Saturday, April 28, 2007

Hanna-Barbera Storybook Favorites

Ro ro, Raggy. Hanna-Barbera is giving the "Scooby-Doo" treatment to literary classics. Make that "gave," because these Storybook Favorites were produced in the late '70s, when the Mystery Machine was in full flower. Scooby fans will recognize the trademark partial animation, background music, Foley effects, and even some of the voices from the Mystery, Inc. series. And you have to tip your hat to the legendary TV animated filmmakers for trying to introduce children to some of the old standards: Gulliver's Travels, The Last of the Mohicans, and Black Beauty.

It's a tough order, though, transforming literary properties for a popular audience, and even tougher to severely condense the novels and adapt them for younger readers or viewers. When I was growing up in the '50s, there was a comic book series called Classics Illustrated, which did a much better job of staying faithful to the originals. These animated versions are awfully far removed from Jonathan Swift's 1726 satirical travel novel (pictured here, courtesy of Monash University Library), James Fennimore Cooper's 1826 Leather-Stocking tale, and Anna Sewell's 1877 children's book. Black Beauty comes closest to the original, which is perhaps no surprise because it's also the shortest book and the least complicated to adapt. Cooper's novel sprawled to nearly 400 pages, while Swift's was close to 300. Like those early Classics Illustrated comics, these are aimed strictly at younger viewers.

"Gulliver's Travels" (1979)
This one was produced by Hanna-Barbera Australia, which also generated "The Popeye Valentine Special," "5 Weeks in a Balloon," and "The Kwicky Koala Show." Of the three classic stories included here, it's the one that offers the broadest appeal for children. In Swift's novel, Lemuel Gulliver was a surgeon on a merchant ship who was washed onto a strange land where the humans were only six inches tall. Here, he's a devoted family man who chooses to serve in the merchant marine in order to provide for his family. Swift intended Gulliver's adventures in Lilliput as a means of showing how small and petty politicians and the monarchy could be, though none of this will be on the minds of children who watch. They'll see a sinister prime minister, a silly king, and a Gulliver who is mostly a benign and bemused voyager. It's all played for laughs.

This adaptation takes the first two parts of Swift's novel and runs with it. Giving voice to Gulliver is that "Wild, Wild West" master of disguise, Ross Martin, with additional voices provided by Hanna-Barbera talents Don Messick, Janet Waldo, John Stephenson, and Julie Bennet. It's pretty sanitized and tame, with Gulliver never in much true danger, and outrageous events softened. In the novel, for example, Gulliver urinates to put out a fire in the Queen's bedchamber, where here it's the whole castle that's on fire, and the perceived giant sucks up a big mouthful of water and sprays it on the flames. When Gulliver is attacked by the miniature fleet belonging to Lilliput's rivals, it's as if they're using toothpicks and miniature Nerf balls. When he's the little one in a world of giants, it's even less menacing than "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." It's all played with a whimsical tone, rather than an ironic or perilous one.

In the novel, Gulliver visits Lilliput in part one, and in part two, Brobdingnag, where he's the miniature in a world of giants. Missing in this film version are parts three and four, in which Gulliver landed on the island of Laputa, and when he encountered the Houyhnhnms (intelligent horses) and Yahoos (beasts in human form with filthy habits--so take that, you Web surfers!). Then again, those were the most difficult sections of the novel, and, in truth, ones that wouldn't have spoken to a young audience.

"Gulliver's Travels" is the one that my children enjoyed the most of this batch. It's really an appealing story, if you think about it. First a man is so large that he can drag an entire navy in his fishing net, then so small that a wasp can menace him. That's hard to top, which makes it surprising that there's never been a truly fantastic animated version of Swift's novel. This one is okay, but . . . why isn't this on Disney's radar? The success of the recent live-action TV version starring Ted Danson certainly proved that Swift's tale still holds appeal.

"The Last of the Mohicans" (1975)
The Last of the Mohicans was the second in Cooper's trilogy about Natty Bumpo, a.k.a. Hawkeye, Pathfinder, and Leather-Stocking. This adaptation features a shortcut script by Draper Lewis, who previously wrote for "The Bell Telephone Hour" and "Josie and the Pussy Cats in Outer Space"--which explains a lot. It begins with a "Scooby"-style teaser, an excerpt from the middle of the episode, and then we go back and start at the beginning and get that teaser again. But with just 50 minutes for each of these adaptations, every minute counts, and that teaser idea seems a bad one. As it is, most of Cooper's novel was cut out. This screenplay covers the first half, and sanitizes it in the process.

In the novel, while Fort William is under attack by the French and Indians, the fort commander's grown daughters, Alice and Cora, are being escorted to the fort by Major Duncan Heyward, Alice's fiancé, and Magua, an Indian guide who is really in the service of the enemy. He's leading them farther away from the fort and into a trap when Hawkeye and his two Mohican friends, Chief Chingachgook and his son, Uncas, intervene. The rest of the plot follows the group as they head for the fort. Though Magua gets his, as in the book, the rest is pretty tame. Shots are fired, but mostly people grab their arms and fall over. This ends not long after the girls are reunited with their father. Had the plot continued, Col. Munro would have surrendered to the French, his daughters would have been kidnapped by two separate Indian tribes, and both Uncas and Cora would have been killed. This version makes it seem as if Alice chooses to go off with Uncas, and people just seem to live a lot happier ever after. Twain would be chortling over that one, because the kiddie version out-romances Cooper's. Is it interesting for kids? Marginally so. But "Jonny Quest" episodes carry more tension. Too much was cut out for this to really pack any whallop.have to confess that I side with Mark Twain, who so couldn't tolerate the romantic excesses of James Fennimore Cooper that he wrote a humorous count-by-count indictment titled "Fennimore Cooper's Literary Offenses." Twain would be heartily amused that this adaptation offers Casey Kasem as the voice of the Mohican named Uncas (and Kasem, you'll recall, was the voice of Shaggy in "Scooby-Doo"). I could almost hear Twain giggling from the great beyond as one of the young women that Natty and his Mohican friends are assigned to escort says, "Natty Bumpo? That sounds like a mosquito bite, or something." Obviously, not Cooper's words, but it's so Daphne.

Black Beauty (1978)
Ironically, this is the only classic of the three that was written for children, and it's the one that's apt to upset small children the most. Black Beauty was the only novel that Anna Sewell wrote, for which she was paid the whopping sum of 12 pounds. Published just three months before she died, the novel remains as a lasting monument.

"Black Beauty" has more colorful animation than the other two entries, with plenty of deep oranges and greens. Black Beauty learns from his mother, "It's a man's world, not a horse's," and he's advised to do what he can to please humans. It won't take long for sensitive children to tear up, because Black Beauty is sold early in the film and must leave his country manor home. The voiceover narrator, Black Beauty (Alan Young, actually, who played opposite a horse in "Mr. Ed") says, "That day in the meadow was the last time I saw my mother." Sheesh. Shades of "Bambi."

The film follows the picaresque style of the children's novel, as we follow Beauty from owner to owner. Some of them are nice, some of them are nasty, and some of them are just clueless--like the young stable boy who doesn't cool down Beauty after she's ridden hard, and almost unintentionally kills her. No matter how hard Black Beauty has it, or how many times his name is changed, it's not nearly as bad as his friend, poor Ginger, who at one point simply says, "All I wish is to be dead and free of the abuse." Cheery stuff, huh? But this is an early example of children's literature, when the whole point was to encapsulate morals into the tales so that they functioned as life-lessons. It's actually the most well made of the three films, but again, ironically, it might be too sad for sensitive children.
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Jane Eyre [Fox Cinema Classics Collection]

Appropriate to its being one of the first and most-popular gothic romances of all time, Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" has seen no fewer than eighteen screen adaptations, none of them better than this 1944 production with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles.

Ms. Bronte (1816-1855) was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, and under the care of a widowed father grew up with a brother and two sisters--both of the sisters, Emily ("Wuthering Heights") and Anne ("Agnes Grey"), becoming authors as well. Raised with little companionship beyond her own family and marrying only shortly before her death at a prematurely young age, Charlotte developed a vivid imagination that served her well, writing "Jane Eyre," her most famous novel, in 1847. That the book should continue to enthrall readers over a hundred and fifty years later may seem remarkable, until one realizes how enduring the story and characters are. Human nature never changes through time, and audiences today can still recognize and identify with a good mystery, a sympathetic protagonist, a compelling conflict, and universal themes.

The movie's writers--John Houseman, Aldous Huxley, Henry Koster, and director Robert Stevenson--manage to condense the sprawling novel into a ninety-seven-minute screenplay that hits most of the novel's high points without resorting to much condescension. Unlike the novel, they begin it this way: "My name is Jane Eyre... I was born in 1820, a harsh time of change in England. Money and position seemed all that mattered. Charity was a cold and disagreeable word. Religion too often wore a mask of bigotry and cruelty. There was no proper place for the poor or the unfortunate. I had no father or mother, brother or sister. As a child I lived with my aunt, Mrs. Reed of Gateshead Hall. I do not remember that she ever spoke one kind word to me." This narration strikes a fitting balance in introducing us to the movie's main character, launching the major arguments, and developing a despairing tone.

"Jane Eyre" follows the general pattern set forth by earlier English novels--"Moll Flanders," "Tom Jones," "Joseph Andrews"--yet it forsakes the comedies of manners fostered by her most-immediate female rival, Jane Austen. The Brontes wrote of the darker sides of life, while ever lingering on important social issues. It may not be coincidental that "Jane Eyre" bears resemblance to the later works of her contemporary, Charles Dickens, in showing the plight of the lower classes, in Bronte's case a situation aggravated by Jane's being a woman. In those days, under the conditions described, if a woman were not born wealthy, society expected her to marry well. If she had no such prospects, there was teaching, caring for the underprivileged, entering the poor house, or living on the streets.

In Bronte's story, Jane (Joan Fontaine) is an orphan, spending a part of her youth with an unfeeling aunt, Mrs. Reed (Agnes Moorehead), and then a part of her young adulthood in the Lowood Institution, a charitable school where she is a pupil and where later the head of the school offers her a job as a teacher. However, at the age of eighteen she leaves to become the governess to a child, Adele Varens (Margaret O'Brien), the ward of Edward Rochester (Orson Welles), a proud, tortured, imperious man ("I never was correct nor ever shall be"), who lives in a secluded country estate, Thornfield Manor, the size of a small castle.

Naturally, Jane falls in love with the enigmatic Edward, and, just as naturally, strife ensues as the girl cannot bring herself to admit her feelings for him. It was not, after all, the right or proper thing for a young governess to do or even think about. She had her position to consider; there were strict societal rules to follow. If this premise brings to mind Daphne Du Maurier's "Rebecca" (1938), you must remember that Hitchcock had brought Du Maurier's story to the screen with Ms. Fontaine as star just a few years before this film, and "Rebecca" had won an Oscar for Best Picture. Never mind that Hollywood had already made Ms. Bronte's book into a movie six previous times; a good story was a good story, especially when the same star and a similar plot line and characters were still fresh in the public's minds.

"Are you always drawn to the loveless?" asks Edward. "When it's deserved," replies Jane.

Anyway, not only does Jane find herself in a moral dilemma regarding her love for her employer, she discovers that not everything is as it should be in Mr. Rochester's life. There is that little matter of the dark secret kept locked and hidden away in Thornfield's highest tower. And there's the secretive behavior of the housekeeper. And the odd cackling laugh, pitiable sobs, and outright screams in the night. Bronte knew how to keep an audience's attention, and Hollywood was quick to capitalize on the plot's more obvious grotesqueries, as well as the desolation of its landscape.
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Nutty Professor [HD-DVD/DVD Combo]

Long before Eddie Murphy received near universal ridicule and harsh words of criticism for his recent box office bomb "Norbit," he was wearing fat suits and taking on multiple roles in a comedy in the 1996 remake of Walt Disney´s 1963 Jerry Lewis film of the same name, "The Nutty Professor." The Eddie Murphy remake found Eddie surpassing the number of roles Jerry Lewis pulled off by taking on seven roles. Murphy was the Jekyll and Hyde characters of Professor Sherman Klump and Buddy Love, but he was also the entire extended Klump clan. Helmed by Tom Shadyac, who helped boost the career of Jim Carrey, "The Nutty Professor" was Eddie Murphy´s first foray into more family friendly comedies after making a name for himself as a foul mouthed comedian in the "48 Hours" and "Beverly Hills Cop" films.

Whether or not Eddie Murphy and Tom Shadyac´s rendition of "The Nutty Professor" is superior to the Jerry Lewis directed film is up to debate. They are both showcases for the physical comedy talents of each actor and their ability to play a wide array of characters. Lewis was the 1963 film´s good doctor, Professor Julius Kelp and the Hyde-like alternate ego, Buddy Love. His third role in that film was that of Baby Kelp. Murphy was both the good doctor and the bad influence, but also Lance Perkins, Cletus ´Papa´ Klump, Anna Pearl ´Mama´ Jensen Klump, Ida Mae ´Granny´ Jensen and Ernie Klump, Sr. All of the Klump roles portrayed by Murphy interacted together during a pair of dinner scenes that featured the older Klumps taking turns insulting poor overweight Sherman.

The general plot of "The Nutty Professor" is relatively unchanged from the original film. Lewis was an overly nerdy fellow who had trouble with the ladies. Murphy is an overly fat and nerdy fellow who has trouble with the ladies. The bumbling Professor is a joke about campus, as his hamsters routinely escape and invade the campus grounds and his fat belly erases every word he writes on the chalkboard. Klump is working on a formula with dietary effects and after meeting the incredibly gorgeous Professor Carla Purty (Jada Pinkett Smith), he decides to imbibe his own formula in an attempt to quickly lose weight and gain her favor. The side effects are far more severe than he would have ever anticipated and he instantly becomes the chiseled and fit Buddy Love. Instantaneous weight loss is not the only effect of the formula; testosterone levels are off the charts and Buddy Love is an egotistical monster who just wants to get into the pants of Ms. Purty.

"The Nutty Professor" is a comedic retelling of the near ancient story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. About the only frightening thing about this film are a few of the jokes that fall flat or the horrendous fit of laughter that Buddy Love puts himself into to insult a vulgar comedian in the film, portrayed by Dave Chappelle. The plot for the film is not very deep, and most of the film´s story is designed to provide Eddie Murphy with as much opportunity as possible to ham it up in fat suits or as Buddy Love. Now at over eleven years old, the visual effects of "The Nutty Professor" still holds up and the true redeeming quality of "The Nutty Professor" is the efforts the now family friendly comedian to portray a large number of characters. I still prefer Axel Foley over Sherman Klump, but Murphy has had great success in appealing to a wider audience.

I have yet to see the recent and heavily maligned "Norbit," but from what I´ve heard thus far, "The Nutty Professor" is a far superior film. I´ll be the judge of this comparison myself in about a month when the film debuts on DVD and the high definition formats, but "The Nutty Professor" has sparked my interest enough to want to see the recent film. "The Nutty Professor" will never make it onto anybody´s top ten lists. It is more of a guilty pleasure than it is a respected film. Eddie Murphy has proved again and again that he is a versatile comedian and "The Nutty Professor" was one of his first successful ventures that helped him break out of the typecast he was cornered into after "48 Hrs." and "Beverly Hills Cop." It´s not a great film, but it has some great laughs.
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Phantom Of The Opera, The [2004]

Gaston Leroux´s 1909 novel Le Fantôme de l´Opéra was first adapted in 1911. This adaptation was from its native French language to English, where it gained its more familiar name, The Phantom of the Opera. That was just the start of adaptations for the storied tale of a deformed opera fanatic who terrorizes the French opera house. Three quarters of a century later, the book would be adapted again, but this time from print to theatre. English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber opened his famous musical in 1986; a musical that has become the longest running and financially successful musical and is still running over two decades later. Having earned more than its fair share of box office receipts in London´s West End and Broadway, it was only a matter of time before an expensive adaptation of "The Phantom of the Opera" made its way to the big screen. The film launched in 2004 with a budget of sixty million dollars and topped the fifty million dollar mark in domestic receipts.

The 2004 version of the film is noteworthy as it is produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and was originally promoted as "Andrew Lloyd Webber´s The Phantom of the Opera." This marked the first time that the creative team behind the long running stage production became involved with a cinematic version of Gaston Leroux´s novel as the 1989 film featuring Robert Englund as the Phantom and the 1998 Dario Argento film did not have the benefit of Webber´s involvement. Webber had long wanted Joel Schumacher to helm the film as its director and the film took nearly fourteen years to complete, as the composer had originally intended to feature the stage version´s original stars Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman.

For those unfamiliar with the musical´s basic story, "The Phantom of the Opera" tells the tale of the Paris Opera House and events that unfold when the opera house comes under the control of new managers and the Opera House´s diva Carlotta (Minnie Driver) refuses to perform and is replaced by the young and lovely Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum). Christine has been tutored by a mysterious Phantom (Gerard Butler) who uses terror and intimidation to collect a salary and enact some control over the happenings of the Opera House. The Phantom is a disfigured loner who is a talented mentor, but remains hidden in the shadows. His apparent fatherly love of Christine runs deeper and jealousy builds when Christine´s childhood love Raoul (Patrick Wilson) patrons the Opera House and attempts to rekindle his flame with the pretty opera singer. This causes the Phantom to emerge from the shadows and enact a vengeful rage over those involved with the Opera House.

"The Phantom of the Opera" has succeeded for as long as it has on Broadway for a reason. It is a top notch musical that features captivating and memorable songs and a strong plot. "The Phantom of the Opera" features all of the elements of a powerful story. There is strong romance between characters, thrills and suspense lie behind the Phantom´s mystique and mysterious maneuvers. There is action and excitement. A rare few laughs are thrown in, though the film doesn´t possess too much comedy to its storyline. The film´s primary purpose is to surround its viewer with intrigue, sadness, romance and music. The film´s title song is very upbeat and will rattle around in your mind for quite some time after hearing its mesh of rock and roll and classical music. The remaining songs are also potent and "Masquerade" was perhaps my favorite song included in the film.

I am not a person that is particularly fond of musicals and I loathe operas. It doesn´t matter of I´m culturing myself with the "Barber of Seville" or "Madame Butterfly," I´m not going to become too engrossed in the stage production. I´ve seen both of the aforementioned operas and struggled to reach the curtain call. "The Phantom of the Opera" is and English Opera and I have to admit that there were rather arduous moments in the musical for me to endure. This isn´t because "The Phantom of the Opera" is a bad musical; it is quite the opposite. It was difficult for me to sit completely through became I´m just not particularly fond of this style of film – the operatic musical. I did enjoy the majority of this beautifully shot and well told musical and had my ears been more welcoming of the brilliantly sung songs, I´m sure I would be raving about Joel Schumacher´s "The Phantom of the Opera." It is a well done and engrossing film that is just not quite my cup of tea.
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Friday, April 27, 2007


The above is my impressions of the cast chosen for the 2002 live action version of the cartoon classic "Scooby-Doo." I grew up on Hanna Barbera´s long syndicated cartoon and it was among my favorites. I was initially excited when I had first heard that the mystery solving teens and their talking dog were heading to the big screen, but that was quickly shattered when I heard that Freddie "I Killed Wing Commander" Prinze, Jr. was attached to the project. I had high anticipation for "Wing Commander" and Prinze somehow managed to sink that film, even with the game´s creator at the helm of the film. I have other reasons, but I´ve just come to loathe Freddie Prinze, Jr. Chico should be turning in his grave if he were to see how his son is absolutely butchering classic franchise screen adaptations or the television show "Freddie." Freddie Prinze, Jr. is horribly miscast as the good looking and muscular Fred from the cartoon series. How could anybody imagine this skinny dufus as Fred? Seriously.

I´d love to conclude my review and simply state how incredible Matthew Lillard is as Shaggy. His performance is absolutely amazing; from the way he recreates Kasey Kasem´s vocal work on the television show to his mannerisms. For as much as I despise Freddie, Matthew Lillard is a comical and entertaining actor that is sadly underutilized in Hollywood. He was great in "Scream" and even better as the iconic Norville "Shaggy" Rogers in the live-action adaptation. Shaggy always came across as a bit of a stoner in the television show and Lillard takes that concept and just runs with it. The Academy Awards has no sense of humor. Lillard deserved the Best Actor Oscar for his work as Shaggy. For as tremendously stupid as the casting of Freddie Prinze, Jr. was, the casting of Lillard as Shaggy goes down as one of the best casting decisions ever.

Linda Cardellini was another good call as Velma Dinkley. Cardellini is a lovely girl, but managed to bring out a striking similarity to the orange sweater wearing dork from the television series, but also delivers a few scenes of surprising sexuality from the character. I doubt anybody who watched the Scooby-Doo cartoon would ever have thought of Velma as a ´hottie,´ but a low-cut orange shirt in a scene where Velma has lost her soul thingie certainly changed my mind of the character. Growing up watching the show, the red-headed Daphne was the good looking one of Mystery Inc., but for a few scenes during the film, the rather nice looking Sarah Michelle Gellar takes a backseat to her thick-rimmed glasses wearing counterpart. Cardellini nails the role of Velma and Gellar shows up to look nice, but is hardly reminiscent of her animated equivalent.

I´m not even going to delve into how badly done the CGI Scooby Doo was.

The film itself just fails on so many levels, that Matthew Lillard´s valiant and amazing turn as Shaggy just can´t save it. Prinze, Jr. is a curse to any adaptation and if anybody needs to solve a mystery, it is who is the person responsible for casting Prinze? Director Raja Gosnell intended the entire film to look like a cartoon and he tried to capture the feeling and moods of the television show. However, the screenplay by James Gunn is poor and Fred is so bad as Fred, that the addition of the horribly animated Scooby Doo sinks the film faster than a lead weight thrown into the river. I tried to like the film and whenever Lillard was onscreen, I typically did. It was just that every other moment in the film was beyond cheesy and beyond stupid. The idea of having Scrappy Doo as the final villain? That was just plain awful. I guess they were looking for a big plot twist that would come as a surprise. Well, it was surprising alright. It was surprisingly bad. "Scooby Doo" may be the worst cartoon adaptation ever. Poor Matthew Lillard.
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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dreamgirls [2 Disc Special Collectors Edition]

Paramount´s "Dreamgirls" is a fictional story that is based on the true life story of The Supremes and founding members that included Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross. There has been some controversy regarding the historical accuracy of "Dreamgirls." Mary Wilson has gone on record to state that the original play and theatrical adaptation are quite close to the events that transpired during the period of the Supremes. She named her first autobiography after the 1981 Broadway play, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme. Diana Ross has taken the direct opposite approach to the play and film, stating it is indeed not historically accurate; though others have stated that Florence Ballard´s ousting in favor of Diana Ross closely mirror´s the Effie White and Deena Jones storyline of "Dreamgirls."

"Dreamgirls" features a wonderful cast that is full of entertainers. Jamie Foxx portrays the Dreams manager, Curtis Taylor, Jr. Foxx has released a very good R&B album in 2005 titled "Unpredictable" and won great acclaim for his ability as a pianist and a singer in the incredible 2004 film "Ray," which earned him an Oscar for Best Actor. Eddie Murphy is R&B artist Jimmy Early in the film and has released a few albums during his storied career. Murphy´s biggest hit was the 1985 single "Party All the Time" and he found some success with the 1989 release "Put Your Mouth on Me." The album that spawned "Put Your Mouth on Me" was the release "So Happy." I happen to have a copy of that CD in my collection, as well as the Dual Disc release of Foxx´s "Unpredictable." Jennifer Hudson is the doppelganger for Florence Ballard in the film and her musical career began when she finished seventh during the third season of "American Idol" and has a forthcoming solo album. Beyoncé Knowles is another member of the Dreams in the film and has had a very successful musical career as part of the R&B girl group "Destiny´s Child."

In the film, the trio of Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) are struggling to break into show business. One night, fate lands them a job singing as backup singers for recording artist James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy). Car salesman and hopeful musical agent Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx) works out a deal between the girls and Early and while they are hesitant of taking a gig as backup singers, Curtis talks them into accepting the gig as it may be their best chance at getting a foot into show business. Early has had his own problems scoring a hit on national radio and Curtis enrolls the help of a composer friend and Effie´s brother, C.C. White (Keith Robinson) to pen songs that will send James Early and the Dreams to the top of the charts; even at the cost of liquidating his Cadillac´s to earn bribe money to pay disc jockeys for airtime.

James Early and the Dreams find chart success and ride a wave of momentum for a couple years. However, Early´s career starts to sag and Curtis decides it is time for the Dreams to release their own single and break away from Early´s shadow. However, Curtis has one significant change to make for the Dreams. Their talented, but overweight lead singer Effie White is replaced as the trio´s lead by the lovely and sexy Deena Jones. Effie is far from happy with this change. She has a romantic involvement with Curtis and feels betrayed both professionally and personally. Eventually, the strain is too much for Effie to take and she leaves the Dreams when Curtis hires a replacement for the oft tardy and unruly Effie.

The Dreams succeed on the R&B and Pop charts for a few years without Effie as a member. Effie, who´s only talent is her singing voice falls into a state of depression and hides a secret from Curtis and her former Dream singers; she has given birth to Curtis´ daughter. Curtis had replaced Effie with Deena behind the microphone and between the sheets. His affair with the new leading lady of the Dreams begins to cause problems with the dreams and his increasingly tyrant-like behavior has also cost him the friendship he shared with Jimmy Early. At one point, Curtis was one of the most successful producers in the musical business with both Early and the Dreams scoring hits. However, with Early´s departure and growing stress between the Dreams, his career begins to unwind and sets the stage for a final concert featuring the Dreams.

"Dreamgirls" is another fine film that chronicles the storied past of Motown music. While not an official autobiographical film like "Ray," "Dreamgirls" focuses on Diana Ross´s replacement of Florence Ballard, who died at the age of 32 after a losing battle with alcoholism and depression after her departure from the Supremes. The film is a conglomeration of inspirations, with similarities to the singing styles of Aretha Franklin and other Motown dignitaries. The film combines a well thought out story and plot based on the popular 1981 Broadway play and entertaining performances by the likes of Eddie Murphy, Beyoncé Knowles and Jennifer Hudson. The actor/singers bring back the sounds of 1960´s Motown R&B with fervor and heart. Murphy delivers a very rousing performance late in the film when his character drops his pants on-stage and Jennifer Hudson brings back memories of the powerful female R&B vocals of the era.

The film is also a story of betrayal and the cutthroat nature of the musical business. When C.C. composes a song about a Cadillac, James Early finds his soulful and funky recording of the song lost into obscurity when a popular white artist records a far less powerful version of the song and finds success at the top of the charts. Curtis refuses to allow James Early any ground to try something new and fresh and forces the fading star to stick to depressing and soulful music that sells records and tickets. He forces Early to the shadows and eventually delivers Early into heavy drug use and depression as he has trouble dealing with his friend´s betrayals and his diminished role on the charts. The ultimate betrayal is that of Effie White. Effie had fallen madly in love with Curtis and given her heart and soul to the producer. However, he quickly moved to another´s bed and failed to support her as a singer. He kicked her to the curb and quickly forgot about her; leading to the film´s final image of Curtis realizing his wrongdoing when he realizes he has a daughter.

I have enjoyed "Dreamgirls" since first screening the film and had supported Eddie Murphy for the Best Actor statue. Murphy has earned his keep in Hollywood and ran the gamut as a performer by appearing in films of various genres. His early roles were foul-mouthed comedies and the actor first found success as Axel Foley in the "Beverly Hills Cops" franchise and as Reggie Hammond in the two "48 Hours" films. He has since tried his hand in dramas and family friendly comedies and has become one of the more bankable stars for Walt Disney. He has long had a love of music and tried to maintain a singing career during the 1980s. "Dreamgirls" was a role that suited Murphy like a well tailored suit and I still feel he was the most deserving of the Oscar award. While the film features a few musical numbers to keep true to its Broadway beginnings, it is a serious drama that takes a deep and effectual look at the days when Motown was mighty and the business was just as cutthroat as ever.
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Tsunami: The Aftermath

The date December 26th, 2004 would forever live in infamy for the millions of people living in countries surrounding the Indian Ocean. On that horrific day, the world could only watch helplessly when one of history´s deadliest natural disasters swept across south and south-eastern Asia and even parts of Africa, killing approximately 300,000 people across many countries. Without warning, the massive Indian Ocean or Asian Tsunami, triggered by the second largest earthquake (magnitude 9.1 on the Richter scale) ever recorded, silently swept across the ocean in concentric circles and hitting the surrounding coastal areas hard with deadly waves that destroyed almost everything in its path. Looking at the photographs of the aftermath in areas hardest hit by the tsunami, one can´t begin to imagine the massive force of destruction generated by the killer waves. Two of the areas that were hit the hardest by this disaster were the Indonesian island of Sumatra (near the epicenter of the quake) and the popular holiday resort island of Phuket in Thailand. It is in the northern resort beach of Khao Lak on Phuket that HBO located its 2006 2-part miniseries, "Tsunami: The Aftermath".

Another in an already long line of collaborative efforts between HBO and the BBC, "Tsunami: The Aftermath", as the title suggests, focuses on the events in the days immediately after the tsunami hit. The stories and characters that you come across in this miniseries may be fictional but they are mostly based on actual accounts by survivors. The show opens with the silhouette of Susie Carter (Sophie Okonedo) decked out in scuba gear, breaking the surface of the ocean as she emerges from its depths. Somewhat reminiscent of "Open Water", Sophie begins to panic when she does not catch sight of her diving boat. However, that passes quickly when we see a boat racing towards her. It is the morning of December 26th and Sophie had signed up for a diving excursion from her beach resort hotel the night before, leaving her husband, Ian (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and young daughter Martha (Jazmyn Maraso) back on shore.

Once on the boat, everyone confessed to an uneasy feeling that something was amiss. Actual eyewitness accounts noted that those out at sea did not really feel the impact of the massive waves as they raced toward shore. Those who were underwater at the time that the waves passed through did get knocked around but did not really know what it was that hit them. These facts are recreated here in this opening scene. As the boat approaches the beach, its occupants are met by the horrific sight of debris and dead bodies floating on the eerily calm ocean and the total destruction of the hotel´s beachfront buildings that were in the direct path of the killer waves. Panic starts to set in as the people on the boat rush ashore and try desperately to find their loved ones among the massive amounts of debris littering the beach and the countless number of corpses.

This intense opening scene then cuts away to the day before, on Christmas Day, where we meet two British families, the Carters (whom I described earlier) and also the Peabodys, James (Owen Teale), Kim (Gina McKee), John (Morgan David Jones) and Adam (George MacKay), as they arrive to start their vacation in this small slice of paradise located on the edge of the beautiful Andaman Sea. We are also introduced to Than (Samrit Machielsen), a young local Thai who works as a waiter at the resort. It is not long before December 26th comes along and all hell breaks loose. Again, from eyewitness accounts, it all starts when the sea suddenly recedes hundreds of feet leaving dozens of fish flopping on the beach. This is recreated in the film and in minutes, the first giant wave rushes onto shore. In the ensuing commotion, Ian is swept away by the strong waves, leaving his young daughter Martha clinging on to the top of a coconut tree.

News of the tsunami hitting Phuket starts to trickle into the Thai capital of Bangkok. Reporter Nick Fraser (Tim Roth) is dispatched immediately, together with his Thai cameraman, Chai (Will Yun Lee), to Phuket to cover the tragedy. At about the same time, the British embassy in Bangkok also gets word of the calamity and its ambassador, Tony Whittaker (Hugh Bonneville), sets off for Phuket in order to assist the British citizens who may be trapped there. Accompanying him on his trek to Phuket is the always energetic but somewhat critical head of an NGO (non-governmental organization) helping Thai children with literacy issues, Kathy Graham (Toni Collette).

As the magnitude of the disaster slowly unfolds, we get to witness the aftereffects of the tragedy from the points of view of these different characters. We see Ian and Susie searching desperately for their missing daughter, Kim and Adam Peabody searching for Adam´s father and older brother and Than mourning the death of his entire family. Whittaker arrives in Phuket but can´t quite get a grip on the overwhelming situation as the death toll mounts and so many of the survivors to take care of.

Despite its good intentions, I can´t help but think this film should have done more by highlighting the immense suffering of the local Thai population instead of just a handful of foreigners who were there on vacation. Being a BBC production, it is not surprising that "Tsunami: The Aftermath" contains plenty of Anglo-centric bias, looking at the tragedy from a Westerner´s point of view instead of from the local standpoint. Shot on location in Thailand, this miniseries, like most Western TV and movie productions, only treats the locals as extras and are merely peripheral to the main story, even though more Thais were killed in this catastrophe than the number of vacationing foreigners. The addition of Than´s storyline helps but it only constitutes a minute blip in the overall scope of the tragedy. Faring better is Nick and Chai´s portion of the film, as they try to uncover some of the lesser known stories like the immediate burning of corpses without first identifying them and the land grab by rich developers after the waves had destroyed entire villages that had stood there for generations.

Fictionalizing mega disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami or even 9/11 and producing a movie out of it can be more than a little tricky. First, you do not want to be seen as too eager to cash in on the tragedy that had befallen so many people and second, the movie has to somehow honor the memories of its victims. In a natural disaster such as this, blame cannot be cast upon any one party but one can surely take a critical look at the post-disaster response (or lack thereof). "Tsunami: The Aftermath" tries its best to do justice to the all parties involved but comes up just short on some accounts. It is near impossible to tell the stories of every victim and when writing for a movie, one has to choose the most interesting and prevailing storylines. In this case, writer Abi Morgan chooses to focus on the sufferings of a couple of British families and the underwhelming British government´s response (as characterized by the Tony Whittaker character) to help its citizens. It is a shame that not more stories from a decidedly local Thai viewpoint could be added to this miniseries´ 185-minute runtime.
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WKRP in Cincinnati: Season 1

Baby, if you've ever wondered,
Wondered, whatever became of me,
I'm livin' on the air in Cincinnati,
Cincinnati, WKRP.
Got kind of tired
Of packin' and unpackin',
Town to town, up and down the dial.
Maybe you and me were never meant to be,
Just maybe think of me, once in a while.
I'm at WKRP in Cincinnati.

That song, one of the catchiest sitcom jingles ever, is back again with the release of Season One of "WKRP in Cincinnati," the popular rock-jock comedy that first aired in 1978. So is the closing song, a "scratch" track demo made by Atlanta studio musicians. But the rest of the original rock songs that appeared on the show, including tunes by the Beach Boys, Elvis Costello, Pink Floyd, and Ted Nugent, are missing--replaced by generic rock tracks.

Tragic? Yes, but we live in an age of intellectual property rights and royalties, and the fact is that it would not have been financially possible to buy the rights to all of the songs that were current when the show aired and keep the DVD under a hundred bucks. So fans get the kind of substitution show that was first tinkered with in the '90s, when "WKRP" was reissued in limited syndicated release.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the music replacement and dub job doesn't stick out like a sore thumb, and the show, which had a huge cult following, is still hilarious because of its true ensemble cast of assorted crazies. Gary Sandy? Not exactly a household word, and he looked like the kind of guy you'd see in a Marlboro or Levi commercial in the '70s, with that dry-look over-the-ears hair that he'd flip from time to time. As new station manager Andy Travis, though, he was one of the few normal people at a Cincinnati radio station populated by neurotics and eccentrics.

When Travis arrives at WKRP, fresh from a gig in Santa Fe, New Mexico, they're wedged in the ratings basement and losing money faster than flashy, smarmy Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) can sell ads to places like the Shady Hills Rest Home. The problem, Andy instantly surmises, is that they're playing elevator music so lulling that their morning deejay can't seem to stay awake. Effective immediately, Andy changes the format to Top-40 rock, and the transformation in that morning deejay is instantaneous. Johnny (Howard Hesseman), a formerly hot rock jock had landed in this Siberia of stations because he said "booger" on the air. As he tells Andy, "the next thing you know I'm hosting a garden show in Amarillo." But once he plays his first Top-40 platter, he's rejuvenated, able to instantly reinvent himself as Dr. Johnny Fever. The cure he has for listeners? Same as for him. Top-40 rock, babies!

Fever and Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), the late-night deejay that Andy had worked with in the past and enticed here), are the two deejays in the cast, a yin-yang duo not only because of the early morning/late night thing, or the black/white thing, but because their styles were so totally different. Fever was a burned-out, drug-addled space cadet who played air guitar in the both while records were spinning, was a fast-talking hipster. Venus was smooth, with a low-register voice that addressed his "children of the night," punctuating his relaxing ramblings with tiny chimes and gongs that are as New Agey as it gets.

But perhaps the biggest comic relief came from the show's nerdy newscaster, Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), who seemed to take more pride in relaying the farm reports than any serious breaking news. Like his TV counterpart at "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Les also had a way of butchering proper names and phrases. Two memorable on-the-air mispronunciations? The city of Peoria, Illinois, was pronounced "Pee-o-ree-a," which of course sounded about as contagious as "gonorrhea," while golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez became "chai chai rodrigways." Les, an effeminate sort, always had a bandage somewhere, as if to emphasize how fragile this little man really was.

Running the station was "the Big Guy," Arthur Carlson, a clueless man who wouldn't have had a job if his mother (Sylvia Sidney in the pilot, and Carol Bruce thereafter) wasn't the owner of the station. His office was full of fishing gear and other toys, and he was constantly distracted by them. The blonde bombshell receptionist, Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson) kept gently reminding him of his duties and tormenting the men of WKRP with her voluptuous figure and sexy movement. Herb especially would come on to her, with her turn-downs part of the humor each week. I had to laugh, though, when I read the box copy to see the staff described as Andy, Johnny, Venus, Les, Jennifer, "and the rest," because it reminded me of the "Gilligan's Island" theme song and the way that Mary Ann, the plain Jane, was summarized with that catch-phrase. Here, "and the rest" means Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers), a brunette with glasses who's eventually given more responsibility at the station by her new boss.

This season features the funniest episode to be broadcast in the series, and perhaps the funniest holiday show ever. I'm talking about "Turkeys Away," where the Big Guy gets tired of being a failure and never being really in charge, and works with Les on a hush-hush, top-secret Thanksgiving promotion. As a helicopter hovers over a mall parking lot crowded with holiday shoppers, it starts to throw big white things out of the door. And to hear Les on the ground covering the event with a live broadcast ("Oh, the humanity!") is as laugh-out-loud funny as the very best TV sitcom episodes. "As God as my witness," Carlson later tells Andy, "I thought turkeys could fly." PETA people may not be amused, but it's hard not to crack up over this one. Personally, I'd buy this collection just to have that episode to watch every Thanksgiving, to make it as much a tradition as "A Christmas Story" is a month later. Other episodes from Season One:

1-2) "Pilot"--Andy shakes things up at WKRP and survives protestors and Mrs. Carlson.

3) "Les on a Ledge"--When Les's manhood and integrity as a newsman is questioned, he goes out on the ledge with the intent of jumping.

4) "Hoodlum Rock"--Andy gets in trouble when he gets the station to sponsor a concert by rock bad boys Scum of the Earth in this fun episode.

5) "Hold-Up"--Johnny has to contend with an armed robber when he's broadcasting live from a local stereo store.

6) "Bailey's Show"--The staff resents Bailey when she's allowed to produce her own show and it actually becomes popular.

7) "Turkeys Away"--Les's location report on this Thanksgiving disaster is one of the funniest moments in sitcom history.

8) "Love Returns"--Johnny and Venus agree to go out on a date with the winner of an on-air contest, while Andy's former flame comes to town to heat things up for him.

9) "Mama's Review"--Mama blows in like the Chief Inspector, and throws Arthur into a snit-fit.

10) "A Date with Jennifer"--Les finally wins the Silver Sow Award for farm news reporting, and gets the shock of his life when Jennifer agrees to be his date for the awards banquet. (Yes, Herb, eat your heart out!).

11) "The Contest Nobody Could Win"--It's not quite the payola scandal, but Andy and Johnny could lose their jobs over a botched contest.

12) "Tornado"--The Big Guy takes action when a tornado hits Cincinnati, and Andy gets mouth-to-mouth . . . from Jennifer.

13) "Goodbye, Johnny"--Johnny gets an offer he can't refuse, especially when the gig is in California, his old stomping grounds.

14) "Johnny Comes Back"--But you can't say certain words on the air, and Johnny gets fired and comes back to WKRP hoping he can have his old job back.

15) "Never Leave Me, Lucille"--Herb and his wife split, with him more eager to be a swinging single than anyone expected. So naturally they try to get him back with his wife.

16) "I Want to Keep My Baby"--Johnny becomes a temporary daddy when a listener abandons her baby on the station's doorstep.

17) "A Commercial Break"--Herb's ad campaign for funeral packages clashes with the new station format in this funny episode.

18) "Who is Gordon Sims?"--Venus's picture in a newspaper leads to some unexpected revelations about his dark past.

19) "I Do, I Do . . . For Now"--Jennifer pretends she's already married to Johnny in order to dodge an old suitor (Hoyt Axton). Another highly entertaining episode.

20) "Young Master Carlson"--When Arthur agrees to let his 11-year-old son hang out at the station, everyone regrets it. He reminds them too much of Carlson's mother.

21) "Fish Story"--This funny episode has Johnny and Venus conducting an on-the-air experiment with alcohol to prove a point.

22) "Preacher"--A wrestler-turned-reverend proves to be a formidable challenge when Andy tries to keep him from using his show to rip off the public.
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Young Guns

"Young Guns" is director Christoper Cain´s take on the true life events that occurred at one point in the life of Wild West outlaw Billy "The Kid." The film portrays events that occurred while Billy "The Kid" was under the employ of John Tunstall and part of a bitter turf war between the allies of Tunstall and those loyal to Lawrence G. Murphy. "Young Guns" is not notable because of the historical accuracy or inaccuracy of the film, but for its who´s who list of young actors. Brothers Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen join Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Philips, Dermot Mulroney and the unfamiliar to most Casey Siemaszko. Estevez and Sheen have had good careers since "Young Guns," and sheen´s television show "Two and a Half Men" has been quite successful. The "Mighty Ducks" franchise was the last high profile project Estevez was involved with, but he continues to find steady work. Kiefer Sutherland is the star of the uber-successful television show "24." Lou Diamond Phillips had his greatest role two years before "Young Guns" with "La Bamba," but continues to find work as well.

The young stars of the film are not the only familiar faces. Veteran Terence Stamp portrayed John Tunstall in the film. Stamp´s biggest claim to fame is his involvement with the "Superman" franchise as General Zod in the second film and the voice of Jor-El in the "Smallville" television series. Jack Palance needs no introduction and portrays rival cattle herder Lawrence G. Murphy. Followers of the television show "Lost" will recognize Terry O´Quinn, who brings life to the character John Locke. Jack´s son Cody has a role in the film. Another famous son, Patrick Wayne portrays the man who would eventually kill Billy "The Kid," Pat Garrett. Two uncredited cameos are that of Tom Cruise and country legend Randy Travis.

The story of "Young Guns" finds the law chasing after William H. "Billy the Kid" Bonney (Emilio Estevez) and he is rescued from capture by meat man John Tunstall (Terence Stamp) and one of his hired henchmen, Josiah Gordon "Doc" Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland). Billy is taken back to their camp and he meets up with the other "Regulators," Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips), Dick Brewer (Charlie Sheen), Dirty Steve Stephens (Dermot Mulroney) and Charlie Bowdre (Casey Siemaszko). Billy has trouble fitting in, but finds protection and reassurance from the fatherly Brit Tunstall. However, Tunstall and rival cattle man Lawrence G. Murphy (Jack Palance) are in a bitter struggle to control the meat market of the local area. Tunstall is partnered with lawyer Alex McSween (Terry O´Quinn) and Murphy has local Sheriff McCloskey (Geoffrey Blake) as his partner.

"Young Guns´ is a fun-filled western that doesn´t strive to be historically accurate, but works hard at being entertaining. The film´s cast is a very notable group and they all bring their individual characters to life and deliver the conflict and animosity that was supposedly part of the Regulators during their bloody war with Lawrence Murphy´s men. Terence Stamp and Jack Palance are brilliant as the rival cattle men and a disappointment in "Young Guns" is that Stamp´s character does not last too long into the film. The gunplay is certainly over the top and the dialogue is not overly thought provoking. You certainly get the impression that the cast had a helluva good time working together and making a fun-filled picture. When you look at more serious Westerns such as "Unforgiven" or "The Searchers," it is hard to consider "Young Guns" as a classic. It is the MTV Generation´s envisioning of a Western. It is loud and filled with hotshot gunslingers. Story is lightened to allow for a heavier burden of bullets.

I´ve always enjoyed sitting back and watching "Young Guns." "Young Guns" is to the Wild West what "A Knight´s Tale" was the Medieval England. It is a fun-filled movie that combines humor and action with a cast that speaks to the generation it was created during. The film doesn´t stand up as a great classic western, but is fondly remembered by those of us that grew up watching the actors who portray the "Regulators." The film may still find a new audience here and there, but most of those that want to sit down and watch the film now are people like me; the generation that grew up watching "The Lost Boys," "Red Dawn" and "La Bamba."
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Long before Steve Martin became a staple of family comedies, he was a "wild and crazy guy." Martin was a stand-up comic who appeared as a guest star on numerous television comedy shows before making his feature film debut in the 1977 comedy he scripted, "The Absent-Minded Waiter." Martin was a frequent host and guest star on Television´s "Saturday Night Live" and a regular guest on shows such as "The Smothers Brothers Show" and "The Ray Stevens Show." Martin´s second film, 1979´s "The Jerk" would find Martin with co-writer credits and a film platform that would allow him to become a bankable leading actor in comedies. "The Jerk" still stands as one of Martin´s more off-color comedies and one of the films that trademark the actor´s brand of humor.

"The Jerk" is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story where Steve Martin is unknowingly adopted son a black sharecropper. He is raised with his black brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents in a makeshift shack and Navin R. Johnson (Martin) has always felt different and at times like he didn´t belong in his loving family. He had assumed his skin would eventually darken and that he would not always be white. He never had the rhythm that the rest of his family possessed and could never quite find a beat that suited him until he heard some white music on a radio one night. The music moved him and set him off to find his own life. He would hitchhike to St. Louis and adopt a stray dog he lovingly named Shithead. While working as a gas station attendant for Harry Hartounian (Jackie Mason), Navin came under fire from an angry sniper (M. Emmet Walsh) and left on another adventure.

This time, Navin would work as part of a carnivale and was the forced boyfriend of a tomboy stunt motorcyclist. He also found love in the young, naïve and lovely Marie Kimble (Bernadette Peters) and set off to romance the woman and show her his special purpose. During this time, Navin found riches with an invention he created while working at Hartounian´s gas station, the Opti-grab glasses. Without knowing much of anything about money, Navin became one of American´s fastest millionaires and spent his money on just about everything. Navin´s dimwittedness caused him marital problems with Marie and lost his riches when a flaw with Opti-grab caused users to go cross-eyed and a class action suit from Carl Reiner (the film´s director) forced Navin to pay everybody that bought an Opti-grab $1.09. Navin left his wife and mansion behind to own a Thermos and a bathrobe and live the life of a bum.

"The Jerk" is off-color comedy at its best. The film is chock full of humorous moments where Martin defends his black heritage and uses kung-fu to beat up those who insult black folk and use the dreaded N-Word. With the recent Don Imus controversy, we know the kind of trouble that can come from a white man using the N-Word or making other black references. M. Emmet Walsh portrays a sniper who picks names from a phonebook and attempts to kill them. After the D.C. Sniper killing spree, this is another situation not likely to make it into a modern Hollywood film. There are plenty of humorous sexual jokes, a servant shot to death in a firing squad and other sidesplitting moments that showcase what Steve Martin was capable of in his standup comedy and earlier films.

A decade later, Martin would star in the "Parenthood" and "Father of the Bride" films that would begin his foray into family-friendly entertainment. The versatile actor would star in a couple dramas and other fare that was not exactly the "wild and crazy" guy that Martin personified in his early career and early films such as "The Jerk." This film is a testament to the zaniness that made him a popular comedian and comedic actor in the late Seventies and early Eighties. This is not his best outing, as the plot is simplistic and some plotlines are thrown in solely for the purpose of a good laugh. The film does deliver the laughs and even though it is not the brand of humor Hollywood would greenlight today, it holds up well. A decade before "The Jerk," he was writing for "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour." A decade later, he was starring in "Parenthood." This is the definitive "Wild and Crazy Guy" comedy for Steve Martin and shows that early on, he wasn´t afraid of dirty humor and pure stupidity in front of the camera.
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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

James Cagney: The Signature Collection (The Fighting 69th, Torrid Zone, The Bride Came C.O.D., Captains of the Clouds, The West Point Story)

Jimmy Cagney's film legacy will probably forever be that of the little tough-guy gangster, but a lot of folks forget that he played in an equal number of straight dramatic roles, light comedies, romantic comedies, and musicals. Since Warner Bros. already showed us his darker side in their box sets "Tough Guys" and "Gangsters," this time out they show us a broader picture of the actor's ability in "James Cagney: The Signature Collection."

The five films in the box (which WB also make available separately) include, first, the patriotic World War I war movie "The Fighting 69th," 1940, co-starring Pat O'Brien and George Brent, directed by William Keighley, which I'll discuss at greater length in a moment. Next is the comedy-romance "Torrid Zone," 1940, with Ann Sheridan and again with Pat O'Brien and director William Keighley. The third film is the screwball comedy "The Bride Came C.O.D.," 1941, co-starring Bette Davis and directed yet again by William Keighley. The forth film is the patriotic World War II film "Captains of the Clouds," co-starring Dennis Morgan and Brenda Marshall and directed by Michael Curtiz. The final film in the set is the musical "The West Point Story," with Virginia Mayo, Doris Day, Gordon MacRae, and Gene Nelson, directed by Roy Del Ruth.

Of the bunch, my favorites are "Torrid Zone" for its zippy patter and "The Fighting 69th" because I remember it from my youth, watching it on TV in the 1950s. Seeing it today, it seems more than a little corny, but it's still fun. The "69th" of the title was a celebrated regiment of soldiers made up mostly of Irish-Americans, who distinguished themselves from the Civil War onward, and in the case of this movie, World War I. During the War the regiment was part of the 165th Infantry A.E.F., itself a part of the newly formed "Rainbow" Division, which was sent to France in 1918, where some members of the 69th won Medals of Honor. Warner Bros. released the film just a year or so before America entered World War II, and they meant it to kindle some national pride and love of country as we again prepared for conflict.

The movie is a fictionalized account of the exploits of the 69th, with Cagney playing a made-up character and many of his costars playing real-life people. The original screenplay, written by Norman Reilly Raine, Fred Niblo, Jr., and Dean Franklin, won no awards, but it is hard to deny that it didn't spark more than a little interest in the upcoming war effort. What's more, director Keighley ("The Green Pastures," "The Prince and the Pauper," "The Master of Ballantrae") knew how to keep the script from going south, maintaining a healthy pace, and manipulating the audience in just the right places. Sure, it's melodramatic and predictable, but in a way that you foresee going in. Today, the movie might simply seem dated, but if you look beyond that, you can still have a good time. Patriotism in a noble cause never goes out of fashion.

The story begins at Camp Mills, New York (recreated on the Warner Bros. backlot), in 1917 as the 69th Regiment is in training for service overseas. Cagney plays the fictional Jerry Plunkett, a brash recruit, a cocky smart aleck who signed up to earn medals and come back from the War a big shot. Jerry doesn't have much use for religion or priests and, thus, forms a rather rocky bond with the real-life Chaplin of the regiment, Father Francis J. Duffy (Pat O'Brien). Jerry's self-centered attitude turns off everybody, and by halfway through the story his own fellow soldiers would rather shoot him than the enemy. But Father Duffy never loses faith in the young man; Duffy sees only the good in him.

Cagney puts in another typically "Cagney" performance, one that is reminiscent of his portrayal of the haughty gangster in "Angels With Dirty Faces" a couple of years earlier. Jerry is a conceited wise guy who turns yellow under pressure but eventually learns contrition and goes out heroically. The changes we see come over Cagney's character as the movie progresses are remarkable.

The supporting cast are topflight as well. O'Brien, who appeared in about nine or so movies with his offscreen pal Cagney, practically does the same role he played in "Knute Rockne: All American" the same year, only in a clerical collar. He's the same inspirational leader, giving the same inspirational speeches, but this time instead of cheering up the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, he's cheering up the "Fighting 69th" Irish. O'Brien is still a joy, and it's as much his movie as it is Cagney's.

Then, we have George Brent as the real-life commander of the regiment, Major "Wild Bill" Donovan; Jeffrey Lynn as the real-life poet, Sgt. Joyce Kilmer ("Trees"), who died in the War; Alan Hale as the fictional Sgt. "Big Mike" Wynn; Dick Foran as Lt. "Long John" Wynn; William Lundigan as Pvt. Timmy Wynn (all brothers); Frank McHugh as "Crepe-Hanger" Burke; and Dennis Morgan as Lt. Oliver Ames. Look, too, for an uncredited bit part by George Reeves, later of TV's "Superman" fame.

Warner Bros. shot most of the movie at the studio, but you will also find some actual WWI footage from time to time to provide an added note authenticity. It's a good-looking production of the day.

The movie makes much of one's personal need to serve one's country, but, of course, it never mentions that while World War II would be a war of dire necessity against aggressive tyrants seeking world domination, World War I was about as senseless and useless a military operation as the planet has ever known. Oh, well, as the Major says in misquoting Tennyson, "Ours is not to reason why."

There is a good deal of martial music in "The Fighting 69th," a good deal of marching and saluting and good-natured camaraderie among the men, as well as a few action-packed battle sequences. But the real conflict in the story is Jerry's personal struggle with himself. The movie may become a gushy tearjerker by its end, but you can't argue that its heart isn't in the right place.
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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Smokin' Aces

Is it possible for a movie to have a ton of stuff happening, but have nothing happen at all? Sure, that movie is called "Smokin´ Aces", a tangled web of uninteresting plotlines and anarchic filmmaking. The film is like "It´s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" filtered through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino, then filtered again through the lens of Guy Ritchie. Not surprisingly, Joe Carnahan first emerged among the pack of indie filmmakers of the post-Tarantino era. His debut film "Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane" followed in the footsteps of Ritchie´s action/comedy "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels." Carnahan gained some instant credibility with the gritty crime drama, "Narc", which won over Tom Cruise as a fan. Cruise would help "Narc" gain a wider release and hired Carnahan to direct "Mission: Impossible III." The two had creative differences and Carnahan was later replaced by J.J. Abrams. Looking at "Smokin´ Aces", it´s easy to see why Ethan Hunt gave Carnahan the boot.

The focal point of the story (such as it is) is a Vegas magician named Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven). Israel´s shows garner a strong following with the local mobsters and pretty soon he´s playing cops and robbers with the big boys. Things don´t work out and Israel is arrested, but promptly skips bail to hide out in a penthouse in Lake Tahoe. Seeing him as a liability, mob boss Primo Sparazza puts a million dollar bounty on the head of Israel. Soon, assassins come out of the woodwork to take on the job. Accepting the contract are Georgia Sykes (R&B singer Alicia Keys) and her lover Sharice Watters (Taraji P. Henson), master of disguise Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan), the sadistic Pasqual Acosta (Nestor Carbonell), and the psychotic Tremor Brothers, Darwin (Chris Pine), Jeeves (Kevin Durand), and Lester (Maury Sterling).

The FBI wants to get their hands on Israel, seeing him as a star witness to topple organized crime. Deputy Director Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia) puts agents Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and his mentor Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta) on the case. Not to be counted out are a trio of bail bondsmen Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck), Pete Deeks (Peter Berg), and Hollis Elmore (Martin Henderson) who also want to capture Israel. There are still a few other characters that I left out, but I can barely remember half of them. Thank goodness for my old friend Wikipedia.

The first half hour of the film is practically dedicated to exposition. We are methodically introduced to each character and whatever history they have. None of this backstory is particularly interesting or, at least, isn´t told to us in any sort of interesting way. We´re told the Tremor Brothers are neo-Nazi rednecks, but nothing they do or say is any indication that they are neo-Nazis or rednecks. They just dress oddly and carry around big guns and chainsaws. Carnahan seems to be tossing a bunch of goofy caricatures onto the screen to cover up his lack of writing skills. There´s a wacky kid with ADD who practices martial arts and speaks in gangster slang that shows up, if for no other reason than he´s a wacky kid with ADD who practices martial arts and speaks in gangster slang. The same goes for another scene where Bateman´s character wears women´s underwear. I don´t know who he´s supposed to be or what he´s adding to the story, but he´s wearing a bra and panties, so Ha ha ha.

Muddying up the proceedings even further is a subplot involving the cold case murder of an undercover FBI agent. First, the heavy-handed resolution of this B-story can be seen coming from a mile away. Secondly, it feels like something from a different film. In all honesty, I might have enjoyed the film if Carnahan went straight for the jugular and made this an orgy of carnage, bullets, and bloodshed. I could have been happy to check my brain at the door for a battle royal between hitmen and scumbags. Instead, we get this pseudo-FBI thriller/mystery element thrown in to add even more exposition than needed.

I´m shocked that such a hackneyed script was able to acquire such an amazing cast. I´m even more taken aback that Carnahan does absolutely nothing interesting with any of them. You´ve got Andy Garcia, Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven, Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, Jason Bateman, Nestor Carbonell, Curtis Armstrong, rapper Common, and an unrecognizable Matthew Fox, among others. As the old saying goes, "Too many cooks spoil the broth." In the case of "Smokin´ Aces", far too many characters leave little room for the characters to breathe and develop.

I´m a big fan of Piven and always thought he stood out in the supporting roles he´s played in films like "Grosse Pointe Blank" and "Old School." I´m glad he´s getting a ton of recognition as the great Ari Gold on "Entourage." As Buddy Israel, Piven isn´t so much a humorous character as a man who degenerates both physically and emotionally. However, I couldn´t help but think he could have done more. Reynolds who can display a great, cheeky humor doesn´t get the chance to do any of that here. Andy Garcia is another of my favorite actors and he just sleepwalks through his role. About the one who´s a little more interesting, as an actor and character, is the debuting Alicia Keys as hitwoman Georgia Sykes. Her and Tarija Henson add a tough feminine touch to the otherwise testosterone heavy production. It´s too bad they didn´t get meatier scenes. It also doesn´t hurt that Keys looks great in fishnet stockings and thigh-high leather boots.
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I know what I'm supposed to think: "Closer" is a sophisticated film, with clever dialogue and the kind of fractured narration that's become vogue, as of late. It's an American attempt at a foreign film, with an offbeat take on a situation and lots of intellectual game-playing. And I do admire "Closer" for what it attempts. But I have to say that while it struck me as a noble experiment that may work on a number of levels, entertainment isn't one of them.

Perhaps I approached it with too high of expectations. After all, the screenplay was written by Patrick Marber, who wrote the play upon which it was based--one that had been all the rage in London. Marber also gave us "Notes on a Scandal," which was a deliciously realized relationship drama that sustained tension throughout. Then too, "Closer" was directed by none other than that master of domestic dysfunction, Mike Nichols ("The Graduate," "Carnal Knowledge," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"). When you cast Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and Clive Owen in this tale of two adulterous couples, you'd think it would be a huge success. But . . . .

Despite Academy Award nominations for Portman and Owen and decent acting from Roberts and Law, the script serves up a heaping portion of confusion masquerading as edgy narrative structure, and gives us cheesy melodrama under the guise of sophisticated cinema. Let me explain.

Typical relationship dramas and tales of adultery steam up the screen with passion. There's implied or graphic lovemaking and lots of screen-time devoted to explaining how two people fall in (or out of) love. Typical dramas like this zero in on the passionate high points in relationships and adulterous trysts, the actual coming together. In "Closer," however, Marber takes a radically different approach. He almost exclusively focuses on the low points in these relationships, and, even more risky, he chooses to show these people after the fact, talking about passion and making love rather than actually doing much of it. They shout at each other, and they talk dirty, begging for details of the unfaithfulness. "Was he a good fuck? Did you like it? Did you come?" And so on. Throughout the film, we see the four characters mostly talking or shouting about their passion, rather than actually seeing any of it. The film gets its "R" rating for nudity from scenes in a strip club, not the relationships.

All this makes for a praiseworthy experiment, but I don't think it was very successful. We never really get a full sense of why these people came together in the first place, because their encounters are shown in such visual shorthand. As Marber and Nichols fast-forward four months, one year, or more at a time, viewers are also left to figure out what's happened in those fashionably large off-screen gaps. Again, that's an interesting concept, but it reminds me of Paul Buchman's challenge of filming "the wind" for Yoko Ono on an episode of "Mad About You." Borderline crazy, dead-center boring. A little of it goes a long way, and once we realize that we are seeing the chatty aftermath following off-screen encounters, their dialogue starts to sound like blah, blah, blah.

Then there's the cheese factor. From the opening, with it's "I can't take my eyes off you" song and perfume-commercial style of filming, we're hoping that the whole movie won't be like this. We see Dan (Law) make eye contact with a woman he'll later learn is Alice (Portman), and then she's hit by a car. "Hello, stranger," she says when she comes to and sees him leaning over her battered body. It's hard not to think of "An Affair to Remember," which Marber might have been playfully alluding to here, but that was one whale of a melodramatic affair. We learn that Alice was stripping in New York when a relationship got too dicey and she split for London. Dan, meanwhile, works in "the Siberia of journalism" as an obituary writer. He has a girlfriend, Ruth, but because we fast forward and see these two together, we have to piece together how Ruth fell out of the picture and mentally imagine Alice and Dan making love . . . or at least fashioning a relationship of some sort together. All this is really left to the viewers, who may imagine wildly different scenarios. The point is, we're not given much back story at any one point in this film, which makes the narrative as superficial as the four characters or their dialogue, which can be coy and stilted.

Do you have any children?"
"Would you like some?"
"Yes, but not today."

"Come here. You're beautiful."
"I don't kiss strange men."
"Neither do I."

Fast-forward and Dan has written a novel based on his girlfriend, Alice's wild life. He ends up going to a photographer's studio where he's posing for Anna (Roberts), and he begins an affair with her. Fast-forward again, and we see Dan typing away on his laptop in an Internet personals chatroom, pretending to be Anna. He sets up a meeting at The Aquarium, the title she gave him for his novel, and soon Anna is having an affair with a doctor named Larry (Owen), whom Dan basically set her up with. Before it's all over, the four of them have affairs (all off-camera, off-stage) in every possible combination except girl-on-girl and guy-on-guy. And they're all bitter about the kettle of stew they've brewed up for each other, and we're suppose to feel . . . what?

Not entertained, that's for sure, and not sympathetic. These people are losers and posers who deserve what they get. It's hard to think of them as real flesh-and-blood people, rather than simply clever characters constructed for the purpose of a literary experiment. Yes, that's the trade-off with experimental work, but that doesn't make it a palatable one. I appreciate the daring nature of the screenplay, but in the end, it was just another movie that didn't entertain me enough to make me keep from squirming in discomfort or looking at the clock to see how much time was left. That's kind of sad for a 104-minute film.
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Descent [Theatrical Movie,Special Edition,Unrated Version]

The absolutely most horrific moment of the Neil Marshall directed "The Descent" happens quite early in the film. In fact, it occurs before the monsters crawl from the darkness of the caves. The moment I speak of is when the film´s central character, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) becomes wedged in a narrow ´tube´ within a cave and is unable to free her arms and move out of her claustrophobic situation. I´ve been in this sort of situation before and I know how frightening it can be to be stuck. Panic sets in. It becomes difficult to breath and rational thought is quickly replaced by fear. She is then freed by Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) and facing a cave-in within their confined quarters. It is during this early scene that "The Descent" shows promise and threatens to make the caverns of the film a formidable foe and menacing villain.

Then, the filmmakers introduce the crawlers. These vampiric, man-bat creatures have a very humanlike silhouette, but are a pasty-white skinned menace that is unable to see, but can move about any surface within the cave, quickly and dangerously. The crawlers are teased by Marshall shortly after Sarah and Holly escape their predicament in the collapsing tunnel. Part of the fun of a horror film is the slow reveal and unknowing of the monsters. Once an evil creation is revealed, a horror film loses some of the dangerous mystique that maintains a level of chilling suspense. "The Descent" puts another foot forward in the proper direction by showing a glimpse of a crawler and having it quickly scuttle out of the way of the camera´s lens. It was at this point of the film, that I was starting to believe that "The Descent" was moving towards being a modern horror classic.

It could have been and it should have been. However, shortly after the crawlers are revealed, they start to dominate the screen and any creepiness or unknowing fear based upon these dark dwelling creatures is quickly lost. "The Descent" starts to become a scream fest between a collection of very pretty leading ladies and no longer becomes a film of fear, but a fairly predictable blood bath where the Crawlers slowly reduce the number of girls who still have a breath to breathe. It becomes all too clear that the Crawlers greatly outnumber the lost spelunkers and that it is highly unlikely that many, if any, will survive their carnivorous attacks. There is hardly any suspense of a Crawler coming out of the shadows to score another kill, as the Crawlers are given so much screen time, that you know exactly what is going to happen.

Though much of what happens is telegraphed to the viewer before it happens, there are still a couple minor plot twists that provide alternate means of death and demise for the girls. This unrated version of "The Descent" does place into question the predictability with its alternate ending, as the film brings a heavy question to the viewer on what has actually been seen in the film´s ninety-nine minutes. The unrated version ponders whether or not the main character was imagining much of what happened during the film, or if everything seen actually happened. However, once the viewer can comfortable settle on their feelings towards this ending, the twisty ending starts to feel slightly disappointing.

I enjoyed "The Descent" and felt the first half of the film was brilliantly done. However, once the trapped sequence happens after the first forty-minutes, things start to become mundane and typical. "The Descent" could have done to spelunking what "Jaws" did to swimming in the ocean – after seeing the film, you don´t want to enter. Dark and confined caves would have provided an amazing setting for a horror film, but this villain is forgotten after the Crawlers take over the screen. The cave becomes a whole lot easier to traverse and is no longer much of a danger after the Crawlers attack. This film could have been a classic horror film had the Crawlers appeared briefly during the moments of attack, or as occasionally teasers and jump frights. The film was still a lot of fun, as far as horror films go. The concept was still there and the panicked group of girls gave "The Descent" a very fresh feeling. Typically, horror films are not completely comprised of female characters. If they are, it is usually for gratuitous nudity. Surprisingly, "The Descent" does not contain a single bare breast. My hats off to the filmmakers for braking conventions with this film, but I feel they went off path and instead of becoming a scary movie in a cave, it became a far more common monster movie.
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Little Children

Writer-director Todd Field's last important film was 2001's "In the Bedroom," a terrific little movie that explored human relationships, family problems, and consequent conflicts. His 2006 production, "Little Children," attempts the same kind of themes, but this time with mixed results. Depending on your point of view, "Little Children" is an absorbing drama, an exaggerated melodrama, or an outright dark comedy, but in never coming to grips with any of these tones, the film rather diminishes its own good intentions.

"Little Children" has a lot in common with "In the Bedroom" in terms of its serious human relationships, and it also borrows heavily from the Oscar-winning "American Beauty" in terms of its humor. It might seem a cheap shot for Field and his co-screenwriter Tom Perrotta (who based the screenplay on his own novel) to place their story in so obvious a setting as an all-white, middle-class, suburban village--the fictional East Wyndam, MA--since Hollywood has already satirized this segment of society so often, and since filmmakers seem to think that conservative, white-collar suburbanites make easy targets for ridicule (for good or for bad). Well, cheap shot or no, the satiric part of the story works fine. It's when the filmmakers try to change the tone of their satire to one of dead earnestness that the film begins to sound preachy.

Here's the thing: Everyone we meet in the movie is unhappy, everyone has a problem of some kind. The first main character is Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), a thirty-something mother, unhappy in her marriage. She was an English major in college, which, according to the filmmakers, gives her an intellectual mind, a liberal attitude, and no useful skills. She longs for something more than taking care of a three-year-old daughter and worrying about her husband (Gregg Edelman) and his addiction to Internet porn sites. The other main character is Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), a thirty-something housefather, unhappy as he struggles to pass the bar exam and unhappy in his marriage to a beautiful and successful psychologist (Jennifer Connelly). Brad's wife seems to him more interested in her work and their young son than in Brad. Naturally, Sarah and Brad meet one day and find a mutual attraction that soon blossoms into a full-blown affair.

This troubled-romance part of the story is realistic enough, while maintaining the aura of a satiric soap opera, except for one problem: The movie would have us believe that Winslet's character is a plain-Jane type, dull and unattractive, part of Brad's falling for her because she is so different from his more-glamorous wife. But Winslet is far too pretty to be effective in the role, so as an audience we have to use our imagination.

The supporting characters are either weirdos or stereotypes, both of which work well in the satiric parts of the story, if not so well in the realistic parts. Jackie Earle Haley has a standout role as a pedophile, Ronnie McGorvey, who has returned to the community to live with his mother (Phyllis Somerville) after being released from a two-year prison stretch for exposing himself to a minor. Haley pretty much steals the show, and I would rather have seen the whole movie built around his character than around the more-boring Sarah and Brad. Then there's Noah Emmerich as Larry Hedges, one of Brad's friends, an ex-cop who is the head of a "Committee of Concerned Parents" harassing McGorvey with hate messages and hostile leaflets. Needless to say, Hedges has dark secrets of his own hidden away.

Among the other characters are the typically narrow-minded folks one finds in message movies: guys who live and die by football; mothers who have regimented routines for their children and who want to castrate the pedophile; and a mother-in-law from hell whom Brad's wife, getting suspicious of his behavior, brings in to live with them and follow Brad everywhere he goes. We've seen these bits before, but they're worthy of repetition.

I also liked most of director Fields' simple, straightforward storytelling manner. He eschews the current trendy style of quick edits, bizarre color pallettes, and oddball camera angles for a more old-fashioned method of point and shoot. On only one occasion does he indulge himself with a split screen. But I said "most." Unfortunately, he chooses to use an omniscient narrator (Will Lyman, uncredited) with a mellifluous voice-over to get us into the minds of the characters. This narrator sounds like one of those guys who narrates weighty documentaries on TV (and, in fact, Lyman has done any number of weighty documentaries for TV). At first, I thought the narration was so corny, it was a part of the joke, but the narration continues long into the film and long past the point of its being funny. Maybe Field really meant for us to take it seriously. If so, it was a mistake.

Anyway, I'm sure that Field wants us to see that the world is not black-and-white, good-or-bad, but that so-called "normal" people are quirky individuals after all. The best scene in this regard is Sarah's attendance at a neighborhood book-club meeting, where a group of women are discussing Flaubert's "Madame Bovary." It is both comic and dramatic, with the Flaubert character seeming to mirror Sarah's own dilemma. The book, Sarah tells the group, is about "the hunger for alternatives, and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness." It's a good summing up of one of the movie's primary themes.

However, at the same time Field is building up good will in the audience, he is undermining his own characterizations and ideas. For instance, the movie is far too long (at well over two hours) to maintain its grip on the situation. Once it makes its points, which is early on, the rest is redundant. The movie is also much too talky. There are too many characters taking up too much time. I've already mentioned that its intentions are ambivalent, its main character too pretty, and its narration too peculiar. Moreover, the movie's intended shocking ending is disappointing and seems to belie the very essence of the story.

So, "Little Children" is definitely a movie of contrasts. Perhaps that is just what life is like, but the movie piles it on rather thick. "Little Children" is rated R for sex and nudity.
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Friday, April 20, 2007

Catch and Release

"Catch and Release," a romantic comedy that begins with the death of a fiancé just days before the wedding, feels so authentic that it's no shock to hear on one of the commentary tracks that it was based on a true story. But it also feels long, and one has to think that first-time director Susannah Grant might release a director's cut in the future--after she learns how to say "no" to what we suspect are some of her writer's favorite scenes. The name of that writer? Susannah Grant.

Grant gives us an intelligent script--also no surprise, given that she penned the screenplays for Disney's "Pocahontas," "Erin Brockovich," and "In Her Shoes." This one comes so close to working that you begin to cheer for it along the way, as if it were the underdog at a spelling bee. But a sideplot fades in and out like a bad cell phone connection, and some scenes go on too long--including several of the enjoyable (but often unnecessary) ones by Kevin Smith, who plays a character so close to Silent Bob that it's a shock to hear him talk. And talk.

Don't get me wrong. Smith is a funny guy, when given the chance, and Grant gives him as long of a leash as Robin Williams sometimes gets. She reportedly allowed him to select his own wardrobe ("bathrobe" seems more precise), but from the routines that he pulls, it seems as if she also allowed the famous director to direct himself. Some of the scenes seemed positively self-indulgent, while other aspects of his character were cliched. What guy who makes mixed drinks all the time would be such a klutz as to leave the lid off the blender and douse himself? If Smith's character was the focus of this comedy, that would have been great, but he's comic relief, and many of his scenes could have been trimmed. Would I have preferred that? Oddly, no. Smith's performance was one of the more enjoyable parts of this film. It's just that his minor character got major air time, which felt as if it threw off the trajectory of this romantic comedy just a bit.

Jennifer Garner plays Gray Wheeler, who's widowed while the wedding cake is still in her refrigerator. In steps her fiancé's friends to look out for her and be with her through this tough time. Sam Jaeger plays Dennis, the friend who's had the silent crush on her for years, while Smith plays Sam, the funny one. And Garner must have been thinking of puppies being drowned throughout most of the filming, because in almost every frame she appears as sad-faced, puffy-cheeked, and red-eyed as Renee Zellweger on a bad day. Given this one emotional note she has to sing, it's not a terribly demanding role. And yet, when circumstances change and Gray changes, there's still too much of that weepy-faced residue.

Grant said that a friend of hers told about returning from a funeral which had the groom's friends covering for him and making sure that the woman he left behind was taken care of. "She'll never be without someone to dance with," he said. Throw in a situation that disrupts that happy state, and you've got the makings of a good screenplay, Grant thought. In "Catch and Release" there are two such situations, and yet neither one is pushed as far as it might have been. As Dennis and Sam fall all over themselves to take care of Gray, their friend from L.A. enters the picture. In true romantic comedy fashion, sparks fly during their first meeting, but in a metal-on-metal sort of way. Gray had run upstairs at the wake for her fiancé and hidden in a bathtub behind a shower curtain when in comes Fritz (Timothy Olyphant) with a blonde he's just met, and they proceed to have sex while we watch Gray's reaction. It's a nice scene, and a confrontational one when she pulls back the curtain and leaves. But the competition between the friends tends to fizzle, with Dennis alternately pining over her and getting on with his life. Instead, Grant focuses our attention on an outside element.

Gray finds a cell phone she didn't know her fiancé had, and starts checking the numbers. Needless to say, they don't add up. Neither does a huge bank account that she learns her intended had. It turns out he was pretty well-heeled, and a bit of a heel himself. As the "other woman" (Juliette Lewis) comes into the picture, "Catch and Release" takes a totally different direction. It just seems as if Grant has given us a screenplay with too many elements for her to develop them all successfully, and too many scenes in this 112-minute film that make it seem even longer. But "Catch and Release" is still enjoyable, and it's clear that Grant is a director who's going to do some great things in the future.
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Black Rain [Special Collector's Edition]

I have enjoyed films and cinema for a very long time. From the time my father took me to the Elks theater to see "Star Wars," I was hooked. Much of the movies I was able to watch were on Saturday afternoons, when I could commandeer the family television. A good number of black and white horror films and "Godzilla" movies were always showing on the limited number of channels that were available in the late Seventies and early Eighties. When the VCR and the concept of movie rentals finally became reality in the earlier Eighties, my nephew Don (who is actually three months older than me) and I would walk to the video store and rent a movie or two for the weekend. We loved to rent science fiction and horror films. Some of my early favorites were "Alien" and that science fiction movie with Han Solo, "Blade Runner." When I was just entering my teens, I was not completely aware of what I director was, but I knew that Ridley Scott had something to do with movies I liked.

Years later, I was in the middle of my High School career and a new Ridley Scott movie hit the theaters. This film was "Black Rain." I had known of Michael Douglas from the two Jack Coltrane films, "Romancing the Stone" and "Jewel of the Nile." I had also known that a crazy blonde woman had stewed his rabbit in another film. "Black Rain" didn´t have Harrison Ford or any other stars that I followed at that time, but Michael Douglas seemed cool enough and I knew that Ridley Scott made great films. In my mind, "Black Rain" would find "Blade Runner" in Japan and instead of chasing down superhuman clones; the hero would be going after the Yakuza. While leaving the theater, I couldn´t help but feel disappointed by "Black Rain." The film had a nice amount of action, but I wasn´t as intelligent to the world as I am today and I didn´t quite understand much of what happened. At sixteen years old, I just wasn´t ready for "Black Rain."

Fast forward a few years and I have learned to appreciate "Black Rain." The racial differences and issues faced by Michael Douglas´ character are well understood and the situations that Nick finds himself in are now meaningful. His mistrust and disliking and eventual befriending of Masahiro (Ken Takakura) are no longer confusing; as I now fully comprehend the change of heart Nick finds when he learns to realize Masahiro´s motivations and cultural differences of character. The complexity and depth of the film´s plot are now meaningful and the film does not escape me as it did so many years ago. When I was only sixteen, the concepts of embezzlement, cultural differences, racial stereotypes, honor and Japanese police procedures were completely alien and unlike Ridley Scott´s "Alien," they didn´t devour the good guys and delightfully scare me. They confused me.

"Black Rain" is the story of two New York policemen, Nick (Michael Douglas) and Charlie (Andy Garcia), who must escort a Japanese Mafia boss, Sato (Yusaku Koyama) to Japanese to face prosecution. Upon arriving in Japan, the boss escapes and Nick makes Japanese headlines as the American who let Sato loose. Nick is escaping demons and allegations of stealing drug money by leaving America and his arrival in Japan is hardly enough to improve his situation. The two police officers are stripped of their guns and given roles as simple observers as the Japanese police continue their investigations. Japanese police officer Masahiro (Ken Takakura) is assigned to monitor and control Nick and Charlie. Charlie is very accepting of his new Japanese guide and beings a friendship, while Nick is far from pleasant to Masahiro. By not being permitted to take part in the investigation and being stripped of any authority, Nick is a stranger in a strange land. When Charlie is killed by the Yakuza, he discovers and understanding of Masahiro and learns that only by helping his Japanese counterpart and working with him can he bring down Charlie´s killer.

Michael Douglas brings Nick to life. Douglas does a solid job of playing a hard and tough police detective with a few skeletons in his closet. His portrayal of Nick in Paul Verhoeven´s "Basic Instinct" is further proof of this. Andy Garcia leaves the audience missing Charlie when the character is taken away. Charlie is a likeable character that perfectly complement´s Nick´s harshness and the film loses something when Charlie dies. Ken Takakura is especially good as Masahiro, a noble and respectable Japanese police officer that struggles to understand the American ideas and Nick´s uneasy personality. It is a shame the actor has only been in "Mr. Baseball" since then, and only five Japanese films since then. Kate Capshaw (Mrs. Steven Spielberg) feels like a late addition to the story and the film. She is the love interest of Nick, but hardly adds any weight to the film. She looks lovely in the film and has a few nice moments of dialogue, but is hardly memorable in her performance. She would later shine as Willie in the second Indiana Jones film, but didn´t add much here.

Not many films use the Japanese Mafia, or Yakuza as it is called, as subject matter. Many Americans are only introduced to Tokyo and the Japanese culture in old "Godzilla" films. The strong cultural differences and struggle to fit into a strange land was more recently the subject of Sofia Coppola´s "Lost in Translation." "Black Rain" focuses on the outsider American in Japan and provides a gripping and captivating crime thriller that focuses on the mostly ignored Yakuza. There have been so many crime films that focus on the Italian Mafia or New York City. "CSI" and other television shows survive nicely on the same old situations. "Black Rain" is unique in taking the crime drama / action film to Japan and looking at an entirely different breed of criminal – the Yakuza. No many films have followed in the footsteps of Ridley Scott and "Black Rain" since the film was released in 1989. This is a shame, as a change of scenery and culture brings life to a tired and rehashed genre.

"Black Rain" is not a perfect film. It does find itself occasionally lost in its plot lines. The relationship between Joyce (Kate Capshaw) and the Yakuza and her relationship with Nick border on being meaningless and non-coherent. The war between the two Yakuza factions is not very detailed and Nick´s involvement between the two factions is also thinly detailed. Aside from these minor arguments, this is a very nice film to sit back and enjoy. The "fish out of water" plotlines with Nick is nicely done and perfectly contrasted with the friendly and personable Charlie adapting with much more ease. The film´s final climax is a great action sequence as Nick goes Johnny Rambo on the Yakuza mob. There are a lot of bullets spent and it is done quite believably. The wonderful neon lit nightlife of Japan is shown briefly, but is a great contrast to Ridley´s own "Blade Runner." "Black Rain" is a different entry in its genre and its plot balance between crime drama and ´stranger in a strange land´ is perfectly done by the masterful Ridley Scott. It took me a few years after I had first seen "Black Rain" to appreciate it, but I certainly do now.
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