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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Exploitation Double Feature: Black Cobra Woman/Super Bitch

The title says it all. The first feature, Black Cobra Woman, stars Jack Palance as a creepy millionaire living in Hong Kong with his even creepier brother, a dancer he picks up at a strip club and a vast collection of poisonous snakes. The story, about the younger brother trying to cheat his sibling out of money, is little more than an excuse to show people writing in agony after being bitten by a snake. The plot also gives the ladies of the film plenty of opportunity to strip down to their birthday suits and writhe around on the floor or the bed. It’s perfect grind house entertainment. The second movie is a bloody mob story about an undercover cop playing both ends of the drug underworld to make as much money as possible before taking off with the hot babe of the title. He meets his match, though, when the elderly Mama, leader of the Turkish drug family, comes looking for him guns blazing. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Men Who Built America

If you ask the average person to name some of the men who built America, you will probably get a lot of answers straight out of whatever political figure they can remember from high school history classes, meaning everybody from George Washington to Bill Clinton. This fascinating series from the History Channel takes a different approach and looks at the men who literally built this country, and made millions – even billions – doing it.  So instead of a president or social leader, we get profiles of guys like Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie, profiles that show us how money and power are what really made this country what it is today, and what it will be tomorrow. The shows are a mix of cold hard facts and dramatic interpretations that takes a bit of getting used to at first, but the cast they’ve lined up too play these titans of industry is formidable, particularly Eric Rolland as J.P. Morgan and Tim Getman as J. D. Rockefeller.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Royal Kingdoms

With so many documentaries flooding the market following the marriage of Kate and William, not to mention the over-exposure of all things Downtown Abbey, it is only normal to feel a bit weary of anything even vaguely anglophile these days. Well, before you lump this 4-disc set under the same banner, take a breath, relax and settle in for something completely different. The cool think about this series is the way it concentrates on one specific castle or cathedral and examines it with a jeweler’s eye for details. The scripts stay away from being too touristy, even when they are describing tourist destinations like Westminster Abbey, which makes a huge difference because each episode makes you feel like you are on an adventure. The filmmakers have a strong knack for matching images and narrative in equally original and compelling ways.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Toriko: Part 1


Set in the Gourmet Age, a time when warriors search the globe looking for the best things to eat so they can create the ultimate menu, this enormously entertaining anime tells the story of a muscle-bound Gourmet Hunter named Toriko and his adventures working for the food-centric government. He teams with a chef named Komatsu to hunt things like the Gararagator and the Poisonous Puffer Whale, creatures so creatively drawn that trying to describe them in words would spoil the fun of watching the battle the good guys. There is a cute news reporter who tags along hoping for a scoop she never seems to get, and a host of other Gourmet Hunters with powers ranging from a guy with the ability to secrete poison from their skin to the ability to a guy who can use his hair as a weapon. The series has a nice blend of action and humor, and the artwork, especially the finely detailed pictures of the dishes the chef’s create, is spectacular.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis

If you are looking for an in-depth expose on the life of the famous comic, or even a roast-style celebration where comics make fun of him, you will have to look somewhere else. Like so much of Jerry Lewis’ career, this documentary is a tightly controlled affair. And that’s just fine. Director Gregg Barson, who did a similar documentary tribute to comedienne Phyllis Diller called Goodnight, We Love You, is obviously a Lewis fan and is just happy to share what he likes about him with the world. The same goes for the mixed bag of talking heads who show up to put their two-cents in; some of them, like Jerry Seinfeld, look honored to be part of the proceedings  while others, like Chevy chase stare into the camera like they are looking for their check. Through it all, one gets a sense of not only Lewis’ place in the world of comedy, but his passion for what he does and his honest belief that nobody does it better.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Archer Season 3

Already one of the funniest series on television, animated or not, this hilarious spy spoof turned the laughter up to 11 for season three with the single best guest appearance imaginable – Burt Reynolds. In the episode titled The Man from Jupiter, Burt plays himself and does it with style. The humor comes from the reaction the rest of the cast have from having Burt in their lives. Archer, who has been a fan of Burt since he was a child, is beside himself with joy, or he would be if his hero wasn’t sleeping with his mom. The rest of their cast all have their own reasons for living Burt, especially Pam, who delivers one of the funniest lines imaginable (it can’t be reprinted, but you will never forget  it). The rest of the series is good, too; the episodes where Archer gets to live out his dream of having a chase on top of a speeding train is kind of brilliant. Few series get better with age, but Archer is that rare exception that gets better – and funnier – with each episode. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Pink Still on Fire

The good news is that this collection of interviews taken from throughout the singer’s career really gives you an insight into not only her song writing and creative process, but into the personal life of the woman who makes such beautiful music. The bad news is that the people conducting the interviews, for the most part, are absolute morons. At best, they are fawning fans who seem more interested in getting Pink to realize how much they like her instead of anything close to an intelligent question (and that means you Ellen DeGeneres). At worst, the interviewers come across as perverts who can barely get the questions out of their mouths because they are drooling so much. A lesser person, and a less confident woman, would have a hard time dealing with it, but Pink rises above it all to present herself as she is, warts and all, without succumbing to any of the other crap. It’s as empowering as her music.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Anna Karenina


A big budget adaptation of a 19th Century Russian novel that’s probably known more, if at all, by audiences today for it’s opening sentence -- 'All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' – than for anything that happens in the hundreds and hundreds of pages that follow. Is that really a movie you want to see? If it’s the latest version of Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright (Atonement) and starring Keira Knightley as the tragic heroine of the title, the answer is a resounding YES! From almost the moment it starts, you can feel the excitement that what is about to unfold on the screen is not only unlike what you expected, but unlike anything you’ve seen even attempted by a director and his cast in many, many years. If Wright had taken a more traditional approach to the story, making a David Lean-style epic that focused on the sumptuous details of the costumes as much as it did the faces of the people wearing them, the cast he assembled for his movie would probably have pulled it off; they’re that good. They seem to be energized by the vision of the man behind the camera, though, and it adds flair to their performances.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Robot & Frank

On one level, Robert & Frank is a smart, and smartly played, caper comedy. Before he ‘retired’, Frank (Frank Langella) was a cat burglar who specialized in stealing jewelry from the very rich (so nobody really got hurt except the insurance companies).  He’s too old to pull off a job by himself, but it isn’t very long before he discovers that his robot helper has the skills needed to help him without any of the moral conundrums about stealing being right or wrong. The mismatched pair head off on a mini-crime spree that’s a lot of fun and if the movie was just about that, it would be pretty entertaining to watch. But there’s more. The script deftly weaves the issue of Frank’s failing mental health into the crime caper in some very effective ways. Having something to do and keep him mentally stimulated – even if it is stealing – is good for Frank, but it isn’t a cure for his Alzheimer’s. It only holds off the inevitable decline, and Langella does a stunning job of balancing the two mental states in one performance while at the same time letting the audience see the fear in Frank’s eyes because in his more lucid moments he knows what is happening to him and how helpless he is to stop it. It’s a brilliant bit of acting that takes a fun little robot movie and raises it to the level of art.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Skyfall

The pressure to get it right this time must have been immense. After stumbling though the forgettable – and badly titled – Quantum of Solace back in 2008, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson were under the gun to get the Bond movies back on track. After all, 2012 marks the 50th Anniversary of the spy series and the best way to tarnish a half century of 007 would be to make the Golden Gift to fans a flop. Not to worry. From the opening sequence, a nail-biting chase sequence that ranks among the best openings of any of the Bond movies, to the minute you see “James Bond Will Return” before the house lights go up at the end, Skyfall rocks. The action is spectacular, the humor as sharp as the creases in Bonds well-tailored suits, the script is tight and the acting – yes the acting – is spot on. Hell, even the title song, sung by British pop sensation Adele, is a perfect fit. Best of all, particularly for those who have spent a big chunk of their movie time watching Bond beat the bad guys  up there on the big screen, the film is filled with lots of references to the Bond films of  the past. Granted, not all of the references are as subtle as hearing the immortal catchphrase, “Bond. James Bond,” but the fans won’t mind. (And if you don’t feel your heart skip a beat when Bond uncovers the ultimate getaway car, then you need to go do your homework starting with Goldfinger.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Silent Hill: Revelation

The story is confusing; it seems that just about every bit of dialogue in Silent Hill: Revelation that isn’t a blood curdling scream, guttural groan or maniacal laugh is pure exposition designed to keep the audience up to date on what the heck is happening. (They don’t even really bother with why). While that might sound like a huge problem, it’s actually the perfect match for the wild images that writer/director Michael J. Bassett throws up on the screen. Silent Hill: Revelation isn’t one of those thinking man’s horror movies, and it certainly isn’t one of those gutless PG-13 ‘horror’ movies designed to separate pre-pubescent ticket buyers from their parents’ money. It’s a full-on, visceral thrill eye that uses 3D technology to throw buckets of blood and gore at the audience with gleeful abandonment. Thanks to Bassett and his collaboration with cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, not to mention a high octane special effects team, there are images Silent Hill: Revelation that will haunt you long after you leave the theater, from the brutality of the sexy/sadistic/blind nurses in the hospital operating room to the hilariously eerie mannequin spider to the hauntingly beautiful image of the ash from the burning town falling across the 3D screen like snow. It’s a hell of a ride.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Battle for Brooklyn

Daniel Goldstein didn’t start out being an activist. He was a graphic designer who just purchased his first home, a home he wanted to be the place he and his fiancĂ© started their family and life together after they got married. Goldstein’s dreams were shattered, however, when the city of New York sent him a letter saying they were taking his house via eminent domain, to make room for a new development. They’d offer him ‘fair market value,’ as determined by them, but he had to leave quickly and, above all, quietly. He refused and spent the next few years of his life fighting the system that said that even though he owned his home, they could take it from him if they deemed it necessary. Directed by Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, the film claims to be a balanced portrait, but it’s pretty clear from the outset that the directors are backing Goldstein, which is fine up to a point where the film becomes more of a screed than an investigation.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Stone of Destiny

Based on a true story, this fun film from director Charles Martin Smith (Air Bud) follows the adventures of a young Scottish university student named Ian Hamilton (Charlie Cox) who decides to strike a blow for national pride by traveling to London to steal the Stone of Scone, The Coronation Stone, and bring it back to Scotland. He gets together a few friends, hatches a harebrained scheme and, to everybody’s surprise, succeeds. But taking a national treasure and staying out of jail long enough to bask in the glory are two different stories, as Hamilton quickly finds out. Although it probably mean more  to Scottish people than anyone else, there’s an infectious merriment to the caper that is hard to resist. Cox is charming as the young man with a desperate need to do something special with his life, and Kate Mara is the perfect foil, romantically and otherwise, for him to work with.

Friday, February 8, 2013

James May’s Man Lab Season 2

Ever imagine a ‘Swiss Army bicycle'? How about trimming your Christmas tree with mortar-launched decorations? Want to have your ashes launched into outer space when you die? If your answer to any of those questions is “Hell Yeah!” you are a man, and this is the perfect television series for you. Best known as one of the three gear-heads who host the popular British TV car show, Top Gear, James May returns with a second season of man-centric experiments that are equal parts education, inspiration and entertainment. The show has May posing simple questions, like what would it take to build a boat, then answering them with a combination of science, art and chutzpah. Not all of his experiments are pretty to look at, and some of them may not be legal to do without permits (if at all), but they are all the perfect eye candy for any man who thinks he has the skill to DIY anything. The only thing missing from the show is a website link to tell you how you can get a cool pool table like the one the Man Lab built sent to you home … already assembled.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Lighthouses of Australia/Lighthouses of Ireland

They may be two separate sets, but the Lighthouses of Australia and the Lighthouses of Ireland both follow the same simple, and very effective, format. They start with beautiful aerial shots of the property being profiled and then they use a combination of historical artifacts and present day interviews to paint a picture of the life of the lighthouse and the people who lived in it or whose lives depended on it. While a lot of programs with this kind of focus come across as being for fanatics only, the shows in these series are extremely viewer friendly and very, very informative. Which place has the best lighthouses is a matter of debate, but watching these programs will have you daydreaming of visiting both Australia and Ireland in the very near future.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Joan Rivers: Don’t Start With Me

Forget James Brown; Joan Rivers is the hardest working person in show business, and has been for a long while. If you want to know why she’s so driven, watch the fascinating 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work for a behind the scenes look at what it takes for Joan to put together an act (not to mention her face). If all you want to see is the end product, then you can’t do better than watch this 69-minute set of classic, raunchy Rivers material. The show is a mixed bag of insults and insights as Rivers makes fun of her fellow celebrities, her audience and, most of all, herself. Some of the jokes are old, like her Michael Jackson material, and some of it feels inspired on the spot. All of it, if you like the woman’s comic styling, is funny.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Story of Math Collection

If you are like most people, just thinking about math, let alone the idea of actually sitting through a series of documentaries about the subject that haunted you through your academic career (until you were old enough to stop taking it), will make you break out in hives. It is those people, more than the ones who actually enjoy math, who will probably enjoy this box0set the most, thanks to the intelligent, viewer friendly way it explains it’s subject and the enormously insightful and entertaining presentation by host Oxford professor Marcus du Sautoy. The key to the shows is that du Sautoy isn’t trying to explain math problems to you lecturing you about theories you will never remember – or need – again in your life. Instead, he takes us outside the classroom to show you how math explains and enhances the world around us, from the history of numbers and what they mean to the history of civilization to the hidden mathematical patterns underlying nature. His is the ultimate appreciation of the subject and you feel honored to share it with him.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Three Stars

The Michelin Guide and the stars it awards to restaurants around the world have been a dominating force in the high end restaurant world for decades, but few outside the kitchens it reviews understands what the stars are awarded for and what they mean to the people who get them. This film from director Lutz Hachmeister does a great job of not only explaining what the fuss is all about, but presenting viewers with a wide array of star holders, some of whom have dedicated their lives to getting a three star rating and some who won the honor and then walked away from it all because the demands of holding onto the stars took up too much of their lives. Interesting as it all is, the best part of the film, however, may be the footage of the chefs at work in their kitchens creating the food they want to serve people, the food they are passionate about, the food they would make no matter what the Michelin Guide said about it.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Posession

PG-13 horror movies are such a crap shoot, and most of them are just crap. The problem isn’t just with the level of gore required to get the teen-friendly rating; the problem is that most of the people making PG-13 horror movies have no idea what makes a horror movie good in the first place. They use the laziest tricks in the books – simple camera misdirection, obnoxiously loud music, editing quick enough to cause a seizure – to try and hid the fact that there’s nothing really scary happening up on the screen. Danish director Ole Bornedal is better than that. He not only knows how to build suspense -- the lifeblood of true horror – but has a sure hand in delivering the goods when it comes time to scare the audience. He is also smart enough to hire strong actors like Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick to anchor the story in the real world. Because of their performances as the parents, it’s a lot easier to believe the story of a young girl who becomes possessed by the spirits living inside a box she buys at a flea market.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Lightning Bug

In this moody Gothic drama from writer/director Robert Hall (Laid to Rest), Bret Harrison stars as the poorly named Green Graves, a fledgling make-up artist who hopes his talent for making monster models and masks will be his ticket out of his depressing trailer park life. When his mom marries the local drunk, Green’s life takes a violent turn for the worse. Thankfully, he finds romance and friendship with a Goth girl named Angevin Duvet (Laura Prepon) who not only shares his passion for horror movies, but has a dream of escaping that’s as strong as his. If you are looking for a ‘horror’ movie, this is not the film for you. If, however, you are in the mood for a dark and troubling drama, then you’ve hit a gold mine. Hall has a real talent of pacing the scenes in Lightning Bug to milk a maximum amount of tension from even the most commonplace situations. When the tension reaches a boiling point, he also has a way of directing the violence that follows in a gritty, realistic fashion that perfectly underscores the tension he’s built. Both Harrison and Prepon are good in the roles of the two young lovers, but it’s Kevin Gage’s chilling portrayal of the drunken step day that really hones the edge of the film.

Kevorkian

Depending on your personal views of what he did, Dr. Jack Kevorkian is either a hero or a villain. If you don’t know what he did, this fascinating documentary from director Matthew Galkin does a pretty good job of explaining it all in a fairly balanced way. What makes the movie really work, though, is how it picks up the threads of Kevorkian’s life after he served his time in prison to show us how he spent the last few years of his life, years lived under some pretty rigid court-ordered guidelines. It also takes the time to expand the man’s story to include scenes from his life that have nothing to do with his battle to make assisted suicide accepted, or at least openly talked about, in America. Oddly enough, the scenes of him in the studio recording the ambient music he’s written come across as weirder and more obsessed than anything he did while with a patient, but somehow that humanizes the other aspects of his infamous life.