Thursday, December 13, 2007

Battlestar Galactica: Razor [Unrated Extended Edition]

"Battlestar Galactica: Razor" excels in creating yet another compelling story in the Galactica universe as reinvented by Executive Producers Ron Moore and David Eick. It presents itself in the same bleak and desolate dramatic tone that the sci-fi series is known for. The film tosses up the usual modern day moral quagmires, masked as futuristic allegory, for the characters (and the viewers) to navigate through, coming out the other end a little rougher and tougher than when the journey first started. "Razor" is a fine addition to what has become one of the most popular shows on television, acting as a nice little bit of what some might call "filler" that actually manages to expand on the ever growing operatic nature of the show.

The movie tries to fill in gaps raised during the course of the series, mostly focused around the Battlestar Pegasus and what happened between the Cylon attack that ended the armistice (at the beginning of the series) and its reappearance in the second season. The story unfolds in a dual manner as it flashes back to the aforementioned saga of the Pegasus (giving good reason to bring back Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes) the anti-Adama) and in the "present" with its first mission under newly appointed commander, Apollo (Jamie Bamber). Apollo´s reluctance to take charge under the weight of his father´s presence is a big factor here and gives the character some interesting moments, especially in his usual song and dance with Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff).

Many familiar faces return in addition to the aforementioned players, we get to see Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos) do double duty as we even get to witness a significant encounter Adama once had during the first Cylon war (in the past he is played excellently by Nico Cortez, gravely voice and all). Tricia Helfer returns as Number Six, though this time she´s featured as a crew member aboard the Pegasus (as well as Cain´s lover), which sheds new light on the Cylon´s relationship with Cain and both characters ultimate demise in the series. The rest of the cast is there in supporting roles or cameos, though some are entirely absent from the film altogether.

But it isn´t Cain, Apollo or any of the other series regulars that find themselves front and center of "Razor"; acting as the guiding light between both past and present is officer Kendra Shaw (Stephanie Jacobsen), who´s journey is a difficult one at best (would we really expect anything less?), as we see her go from a somewhat impressionable new transfer to the Pegasus crew, to a hard edged veteran, who holds many of Admiral Cain´s philosophies close to her heart. When Apollo offers Shaw a position as his second in command it allows her a shot at salvation for difficult choices she made while serving under Cain.

What "Razor" does best is allow us to see Shaw in her present state, rough around the edges and hardened by a difficult journey as a crewman aboard the Pegasus. She becomes something of a confidant for Cain and because of this we´re allowed a glimpse into what makes Cain tick, the justifications she uses for her actions – immoral in the eyes of some, fully justified in the eyes of others. Whatever the case may be, in the same way Apollo and Starbuck are extensions of Adama´s command, so is Shaw an extension of Cain. By giving us someone entirely new to follow through "Razor", the filmmaker´s have also given us a slightly different way of experiencing "Battelstar Galactica," and that's a very good thing.
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Chronological Donald, The, Volume Three: 1947-1950: Walt Disney Treasures

"Donald! Duck!" Opps. Too late. --"Mad" magazine

Growing up in the late forties and early fifties as I did, the Donald Duck cartoons from 1947-1950 are probably the very ones my dad and I saw when he took me to the theater on Saturday mornings for the weekly kiddie shows. I remember there would always be an adventure serial, some kind of comedy short--something along the lines of the Three Stooges--and about 800 cartoons. OK, to be honest I'm not sure if it was here that I first met Disney's Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse or not, because it seems like WB's Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies dominated the shows I watched more so than anything from Disney. Yet I'm sure there must have been some of the Duck and the Mouse in there somewhere, too, and in any event this third two-disc tin of Donald Ducks brings back memories of those old days.

I wish I could say I liked the Duck and his pals as much today as I once did, though. Unfortunately, I'm afraid he hasn't aged as well for me as WB's Road Runner, Bugs, Daffy, and the gang. Still, the Disney artwork alone is enough for any adult to enjoy, especially in this third volume of short features, dating as I say from the late forties to early 1950. Most of them are beautiful to behold.

As in the first couple of "Walt Disney Treasures" Duck boxes, each of the two discs in this set contains a number of cartoons, thirty in this case, at six-to-eight minutes apiece. Plus each disc contains various additional bonuses. Some of these cartoons have appeared before in other Donald Duck collections, true, but this is still a lot of Duck for the buck.

Disc one begins with "Straight Shooters," "Sleepy Time Donald," "Donald's Dilemma," "Crazy With the Heat," "Bootle Beetle," "Wide Open Spaces," and "Chip an' Dale" from 1947. Maybe the most unusual item here is "Sleepy Time Donald," with Clarence Nash as usual doing the famous voice. In what is probably the most risqué of Disney cartoons, Donald starts sleepwalking during the dead of night and walks right in through Daisy's bedroom window. Humoring him, Daisy walks with Donald around the city without waking him up. However, probably my favorites among this first set are "Donald's Dilemma," narrated by Daisy, in which Donald becomes an egotistical singing star and sets up a situation more mature than most of the other cartoons; and "Bootle Beetle," which is quite the sweetest and most attractive short on either disc.

Next come "Drip Dippy Donald," "Daddy Duck," "Donald's Dream Voice," "The Trial of Donald Duck," "Inferior Decorator," and "Soup's On" from 1948. The best of these for me was "Donald's Dream Voice," in which Donald is trying to sell brushes door to door but can't because nobody can understand a word he's saying. So, he takes some Ajax Voice Pills, which make him sound like actor Ronald Colman. The pills work for a time, but then.... Oh, dear.

After that, in a special section called "From the Vault" we get "Clown of the Jungle" (1947), "Three for Breakfast," and "Tea for Two Hundred" (1948). Leonard Maltin provides a special introduction to these three films because the folks at Disney want him to remind us that some of Donald's activities exhibited "inappropriate behavior," and the studio doesn't want kids emulating Donald's antics. Fair enough. Can you imagine what Disney might say today if they had produced some of the Looney Tunes cartoons?

Disc two starts with "Sea Salts," "Winter Storage," "Honey Harvester," "All in a Nutshell," "The Greener Yard," "Slide, Donald, Slide," and "Toy Tinkers," all from 1949. The big winners for me here are "Sea Salts," a delightful and beautifully animated selection, and "The Greener Yard," where we find the bootle beetles back, as much fun as ever. Otherwise, we get a lot of Chip an' Dale among these entries.

Following those, we find "Lion Around," "Crazy Over Daisy," "Trailer Horn," "Hook, Lion and Sinker," and "Out on a Limb" from 1950. Here, there are several encounters between Donald and nephews and a pesky mountain lion. As always, the background art can be more captivating than the action.

Things conclude with two more selections from in "From the Vault," again with Maltin's dire warning that these cartoons were made in another era and might contain material offensive to today's parents and children. These cartoons are "Donald's Happy Birthday" (1949) and "Bee at the Beach" (1950). They are not among the stronger entries in the field for artwork or story, but they reflect the frenetic behavior of its hero to a proper degree.
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Ice Road Truckers

In the earliest days of "Survivor" and "American Idol," a reasonable person could reasonably state: "Reality television sucks." However, since reality TV has proven to be the most successful economic model for television production, the genre has expanded far beyond the ersatz game show format and yielded a plethora of diverse sub-genres. There is no longer a monolithic entity called "reality television" to hate; in fact, some of it is pretty damn good.

My favorite sub-genre of reality television is the "dangerous jobs" one. I got completely hooked (pun intended) on Discovery Channel´s thrilling "The Deadliest Catch," a weekly reality series that followed the adventures of several crab boat pilots pursuing their elusive prey in the frigid Alaskan waters. "The Deadliest Catch" felt like a combination of one my favorite books a kid, Jack London´s "Call of the Wild," and one of my favorite books as an adult, Herman Melville´s "Moby Dick." That´s heady company, of course, and I´m not saying "Deadliest Catch" will go down as one of the 21st century´s great masterpieces, but damned if I didn´t watch every episode, even when they re-ran it later in the week. Colorful characters, salty sea talk, and death lurking behind every wave. What´s not to love?

The History Channel has tried to capitalize on the success of "Deadliest Catch" with its new reality series "Ice Road Truckers." Don´t let the creative title fool you: this is a series about guys who drive trucks over ice roads. Specifically, they haul big equipment from Yellowknife in Canada´s Northwest Territories up north to several diamond mines. They can only do their job about two months out of the year, not because the diamond mines close down the rest of the time, but because there is no road the rest of the year. You see, the ice road is really built over a series of frozen lakes, and the ice is only thick enough to support the weight of the trucks and their loads for a few months out of the year.

"Ice Road Truckers" copies the "Deadliest Catch" formula almost to the letter. The show focuses on several colorful characters who compete to haul the most loads before the ice road melts into water. The cast features grizzled veterans like Hugh "The Polar Bear" Rowland and Alex Debogorski, each with more than twenty years experience on the ice road, and cocky rookies like Drew Sherwood and T.J. Tilcox. You might confuse fresh-faced Jay Westgard with the rest of the newbies but at age 25 "The Prodigy" has already clocked 8 years on the ice road and doesn´t plan to stop anytime soon. Sophomore Rick Yemm has a score to settle with Hugh, his boss.

The writers go out of their way to emphasize how incredibly dangerous the ice road is. While much of this is hyperbole intended to inject artificial drama into the series (note the frequent insertion of sounds of cracking ice), the danger is real. Big rigs have plunged through the ice sheet, and truckers have died on the road before. Also, temperatures routinely dip to -30 or below which wind chill factors approaching -60, and some times these guys have to hop right into the cold to fix a broken air hose just to keep their truck moving! The danger is part of the appeal for most of these gung-ho truckers, though the money ain´t bad either. The top drivers can pull in $50,000 for just two months work.

But what work they have! On his first run, T.J. Tilcox discovers just what he´s up against as he finds himself barreling through white-out conditions. Sure, there´s no other road to turn off on, but it´s easy for a careless or confused driver to veer off into a snow bank which could lead to disaster since the higher the snow cover, the thinner the ice sheet below.

Just as "Deadliest Catch" tracks the crab fishermen´s total tonnage caught, "Ice Road Truckers" tracks each driver´s total loads hauled as they "dash for the cash." The show plays up the rivalries among the truckers, some of which are friendly, some decidedly not. Other dramatic questions help structure the season. Which rookies will wash out? Will anyone be able to beat The Polar Bear at his own game?

It´s all pretty exciting stuff, but it lacks the diversity and the strategy of "Deadliest Catch." The crab boat captains rove all over the sea looking for their catch, but the ice road truckers only have one road to drive, and they do it over and over again. The novelty begins to wear off by the end of the season´s tenth and final episode (each approx. 45 min.), and I doubt "Ice Road Truckers" will have the same shelf life as "Deadliest Catch" which is about to enter its fourth season.

It´s also disappointing that all of this "high adventure" takes place merely to provide DeBeers and other companies with the capitalist tools of oppression they need to rape the earth and provide rich people with shiny stones to put on their fingers. But you have to let that slide. "Ice Road Truckers" is a lot of fun.
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Edvard Munch: Special Edition 2-DVD Set

A distant cliff with thick ridges running vertically down its face looms large in front of us; rough, shadowy indentations pockmark the surface of this rocky landscape. A rocky landscape, you say? No. Rather, this shot is a close-up of a canvas on which Edvard Munch has been building layer upon layer of paint. It is the culmination of a startling series of shots in which the increasingly frenetic artist paints, scrapes away, re-paints, and nearly bores a hole into the canvas as he constantly revises his work. I cannot recall an instance in which the tactile elements of a painting have ever been captured so vividly on film: the sound of a knife flensing away paint, the actual texture of the paint layered on a canvas. Then again I have never seen a film quite like Peter Watkins´ brilliant "Edvard Munch" (1973).

The film primarily covers a ten year period from 1884-1894 (Munch from age 21 to 31) though it often returns to Munch´s tragedy-scarred childhood. Nineteenth century Christiania (today known as Oslo) was a city plagued by disease, both of the consumptive and venereal kind, and the Munch family, though not poor, was not spared its blight. Edvard´s mother, brother and his beloved sister Sophie died when he was still a child, and these crippling losses haunted him the rest of his life.

In 1884 the young Munch (played by Geir Westby who, like the rest of the cast, is a non-professional actor) belongs to a Bohemian intellectual circle spearheaded by Hans Jaeger (Kåre Stormark). Jaeger´s radical philosophy (a sloppy mix of nihilism and anarchy) influenced Munch greatly, though Watkins contends that another relationship, his long-running, tempestuous affair with the mysterious Mrs. Heiberg (Gro Fraas), was even more important in shaping the painter´s life. The story progresses through Munch´s formative years as an artist and details his battles with his own inner demons as well as demons of a very external kind: the art critics of his time.

As in his other films, Watkins employs pseudo-documentary techniques to recreate historical events, but "Edvard Munch" does not blur the lines between documentary and fiction so much as it renders the distinction altogether meaningless. Watkins narrates in a dry, formal voice that provides historical and political context, and all of Munch´s dialogue is taken directly from his diaries. Yet Watkins hardly restricts his film to a "just the facts" approach. Indeed, "Edvard Munch" is one of the most wildly innovative films I have ever seen, every bit as radical as the most avant of the avant-garde.

The film leaps back and forth through time, frequently flashing back to Munch´s childhood. The elliptical editing conveys Munch´s emotional state rather than simply connecting a series of events in typical biopic style. As Munch scratches frantically at his canvas, we return to the moment when his sister Sophie was dying of tuberculosis. Sometimes characters speak directly to the camera, either speaking on their own or answering the questions of an off-screen female voice. Where this voice comes from I have no idea, but it hardly matters. The actors sometimes improvised their lines, responding to questions with their own opinions rather than from Watkins´ script. Watkins used improvisation by non-professional actors to mixed effect in "Punishment Park" (1970), but in this film the strategy works to perfection.

All of these creative tools (discontinuous editing, characters looking at the camera, etc.) have been used in other films but the remarkable thing about "Edvard Munch" is that none of them function solely as Brechtian devices. Though the film has reflexive elements, it is not overtly self-conscious in the way that Godard´s films of the 60s or many of today´s post-modern films are. Rather, this hodge-podge of stylistic choices creates the eerie sense that we are peering in on past events as they are happening; the movie has an immediacy and physicality that lend it extraordinary power. Watkins has created a unique cinematic point of view that I can only describe as a free-associative semi-omniscient perspective which leaves open all possibilities at any point in time. Any shot that best conveys even the most subtle nuance is fair game. In art, there are no rules save those meant to be broken.

No subject is off-limits either. Though the film is about Edvard Munch, sometimes the story expands to depict life in Christiania, where the bourgeoisie thrived but the working class suffered from wretched labor conditions as well as rampant disease. Watkins has always been a politically engaged director and he lavishes attention on the world around Munch in order to avoid the romantic depiction of the artist as a solitary genius. Munch was shaped not just by mentors such as Hans Jaeger and, later, August Strindberg, but also by the conditions in which he was raised; his melancholia was not just artistic self-indulgence, but the logical response of a sensitive intellect to the squalor and inequity he witnessed every day (some scholars have also suggested that Munch suffered from bipolar disorder, an issue not addressed in the film).

Watkins clearly identifies with Munch. Munch had a restless mind and his style changed frequently, moving from impressionism to naturalism to expressionism and most points between; he also experimented with multiple media including lithography and woodcutting. His paintings were aggressive and shocking; agitated viewers didn´t know quite what to make of them. All of this alienated the staid art critics who derided Munch´s work, forcing him to move from to Paris and then later to Berlin, though he wouldn´t find acceptance anywhere until much later in his career. Similarly, Watkins describes himself as a marginalized director whose politically charged films have been suppressed by the media who prefer safer, more easily categorizable films. No doubt Watkins derives great pleasure by depicting Munch´s critics as preening dullards who treat any deviation from the norm as evidence of either incompetence or dementia.

Watkins matches Munch´s relentless experimentation with his own free-form innovations in this mesmerizing film. Though it is difficult to describe exactly how this movie looks, sounds and feels, I can easily describe its effect on me. I was riveted from start to finish, and found myself consistently surprised at every turn. "Edvard Munch" creates its own cinematic language and there is no way to anticipate which shot will follow from the previous one. What could have been a dry, predictable biopic is instead a dazzling panorama of not just a life but a world of ideas and emotions. It is also a deeply moving film that accumulates power with each scene. By the end I found myself in tears, not from sorrow, but rather because I felt overwhelmed by the blunt force of the film.

"Edvard Munch" is the best film about an artist and the artistic process that I have ever seen. Unlike most art films, it does not manufacture any cheap epiphanies when the artist is miraculously inspired by happenstance (Jackson Pollack watches a toppled paint can drip onto the floor and, in one quick cut, he is a genius!) Instead, we see that Munch achieved his most significant breakthroughs by three primary methods: work, work, and more work (much the same way Watkins made this movie). The film is every bit as much about the joy Munch took in the process of creation as it is about the anguish he suffered, and it produces an intoxicating viewing experience.
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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

If you liked the first Harry Potter adventure to hit the screen, 2001's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," you'll like 2002's "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" equally well. What's more, if you like high-definition picture and sound, you might like this second installment even better. The TrueHD audio, particularly, is about as good as it gets.

Preserving largely the same cast, with a few new characters thrown in for good measure, the movie continues the saga of the youthful wizard in his magical world of young and old fellow wizards, giant spiders, backstabbers, Basilisks, and miscellaneous evildoers. It's more of the same and great family fun.

Of course, this "more of the same" business can be a double-edged sword. While it's certainly good to have Harry and the gang back at Hogwarts, there is an inevitable sameness about the adventures, about the villains, about the settings, and about the climactic ending, all of which can become tiresome in so long a film. I remember giving up on the "Potter" books about a third of the way into the second volume for this very reason. The second novel seemed too much like the first one for me to be spending my time with it. Still, "The Chamber of Secrets" offers up visual delights the book could never hope to deliver even for the most imaginative reader, and it provides wondrous surprises around every turn, making it a safe recommendation for anyone who enjoys fantasy.

Again directed by Chris Columbus, again written by Steve Kloves from a novel by R.K. Rowling, again with music by the prolific John Williams, and again starring Daniel Radcliffe as wizard-in-training Harry Potter, the movie is a compendium of everything we liked about the first film, with the addition of a few new touches.

It's Harry's second year at Hogwarts, but as in "The Sorcerer's Stone," the story begins with Harry once more locked up by his wicked Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia (Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw) and heckled by his disagreeable cousin Dudley (Harry Melling). And as in the first installment, his friends rescue him, and after a brief episode in Diagon Alley he returns to the magic school, there to face a new challenge and find out new secrets about (OK, under) the ancient castle he now calls home. As before, a decisive battle transpires in the depths of Hogwarts, followed by a surprisingly long epilogue to wrap things up.

This time out, we find people at Hogwarts petrified all over the place, and Harry and his friends find the words "The Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Enemies of the heir...beware" written on a wall in blood. According to legend, a thousand years before wizards opened Hogwarts, one of the founding fathers, Salazar Slytherin, built a secret chamber somewhere in the labyrinthian building, a chamber no one could open except a proper heir to Slytherin, a chamber inhabited by a monster. Harry suddenly hears voices that no one else can hear, speaks in Parceltongue (snake language), and becomes the apparent center of the school's strange new goings on. Is he the true heir to Slytherin, and is he responsible for the petrifications and other bizarre activities of late?

More important than the plot, though, are the characters, most of the returning, some of them new. In addition to Harry and his Muggle relatives, Harry's friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) return to keep him company on his adventures. Hermione is sweeter and more charming than before, but Ron's whining begins to grate. Professor Albus Dumbledore returns, again played by Richard Harris (in one of his final screen appearances before his passing). Professor Minerva McGonagall also returns, again played by Dame Maggie Smith; plus the lovable giant, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane); the not-so-lovable Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton); everybody's favorite ghost, Nearly Headless Nick (John Cleese); and the slimy Professor Snape (Alan Rickman).

New characters to the cast are the phony, egotistical, and ingratiating Professor Gilderoy Lockhart (flamboyantly played by Kenneth Branagh in a part the producers originally scheduled for Hugh Grant; I'm sure Grant would have been fine, too, but Branagh is a delight), who has filled a book "Magical Me" with personal exploits he didn't do; Draco's odious father, Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs); an often befuddled herbalist, Madam Sprout (Miriam Margolyes); a misunderstood spirit no one wants around, Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson); and a mysterious former Hogwarts student, Tom Riddle (Christian Coulson). But maybe the most memorable character of all is not a role played by a human at all; it's Dobby the House Elf, a computer-animated creation much like Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings." He's a so-ugly-he's-cute kind of fellow voiced by Toby Jones, who warns Harry not to come back to Hogwarts and thereafter appears to be up to more mischief than good. But give him a chance.

Moreover, not only do the characters make the film a pleasure to watch, so do the visual treats. In an oversight of monumental proportions, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed even to nominate the film for its special effects, but audiences can relish them forever in high definition. Savor not only the film's incredible visions of Hogwarts, with its amazing staircases and moving portraits, but enjoy the sights of a flying Ford Anglia, an angry Womping Willow tree, some fractious mandrake plants, a rigged Quidditch match (very exciting but thrown in rather extraneously), a regenerating Phoenix, and a Dark Forest (reminiscent of the one designed over sixty-five years earlier for "The Bride of Frankenstein") filled with really creepy spiders, among other things.

Once more the Potter fantasies provide a multitude of enchantments, although I still think "The Chamber of Secrets" is too long at 161 minutes for its own good. Director Chris Columbus moves things along at a comfortable if sometimes pedestrian pace, and the plot and characters provide the cozy feeling of a favorite easy chair. It's hard not to like this film despite its minor shortcomings.
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The Universe: Season One (The History Channel Presents)

"The sun is the hottiest planet, and it would burn you if you tried to eat it."
-Chris Peterson, "Get a Life"

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronomer. Not an astronaut, but an astronomer. After all, how often does an astronaut get to go into space; an astronomer can gaze into the universe every night! I read every astronomy book I could get my hands on, but the one I remember most vividly is an oversized book called "Our Universe" by Roy A. Gallant. I´ve always remembered the name too.

"Our Universe" (see picture on left) was a colorful picture book produced by National Geographic which had this neat section in which each of the planets was featured on its own double page. All the vital stats were listed (distance from sun, number of satellites, etc.) and I committed these all to memory. Best of all, some wonderful artist drew vivid depictions of what the alien life on each planet might look like. I have a memory of jellyfish-like creatures living on Venus, or maybe it was Neptune. I just remember they were really cool.

The History Channel´s series "The Universe" isn´t nearly as cool as that; in fact, there´s not a single jellyfish-like creature even mentioned in all of Season One. Still, the series (not to be confused with PBS´ "The Elegant Universe") offers its own awe-inspiring view of life, the universe and everything all packaged into 45 minute episodes.

Each episode introduces its subject of the week ("Saturn: Lord of the Rings!") then covers as much ground as possible on the central topic. The series balances nifty computer graphics with brief snippets of interviews with a variety of scientists. Neal deGrasse Tyson is the most frequent guest; does this guy ever get any work done between all his TV appearances? The series is designed to keep cable viewers from clicking the remote, so the talking heads are never allowed to hold court for more than about 15-20 seconds before we race on to the next nifty graphics shot. As you might imagine, the coverage remains fairly superficial, but having said that, I suspect most viewers will learn quite a bit from each episode. A sense of humor helps to kindle viewer interest as well; the episode on the outer planets provides an amusing look at the faux-outrage over poor Pluto´s recent demotion from planet to "big old hunk of rock."
There are four discs in the boxed set, each with 3 or 4 episodes (14 total).

Disc One: Secrets of the Sun, Mars: The Red Planet, The End of the Earth: Deep Space Threats to our Planet, Jupiter: the Giant Planet

Disc Two: The Moon, Spaceship Earth, The Inner Planets: Mercury and Venus

Disc Three: Saturn: Lord of the Rings, Alien Galaxies, Life and Death of a Star, The Outer Planets

Disc Four: The Most Dangerous Place in the Universe, Search for ET, Beyond the Big Bang

The series sticks to the facts, though even with the realm of hard science, there is plenty of room for fanciful speculation. All of the episodes are engrossing, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be "Alien Galaxies," just because I know so little about our "neighboring" galaxies compared to all those facts about the solar system that I have long since memorized.

And on that subject, since when did Jupiter and Saturn get so many damned moons? I have to go back and re-memorize everything now. Or maybe I´ll just stick to my trusty well-worn copy of "Our Universe." If ain´t in the good book, I don´t need to know it.
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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Apartment 1303

"Apartment 1303" is yet another entrant into the never ending parade of J-Horror films that all seem to bleed together. They all feature a lead character who must investigate the mysterious death of a loved one all the while being haunted by a pale-faced ghost girl with long, black hair. The film is based on a novel by author Kei Oishi whose most famous book, The Grudge, spawned a series of successful films in his native Japan as well as two in America. Oishi is also responsible for the ultra-creepy, "The Last Supper", which was based on an original idea about a plastic surgeon who ate the flesh of his female patients. "Apartment 1303" has none of the flair or creepiness of its predecessors. To say it pales in comparison to films like "Ju-On" or "The Shining" is an understatement. It´s not even up to snuff compared to the recent "1408."

The film begins with a young woman moving into her brand-new apartment on the thirteenth floor. Before she can even unpack her belongings, she´s dangling over the balcony and an unseen force shoves her over the edge. One month later, the apartment is rented to Sayaka who has just moved away from home for the first time. Sayaka throws a housewarming party with her boyfriend, Ryota, and their friends. They can´t believe she got such a great apartment for so cheap. Sayaka notices a strange odor coming from the closet of one of the rooms. Suddenly, she emerges as a shell of herself. She shuffles across the floor like a zombie and starts munching down on dog food. Her friends have no idea what´s wrong with her. Before they can even get a straight answer, Sayaka dives off the balcony to her death.

Sayaka´s older sister, Mariko (Noriko Nakagoshi), is shocked at her death. Their mother, who hasn´t fully recovered from their father´s death, is completely grief-stricken and begins withdrawing from reality. From a police detective named Sakurai (Arata Furuta), Mariko learns that there have been other suicides in the apartment going on for nearly three years. It all began with a girl named Sachiyo who lived with her alcoholic and abusive mother. Sachiyo jumped off the balcony and it was discovered her mother died six months prior and that Sachiyo had been living with her corpse since then. To unravel the circumstances behind her sister´s death, Mariko must delve into the strange deaths of Sachiyo and her mother. Along the way, she deals with a shady apartment manager and the rental company, neither of whom seem to have a problem with collecting rent money on a haunted apartment.

There is also a creepy mother and daughter who live right next door in 1302 who don´t seem too moved or broken up by any of the deaths they witness. I found it odd that in this spacious apartment building, there doesn´t seem to be anybody else living there. The reasoning behind the insanity of Sachiyo´s mother is never explained either. One scene, she´s a mean drunk and in the next she´s chewing on a water bottle until her gums are raw while scribbling nonsense on the walls. Perhaps, "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy" in Japanese?

"Apartment 1303" isn´t just derivative, it´s outright generic. The film goes through the motions without any kind of emotional weight or pathos. Mariko´s investigation is devoid of suspense, mystery, or thrills. It actually consists of nothing more than exposition and flashbacks strung together rather than real detective work. For lack of a better term, the acting is full of "actor-y" moments. I´m talking about overly melodramatic soap opera acting, instead of downplayed, nuanced performances. The actors scream, cry, wail, and flail about to subtly clue us into their depression. The film piles on the cheese even further with a bombastic score. As if screeching string instruments and booming horns are suddenly going to make us soil our underoos. Writer/Director Ataru Oikawa lends a pedestrian hand to proceedings. Say what you want about these redundant movies, but many of them still have some visual style. "Apartment 1303" lacks even that with not a single shot that leaps out at you. Finally, the film´s climax is filled with terrible special effects, including some laughably bad greenscreen work.
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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Invisible, The

No doubt, I could go on from now until tomorrow telling you everything that's wrong with "The Invisible," but in the end it's one's gut feeling that counts, and I liked this 2007 release. It's a ghost story with no scares. A thriller with no thrills. And a romance with no romance. And yet... When it was over, I felt I had gotten to know the characters and sensed their pain. Sentimental? Yes, with an ending that moved me as much anything I've seen in a long time. Not a great film, to be sure, but one I was pleased with having watched.

While Director David S. Goyer has made films like "ZigZag" and "Blade: Trinity," he's mostly known as a screenwriter of such things as "Blade," "Dark City," and "Batman Begins," and it's the dark tone of these movies that shows up in "The Invisible." Writers Mick Davis and Christine Roum based their script on the novel "Den Osynlige" by Mats Wahl and on the Swedish film of the same name. Then Goyer added his own noirish touches, making a film so heavyhearted and melancholic, it will not appeal to everyone.

The movie's subject is death; although, to be fair, the movie does more than explore the tragedy of dying. It's far more introspective than that and delves into the subject of death in life, being "invisible" while still alive. In that sense, the film is more a symbolic parable than a straightforward ghost story, which audiences probably won't expect. So, give Goyer credit for doing what he wanted rather than what Hollywood formula dictates. Whether Goyer succeeded or not, you'll have to decide for yourself. For me, a lot of it worked.

The film centers on two high school seniors from very different backgrounds. The first character is a young man, Nick Powell (Justin Chatwin), a child of privilege, whose father has died; he is being raised by a cold, possessive, perfectionist mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who has the boy's life mapped out for him. The second character is a young woman, Annie Newton (Margarita Levieva), a child of misfortune, whose mother has died; she is being raised by a cold, indifferent father.

Nick is outwardly a model student, but inwardly he resents the world his mother has outlined for him, and in rebellion sells essays to other students to raise enough money to leave home as soon as he graduates. Annie is a tough delinquent who steals cars and jewelry and spends her nights with a hoodlum named Marcus (Alex O'Loughlin). Through a tragic mistake, their lives cross, and Annie murders Nick. Almost.

Annie and several of her hooligan friends attempt to rough up Nick for what they think is his involvement in turning Annie in to the police for a jewel robbery, but the beating goes awry and they wind up thinking they've killed Nick. They dump his body down a drainage hole in the forest and leave him for dead. But Nick isn't dead, and he finds his spirit suddenly lingering somewhere between life and death. If his body dies, his spirit will die, too. So he needs to find his body and, more important, find someone who will find his body and help him survive. Unfortunately, in his spiritual state, he cannot easily communicate with the living.

OK, you already see elements of "Ghost" in the story. But not really, because director Goyer is more concerned with the inner lives of the near-murderer and her victim. Since Nick knows who tried to kill him, he seeks out Annie to do what he can to get her to confess to the crime and lead the police to his body. In Nick's observing her, though, Nick learns that he and Annie have more in common than first meets the eye.

"The Invisible" is a quietly sad and lonely film about quietly sad and lonely people. At first, we see only the good in Nick and only the bad in Annie. As things go along, we begin to feel less concerned about Nick and more sympathetic toward Annie. Meanwhile, even Nick, who must rely on his murderer to save his life, begins to understand Annie and himself better.

The story moves slowly, the director preferring to establish a melancholy, somewhat enigmatic mood rather than hit us over the head with rousing action. For audiences used to nonstop movement and whizbang special effects, this film will seem like a long haul. After Nick's disappearance, a charismatic detective (Callum Keith Rennie) enters the picture, but after a few scenes, he disappears from the narrative. Likewise, we initially see much of Nick's best friend, Pete, (Chris Marquette), but then Pete finds less and less screen time as well. What it boils down to is a picture about Nick and Annie, and perhaps it would have been better for the filmmakers to have left out the peripheral characters altogether.
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Return to House on Haunted Hill [Unrated]

In the beginning William Castle created "House on Haunted Hill," a campy 1959 horror romp starring Vincent Price. Forty years later Warner Bros. remade the film starring a campy Geoffrey Rush in the Vincent Price role. Now, in 2007 we've got WB's direct-to-video sequel to the remake, "Return to House on Haunted Hill." I'm afraid to ask what comes next: A remake of the remake or a sequel to the sequel of the remake? My brain hurts.

While we're pondering such momentous questions, let me remind you that some of the best things about the 1999 remake were a roller-coaster ride early on, Rush's over-the-top histrionics, and a really spooky setting. Although the film quickly devolved into a dreary CGI-laden extravaganza, the building in which everything took place was creepy as all get-out. Unfortunately, what with the older script having used up the roller coaster angle and dispatched Rush's character, the only component left to the new filmmakers was the setting. It's not enough.

To recap the '99 film, an eccentric millionaire offered a large sum of money to a group of people if they could spend a night in a haunted house, in this case the long-abandoned Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane. Then he tried to scare them to death. The thing was, it wasn't long before everyone discovered that ghosts actually did haunt the old, rambling edifice, and the spirits of the people who died there (at the hands of the demented Dr. Richard Benjamin Vannacutt and in a 1931 patient revolt) came back to kill most of the guests for real.

In the present film, it's eight years later, and we meet Ariel Wolfe (Amanda Righetti), the sister of a woman, Sara, who survived the fright night in '99. But as the new story begins, Sara dies of a suspicious suicide. Ariel investigates and discovers that her sister was in possession of a journal written by the very doctor, Vannacutt, whose patients murdered him. (Dr. Vannacutt is played in reprise by the endearing Jeffrey Combs of "Re-Animator" fame.) In Vannacutt's journal, the doctor told where he hid a statue, the Bashomet idol, which radiates evil and caused all the mischief in the first place. Sometimes, it's best for a movie not to explain too much; this idol business is a cheap trick better left to old movie serials of the 1930s.

Apparently, the statue is worth a fortune because everybody wants to get their hands on it, including a professor of archeology, Dr. Richard Hammer (Steven Pacy), who's been searching for it for twenty years; plus a pack of mean, nasty cutthroats and their leader, a mean, nasty archeologist named Desmond (Erik Palladino). So the gang of crooks kidnap Ariel and a friend, Paul (Tom Riley), and head out to the old hospital in search of the statue, with Professor Hammer, his friend Michelle (Cerina Vincent), and a college student, Kyle (Andrew-Lee Potts), coincidentally showing up at the same time and bent on the same mission.

This is the film's way of getting everybody together in the old building so the fun can start. Too bad it takes so long to begin, though, because it's already a third of the way into the story before anything even remotely interesting happens.

You can guess the rest. The designers of the building built it to lock down in case of a patient uprising, and that's exactly what happens as soon as the characters enter it. Nobody can leave. From then on, it's pure "Friday the 13th" cliché territory.

"The statue belongs in a museum, not in the hands of some private collector," says Dr. Hammer to the nefarious Desmond. Does that line sound like one from any other movie you've seen? What with the characters splitting up and going in different directions, the character of Desmond being a fellow archeologist, his name sounding rather wimpy for a villain, and the name "Hammer" being an obvious tribute to Hammer Films, so popular in horror circles of the 1950s ,'60s, and '70s, I began thinking maybe "Return to House on Haunted Hill" was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek homage to all our old action and horror-movie favorites. But, alas, the film is far too grim and straightforward for such sly distinctions. Did you ever see "Ghost Ship" or "Thir13en Ghosts"? Same deal.
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Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Complete Series [20th Anniversary Gift Set]

There is no greater argument to Science Fiction aficionados than that of whether or not James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard. I´ve always been a Kirk man, myself. His interstellar gunslinging and blue alien womanizing was always far more entertaining than the intellectual and calculating Picard. However, I grew up watching the old "Star Trek" re-runs on Saturday mornings and never got fully involved with "Star Trek: The Next Generation" when it debuted on September 28, 1987. There were just so many things to do in my freshman year of high school and "Star Trek" was not among my hot list. The debate as to who was the better captain will never end and will always meet with heated discussion amongst the so-called "Trekkies." However, the debate as to which television show was more successful is hardly a debate, as "The Next Generation" lasted seven seasons and was met with critical and popular success, unlike the original series which found success in syndication, but not during its initial run.

Twenty years later, Paramount has released a magnificent box set containing all seven years of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." With a sizable $440 dollar price tag and an equally astounding forty nine DVDs, this "20th Anniversary Collector´s Gift Set" is a mouth-watering treat for the die-hard Trekkies who sit on the Picard side of the "Who was a better captain" argument. Contained in a large green cube of plastic and shiny platters, this captivating collection of all 176 episodes of the long running science fiction series is simply awe-inspiring. With a complete running time of 134 hours and fifteen minutes for the episodes alone and a couple of hours of supplements, this box set had captured about two weeks of my life to sit through selected episodes and pay a long standing visit with the crew of the USS Enterprise and its familiar crewmembers. I had initially anticipated watching just two or three episodes a season and then sit through the complete array of bonus materials, but ended up enjoying six or seven episodes a season. I typically try to watch an entire series before posting a review, but admittedly fell short of that standard. Sometimes, one needs to break one´s own policies

From the Pinocchio-like Data (Brent Spiner) to the Kirk-like William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), "Star Trek: The Next Generation" is filled with memorable and well acted characters. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is a caring and kind Captain who strives to always do what is best for the better good. He stays out of heated action unless it is absolutely necessary. His First Officer, Riker, is usually sent as the leader of the away teams. Riker is the show´s ladies man and the charismatic warrior who is not afraid of using his phaser. After watching "Star Trek: The Next Generation," I realized the show did not need William Shatner doing what he did best in the original series, it had a capable facsimile in William Riker. Data is easily my favorite character and is an android that was build as the perfect example of artificial intelligence. However, he yearns to become human and find emotions and continually undergoes experiments and studies to attempt at better understanding the human condition and becoming as human as possible.

Joining Riker and Data in Picard´s staff are a number of other likeable crew-members. Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) is a blind Starfleet engineer who is able to see because of a high tech visor and is the closest member of the crew to Data. Geordi began his time on the Enterprise as the ship´s Conn Officer, but soon moved on to becoming the Chief Engineer. He was the voice of reason in the show among the crewmembers and aided Data in understanding humans. The show broke convention and added a member to the crew who was among the race of the most hated villains from the original show: a Klingon. Worf (Michael Dorn) is the ship´s security officer after Natasha Yar (Denise Crosby) is killed off in season one and the ship´s muscle. By having a Klingon as part of the Enterprise crew, "The Next Generation" was able to greatly expand its universe and provide a figure to look at social topics plaguing modern day Earth civilization. Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) is the ship´s counselor and is part Human and part Betazoid. She is able to read feelings and is also the primary love interest of Riker. The ship´s doctor is Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and she is a personal friend of Picard and maintains a healthy sick bay. Her son Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) spent four years aboard the Enterprise and served as a Conn Officer in a Internship-like mode under Picard. Finally, Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) was the bartender at the Ten-Forward lounge on the Enterprise and a close confidant of Picard´s.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" began its first season and was an instant success. Although the first season suffers from the characters trying to find themselves and many of the crew members not taking the roles they would later hold for the six following seasons, the show established many key storylines and relationships between the characters. Many of the first season shows were self-contained stories that had little bearing on what occurred later in the season. They were singular adventures that did not borrow from previous adventures and in general, the show didn´t seem to have a lot of direction in this first season. This mish-mash of plotlines and the ´feeling in´ period for the characters slowly started to become more structured and more polished as the first season continued. The show would kill off a principal character when Denise Crosby wanted to leave. Many episodes featured Wil Wheaton coming up with an amazing solution to a problem and saving the day. The saucer-section and holodeck were also common devices used during the first season. The first season, however, did introduce one of the series primary villains in the Romulans and laid down the groundwork for the most villainous television bad-guys in history: the Borg.

The second season found a lot of shuffling among the crew of the Enterprise. With Tasha Yar removed as the security officer after her death to a large black puddle of intelligent oil, Worf took over in that position. Geordi moved to become chief of engineering and much of his work was taken over by the previously unnamed Miles O´Brien (Colm Meaney). After much hesitation in the first season, Wesley Crusher is now an Ensign and part of the crew on the bridge. Sadly, Dr. Beverly Crusher has left her position as ship´s doctor and was replaced by Dr. Katherine Pulaski (Diana Muldaur), but Dr. Crusher would return for season three. The Ten-Forward club was introduced, as was its well-informed bartender Guinan. Data became more and more curious of what makes a human tick and Riker grew a beard and gained more power as the second in command on the Enterprise. The second season found consistent storylines and more fleshed out characters that the first season. With some stories spanning the entire season, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" moved past being a one-season wonder and became a show that would survive for many more seasons.

The third season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" would find Dr. Beverly Crusher returning to the starship Enterprise and continuing her work as the ship´s doctor and hint as a love interest to Picard. She would initially have difficulties in accepting her son´s role as a member of the ship´s crew, but her return was a great improvement over Dr. Pulaski. Pulaski was supposed to be a female equivalent of the original series Dr. McCoy, but her character simply did not have the same chemistry that Bones had in the original series. Perhaps the most memorable part of the third season aboard the Enterprise-D was the season finale and its introduction of the Borg. The season gave Guinan and added presence on-board the Enterprise and showed that she perhaps knew more than anybody else when it came to intergalactic happenings. Her family was killed by the Borg and this frightening collective of cyborgs introduced the most memorable villains in television history. Season three took the solid ground created in the second season and made "Star Trek: The Next Generation" a fast-paced and entertaining hour of television. It´s too bad that it wasn´t until this DVD set that I was finally aware of how good the show became.

The fourth season began with the Borg and found Locutus of Borg returned to the Enterprise, while the ship was under the command of Riker. A massive fight between the Borg and Starfleet occurred during the fourth season premiere and had established that the Borg would be the biggest and baddest threat in the universe from this point forward. This middle point of the series found Wesley Crusher leaving the Enterprise to join Starfleet Academy. Crusher was my least favorite character of the primary crew and I certainly enjoyed watching him depart from the crew and not returning as a primary character from the fifth season on. He did have a recurring role and I saw him once or twice during my episode-hopping, but he wasn´t nearly as pivotal or commonplace after he left for the Academy.

The fifth and sixth season did not see a lot of change aboard the Enterprise, but found the crew investigating many themes popular during the show´s long run. Time travel and the potential of interfering with the time and space continuum was very popular and even Mark Twain made an appearance on the show. Klingon relations were another popular point and Worf´s son Alexander would soon take residence on the Enterprise and have a focal episode during the show´s final season. The Borg would return and Hugh would be introduced during this timeframe. These seasons also took place after the death of the show´s creator, Gene Roddenberry. The show did not miss a beat after losing its creator and although many of the themes started to feel repetitious and not quite as fresh as the third and fourth seasons, the characters continued to build on their wonderful chemistry.

Season seven started slow, but ended perfectly. The show´s longest running antagonist, Q (John de Lancie) was a focal point in the show´s pilot and played a pivotal point in the two hour finale. Q was an odd and powerful nemesis that straddled the line at being friend of foe to Picard. He showed an odd fascination with the ship´s captain and although he routinely put the Enterprise into hazardous situations, he was always helping them out in a roundabout way. Where the show began, it ended and the manner in which the finale revisited the pilot was brilliant. It´s reintroduction of Tasha Yar was a nice touch and I was happy to see one of my favorite characters from the first season return. Q appeared in a large number of episodes and helped the show end on a high note. Picard found some peace at being the ship´s captain and even joined his highest ranking officers for a game of poker.

I did not follow "Star Trek: The Next Generation" during its seven year run on broadcast television. I had watched a few of the first season episodes, but aside from finding Denise Crosby as being a rather attractive blonde, I didn´t find much else of interest during the show. Data was the only other character that held my interest, but he wasn´t enough to watch the show. At the time, I didn´t want intelligent and though-provoking stories. I wanted action that could rival "Star Wars" and I wanted my captain romancing blue aliens. Now I know that I did not give "Star Trek: The Next Generation" enough time to grow on me. I quickly grew tired of watching Wil Wheaton always fix the ship and odd situations to release the saucer section. For me, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" was too tame and too much of a ´thinking´ show to be entertaining enough to follow it.

With revisiting the show and finally giving it its due with the massive 49 disc box set, I have discovered just how rich and fulfilling the show became during its next few seasons. The formulaic approach to the show was left behind after the first year and the actors grew into their characters. Data became the perfect Pinocchio and found a wonderful father-son relationship with Picard. William Riker found almost as much power as the Captain and fulfilled my desires for a Kirk-like adventurer. The stories became better and the show became stronger. I found the second, third and fourth seasons to be among the fresher and more adventurous seasons. The show was on the upswing during these three years and I wish I had the time to watch each and every episode before typing up this review. Of course, I could have spent the time watching the shows when they first aired two decades ago.

A plateau was reached during the final three seasons. The show was more polished and the actors had perfected their characters. There was no longer any great room to grow and the pinnacle third-season finale / fourth-season premiere was left in the rearview mirror of the Enterprise. The stories were still nicely-written and the show still had plenty of strange new worlds to explore, but nothing was fresh and groundbreaking. The show started to become a little stale and lose the momentum from the earlier seasons. I´m sure the creators were aware of this and this came into play when the seventh season was determined to be the last. Some of the stories that fell flat involved a Romulan woman who was Tasha Yar´s daughter. Intended to be a tremendous plot-twist, it became confusing in disinteresting. The finale was awesome and I enjoyed watching the show end strong, but the final three seasons only served to show more adventures and extend the voyage of the starship enterprise.

I easily spent forty hours with this box set and learned much about "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Some of my thoughts to the few episodes I had originally watched from the first season were quite valid, but the show evolved and improved greatly. Data was a simply awesome character and stood out among a strong cast of characters. Riker, Geordi, Dr. Crusher, Worf and Picard were all nicely written and well acted. Q and the Borg were strong antagonists and I only wish the show had spent just a little more time with each of them. It has now been a long time since the crew of the Enterprise-D appeared on either television or film, but their long journey to seek out new worlds was worth a trip and thankfully, those of us that missed the trip the first time around can at least share in their experiences on DVD. This is a great show and a huge time investment, but I think it is worth it.
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Reaping, The [HD DVD and DVD Combo]

Studios usually know what they're doing, and even when they make mistakes, they're usually quick to catch on to them. Certainly, that's the case with Warner Bros. Take, for instance, "The Reaping." The studio originally scheduled it for release in 2006 but postponed the première by almost a year. Why, I don't know. Often it's because studios are not sure how good a film is, how well it will do, and want additional time to plan their ad campaign or their distribution. In the case of "The Reaping," I suspect WB may have viewed it the same way I did, negatively, and wondered if it was worth the bother. As it turns out, the film did modestly well at the box office despite critics like me not liking it.

The movie's biggest assets on HD DVD are its star, Hilary Swank, and its high-def sound. The movie's biggest liability is still its story, a silly horror affair. Swank, a fine actress, does her best to cope, but it seems like a hopeless, almost demeaning situation, a little like watching those old television commercials with Laurence Olivier hawking cameras or Orson Welles selling wine. Or, more appropriate to our subject matter, Richard Burton sweating his way through "Exorcist II: The Heretic."

In "The Reaping" Swank plays Katherine Winter, an LSU professor who specializes in debunking so-called miracles and superstitious hoaxes. Well, you can already see where that plot thread is going to wind up. Everybody likes to root for the supernatural. We all want to believe in things that can't be seen or explained, and we'd all like to see the naysayers proved wrong just out of spite, whether or not we actually believe in the subject. It's like those "National Geographic" shows on cable about ghosts or ESP or whatever, where they spend the whole time interviewing about 800 believers who have seen and experienced such phenomena, and then at the very end of the program they call upon the editor of "Skeptic Magazine" who, without a shred of contradictory proof, simply says no, they're all lying or hallucinating, and the program concludes, therefore, that none of the paranormal stuff is real. I mean, we want to see the smart-aleck skeptic get his comeuppance, right? Maybe a flying saucer will land on his lawn or something.

As with most of these semireligious horror stories, the main character in "The Reaping," the professor, was once a devout Christian who lost her faith in God. In her case, this happened when fanatics murdered her husband and daughter in the Sudan a few years earlier. Now, she has nightmares about the events and believes in no kind of superstitious mumbo-jumbo. So when an old friend, Father Michael Costigan (Stephen Rhea), calls to warn her that her life may be in danger from some unknown evil, she shrugs it off. Priests are always getting caught up in these things, aren't they? You'd think we were still living in the Dark Ages watching these horror-movie plots, although a lot of churches probably invite screenwriters to use them in their scripts because of their elaborate church rituals, dark cathedrals, bizarre statuary, and the like. I know I was always a bit intimidated going to funerals at the local Catholic church when I was a kid: The dusky corners and moldy smell of incense in the huge, old-fashioned chapel sort of scared me. As I suppose was the intent of churches in the old days, when they needed to keep some degree of control over their congregations.

Back to our story: Katherine gets a request from a man, Doug Blackwell (David Morrissey), to investigate a mysterious occurrence in his little hometown of Haven, where he teaches grade-school science. The town is way back in the Louisiana bayous, and the nearby river has turned red. The townspeople, Bible-thumpers all, believe that the river has turned to blood and that the simultaneous death of a boy in the area are the beginnings of the Old Testament plagues all over again; you know, the ones God visited upon Egypt when Pharaoh wouldn't let the Hebrews out of the country. Against her better judgment, Katherine and her investigative assistant, Ben (Idris Elba), agree to check it out.

To the film's credit, director Stephen Hopkins ("Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Child," "Predator 2," "Lost in Space") shot mostly on location in various places around Texas and Louisiana, so the film looks authentic in detail. Now, if only the filmmakers had had a more original concept to work with....

True to form, when they arrive in Haven, they discover everybody there acts weird; they find a hurricane destroyed the first, older town about a century before, leaving only ruins and a mausoleum out in the countryside; they spot a strange little girl, Loren (AnnaSophia Robb), wandering in the swamp; and Blackwell arranges lodging for them in his decaying Southern mansion. We actually get to experience a dark and stormy night with the protagonists in this crumbling old house. Depending on your tolerance for these things, it's either silly or insufferable.
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Thursday, October 4, 2007

Flashdance [Special Collector's Edition]

I must admit that I was quite impressed with the fact that four different performers were used to piecemeal the final dance sequence together to give the impression that Alex Owens was a highly talented dancer and deserved a position at the prestigious and fictional Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory. Beals did a limited number of dance moves in the film and the iconic final sequence featured in addition to Beals, four other performers, including a French woman, a male breakdancer and a professional gymnast. This final sequence is memorable to many and I have to admit that its clever lighting, camera angles and editing had me believing that Beals was a top-notch dancer. After doing some research for the review of this DVD release, the new knowledge that Beals did not dance and that the filmmakers had me completely fooled is perhaps my only positive appraisal of this film. This Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer collaboration only cements my belief that Joe Eszterhas is 0 for 2 when it comes to writing a dance-based film. This film, "Flashdance" and the later "Showgirls" are cinematic nightmares lacking any semblance of a plot and any true substance.

Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals) is an eighteen year old girl who works as a welder for a Pittsburgh steel company. That is only her day job. At night, she is a dancer for a nightclub that features costume dressed dancers and stylized dancing that competes with local topless joints. Being a Pennsylvania boy, I am overly curious how an eighteen year old girl would secure a job as a welder in Pittsburgh and how a club of fully clothed exotic dancers would succeed. There is far too much skilled labor in Pittsburgh and not enough job positions to fill the labor base for a girl fresh out of high school to become a skilled welder, as depicted in this film. Pittsburgh is about as blue collar a town as you will find. They drink Iron City beer (or the dreadful Iron City Light), bleed black and yellow and don´t get riled up over fancy dancing when there are strip clubs just down the street. I´ve spent enough time in the city and its suburbs to know how the city operates and while these themes may be remotely possibly elsewhere, it just doesn´t happen in the Burgh.

Rant aside, Alex spends her days welding and her nights dancing. Her real dream is to become a dancer and to gain entrance to the prestigious Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory. The problem is Alex has no dancing background beyond her exotic dancing and has either taught herself her moves or learned from a retired ballet dancer, Hanna (Lilia Skala). When Alex shows up at PCoDR, she looks at the application and instantly realizes she doesn´t have any of the background they are looking for and she gives up on her pursuit of her dream. Any remaining enthusiasm to landing the position are further dashed when her best friend Jeanie (Sunny Johnson) fails miserably and fails twice during an ice skating competition and Alex sees the potential parallels. Alex also witnessed Jeanie´s boyfriend and the cook for the club she dances at get heckled at his attempts of being a comedian for the club. Soon, Alex looses the ambition and feels that her continued existence will continue as a welder and exotic dancer.

Her fortunes begin to change when she reluctantly accepts a date with the steel company´s boss, Nick (Michael Nouri). Nick drives a Porsche and is successful. She doesn´t want a relationship with her boss, but eventually gives in and begins a whirlwind romance. The relationship is hot and cold, as Alex sees Nick with his ex-wife and throws a brick through a window of his expensive house. After an explanation, she forgives him and their love affair gets back on track. Nick sees the talent in Alex and her dancing and when she finally submits her application to the PCoDR, Nick calls a few friends and arranges for Alex to get a tryout. She discovers this and is greatly angered. Nick is dumped and Alex states that she will not attend the arranged tryout. She wanted to do everything on her own and although she knows show probably would not have gotten the tryout without a little help, she is unphased in her reaction. When Alex sees her friend Jeanie dancing topless at a competing club, she gives Jeanie a speech about dreams and decides to attend the rehearsal and set the stage for the film´s most memorable dance sequence.

"Flashdance" is a film that I certainly do not fit within its target demographics. It is a film about dancing, relationships and not giving up on one´s dreams. Mostly, it is about the dancing. Being a Joe Eszterhas story, there is the expected topless nudity and sexual thematics. They ultimately work against the film, but are attempts at roping in some males as an audience. The hour and a half spent watching this film is a voyeuristic look at a short period in the life of the main character. You watch her suffer through a romance that perplexes, yet rewards her. You watch her dance and yearn to make her dancing the center focus of her life. You watch her sit around her apartment with her pet pit bull. The relationship between the two main actors is not fleshed out in any manner other than what serves to set up necessary plot points. There are no truly tender moments or romantic montages to sit through, but the dialogue between Alex and Nick is shallow and uninteresting. There is also a lot of dancing.

Carrying an R rating, "Flashdance" straddles the line of maintaining a family friendly environment and bringing out the naughtier side of Alex. She smokes a cigarette and she drops the f-bomb. Yet almost everything else she does is cute and kid-friendly, including much of her dancing. By not selling out entirely and becoming a PG or PG-13 rated picture, "Flashdance" has an odd sense of turmoil in its desired tone. Does it want to be a film that strives to entertain adults or does it want to be a dance movie that excites teenage girls? The picture definitely speaks to female viewers, but watching "Flashdance" shows the identity crisis suffered by the film´s production. The team of Simpson and Bruckheimer would become a powerhouse after this film and director Adrian Lyne has done well with "Fatal Attraction" and other films, but "Flashdance" is a movie that struggles to find itself and decide on what kind of movie it wants to be. It is caught somewhere in the middle of being a movie for adults and being a movie for teenagers. Watching the film feels like reading somebody´s diary that has had the naughty pages ripped out.

I can´t say that I enjoyed the film. I found the plot uninteresting and silly. With no consistent tone or direction for the film, "Flashdance" felt like a convoluted series of music videos. It lacked any dramatic moments and presented characters that were far too forgettable. Had it not been for the above average soundtrack that accompanied the production and the dance sequences that have been borrowed and parodied countless times over the years, "Flashdance" would too be forgettable. However, we all remember seeing Alex sitting in a chair and being drenched with water. We all remember seeing her sweat profusely in an incredibly energetic dance to the song "Maniac" and the iconic final sequence to Irene Cara´s "Flashdance… What A Feeling." As I said before, this is a movie about dancing and it is remembered for its dancing. I didn´t enjoy the film, but vividly remember the numerous songs and dances contained in this film. I can understand why many women love the movie and realize why the film was as successful as it was. For me, the film lacked conviction, direction and any true entertainment value.
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William Shakespeare´s works have seen countless permutations in all forms of entertainment. Certainly, "Macbeth", a tale of madness and betrayal, is no exception as it has seen various cinematic adaptations directed by Orson Welles and Roman Polanski, among others. Even the master Akira Kurosawa has made several films that were based off of Shakespeare´s works. "Ran" was an adaptation of "King Lear", while "The Bad Sleep Well" mirrored "Hamlet." Kurosawa´s "Throne of Blood" transplanted the story of Macbeth from Scotland to medieval Japan. Australian filmmaker Geoffrey Wright, best known for "Romper Stomper" which starred a young Russell Crowe as a Neo-Nazi, steps up to the plate with his version set in the modern-day underworld of Melbourne.

The original play followed the story of Macbeth, a general, who is spurred on by the prophecies of three witches known as the Weird Sisters and the urgings of his wife to betray and murder, Duncan, the King of Scotland. Assuming the throne, he kills all those who would be a threat to his power. As they descend deeper into a downward spiral of murder, Macbeth and his wife become wracked with guilt and madness. During one of the play´s most well-known scenes, Lady Macbeth attempts to scrub away the figurative blood on her hands.

In Wright´s film, Duncan (Gary Sweet) is now the head of a powerful crime family with Macbeth (Sam Worthington) as one of his lieutenants. The movie opens in a cemetery where MacBeth and his wife, the Lady Macbeth (Victoria Hill, who also co-wrote and produced the film) mourn over the grave of their son. In the graveyard, MacBeth initially spots the Weird Sisters (Chloe Armstrong, Kate Bell, and Miranda Nation), re-imagined from bearded witches to a trio of red-haired schoolgirls. That night, Macbeth and his friend, Banquo (Steve Bastoni), are doing a drug deal with the Macdonwald gang at the docks. Of course, the deal goes bad and bullets fly. Macbeth and Banquo gun down the remaining aggressors and take control of Macdonwald´s nightclub. To celebrate, Macbeth takes some neat drugs and gets funky by switching on the fog machine and disco lights. He meets with the Weird Sisters again to foretell that he´ll be the new head honcho. As if that weren´t ridiculous enough, their next meeting tops it when Macbeth and the schoolgirls engage in a four-way orgy.

Lady Macbeth likes what she hears and when Duncan spends the night in their home, they plot to kill him. Macbeth stabs Duncan while he sleeps and frames his bodyguards. Soon, he begins eliminating any competition to his position of power by hiring assassins to murder Banquo and the wife and son of another rival, Macduff (Lachy Hulme). Discovering the depths to which she and her husband have sank, Lady Macbeth falls into a pit of depression and insanity. Meanwhile, Macduff and his cohorts start to turn on Macbeth´s bloodthirsty reign and consolidate their resources against him.

Like his countryman, Baz Luhrmann and his garish, big-screen version of "Romeo & Juliet", Wright retains the original dialogue of the play. I´ve never quite understood the need to do this. It´s just downright silly seeing these guys in their Armani suits gathering around a seedy back alley while speaking in Ye Olde English. I´ve never been much of a fan for these modern retellings. Luhrmann´s "Romeo" was assuredly a box-office hit and has its own loyal following, but I don´t count myself as one of them. The only one that I truly enjoyed was Richard Loncraine´s "Richard III" (set in an alternate fascist 1930´s England) with the always-great Ian McKellan in the eponymous role. In any event, the line readings here are just plain robotic. It´s as if we were watching a troupe of high school drama students simply reciting the lines, hoping they haven´t forgotten a word or two.

Wright´s "Macbeth" is supposed to be an action film. The DVD cover art even makes it look like "Underworld" with the dark tones and characters in black leather trenchcoats. However, there isn´t much action to be found. The movie just pretentiously plods along as we witness the actors mechanically moving through the Shakespearean dialogue. When the action does come along, Wright uses just about every clichéd technique in the action director´s playbook. We´ve got slow-motion, fast-motion, Dutch angles, tight close-ups, and quick cuts. There´s nothing inventive or exciting about any of the action set pieces.
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BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad Volume 3 [2005]

The adventures of Koyuki, a shy student who becomes involved in the indie rock scene continues in volume 3 of "BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad" from FUNimation.

"BECK" is the story of 14 year-old middle school student Yukio "Koyuki" Tanaka, an average boy who, at the beginning, was struggling to figure out what to do with his life. A chance encounter with a charismatic guy named Ryusuke changes Koyuki´s life and gives him goals and drive. Ryusuke, though only 16, is a talented musician and is friends with "Dying Breed", a popular band back in America. Now Ryusuke has formed his own band in Japan, naming it "BECK", after his dog. Koyuki is fascinated by Ryusuke, who lives an unconventional life and plays such great music.

Influenced by this amazing new friend, Koyuki has taught himself guitar, and has shown an amazing amount of improvement in the year since he first picked up the instrument. Ryusuke, recognizing Koyuki´s musical promise at the guitar, and his amazing singing voice, has recruited Koyuki into BECK. Now the group is struggling to make themselves known amidst the crowded indie music scene.

Volume 3 has Koyuki experiencing some amazing emotionally high moments, both in his music and in his personal life. Problems that bogged him down in volume 2, such as his issues with a school bully, are resolved, and he realizes his dream of meeting the famous group, "Dying Breed". In fact, reality exceeds his wildest dreams!

While music is at the forefront of Koyuki´s mind, some other issues lurk in the background. The romantic triangle that was forming in volume 2 pops up again here, however the girls involved seem to take the matter into their own hands and solve it themselves. Also, the school festival is approaching, and Koyuki finds himself recruited to compete in a battle of the bands there.

As with volume 2, my main complaint with this series is the inconsistent production values in the animation. The art style can be very simple, and Koyuki´s character design varies a lot between episodes. For that matter, it can vary dramatically within the same episode, scene to scene. It can be very distracting to see Koyuki change from round and childish-looking, to a slightly older look. His hair and bangs constantly change. It is great that the producers spent so much time on the music sequences and guitar playing, but the contrast between that level of realistic detail and poor, simple, Koyuki in the school scenes is rather glaring.

"BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad" volume 3 contains episodes 11 through 14 of this 26 episode series. Once again we have a great set of episodes that contain solid character development. As always, Koyuki is the central focus. He has come a long way from where he began. While he still has "stupid teenager" moments, he has matured a lot in the year that has passed in the series. He is beginning to think more of others, and less about his own problems. Koyuki´s natural talent really shines in this volume and is now being recognized by more than just his BECK band mates.

"BECK" is a consistently good series. Even though the episodes are day-to-day slices of Koyuki´s life, each one is strong and contributes something important to the overall story. There is no filler, just great plot and music.
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Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland Collection [Ultimate Collector's Edition]

Early on in their careers, it was hard to separate Mickey Rooney from Judy Garland. Of course, as the years went on, Garland tended to eclipse Rooney in sheer star power, then died prematurely, while Rooney went on to one of the longest runs in entertainment history (307 films, starting in 1926, with three films in 2006, two in 2007, and another lined up for 2008). Capitalizing on the pair's continued popularity, Warner Bros. serves up four of their best films together in the "Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland Collection," a deluxe package that includes a bonus disc of extras, a hardbound collector's book of film materials, and a packet of studio stills. It's something of a Rooney-and-Garland fan's dream.

The four MGM films in the set are formulaic, high-spirited musical comedies, mostly covering the same ground with similar songs and characters. But that's exactly what audiences wanted then and now, so it's what they get. I hadn't seen them in years, but I remembered them as cheerful and bouncy, sometimes remarkably corny but spirited, too.

"Babes in Arms," 1939, produced by Arthur Freed and directed by the celebrated choreographer Busby Berkeley, stars Rooney and Garland with co-stars Charles Winninger, Guy Kibbee, June Preisser, and Margaret Hamilton (who the same year did the Wicked Witches in "The Wizard of Oz"). "Babes in Arms" is based on a Rodgers and Hart musical, freely adapted, with a lot of additional music and songs in one of those fund raiser-type shows to help the down-and-out. "Babes" is still lively and an enormous favorite with audiences. 7/10

"Strike Up the Band," 1940, also directed by Berkeley, co-stars bandleader Paul Whiteman, June Preisser, William Tracy, and Larry Nunn. A high school band hopes to compete in a nationwide radio contest, with Mick as the leader of the group and Garland as the lead vocalist. Best bits: an animated musical number concocted by George Pal; the Oscar-nominated song "Our Love Affair"; and Gershwin's title tune in the finale. 6/10

"Babes on Broadway," 1941, again directed by Berkeley, co-stars Fay Banter, Virginia Weidler, Richard Quine, and Donna Reed. Once more we get Rooney and Garland teaming up to help out the disadvantaged, this time to send orphaned children on holiday. Cute mimicking from the duo, lots of energy, but rather a been-there-done-that affair. 5/10

"Girl Crazy":
My favorite among them, though, is "Girl Crazy," a musical comedy from 1943, so I'll concentrate the rest of the review on this single, representative film. Arthur Freed returned as the producer, and for at least one number he again had Busby Berkeley as director. However, Berkeley only did the closing scene, filmed first, before Freed fired him, apparently for going over budget. Still, that closing number, "I Got Rhythm," is the best scene in the picture. Then Freed hired director Norman Taurog to finish the picture. Taurog had already directed Rooney in things like "Boys Town" and "Young Tom Edison," and he would go on in the fifties to direct Martin and Lewis and Elvis Presley.

The movie is helped by the fact that the screenwriters based it on a 1930 musical by Guy Bolton and Jack McGowan, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin. Then Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra helped provide much of the music, along with The Music Maids and Six Hits and a Miss.

Rooney says in his introduction to the film that 1943 "marked the height of the big-band era, and this movie provides an excellent showcase for Tommy (Dorsey)." It does, indeed. The movie's plot may be slight and the characters silly, but the music and the music-makers are terrific.

The first fifteen or twenty minutes of the movie belong to Rooney, with Garland not entering the picture until later. Rooney plays Danny Churchill, Jr., a rich, spoiled young college student, the son of a New York City newspaper publisher. Young Danny is also a playboy, cavorting around the city's nightclubs with bevies of young women on his arm when he should be studying. Danny's father is concerned that the boy is wasting his time and neglecting his studies at Yale; therefore, he sends Danny out West to the Cody College of Mines and Agriculture, an all-male school. "There hasn't been a woman out there since the Civil War," he tells his despondent son.
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Surf's Up

I try very hard to be unbiased when I watch a film for the first time, but I have to admit that after "Happy Feet" I had no interest in seeing yet another full-length animated penguin film. My first reaction was, Over my tuxedoed body!

But "Surf's Up" caught me by surprise--kind of like the six-foot wave that knocked me off my feet in Maui earlier this year. I was expecting cute, and I got cute mixed with irreverent. I was expecting a "Madagascar"-like film pitched at kids, and I got one that winks at adults in almost every scene. I was expecting a familiar narrative, and instead I was treated to take-off on ESPN sports-feature programming, because "Surf's Up" offers a sometimes hilarious parody. It's the mocumentary format that keeps this second effort from Sony Pictures Animation ("Open Season") from being clichéd.

Certainly, the core premise isn't anything new. It concerns a rivalry between two brothers, one who follows the flock, and the other who follows the beat of a different wing. Add an ambition to become more than what is expected of an individual (or species) and you get the "I wanna be a big-time surfer" version of the "I wanna dance, not sing" go-against-the-flow theme we saw in "Happy Feet." Rip-off? At that point, I was certainly thinking so. Then the lines started to kick in, and a few laugh-out-loud moments were scattered here and there. Soon, you start to feel the energy between the characters, so you settle in to ride this wave until the end, when, unfortunately, no one seems to know when to get off their surfboards and call it a day. Maybe they were all having too good of a time to call it a wrap, but the ending does go on a bit long and loses power.

For the most part, though, "Surf's Up" is a funny, good-natured family film (more on that later) that holds appeal for all ages. It looked SO good on a standard DVD that I can't honestly see the huge improvement in picture quality that you often do with Blu-ray. If anything, there seems to be almost too much light on the Blu-ray version (see below).

But the voice actors clearly seem to be having a good time, and that transfers onto the film itself. Shia LaBeouf stars as Cody Maverick, the runt brother in a macaroni penguin family whose father was tragically killed--I mean, eaten--by a killer whale. Older brother Glen (Brian Posehn) is the perfect son to mom (Dana Belben), while Cody is a disappointment. Rather than being willing to warm the flock's eggs like the other males, Cody wants something more, and he spends his days riding Antarctic waves on surfboards he carves from ice. All this is told in semi-flashback, with a SPEN interviewer getting the family to talk on-camera about Cody as their errant family member prepares to finally achieve his dream of competing in the Big Z Memorial Surf-Off. You see, when he was little, the greatest surfer of them all crested into their little town of Shiverpool, Antarctica, and presented Cody with a Big Z necklace that he still wears as a young adult.

After a strained transition that gets Cody to Pen-Gu Island, where the big surfing competition is to take place, things settle into a familiar sports groove, with a mean, arrogant surfer named Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader) not only Cody's guy to beat, but the one who defeated Big Z on the wave that killed his hero. For comic "best buddy" relief there's a chicken surfer from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, of all places. But Chicken Joe (Jon Heder) fits right in with the surf crowd, because he's a bit of a nuts-and-granola guy who is so laid back he can't recognize a tribe of cannibals when they try to boil him, and he somehow manages to catch a wave while preoccupied lying on his back checking out the "radical" cloud patterns. Because they share a number of things-like a dad plucked prematurely out of this life (in Chicken Bob's case, to make a 6-piece combo), he's a natural best-buddy fit for Cody ("Cody's around somewhere. I can feel it in my nuggets."

Sometimes, the minor characters can get a bit shrill. James Woods plays what appears to be an otter sporting a Don King hair-do. He's the surfing promoter, of course, and occasionally the shouting can be a bit much. Then there's Mikey Abromowitz (Mario Cantone), who does the acerbic play-by-play narration on this sports mocumentary, while the only female voice to get much action belongs to Zooey Deschanel, who plays lifeguard Lani Aliikai. But a bevy of jokes, ranging from the cerebral (like an allusion to a famous Japanese woodblock print) to the scatological (when one tiny little penguin refers to the bad guy as a "bucket of poop") save the day every bit as much as a mysterious spaced-out former surfer known only as Geek (Jeff Bridges), who becomes the Obi-Wan to Cody's reluctant Annakin. What parents will appreciate, though, is that this doesn't reinforce sports stereotypes. That's especially welcome in a championship-minded society where placing second is seen as a loss. In this film, winners sometimes lose. And that's okay.
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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Replacement Killers

I've always thought that any work of art--film included--ought to be judged on the basis of what it attempts in relation to whatever genre it belongs to. So I would heartily disagree with film critics who bash action films because they're not "deep" enough or "complex" enough. Too much development can slow down the action, so for me the most important thing is whether a movie sustains its roller-coaster ride and provides interesting enough characters for us to care whether they live or die. And, of course, the universe that filmmakers create must be driven by some logic.

I'm not sure what audiences were expecting when Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat made his Hollywood debut, but "The Replacement Killers" delivers the same stylish, two-fisted (make that two blazing pistols) action that made the actor one of the genre's giants. Antoine Fuqua, who would go on to direct "Training Day," seems to have a pretty good handle on the Hong Kong action film, and the shots he frames, the edgy cuts, the breakneck pacing, and thumping back-music all provide proof.

But I'm also not sure that "The Replacement Killers" adds anything to the genre, or if it just takes those familiar elements and scrambles them a bit for our viewing pleasure. Certainly the plot is familiar. John Lee (Chow) is a hired killer whom we see casually walking into a club and taking out a Latino kingpin and all his thugs. He's not even close to that clichéd gunman who's suddenly lost his nerve. And yet, when Chinese crime boss Terence Wei (Kenneth Tsang) gives him another job--a cop Wei blames for his son's death--he can't pull the trigger. Make that won't, because frankly, if he does, there's no movie. Everything gets rolling when Wei gets wind of Lee's refusal and decides to sic a bunch of "replacement killers" on him and on the original target.

It's all pretty standard, and there's nothing unusual in the way of pyrotechnics or shoot-'em-ups, yet Ken Sanzel gives us a script that's just good enough and makes it better by including a prominent female character who turns out to be more interesting than most of the males posturing and blasting away at each other. In fact, Mia Sorvino ("Mighty Aphrodite") seems a natural as Meg Coburn, a tough-minded passport forger who's drawn into an uneasy partnership with Lee. Any character development rests squarely on how each sees the other, and she and Chow have a nice chemistry that makes us want to mentally climb into the car behind them and follow along on this crazy (but yes, predictable) ride. There's really not much more to say, the arc and trajectory of this plot are so simple.

There are a few moments, though, when a largely realistic tone and treatment gives way to comic-book style action--as when we first see the replacement killers. I mean, don't professional killers try to blend in? Not these guys. They dress like killers, sneer like killers, and stride through airport crowds as if they want everybody to know they're killers. Same with a few "Kung-Fu" moments when this Grasshopper interacts with an old master who's trying to help him. Yet, the film still holds plenty of appeal, and I think that mostly has to do with Sorvino and Chow.
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We Are Marshall

Oh, no, I hear you saying: Not another inspirational, true-life sports film! For the past dozen years or so, Hollywood has been grinding out these kind of flicks regularly, most of them following the same formula developed by "Rocky" all those years ago. A few of them I've enjoyed, like "The Rookie," "Invincible," and the underrated "The Greatest Game Ever Played." Most of them I have merely endured.

Now, we have "We Are Marshall," which must be the underdog story of all time, based as it is on one of the most tragic incidents in all of sports history. On November 14, 1970, the plane carrying the entire Marshall University football team, most of their coaches, and many of their supporters crashed on the way home to Huntington, West Virginia, killing everyone on board. The following season, with the urging of the town, Marshall regrouped, fielded a new team, and with renewed spirit helped to heal the community.

There is no question the actual incidents were stirring; the question is whether any film version of the experience could hope to capture the anguish, the excitement, or the elation of the real thing. In the case of "We Are Marshall," the 2006 fact-based movie of the circumstances, the answer is no, not quite. The fact is, once you understand what happened, which is pretty much as I explained it, there isn't a lot the film can do except rely on standard sports-movie stereotypes and clichés to tell the tale. So expect the usual private dramas, personal hardships, musical crescendos, clenched fists raised in the air, come-from-behind victories, and football fields of sentimentality to fill in the plot.

Then, there are the other questions. Like, of minor note, why is the film so long. I mean, it's 132 minutes. That is the kind of length usually reserved for epics, not sports stories. Of more serious weight, was the school's rush to get a new football program a tribute to the lost team, an attempt to restore the soul of the community, or a hasty decision made in the heat of loss? And most seriously, is the movie itself a salute to the school and community and their courage in going forward and rebuilding, or is it simply another of Hollywood's attempts to capitalize on what they see as a surefire grabber?

Certainly, one must always question Hollywood's motives; after all, people don't often associate the movie industry with pure humanitarianism. Still, in this case I think we have to give the movie the benefit of the doubt. "We Are Marshall" is sincere to a fault, and we should accept it for what it is--a genuine effort to show the best in people.

The first twenty minutes or so of the movie recount the disaster and its effect on the people of Huntington. This part of the story is heartbreaking. Following that is the most inspirational section of the film, when the school decides to rebuild its football program. This part is enough to bring tears to one's eyes, but it also means the story peaks too early and is never able to surpass that moment. Yet it has over an hour and a half to go.

Despite its best intentions, there is much in "We Are Marshall" that holds it back from being the best it can be. One such drawback is the simple detail that plagues so many other true-life sports stories: No matter how traumatic or uplifting the actual events, reality can still seem mundane on screen unless a movie delves deeply into the inner workings of its characters and brings them to life with vigor and force. That is partly the job of the scriptwriter, of course, but mostly the job of the director, in this instance McG (Joseph McGinty Nichol), whose previous claims to big-screen fame were the "Charlie's Angels" movies. I'm sorry; maybe it's just my bias against celebrities assuming pretentious single names. But in McG's case, it's probably more like his lack of imagination. He has the good sense to establish verisimilitude by shooting the film largely on the campus of Marshall University and sprinkling the soundtrack with an overlay of popular, identifiable music of the era from entertainers like Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater, Cat Stevens, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the Jackson 5. At the same time, he drops the ball by populating his story line with one-dimensional characters.

Even more unfortunate is the choice of Matthew McConaughey to play the lead character, Jack Lengyel, the coach who takes over a mostly freshman football team the season after the plane crash. McConaughey tries too hard to imitate the actual coach as well as inject a little color into the depiction, talking out of the side of his mouth and forever behaving like a cheerleader. He never comes across as either a real person or even a likeable person.
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