Friday, January 31, 2014

First World War Centenary Collection: The Somme

“On the morning of July 1, 1916, 120,000 British soldiers prepared to fight the greatest battle of the First World War on what would be the worst day in British military history.” A sentence like that may sum up what  happened at The Somme, but to truly understand and appreciate the sacrifices that were made that day -- sacrifices on both sides of the trenches – you need to settle back and watch the three movies included in this excellent collection. The first film, The Somme, gives us an overview of the battle by using historical footage and historical reenactments to recreate what life – and death – was like for the soldiers who fought that day. Battle of the Somme: The True Story is a documentary that delves a bit deeper into the historical narrative of the film to separate actual footage from propaganda film used to inspire those left behind. Finally, the aptly titled Instruments of Death: The Great War – The Somme 1916 explains in great detail how modern warfare changed forever with the battle along The Somme.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Within the Whirlwind

There have been a lot of movies made about Stalin’s reign of terror, but far too many of them have focused on the ‘terror’ side of the equation with all the subtlety of a sledge hammer. They try to shock the audience without ever taking the time to give them characters they can understand and identify with. For her movie, writer/director Marleen Gorris (Mrs Dalloway), working from an autobiography by Eugenia Ginzburg, takes a much different, and in a way much more successful approach. In telling her story of the Stalin purges, she focus on the story of one woman and lets what she goes through on a personal level speak for a nation. It helps, of course, that she has an actress as talented as Emily Watson to play the lead, and watching Watson navigate the emotional waters of the role is an absolute treat. The story falters a bit along the way, with the high level of tension that Gorris builds in the pre-arrest days of Ginzburg’s life strangely missing from the scenes in the gulag. The journey ends on a note, though, that makes the trip worthwhile.

The Great Chicken Wing Hunt

Like a lot of great storytellers before him, Matt Reynolds is obsessed. Unlike a lot of those artists, who have been obsessed with everything from a woman to a great white whale, Reynolds is obsessed with the wings of a flightless farmyard bird – particularly when they are fried to golden perfection and dipped in a spicy sauce. The lengths that he goes to find the perfect chicken wing are impressive, if a bit nuts: 16 days, 72 stops, 2,627 miles and 270 types of wings. If this was a Food Network special, the film would be all about the wings, how they are made and what makes that special one perfect. While the ultimate goal of the trip may be to find that perfect wing, the film is more of an exploration of obsession, friendship and endurance than about anything the people in the film actually eat. You get just enough back-story on each of the people that Reynolds invites along on his quest to make them stand out as individuals, and the way they all deteriorate along the way as the miles and chicken bones pile up is fascinating.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Chorus Line

You might look at the cover and wonder if it’s worth it, if you will enjoy watching a 29-year old film of a musical that made its Broadway debut in 1976. Well don’t think about it too much, because the answer is a resounding YES. Directed by Richard Attenborough (Gandhi, Chaplin) the film follows a group of young (and not-so-young) dancers as they go through a hellish audition process before a talented jerk of a director named Zach (Michael Douglas). While some of the situations may come across as a bit  dated and cliché – the old chorus girl trying to keep up with her younger competition, the gay chorus boy trying to prove his family that real men dance, too – the cast does a pretty good job of making them feel alive. The same goes for the music, although "Dance Ten looks Three,” once a show-stopper is a bit embarrassing now. Best part of all is the dancing, which Attenborough captures with a visual flair that is sorely missing from the majority of modern dance movies, where the editing does the heavy lifting. In A Chorus Line, you know the  people on screen are dancing for real and it’s brilliant.

Friday, January 24, 2014

All the President's Men

Modern day action movie makers need to study this 1976 film from director Alan J. Pakula (Klute) to rediscover how to build tension – and maintain it – over the course of a film. And Pakula, in telling the story of two Washington Post correspondents who uncover a political scandal that eventually forces a president to retire, does it without any car chases or explosions or huge complicated stunts. There isn’t a shot fired in the entire movie. He does it, instead, with the basic building blocks of movie narrative – pacing, plot, believable dialogue and a talented cast who can make even asking what time it is sound like an important clue. The extras on the DVD do a great job of putting the film –and the historic moments it covers – into context, but the main thing here is and always will be watching Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman break the news.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

All is Bright

This bleakly hilarious film from director Phil Morrison (Junebug) stars Paul Giamatti as Dennis, an ex-con trying to find his way back in a society that has moved on since he went away, Not only is his wife now sleeping with his best friend/partner in crime, Rene (Paul Rudd) but she actually told their daughter he was dead rather than admit he’d gone to prison. To make some money, money he plans to use to buy his daughter the piano of her dreams, Dennis takes a job with Rene selling Christmas trees in NYC. What follows is a series of increasingly outrageous scenes where Rene and Dennis learn everything but the meaning of Christmas. The story gets a bit too outlandish at times, but Giamatti and Rudd are always interesting to watch.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Doctor Who: The Tenth Planet

In this classic episode from 1966 (Story #29), the Tardis and her crew  -- The Doctor (William Hartnell in his last regular appearance in the role) and his companions Ben and Polly (Michael Craze and Anneke Wills) l-- are on the South Pole of the future (1986). The join a scientific expedition that is studying the Earth’s long forgotten twin planet, Mondas, home of one of the series most famous villains, The Cybermen. It’s fascinating to watch the first doctor go toe-to-toe with the Cybermen in their first incarnation, especially since this is one of the legendary lost episodes of the series and episode 4 had to be recreated using existing sound and new animation. The way the torch is passed form the first Doctor to his successor is a bit outdated, but still fascinating.

Monday, January 20, 2014

We're the Millers

When his stash gets ripped off, drug dealer David Clark (Jason Sudeikis) has a very limited time to come up with the money he owes his supplier or else. In exchange for cash, he agrees to take a trip to Mexico and bring back ‘a little marijuana.’ As part of his cover, Clark decides to put together a fake family and rent a motor home, hoping that an American family on vacation will draw less attention. The fact that his wife (Jennifer Aniston) is a stripper, his daughter (Emma Roberts) is a street urchin/thief and his son (Will Pouter) is, well…special, only adds to the fun. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story), We’re the Millers is a raucous road trip that doesn’t hesitate to take its audience along for the ride. As raunchy as it gets though, there’s a generous spirit to the film that makes you root for the Millers to not only get away with it, but become a real family, too.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


This weird western from director Logan Miller stars January Jones (Mad Men) as Sarah Ramírez, an ex-prostitute trying to make a ‘normal’ life dirt farming with her husband in the New Mexican territories circa 1800s. Her plans are derailed when a horny evangelical preacher called Prophet Josiah (Jason Isaacs) murders her husband as part of his plan to make Sarah his next wife. While all this is going on, there is also a crazed lawman named Sheriff Jackson (Ed Harris) who is tracking down the preacher in connection with the brutal murder of two tenderfoots who were crossing the territory by way of a shortcut through the holy man’s land. With the possibility of some unnecessarily strange behavior from the sheriff, who likes to dance by himself in the moonlight, the characters that Miller creates are quirky and compelling. The actors all do a good job making them feel real, too,  particularly Isaacs who shows no shame in chewing the scenery to make the Prophet Josiah an unforgettable bad guy.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

China Beach: The Complete Season Two

Most successful television series have a tendency to cruise through their second season, buoyed by the success of their first season and a fear to upset the apple cart too much and lose their fan base before it’s really firmly established. China Beach doesn’t play that way; in fact, the opening two-part episode, Lost and Found, parts 1 & 2, takes just about every major character from that successful first season and shakes their life to the core. Lila takes over the command and, as her first act, throws KC off the base. McMurphy finds out a secret about Nash that threatens their relationship, right before a devastating event changes both their lives forever. It may all sound a bit like a soap opera, but this series never sinks low enough to be anything but honestly compelling and believable, whether its dealing with epic events like the Tet Offensive (Tet ‘68”) and the assignation of MLK or just the normal stuff that  goes on beyond a man and a woman, the stories told here are just as compelling as they were when they first aired back in the 1988-89 season. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons

It just could be the best Doctor Who episode ever made. Granted, that’s a personal opinion but one that can be argued for decades with any true Who fan. Not only does it feature one of the most popular Doctors of the series, the inimitable Tom Baker, but features him in a role that highlights all he is famous for, from the dazzling grin and penchant for questionable fashion choices – in this case a kilt --- to his ability to outwit the bad guys where lesser heroes would resort to fisticuffs or worse. The show also features one of the series best villains, the giant rubber monsters known as the Zygons. And if you can’t see the joy in the phrase “giant rubber monster’ then you simply have not watched enough Dr Who. The story has the Doctor returning to Earth – the Scottish Highlands to be precise – to investigate the destruction of several North Sea oil rigs. It seems like a rather tame case for the Doctor to be involved with, but did we mention that the show features the Loch Ness Monster as a giant cyborg beast?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


In his first five starts in the National Basketball Association, Jeremy Lin scored more points than any other player in the modern era and, since he did it in the eye of the media hurricane that is New York City, he created a legitimate public frenzy in the process. Such a career, even if it only lasted those five games, would be worth an hour-long ESPN special, if not a full blown documentary like this one. While he does a good job of covering the record shattering events of Lin's basketball life, Linsanity director Evan Leong wants his film to take a look at the whole man and not just his five-day achievement. So he  follows Lin through his early days playing college ball at Harvard, though the tough times before he made it to the NBA, though the whirlwind of his early career and then follows it up with a comprehensive look at the man as he finds a balanced life following the dizzying heights of his media exposure. It’s a fascinating film, even if you’ve never watched a basketball game in your life.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Being Human: THe Complete Third Season

A werewolf, a vampire and a ghost share an apartment in Boston…what sounds like the beginning of a bad joke has, over the course of  three seasons, turned into an enjoyable horror series thanks, in large  part, to the top notch performances of  the cast and it’s surprisingly effective run of creepy guest stars. Season three starts with vampire Aidan still buried in the ground and werewolf Josh suddenly finding himself all too human following the death of the man who originally turned him. His girlfriend Nora, however, still gets hairy during the full moon, and the ghostly Sally is still stuck in Limbo. If it’s all sounds too complicated, go back to the beginning and watch season 1 & 2. You’ll be glad you did. But if you can’t find the time, settle back and let the stories flow over you because even without a backstory, the tales told in Being Human are interesting enough to keep you coming back for more.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Last Love

This bittersweet film from director Sandra Nettleback (Helen) stars Michael Caine as Matthew Morgan, a retired philosophy professor living a sad widower’s life in a swank Parisian apartment. Unable to find any joy in his life since the death of his wife, Morgan seems to spend every day trying to build up enough nerve to commit suicide. His outlook brightens considerable when he meets a dance instructor named Pauline Laubie (Clémence Poésy), a young woman whose joie de vivre rekindles Morgan’s own. They spend the first half of the movie getting to know each other as they roam around a beautifully photographed Paris in a way that’s fresh and interesting without any of the usually gloppy May/December romance clichés. It’s even kind of fantastic when Morgan’s truly miserable family shows up following one of his botched suicide attempts. There’s a point after that, however, where the story suddenly starts to fall apart in huge chunks that leave you wondering where all the magic has gone.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Freedom Force

Leave it to the French to find a way to perfectly mesh classic literature with energetic animation in a way that will delight fans of any age. Directed by Eduardo Schuldt (The Dolphin: Story of a Dreamer), the story follows a group of talented kids as they battle a mad scientist who has kidnapped a secret imagination machine that has the power to change the plots of books by France’s greatest author, Jules Verne. The story gets a bit too complicated at times, particularly if you are not already familiar with the author’s stories, but the energy of the film keeps things moving along at a pace that stops you from dwelling on such things too long. Better yet, it’s designed to inspire viewers of all ages to head to their library after the movie is done and check out the original Jules Verne adventures for themselves.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Oniai: Complete Series

After being apart for six long years following the death of their parents, Akito and Akiko finally are able to share a student dorm room together. Akiko’s feelings for her brother though, are a lot more intense than he remembers them being; in fact, she wants them to be far more than just siblings and takes every opportunity to let him know it. As if that wasn’t enough to keep Akito on his toes, the other girls in the dorm are equally obsessed about possessing him. Although it sounds creepy, the series is played as a complete farce that keeps the amorous misadventures from ever getting too real. There’s a nice subplot, too, about Akito being the secret author behind the sexy manga series that sparked Akiko’s passion in the first place. This is the first subtitle-only release form Funimation, and it’s the sign of great things to come.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Ninja II

You gotta love Scott Adkins. Or at least you do if you are a fan of old school action movies starring men who talk softly and carry a big stick, or in Adkins case a big kick. This sequel to the 2009 film Ninja follows the adventures of Ninjitsu master Casey as his dreams of living a peaceful life and teaching martial arts at his dojo are shattered when bad guys break into his house and murder his pregnant wife. Casey tracks down and dispatches with the bad guys in record time, giving him plenty of opportunity to go after the murderous drug lord they worked for. The plot for Ninja 2 is ripped from the pages of just about every decent Hong Kong action/Chuck Norris movie of the 1980s, which is perfect because it doesn’t require Adkins to do any heavy dramatic lifting in terms of his performance. He just kicks bad guy ass with style.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Carmen Jones

For originality, it gets 10 out of 10. Director Otto Preminger teamed up with writers Oscar Hammerstein II and Harry Kleiner, as well as an all-star cast, to take Bizet's operatic masterpiece and turn it into a contemporary (circa 1954) story set in an army base in the Deep South featuring an all African-American cast. In execution, however, the marks aren’t that high for the final film, and primarily for one reason: The singing stinks, or at least it looks so unnatural coming out  of the mouths of the cast it’s impossible to watch without snickering at it. Lip-synching is part of almost every movie musical, and when it works it’s magical. Here, though, the operatic nature of the songs coming out of the mouths of stars Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belefonte makes them look absurd, especially when compared to the way they look and act when they aren’t singing.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Linda Lovelace's Loose Lips

She’s one of the most fascinating footnotes in cinema history, the star of the first adult film to go mainstream, an event that helped create the billion dollar porn industry we live with today. But as this fascinating documentary from pop-culture historian Legs McNeil shows, there was more to the events surrounding the film than meets the eyes. The first part of the film gives us just the ‘facts’ of Lovelace’s life, from her early days of making truly tawdry stag film loops to her experience making Deep Throat, to her seeming enjoyment of the celebrity the film brought to her. The next part delves into the aftermath of the movie, a time when Lovelace started claiming she was basically kidnapped, beaten and forced to do the film. The last, and saddest, part of the movie follows Lovelace through the final stage of her infamous career, when she returned to the industry that made her a star. The end result is a disturbing, unforgettable expose.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Aesthetica of a Rogue Hero

“She’s a pink-haired princess. He’s a panty-snatching perv.” That brief summation from perfectly sums up what this wacky anime series is all about. There’s a basic plot to the series, about how the ‘he,’ a guy named Akatsuki, after fighting a war in the Fairy Tale Tealm is protecting  the ‘she,’, a bouncy babe named Miu, put into his custody by her defeated father, the Demon King. But the real reason you watch it is for the spirited hijinks Akatsuki gets into as he trails Miu through her adopted lifestyle at the local high school, where he has to battle the uptight student council on a daily basis. The art work and the action are good, and it’s clear that the animators have a really fun time drawing animated boobs, but what makes the series better than your average anime T&A extravaganza is the voice work of Eric Vale as Akatsuki.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Jesse James

Tyrone Powers stars in this slick Hollywood version of the story of American’s first, and most famous, outlaw and his older Brother Frank (Henry Fonda). From the outset, directors Henry King and Irving Cummings make it clear that Jesse James isn’t really a bad guy; he’s just a victim of greedy carpetbaggers who forced his hand and, in one of the film’s more surrealistic moments, blew up his mother. Powers plays the role a bit too lightly to be really effective, but Fonda’s gravitas as the older brother balances things out nicely. Randolph Scott makes a nice appearance as the sheriff who wants to help the James boys get justice, but Nancy Kelly is too dull to be believable as the girl of Jesse’s dreams. The film has some nice action sequences, especially the first train robbery the brothers commit, and cinematographers George Barnes and W. Howard Greene make every frame look gorgeous.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Black Swan

If you like your pirate movies filled with rough and tumble action, believable characters, lusty ladies and plenty of high seas adventure, this is NOT the film for you. It stars Tyrone Powers as Jamie Waring, a charismatic cutthroat who is more than a little dismayed when he finds out his captain, the notorious Cpt. Morgan (Laird Cregar), has decided to go straight, accept a pardon from his majesty’s government and become the governor of Jamaica. Rather than hang up his cutlass and become a law abiding citizen, Waring strikes out on his own and is soon being chased by the men he used to admire. In terms of adventure, this is about as tame a pirate movie as you can find, but what it lacks in edge of your seat action the movie makes up for in lavish sets  and costumes, not to mention likable performances from Power and his leading lady, the fabulous Maureen O'Hara.