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Monday, December 31, 2012

The Point

Young Oblio is a round-headed lad who lives in a land where everybody literally has a point ... on the top of their head. When his secret is revealed he is banished to the Pointless Forest where he goes through a series of adventures that prove you don’t need a pointed head to have a pointed life. It’s the kind of kids’ story that sounds almost too cute to be bearable, but it’s saved by some dynamic art and a lovely musical score by Harry Nilsson, who also wrote the story. Ringo Starr does a nice job narrating the story, which really helps when you get to the more cloying parts, and Mick Lookinland, better known to millions of TV viewers as Bobby Brady of The Brady Bunch, is good as the voice of Oblio.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Creep Van

Horror movie fans will feel like they are trapped in a time machine and transported to a Times Square grind house circa 1975 watching director Scott W. Mckinlay’s new film, Creep Van. And that’s a good thing, because the old school feel of the film really cranks up the fear factor. The film stars Brian Kolodziej as Campbell, a chronic underachiever working in a rundown car wash trying to get enough money together so he can buy a car and get a girl. There’s a subplot about a serial killer driving around town in a tricked-out van that is equipped with enough lethal devices to wipe out half the cast and never repeat a method of murder. The whole point of the story, naturally, is to get Campbell and the van together and it manages to do it in a gruesomely imaginative way.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Backstage at Budz House: Comedy Special

The cast of the comedy Budz House must have had some extra film stock left over when they finished filming, so they used it to record this down and dirty comedy special featuring the cast and a few invited guests. The result is more of a videotaped house party than a feature film, and that’s just fine. The loose nature of the show is infectious, encouraging you to laugh even when the jokes really aren’t that funny. Of all the performers, host Faizon Love seems to be having the most fun of anybody; he’s also the funniest. While it stands alone as a night of comedy, this is a show that really should be seen after you watch the original Budz House, a smart little comedy that’s worth checking out

Friday, December 28, 2012

Ice Age—Continental Drift

There’s something just so darn likable about Manny, Diego and Sid – voiced by Ray Romano, Denis Leary and John Leguizamo – that they could make a movie about them doing almost anything and it would be worth watching. Thankfully the folks at Sony Animation have higher ambitions for their primary franchise and while this latest chapter may not live up to its predecessors in terms of story or character, it’s certainly entertaining enough to be better than most of the family movies (animated and not so animated) released this year. The basic plot of the story is, as the title indicates, the shifting of the Teutonic plates of the earth to form the continents. Out three heroes, and a selection of minor, but still funny characters, get caught in the shift, are separated from their loved ones and then have to find a way back. The ending may never be in doubt but there is enough adventure along the way to make you cheer when everyone is reunited.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Arbitrage

Gere has been a movie star for more than three decades and has some of the more iconic film experiences on his resume to prove it, from the boy toy Julian in American Gigolo to the suave hooker-loving businessman of Pretty Woman. He tap danced in Chicago, did full frontal nudity in Breathless and played gynecologist to the likes of Helen Hunt, Farrah Fawcett, Tara Reid and Kate Hudson in Dr. T and the Women. Not all of his films have been successful, either at the box office or from an artistic point of view. Some of them are borderline unwatchable (King David, Mr. Jones). Through them all, though, Gere has given his best, whether the material deserved it or not. The match of man and material is strong in Arbitrage. Imagine if Edward Lewis, the business tycoon he played in Pretty Woman, never met the hooker with the golden heart who changed his evil ways and instead went on to destroy the old man’s company like he intended. Now crank him up to 11 and coat him in 20 years of slime and you have an idea of who Robert Miller is, at least under the surface. In lesser hands, Miller would be a caricature of a business shark, a Snidely Whiplash in a well-tailored suit. Gere’s better than that. Much better. He starts the film showing us Miller as a master of the financial universe, a man who knows the power he has and what it can get him. Watching that facade crack, and watching a good actor at the top of his game portray a man losing everything is absolutely fascinating.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Total Recall

Colin Farrell stars as Douglas Quaid a blue collar factory worker who is starting to have troubling dreams, dreams where he and a mysterious beauty (Jessica Biel) are running from a bunch of bad guys wearing what looks like cheap Storm Trooper costumes. Quaid always wakes up before he finds out how the dream ends, but the image of what happens, and the weird feeling that it actually happened in real life, haunts him through his waking hours. To get a better grip on his slipping reality, Quaid goes to Rekal, a shady corporation that implants memories directly into your brain to make you think you did things you really haven’t, to see if he can get into his dreams and finish them. Something goes wrong during the process, however, and Quaid starts to act more like the man in his head than the man he thought he was. Confused? Don’t be. Director Len Wiseman does a pretty good job of explaining what is going on along the way, giving audiences just enough info to keep them interested without giving away too many secrets.


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Butter

There have been crazier ideas for a comedy than setting it in the world of competitive butter sculpturing, but it’s hard to think of one that has been funnier. The film stars Jennifer Garner as Laura, the domineering wife of the local champion (a delightful Ty Burrell). When her better half decides to retire, Laura’s need to be the Butter Queen of the town forces her to enter the sculpting competition where she goes head-to-head with a young girl named Destiny (Yara Shahidi) whose natural talent for molding dairy products makes her Laura’s mortal enemy. Watching them go toe-to-toe is fun, but the comedy of Butter stretches far beyond lactose-centric jokes. The setting may be pure corn, but the comedy is hilariously raunchy, brought to life with a truly hilarious performance by Olivia Wilde as the small town stripper who decides to take Laura on to get the money that Laura’s husband owes her for services provided.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Black Lagoon: Complete Set

At one point in this action-packed anime series, the character known as Revi Two Guns (for her knack of blowing away her enemies in a hail of gunfire from the two chrome-plated automatics she wears on her hips) dismisses a comment from her comrade that the fight they just survived was like something out of a Hollywood movie. “Don't be stupid,” she tells him, “this is much funnier than Hollywood.” It’s also much more exciting and a heck of a lot more interesting to watch than just about any action movie to come out of Hollywood in the past decade. The series follows the adventures of the crew of the Black Lagoon, a band of pirates who will do just about anything if the price is right, but who also work by a code of ethics all their own. The action is well staged and animated, the dialog crackles, the voice acting is spot on and the stories are well developed. Hollywood should pay attention and try to do as well.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Directed by Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and the life she leads in the rural Louisiana community called The Bathtub. Her life is difficult at the best of times, especially since her mother left her in the care of her deeply troubled and physically ill father (Dwight Henry), but Hushpuppy gets along fine, as much a creature of the nature that surrounds her as the world of the other people in the town. When a fierce storm floods the town, Hushpuppy is forced to find a way to survive on her own. It may take you a while to surrender to the story; this is Zeitlin’s first feature film and he’s refreshingly unhindered by any traditional notion of what a movie should or shouldn’t be. It’s a visually stunning film, too, but it’s also clear that every image on the screen means something: They aren’t just pretty pictures. The same goes for just about every word spoken by the talented cast, most of whom are making their film debut in Beasts, debuts that could very well have some of them attending the Oscars this year (along with Zeitlin) as nominees.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Is This a Zombie? Season One

To say that Ayumu is not your average high school student would be a gross understatement. Murdered by a serial killer, he’s been resurrected as a zombie by a cute little Necromancer who refuses to speak to him. As if that’s not bad enough, he has a chance encounter with a magical girl and somehow steals her power to become a Magical Garment Girl. Add a vampire ninja to the mix, and you have a cast that’s ready to take viewers on a truly wild ride as Ayumu tries to find out who killed him and stop them before they kill again. With a story like that, you know there is going to be some crazy animation. There’s also a fair amount of bloodshed. The unexpected treat is the way the series shows us the emotional bond the unlikely quartet build over the course of their adventures. It really helps balance the weirdness.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hermano

There have been countless stories about how sports can be the ticket for an individual to escape a bad situation and make a better life for themselves, but few have been as realistically thrilling as this tale of two brothers trying to use their soccer talent to get out of the Venezuelan slum they call home. The film starts with the stunning image of a young mother who, while walking her son to school, discovers an infant abandoned in a garbage heap on the side of the road. She takes the infant home and raises him as her own. The boy, who she names Daniel (Fernando Moreno), grows up to be a talented soccer player who seems destined to never reach his full potential because he can’t get out from under the shadow of his older brother Julio (Eliú Armas) both on and off the field. A shocking personal tragedy divides the brothers; Daniel tries to stay true to the dream of using soccer to save his family while Julio surrender to the need to seek revenge.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Oklahoma

Wolverine can sing? We take it for granted now, having seen Hugh Jackman sing and dance his way through a couple of Broadway shows and a job hosting the Oscars, but nobody knew he could do it when he first appeared on the London stage as Curly in this classic Rogers and Hammerstein musical. Five minutes into the first number, all doubts about his ability can be thrown out the window. What makes this DVD more than just a pretty soundtrack, though, is the excellent way that director Trevor Nunn embraces the theatricality of the experience. He doesn’t try to make a movie version of Oklahoma in the traditional sense, and he isn’t trying to give you the feeling that you are in the audience watching the show. Instead he uses the camera like it was another actor on the stage. It not only makes the show’s corniest numbers (The Surrey With a Fringe on Top) more palatable, but adds a depth to the dramatic tension to the story’s dark subplot involving the violent handyman Jud (Shuler Hensley).

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner star as a couple trying desperately to have a child. When science and sex fail to give them what they want, they reluctantly surrender to the idea that it simply wasn’t meant to be, but not before one last drunken night of wishing where they write down the characteristics they’d want their dream child to have, put them in a wooden box and bury the box in the garden. Before you can say, “Who told them this would work?” something magical happens in their life: the box of wishes they planted is transformed to the young boy they always wanted. After some initial slapstick running around, the Greens quickly accept the gift the world has given them. And if you want to enjoy The Odd Life of Timothy Green, you need to do the same. Along with asking audiences to believe in the magic of nature bringing a desperate couple’s dream to life, literally, the movie also asks – nay, demands – that you to leave your usual cinematic cynicism at the door.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

In this new documentary, audiences are given an up close and personal view into the life and work on one of the world’s most prolific – and controversial – artists. Watching the film, watching Ai Weiwei as he creates art in his studio or in a London gallery or on the streets of China, it’s easy to lose yourself in his story, in his world, because of the seductive way the movie was shot by director Alison Klayman. Those not familiar with the man and his art need to know two things about Ai Weiwei before going into the movie. First, named by ArtReview as the most powerful artist in the world, Ai Weiwei is China's most celebrated contemporary artist, and its most outspoken domestic critic. Second, in April 2011, when Ai disappeared into police custody for three months, he quickly became China’s most famous missing person.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Transformers Prime Season 2

Optimus Prime has lost all memory of his previous life and regressed back to when he was the data clerk Orion Pax. If that sentence means something to you, then settle back and enjoy Season 2 of this award winning animated series. If it doesn’t mean anything to you, then feel free to go back to the beginning with Season 1. It’s worth it, even if you didn’t enjoy what Michael Bay did with the Transformers on the big screen. Although the show is directed at a young audience, the animation and acting in the series are better than you will find on most big screen cartoons these days. Season 2 centers on the quest to discover ancient relics from the Vaults of Iacon on Cybertron, which means a lot of the shows are written in pseudo-intellectual language that means nothing outside the confines of the show, but you don’t really have to pay attention to enjoy the ride.

Patti Smith/Live at Montreux 2005

Patty Smith at a jazz festival? You better believe it. While the legendary music festival has always had a history of including non-jazz bands and musicians to its lineup, letting a punk performer Patty and her band in was a bit of a stretch, and it would be interesting to see what the promoters thought when she hocks that first loogie onto the stage during the opening number (the reggae style Redondo Beach). Whatever their reaction, it’s guaranteed that they quickly got over it as the band starts to work their way through its catalog. They do excellent renditions of their better known songs, like Dancing Barefooot and 25th Floor, and they really look like they are having fun playing their ‘hit’ single, Because the Night. The band stumbles a bit, though, playing Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone. Kudos to whoever came up with the idea of adding Television guitarist Tom Verlaine to the lineup.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Let the Music Play – The Story of the Doobie Brothers

Finally, the two biggest questions about The Doobie Brothers and have been answered. Yes, they got their name from their habit of smoking a lot of ‘doobies’ (aka marijuana) and while adding Michael Macdonald to the lineup brought them the biggest success of their career, most of the band members, on reflection, regret the decision (nothing personal Michael). The Doobie Brothers started as a Northern California biker bar band who were happy just to play and make enough money to cover the bar tab. Then in 1971 they released the Toulouse Street album which spawned two hit singles, Listen to the Music and Jesus is Just Alright. The rest is rock and roll history that is still being lived by the remaining band members today. The disc is divided into two sections- a 90-minute documentary and 90 minutes worth of live footage. Both are worth watching; the concert is worth watching with the volume cranked up to 11.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Hot in Cleveland Season 3

Every couple of years, there is a story in the movie press about how there are no longer any good roles for women past a certain age. The next time you see one, send Season 3 (or any season) of Hot in Cleveland to the author with a note to tell them to shut the hell up. Since its debut in 2010, stars Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Levees, Wendy Malick and Betty White have shown week after week what talented women of any age can do with good material. Season 3 starts hot on the heels of the final episode of Season 2, the one where Melanie, Joy, and Victoria wake up with no recollection of Elka's bachelorette party the night before. We quickly discover that not only is Elka’s husband (a delightful Don Rickles) not dead, but is still on the lam from the mob. Oh, and Victoria comes up with a plan to use her drunken Vegas marriage to Joy to relaunch her career. Some of the shows are a bit predictable, but the women are so enjoyable to watch they make even the most cornball routines feel fresh.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pato Banton – Live & Seen

Most people’s knowledge of reggae music begins and ends with Bob Marley. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but, as this delightful documentary reveals there’s more to discover and enjoy. The film is actually just a couple of reggae TV shows tacked together with Banto speaking directly at you answering questions asked off camera, so it’s not much to look at, visually speaking. That doesn’t matter because the music is so good and Banto is such an engaging interview. The film is a big fan letter to the man, too, so it doesn’t really put his career into perspective, at least in terms of the cultural and political influence of reggae music in Jamaica and throughout the world. Again, that’s not a problem because it’s pretty clear that Banto isn’t trying to be a lightning rod for political movements. He just wants to dance and have fun. You will, too.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Raw and The Cooked

Cooking shows and celebrity chefs are so ubiquitous, and so bland, today that it’s a welcome relief to settle in and follow writer/director Monika Treut on her culinary expedition of Taiwan because she keeps the focus of the film on the food and the people who make it. And while there are plenty of cooking shows these days filled with photo ops showing the celebrity chef touring the market early in the morning, you can tell they are only doing it because the cameras are there. Not so the chefs in Treut’s film, most of whom have a personal relationship with the people who raise the food they feed their customers. The director also does a good job of establishing the place where all this lovely cooking takes place, without being snarky or judgmental about it, or too touristy, either. She’s the perfect guide for a culinary journey many of us can only dream about.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Trilogy of Life: Pier Pablo Pasolini Trilogy

Quick, what do The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and the Tales of the Arabian Nights all have in common? If you said that they are all books you were forced to read in high school or college, books that you found awful then and would never think of reading again, you need to get this delightful set of films and reeducate yourself. What you don’t remember, and what director Italian Pier Paolo Pasolini absolutely reveled in, is that all these literary classics were, and are, full of bawdy behavior. Really bawdy behavior. Pasolini is no stranger to putting erotic — and disturbing — images on the screen, as anybody who has seen his masterpiece Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom can attest (if they admit they say it in the first place). The movies included in this Trilogy of Life set are much more upbeat and life affirming. They celebrate sex and sin while at the same time, like in the case of some of the stories told in the Canterbury Tales, aren’t afraid to add a moral message at the end. Pasolini just makes sure we all see the smile on the sinners’ faces before the lesson is learned.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Zorro

Cinematic versions of the legend of Zorro has been told and retold since almost the invention of the medium, from Douglas Fairbanks swinging from chandeliers in The Mark of Zorro in 1920 to Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones trading blows and swapping spit in The Mask of Zorro in 1998. This 1975 version starring French actor Alain Delon as the masked sword fighter who marks his enemies with a Z is one of the best. Directed by Duccio Tessari (A Pistol for Ringo), the film, unlike the others before it, doesn’t try to be an action movie spectacle or worry that Zorro isn’t likeable enough. Instead, it takes the legend and the man who is bringing it to life seriously and, as a result, is far superior. Delon is particularly effective in the title role, making the decision to play Don Diego, the man hidden behind the mask, as a foppish fool. Stanley Baker is effective as the evil Col. Huerta, and the lovely Ottavia Piccolo is perfect as the fiery lady Don Diego and Col. Huerta fight over.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

FCA35! An Evening With Peter Frampton

You may not want to admit it, but if you are a music fan of a certain age, you owned a copy of Frampton Comes Alive! As Wayne Campbell (Mike Meyers) explained in Wayne’s World 2, “Everybody in the world has Frampton Comes Alive. If you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide." And even though you might not have pulled the album out to actually play in decades, you will still get a kick out of watching Frampton and his excellent band go through the double album set song by sound. And even if you haven’t heard a single note of the songs played in the show, Frampton’s infectious enthusiasm – not to mention excellent guitar playing and still strong singing voice – will pull you in.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Christmas With Danny Kaye

Unlike a lot of Christmas specific television specials, this disc pairs shows from The Danny Kaye Show (1963-1967) that just happen to air around the holiday. So there are a few Christmas numbers, but there are also a lot of non-holiday shenanigans in the shows to entertain you, too. So the first (aired Christmas day, 1963) features the legendary Nat King Cole singing The Christmas Song and doing a jazzy duet of Jingle Bells with the host, but it also features guest and Mary Tyler-Moore in a couple of skits that have nothing to do with Christmas, including an hilarious send up of operetta that features Harvey Korman and Jamie Farr. The same can be said for the second special (that aired Dec. 21, 1966) which features Peggy Lee and a very young Wayne Newton. The Christmas stuff is good, but pales in comparison to watching Lee sing Here Comes That Rainy Day.

Beijing Punk

It’s been a long time since punk music mattered in America. Like rap, it’s been commercialized, homogenized and packaged to sell to white kids in suburban malls. So it’s a relief to see the sound – and the stand – of honest punk music is alive and well in, of all places, Beijing, China. Director Shaun M. Jefford didn’t know he’d find it when the film started. He made the mistake of first going to the malls and the punk clothing stores to ask the people who wore the fashion what they thought of the music, but the blank stares he got in response told him he was heading in the wrong direction. That’s when he stumbled on a nightclub called D-22 that serves as ground zero for the real punk music movement and the film takes off. If you like this kind of music, watch it with a pad and paper handy so you can write down the names of bands and hunt for them online. Chances are they won’t get visas to play at a club near you in the near future.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Vamps

If this was the movie Alicia Silverstone and director Amy Heckerling made after they retooled Jane Austin’s Emma into critical and commercial gold with Clueless in 1995, it could have been a big hit … or at least made it into theaters. It’s the story of two young vampire chicks trying to make a life…or at least an existence…for themselves in the big city. It’s not as easy as it sounds, despite their decades of experience, particularly since they are vampires who refuse to kill people, sustaining themselves on rats and other vermin. Things get even more complicated when Goody (Silverstone) falls in love with a descendent of the original vampire killer, Van Helsing. It’s not frightening at all, but there are a few good laughs to be found, and it’s fun to watch Silverstone be ditzy, even if she’s a bit long in the tooth to pull of the cutesy act.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dust Up

After seeing the horrors of war close-up, all Jack (Aaron Gaffey) wants to do is live a peaceful life in the desert hanging out with his Native American friend Mo (Devin Barry) drinking beer and doing yoga. His dreams of an uncomplicated life are shattered when a chance meeting with a young mother (Amber Benson) leads Jack down a path of bloody revenge. Writer /director Ward Roberts must have spent a lot of time watching grind house movies as a kid, because he perfectly captures the essence of the exploitation genre, combining gut wrenching violence with many mighty belly laughs. The story is twisted, to be sure, and it’s tempting to hit the stop button once the crazed bar owner/drug dealer Buzz (Jeremiah Birkett) starts spinning out of control. But if you make it though the disgusting scene with Buzz in the sheriff’s car, you’ll make it through the entire film, and have a hell of a ride along the way.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Dreamworks Holiday Classics

Alex the Lion and his fellow animals accidently shoot Santa out of the sky and have to take his place in the sleigh. Shrek, an ogre who never celebrated the holiday season before, needs his friends to show him what Christmas is all about. Hiccup the Viking discovers there’s a special reason all the dragons have flown away from their island home. As with all the repackaged Dreamworks Holiday shorts, the best thing about the trio of Christmas stories in this set is hearing the original voices recreate the characters that made the original feature films such big hits. Of the three, it is the one about the dragons, Dragons: Gift of the Night Fury, that works the best, thanks to a strong script and some dazzling imagery. The Merry Madagascar feature is fun, as is the bonus feature, The Penguins in a Christmas Caper. The Shrek adventure, Shrek the Halls, is a bit tired.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Astonishing X-Men Blu-ray Collection

The most frustrating thing about the four X-Men stories in this set was the way they were originally released. You’d watch Gifted, the story of a doctor discovering a controversial ‘mutant cure.’ You’d be thrilled at the story, written by Josh Whedon, and blown away by the art work from John Cassaday. Then you’d be stuck for months waiting for the next chapter in the story of The Astonishing X-Men to hit stores. Now you can get the whole set – Gifted, Dangerous, Torn and Unstoppable – and watch them they way they should be watched, back-to-back on the biggest television screen you can find. If you already have the original releases, you may want to check this out, if only for the special features. If you don’t know about them or didn’t watch them because of the motion comic animation style the stories are told with, then give it a chance. The visuals fit perfectly with the story and the voice acting is top notch. It’s a real treat.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Brave

A young Scottish princess with an independent streak as fiery as the wild main of red hair that swirls around her head finds her world threatened when her mother, the queen, announces that the first born males of three neighboring clans will soon be arriving to battle for her hand in marriage. Rather than submit to the traditional ways, the princess decides to stand up for herself and, through her actions, for all young women everywhere, be they princesses, commoners or just little girls sitting out in the audience watching this delightful Pixar movie. If you think you’ve heard it all before or imagine you know how the story will precede, then get ready to be thrilled. Just when Brave seems to be following the usual fairy tale story of the youthful fight for true love, the plot takes an unexpected turn that leads you on an wild and wonderful journey. What that journey is, however, must not be spoiled in the pages of a review. It has to be experienced.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Pixar Short Film Collection Volume 2

Along with giving the world some of the best animated movies ever made, the fine folks at Pixar Entertainment have delighted fans with the addition of a separate short film as a prelude to the feature presentation. This excellent collection gives them a chance to stand on their own, which is both good and bad. The good comes when the creative teams at Pixar think outside the box to create a beautiful work of art, like they do with La Luna, the story of a young boy learning the family business, in this case catching falling stars to light the moon at night, or Presto, the tale of the rabbit getting his revenge on the magician who pulls him out of a hat every night. The bad comes when the films feel like little more than outtakes from or commercials for hit movies with established characters. Watching Toy Story’s Ken and Barbie go on their honeymoon in Hawaiian Vacation is amusing, but it doesn’t have the depth of story – or of art – that the more original pieces have. Still, even at its most complacent Pixar films are miles beyond the competition.