Saturday, July 26, 2008

Dark City [Director's Cut]


What do you get when you combine film noir, mystery, fantasy, and science fiction? You get "Blade Runner," of course. OK, I mean what else do you get? You get "The Matrix." Let me try again. You get "Dark City." Not that I dislike film noir, mystery, fantasy, or science fiction. I like these genres a lot. And I like "Blade Runner," "The Matrix," and "Dark City" a lot. In fact, I'm pleased as punch with this new, Blu-ray edition of "Dark City" with its longer Director's Cut, improved, high-definition picture, and additional bonus items. It's a good deal all the way around.

I wasn't always so happy with the movie, though. When it first came out in 1998, I thought it was a little too derivative of the aforementioned "Blade Runner" as well as its biggest inspiration, Fritz Lang's classic "Metropolis." I didn't mind "Dark City" paying tribute to the older films; I just thought it had gone too far in imitating them. "Dark City" seemed to me at the time a perfect example of style over substance. Today, I still think the movie is mostly style, but it's a style so engrossing, it more than makes up for any lack of substance.

The fact is, the filmmakers mean for the viewer to look closely at everything in the movie, and they mean to remind the viewer of other things in film history. Its dark, curiously futuristic city of the past evokes images of the noir settings of the 40s and 50s in general and Lang's "Metropolis" from 1927 in particular; but I'd bet the movie conjures up even more-recent memories for a majority of its younger viewers. "Dark City" looks like bits and pieces of "Blade Runner," "Batman," "Hellraiser," "Phantasm," "Brazil," and director Alex Proyas's own previous film, "The Crow," with the added glumness of "Dune" thrown in for good measure.

There is no doubt that "Dark City" is as entertainingly bizarre a film as you'll find, a story that finds a strange, psychological surrealism in a nightmarish world of perpetual night. It's grim, fascinating, always absorbing, wildly imaginative, and not a little scary.

The story revolves around John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), who wakes up one night lying naked in a strange bathtub in a strange room in a strange apartment in a strange city. An unknown man phones to tell him that somebody has erased his memory. He discovers the body of a murdered woman nearby. Then, to add insult to injury, he finds a group of dark, frightening figures chasing after him.

From here, the plot of "Dark City" follows two threads: Murdoch searches the city trying to figure out who he is, while a police detective, Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt), searches the city for a serial killer, with Murdoch his most likely suspect.

I suppose one could argue that like a lot of somber-toned video games, the snoop-and-shoot action of "Dark City" is fun for a while but becomes wearisome with repetition for anyone but a devotee. That's the way I felt the first time I saw the movie. Fortunately, I've come to view it differently over time, discovering new and varied depths in its story and characters I never noticed before. How could it be otherwise when "Dark City" offers a ton of special effects, singular events, and peculiar characters. Kiefer Sutherland, for instance, does a wonderful Peter Lorre mad-scientist turn as Dr. Daniel Schreber, a fellow who claims to know all about Murdoch and his predicament. Jennifer Connelly is a beautiful, unwitting, 1940s' style, nightclub singer femme fatale, who claims to be Murdoch's wife. And Ian Richardson plays a menacingly sinister figure lurking in a shadowy underground of heaven-knows-what portent. Great, spooky stuff.

Psychologists are fond of saying that people create and order their own universe. Certainly, "Dark City" creates such a universe for itself and its characters. It explores the questions of what is illusion, what is reality, and what is the substance and meaning of the soul. The story poses some intriguing "what if" premises; the alleyways, the shadows, the camera angles, and the lighting all bespeak of vintage film noir; and the landscape would make H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe proud.

My only minor quibble about "Dark City" is that it winds up spelling out too much. Better to have left some things unexplained and let imagination do the rest. But that's OK. The trip is well worth the travel time.
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Friday, July 25, 2008

Ferris Bueller's Day Off [I Love the 80's Edition]


Note: In the following joint review, both John and Justin wrote up their comments on the movie, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
The thing about "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" from a retired high school English teacher's point of view is that if kids are going to cut, I wish they'd do it the way Ferris did it. I mean, do it right, for heaven's sake!

"This is my ninth sick day this semester. It's pretty tough coming up with new illnesses. If I go for ten, I'm probably going to have to barf up a lung, so I better make this one count." --Ferris Bueller

Paramount, knowing a good thing when they see it, have released "Ferris" in a number of different editions over the years, this latest release being a part of their "I Love the 80's" collection. The 1986 picture gets new packaging and comes with a CD of 80s' music. Otherwise, it's the same old, which if you don't have it is still a must.

Matthew Broderick plays Ferris Bueller, a teenage con artist supreme, a fellow who knows how to manipulate people and the world around him for maximum personal benefit. Not that he's manipulative in a bad way, though. He doesn't try to cheat anyone. Indeed, he tries hard to make the lives of those around him happier, at least those who will accept his help. His sister, played by Jennifer Grey, is one of only two people in the film who knows Ferris for the con man he is, and she can't stand it. She's envious. She can't bear that he's getting away with something she can't get away with, or is too afraid to try.

John Hughes wrote and directed "Ferris Bueller," a movie that is funny, satiric, bright, and inventive, sagging around the two-thirds mark but coming through with an exhilarating finish. Hughes practically owned the 80's, with movies like "Sixteen Candles," The Breakfast Club," "Weird Science," "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," and "Uncle Buck." "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" was the high-water mark of his career.

The story follows Ferris's adventures one school day in the spring of his senior year when he decides enough is enough, he needs a break (another break). He must cut. But he needs accomplices, so he talks his cheerleader girlfriend, Sloane, played by Mia Sara, and his hypochondriac best friend, Cameron, played by Alan Ruck, to go along with him. Cameron is in special need of Ferris's help; his ego is at an all-time low. They make their escape from suburbia to the big city, Chicago, in Cameron's father's pride and joy, a bright red 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spider, a car the father loves more than life itself.

Leaving school and their economics teacher, famously played by Ben Stein ("Anyone? Anyone?"), far behind, they set out on their escapades. They visit the world's tallest building; stop in on the Stock Exchange; eat lunch at a snobby restaurant; attend a big-league baseball game; go to an art museum; and sing and dance in a street parade, which features the movie's showstopping production numbers, Ferris lip-synching to Wayne Newton's "Danke Schoen" and the Beatles' "Twist and Shout."

Some of the movie's funniest characters, however, appear in supporting roles, such as Mr. Rooney, the school's principal played by Jeffrey Jones, who, like Ferris's sister, suspects Ferris is getting away with something and is determined to catch him in the act, pursuing Ferris all over town, always one step behind. Then, too, we find Charlie Sheen as a laid-back delinquent in a police station, Richard Edson as a parking-garage attendant, Edie McClurg as Mr. Rooney's secretary, and Jonathan Schmock as a snooty maitre d' all contributing to the fun.

The film is rated PG-13 for periodic profanity, but I hope that triviality doesn't stop anybody from enjoying it.

John's film rating: 8/10

The Film According to Justin:
Who would have ever thought I would find a movie that centers around an admittedly ingenious slacker who breaks the fourth wall and converses directly with the audience entertaining. The problem is that Matthew Broderick as the titular Ferris Bueller is just so damned affable that you can't help but fall in love with him. He's the kind of kid that everyone wanted to have as a friend in high school, despite being an utter deviant. As John said in his review, when Ferris cuts school he does it right.

He's missed eight days of school during the course of his senior year and Ferris is determined to make his ninth one to remember. After faking out his parents, Ferris has to concoct a plan to spring his best girl, Sloane (Mia Sara), and live it up in the Windy City. To do so, Ferris needs his best friend, who also happens to be (legitimately) missing school due to illness, Cameron (Alan Ruck). You see, Ferris is without transport, and he relies on his pal to get about. And they do it in style, in Cameron's father's pretty red Ferrari.

Ferris and his crew do, indeed, make the most of their time together. They scam their way into a snooty restaurant, scale the Sears Tower, catch a Cubs game, and interlope on a parade. But it's not all roses as there are forces conspiring to bring Ferris to justice, including the school principal Mr. Rooney (Jeffery Jones) and Ferris's jealous sister Jeanie (Jennifer Grey). Their misadventures in attempting to catch Ferris in the act of skipping school account for about a third of the movie. Similarly, Ferris has some near misses with his mother and father out in the city.

Most of the film is a series of climactic vignettes that feature Ferris plying his trade, namely conning people, and having a good time. They are linked by an overarching narrative that tells the story of the day. In the end, this is the story of a day, one which Ferris is determined to make the best.

The movie's three leads have a wonderful dynamic that makes this film an absolute pleasure to watch. The subtext about this being the group's last chance to really cut loose before they spread out for college becomes heartbreaking when you realize how much they mean to one another. These characters grow nicely through the course of the movie. Cameron starts to understand that his existence isn't nearly as horrible as he thinks and learns to adapt to the pressures of life. Sloane learns what it means to love, and Ferris learns what it means to be a true friend. They may not be life-altering adjustments, but they are wonderful beats.

I honestly wonder what happened to these characters after this film concluded; it is a sign of just how compelling they are. We spend a nice amount of time with them, just enough to fall in love with Ferris and his motley crew. "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is a wonderful, and somewhat timeless movie that addresses issues of teen anxiety (about growing up and growing old) and dealing with life. And to cap it all off, in case I haven't focused on it, it's insanely funny and infinitely quotable.

"Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is a seminal 80's film and one of the funniest, most heartfelt movies to come out of the period. Watch, and enjoy.

Justin's film rating: 9/10
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Wizards of Waverly Place [TV Show] [Wizard School]


It was bound to happen. Given the runaway success of the Harry Potter franchise, eventually somebody was going to do a parody or develop a TV show featuring teen and pre-teen wizards. And the odds were that it would be somebody like Disney.

The Disney Channel added "Wizards of Waverly Place" to its line-up in the fall of 2007, and it's since become one of their most popular live-action sitcoms. The audience, of course, is the same age as the young wizards-in-training. Parents in this show are marginalized, as usual--perhaps even more so, because the kids' father, Jerry (David DeLouise) was once a wizard but had to give it up in order to marry a feisty Latina named Theresa (Maria Canals-Barrera). But Canals-Barrera and DeLouise, son of famed comedian Dom DeLouise, do a good job of keeping some semblance of parental authority despite their exceptional kids, and they make their limited air-time count. The show's twist (and the complication) comes because only one wizard can emerge from each family, and when the three Russo siblings reach adulthood they'll have to compete in order to see who gets to stay a wizard and who reverts to being mere mortals. In other words, they could have called this show "The Ultimate Sibling Rivalry."

The main character is Alex Russo (Selena Gomez), a pretty teen who's pretty good at slacking. She leaves her stuff all over the house, and spends more energy avoiding work than it would take to actually do it. Then there's her geekier older brother, Justin (David Henrie), who's as conscientious as can be, and the mischievous youngest sibling Max (Jake T. Austin), who's sometimes content to just sit back and watch with amusement.

Though "Wizard School" was a two-parter that aired as the 13th and 14th episodes the first season, it's probably appropriate that Disney decided to lead with it on this first DVD release. For one thing, the episode has a little fun with the Harry Potter films--right down to the geeky Harry Potter glasses that all of the students are required to wear with their "black bathrobes." It also establishes the kids as wizards just as quickly as the first episode, which found Alex replicating herself so she could get a shopping advantage. But it's also one of the broadest comedies from the first season. The other episodes included on this release are "Curb Your Dragon" (Episode 8) and "Disenchanted Evening" (Episode 5).

"Wizard School" Pts. 1&2
Justin is stoked to go to a summer school for wizards known as Wiz Tech, but when Alex does something irresponsible with magic again, their parents insist that she join her brother. This over-the-top two-part episode features Octavia Spencer as Dr. Evilini, a teacher who hopes to take promising wizard Justin to Volcanoland after he wins a 12-ball competition and somehow drain his powers and transfer them to herself, so she could be the most powerful wizard of all. The set looks like a Hogwart's send-off, complete with Dumbledore lookalike, and while the star-shaped ping-pong table is cool, there are more nerds here per square foot than anywhere on TV. No wonder it gives Alex the creeps just to be there.

"Curb Your Dragon"
Guilt over losing Justin's dog many years ago prompts Alex to try replacing it. But she buys an enchanted dragon that's disguised as a beagle, and because the little guy is a fire-breather they try to hide it and tell their parents it's a lost dog, which requires that they put up posters. Shades of "Air Bud," the dragon seller (Taylor Negron) claims the little guy and decides to enter it in a local dog show, which means, of course, that the kids have to find a way to get their dragon-dog back. Alex gets wind of the teacher's evil scheme and tries to foil her. Meanwhile, in a stupid subplot, a woman dressed like a salad (Robyn Moran) is handing out vegetarian leaflets in front of the Russo's Sub Station, driving away all their business.

"Disenchanted Evening"
Wizard powers become a barometer for that ever-popular game kids play: who's got the coolest (i.e., most permissive) parents. Alex gets jealous when she meets a young wizard named T.J. (Daryl Sabara) whose parents let him use magic anytime and anyplace he chooses. So she schemes to have him drop a hint or two, to maybe influence her parents. Max, meanwhile, struggles to complete a school project about Mars.

It's worth mentioning that the set is a cluttered nest of primary colors, and that distinctive scene segues involve a split-second music video style visual of the cast that has nothing to do with the plot. Other than that, "Wizards of Waverly Place" has the same three-act structure and pacing as most half-hour comedies. As kid-pitched sitcoms go, this one doesn't have the same level of writing or even acting as Disney's "Hannah Montana," but the characters grow on you, and the scripts will certainly appeal to the target audience on a number of levels.

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Heartbeat Detector


A corporate horror flick filmed in sharp angles and cool metallic tones, "Heartbeat Detector" (2007) oozes atmosphere while its narrative wobbles like a drunken sailor. And it works, more or less.

Company psychologist Simon Kessler (Mathieu Amalric) is tapped to investigate CEO Mathias Jüst (Michael Lonsdale) whose mood swings are beginning to worry investors and board members alike. Simon takes a rather circuitous route to his unwitting client, stopping along the way to party at nightclubs and hook up with a variety of women and men who apparently find him utterly irresistible. Once Simon starts digging deeper into Jüst´s psyche, he finds himself haunted by the same past that traps the tortured CEO, a past that begins in a Nazi concentration camp and ends with a steel glass headquarters.

It´s tempting to describe the trajectory of the film as a descent into hell, but Simon isn´t exactly starting off in paradise. The utterly amoral world of the modern corporation has all but swallowed him whole, and Simon suffers from indeterminate problems of his own perhaps partly fueled by drugs or a more deep-seated physiological source. Simon is a fully alienated laborer, a capitalist cog in a not so well-greased machine that grinds up souls with the sort of ruthless logic and efficiency that also makes the trains run on schedule in another place and time. As Simon gets dragged inexorably into Jüst´s world, he loses his bearings and his confidence with jarring results.

Amalric is a perfect choice for the lead role. His sallow sunken eyes provide testament to the horror of the present and the past, but there´s not a damned thing he can do about any of it. Even as the quadriplegic Jean-Do in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (2007) he was more empowered than he is here. It will be interesting to see which Amalric shows up to take on James Bond in "Quantum of Solace."

Director Nicolas Klotz, working from a story by François Emmanuel and a script by Elisabeth Perceval, relates a story that is full of portent but never really leads anywhere which is at least partially the point. Simon explores multiple avenues that provide no real satisfaction or insight into Jüst´s predicament: a classical music quartet, a dead child, a father with a possible criminal past. Klotz also doesn´t seem particularly interested in immersing the audience in the mystery either.
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Vengeance


I don't get a chance to review many films from Thailand. Now that I think about it, I haven't actually seen all that many productions from the country, to tell you the truth. In fact if my memory serves me well, the only other Thai movie I've sat through was titled "Sick Nurses," and with a name like that I guess I should state for the record that no, it isn't a porno.

My second encounter with Thai movie-making is the Blu-ray version of "Vengeance," a bizarre film directed by Preaw Sirisuwan that doesn't really fill any niche by cramming in practically every theme under the sun. We have elements of mystery, action, horror, fantasy, drama, romance, and even a little bit of sci-fi, but none really emerge as the solid backbone for the script. This mishmash approach usually doesn't work and tends to turn viewers off, yet somehow I was thoroughly entertained with this film. I'll even go as far as saying that my enjoyment had absolutely nothing to do with the kinky sex scene with forest nymphs, either, although you wouldn't catch me putting my hand on a Bible for that one.

The picture opens with a haunting prologue taking place roughly twenty years ago somewhere in one of the exotic jungles close to Burma. Two men, one who also has his young boy in tow, are trudging through the bush desperately trying to escape from something that has them spooked. The trio eventually reaches the outskirts of the forest, and once the boy's father has escorted his son to safety, he turns around and dashes back into the trees. The other man runs in after him, and not wanting to be left alone, so does the boy. By the time the boy finds them, though, he witnesses a tragic scene of horror. Standing over his father's lifeless body is the other man, now holding a set of peculiar artifacts with a "this isn't what it looks like" expression on his face. If you're a bit confused, so was I at first to be perfectly honest. The key things here to remember are the boy, the strange sense of foreboding brought on by the jungle, and the ancient artifacts that are of significant importance to the story.

Flashing forward to the present, an urban gunfight erupts between law enforcement officials and a small group of thieves, murderers, and other vile criminals that have recently busted out of prison. Most of the convicts disappear without a trace, except for one that ends up wounded in the crossfire. Captain Wut (Andy Tungkaprasert), the rookie commander of the police task force, interrogates the prisoner to learn that their goal is to secure their freedom by crossing over into Myanmar. Wut and his team track the lowlifes down to a small village near the Payamek Mountains.

It turns out that that the young boy from the beginning of the movie grew up to be the leader of the escaped convicts named Naso (Chalad Na Songkhla). It also turns out that a monk living in the village is a link that somehow connects the lives of Naso with Wut. In their own way, both men are fueled by revenge, with Naso being put on the darker path from what happened to his father and Wut wants nothing more than to bring these evildoers to justice.

Naso and his crew trail off into the jungle, and the police continue after them, unaware that there is a terrible curse on the place. This is where things really pick up as we see the jungle come alive with a host of mythical creatures that became terrifying legends to the locals. There's a killer colony of tiger wasps, but don't bother with the epi-pen as they'll just shred meat from bone within an instant. Fruit tree maidens sing under the moonlight to seduce men into having sex with them, only the catch is that they use intercourse as a means to literally suck the life out of their horny victims. Then there are swarms of man-eating gecko-gators, a giant serpent, and a few other nasty surprises.
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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest [Digibook Edition]


"One flew East, one flew West,
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest."

"Five Easy Pieces," "Carnal Knowledge," "The Last Detail," and "Chinatown" had already made Jack Nicholson a star. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" made him a superstar. Now, to do justice to a genuine masterpiece, Warner Bros. make the movie available in a new, high-definition, Blu-ray Digibook edition. While it's true that neither the picture quality nor the sound shows a lot of improvement in the new format, we can be thankful for even a minor upgrade to such an esteemed product.

The easy interpretation of Ken Kesey's popular 1962 counterculture novel, upon which producers later based the stage play and the Oscar-winning movie, is to say that only crazies are able to see the world clearly. However, the book's protagonist, Randall Patrick McMurphy, is not crazy. Like Paul Newman's "Cool Hand Luke," McMurphy is an emblem of determined individualism in a world of conformity, a symbol of people's capacity to overcome odds and accomplish whatever goals they set for themselves no matter the circumstances. McMurphy shows people how to stand up for themselves and be themselves, and the story in its various guises has been an inspiration for several generations of dedicated fans.

Michael Douglas brought "Cuckoo's Nest" to the screen in 1975 after a long and inexplicably arduous battle to get it made. Douglas's father, Kirk, obtained the rights to the novel in the early 1960s and starred in a stage adaptation by Dale Wasserman, but the actor could never get a studio interested in producing it. His son took over trying to get it to the screen in the early 1970s, finally succeeding (by which time his father had grown too old, or too obstreperous, for the main role). Even given that Wasserman's play was initially altered considerably by Douglas and that the eventual screenplay gutted Kesey's novel of its point of view, changing it from Chief Bromden's to McMurphy's, the movie's history is remarkably saddening when you consider the sheer quantity of junk that finds its way into motion-picture theaters every year. I mean, Kesey's story should have been a natural for the rebellious nature of young moviegoers in the '60s and early '70s, but Hollywood must have thought a nuthouse setting was too far outside the norm for its mainstream audiences. It makes you wonder if Hollywood itself isn't being run by the inmates of the asylum.

Anyway, the younger Douglas found his financing in Saul Zaentz, the head of Fantasy Records in Berkeley, CA. Together, Douglas and Zaentz spotted their director in Milos Forman, the Czechoslovakian filmmaker whose "Fireman's Ball" caught their attention for its sharp-edged humor. Zaentz and Forman would collaborate again on "Amadeus" a few years later and share their second Academy Award for Best Picture.

The main character in "Cuckoo's Nest" is R.P. McMurphy, a boisterous, initially self-absorbed roustabout serving time for antisocial behavior, fighting, and statutory rape. But it occurs to McMurphy that he might be able to get out of doing hard labor by pretending to be crazy and being sent to a relatively cushy mental institution for "observation and evaluation." The movie, set in 1963, begins with his admittance to the hospital and moves on through his experiences with the patients there and his eventual endeavors to get them to help themselves.

His nemesis at the hospital is the hard-nosed, self-assured Nurse Mildred Ratched. She's the authority figure, more important than the head of the institution because she directly controls the conduct and activity of the patients on her floor. And that includes McMurphy, who finds her exacting regime demeaning, depriving the men on her ward of their very souls. The plot becomes a battle of wills between the tyrannical Big Nurse and the free-spirited McMurphy, with McMurphy betting the other patients that he can eventually get under her skin and make her lose her cool.

From the outset the filmmakers agreed they wanted only the best possible actors for the movie's characters, rather than big-name stars. Director Forman says on the disc's accompanying documentary that he always wanted Jack Nicholson for the character of McMurphy, the actor having impressed him after he saw his energetic performance in "The Last Detail." The filmmakers also discussed the possibility of Gene Hackman as McMurphy, Hackman having recently made an impression in "The French Connection." In any case, Nicholson, initially unavailable, got the job, and he proved the perfect combination of extroverted rabble rouser, con artist, and sympathetic motivator the movie needed. Likewise, the filmmakers made an inspired decision to use Louise Fletcher as the frigid Nurse Ratched. Like Nicholson, she was not the only choice for the part, but she brings to the role an icy calm that makes her presence all the more threatening and her evil all the more insidious.

Also from the beginning director Forman wanted actors who looked as distinctly different from one another as possible. He has said he doesn't like to watch movies where an actor enters the story, goes away for a while, and when he returns you've forgotten who he is. Consequently, for supporting roles Forman chose relatively unknown actors with unusual physical makeups, most of whom we now know well. There's Danny DeVito as Martini, Sydney Lassick as Cheswick, Christopher Lloyd as Taber, Vincent Schiavelli as Fredrickson, and in pivotal roles William Redfield as Harding and Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit. Finally, Scatman Crothers plays the night orderly, Turkle, and Will Sampson plays the huge Native American, Chief Bromden. In the novel, the Chief narrated the story, but the movie relegates him to a lesser job, that of trusted friend to McMurphy, a change that infuriated the book's author, Ken Kesey.

For the sake of authenticity, the filmmakers chose to shoot the entire movie on location in a real mental institution, the Oregon State Hospital being the only one they could find that would allow them the privilege. For an added note of authenticity, Dr. Dean R. Brooks, the head of the real hospital, plays Dr. John Spivey, the head of the fictional one. Furthermore, the filmmakers insisted that all the actors spend as much time as possible with the real patients at the institution, and that they try to remain in character even away from the camera. Obviously, the hard work and dedication paid off.

The book, the play, and the movie have all been accused over the years of misogyny, a hatred of or disrespect for women, which seems a little unfair. The story focuses on a group of men living together under trying circumstances, so we might expect for all practical purposes that they would often refer to women as sexual objects. And most films center on a male as the bad guy, so it only seems equitable that an occasional film like this one use a female as the antagonist. Besides, there are still more female nurses in the world, and symbolically the female authority figure is a convenient representation of the matriarch against whom the boys rebel.
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Shutter [Unrated]


Ever since the 1998 Japanese film "Ringu" received an Americanized big-budget remake, Hollywood studios have been having a ball bringing over Eastern horror films. It has been a near epidemic at times and the latest film to come to American shores is the Americanized version of the 2004 Thai film "Shutter." As is typical with these films, the Western version lacks the story and tension of the original and these watered-down horror pictures are only slicker looking with better production values. I had some high hopes for "Shutter" after hearing of how well the original film did and hoped that this remake would be at least half as good. It is not and this is one of the worst of the batch of Western derived versions of Eastern horror blockbusters.

In "Shutter," "Dawson´s Creek´s" Joshua Jackson stars as Benjamin Shaw. Shaw is a talented young photographer and marries Jane Shaw (Rachael Taylor) in a very nice wedding ceremony that follows with a very nice honeymoon in Japan, where Ben has taken a job as a fashion photographer with a few friends. Ben takes a few photographs of him and his new bride during the honeymoon, but they become distraught when a flaw appears on a large number of prints. Later, when Ben undertakes his first high-profile shoot, the flaws again return and Ben is put in a position where his company loses a lot of money and he nearly loses his job upon the return of these flaws that are blamed on the camera. However, his friends Bruno (David Denman) and Adam (John Hensley) are not about to can their good friend.

Jane´s early times in Japan find her being isolated and shaken after she believes that she and Ben had hit a young woman while traveling from their honeymoon to Tokyo. She fully believes they have murdered the young girl and soon begins to believe the flaws in the photographs are images of the young girl. Soon, Jane and Ben begin to see physical manifestations of the dead girl and the concept of spiritual photography is introduced to the film. At this point in the story, a cameo by "Heroes´" James Kyson Lee is introduced as an expert on spiritual photography and it becomes established that Ben and Jane are being haunted by the young girl and that perhaps her body is still in the physical realm and her spirit needs released. The plot thickens when the girl´s identity is revealed to be a translator named Megumi Tanaka (Megumi Okina); somebody that Ben had known during a previous visit to Japan.

"Shutter" loosely holds to the storyline of the original film, but injects a "Lost in Translation" storyline where poor Jane is caught in a foreign land. The general themes behind the story are solid, but the feel and haunting nature of "Shutter" is apparently lost in translation as the Americanized version of the film is nowhere near as entertaining or haunting as the film that critics poured praise upon. With Japanese horror director Masayuki Ochaia behind the helm of the picture, the hope of Eastern spiritual beliefs and sensibilities should have made their way to celluloid, but even a Japanese director cannot escape the American screenplay by Luke Dawson. This English language debut by Ochiai hardly seems indicative of a film shot in Japan by a Japanese director and comes off just another American remake that is more caring about style than substance.

While I found the notion of spiritual photography to be interesting, I could not find much enjoyment out of "Shutter." Part of the reason was that the story and the filmmakers seemed to completely miss the boat on providing true frights and the Eastern beliefs in spirits. Some poor jump frights and flash-heavy photography is used to scare the audience and it has become old hat after "The Ring" and "The Grudge" and other films to remake their way to American soil. The scene I despised the most involved Megumi appearing during the first photo shoot and talking to Ben. I learned this was injected for the Unrated version of the film and this was a great example of a scene that did not help the film out at all by jumping off the cutting room floor. The bottom line is that "Shutter" is neither scary nor spooky and if you´ve seen any of the two films the producers of "Shutter" were previously behind, and then you´ve seen all of the tricks in this film as well. Only the final reveal of why Ben´s shoulders were sore was of interest.

Cast is another problem with "Shutter." I loved seeing the lovely Australian actress Rachael Taylor in a role outside of "Transformers," where she was the most stunning computer nerd you´d ever meet, but having an Australian playing an American stuck in Tokyo is a stretch and there were times when Rachael´s accent snuck through just a little bit. While Rachael is a gorgeous young woman, I feel she was miscast. Joshua Jackson has not done too much memorable beyond "Dawson´s Creek" and "The Mighty Ducks" and he seems like another budget American actor casted because he has a nice smile. This is definitely not a movie where the film benefits from the film.

I like the idea of bringing foreign films to American soil. It´s a wonderful concept. However, I´d much rather prefer to see some subtitles thrown onto the original picture and see the original work of art shown in theater houses. "The Ring" was a unique idea at first, but this continued onslaught of Eastern horror films becoming Western duds is disconcerting and "Shutter" is a prime reason of why these pictures are not succeeding in the American market. They stink. Plain and simple. The original picture earned a 79% on RottenTomatoes.com. The remake chalked up a pathetic 7% on the same website, so I know I´m not alone in my belief that well enough should have been left alone. Now, please release the original so we can enjoy how the story is meant to be told.
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Phineas and Ferb [TV Show] [The Fast and the Phineas]


Like "Pinky and the Brain," each episode of "Phineas and Ferb" begins the same way, with the two main characters wondering what to do. But rather than trying to take over the world in every episode, as those lab mice did time and again, the boys use their imaginations to expand their world in order to make their 104-day summer vacation more fun.

This hybrid animated Disney Channel show from creators Dan Povenmire ("The Family Guy") and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh draws inspiration from a number of different shows. In addition to a little Pinky madness, it also has the zaniness and fluid leaps in logic of "The Fairly Oddparents," and a conceptual structure that's reminiscent of another popular Disney Channel show, "Kim Possible." Like that series, "Phineas and Ferb" offers a mixture of spy stuff and teen angst, with another random animal tossed into the mix. Instead of a naked mole rat, it's a platypus. And in this show, it's the pet who's the secret agent. Sounds weird? It is, but it's also a smartly written series that has more inventiveness and energy than most of the cartoon shows that are being produced these days. It celebrates the power of the imagination and revels in every one of those gigantic leaps in logic that defy gravity and provide the infrastructure for every outing. What's more, Povenmire and Marsh seem to like working without a net.

Phineas Flynn (Vincent Martella) and Ferb Fletcher (Thomas Sangster) live with their parents--the seldom-seen Linda Flynn (Caroline Rhea) and even more conspicuously absent Lawrence Fletcher (Richard O'Brien)--somewhere in the "Tri-State area." The boys get along great and are regular magicians when it comes to the visualization and construction of large-scale projects to make their summer days fun. Nothing is too big or too complicated for them, because if they can imagine it, they can build or do it. In some of these episodes, for example, they erect a haunted house to cure the hiccups of their friend Isabella (Alyson Stoner), they construct a complete beach just outside their fenced-in backyard, and they become one-hit wonders just to get a taste of the music business. Much more, and it would seem like work, not play, and these guys like getting away with things. But what goes around comes around, because just as they're pulling a fast one on their parents, these stepbrothers have no idea that the family pet is a secret agent who discretely saves the world every episode.

Like so many cartoon shows, there's a single nemesis, and for secret agent Perry the Platypus (call him "Agent P") it's a baddie who's a little reminiscent of Gargamel from the old "Smurfs" show. The evil Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz (voiced by Povenmire) turned out to be the mad scientist that he is because, as we learn in one episode, he was forced by his German father to stand for hours and days at a time in their garden to replace the family's stolen garden gnome. Such is the deliciously twisted humor of Povenmire and Marsh. Agent P goes after Doofenshmirtz in what almost feels like a parallel (but somehow intersecting) universe, then goes back to his regular life as the family pet. "There you are, Perry," Phineas often says after Agent P has once again quietly triumphed. Given the boys' own outlandish adventures, it's a double dose of imagination pushed to the brink.

The animation is a mixture of geometric shapes (Phineas's head is a simple triangle), a style that again falls somewhere between harsh angularity of "The Fairly Oddparents" and the softer world of "Kim Possible." It's a pleasing-to-watch style that's totally compatible with the wild inventions, wise-guy writing, and breakneck pacing. But what makes every episode really click is a running gag that will remind older viewers of the "Bewitched" TV series, where a neighbor who knew darned well that Samantha was making strange things happen next door kept trying to get her husband to look. But every time he would, things would have returned back to normal. The same thing happens here, with Phineas's older natural sibling Candace (Ashley Tisdale, "High School Musical") obsessed with trying to get her mother to see the kinds of stunts that her brothers are pulling on a daily basis. And the gag is even funnier transplanted to a situation involving an older sister and troublemaking younger brothers--something that so many kids across America can identify with.

As a matter of fact, this is one show that older siblings will enjoy watching with younger ones, and even parents, who may be reminded of the old "Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" shows because of the irreverent, self-conscious style. The show has the same kind of energy too, and offbeat sensibility that stops short of the manic, up-the-pace nonsense that often drives the Cartoon Network shows. "Phineas and Ferb" is great fun, and easily one of the best animated shows out there now. Here are the episodes included on this DVD:

"One Good Scare Ought to Do It!" Pts. 1&2

In this episode that hasn't been seen yet, the boys go to great lengths to build a scary haunted house/theme park with roller coaster, all to get rid of Isabella's hiccups.

"The Fast and the Phineas"/"Lawn Gnome Beach Party of Terror"
The boys "trick out" Mom's car so they can enter the big race at the track that mysteriously popped up outside their fence. Kids can't drive? No problem. They devise a remote control so one boy can manipulate the car while the other "drives" it. Then, overheated, they decide that they'd like to spend a day at the beach. And what begins with a pile of sand and a bucket of water in their backyard soon knocks down that back fence again and spills over into the entire world. They build a real beach, big enough to where Candace ends up winning a limbo contest and being lauded as queen of the beach.

"Are You My Mummy?"/"FlopStarz"
Inspired by a movie, the boys try to get a mummy, but it's Candace who ends up being wrapped in toilet paper, while Doofenshmirtz's latest scheme to flood the city by destroying a beaver dam, all to make his own property "beachfront." In "FlopStarz," Doofenshmirtz creates a giant robot out of a building that terrorizes Danville, while the boys decide they want to be one-hit wonders and Candace once again gets her moment in the spotlight.

"Raging Bully"/"Lights, Candace, Action!"
One-two-three-four, let's have a thumb war. Phineas enters a competition, while Doofenshmirtz invents a gadget that will control people's minds . . . all so that they'll be forced to attend his birthday party and clean up the mess after it's all over. In "Lights, Candace, Action!," Candace is delighted to star in "The Princess Sensibilities" until the new directors (Phineas and Ferb) decide to go a different direction, like "The Curse of the Princess Monster." Doofenshmirtz creates an Age Acceleratorinator, first to more quickly make cheese, but then to try to age Agent P.

"It's about Time!" Pts. 1&2
The stepbrothers discover an old time machine and travel back to the Jurassic Age to bring back a T-Rex. Meanwhile, these are tough times for poor Perry. It turns out that Dr. Doofenshmirtz no longer thinks of him as his nemesis. That honor is now reserved for a hero named Peter the Panda.

There's a little postmodernist play in the show, with the villain narrating exactly what he's going to do at one point but pausing when he hears no dramatic music . . . then, after the musical cue kicks in, he says, "Ahem," and continues. It's that kind of material stretches the fabric of this show to fit all sizes.

Video:
The picture looks super-sharp for a DVD, with gorgeous colors and a nice level of detail for standard definition. Disney's M.O. has been to release a handful of episodes per DVD, rather than come out with full seasons of its TV shows. If they're ever tempted to make an exception, this would be a good title to start with, because of the wide appeal that it holds. More adults would be likely to watch this show than most of the Disney Channel offerings. The aspect ratio is 1.33:1.

Audio:
The audio is a Dolby Digital Surround that involves the rear channels as well, probably a 5.1 mix. The booming and dynamic sound adds to the sense of energy, and as with the video it's a far better treatment than we're used to seeing at this level.

Extras:
As if they know they've got something that appeals to adults as well as kids, the Disney folks split the bonus features right down the middle, with something for each. Adults will enjoy the original pitch by Dan Povenmire that was used to sell Disney on the idea of the series, with Povenmire doing all the voices and narration. They liked the show enough to give him a contract, and they like his Doofenshmirtz voice enough to allow him to casst himself. Not a bad deal. This is a 22-minute feature that will seem invaluable to young would-be filmmakers wanting to know how it all begins.

For the kids, there's Phineas & Ferb's Homemade Tree Shade Arcade, a game section that includes four different activities. The games aren't super fabulous, but they should amuse the kids at least for an afternoon. There's a Whack-a-Gnome game that's a good tension reliever, a driving game where you use the left-right arrows to navigate, a matching game where you consider the situation that Perry finds himself in and click on the disguise that will enable him to blend in, and finally a pair of parental marionettes that kids use arrow keys to keep them dancing (and derive perverse pleasure from the role reversal, I'm sure). Of the four games, the disguise game is actually the most interesting.

Bottom Line:
"Phineas and Ferb" was a nice surprise. I expected a dumb or generic cartoon, but this one has personality to spare. It's full of smart writing and gags, and deviously constructed to include a little something for everyone. Even would-be evil scientists.
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Don't Try This at Home Presents Steve-O: Out on Bail Volume III


How intelligence deprived Steve-O (also known as Stephen Glover) and his posse of similarly handicapped hooligans haven´t killed themselves or ended up in traction for prolonged periods of time is beyond me. I mean, if they aren´t setting their hair on fire or stapling a scrotom to a thigh, producer/director Nick Dunlap is getting drunk in an outdoor bar and trashing the place. Or they´re defecating outside a hotel room door, allowing one of their own to walk through the mess. Or Steve-O is puking up…well, the less you know, the better.

After sitting through this third volume of "crap" (hey, that´s what they call it on the back of the DVD), I can´t for the life of me figure out why anyone would voluntarily take part in these stunts, let alone revel in their depravity. I mean, there´s no point to anything in the entire 92 minutes except to see how profane, obscene, maliciously destructive, immature, sophomoric and asinine a group of grown men can be. The late, great performer Evel Knievel is Shakespeare compared to the stunts Steve-O pulls.

The problem is they aren´t funny to watch. Throwing a hotel room phone out the window, breaking a beer can on his head, getting into a fight with a supposed friend…these are sadistic actions catering to the lowest common denominator in society. I hesitate to use the term "trailer trash" because: (1) it´s offensive to people who might live in a trailer; and (2) Steve-O isn´t even good enough for Cletus and Brandeen from "The Simpsons." All I kept asking myself was why.

Why are arenas and venues packed for each show around the world? Why do women lift their shirts, exposing their breasts, for these guys (none of which are attractive)? Why in the world do parents bring their school age children to a show and then sit in utter disbelief about the antics without doing a thing? And, for god sakes, how many times do we need to see Steve-O playing with his feces?

Maybe I´m going about this all wrong. Maybe the idea isn´t to hold Steve-O to everyone else´s standard, but to create a new standard FOR him. Just how filthy and vile can the stunts get while retaining some kind of audience? Clearly, from what we have here, audiences clamor for all the raunch they can get.

I guess the above question can be distilled down to one central premise: is Steve-O any more offensive in his day than Richard Pryor was in his? Or George Carlin? That is to say, can Mr. Glover get away with the things he does because of the times in which he lives? In our modern age of video on demand and YouTube, can´t an argument be made Steve-O and "Jackass" are simple extensions of technology? As in, we´ve entered a time in our culture when things are done not because they are good ideas, but because we can?

It is, alas, one of the downfalls to having a free media and the first amendment. A citizen can be offended all they want by an action or word, but until a second person is physically harmed, nothing can be done. And "Out on Bail Volume III" makes sure no bystander is hurt in the antics. In that respect, then, Steve-O is commendable. Not to mention he´s not the one destroying other people´s property for no reason. Those ignominious acts are committed by his cohorts. Really, Steve-O doesn´t hurt other people, only himself.

Let me be clear: that doesn´t excuse him from not chastising Ryan Dunn, Dunlap and the others. As the ringleader, so to speak, he has the responsibility on his shoulders for everything happening in his name. If these dopes want to hurt themselves and throw urine on one another, feel free. No one, outside those involved, gets hurt. But when property is destroyed for no good reason without any sense of remorse, people do get hurt. And that´s the sad part. Consequences never cross anyone´s mind while engaging in tomfoolery.
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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

MANswers, The Best of Season One


Forgive my stereotyping, but as I was watching "MANswers," I couldn't help picturing a group of male teens, maybe even college freshmen, gathered around Spike TV giggling like crazy; or possibly a single, middle-aged male slacker sitting on an old, overstuffed recliner in a cramped apartment, swilling beer. "MANswers" aims for the lowest possible audience mentality and hits the mark squarely. As journalist H.L. Mencken once wrote, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." It's totally mindless, witless, hapless, frivolous diversion that might, nevertheless, almost by accident hit the funny bone on occasion.

"MANswers: The Best of Season One" (2007) contains a succession of three-to-four minute segments that attempt to address some of Man's most pressing questions, like "How teeny can a bikini get before it's legally considered nudity?" or "How can you get drunk faster?" I suppose we can thank the "Jackass" TV series and movies for "MANswers." It's that kind of show, with each chapter punctuated by appropriately idiotic behavior and the expected bevy of scantily clad girls.

The disc contains a top-25 list culled from the program's first year on the air, with the chapters counting down. Here's a partial capsule report:

25: What's the best human organ to eat, the choicest cut? Like most of these segments, we get inane answers from common guys on the street and then a supposedly definitive answer from a doctor or an expert in the field. In this case, a nutritionist explains which human body part contains the most beneficial elements to eat. No, the phrase "Eat your heart out" does not apply.

24. What do the shape of a girl's boobs tell you about her personality? Clearly, the filmmakers based their answer on extensive research.

23. What's the most dangerous wild animal in America? Bears? Mountain lions? Shucks, not even close. Hint: Think Bambi.

22. How can you make your girlfriend less bitchy? This question pretty much admits that only guys are watching the program, as if the show's title didn't already give it away.

21. Is the death touch for real? Yes. Probably. Maybe. Could be. Who knows. There's actually a moment in this segment that made me smile.

20. What kind of girls are the best in bed? Uh huh. The show frames each question in big white letters on a gray background in the manner of old-time newsreels. I'm not sure if the filmmakers meant this to be intentionally funny or not.

19. How many floors can you fall in an elevator and still survive? Did you know that about thirty times more people die every year in elevator accidents than die by grizzly bear attacks? Did you care?
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The Eye


"The Crawling Eye," "Cat's Eye," "The Hypnotic Eye," "Dead Eye," Red Eye," "Blind Eye," "The Magic Eye," "The Evil Eye," "The Glass Eye," "Popeye," "An Eye for an Eye," "Eye of the Stranger," "The Hills Have Eyes," "The Beast With a Million Eyes," "Evil Eyes," "Deadly Eyes," "Night Eyes," "Snake Eyes," "Terror Eyes," "Cats' Eyes," "Black Eyes," "Dark Eyes," "Deadly Eyes," "Eyes of Laura Mars," "Eyes of a Stranger," "The Man With No Eyes," "Eyes Wide Shut," "For Your Eyes Only," "Eye Only Have Ice for You,".... No, wait, don't stop me; I'm having fun, even if I'm getting a little giddy.

You get the idea. There must be hundreds of movies with "Eye" or "Eyes" in the title, most of them horror flicks. So why not yet another one, this time with a title that shows remarkable conciseness; it's simply "The Eye." No beating around the eyebrows (or browbeating) with this title; it gets right to the point. Of course, like so many horror films these days, this 2008 release is a remake of an Asian picture, one that the Hong Kong-born Pang brothers made in 2002 called "Gin Gwai" (or "Jian Gui"), which translated means, as I understand it, "Seeing Ghosts." I like "The Eye" better. The title, I mean. More succinct.

OK, enough of this goofiness. Let's get down to some serious silliness. The first thing you've got to do to enjoy "The Eye" is accept Jessica Alba as a blind concert violinist. Yeah, I know what you're thinking--a disabled nuclear scientist maybe or a deaf neurosurgeon, but a blind violinist is a stretch. You'd be right. She was more convincing in "Dark Angel," "Sin City," and "Fantastic Four." Here, we've got to extend her a good deal of patience and good will to get through.

Alba plays Sydney Wells, a young woman who lost her sight when she was five years old. Now in her twenties and a successful musician, Sydney decides it's time for a cornea transplant--new eyes. Ah, if only she'd seen "Mad Love" ("The Hands of Orlac"), she'd have known that you don't go around transplanting body parts that once belonged to troubled people. At least in the movies you don't.

No sooner does Sydney get her new eyes than she begins seeing things moving in the shadows. She reaches out, but they're not there. One of the things she sees is the person in the hospital bed next hers, just after her operation; only the person has just died and has already been moved. Then she begins seeing whole new rooms around her, entirely new landscapes that aren't really there, and the recurring vision of a blazing fire. She even sees a strange face in the mirror in place of her own.

The eye specialist who tries to help her adjust to her new sight, Dr. Paul Faulkner (Alessandro Nivola), thinks she's hallucinating. On the other hand, it's hard to trust him as he appears to have been watching too much "House." Instead of diagnosing her problem in a reasonable manner or recommending her to a good psychiatrist, he basically just yells at her.

Likewise, Sydney's sister, Helen (Parker Posey, wasted in a role that provides her maybe two lines), refuses to accept that Sydney's visions could be anything more than imagination, vivid nightmares brought on possibly by Sydney's new ability to see for the first time in years.

Is Sydney dreaming? Or has she inherited memories of the eyes' former owner--"cellular memory" as it's called. Why is she seeing dead people? Where are Bruce Willis or Haley Joel Osment when you need them?

"The Eye" moves along like almost every Asian horror movie you've ever seen, remake or not. It relies heavily on slow atmospherics rather than genuine suspense or even overt shocks, although there are several instances where the directors, David Moreau ("IIs," "Back to Saint Tropez") and Xavier Palud ("IIs"), do try to startle us with sudden loud noises and entities jumping out seemingly from nowhere. They're effective for the moment, but they cannot replace a sustained tension, which the film fails to produce.
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Meet The Browns [2-disc Special Edition (w/DIGITAL COPY)]


I "get" Angela Bassett. But I'll be the first to admit that I don't understand what makes Tyler Perry popular. I just don't get the racial stereotypes and caricatures. In "Meet the Browns," Bassett throws herself into it as if she were doing something serious and important, like "A Raisin in the Sun." The rest of the cast, meanwhile, thinks they're doing "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps." The better Bassett's performance gets, the more it underscores how this feels like two movies trying to be one. I know that Perry wrote, directed, and produced "Meet the Browns," but it still feels as if Perry bought the rights to a Lifetime made-for-TV drama and as an afterthought added the zaniest elements from his 2004 stage play.

One of the focal points of that play was a bombastic character named Madea, played dinner-theater over the top (like most of the characters) by Perry himself. Madea makes an appearance here too, with Perry also handling the role of Joe, but the film version mostly showcases Bassett and the fictional Browns (real-life spouses David and Tamela Mann). When the story follows Bassett's character--a single mom named Brenda Brown who lives in Chicago's projects--it feels serious and heartfelt. But despite Bassett's efforts to elevate the material, it also smacks of melodrama--a familiar story that heads straight for the emotions and thrives on stereotypes. Bassett adds soul and earnestness to her character, but that still doesn't keep Brenda from being a cliché. She's the typical good mom trying to make ends meet with different fathers for each of her three children, one of whom is a teenaged basketball star with drug-dealing friends. All you have to do is remember your Chekhov--If there's a gun in the story, either it's going to go off or not, and if it's not going to be fired, why is it in the story?--and you know there's going to be at least one crisis that's the result of those bad friends. But things are too hunky-dory in the Browns' world. Even after the crisis, we get a quick and total return to normal, as if nothing happened. Chicago is the violence capital of the world, lately, but the projects never looked so attractive. It's also the quickest undermining of a crisis that I've ever seen in a film. Another head-snapper is that Brenda looks and dresses awfully Marie Claire for a single mom who doesn't have the money to pay her electric bill. But none of it is enough to make you forget how familiar her character is, or how often we've seen the smooth-talking basketball recruiter (former L.A. Laker Rick Fox) who tries to ingratiate himself with Brenda in order to land to her talented son, Michael (Lance Gross).

Perhaps the biggest caricature comes with Brenda's best friend, a Latina named Cheryl (Sofia Vergara) who dresses like a hoochie and can't talk without unleashing a barrage of verbal attitude. Then there's the Browns. The over-the-top Browns. We get to meet them the same time that Brenda does: after her father dies, and her half-siblings send her bus tickets Georgia so she and her brood can attend the funeral. Why would she want to go, when she never even met her father? Well, her Latina friend suggests, maybe her father was loaded and she might get the money to solve all her problems here in Chicago. Then, in what's positively the worst bit of editing I've ever seen, suddenly Brenda and her children are getting off the bus in Georgia. Huh? It's almost like those old Warner Brothers cartoon jump cuts, where one minute Elmer Fudd grabs Bugs by the ears in the field, and then as he drops him the backdrop and scene changes suddenly so it's an interior and he's dropping the wascally wabbit into a big iron kettle. And what a stew these folks from Chicago have been dropped into.

The Brown siblings are a bunch of ill-mannered, borderline buffoons who bicker a lot and can't wait for the reading of the will so they can see what Daddy left them. Someone irritates you? Just push 'em on top of Daddy's grave at the funeral. There are some familiar faces here, like the always believable Margaret Avery ("The Color Purple"), along with Frankie Faison ("Coming to America") and the irrepressible Jenifer Lewis ("The Preacher's Wife"). If you isolate all of their performances, they're just fine. But put them all together, and it's too much to take, as so many family gatherings are. How Brenda gets the warm fuzzies around this clan is a mystery to me.
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Family Ties [TV Series] [Season 4]


For a while, "Family Ties" was as "in" as big hair and shoulder pads. Like "The Cosby Show," it was an Eighties' staple that gave viewers likeable characters who were more than just excuses for jokes or standard sitcom plots. Viewers discovered the show its third season, when it finished Number 5 in the Nielsen's as the second highest rated sitcom. The Cosby clan finished third. The following year-this season-"Family Ties" would finish second to "The Cosby Show" again, only this time they were ranked Number 1 and Number 2.

Viewers loved the Keatons almost as much as they did the Huxtables. Steven and Elyse Keaton (Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter-Birney) were former flower children who gave birth to children of a different decade: Alex (Michael J. Fox), a Young Republican who only thinks about money and personal success; Mallory (Justine Bateman), a shallow-thinker whose only interests are fashion and boys; and Jennifer (Tina Yothers), an athletic sibling who's the centrist of the family. This season there's also Andrew Keaton, who was born the end of the third season.

The plots are surprisingly driven by the characters' personalities rather than the standard sitcom recycled narratives--with the exception of the season opener, that is. In what's probably the weakest episode, the season opener was a 90-minute made-for-TV movie that was filmed on location in London. The Keatons, en route to Oxford, where Alex has been accepted, take a family vacation without the baby and get involved with spies. And so you have the smart humor of the show giving way to situational comedy of the most familiar sort: bumbling secret agents and equally bumbling Scotland Yard detectives. Throw in a Lord (John Moulder-Brown) who has been designated as Alex's roommate and who falls hard for Mallory, and you get a fairly silly show that fans will still enjoy watching because after all, these are the Keatons.

The show gets quickly on-track again, though. This is the season where Alex and Mallory find themselves in new opposites-attract situations, with Alex falling for a liberal art major named Ellen (Tracy Pollan, who went on to become Fox's real-life wife), and Mallory being wooed and wowed by a crude, blue-collar motorcycle-riding artist named Nick (Scott Velentine). And neighbor-friend Irwin "Skippy" Handelman (Marc Price) is still around to wish he were the one dating Mallory.

Here's how the other 24 episodes (not counting "Family Ties Vacation") play out. They're on four single-sided discs and housed in a standard-size keep case that has a middle "page" to hold two of the discs, with the episode guide printed on the inside cover (which, yes, you'll have to take out to read):

1-2) "The Real Thing," Pts. 1&2. Alex decides to date a good-looking coed he picked out of the Freshman yearbook, but ends up falling for her roommate instead. So much so that the success-conscious Alex even blows an essay exam.

3) "Mr. Wrong." No one in the family seems to like Mallory's new boyfriend, Nick, and they try to get her to see that he's not the one for her.

4) "Designated Hitter." Jennifer gets a love interest in this episode, but the tomboy blows it when she punches out a guy who's bullying her intended.
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Avida


The French surrealist comedy "Avida" is best appreciated as a series of darkly comic vignettes and not as a narrative whole. Frankly, it wasn´t until I read the back of the box that I became aware the film even possessed an ostensibly cohesive story, but its episodic nature was compelling enough to have kept my interest throughout its duration.

The plot, once understood, is summarized easily enough: a trio of zookeepers (Eric Martin alongside co-writers and directors Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern) kidnap a wealthy woman (French plus-sized model Velvet D´Amour) and her dog and retreat into the mountains.

But this is a movie where the main thrust of the story is incidental to its overall purpose, which is an exercise in satirical nonsense. The film may make perfect sense in the minds of its creators, but from a viewers´ standpoint, it´s more like sifting through dirt and occasionally finding a gold nugget.

The film´s proverbial nuggets are its moments of comedy and satire. Though the film is rooted in absurdity, it is not so awash in nonsense as to render it indecipherable. "Long live death," a character announces early on, setting the film´s macabre and ironic tone.

In one of the film´s great scenes, we witness a business-type make enter his modern home. He sits down and listens to music. Through several large windows in the background we watch one of the zookeepers (Kervern) try to manage the man´s guard dogs. A fire is started and the man´s technologically advanced home becomes a deathtrap. I won´t reveal the hilarious fate he awaits, but it is a very effective scene both in terms of physical humor (watching Kervern wrestle the dogs is a joy) and satire (see what reliance on technology gets you?) Also, the largely silent sequence is evocative of Jacques Tati.

Tati is not the only point of reference. There´s also the dream logic of David Lynch, the unrestrained fantasy of Crispin Glover (I speak of his work as a director), the early surrealism of Luis Bunuel (and his collaborator Salvador Dali, who is referenced here overtly), John Waters´ predilection to depict society´s outcasts (particularly having a fat woman as a major character) and the mountainous landscapes of Alejandro Jordowsky.

By listing all of these references, I in no way mean to characterize "Avida´s" creators as plagiarists. Rather, like many artists, they draw on what has come before them and make it their own. I wish that all of the film were as successful as the early home scene, or the black humor of the zoo scene (where visitors can eat the animal they´ve just seen), but a lot of the movie appears to be odd for oddness´ sake, which doesn´t do much for me. The last third in particular takes on a verbosity and languidness that do much to sap the fun out of the adventure.
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Hybrid


"Hybrid" is the latest in the Maneater Series by Genius Products and RHI Entertainment. These films are creature of the week films originally broadcasted on the Sci-Fi Channel. Don´t expect high works of art.

"Hybrid" begins with Dr. Andrea Hewlett (Justine Bateman) giving an informed talk to a gaggle of doctors and scientists about her latest breakthrough. Dr. Hewlett has successfully completed the first ever inter-species transplant by giving a baboon with glaucoma the eyes of a Siberian wolf. She asks for her audience´s help in carrying out the next stage of her work, human test subjects. Two simultaneous events occur that will change everything.

Lydia (Tinsel Korey) is hiking through the woods when she comes across an injured wolf. She takes him to a veterinarian only to find that he gave the wolf to Dr. Hewlett´s research firm. Meanwhile, at an oil drilling site, Aaron Scates (Cory Monteith) rescues a co-worker from a raging fire, but suffers severe eye damage in the process. Aaron´s doctors turn him over to the care of Dr. Hewlitt who replaces the damaged eyes with the wolf´s. However, the process works in ways completely unexpected. Aaron is soon plagued by visions of roaming the wilderness and hunting the local fauna. He also begins displaying extraordinary senses, strength, and reflexes. Aaron is taken in by Lydia who has been investigating Dr. Hewlitt in search of her missing wolf. The two go on the run from the military (led by a colonel who looks an awful lot like G. Gordon Liddy) as they have made significant investments to the good doctor´s research.

"Hybrid" isn´t quite a werewolf movie. Aaron doesn´t howl at the moon, grow furry palms, or exhibits weakness to silver. The film tries to ground the story with some semblance of scientific reality. But, we´re talking about junk science. The kind where all the characters use big words in the vein attempt to make it seem like the writer actually did a tiny bit of research. How exactly does having a pair of wolf eyes give Aaron the ability to leap several stories with ease? How do the eyes affect his sense of hearing and smell? With "The Eye," you could sort of buy into the eyes of a dead person haunting their recipient. I buy nothing that "Hybrid" is selling.
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Scorpion King


Note: The following review contains portions from the previous HD-DVD review of "The Mummy." The technical sections for Video, Audio and Extras have been updated to reflect the differences between the two formats´ releases. The entire review has been re-edited and updated, but the majority of the text is simply recycled from the earlier review.

The 1999 film "The Mummy" was quite successful and a sequel was quickly developed and rushed into production, arriving two years later. This second film is a formulaic sequel that films at times like a rehash of the original and includes all of the primary characters from the first film and introduces a second villain in the form of the Scorpion King, who is brought to life by wrestling´s Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. "The Mummy Returns" succeeds easily in delivering the fun and excitement of the first film. This is another picture that is wall-to-wall action that doesn´t relent until the credits roll and even then you are expecting something else to happen. The film is a bit unusual in the fact that even the nemesis of the first film is written back into the story and has an important role in the second film. The franchise continuation I had surmised would have been to have Rick O´Connell (Brendan Fraser) set out on all new adventures and face different foes and circumstances, but "The Mummy Returns" is a sequel for its heroes and its villains.

The events of the film take place roughly eight years after the first film. Rick O´Connell and Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) married just after the defeated Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) and now have a son, Alex (Freddie Boath). Alex is a smart and curious boy who works with his parents on their archeological digs and is inventive and poised to continue in his father´s footsteps. One night, at the O´Connell manor, Alex takes a shiny gold bracelet and replaces it with a candlestick to emulate it weight. He puts on the bracelet, and is shown a holographic image of ancient Egypt. He is also unable to remove the bracelet from his arm. The bracelet is that of Anubis and it will lead the wearer to an Oasis and is useful in the reincarnation of the Scorpion King, a warrior who sold his soul to Anubis in exchange for almighty power in conquering his rivals in a bloody war five thousand years earlier and upon his return, possesses the powers to destroy the modern world.

The princess shown during the Imhotep flashbacks in the first film, Meela Nais (Patricia Velasquez) has been reincarnated and is working towards reincarnating Imhotep once again. This time, Imhotep is needed to battle the forthcoming return of the Scorpion King and gaining control over the vast armies of Anubis. Meela and Imhotep are not the only reincarnated folk in the sequel. Both Rick and Evie previously existed in ancient Egypt. O´Connell was a Medjai warrior and was in charge of protecting the princess Meela. Evie is the true reincarnation of the princess Nefertiri, who was to protect the bracelet from evil doers in ancient times. To cleanly summarize these reincarnations, Rick formerly protected Evie, who formerly protected the bracelet from the likes of Imhotep and Meela. Of course, young Alex is the only person that can use the bracelet and this all is used to explain how Rick and Evie were destined to be together and how they form three sides of a pyramid that represents a cycle of power and reincarnation of the ancient powers of Anubis.

The film features many exciting and action filled sequences as the family of reincarnated ancients battle Imhotep and the Scorpion King´s legions. Ardeth Bey (Oded Fehr) returns to join his friends and help bring an end to the forces of evil and Jonathan (John Hannah) is back with his bumbling ways to slow down the efforts of Rick and Evie as they battle pygmies, mummies and the War Dogs of Anubis. My personal favorite sequences involved the Double-Decker bus chase through the ancient streets of London, as the O´Connell clan is chased by four amazingly quick and amazingly agile mummies. This scene occurred fairly early in the film and set the tone for the roller coaster ride that followed until the poorly rendered CGI Scorpion King monster battled against our favorite hero.

When it comes to sequels, "The Mummy Returns" is an above average attempt. It ups the octane of the action and presents far grander action sequences and events for the film´s hero and heroine to be thrust into. The film´s plot works in conjunction with the previous film and makes for a clean ´Second Chapter´ to the story of Imhotep. With all of the major characters returning, aside from the deceased Benny, "The Mummy Returns" benefits from its humorous and colorful characters. I loved the first film because it was just fun to watch. The second film is just as entertaining as the first and is another perfect example of a summer popcorn film. The writers of the first film were onto something when they decided to forgo the original intention of revisiting the 1932 monster film with another entry in the horror genre and instead decided to mimic the "Indiana Jones" films of the Eighties. The films have Saturday Serial feeling and are the sort of mindless escapism that helps make a relaxing summer an even better time of year.

I did not particularly enjoy the manner in which the plot brought ancient Egyptian routes to Rick and Evie. It cemented the Rick O´Connell character into the Mummy story and abused the amount of convenience I will typically allow a popcorn film. The character just battling mummies and ancient Egyptian War Dogs would have been cool enough, but forcing him as an intricate part of the backstory and mythology just felt cheap and lessened the ability to send O´Connell on more adventures in future films. Yes, it did create a more coherent and tightly woven story between the two "Mummy" films, but I just disliked how everybody fit into the same jigsaw puzzle that was ultimately created to explain how everybody fit neatly together and everybody needed to fight in the battle between Imhotep and the Scorpion King. This is a franchise that is supposed to be fun. There is no need to come up with crazy concepts to explain things. The audience is fully prepared to just go with the thrills and excitement of the film. We don´t want heroes that are willed by their ancient ancestry to fight the good fight. We just want them to do so and to crack a few cheesy one liners in the process.

Regardless, I enjoy "The Mummy Returns" almost as much as I did the first film. The visual effects are an improvement over the first film and the filmmakers did a fine job of coming up with a sequel so shortly after the success of the original film. These movies would not have succeeded without the work of Brendan Fraser. He IS the franchise and is one of the sole returning characters in the upcoming third film. I had initially hoped for an all new adventure for the second film, but this continuation of the original story worked just fine. This is another film that I can sit back to and just enjoy. I don´t have to dedicate 100% of my attention to it, but it helps pass a night when I just want to relax and not leave the house. It was meant to be a fun film and it does its job with aplomb. The only complaints I have are the decision to make Rick and Evie mythical entities and the horrible CGI Scorpion King at the film´s end. A sequel is seldom superior to the original, so I can accept these flaws and still enjoy the film.
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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Doomsday


Imitation is sometimes considered flattery. There are other times when imitation is quite simply ripping other´s ideas off. It can be a good thing and it can be a good thing. Cinema has always been a medium that is prone to imitation and whether it be Hollywood releasing two very similar and competing big budget pictures in the same year or film being copycatted for the next decade, Tinseltown loves to copy. Did we really need "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon" in one year´s time? How about "Volcano" or "Dante´s Peak?" Just how many films were ´inspired´ by "The Blair Witch Project" and is there a cookie cutter out there shaped like Quentin Tarantino?

"Doomsday" is a film riddled by inspiration; or as writer/director Neil Marshall calls it, ´homage.´ The film is an example of patchwork cinema and combines elements from "Escape From New York," "The Road Warrior," "The Omega Man" and numerous other pictures to create the experience in "Doomsday." Some aspects of "Doomsday" are true inspirations and the film pays homage to movies such as "Excalibur" with a little medieval artistry and the street-wise apocalyptic sense of "The Warriors." Other influences and inspirations were a little more obscure, such as the hint of cannibalism intended as a nod to the film "A Boy and His Dog." Marshall loves apocalyptic cinema and gives his film a few very nice touches.

Then there were the blatant rip-offs such as the eye patch and deadly fight in the apocalyptic city that was lifted directly from "Escape From New York" and the "Road Warrior" like street chase as the main characters were trying to flee to freedom. Marshall went as far as injecting plot points into his movie to explain the eye patch and I couldn´t help but draw parallels to the pivotal fight scene where the hero finds herself locked into combat with a loved champion gladiator and is a heavy underdog and the weapons are primitive, but painfully deadly. The ´gimp´ character should easily remind viewers of the Mad Max films and also "Pulp Fiction" in what was very painfully obvious homage.

From the very early moments when Scotland is walled off by the military to prevent the spread of the Reaper super virus, "Doomsday" is a familiar thrill ride that is entertaining, but far from original. Having been a fan of many of the films that sparked the fancy of Marshall, I was more than familiar with many of the homage and references that created the picture. There were more than a few scenes that gave me reason to grin in enjoyment as an experience I had loved from a previous picture had found its way into Marshall´s film. The "Road Warrior" scenes were of particular enjoyment although I had difficulty believing these post-apocalyptic jalopies could keep up with a gorgeous Bentley.

"Doomsday" is fun. It is one of those pictures that are meant to be enjoyed for the fast pace and excitement that is contained among its hastily edited frames. Neil Marshall served as writer, director and editor and his influence is felt throughout the film. His previous effort "The Descent" was a warm surprise as a horror film that borrowed from previous benchmark horror films, but that picture had a little something more going for it. The writing was better and that picture contained suspense and I was able to invest a little compassion towards the characters. The characters in "Doomsday" were cold and callous and I didn´t particularly care if they survived or perished, with the exception of the character portrayed by former Marshall collaborator MyAnna Buring.

To touch on the plot, "Doomsday" finds Scotland a barren wasteland after a wall was built around the nation and borders were closed to contain the lethal Reaper virus. A young girl is taken by a military helicopter after losing an eye from shrapnel. Years later that girl is revealed to be Eden (Rhona Mitra) and she is a deadly member of the Department of Domestic Security (DDS) and an officer among their ranks. When the Reaper virus returns and infects London, Eden is sent by the Prime Minister (Alexander Siddig) and her chief Bill Nelson (Bob Hoskins) to infiltrate Scotland and find survivors that were viewed by reconnaissance satellites. She is made leader of the team, which includes two armed troop transports.

It isn´t long before Eden and her team makes first contact with the survivors, but it isn´t a pleasant experience as Eden´s team is brutalized and mangled. Those that Eden and her team find are a large band of punk-rock influenced cannibals who are led by the enigmatic Sol (Craig Conway). While captive, Sol questions Eden as to her purpose in Scotland and shows his intentions by barbequing one of her subordinates. All of this comes after a rousing remembrance of the Fine Young Cannibals hit song "Good Thing." Eden manages to escape, but discovers Sol´s sister Cally (MyAnna Buring) is also captive and that Cally can lead her to find Dr. Kane (Malcolm McDowell), who may have a cure for the virus.

Eden, Cally and the surviving members of her team manage to escape Sol and his barbaric "Mad Max" tribesmen. However, they find themselves again captive to some murderous knights who seem comfortable living in the castles of Scotland and reviving Feudalism and the medieval times. Here Eden comes face to face with Dr. Kane and he makes her aware of his intentions to keep his followers from knowing about London and the world of technology. To keep the peace, Kane subjects Eden to a gladiatorial fight against his master-at-arms and lead executioner. In Snake Plissken form, Eden pulls out the underdog victory and finds escape in the form of a Bentley Continental GT.

I´ll discontinue my discussion of the plot, but the "Road Warrior" auto combat scenes are still left in the balance as well as a reveal about the intentions of the Prime Minister and a little more truths about the state of the Reaper virus in London. Eden, who is one of the most unlikable heroes in recent history, manages to serve as both heroine and anti-hero when the story unfolds and I found the pictures climactic car combat was betrayed by a disappointing ending. With a film that contained so much high adrenaline action, the anti-climactic final scenes seemed too laden in exposition and did not provide any closure. One must wonder if a sequel was not hoped for.

The acting in "Doomsday" is serviceable. Lead actress Rhona Mitra is alright as the heroine, but her performance lacks the grit and tough charisma that Kurt Russell brought to Snake Plissken in "Escape From New York." The picture does not take advantage of having a strong female hero and leaves poor Rhona feeling flat. Supporting actors MyAnna Buring and Adrian Lester run around and perform their tasks, but they hardly memorable in their performances. Craig Conway was a load of fun as the ambitions and crazed leader of the ´Punk Rockers´ and my favorite scene in the film involved him prancing around a stage to the FYC song "Good Thing." Malcolm McDowell and Bob Hoskins provided some street cred to the movie, but these veteran actors are far from their glory days when McDowell had his Droogs and Hoskins had Jessica Rabbit.

There were things I liked about "Doomsday" and there were other things that I did not find too terribly special. It is a conglomerate of concepts borrowed from other films and it is an apocalyptic film that reminds us of so many other apocalyptic films. It is unoriginal, but spirited. The action is entertaining, but the story and characters are underwhelming. "Doomsday" is a movie that is all spectacle with no heart. If you enjoy good B-movie thrills or fondly remember the Grindhouse, then "Doomsday" will probably appeal to you. This isn´t a movie you will ever want to watch for great acting or an riveting story, but if you like loud explosions, blood and over-the-top apocalyptic action, then "Doomsday" might be infectious enough for you.
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The Band's Visit


The opening scene is almost like a mime's routine. At an airport, a man leaves the driver's side of a white van and slowly walks to the back, opens the doors, and pulls out a bright yellow exercise ball. He puts the ball into the passenger seat, and the screen goes black for script narration: "Once, not long ago, a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this, it was not that important." And the van drives away, revealing eight stiff-looking men in blue uniforms, standing in a row on the sidewalk in the distance. Then, as the men remain motionless in the background, a baggage handler walks across the foreground of the screen, wheeling a single suitcase.

That type of subtle, undercutting humor continues throughout this charming film, which seems to downplay its own "importance" in every frame. It's a slice-of-life film that just happens to involve fish-out-of-water Egyptians experiencing an Israeli slice of life. Meet the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra, who have traveled to Israel to play an invited concert at the local Arab Culture Center. As this group follows its stoic, old-school leader-first, on a bus ride to the wrong town, and then wheeling their bags and instruments from the bus stop to the buildings in this remote hamlet-the eight men are dwarfed by the expanse of desert, by the skyline of uniform apartment housing, and by a world that is getting ready to pass them by. The Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra is in danger of losing its funding, and a botched concert isn't going to help.

In town, they approach the first sign of life: a small restaurant with tables out front, in which two Israeli men sit, both fascinated and indifferent. The place is run by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a sexy older woman whose jeans, long hair, and easy manner clearly ruffle the Muslim visitors . . . especially the leader, Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai). The most unrattled band member is the tallest, youngest, and newest member: a would-be womanizer named Haled (Saleh Bakri), whose flirtation with the bus station worker may have been indirectly responsible for the band ending up in the wrong location. As Tawfiq approaches Dina and asks if she could please tell him where the Arab Culture Center is, she tells them, like a tough and savvy female who probably served in the Israeli army (since there are pictures of tanks and such all over her restaurant), that there is no Arab Culture Center, no Israeli Culture Center, no culture center of any kind. No culture at all--which is echoed in a humorous punchline from one of the men sitting outside. This is the kind of humor we get in "The Band's Visit," a mostly subtle and wry look at life. The most outrageous scene comes later at a roller rink, where Haled is trying to coach his young Israeli host how to respond to a young woman. The three of them sit on a bench, the girl weeping far left, and Haled on the far right. He whispers first, but then hands his new friend a handkerchief, which he offers to the woman. Then Haled puts his hand on the man's knee, and, getting the message, the man does the same to the woman. Then comes the knee massage, and finally the arm around the shoulder. Though Haled stops short of the kiss, by this time the timid Israeli has gotten the point. It's a scene that you really have to see to experience how funny it is, and one that bears rewatching. That's the way it is with a number of scenes in this understated comedy that's as deadpan throughout as Tawfiq, with his old-guard emphasis on honor and tradition.
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Young Yakuza


Since nowhere on its DVD box does it say, I spent the first half-hour or so of Jean-Pierre Limosin´s "Young Yakuza" silently debating whether it was a piece of fiction or a documentary.

If a fictional narrative, I wrote in my notebook, I really enjoyed the observatory approach and realistic nature of the film. It did an excellent job of introducing us into the world of the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia) through the eyes of its protagonist Naoki Watanabe, a layabout who gets involved with the organized crime outfit because his mother is worried about his development process. Apparently in Japan, having one´s son join a gang is a solution to that problem.

And what do you know, it is. Watanabe doesn´t get into any trouble with the law--there´s no time. He´s too busy cleaning the outfit´s office and preparing the boss´s meals to have time to do much else. Plus, it seems like the Yakuza don´t do much more than hold meetings, pontificate and go through their sock drawers. Seriously.

"Deep immersion into the narrative," I wrote in my notes, "I was worried I would have to memorize all of Watanabe´s responsibilities as well." As it turns out, the reason for the film´s smashing verisimilitude is that it is in fact a documentary. I was clued into when Watanabe´s boss, Kumagai, starting speaking to the camera directly.
It was about this time that the picture ceased to be as riveting as it once was, and not just because I realized it wasn´t fiction. After introducing Watanabe (and, by extension, the viewer) as a new member of the Yakuza community, nothing new or compelling happens. Watanabe jaw-jacks with his fellow errand boys and washes a few dishes and backs while Kumagai tells the camera about his personal philosophies and pines for the good old days, when being a Yakuza meant something.
Based on this documentary, it doesn´t mean much now. I have no idea what Kumagai does all day except drink tea, take meetings and air his thoughts. He may as well be in a retirement home. He seems wealthy, but the film never tells us how he makes his money. The police don´t like the Yakuza, but aren´t aggressively pursuing them. The reasons behind that are never explained. Eventually even Watanabe gets bored of the film and disappears for a half-an-hour of screentime. We´re never told where he went.

This leads me into the weakest element of the doc: a lack of context. As a stranger to this world, I was ready to drink up any information it divulged, but the bits and pieces provided by the film do not add up to a cohesive hole. When was the Yakuza´s heyday? What did they do? What contributed to its decline? Kumagai offers a facile explanation for this--hip-hop is to blame--but where is Limosin´s historical perspective? I can appreciate that he keeps his lens within the Yakuza community to an extent, but an outside view would have gone a long way to elucidate matters, particularly since the most exciting thing that happens within this particular crime circle is that we learn Kumagai likes his tea cup to face a certain direction. "Young Yakuza" is like the first episode in a special series on the Yakuza, only the remaining episodes never got made.
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