes up for it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Girls Just Want to Have Fun

Ah the 80s. A time when hair was big, leggings were in fashion and Cindy Lauper’s anthem for girl power was flooding the airwaves. It’s also a time when Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt were 20-something actresses working their way up to the fame and fortune TV would bring them (Parker on Sex and the City, Hunt in Mad About You) , so getting a lead in a teen comedy about two high school friends competing to be on a TV dance program probably seemed like a great idea. Twenty-seven years later, the film is more of a time capsule than a rewarding film experience, especially if you, too, were in your 20s when it came out. It might even inspire you to break out your neon-pastel tights and your soundtrack cassette so you can bust a movie to the title track. Like the song it’s based on, the movie is harmless fun.

War Horse

Steven Spielberg sure doesn’t spare the schmaltz in this beautifully photographed story of a young man and the horse that changes his life. He really wrings the sentimentality out of every scene. Whether it’s the young man bidding farewell to the horse as it goes off to war or the tearful reunion of the two after they go through a series of adventures apart, Spielberg seems to have one goal in mind: To make you cry. Or at least have the tears well up in your eyes as you watch that last moment of golden sunset at the end of the movie as the man and his horse hug it out. Even if you don’t feel any emotional attachment at all to the characters, animal or human, in the movie you can still enjoy the sheer craftsmanship of War Horse. It’s a good story and it’s well told.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

I Claudius

Stories about ancient Romans are all the rage these days, both in theaters (The Wrath of the Titans) and on cable (Rome, Game of Thrones). How refreshing it is to watch it being done, and done much better, 35 years ago in this fascinating BBC series. The stories may be generally the same, but the way they are told is so different because while the modern shows depend on violence and special effects to tell their tales, the BBC series depended on well written scripts and phenomenal acting. I Claudius stars Derek Jacobi in the title role as the handicapped son of the illustrious Augustus Caesar (Brian Blessed), a man everyone assumes is an idiot because of his stammer and physical disabilities. It’s a mistake they pay dearly for. Strong as the men are in the series – John Hurt is stunning as the lascivious Caligula — it is the ladies who steal the show: Sian Phillips performance as Augustus Caesar’s wife, Livia, is absolutely chilling.

Friday, May 11, 2012

James May’s Man Lab

James May, the veteran star of the popular BBC series Top Gear, gets our from behind the wheel for an all-too brief series of shows designed to save today’s man from his worst enemy, himself. Frustrated that men today are generally helpless when it comes to the skills he thinks defines a man as a man – skills that range from building stuff to blowing stuff up – may and his friends come up with simple examples of how a man should acting a series of given situations. If you local pub goes out of business, build a bar of your own. If you can’t get the attention of a pretty girl at work, serenade her with a song. If you discover an unexploded WWII bomb buried in your back yard, you should know how to disarm it. The actual advice may not be practical to most viewers, but watching May go through the motions is enormously entertaining.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

David Lean Directs Noel Coward

David Lean is one of the world’s greatest film directors; Noel Coward is one of the world’s best – and most prolific — entertainers in almost any field. Naturally you would think that when they join forces, magic happens. And, as this set of four movies proves, it does. Of the four movies, their first collaboration, In Which We Serve, is perhaps the most straightforward, telling the story of the crew of a battleship as they go off to war. The way the directors weave in the stories of the men before they boarded the ship is impressive. Brief Encounter, the story of a tragic affair that starts when two people meet at a train station, is a classic tearjerker, and while it doesn’t pull at your heartstrings as aggressively, it’s hard not to be choked up with the ordinary life of the people trying to live their lives between the two great World Wars in The Happy Breed. Blythe Spirit, the story of a man whose deceased first wife is conjured up during a séance, is a bit of fluff, but still very entertaining.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

South Park Season 15

It seems that unless they are in the news for being controversial, Trey Parker and Matt Stone never really get too much attention for their weekly animated series. And they’re probably fine with that because they can do what they want, which is helm one of the greatest TV shows ever made. Each episode is a comedy gold mine, particularly if you’ve been following the adventures of Cartman, Kenny, Kyle and Stan for the past 15 years. Sitting down and watching these episodes for a second (or 11th) time, you get a chance to really appreciate just how smart and insightful – not to mention scathing – the stories are: social commentary has never been so funny, or so sharp. The extras included in the disc, particularly the documentary of the South Park team putting together an episode, are terrific.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ninjago Masters of Spinjitzu

It’s a classic kung fu story about four warriors who must join together to defeat a powerful dark force trying to take over the world. The action is good, the story strong and the sets are wonderful. Granted, it all takes place in the world of Lego toys, so it’s an animated movie with tiny plastic characters with hands like crosscut PVC piping, but so what? You can either think it’s for kids (and it is) and ignore it or you can give it a shot and surrender to the fun of watching Sensei Wu train Kai, Jay, Zane and Cole in the ancient art of Spinjitzu to defeat the evil Lord Garmadon. Try it. You’ll like it.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Princess Jellyfish: The Complete Series

Tsukimi is a shy girl who has never been comfortable with other people, until she discovers a group of equally shy/nerdy girls and agrees to become their roommate. Their otaku lifestyle is shattered when Tsukimi reluctantly befriends a stylish girl whose sense of fashion hides a secret that could get Tsukimi kicked out of the house forever. This energetic anime features some great art, from inventive site gags to well-drawn characters, and the story is layered enough to keep you guessing what will happen next. It’s the characters, though, and the excellent voice acting that really keeps you hooked from episode to episode.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch

A mysterious billionaire business mogul decides to adopt a Eastern European war orphan that he can raise to be his heir. The kid grows up to be kind of a jerk, though, who doesn’t want anything to do with his father’s power or wealth. Then the old man is murdered and the kid comes back to get his revenge on the man who killed him. Sounds pretty predictable, but it’s actually amazing what director Jerome Salle and leading man Tomer Sisley do with it. The Heir Apparent is a nonstop thrill ride that avoids the usual action movie clichés to bring something fresh and original to the screen. Sisley also makes a brilliant move by casting Kristen Scott Thomas as the frigid ice queen who runs the company when the mogul dies and is reluctant to turn over control to the heir.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention

It’s been almost five years since the delightful clay duo of Wallace and Gromit have released a video, and while this series doesn’t really count as a full-blown W&G adventure, it’s still great fun to watch. In the series, Wallace and Gromit play hosts on a science show that features some truly offbeat inventors, people ranging from a guy who makes robotic sculpture out of plastic tubing to a man who invented a wireless telephone that transported sound through soil more than 100 years ago. The science segments are fun in themselves, but it’s the wacky shenanigans of Wallace and Gromit that make the series so entertaining. Who else but W&G would come up with a plan to feed an elephant cabbage so they could capture his methane and convert it to energy?

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Last Temptation of Christ

When it was first released in 1988, this brilliant film from director Martin Scorsese never got the audience – or the positive attention it deserved -- because of the knee-jerk reaction from fundamentalist Christians who called the film blasphemous … without having seen a single frame. Twenty-five years later, it’s time to take another look at this misunderstood gem. Not only does it feature one of the bravest high-wire acting performances ever caught on film, that of Willem Dafoe in the title role, but it also features some fantastic cinematography and a stirring score from Peter Gabriel. Sure, some of the apostles’ accents are more New Jersey than Old Jerusalem, but if you just listen to what they say, and not how they say it, you’ll find a movie that is as close to a religious experience as you could want, no matter what faith you follow.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Battle Royale: The Complete Collection

To handle a high school population gone out of control, the Japanese government passes a law that troubled teens can be legally rounded up and shipped off to a deserted island where they have 72 hours to kill each other until only one remains. The fact that these deadly battles are televised to a global audience of millions who get off on watching the kids off each other is just one of the unpleasant layers that director Kinji Fukasaku peels back in this biting – and bloody — social satire. This excellent box set has both the theatrical and the director’s cut of the film, as well as a disc of extra features. It also features the less satisfying Battle Royale 2, a sequel that has the survivors of the first film joining forces to kill all the adults in the world.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy

Audiences who grew up on high-octane spy thrillers of the James Bond variety may have trouble adjusting to the slower pace of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Not only is the film filled with a lot of talking, but a lot of the conversations heard in the film don’t always make sense, at least not in the traditional sense of story exposition. The key to enjoying this excellent adaptation of the popular (and equally demanding) best-seller from John le Carré is to not try to aggressively outguess the actors as the story unfolds. Slow your brain down. Watch the actors. Concentrate on the clues that are dropped in your lap and examine them carefully to see if they are real or red herrings, all the while keeping one eye on the screen because director Tomas Alfredson seems to have an almost sixth sense about when your mind wanders away from his story and seems to delight in picking just those moments to scare the heck out of you with some unexpected bit of shocking violence.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Legend of Awesomest Maximus

Film satires are a real crapshoot; for every great one (Hot Shots!, Scary Movie) there seem to be a dozen or so just plain crappy ones. This movie, directed by Jeff Kanew, is one of the better ones because it not only gleefully spoofs the movies – everything from Gladiator to 300 to Braveheart – but is a strong enough comedy to stand on its own. The key is the funny work of funnyman Will Sasso (Curly in the Farrelly brothers’ Three Stooges movie) as the hero of the piece, a happy-go-lucky Roman general who is much better hosting a feast than leading his troops into battle. When his brother kidnaps the wife of a rival leader, he is forced to put down his beer and pick up a sword, with hilarious results. Those who prefer their humor refined or are easily offended should look elsewhere; those who aren’t afraid to laugh at the absurd, ridiculous and, yes, offensive, will find a home.