Saturday, March 31, 2007

Perfect Crime, The (El Crimen Perfecto)

"The Perfect Crime" is a fun blend of dark humor, slapstick with some of the basic elements of a crime thriller. It's a film that was nominated in multiple categories at the Goya Awards, the Oscars of Spain. Unlike Pedro Almodovar's similarly themed "Volver", which I enjoyed as well, "Perfect Crime" takes a much more manic approach to the covering up of a murder.

Rafael Gonzalez (Guillermo Toledo) is a hotshot living life in the fast lane. His slick backed hair, well-tailored suits, and a cocky raised eyebrow say all you need to know about him. If he sees something he wants, he takes it. As an example, Rafael makes out with a random woman he passes by while crossing the street. Rafael is a top salesperson and the man in charge of the ladieswear section of the ritzy Yeyo's department store. Being the boss, Rafael makes sure his department is full of beautiful salesgirls, and, yes, he has engaged in romantic trysts with all of them. Many times in the store itself. At one point, Rafael and a blond bombshell stay in the store after hours and turn it into their own personal Disneyland. They procure champagne, lobster, and fancy outfits from throughout the store, before having sex in the children's furniture department.

Rafael claims to have been born within that very store when his mother went into labor while shopping. The store is akin to Rafael's Shangri-La, a place far away from the rest of the mundane world. This little paradise of Rafael's comes crashing down when he's passed over for a promotion by his archrival, Antonio (Luis Varela), the head of menswear. An argument in the changing rooms turns violent and Rafael accidentally kills Antonio. Panicking, Rafael tries to hide the body and finds unlikely help in the form of the somewhat homely Lourdes (Monica Cervera).

Not nearly as pretty as the other salesgirls, Lourdes has been ignored by Rafael for almost a decade, but has constantly carried a red-hot, burning torch for him. Lourdes covers up for Rafael in exchange for finally getting her hooks into him. Meanwhile, Rafael finds himself in the last place he ever wanted, on the road to marriage.

"Perfect Crime" is full of black comedy and bizarre gags. A dead and sickly green Antonio appears to Rafael offering him advice while wearing outfits from whatever department that's nearby. Another surreal moment finds Rafael dining with Lourdes' family. Her father spends his life inexplicably in a deep slumber, her little sister is a foul-mouthed child claiming to have been impregnated by her gym coach, and the mother is the happy homemaker in heavy denial. Other times, the film's humor is a little more low-key such as Rafael renting a film also called, "The Perfect Crime", only to find it's mislabeled, "The Nerfect Crime." None of these moments made me laugh out loud, however. I'd say I was more mildly amused.

The film features the standard sequence where the characters clumsily try to secret the corpse away and attempt to dispose it. In the case of "Perfect Crime", they try to chop it up and stuff it into a far too tiny furnace. What sets "Perfect Crime" apart from other films of the same ilk, is that the rest of the film isn't only about the main characters worrying about being caught. They aren't just looking over their shoulders for the cops. Instead, the story takes a clever turn by showing what life is like for Lourdes and Rafael as a couple. Obviously, Rafael is suffocated by his ultra-possessive paramour. He might not be enjoying himself, but Lourdes is. She exuberantly begins to climb out of her shell. With an animal's lust, she ravishes a helpless Rafael. She even convinces Rafael to fire the beautiful salesgirls, replacing them with uglier ones. Guess what? Sales actually increase as the customers are far more confident around the homely employees.

The final act of the film takes another turn as Rafael unfurls an elaborate plan to finally rid himself from the clutches of Lourdes. It isn't quite as good as the rest of the film, plus the ending leaves a couple of plot holes in its wake.
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Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room

"Government is not the solution to our problems," former President Reagan is shown saying in video clip early in this documentary. "Government is the problem."

When I came across Roger Ebert's review of "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and saw that he pronounced it a film about crime rather than a political film, I couldn't help but chuckle. It's hard to watch--or rewatch--the story of the Great Enron Collapse without thinking that the culture which created these crooks is the same good ol' boy business network that put one of their own in office for the past two terms. Enron was the largest contributor to the first Presidential campaign of George W. Bush, but "Kenny Boy," as Dubyah called CEO Ken Lay, was even closer to George Sr. In fact, it was the first President Bush who worked closely with Lay to push the country toward the deregulation that spawned Enron.

Based on the book The Smartest Guys in the Room, this intelligent film by Alex Gibney fights the urge to comment using a smug or sarcastic voice, as Michael Moore did in "Fahrenheit 9/11." There's also not as much Moore-like speculation or provocatively pitched juxtapositions. This film lets the evidence speak for itself, augmented by talking-heads interviews with insiders who reveal what was going on at the time. Sometimes the lines sound too good to be true, as if the interviews themselves were rehearsed, but that's not something Gibney addresses in his commentary, so we'll never know. Regardless, the evidence is damning enough, as you well know now, with Enron president Jeffrey Skilling serving time in prison and Lay dying before he could join him.

Watching it now, after the trial and all of the other business-related scandals in today's headlines, I thought that I would find myself as tired of it all as Watergate a year after the break-in. But you know what? It's still fascinating, which speaks volumes about the way that this Oscar-nominated documentary was crafted.

The seventh largest corporation in the U.S. with a CEO who made more than 300 million dollars per year collapsed because of "mark-to-market" fraudulent accounting and "pump and drop" practices--with executives driving up the company's stock prices and then selling off all of their own personal shares. That left 20,000 employees without jobs. Worse, the two million dollars in the employee pension fund also vanished.

It's hard not to think of this as political when we're shown clips of Dubyah making calls on Ken Lay's behalf or appearing with dad on an intimate video greeting saying how much Enron has meant to the Bush family (and vice versa). But to Gibney's credit, he doesn't go down that road. The Bush family is not his target. It's the Smartest Guys in the Room, and their way of working was as Wild West as Texas. It was a macho culture that they created, with dangerous company trips and an odd, cutthroat practice of having the employees vote to eliminate 15 percent of low-producing employees every year. It was a culture of risk-taking, with loose cannons rewarded rather than cautioned. o-authors Peter Elkind and Bethany McLean appear in a number of clips to talk about their research, but the fact that Gibney was able to get so many insider video clips after the shredding of evidence began is nothing short of astounding. Though we know what happened and know the outcome, the information is presented within a narrative structure that sustains our interest, while the details of the collapse (and fraud) are so incredible that it seems straight out of Ripley's. Maybe that's why "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" is still an effective documentary to watch.
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"Windtalkers" is a film that falls into that odd little category of movies that I can not decide on whether or not I like the film. Part of me enjoyed the John Woo directed war film, while the other part of me thought it was thin in storyline and credibility. Action scenes were well done and some of the combat sequences as the military marches onto Saipan were magnificently done with enormous explosions, realistic looking military hardware and lots of chaos. John Woo is a very talented director and though my favorite films that were created by the hand of Woo are his Hong Kong classics such as "Ying hung boon sik" (A Better Tomorrow), "Dip hyut shueng hung" (The Killer) and "Laat sau sen taan" (Hard-Boiled), I have not thoroughly enjoyed many of his American produced pictures. "Broken Arrow" and "Face/Off" were laughable at times. "Mission: Impossible II" was an art in excess and though I typically love anything starring Uma Thurman, "Paycheck" was very difficult to sit through. Out of all of the films directed by Woo in the Western world, "Windtalkers" is easily the film I enjoy the most. I´m just not sold on if I truly like the film or not.

The picture finds the versatile and Woo-friendly Nicolas Cage taking the role of Sergeant Joe Enders, a Marine who is nearly killed and left partially deaf after his unit is devastated by the Japanese; leaving him as the sole survivor. With the Japanese cracking every transmission code tried by the Americans, a decision is made to enroll American Navajo Indians and use these Windtalkers as a means of sending encrypted messages past Japanese listening posts without compromising the code. Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach, "Flags of Our Fathers") is a very eager American Native that signs up to help do his part in fighting for his country. He has never tasted battle and is a wonderful father and kind soul who is not fully equipped for the horrors and rigors of battle. To protect Yahzee from being captured and tortured by the Japanese, Joe Enders is assigned to protect Yahzee and more importantly, the code, from Japanese capture. To protect the code, Enders must kill Yahzee if there is any chance of the Windtalker falling into enemy hands.

The film builds massive battle sequences with a visceral mix of gunfire, explosions and blood. These sequences are then mixed with the semblance of a story that finds Joe Enders struggling to not befriend the likeable and charismatic Navajo and struggling with his own personal problems that have resulted from his near-death experience. His fellow Marine protector, Sergeant Pete Anderson (Christian Slater) has quickly befriended his Navajo, Private Charlie Whitehouse (Roger Willie) and Enders feels that befriending the Indian could result in a weakness if the time comes to protect the code by killing either Whitehouse or Yahzee. In a subplot that only serves to illustrate that Enders is emotionally confused and messed up, a lovely nurse (Frances O´Connor) constantly writes Enders, but he refuses to read her letters. Nothing is fleshed out of his thoughts on Rita, but he consistently receives and ignores her letters during mail call. Solid character actor Peter Stormare and familiar faces Mark Ruffalo and Jason Isaacs provide supporting roles.

As "Windtalkers" wages its war through its long 134 minutes of running time, two things become certain. The first is that Nicolas Cage is very good at portraying a man on the edge of sanity and a man without conflicted with his own emotions. The second thing is that Joe Enders is truly a G.I. Joe superhero. He moves through battles and is amazingly unscathed. Death surrounds the character and his battle sense, reflexes and ability to ascertain what is going on is startling; especially considering he is half deaf and has a problem with his balance and equilibrium. He is also the most amazing pistol shooter I have ever seen. Being a former member of the U.S. Infantry, I have very good knowledge of the accuracy and capabilities of the Colt 1911 .45 Automatic pistol and the scenes climax is a truly amazing show of pistol accuracy. This mix of an emotionally disturbed and uncertain soldier simply clashes with his numerous soldier super powers. Cage´s character is another reason why I am not quite sure if I truly like the movie or not.

"Windtalkers" ends as expected. Joe Enders is brought to a point where he must honor his heart and feelings or continue to be a good Marine. He finds redemption before the credits crawl and Yahzee is proud to call Joe Enders a friend. Yahzee does partake in one moment of bloodlust, but aside from that, there is little character development for the talented Adam Beach to weave into his performance. If you´ve seen one Nic Cage, down-on-their-luck performance, then you´ll be familiar with what he brings to the table as Joe Enders. He is perfectly cast in the role, as he has shown time and time again that he can be an action hero and a suicidal drunk. If there was more of a story wrapped around the nicely done battle scenes, then I feel I´d have no problem stating outright that I enjoyed this film. This is certainly better than "Broken Arrow" or "Face/Off" and shows that Woo can make a beautifully shot World War II film. It is hard to hate any film that gives Peter Stormare more than just a couple lines, but it is sometimes hard to like a film based upon reality that doesn´t care much for storytelling and worries more about bigger bangs in its combat scenes.
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Marine, The [Unrated]

I just want to collapse my head between my hands and cry because I actually have to review this turd. I believe the Geneva convention has a few clauses in there that protect us against cruel and unusual punishment and having to not only sit through this horrendous excuse for a motion picture and then type a few words about it is absolutely cruel. I´m not a wrestling fan and didn´t even know that John Cena is a big name in the WWE (no longer confused with the WWF – World Wildlife Federation). After Rowdy Roddy Piper retired, I was done with that farce. I did know that Robert Patrick was given a juicy role in an action film and there was a high speed Camaro Z/28-SS chase in the film. Yeah. More on that later. Now being educated on the knowledge that this is a movie produced by the WWE and having seen the car chase, I wish I had never watched this 92 minute attack on my jugular.

Let´s talk about the car chase, because it is the epitome of why this movie blows chunks. John Cena and Kelly Carlson find their characters getting some gas at a South Caroline gas stop. They are in a big SUV. They run across the bad guy, played poorly by the underused Robert Patrick, and his henchmen – the guy that was "Tank" in "The Matrix" kills a cop who has pulled in to fill up his Z/28-SS police interceptor. The poor Camaro is shot full of bullet holes and has at least one front tire blown by a bullet. The bad guys drive off in the SUV with the wife and leaves Cena behind with the beat to snot Z/28. Guess what? The tire has air in it! So, Cena speeds off in hot pursuit and is welcomed with a massive onslaught of bullets that defies the capacity of the largest banana clips. Of course, the metal body of the Camaro deflects the bullets with ease. Yes, I know. Camaros are made out of plastic, except for the two rear quarter panels that protect the fuel tank. The tires are again blown out, but magically lose their holes and fill up with air within seconds. The camera even zooms in to ensure the audience that the tires are just fine. What the hell? It is far worse than I even describe here, as is the rest of the film.

I could discuss the scenes where both Robert Patrick and John Cena miraculously escape large explosions without even a hint of dirt or wear and tear. I could discuss the absolutely lousy dialogue or near horrific one-liners. I could try to explain the plot. I could look at the numerous errors in military garb, hand-to-hand techniques and then I could discuss the politics and discharge of Cena´s character from the Marines; another complete impossibility. None of this matters much. There is nothing remotely close to serious or entertaining in this film. The writing just cannot get any worse than this. The WWE apparently had a drunken monkey locked up for about forty minutes and even that wasn´t a tight deadline considering what semblance of a story was spit out.

There exists one decent line in the film. At one point, during the Christine, errr Camaro chase, Cena is likened to the Terminator. The camera shows Robert Patrick in the rearview mirror. Kelly Carlson looks absolutely amazing in her tight white tank top. Aside from that, please avoid this horrid excuse of a film. I beg you. There are some very nice documentaries out there on Pandas and Koalas by the World Wildlife Federation. They are far more exciting than this dredge served up by the World Wrestling Entertainment folks. I´ve sat through "Battlefield Earth." I´ve watched "Plan 9 From Outer Space" a couple of times and I feel "Waterworld" is an underappreciated classic. John Carpenter´s "Dark Star" and its beach-ball alien was far more realistic. Compared to the thousands of films I´ve watched, "The Marine" may very well be the worst film I have ever seen; even with a Camaro chase seen (Camaro is almost a religion for this reviewer). Do yourself a favor and avoid this diseased turd like the plague. You´ll thank me for it later. Pumas. I´m serious.
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Dark Ride [After Dark Horrorfest Series]

The general complaint about horror films by people looking to disregard them is that they feature stupid characters making stupid decisions that ultimately cost them their lives. As a fan of the genre, I can agree that it is one of the more formulaic aspects of the genre, particularly slasher films. Recent unimaginative flicks such as "See No Evil" and the remakes of "Black Christmas" and "When a Stranger Calls" are good examples of bad movies featuring stupid teens getting themselves offed. But sometimes a slasher film is so inventive and entertaining in its concept and mythos that the necessary inclusion of stupid teens can be overlooked or even appreciated. After all, don't you have to be kind of stupid to get yourself trapped with a killer in the first place?

If the characters were smart and made all the right decisions, the movie would be over and nothing would have happened. Stupid people make stupid decisions ending in their demise every day; just read the hilariously true series of books "The Darwin Awards" for proof of that. So once the blissful bunch of teens in "Dark Ride" start getting dispatched by a masked killer, don't look to me for jaded comfort. I'll be to busy enjoying all the gratuitous non-CGI gore. With countless films over the past few years proclaiming themselves as the return to eighties´ horror greatness, "Dark Ride" is the first to actually deliver; all without ever announcing itself as one.

Dark rides are the boardwalk carnival attractions that featured all the cheesy scares one could endure for the ticket price. They were generally low-budget versions of Disney's Haunted House ride, with some lazy-eyed sex offender working the booth. The attraction featured in "Dark Ride" is no different, with the exception of the brutal murders that took place inside it, of course.

Ten years before, twin girls got on a dark ride at a boardwalk in costal New Jersey; they never got off, instead becoming an uncooked dinner for the maniac that existed inside. It turned out that a developmentally disabled lunatic named Jonah (Dave Warden) and his younger brother actually lived in the ride. Eventually, the childlike Jonah snapped and began recreating the vicious acts the mannequins on the ride were only pretending to carry out. After the discovery of the gutted girls, Jonah was sent away to rot in an undisclosed asylum while his little brother was never seen again.

Almost a decade later, a van full of sexy, nubile drug-using teens are driving along the New Jersey coastline on route to some hot spring break action. All the required slasher characters are present inside the van: the nerd, Bill (Patrick Renna); the oversexed, drug-addled jock, Jim (Alex Solowitz); the uptight prude, Liz (Jennifer Tisdale); the crazy yet sexy hitchhiker, Jen (Andrea Bogart); and the arguing couple, Steve (David Rogers) and Cathy (Jamie-Lynn DiScala). After stopping at a gas station, Bill returns to the van with a flyer announcing the reopening of a dark ride that was closed after two girls were viciously slaughtered there. The reopening doesn't occur for another three days, and the group decides to save a little travel money by skipping a hotel and boarding inside the ride for the night. Unfortunately for them, they aren't the only ones on their way to the ride with the bloody history. After being antagonized by a couple of sadistic orderlies, Jonah retaliates against his tormentors and in a spree dripping with gore escapes the confines of the sanitarium and makes his way to the only place he's ever called home.

While not necessarily the best of the eight films featured in the After Dark Horrorfest that ran in select theaters last fall, it's easily the goriest and most fun. Unwilling to take itself too seriously but never lowering itself to the sad standards set by what passes for a slasher film these days, "Dark Ride" tries a little harder and it shows. Sure, the characters are paper-thin representations of the often-used slasher-victim archetype, but with the exception of "The Sopranos'" Jamie-Lynn DiScala, the actors put a lot of effort into their roles, which gives the film a personality not seen in most of today's gorefests. Scenes featuring the hilarious Alex Solowitz elevate the film from the average direct-to-DVD release; then, throw in a little gratuitous nudity and several over-the-top scenes of thick, meaty gore, and you've got yourselves a "Dark Ride" well worth the ticket price.
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Big Love: The Complete 1st Season

Over the years, HBO has more or less perfected the process of latching on to stories based around everyday mundane life situations, turning them around and spicing them up with quirky multi-dimensional characters with all the flaws and insecurities that Woody Allen would be proud of. A great example of this is "Six Feet Under", where HBO set series creator Alan Ball loose to pursue with gusto every dark scenario imaginable for his series. On that show, absolutely nothing was too taboo or too controversial to explore. A family in the normally straitjacketed undertaking business is not exactly something that anyone would jump on immediately but HBO presciently saw the potential of digging deeper into the damaged psyche of a family that grew up learning to put a lid on their own emotions in order to comfort others in their hour of need. Exploring the various taboos that normally come with the funeral business became the backdrop for bringing up both euphoric and devastating emotional distress that more often than not, torment the show´s motley cast of characters. The dead never really stays dead but eventually becomes an inner voice that living characters use to debate morality and the consequences of their actions. On HBO´s latest hit show, "Big Love", morality again becomes the latest casualty and the clash between hypocrisy and faith becomes the focal point that pushes this new show to great heights.

With "Big Love", HBO has done it again by applying the same formula I stated above. However, this time, the network has achieved that in a totally different manner from what we´ve previously seen before. This time, HBO starts out by first taking on a decidedly controversial subject, in the case of "Big Love", polygamy. Then, by applying typical American suburban sensitivities and the requisite neuroses to the scenario, "Big Love" seeks to not only shed new light on this little-known subject but more importantly to show how normal these people can be, regardless of their chosen lifestyle.

Polygamy is a term that is often used to describe a man who is "married" to more than one woman. Like it or not, here in the U.S., polygamy is most often associated with the Mormon faith, which refers to it as plural marriages. Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as LDS or Mormon Church) forbids the practice altogether, polygamous marriages were a part of the Church´s early history. As the practice of polygamy is against the law in the U.S., families who practice it today would be best served not to reveal it anyone else outside of their "world", for fear of prosecution by the law and by society in general.

This is exactly the predicament faced by the show´s main protagonist, Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), a Mormon and a practicing polygamist living in Salt Lake City, Utah. Bill is a successful businessman who owns a Home Depot-like hardware store called "Henrickson´s Home Plus". Business is booming and he is now on his way to opening a second store. Problem is, as his stature in the community grows alongside his business, the threat of being exposed as a polygamist becomes even more critical. Adding on to the pressure is his shady father-in-law, Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), a polygamist patriarch who is also the de facto spiritual leader or prophet of the Juniper Creek polygamist community (of which Bill´s family is also a part of). You see, years ago, Bill made the mistake of accepting money from Roman as start-up capital to fund his fledgling business. As Bill now prepares to open his second store, Roman is demanding a cut of the profits from the new store as well. Bill of course resists and tries to pay Roman off but to no avail. To prove his point, Roman sends his goons, led by his son, Alby (Matt Ross) to shake Bill down. Ah, who needs enemies when you have family like these thugs?

On the home front, Bill fares no better. Conventional wisdom would dictate that a man with three wives would be having the time of his life but things are quite the opposite. This is starkly apparent in the opening scene where we see Bill turn on his cell phone to find sixteen messages waiting for him, all from his wives. And these women are no easy pushovers either. Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), the first wife is patient, strong-willed and sort of a mentor and older sister to the other two wives. Wife no. 2 is Nicky (Chloe Sevigny), Roman´s daughter, who is manipulative (I guess it runs in the family), sneaky and highly jealous of Barb´s position as first wife. Oh and Nicky also harbors a shopping addiction despite the family rule of each wife having their own set of weekly allowances. The youngest of the wives is Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), who is more pliant, somewhat insecure and still trying to find her way around this extended family. Yes, it is a huge family as evidenced by the three large houses (side-by-side) connected by a shared fenced backyard. Barb has three children, Sarah (Amanda Seyfield), Ben (Douglas Smith) and Tancy (Jolean Wejbe) while Nicky and Margene have two young boys each, making it a grand total of one man, three wives and seven children.

All this doesn´t yet take into account Bill´s own family who still lives in the rural polygamist Juniper Creek compound. There´s his deadbeat father Frank Harlow (Bruce Dern), his mother Lois (Grace Zabrinskie) and his brother Joey (Shawn Doyle) and Joey´s wife Wanda (Melora Walters), who is expecting. Frank himself has a harem of wives (5 in total), with Lois being wife no. 2. Lois is a descendent of the founding family of Juniper Creek and daughter of Orville Henrickson, the past prophet of the sect. Roman staged sort of a coup a few years back and assumed the role of prophet, marginalizing Lois and the rest of the Henrickson family. Things get more complicated when Frank is found to have been slowly poisoned and the top suspect is none other than Lois! Taking into account the fact that they all live in Juniper Creek under the auspices of Roman Grant, whom, as you know, is feuding with Bill over money from his stores, you can be sure more than sparks would fly between them as the season progresses.

ne aspect of the show that stands out for me is the fact that it is not all about polygamy and the evils of the practice. It certainly is not an advertisement for polygamy nor does it condone the practice. Quite the contrary, it tries to show both sides of the equation. On one side, you have the Juniper Creek polygamist compound where you find the scripture-quoting Roman Grant, a man in his 70´s taking on a new wife, Rhonda Volmer (Daveigh Chase) who is barely a teenager. There is certainly no physical or sexual abuse on display here but the fact that children in this compound are programmed from a young age about the prime importance of religion and the practice of polygamy means that they are left without any choices. On the other side of the coin, you find the Henricksons, who practices polygamy but in a manner that is respectful of the power of choice and the importance of love. Although Bill himself has three wives, he does not condone the compound´s practice of much older men taking on very young wives. Bill was born in the compound but was cast out by the elders early in his life. So you don´t find the more hardcore polygamist practices ingrained in him. If you detect a hint of hypocrisy here, you should be warned that hypocrisy plays a big part in this show. Bill could be seen as both a hero and an anti-hero as well. One can´t condemn one thing and practice it at the same time.

Take polygamy out of the show however and what it really boils down to is a story of a family´s (albeit a large extended one) commitment and love for one another. Not unlike any one of us, each family has its own set of problems, just that the Henricksons´ are unique in their own way and definitely way more complicated than normal. And that, in terms of the show, is a great thing.

When it comes to rating the performances, need I remind you that the cast of "Big Love" consists of Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, Bruce Dern and Harry Dean Stanton, all powerhouse actors. Needless to say, one would be hard pressed to find any weak performances here, even from the lesser known child actors. From Bill trying his best to keep his family together to Nicky´s manipulative behavior to Lois´ bitterness over her family´s descent from polygamist royalty to Roman´s measured cruelty, it´s all here. With a major cliffhanger book-ending this first season, Season 2 can´t come fast enough.

The first season of "Big Love" consists of the following 12 episodes:
"Pilot", "Viagra Blue", "Home Invasion", "Eclipse", "Affair", "Roberta´s Funeral", "Eviction", "Easter", "A Barbeque for Betty", "The Baptism", "Where There´s a Will", "The Ceremony"
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Saturday, March 24, 2007


So, how much do you penalize an entertaining film for being wholly derivative?

That's the big question surrounding "Eragon," a fantasy flick based on the young adult novels written by teenager Christopher Paolini. Anyone who watches the family-friendly film version will see obvious similarities to "Star Wars," "Lord of the Rings," and "Dragonheart," among other fantasy films. Is it as good as any of those? Not really. But it's also not as bad as critics have claimed.

If you can put the whole notion of derivation out of your mind, this film by first-time director Stefan Fangmeier (who was visual effects supervisor on "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" and "A Perfect Storm") has a decent plot, engaging enough characters, beautiful location shots, and decent (if not spectacular) special effects.

I think the operative phrase to keep in mind here is young adult. "Eragon" wasn't written for adults, and the movie version certainly isn't pitched at adults. The hero is a teenager, and it's basically a boy-and-his-dog story with a dragon, instead. Like Luke Skywalker, young Eragon (played by newcomer Ed Speleers, who beat out 180,000 wannabes) is a farm boy who lives with an uncle. If you recognize the similarity, you already know that the uncle (Alun Armstrong) is going to come up dead meat, and that with no ties to hold him back, the young hero will forge ahead.

Every questing hero needs a guide. Luke had Obi-wan Kenobi, and Eragon has a former dragonrider named Brom (Jeremy Irons) who is no longer practicing the knightly art. Reason? All of the dragons and dragonriders disappeared during a battle which saw Galbatorix (John Malkovich) take over the rule of this Middle or whatever Kingdom. And Brom is feeling partly responsible, because aside from one dragon secreted away by the dragonrider gone bad, he killed the last one by taking revenge on the rider who went over to the dark side. There's even a counterpart to the Siths in the Shades, with Durza (Robert Carlyle, giving a performance that's light years away from "The Full Monty") practicing the dark arts and zapping people with his fingers the way the old Emperor did in "Star Wars." Instead of a light saber, Eragon has a dragon sword. And you know that, just as Obi-wan was fated to die after he instructed his pupil, old Brom wasn't going to last forever. There's a princess, too (Sienna Guillory, as Arya), and if she turns out to be Eragon's sister in the second installment, though I haven't read the book, you know why I won't be surprised. Meanwhile, the good vs. evil battle harkens back to both "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings," with a little Harry Potter thrown in for good measure as Eragon has to learn Elf language in order to work magic spells. It may seem like a shameless rip-off to adults, but show me a movie these days that isn't derivative. I think we cry "derivative" when a film incorporates the elements in an unsuccessful way.

For the target market, which is young adults and children, I think that "Eragon" hits the mark. It's rated PG, and while there are some violent episodes, the film stays true to that young adult audience--and that includes keeping it relatively short at 103 minutes. And you can't beat that newborn dragon sequence for cute.

Speleers reminds us of a young Heath Ledger, a likeable fellow who's not nearly as golly-gee wide-eyed as Luke Skywalker. And he and Brom have the kind of mentor/trainee relationship that's enjoyable to watch. John Malkovich is, well, John Malkovich as King Galbatorix, who sends out his chief Shade, Durza, and his minions to gain possession of the last dragon egg. Arya (Sienna Guillory) swiped it from the king, and the prophecy is that the day of the dragonriders will come again, with a new dragonrider leading the rebellion. Yes, like rebel forces hiding out on a faraway planet, we have the Varden, one of the last groups of resistance fighters who are waiting to be led into battle by the prophesied dragonrider. The dragon itself looks awfully good, and like Sean Connery's voice-activated fire-breather in "Dragonheart," we get a believable relationship between dragon Saphira (voiced by Rachel Weisz) and young Eragon, whom she chose to be her rider. But when it comes right down to it, this was adapted from a young adult novel, part of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Trilogy, and adults would do better to watch fantasy films made for adults. For the target audience, though, "Eragon" does pretty well.
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Moon Phase - Phase 3

The adventures of Kouhei, a photographer for an occult magazine, and Hazuki, a young vampire girl who claims she is his master, continue in volume 3 of "Moon Phase" from FUNimation.

Hazuki has moved in and made herself at home with Kouhei's spiritually gifted family after following him to Japan. She first met Kouhei at her castle in Germany, where she was trapped by sinister forces. Kouhei, in spite of being from such a magically inclined family, is spiritually dense. Magic and occult powers don't work on him. This unusual ability, along with another unique quality hidden in his blood, enable him to free Hazuki from the confines of the castle.

Hazuki settles into daily life with Kouhei's family fairly easily. Her bratty and immature personality drives Kouhei crazy, but they end up forming a strange, but closely knit group. Hazuki has a huge brother-complex crush on Kouhei, and is dismayed to discover he has a young fiancee with powers of her own. The fiancee isn't too pleased to learn about Hazuki either, but when times get tough, they nevertheless put aside their differences to help the family. I worried that there would be some kind of harem effect with everyone falling for Kouhei, but fortunately, this series avoids that common plot device.

Meanwhile, the forces that kept Hazuki trapped in the German castle aren't too happy about her escape. Count Kinkel, an evil and powerful vampire, arrives to bring Hazuki back. He has so much power, and has so many hidden skills, that a battle against him is sure to take a toll on Hazuki and her new family. None of her friends are safe from his terrible threat.

The question of Hazuki's alter ego Luna is also addressed this volume, as are the unusual powers Hazuki displays while in "Luna Mode". The fight with Kinkel produces some unexpected fallout that changes Hazuki and her relationship with Kouhei.

"Moon Phase" Volume 3 contains episodes 11-14 of this 26-episode series. This is the best volume of the series out so far. Episode 11 wraps up some of the aftermath from Volume 2, while episodes 12-14 feature a great, plot-intense story arc that really fleshes out the characters and strengthens their relationships. The lolita fan-service is toned down considerably – except for a ridiculous bath scene in episode 14 - and the plot takes center stage at last. More of the vampire mythology that the series relies on is explained, and a new, greater, enemy is revealed. When the characters aren't actively facing a threat or conflict, the show has a tendency to revert to silly fan-service. Fortunately, this volume is about a major conflict. I am enjoying this series more and more as it moves along and the plot takes over.

As with previous volumes, while the lolita fanservice initially turned me off from this show, there are still several things I do like about it. I was pleasantly surprised that Kouhei does not immediately succumb to Hazuki's lolita charm, and in fact, treats her like an annoying kid sister. I like the fact that the show is not slapstick comedy. The art is extremely cute and the character designs are attractive. Volume 3 has another adorable DVD cover.
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Noisy Nora . . . and more stories about mischief

Quality is never much of an issue with anything associated with Scholastic, a brand that educators and parents trust. And so the Scholastic Video Collection has gradually built a strong line of DVDs that bring children's books to life on TV--the goal being, of course, not just to entertain children, but to entice them into developing an appreciation for books too.

Usually, if I have a quarrel with a volume in the series, it's over the selection of material that was brought together on a disc. The best of the bunch have stories on them that appeal to a wide age range and both boys and girls, or else take gender into account and clump stories together that can be appreciated one right after the other. The volumes I question usually include stories that don't seem to resonate with each other or seem to be pulling in different audience directions.

That's the way "Noisy Nora . . . and more stories about mischief" strikes me. Although it's recommended for ages 3-9, I'm not so sure that the audience for each story isn't more specialized than that.

Noisy Nora
The title story by Rosemary Wells (1973) is an interesting tale that begins in media res. We're thrown into the scenario of a middle sister who feels desperately ignored by Mom, who's tending to new baby Jack, and by Dad, who seems to always be spending time with big sister Kate. It's charming, and obviously pitched at children who are experiencing difficulty adjusting to having a new baby in the house--which, for most children, will be around the ages of 2-6. It focuses squarely on the type of negative attention-getting behavior that jealous siblings exhibit, but be warned, parents, because there is no reprimand for banging windows, slamming doors and drawers, dropping a can of marbles, knocking a lamp down, knocking chairs down, or flying a kite in the house. All we get for each act of "Ain't Misbehavin'" is this refrain: "Quiet," said her father, "Hush," said her mother, "Nora," said her sister, "Why are you so dumb?" When little mouse Nora finally gets fed up enough to leave (except she goes into the closet, not out the front door) and everyone finally notices the absence of noise, she finally gets the attention she deserves.

What's interesting about this story is that there's a gradual progression from minimalist artwork (no backgrounds, just a few props and characters) to fully rendered scenes, with cross-hatching and brightly colored objects. "Noisy Nora" is narrated by Mary Beth Hurt, and will appeal to youngsters in the 2-4 range or girls several years older than that.

T is for Terrible
This one, because it's narrated from the point of view T-Rex character in a growly voice, won't exactly make the repeat-play list for little girls--though they'll perk up when the dino speculates whether he'd be as frightening if he were PINK . . . or blue. "If I could, I would be a vegetarian," he growls, though the rest of the text certainly doesn't support that. He is what he is, a fearsome creature who makes those tree-eaters flee. David de Vries narrates, and dramatic music that's heavy on the tympanic drumbeats accentuate the tension. I know it's fashionable to dismiss gender as a distinguishing factor, but you know what? While there are exceptions (and my granddaughter is one of them), I'm guessing that mostly little boys are going to go for this one, and little girls not so much. Pre-schoolers and kindergarteners especially seem prone to like or dislike a story based on plot, but on what characters, animals, or objects are included. My five year old likes things with a girl in it or a bunny (or some other warm and cuddly animal). And when I've done my stint as parent-teacher at our local co-op pre-school, I've noticed she's not alone in that regard. That's why I'm saying this one is all for the boys, who gravitate toward more exotic and dangerous animals. Odds are, though, that this will appeal to boys at the younger end of the age range. By the time they're eight, they think they're too old for this (though they secretly may watch if it's on for siblings).

Another thing is, "T is for Terrible" is poised halfway between fiction and non-fiction, and that makes it seem slighter than if it had gone in the direction of either information or imagination, rather than straddling. "T is for Terrible" is adapted from a Peter McCarty book (2004), and the interesting thing here is the partial animation. In one static picture frame, for example, we watch a single dragonfly move from one side to the other. In another frame, the T-Rex is static while a herd of herbivores moves their little legs off the page and out of the picture. But the colors are extremely muted, like a watercolor painted from a palette of mostly greys and greens and browns.

Once before I encountered a live-action entry in this series, and it's just as startling the second time around. There's just a different feel to it, and when the live-action comes in the middle of animated features it feels even more surreal, if I had to choose a word. That's especially true of "Cannonball," which is based on the 1994 book "Cannonball Simp" by John Burningham. It's about a circus clown who isn't exactly getting a ton of laughs with his cannon routine, where he stuffs a ball in, lights it, and catches the ball when it comes back to him through a hoop. A lot of kids are afraid of clowns, but the ones that aren't will respond to this short film because of the punch it packs at the finish--an O.Henry ending, to be sure. Filmed at a real Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus performance, it features Hugo the Clown (Fred Yockers) whose nemesis is the ringmaster (Jimmy James) who's given him just one more chance (okay, make that two) to get laughs, or he's history. Enter a dog escaped from the animal shelter who ends up being adopted by this sad-faced clown. Together, they improvise an act that saves each of them. The real Flying Lunas family makes an appearance, with the little girl taking an interest in the dog and his new master. This is the only one in the bunch that, in my opinion, hits the mark on the entire age range--if, that is, your child isn't petrified of clowns.
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There are a great many "odd" things about the film "Roman." It features an odd choice of a leading man in Lucky McKee, who is best known for directing the cult hit "May." "Roman" covers a variety of odd subjects, such as death, obsession, and loss with a view uncommon to general cinema. It features an odd soundtrack full of wonderful alternate-country tunes and dusty old gems. "Roman" has odd unexpected appearances by fan-favorite television actors Kristen Bell and Eddie Steeples. But for all the odd things occurring in Angela Bettis's charming "Roman," the oddest is that while people line up at theaters to be "entertained" by forgettable dreck like "300," "Wild Hogs," and "Premonition," a great, memorable film like "Roman" will remain largely unseen. Maybe it's not that odd, just a little sad.

Roman (McKee) is your average fellow. He gets up and goes to work in the morning, doesn't exactly see eye to eye with his coworkers, and he enjoys the occasional beer after a hard day´s work. What separates him from the rest of the pack is that while many of us employ a television or books to bide our time, Roman prefers his own brand of entertainment. He likes to set up the easy chair in front of his apartment window and watch the activities of his neighbor, whom he has never met but in a fit of obsession named Isis (Kristen Bell). After a chance meeting on the roof of their apartment building, Roman and "Isis" talk over a couple of bottles of Pacifico, and a discussion of how cans of Pork n' Beans are created sparks a genuine attraction between the two. But later on in Roman's apartment, things go horribly wrong. The uncomfortably awkward and lonely Roman lets it slip that he's been watching her from afar for quite some time now. "Isis," understandably unnerved, attempts to escape his apartment but after a tussle gets out of hand, she ends up dead on his floor. The next day, after overhearing neighbors and police officers discuss her lack of family and friends, Roman concludes that his "accident" will remain unknown and takes advantage of his isolation. Stocking up on air fresheners and bags of ice, Roman decides to keep his relationship with "Isis" alive, even if she is not.

"Roman" is a wonderful companion piece to the aforementioned "May," starring "Roman's" director Angela Bettis and directed by "Roman" star Lucky McKee. While the brilliant "May" centers around Bettis's lonely, isolated, and mentally unbalanced character taking parts of people she liked to create a person that could love her a la Dr. Frankenstein, "Roman" represents the doctor's monster itself. Alone and misunderstood by the world at large Roman is so overjoyed during his first real connection with another human that his exuberance in keeping that moment alive leads to his most-cherished desire's death. Much like the scene in Whale's "Frankenstein" where the monster, having finally found an understanding playmate in the child Maria, misunderstands the method of their game and ultimately kills the girl.

hile "Roman" gets off to a slow start and maintains that pace throughout, it's one of those films that actually benefits from its momentum, its less drive. It's the odd and unnerving things that Roman does that keeps the movie afloat, like drawing a TV on his wall so he can have a conversation with his coworkers about last night's fight or stockpiling his home with cases of Pacifico Beer and cans of Pork N' Beans as an homage to his continuing obsession for his love that lies decaying in his bathtub. After befriending Eva, an odd duck of a neighbor, the two start a bizarre courtship leading to Roman's sheepishly proud admission at work as to having two girlfriends. As strange as it is odd, Roman is also beautifully shot, particularly the trippy dream scenes, the location shots of Roman taking "Isis's" body parts on isolated picnics, and the final devastating scene in Eva's apartment.
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Deep Sea: IMAX

I dunno. The filmmakers meant for viewers to watch their 2006 IMAX documentary "Deep Sea" on a giant screen and in 3-D. Watching it on the small screen at home (and no matter how big your screen is at home, it's not IMAX) rather diminishes the fun.

Still, there's so much beauty on display here, it's hard to argue against the film, even when forty-one minutes with essentially no bonuses seems like pretty short measure.

Yes, the beauty. The film explores only a fraction of the myriad variety of underwater plants and animals that exist in the world's oceans, yet the ones we see on display are amazing in the extreme. Thanks to Howard Hall ("Island of the Sharks," "Into the Deep," "Nature") directing with a such a sure hand, narrators Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet keeping us pleasantly informed, and Danny Elfman's musical score playing behind them, the movie entertains and enlightens throughout.

Why Depp and Winslet? I assume that because Depp is a pirate and Winslet is a survivor of the Titanic, they know a lot about the sea. In any case, they make a charming pair of narrators, their give-and-take, question-and-answer patter a pleasing background to the film's visual attractions.

Hall primarily made the movie in parts of the Pacific--from California to Hawaii and from Mexico to British Columbia--and it might lead some viewers, especially younger ones, to believe that all of the Earth's waters are as dazzlingly gorgeous and resplendent as the shots in the film. But, alas, not all of our oceans look like scenes from "The Little Mermaid" or "Finding Nemo" as we see here. Most of the oceans look pretty stark and forbidding. Still, what we've got in "Deep Sea" shows us how wonderful parts of it can be and how much we need to help maintain all of it.

And what a marvelous place it is, too. Words I wrote down as I watched the movie: "Spectacular." "Awesome." "Sublime." "Ravishing." These reactions started with my first glimpse of jellyfish, hordes of them looking like a gigantic fleet of alien spacecraft gracefully swimming through the water. My wonder continued as I stared in fascination at a shrimp with claws as fast and powerful as a 22-calibre bullet and a warning display colorful and elaborate enough to frighten away an octopus.

Speaking of which, the Great Pacific Octopus is a captivating creature, changing its color and skin texture to match its surrounding. Likewise, there are the curious sea urchins that feed on the kelp forests and the wolf eels that feed on the urchins to keep a balance in all things, this being but one of the movie's examples that illustrates the theme that nature takes care of itself. If urchins didn't eat the kelp, the urchins would die; if the eels didn't eat the urchins, the urchins would soon eat all the oceans' kelp; and without the kelp, most of the oceans' sea life would die. So, everything feeds everything else, and nature maintains its equilibrium.

Likewise, the film points out how sharks, magnificent beasts that they are, also contribute their part to this balance, eating the fish that would otherwise overrun the seas. Then, when darkness falls, we see a few of the night fish, mantas and squid, which can look absolutely terrifying. All of this, added to the way fish help clean each other, aids our understanding of how nature works so efficiently. Unless somebody or something comes along to upset things, and you can guess who that would be.

The movie ends with an environmental warning. Depp tells us, "In the last fifty years, 90% of all the big fish have been taken from the ocean. We are taking more than the ocean can give.... Overfishing is decimating one species after another. Entire ecosystems have begun to unravel."

Yet the Earth and its seas abide and continue to regenerate and provide new life. But for how long? As the film concludes, "All species are interrelated, and our destiny is linked to theirs." So it is. In the meantime, enjoy what there is in "Deep Sea: IMAX," an all-too-brief but fascinating look at some of our ocean's irreplaceable treasures.
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Friday, March 23, 2007

Run's House [Complete Seasons 1 & 2]

I hate reality television. My belief is that it all needs to go and the sitcom needs to return and rule the roost of television.

I love old school rap. Run-DMC is one of the very best and the rap trio was one of the pivotal groups in bringing rap to a mainstream audience.

"Run´s House" was something I had originally thought to be completely off limits. I did not want to watch the show and see Rev Run lose his iconic status to the horrors of reality television. My middle school and high school years were all about Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys and N.W.A. The fusion of rock and roll music and the emerging artistry of rap music was slammed together when Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay busted onto the scene with their now historic album "Raising Hell." I proudly own all of the Run-DMC albums on compact disc and remember when I first made the jump to CD with "Back From Hell" in 1990. The rest of my catalog was quickly updated to the new digital format.

When the publicist responsible for the DVD release of "Run´s House: Complete Seasons 1 & 2" approached me and inquired about the possibility of reviewing the set, I was hesitant. I didn´t want to have a changed impression of Rev Run. I didn´t want to look at him with the same eyes that I view the train-wreck that is the Osbourne family. I´ve already had to sit through watching Ice Cube making children´s films and that is painful enough. This is Run or Run-DMC, the greatest rap group to hit the radio airwaves. The thought of seeing Run fall into the abyss after the death of Jam Master Jay and the end of Run-DMC was something I didn´t quite want to witness. I decided to set aside my reservations and take a chance and watch the first two seasons of the MTV show "Run´s House."

After sitting through the nearly eight hours of material on "Run´s House," my opinion of Joseph Simmons has changed. Fortunately, it is definitely not in the negative. "Run´s House" shows Rev Run as a different man than the black-clad rapper that populated MTV during the Eighties. He still wears black and sports a reverend´s collar. However, he is now a forty-one year old father of five who works hard to balance his life between his various business ventures, his rap career and his family. With a full house of five children and a loving wife, Justine who also looks to forge a business portfolio of her own, Joseph "Run" Simmons has a very full life and though he no longer commands the Top 40 as he did twenty years ago, he is still an energetic person that has embraced religion and still loves to entertain.

The two oldest daughters, Vanessa 22, and Angela, 19 are the two oldest children. They are of an age where they look to move out onto their own and attend college and work towards their own careers. The three sons are younger than the girls and have their own problems. The oldest son is Joseph "Jo-Jo" Simmons II, 17. He looks to break onto the rap scene that his father helped pioneer. The younger Daniel "Diggy" Simmons II is twelve and also aspires to be a rapper. The youngest boy is Russell "Russy" Simmons II, who is 11 years old and struggles with a temper problem. The three sons are named for the three Simmons brothers.

At its core, "Run´s House" is reality television, but at times it plays out like a modern update of "The Cosby Show." Unlike the completely dysfunctional "The Osbournes," the Simmons family is a close-knit family that enjoy the wealthy lifestyle provided by their father, but they have a better understanding of family values and morality. The Simmons children misbehave and they do cause their parents headaches, but they sit down and talk things out and work to function as a better family unit. Joseph and Justine too have problems, but they have great love for one another and work on keeping their relationship healthy and doing what is necessary for the benefit of their children. Simmons provides humor that is pertinent for today´s society. When Rev Run breaks out with a rousing rendition of a Foo Fighters song, it is pure comedy when his family just cannot understand. Confusion between Snoop Dog and Snoopy the Dog is another funny moment. Although he can be a large child at times with his behavior, he is an intelligent, articulate and caring man.

Rev Run has a different place in the world today than he had back in the days of "Raising Hell" and "Tougher Than Leather." He is a reverend and a father of five. His reality show is used to entertain and to educate. Each show ends with Rev Run taking a bubble bath and sending his numerous friends an email with the lessons he has learned during the episode. He discusses the family problems with his children and his wife and explains things in detail. Run has not given up on his career and the recent hit "Mind on the Road" is just as good as any of the material from earlier in his career. I was quite worried with watching this reality television show, and my opinion did change, but I now view Joseph "Rev Run" Simmons as a warm and caring man, who is a father of a large family and a partner in a large business empire that includes clothing, sneakers, a record label and jewelry. He may be loud and boisterous in public, but Rev Run is just as fun to watch on his reality show as he is behind the mic. I´d rather hear him spit a few rhymes, but these eight hours were well spent.

Season One: Episode Summaries:
Angela´s Graduation: This is the first episode of the series and finds Rev Run wanting to throw his very intelligent daughter a graduation party for achieving a 95% grade point average and graduating from an expensive private high school. Angela wants a million dollar party, but Run wants to spend less than ten grand and show her that a smaller and more intimate party is the way to go. This episode set the mood that Run teaches his children the value of money and that excess is not always necessary. Grade: B

Run´s Facts of Life: Run must talk to his three sons about girls and sex. This is an uncomfortable topic for the religious rapper. He must also pitch a three man white rap group to his curse-word spewing brother and media mogul, Russell Simmons. This episode was part Cosby and part "what I expected from this show" reality television. Run and Russell are very different personalities in their business and Run isn´t exactly the best daddy to talk about sex. Grade: A-

There´s No Place Like Home: I loved this episode. Vanessa and Angela decide they want to move into their own apartment in the Big Apple. Run sends them out to price some apartments and they come back with two in mind. One costs $31 million and the other, cheaper apartment is $14 million. Run sends them back out the next day and they look at two-thousand dollar a month rental units. One is next door to a prison and most of them are closet sized. The decide that there is no place like home. Especially when you live in "Run´s House." Grade: A

Do Your Best, Forget the Rest: The lesson in life here is about sportsmanship. Run´s sons struggle with sore losing and Run decides to throw a family competition to show that sportsmanship is important. I felt that Run was almost as bad as his sons when it came to trash talking and not liking of losing, but the message was important. I´d love to have a basketball court in my house. Grade: C+

The Fruits of Labor: Justine and Run are both slightly on the overweight size. They struggle over the question of weight and Justine hires a personal trainer. Angela takes an internship with her aunt-in-law, Kimora Lee Simmons. Both mother and step-daughter struggle with their goals, but find some happiness when good things and a nice feeling of self begin to turn up from their hard work. This was my least favorite episode of the first season and perhaps the entire three disc set. Grade: C-

Simmons Family Vacation: In this show, you get to see Run go on a White Water Rafting adventure and partake in other activities in Colorado. They also go fly fishing and take part in other activities that are quite foreign to the well-to-do family from New Jersey. There were some genuinely funny moments in this episode and watching Run and Jo-Jo fly fish was something I could relate to. It isn´t easy and without know-how and practice, it is a difficult thing to do. Grade: A

Season Two: Episode Summaries
Baby Fever: This episode was a bit sad, knowing the outcome of recent events in the lives of Joseph and Justine Simmons and their recent loss of their newborn baby. This was the opening topic of season two and I don´t know how they will handle this loss in Season 3. Regardless, Justine and Rev Run decide to try for a new baby after Justine gets Baby Fever. Grade: B

A Healthy Heart: I hate going to the doctors and Rev Run does too. He ends up going to a pastry shop instead of the doctor, after telling Justine that he will do so. After a ton of prodding, Run finally agrees to a checkup and learns that he is in very good shape, but should lose a little weight. One thing that finally came about in this episode was some spitting out rhymes by the Simmons family. Grade: A+

All Work and No Peace: This episode deals mostly with Run´s difficulties in balancing his empires and his family. Run talks to his brother Russell about his problems and gets little satisfaction and then talks to his braided Bishop´s advice. Russy busts up another Game Boy with his anger management issues. As Run works to find a healthy balance to his personal and professional life, Russy learns to earn his own money to replace his Game Boy SP. Little Russy really shines in this episode. Grade: A-

Maximum Growth: Vanessa is a very pretty young lady. Rev Run should be proud of his beautiful daughters, but this becomes problematic when Maxim Magazine wants Vanessa to do a photo shoot for their Hot 100 Celebrities feature. Watching Angela and Vanessa disagree on how much flesh Vanessa should show was quite entertaining. I almost forget: Rev Run buys a beautiful and expensive Lamborghini. Grade: B

Vegas Vacation: The good reverend and his family take a trip to Vegas for the Magic Clothing Convention. Jo-Jo struggles with feelings that his overbearing and ill-natured uncle Russell may not like him. Jo-Jo wants to work with Run Athletics, but Russell is not willing to make it easy for Jo-Jo. Run also shows his more romantic side when he has the five children do something special with Justine, though I felt this turned out more comedic than warm. Grade: C+

Rev´s Fix It List: Rev and Justine are having some marital problems and Justine makes a list of things for Rev to fix, but Rev cares more about his exercising. Some shopping for clothing for Russy was another hot topic of the show, but I felt this episode didn´t necessarily convey anything of substance by example and felt that both Rev and Justine were a bit selfish when it came to the list. Grade: C-

Rev Mom: Justine learns she is pregnant and they are overjoyed to be having another child. However, Run wants Justine to take it easy and relax, but Justine wants to work on her own ventures, including her jewelry line. Run didn´t fit the Mr. Mom mold too cleanly and some havoc ensued, including a horrendous haircut for the family dog. This episode was again mildly depressing knowing what happens to Justine´s pregnancy after the second season ended, but watching Run struggle as Mr. Mom was funny stuff. Grade: A-

Downward Facing Dawg: The third brother, Daniel is finally revealed in this episode. Russell, who loves to angrily shout profanities and has strong bursts of anger is calm when doing yoga. Run decides to augment his Zen room with some Yoga. This episode finally showed Jo-Jo rap. For a show based on a legendary rapper with children who have rap aspirations, there isn´t much rapping going on. Grade: B+

Anger Management: Russy breaks yet another Game Boy SP. The boy has some serious anger problems and Run enrolls him into Karate to help him cope with his anger. Angela wants to have her own magazine and Run brings together his connections to help her achieve her dream. Run takes part in the Karate lessons and helps Russy work out his anger. This was a mild, but entertaining episode. Grade: B-

Two Down and One to Grow: This was a pretty good end-of-season episode, but again was bogged down by focusing on the unborn baby. It was also sad because the two daughters were moving out and Run has to struggle with losing them from his protective home. To help compensate for this loss, he buys a jet plane and looks forward to the forthcoming baby. The family ended the season on a pivotal point and really set the stage for a different family configuration for season three.
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Wicked Little Things [After Dark Horrorfest Series]

Amongst the multitude of horror films using "creepy kids" as a plot device, only a handful have ever managed to do it successfully. While mediocre films like "The Others," "The Sixth Sense," and 2006's horrendous remake of "The Omen" cleaned up at the box office, they don't hold a candle to some of the truly "creepy kid" films that have been released since 1956's "The Bad Seed" created the genre. But for every rare gem like "Children of the Corn" or "Village of the Dammed," audiences are forced to sift through countless wastes of time and celluloid. The most recent offender is the snooze-inducing "Wicked Little Things," featuring a bunch of tykes that illicit as much fear as a viewing of "Sesame Street."

"Wicked Little Things" tells the tale of the recently widowed Karen Tunny (Lori Heuring) and her two daughters, Sarah (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Emma (Chloe Moretz), who have moved to a remote mountain home that Karen inherited from the family of her late husband. Unbeknownst to Karen, the three of them are not as alone as they thought. The home lies near an old mine that was abandoned almost a hundred years before, after a tragic cave-in killed a group of children who were forced to work there. Now their ghosts walk through the forest ready to bore the living hell out of anyone stupid enough to try and sit through this film.

Originally envisioned as a straightforward zombie flick helmed by "Texas Chainsaw Massacre's" Tobe Hooper, the project got passed on to the hands of writer-director-producer-constant disappointment J.S. Cardone. Cardone's contributions to cinema have been things like "The Covenant," "Alien Hunter," and the unwarranted direct-to-video sequels "Sniper 2," "8MM 2," and, of course, the much-needed "Sniper 3." Cardone's credentials are what made "Wicked Little Things" the only film I didn't see when it was released to theaters last year.

"Wicked Little Things" was part of the After Dark Horrorfest "8 Films to Die For" that were shown for one week in select theaters all over the country. It was a cool idea that garnered enough revenue for them to try it again this year. While I applaud anyone's attempt to try and get more people to see independent horror films (especially on the big screen), some of the movies just shouldn't have made the cut. "Wicked Little Things" was easily the worst of the eight and should have been passed over for a number of better films. "Feast," "Salvage," or the disturbing "Feed" would have all been better choices than this predictable waste of time.
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Azumanga Daioh: Entrance - Vol 1 + Box

"Azumanga Daioh" is a whimsical comedy based on the antics of a group of schoolgirls, beginning when they start high school. Although the series is based off of a manga (Japanese comic, typically serialized like American comic books), this manga is a collection of daily, four-panel comic strips. In that spirit, the TV series was initially divided into five-minutes episodes, collected five at a time into one full, half-hour program. There are a total of twenty-six, half-hour programs. The first DVD contains five episodes: "Miss Yukari", "Osaka´s Day", "Nyamo", "Pool, Pool, Pool", and "Summer Break".

There are six main girls to the story. The first is Chiyo, a ten-year-old girl who was smart enough to skip five grades to get into high school. The second is Sakaki, a tall girl whose discomfort with her height, athletic ability, and physical development renders her shy and standoffish. Yomi is generally the voice of reason, especially to her friend Tomo´s thoughtless antics. The fifth, Kagura, doesn´t appear until later in the series.

The final character is Ayumu Kasuga, although one could be forgiven for not remembering her name. Her classmates almost immediately nickname her "Osaka", as that´s the region of Japan she´s from. Unlike a typical Osakan, Ayumu is not loud or boorish. On the contrary, she´s quiet, spaces out almost continuously, and loves complicated puns. Although Ayumu doesn´t like her nickname, she´s simply too out of touch to fight it. Even the teachers call her Osaka.

If there is a main character to this series, it´s Osaka. She´s most often involved directly in the hijinks, or standing obliviously on the outside. In one particularly memorable moment, Tomo tears the classroom apart trying to kill a cockroach, while Osaka slowly tries to follow some floating spots in her eyes.

This first volume initially focuses on introducing the characters. We see how poor Chiyo struggles to understand and fit in with kids who are five years older than her. Ayumu (Osaka, remember?) wants to make a fresh start at her new high school, but just can´t fight her scatter-brained nature. There is continuity to the series, as time passes rapidly through the girls´ first semester. Several bits have a continuing plot, but overall, the series is just for laughs.

There are boys in "Azumanga Daioh", it´s just that none of them are central to any plot. Whatever other good qualities they might have, the boys uniformly worship Mr. Kimura, a lecherous teacher. In spite of the many good deeds he commits outside of school, Mr. Kimura openly plots to get into the girls´ swim practice and bemoans his inability to get into their locker room. Luckily, the girls don´t have much trouble keeping Mr. Kimura contained.

Because of the show´s roots, laughs come hard and fast. The beginning of each five-minute bit has its own title. I think each bit contains somewhere between 1-3 strips, judging by the number of punch lines.

I would most directly compare "Azumanga Daioh" to "Peanuts", another comic that I love. There´s a medium-sized cast of children, each with exaggerated personalities. Much like Charlie Brown´s never-ending quest to kick a football, Sakura always tries to pet cats, even though they uniformly bite her. Although there is a main character, several strips don´t use him/her. What makes these two comics the most alike in my mind, however, is the way they both capture what it´s like to be a kid.
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The Naked City

In 1952, Edward Dmytryk got tired of prison and decided to name names to HUAC, one of which was Jules Dassin. The blacklisted director was forced into exile in France which isn´t such a bad place to spend your exile when you´re a famous film director. Dassin produced perhaps his best-know film "Rififi" (1955) during his exile, but he also left behind a pretty impressive body of work in the good old US of A. "The Naked City" (1948) is probably the best of his pre-blacklist American films, though I wouldn´t disagree with anyone who granted that honor to "Night and the City" (1950).

Today location shooting is practically taken for granted, but in 1948 Hollywood productions rarely ventured out of their safe and happy studio sets. Dassin, inspired in part by the then-embryonic Italian Neorealist movement, decided to change all that and shoot his crime procedural on the bustling streets of New York City, lending his film a documentary quality that was unique among Hollywood offerings of the time. "The Naked City" provided a glimpse of "Life on the Streets" fifty years before "Homicide" would grace the small screen.

Radical in form, "The Naked City" is fairly mundane in content. A pretty young woman is murdered. Detectives Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) seek her killer. In contrast to the modern "buddy cop" formula, Muldoon and Halloran aren´t polar opposites ("One lives by the book, the other never read the book!") but are both pretty straight-laced guys who just follow procedure as they methodically narrow down the list of suspects. Muldoon is older and more "colorful" (i.e. he´s very, very Irish) while Halloran is younger and a bit blander, though he does shave a gorgeous young wife who runs around the house in skimpy outfits. Seedy characters and false leads fade in an out of the story as you might expect, but screenwriter Malvin Wald deserves extra credit for working a harmonica playing wrestler into the script.

There is never any doubt about the outcome of the story. The detectives make mistakes and get distracted along the way, but they are implacable in the pursuit of justice. This is one crucial way in which the film cannot be considered a noir despite some of the stylistic trappings of the genre. In noir, the world is fundamentally disordered, and the innocent are as likely as the guilty to suffer and even die. The world of "The Naked City" is much brighter (though it has its seedy moments), and the honest citizen can rest easy knowing that salvation rests in the capable hands of an efficient and potent police force (Dana Polan - discusses this same point in his interview on the DVD). This sense of order is reinforced by the confident narrator (producer and columnist Mark Hellinger) who guides the viewer through each step of the case.

In an ensemble cast, New York City is the true star. One the posters for the film trumpeted the fact that it was "Filmed on the streets of New York, with a cast of eight million New Yorkers!" Much of the film´s action takes place on the Lower East Side but (according to architect and author James Saunders) the shoot covered 107 different locations in New York, ranging from Manhattan to Astoria and featuring specific locales such as the Williamsburg Bridge, the Precinct House on 20th Street (the real location of the NYPD homicide department at the time) and even the actual mortuary at Bellevue.

he realism of the film´s city locations is contrasted and complemented by Dublin-born Barry Fitzgerald´s borderline-hammy performance as Detective Muldoon, one in a long line of world-wise, common wisdom-spouting Irish cops. Fitzgerald was a great character actor who was a favorite of John Ford; he is best known for his supporting role in "The Quiet Man" but "The Naked City" provides his most substantial role. Fitzgerald steals every scene he´s in, leaving poor Don Taylor (who earned his keep more as a television director than as an actor) to play the underappreciated straight man.

Like any good crime story "The Naked City" has a few chases and shoot-outs, including the spectacular climax on the Williamsburg Bridge, but the focus is more on the humdrum routine of police work as well as the daily rituals of life in New York City circa 1948, just after the war and just at the time it was emerging as a true world metropolis. The city had been depicted on film many times before, but never so extensively or so lovingly. "The Naked City" is a nifty crime drama in its own right, but it is also worth watching solely for its documentary qualities.
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Chicken Little

From tiny acorns, great oak trees grow. And mountains are made of molehills.

Everyone knows the story of Chicken Little, the skittish little hen who, in the world of ancient fables, sits down to lunch and thinks the sky is falling when she's hit on the head by an acorn. In most versions, Chicken Little (or Chicken Licken or Henny Penny, as she's also called) sets off to warn the king that the sky is falling, picking up one friend after another along the way. When they get to Foxy Loxy, that crafty old predator ends up eating each of Chicken Little's friends, all because of her foolishness. The moral? Don't believe everything you hear.

Disney had a lot of acorns riding on the film version, because it was the first fully computer-generated animated feature produced in-house, and the first to utilize the Dimensionalization process for 3-D figures. The House of Mouse also snagged Don Knotts for one of the voices, in what would turn out to be his last film.

Disney's take on the story is actually pretty inventive. Instead of a girl, Chicken Little is now (at Michael Eisner's insistence) a boy who doesn't have the relationship he wishes he had with his single-parent dad, a robust rooster ex-jock revered in Oakey Oaks (sounds like a subdivision, doesn't it?) for the baseball records he set while a young clucker. So you've got the "I can never measure up" thing going between Chicken Little and Buck Cluck. As for the acorn, it's been replaced by a stop-sign piece of space garbage that has chameleon properties. Hold it in front of you and it picks up your image. And yes, there are aliens in this version, and so the fable becomes more "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" than "Chicken Little." At first, when Chicken Little sounds the alarm because he thinks a piece of the sky (which looks like sky) has fallen, the whole town comes running. But then the space junk disappears, and there's no proof. Buck, embarrassed, apologizes for his son's vivid imagination.

There's more embarrassment on the baseball diamond, where teensy weensy Chicken Little can barely lift a bat. And so the stage is set for Chicken Little to prove two things: that he can be believed, and that he can do something athletic to make his father proud. Not bad raw materials for filmmakers to work with, really. You also have to give credit to any studio that actually puts out a G-rated movie these days.

The trouble is, every film comes down to character, and frankly, these characters aren't terribly endearing and they're not drawn in such a way that we feel warm or caring about them. Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff) is probably the best of the bunch, followed by Buck Cluck (Garry Marshall). But the remaining characters that populate Oakey Oaks are just plain stupid or annoying. Chicken Little's two main friends--also outcasts--are a pig named Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn) and a buck-toothed duck named Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack). The pig is drawn like an over-inflated blimp with tiny feet, while those buck teeth and country accent make Abby seem like a refuge from "Hee-Haw." Mayor Turkey Lurkey (Knotts) is equally blah and forgettable as a character, which is too bad, because that's not how Knotts should have gone out. One funny routine comes from Mr. Woolensworth, whose class on Mutton (not Latin) teaches the conjugation of that sheepish language (in which everything sounds like "Baa"), and whose take on teaching comes straight out of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

There are other funny moments throughout the film and some humorous sight gags, but the main characters just aren't lovable or distinctive enough. They seem generic, and that's a shame, because the concept itself seemed decent, and the animation, while it doesn't knock your socks off, is certainly competent. But the characters and a few other things make this one more appealing to the kids than to the whole family. Kids will enjoy the songs that are interspersed, but to adults it will seem like an animal American Idol, and just as self-conscious. There are also way too many long emotional moments and reactions, and too many contrived feel-good scenes. But the kids will like it. Except for one questionable song where Chicken Little's friends do karaoke to the Spice Girls singing "If you wanna be my lover . . .," it's innocuous G-rated fun.
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Baseball Double Feature: Kill the Umpire/Safe at Home!

Heard of small ball? Well, these two baseball films are so small that they barely qualify for B-movie status. Sony went deep into the dugout to find these two black-and-white oldies, which will be of interest to baseball fans because there's a lot of footage of Americana and a few familiar faces in pin-stripes. Both films appear on one single-sided disc in a bargain release being marketed as a Baseball Double Header.

Kill the Umpire (1950)
This one stars William Bendix, best known for playing Chester Riley on "The Life of Riley" sitcom from 1949-58, and for his character's catch-phrase, "What a revoltin' development this is." He plays Bill Johnson, a former ballplayer who can't hold down a job because the sport beckons every spring, summer, and fall. Whether it's catching a cab to a game or sidling up to a set at a bar, Johnson displays all the symptoms of addiction, including shouting about every call an umpire makes. "Kill the umpire!" is his catch-phrase this outing, and frankly it's about as charming as a guy like this is who sits right behind you at a game. This has apparently been going on for quite a while, because he has two daughters (played by Gloria Henry and Connie Marshall), one of whom is old enough to be dating a current ballplayer. And still, his long-suffering wife (Una Merkel) puts up with it--perhaps because her father, Jonah Evans (Ray Collins), was a big-league umpire.

The plot of this 78-minute film is set in motion when Jonah suggests his son-in-law attend umpire school and become a minor league umpire who one day might work his way up to the majors. As in "Stripes" or "Private Benjamin," we get the obligatory comic episodes in umpire training, including one where he borrows eye drops and ends up seeing double for a big exam game, during which he calls everything twice . . . because he sees everything twice. "Ball. Ball." "Strike. Strike." Thereafter, he's got a style and a moniker: Bill "Two Call" Johnson. But Frank Tashlin's script (yes, the same Tashlin who animated Porky Pig and countless other characters) shifts gears pretty quickly after, and the film embraces farce and slapstick with all the who-cares-how-unbelievable-this-is gusto of the old Ben Turpin and Keystone Cops films.

Of course, responsible citizens today might wince a bit when the whole Johnson family fakes a fire in a hi-rise hotel so they can smuggle Bill out past a mob who's after him because of a "blown" call that cost gamblers a pretty penny. They dump newspapers in bathtubs and fan smoke out the window, set trash cans on fire in other rooms, and--hey, how do they get in other people's rooms, anyway? In farce and slapstick, that's no more of an issue than how Bill is able to stand on his feet on a portion of picket fence, dragged at high speeds by an ambulance like a water skier behind a boat.

That's the spirit with which you have to watch "Kill the Umpire." It's silent-movie slapstick all over again, with baseball as the subject matter and a fun appearance by veteran William Frawley. As a comedy of this sort it has entertaining moments, but it's hard to get past the staginess and some of the things that (like the fire-starting) just aren't socially acceptable. You also start to realize where the expression "Put a sock in it" comes from, because there are more than a few times when Johnson opens his mouth to shout abusively when you want to stuff it with the nearest article of clothing. For comedic sequences, this one merits a 6/10.

Safe at Home! (1962)
There are star vehicles, and there are star vehicles. This one's a tricycle that "stars" big-time ballplayers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, who are joined briefly by fellow Yankees Whitey Ford and Ralph Houk. They're the only reason why anyone would have wanted to watch this film back in 1962, and that still holds true. Because, golly gee, the goofy plot and tone, the "um-dee-dum" music, the s-l-o-w pacing, and the dialogue that seems all small-talk and clumsy exposition make "Safe at Home!" seem like a long episode of "Leave it to Beaver"--but without the charm of the characters or any real sense of editing.

Still, it's fun seeing legends Mantle and Maris, and almost as fun soaking up footage of life as it was lived in Florida back in 1962. I know that I complained about the pacing, which is incredibly slow, and the editing, which is just as unbelievably sloppy, but it's this slackness that gives us an extended glimpse of Americana that we normally don't get in tightly edited films.

The plot is right out of "Flipper" and "The Brady Bunch." Motherless Hutch Lawton (Bryan Russell) moved from New York to Florida near where the Yankees train. Dad (Don Collier) bought a fishing bought and hopes to make a good living running sportfishing charters. The dock woman (Patricia Barry) is his love-interest as well, though there's not much focus on that. This is a kids film, told from the point of view of kids, aimed at kids, and with dialogue that seems written by kids. It's like watching a whole film full of Eddie Haskells on their best behavior in front of the Cleavers.

Not much happens, either. Young Hutch is pushed into a corner when a smart-aleck rich kid on his Little League team talks smack about Hutch's dad because he's never at any games. Before you know it, Hutch is claiming that his dad not only knows baseball, but that he knows Mantle and Maris and all the Yankees. So does he. And so Hutch has to go to spring camp (where a strange kid back then could apparently just walk into the clubhouse???) and try to convince Mantle and Maris to come to an all-league dinner and help him save face.

But the acting is awful, the screenplay is awful, and the pacing in this 84-minute film is so slow that it starts to feel like a 20-inning game. And a Little League one at that. You start to think that even Mantle and Maris aren't enough for you to endure this, which has the feel of those old health films we were forced to watch in grammar school. Yes, I'm showing my age. But so does this film, which was probably old the day that it opened. A 4 out of 10.
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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Derailed [Unrated Version]

Clive Owen followed up his box office success in "Sin City" with the thriller "Derailed." "Sin City" is a spectacular film that set the bar fairly high for graphic novel adaptations. It pushed new ground both visually and narratively. The film opened the door for British star Clive Owen to become a leading man in Hollywood. "Derailed" is a film that won´t provide another stepping stone for Owen and if anything, it could derail his rise to Hollywood stardom. Featuring the lovely Jennifer Aniston, French actor Vincent Cassel and a pack of raptors (Rapper/Actors) including Xzibit and RZA, "Derailed" does not have the A-List star power that would help propel a thriller that is this decidedly pedestrian to be anything more than another film on the video rack.

In "Derailed," Clive Owen is marketing executive Charles Schine. His professional and personal life is fraying at the edges. His pretty wife Deanna (Melissa George) and he are becoming distant and no longer give each other a kiss goodbye in the morning. Their daughter Amy (Addison Timlin) has the worst level of diabetes and Charles and Deanna have put a second mortgage on their home and hoarded every possible penny to pay for surgeries and expensive drugs in an attempt to give Amy the best shot at life possible. He has been removed from a high profile project at work and betrayed by his supervisor; a man that is also one of his closest friends. Charles is a man who is one step away from alcoholism or a seriously nasty case of depression. He is a heart attack in waiting and the outlook is not too bright for recovery.

That is until a day when he forgets to purchase a train ticket for his morning commute and doesn´t have any cash on him to purchase the aforementioned ticket on the train. Just as it looks he is going to be departed from the train at the next stop a lovely stranger ponies up the nine dollars to pay for his ticket. The stranger, Lucinda Harris (Jennifer Aniston) has an immediate attraction to Charles and the two quickly build a friendship that finds them straddling the line of adultery against their respective spouses. After a dinner date to get away from the daily stress of his professional and personal life with Lucinda, Charles makes a move to push them over the line and the two ultimately find themselves at a low-rent hotel in a poorer section of Chicago. Just as they are ready to engage in sexual intercourse, a mugger (Vincent Cassel) breaks into the motel room, pistol whips Charles and rapes Lucinda.

Having committed adultery, Lucinda urges Charles to not get the police involved. This becomes a major problem when the mugger begins to extort large sums of money from Charles to keep his adulterous secret from Deanna and daughter Amy. After Charles is forced to give LaRoche all of the money he has saved for his daughter´s treatments, he decides to take action against LaRoche and his partner Dexter (Xzibit). Charles enrolls the help of his friend Winston Boyko (RZA) to try and get LaRoche out of his life, but LaRoche turns out to be more than a simple con man trying to take Charles for as much money as possible and when Lucinda continues to refuse going to the police, Charles has to protect his own skin and find his own solution to his problems.

The premise behind "Derailed" wasn´t bad. Unfortunately, it didn´t take long at all before I had figured out the upcoming plot twists and how the movie would ultimately unfold. In the recent update to the movie dictionary, I think if you look up the word "Predictable," the entry will say "See Derailed." Clive Owen is a fine actor and it would have been interesting to see how he would have carried the role of James Bond had he been the final choice. A few times throughout the film, I found Owens reminded me of Nicholas Cage. His speech patterns and the manner in which he moved his mouth was quite similar to many of Cage´s roles. Melissa George bested Aniston in her performance and I didn´t feel Aniston particularly stood out or impressed in her role as Lucinda Harris. Even the emotional rape scene didn´t bring much emotion from the actress. Of course, one could argue that the film explains that perfectly. The raptors didn´t have too large of roles in the film, with RZA having the most screen time. Xzibit had very little to do with the film. If "Derailed" wasn´t so predictable from frame-to-frame, it would have been an average thriller. With no great moments of suspense aside from RZA´s exit from the film, "Derailed" was as entertaining as many direct to video releases.
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South Park - The Complete Ninth Season [The Complete Ninth Season]

A decade ago, when my best friend Steve and I headed to our friend Josh´s house to play the exciting new Playstation game "Resident Evil," we didn´t expect to spend a lot of the night watching a VHS tape with a handful of episodes from some new show called "South Park." This was back before On-Demand and even DVD. Josh loved this show and recorded the episodes when we were forcing him to work at the local Giant Foods. I remember my first night watching "South Park" and though the show had only shown about five episodes, they were damn funny. Cartman with an alien anal probe coming out of his derriere was the first episode I remember and to this day, when one of us screws up, we still quote the aliens and say "My Bad. I´m new around here." I miss those days of hanging out over at Josh´s house and since then, the Sony Playstation and VHS are ancient technology and I can´t believe that I´m reviewing a DVD collection of the ninth year of "South Park."

Season 9 contains fourteen episodes. Each tackles various elements from pop culture, or hot political or social topics. This has been and still is the strength of "South Park" and as long as Hollywood keeps pumping out any degree of crappy films and actors and other public figures continue to do stupid and asinine things, "South Park" will have material to run for another nine seasons. Of course, one of the most infamous episodes in the long history of the show are contained on the third disc of this DVD set. Titled "Trapped in the Closet," this episode tackles the religion *cough* of Scientology and details the story of Zenu. I can´t discuss the story of Zenu, as Scientology specifically states that you can die of pneumonia if you are not at OT3 or properly prepared for the knowledge that is revealed in this South Park episode. I´ve known the stories of Scientology for a couple years now and haven´t died yet and think that "Trapped in the Closet" is easily one of the best episodes they have done in years.

The other episodes are certainly entertaining and are as follows:

Mr. Garrison´s Fancy New Vagina: If you cannot figure it out from the title, this episode is about sex change surgery and also touches on racism. Mr. Garrison loses his testicles and earns a highly desired vagina to become a ´true´ woman. Somebody else becomes a dolphin and Kyle becomes a tall African American so that he can be a better basketball player. Grade: A-

Die Hippie, Die: This episode combines "Ghostbusters" with "Armageddon" and contains a token black guy (Chef) in case the plan backfires as Cartman is enrolled by South Park´s city counsel to remove the ever growing hippie pandemic that has infected South Park. Grade: B+

Wing: The boys decide to become talent agents and make their mark on the world and a lot of money by exploiting their clients. After losing their only profitable client to a real talent agent, a songstress Asian wife becomes their new cash cow and they are unable to get her an audition on a crappy reality show and end up putting her in the ring. Grade: B-

Best Friends Forever: Kenny becomes Heaven´s version of Keanu Reeves, as his prowess on a PSP game have made him God´s "The One" to fend off a massive assault by the devil on the pearly white gates of Heaven. I´m still wondering how Kenny´s family had the cash to buy him a Sony PSP. Grade: C+

The Losing Edge: This was one of the few episodes that I felt faltered badly. The basic premise is that all boys want to lose in Little League so they don´t have to play all summer. There were some funny moments, but this one struggled to keep my interest. Grade: F

The Death of Eric Cartman: Combine a little "The Sixth Sense" with the fact that nobody truly loves Cartman and you get a very funny episode where Cartman believes he is dead and Butters is the only boy who Cartman believes can see him. Butters thinks he sees dead people. Everybody thinks the two boys are completely insane, but has no problem ignoring Cartman. This was a good one. Grade: A+

Erection Day: The topic of this show is Jimmy´s entrance into puberty and his sudden problem with untimely hard-ons. With Cartman giving Jimmy advice on how to get laid, you can just imagine the hilarity of this episode. Lots of great Jimmy jokes are included. Grade: A

Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow: Al Gore´s global warming and the craptacular "The Day After Tomorrow" are the hot topics for this episode. I´m not going to get into the whole global warming thing. January made me a believer and February a doubter. However, regardless of my beliefs, this was a pretty funny episode. Everything goes to hell when Stan breaks a beaver dam. Grade: B+

Marjorine: Do you remember the little paper answer boxes that the girls made in grade school? The boys think this is some messiah-like device and a few similarities to "Stargate" emerge in this episode where they fake Butters death so he can pretend to be a girl and nab the device. This was one of the lesser episodes of the season. Grade: D

Follow That Egg: Do you also remember the grade school assignment where you needed to be the parent to an egg? Did you eat the egg? This episode is about jealousy, relationships and those darned eggs. A lot of it also resolves around the social and political hotbed of same-sex marriages. Funny stuff and one of the better Mrs. Garrison episodes. Grade: C+

Ginger Kids: Cartman tackles racism against red-haired, fair skinned freckled kids in yet another South Park assault on racism and cults. The prerequisite Ron Howard joke was included and the hotel concierge jokes were funny, but this was another episode that was on the lower end. I did like the concept of Stan being a ´Daywalker.´ Grade: C-

Trapped in the Closet: One of the best South Park episodes ever. Travolta, Cruise, R. Kelly and the entire concept of Scientology is attacked in this one and the result is absolutely hilarious. I laughed for the entire length of this episode and have always considered Scientology to be hokey and this was a home run as far as I´m concerned. The Travolta and Cruise parodies were pretty funny too. Grade: A+

Free Willzyx: The boys find that a killer whale actually came from the moon and he communicates to them and pleads to be sent home. Of course, NASA, the Russians and any other reputable space agency laughingly turn them down. Fortunately, the Mexicans save the day and put the whale into space for $200. This was about as average a South Park episode that you will find. Grade: C

Bloody Mary: The disease of alcoholism is half of the episode´s topics. The other half is a Mary statue that bleeds from a lower body orifice. Do I really need to say much more? Grade: B

Season 9 was yet another very good episode for a show that is at times crude, rude and downright funny. I drifted away from South Park for a few years, but this DVD set has rekindled my interest in the show. I´m four seasons from owning all of them, so I need to get shopping (unless Paramount can find some kindness and help fuel my love for South Park… but I don´t know if we need to review those seasons here). There are a few very good episodes that fell into Season 9, but "Trapped in the Closet" is the full reason to own this set. Kenny doesn´t die much at all in this season, but he gets a gold PSP for a death in this season. Lots of laughs and it is good to see that Trey Parker and Matt Stone haven´t lost their ability to be complete smartasses and slam whatever they damn well wish.
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