Sunday, August 10, 2008

Biography: Barack Obama

This is a review of two simultaneous releases from the Biography Channel: "Barack Obama" and "John McCain." Each program is 47 minutes long. The review has been cross-posted to be listed under each title.

Ann Coulter calls him B. Hussein Obama. Fox News likens his oratory style to Chairman Mao and Hitler, though in a fair and balanced way. But just who is Barack Obama? According to this puff piece from Biography, he´s just a plain old-fashioned family guy like you and me.

You probably know the story by now, and if you do you aren´t going to learn much more from this program. Obama is the son of a mixed marriage couple, Barack Sr. from Kenya and Kansas-born Ann Durham who met at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. You have probably heard through sound bites that Barack´s father left his wife and son which is true, but the more detailed version is that he returned to Kenya to work as an economist, ironically (considering his son´s campaign rhetoric) working for an oil company. He had a brief reunion with Barack Jr. before returning to Kenya once more and dying shortly after an automobile accident at the age of 46.

Ann Durham remarried and the family moved to Indonesia. In the warped universe of Fox News, this is where Obama attended a madrasah though the reality-based term for it is simply a school. To further complicate the picture, Obama then went back to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents then moved to Los Angeles and eventually New York, Chicago and Boston, logging significant time in just about all the blue-state capitals. He moved to Boston to go to Harvard where he became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review.

Race is such a strange concept, a social construct with no biological basis. Obama is identified as Black presumably because his skin is dark, and because of our need to categorize people by race. Certainly Obama has identified with the African-American community through school and community work, and the identification appears to be both a boon and a potential negative in the current presidential race. Regardless, it is a testament to the shifting cultural norms that a man with a black father, a white mother and the middle name Hussein can be the nominee of a major political party in America.

The program briefly touches on a few controversies in Obama´s life such as his admitted drug use in college, but mostly soft-pedals a heroic image of the man. We hear from his friends and family what a great guy he is, and hear nothing from his critics. There´s not much surprising information offered here. The only thing I didn´t know about was Obama´s visit to Kenya and his reunion with his father´s family.

The McCain documentary is every bit as much of a propaganda piece as the Obama program. The show plays willingly into John McCain´s image as "The Maverick." Even when talking about his troubled time in school (both high school and the U.S. Naval Academy), he is portrayed as a romantic rebel like James Dean. Like George Custer, McCain graduated near the bottom of his class, and apparently didn´t give a damn about him.
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Reno 911: The Complete Fifth Season

For its first few seasons "Reno 911" was a show that was consistently at the top of my "must watch" list. The antics of the inept members of the Reno Sheriff's Department seemed to deliver an endless supply of great gags and hilariously inappropriately funny moments. But now in its fifth season, the humor well seems to have dried up, probably due to its writers returning to it far too often for the same joke. Yeah, the entire Sheriff's Department of Reno, Nevada, is full of idiots; we get it. While it was funny for a couple of years, they had better think of something new if they're going to bother to return for a sixth season.

"Reno 911," a blatant parody of Fox's long-running "Cops," first appeared on the cable channel Comedy Central back in the summer of 2003. Created by Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenney, and Ben Garant, "Reno 911" garnered a considerable amount of interest from comedy fans. Which is not surprising considering this was a show from three of the founding members of the group responsible for the greatest sketch comedy show of all time, "The State." In addition to creating the show and writing the basic plot outlines (most of the script is improvised), the three comedians also star as Deputies Travis Junior (Garant) and Trudy Wiegel (Kenney), and Lieutenant Jim Dangle (Lennon). Five other deputies round out the cast, but the majority of the show rests upon the shoulders of the three creators, who appear in most of the scenes. Of the remaining regular cast, the true standout is Cedric Yarbrough as Jones, the force's lone black male deputy. His comedic timing is impeccable as proven in the Season Three episode "…and the Instillation is Free."

The best part of "Reno 911" has always been the actors and comedians who are cast as criminals, suspects, or victims. Easily the best and most beloved recurring character/cast member is Terry, the moronic male hooker who talks like a Valley girl... er, boy… er, girl? And is portrayed to perfection by Nick Swardson, one of the best comedians working today. Terry is constantly getting caught attempting to solicit sex, and while the locations may change one thing does not: Terry's always on skates. In addition to Swardson, several other "name" jokesters have appeared on the show: dork god Patton Oswalt, the great Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, VH1's Michael Ian Black, Brian Posehn, George Lopez, and many more. Even the gambler himself, Kenny Rodgers, showed up for a couple of episodes in an early season.
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Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds 3-D Concert

Even if you don't have a little girl or a 'tween who has a crush or wants to be like her, you have to know who Hannah Montana is. After all, when the "Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus Best of Both Worlds Concert" opened across the country, shows sold out within a half hour, and parents were exhibiting all sorts of crazy behavior just to try to snag tickets--something we really haven't seen since the Beanie Baby and Cabbage Patch Doll madness. Tickets were reportedly going for as much as a thousand dollars, and radio stations held all sorts of promotions to basically see just how far parents were willing to go in order to please their little Disney princesses. And if you couldn't get a ticket, well, you could stand in line again when the film version of the concert opened over Super Bowl weekend and set a new record by pulling in $29 million.

She's a phenomenon, really, and when you listen to Miley Cyrus sing or talk behind the scenes and realize how much it echoes the Jonas Brothers, who opened for her on this arena tour, you begin to understand that this is all part of the grand Disney princess philosophy. Miley talks about how grateful she is to Disney and fans for "allowing me to live my dream," while the Jonas Brothers are always talking about "livin' the dream." But in so doing, and emphasizing in their music and their appearances what a fine line separates them from their audiences, they're also selling the dream, in a way. They're rock princesses and princes, and boy, are the commoners adoring.

"Hannah Montana" is really a well-done television show, and so I had high hopes for this concert as well. Cyrus's dad, Billy Ray ("Achy Breaky Heart") seems like a down-to-earth guy and the whole family seems pretty well grounded. The TV show didn't feature overprocessed or dubbed singing, and so I was hoping the same would hold true here. And amazingly, it does. What we see is Miley, without too much make-up and singing her own songs, not just lip-synching. After some particularly athletic strutting, jumping, or dancing she's as out-of-breath as anyone, and takes a few shortcuts on the songs to make allowances. Yet, her voice doesn't falter. She's got that Tennessee twang, but she's proud of it, and the songs in this concert stay well within her natural range, affording her a comfort zone that really goes hand-in-hand with her down-home personality.

The stage is massive, with a runway that goes into the crowd and two ramps that go up toward the back of the stage on the left and right, and a giant monitor in the middle. Surprisingly, Cyrus's band is considerably older than she, including background singers Candice Accola and Kay Hanley, but maybe that's part of the Cyrus family plan for keeping her grounded and out of trouble. Stacy Jones handles drums and acts as musical director, Jamie Arentzen and Jaco Caraco do a nice job of playing a lively guitar that complements rather than competes with their star's singing and choreography, Mike Schmid is on keyboards, and former Billy Ray Cyrus bassist Vashon Johnson completes the band. Three arenas are thanked in the credits: Energy Solutions Arena, Scot Trade Center, and the Honda Center.

But make no mistake about it: the audience for this concert is 'tweens and younger. Parents will find it's not so bad to watch it with their kids, but it's not designed for them. Still, if you consider that pop icons are role models, there are far worse ones to have than Miley Cyrus. This is a tame and squeaky clean concert that still manages to be frenetic and fun. Kenny Ortega ("High School Musical") had the idea for this concert and did the choreography, and unlike the Vanity Fair spread, everything here is done in good taste. There's nothing your eight-year-old aspiring rock-star couldn't see or try herself.

Even as far as the glitz goes, it's kept pretty basic. Yes, there are a few pyrotechnics, but nothing like we often see in major arena concerts, and there's no attempt on Cyrus's part to vamp it up. After all, Mom and Dad are in the audience. Half of the songs she performs with her Hannah Montana blond wig, while the rest are with her natural, long curly hair. Curiously, there's no persona split and no recognition of the two "characters." It's as if the Hannah look were just part of the costume changes.

Though the Jonas Brothers opened for her, they appear on this film in the middle, brought onstage to do one song with Miley ("We Got the Party") and then taking over while she grabs some air backstage, doing "When You Look Me in the Eyes" and "Year 3000" with their own band. The rest is all Hannah/Miley onstage, intercut with behind-the-scenes footage that shows here interacting with family, the Jonas Brothers, and the extraordinarily large number of crew members backstage that help to put on a major show like this. There are a few nice moments, where we see Miley freaking out over a moment when guys almost drop her and she wants to abandon the routine, while her mother stands firm and says it's not going to happen again, trust your dancers, Ortega has made the necessary adjustments so their hands are on you at all times. Or we see her snapping photos of herself and various cast, just like any young girl might have done if they had gotten to wander those backstage corridors. We also see Ortega teaching her a microphone trick, and later, when Joe Jonas does the same trick she turns to Kenny and says, "You taught him that trick????" We see her father talking about how he likes her music because it's "real," with the example being a song she wrote about her grandfather who passed away, a song she performs in the concert. But perhaps the best clip shows fathers decked out in high heels and competing in a race to win four tickets to the concert. That could have been a bonus feature all by itself.

As far as the song list goes, there's not really a stinker among them, and that includes the choreography as well as the musical performance. Here's a rundown on the songs, some of which appear in clips rather than onstage:

"We Got the Party"
"Rock Star"
"Pumpin' up the Party"
"I Got Nerve"
"Let's Dance" (Miley co-wrote this one)
"Ready, Set, Don't Go" (Billy Ray's song about his daughter)
"Life's What You Make It"
"Just Like You"
"Old Blue Jeans"
"Nobody's Perfect"
"Best of Both Worlds"
"Who Said"
"We Got the Party" (with the Jonas Brothers)
"When You Look Me in the Eyes" (Jonas Brothers only)
"Year 3000" (Jonas Brothers only)
"Start All Over"
"See You Again" (Miley co-wrote)
"Right Here" (Miley co-wrote)
"I Miss You" (Miley co-wrote)
"Girls Night Out"
"If I Were a Movie"

In one of the songs Cyrus pays a kind of mild tribute to Madonna, where she dances with people dressed in Spanish attire. But that down-home look holds true here too, with Cyrus eschewing the high heels other dancers wear for the number and sporting athletic shoes. She does, after all, need them in a concert like this. In perhaps the most fun number, she and the backup singers and female dancers come out in Fifties'-style jackets and knee socks and skirts, looking a bit like roller derby queens, as they belt out "Girls Night Out." But all of the songs will have young viewers up and dancing along. It's a solid concert, and a solidly edited production that does a nice job of incorporating behind-the-scenes footage so that it comes at a time when Cyrus would be taking a natural breather and her band would maybe do a song without her. It all feels pretty organic, rather than an interruptive blend of documentary footage and concert tape. For that, credit director Bruce Hendricks. Nice job.
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Camp Rock [Extended Rock Star Edition]

Formulas aren't all bad. Every genre has them, and with "High School Musical" Disney all but created a new type of film, one they're going to use as a template until the public tires of it or until the formula stops working. In a way, that's no different from a football team that runs a set offense. Whether you're fans or the opposition, you pretty much know what's coming. It all boils down to how potent the potion--how good are the people, and how effective is their execution?

"Camp Rock," which aired as an original Disney Channel movie, was so heavily hyped that I was almost afraid to watch it. It was being pre-sold as this year's "High School Musical" (complete with product tie-ins), and that can raise some pretty high expectations. Then again, while "High School Musical" featured a cast of unknowns, "Camp Rock" had at least one thing going for it: this was to be a vehicle for the popular 'tweentastic singing group the Jonas Brothers. Surprisingly, the Brothers don't dominate the film. It's lead singer Joe Jonas who's this year's Zach Effron, paired opposite this year's Vanessa Hudgins, a little-known actress named Demi Lovato ("As the Bell Rings," "Split Ends").

Apart from Lovato's big smile, which seems to have the same kind of on/off switch as John Edwards', she carries herself with the kind of innocence and self-effacing honesty that has come to characterize Disney heroines as of late. In "Camp Rock" she plays a wannabe pop star named Mitchie Torres, whose parents can't afford to send her to a swanky camp that trains performers--though there's not a whole lot of teaching that ostensibly goes on at the camp. I think there are just two scenes in the entire film where students are actually in class. Mostly, it's a place to bond with kindred spirits, singing and dancing and playing music the way the kids always did in "Fame."

At first Mitchie is told "no," she can't go, and like a good Disney role model she just takes it in stride. No tantrums, no begging, no negotiating. And the next thing you know, her caterer-mom is telling her she's going to Camp Rock after all. Mom agreed to work as a cook at the camp in exchange for the deep discount that would allow her daughter to attend. The one catch is that Mitchie also has to log some hours in the kitchen.

The chief problem arises when Mitchie runs up against "the diva of Camp Rock"--the daughter of a Grammy-winning country singer named Tess Tyler (Meaghan Jette Martin), who sets the standard for "cool." Other kids' parents are record execs, conductors, and musicians of some kind, and so it just kind of seems natural for Mitchie to blurt that her mom is president of HotTunes TV in China. That lie is all it takes for her to be brought into Tess's circle of friends/flunkies, and set up the film's eventual crisis.

Meanwhile, boy-group Connect 3 is in the news because lead singer Shane Gray (Joe Jonas) has done something raffish again to make headlines, and he's been sent to Camp Rock--which is run by his Uncle Brown Cesario (Daniel Fathers)--to teach a class and get his head straight. He's also conned into cutting a record with the winner of this year's Final Jam, the big talent show that signals the end of camp. Of course, all the campers know he's a rock star and treat him like one, when all he's looking for is someone who'll treat him like a normal person. One day he hears the voice of a girl singing and playing piano. He's charmed by her, but by the time he goes inside, the girl is gone. So in a plot that combines Prince Charming's search for the girl who fits the glass slipper and Prince Eric's search for the girl with the beautiful voice, he lets it be known that he's looking for the girl with "the voice."

Good thing, because while Camp Rock is situated on the shores of a gorgeous northwoods lake, when Joe jumps into the lake to escape yet another group of "not the ones" who torment him he ends up being the only one in the film to take advantage of the location. Otherwise, the camp could have been situated anywhere, because no one rides horses, goes boating, or takes advantage of the great outdoors except to watch a Connect 3 performance lakeside and another one at night with a bonfire in the background.

Like "High School Musical," each of the stars need good friends to keep them grounded (or get on them when they veer off-course) and that function is provided by Caitlyn (Alyson Stoner) and Joe's musical buddies Nate (Nick Jonas) and Jason (Kevin Jonas). Though Sharpay-I mean, Tess-conspires against Mitchie, you know that like the star of "High School Musical" she's going to get her moment in the spotlight.

The formula's pretty clear, but there's one remarkable difference between "Camp Rock" and "High School Musical." "HMS" was played with some pretty over-the-top characters and comedy, whereas "Camp Rock" is a little more reality-based and low-key. That's refreshing, actually, especially if you've seen a bunch of Disney Channel sitcoms. Here, the parents are normal, the camp leader is normal (but witty and personable), and even counselor Dee La Duke (MTV's Julie Brown) tones it down a bit so she's not a caricature. And both young stars do a fine job of making you believe their situations. Add a talented young cast that includes Jasmine Richards, Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, Jordan Francis, and Roshon Fegan, and you've got a formula that works because of casting and execution. These kids pull it off, and they seem to have fun in the process.
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Small Back Room, The: The Criterion Collection

Let´s make a movie about a bomb expert. But we need a hook. Oh yeah, he´s crippled and, yeah, he´s an alcoholic too.

This premise could be the set-up for many different kinds of films depending on the storytellers: a gross-out comedy from the Farrelly Brothers ("Oh man, I´m so wasted, I can´t even tell which wire is bl… BOOM!"), a sexually charged melodrama from Douglas Sirk ("Why are my bombs always going off too soon?"), or even a film starring Nicholas Cage (cue sad-eyed puppy-dog face.)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger opt instead for a small-scale character study, though with a dash of that Sirkian sexual melodrama stuff thrown in for good measure.

Sammy Rice (David Farrar) works for a weapons research group with tenuous connections to the war-time government. Under the auspices of Dr. Mair (Milton Rosner), Sammy and his team advise the military about new technologies. One day the very proper Captain Stuart (Michael Gough) comes looking for Sammy. German planes have been leaving behind deviously disguised bombs which go off when picked up, and British citizens (including children) are dying as a result. Sammy, like any good citizen, promises his assistance but the story gets a little more complicated from there.

Sammy´s professional veneer barely covers up the seething rage and insecurity inside. He has a badly injured leg (presumably related to his explosive profession, though we are never told) and it has greatly diminished his sense of masculinity. His devoted girlfriend Susan (Kathleen Byron) tries to bolster his esteem, but her tender ministrations sometimes only make him more depressed. It is possible his injuries have damaged more than just his leg though, once again, we are never given any details.

"The Small Back Room" was filmed in 1949, but set in 1943, which meant that while the setting was fresh in everyone´s memories, audiences still had a few years to create some distance and enjoy the film as an entertainment rather than as another chronicle of life in war-time England like Powell and Pressburger´s "A Canterbury Tale" (1944). The director/writer duo who took dual credit on their films were on as hot a streak as is imaginable: "49th Parallel" (1941), "One of Our Aircraft is Missing" (1942), "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" (1943), "A Canterbury Tale" (1944), "I Know Where I´m Going!" (1945), "A Matter of Life and Death" (1946), "Black Narcissus" (1947), and ´The Red Shoes" (1948). It was a decade of output virtually unmatched in film history: a film per year, each of which can reasonably be described as a masterpiece.

On this lofty scale, "The Small Back Room" can´t help but come off as a modest disappointment. It also marked the end of their remarkable run. With the exception "Tales of Hoffman" (1951), Powell and Pressburger would not match their success of the 1940s, though Powell struck gold on his own with "Peeping Tom" in 1960.

"The Small Back Room" is more modest in scope than any of the other 40s films except perhaps for my personal favorite "I Know Where I´m Going!" It is a film about a man who has lost his confidence and needs redemption. But Sammy is not a simple victim who earns the audience´s sympathy. He´s self-absorbed, whiny, and occasionally cruel to those who show kindness to him, especially Susan. His alcoholism explains some of it, but quite frankly he needs a little more of that stiff upper-lip British stoicism to get him through the day. A bum leg is a bum deal, but it´s a thin excuse for wallowing in misery at the bottom of a bottle.
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Thursday, August 7, 2008

xXx: State Of The Union

A little of this and a little of that adds up to a lot of nothing in "xXx: State of the Union."

You've got the Rambo trope in play, where a highly skilled but rogue military man (Ice Cube) is seemingly pitted against the world. But who are these guys that the baddies have recruited, and why doesn't the rest of the world seem to notice they're running amok? It's also a little muddy why Cube's character, Darius Stone, ended up in prison for 20 years while his superior (Samuel L. Jackson) only got some facial scarring from the same mission.

You've got "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Rock" thing going, where Stone is sprung from prison in order to do a crucial covert job--which basically amounts to stopping the bad guys, led by a former Navy Seal and current Secretary of Defense (Willem Dafoe). Anything more than that is either hard to figure out, or hard to fathom. ("Triple X? Sounds like a porno star," Darius says, and that's about as close to an explanation of these agents as we get.).

You've got the plot by higher-ups to control the government that we've seen in countless movies--even in comedies like "Dave." But a single outfit using tanks to take out the "liberal" president (Peter Strauss) during a high-profile event like a State of the Union address? Come on!

You've got the action-film formula happening--which amounts to roughly 30 crashes, fiery explosions, bursts of gunfire, and narrow escapes per minute. But who has time to count? It's like a strobe light blipping across your consciousness, with the main problem being that none of the action is pointedly connected to logical plot developments. We're talking major disconnect! There's hardly time for us to care about the characters.

You've got the James Bond tongue-in-cheek puns and one-liners going--big surprise, since Lee Tamahori also directed the less than quintessential "Die Another Day." And speaking of Bond, though they seem more token here, there are even a few big-breasted Bond-type girls, neither of which leaves us terribly shaken or stirred.

And you've got the blaring hip-hop soundtrack mixed with an original score that makes you feel as if your whole TV room is going to start jumping and thumping on its hydraulic system, designed to make us "get" that everything this new xXx guy does is super-cool.

But I'd swap that hoppin' soundtrack in a minute for a script and direction that would give the engaging Ice Cube a little room, so that the big guy's gigantic charisma could do its thing. As it is, Cube glides through this with no time to express anything but the wooden lines that he's had to memorize. The cumulative effect of these action film clichés and stock characters is a mish-mash that's somehow as tedious as it is inane. Action should be more exciting than this, even with a plot that limps along.

From the opening attack on an underground NSA headquarters in Virginia, when we see guys in sort of alien-Ninja suits crashing through the horse ranch facade, your brain has to start dealing with synapses the size of canyons. Perhaps the biggest is the unlikely pairing of former Navy Seal commandos with a Homeboy Chopping Network. Or, as Darius says (I kid you not), "The fate of the free world is in the hands of a bunch of hustlers and thieves."). After leaping onto a waiting helicopter to break from prison, suddenly they have to go into hiding already (but isn't the good government behind them?) and Darius takes them to the old neighborhood, where they try to get help from an extensive chop shop operation. They trade in their souped-up GTO for a monster truck that looks as if it could roll over tanks . . . and spaceships, for that matter.

I found my mind wandering throughout the film, bored by even the special effects, which seemed more noticeably artificial to me than even much earlier films like "Independence Day." Put the same effects in a "Star Wars" film and everything would look fine, but we're not talking about an alternate reality here. Though Tamahori says in a "making of" feature that he likes real time for action, it still seemed as if he relied way too much on sped up or slowed down filming in order to blur the crucial moment in a stunt or FX, or to hide the seam between live-action stunts and CGI. And when we do see things more clearly--as when Darius' Cobra goes airborne and lands on railroad tracks--it looks more like a video game than a movie illusion. With not even the FX to hold my attention, I found myself not caring about the action and wondering when Ice Cube is going to land a role that showcases his talents.

In one of the extras, Cube calls "xXx" a younger and hipper, cooler Bond, and so it's clear why Tamahori was brought onboard. But the problem with Bond films has always been to get the tone right--to strike a balance between the realistic and the comic or cartoonish aspects--and when you get right down to it, Tamahori failed to get everything in synch. The actors seem to struggle with tone, never quite getting exactly how much tongue they're supposed to insert in cheek. There are also knockout lines that mirror the famous Bond puns administered as a coup de grace ("Hillbilly, you need to lighten up," Darius says, as he flicks his Bic and sets the fellow aflame) and exaggerated action stunts, but they intrude on our sense of the action and reality rather than "bond" with it to create a tongue-in-cheek universe. When, for example, Darius hits a ramp in a twin-engined inflatable boat that zooms at a height that's unbelievable times 10 onto a bridge, he crashes onto traffic and amid explosions and slo-mo people catching on fire he strides away as if walking into a Dunkin' Donuts to grab a bite. Tamahori needed to decide whether he was making a mostly action film with comic moments or a comic-book style film with moments of realistic action. As is, "xXx: State of the Union" is somewhere in the middle, and that only adds to the muddle.
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In one of the bonus features, writer-director Ric Roman Waugh says he didn't want to glorify gangs in his prison film, "Felon." That he doesn't is refreshing. So is Waugh's insistence on making an honest film rather than a gritty one. He did his homework, and he showed the results to inmates who said he got it right. But if it speaks to inmates because of its accuracy, filmgoers on the outside will no doubt respond the "what ifs" that "Felon" inspires.

What if you woke up in the middle of the night and heard an intruder downstairs in your home? What if, checking on your child, you noticed that the man actually entered through the little boy's bedroom. What would you do? Would you dial 911, as an officer says he should have done, or would you grab that baseball bat under your bed and try to defend your family? And when the man shoves you to the ground in your own kitchen and runs out the door, what would your impulse be? Would you pursue him? And in the heat of the moment, if he reached in his pocket and turned around to face you and you shouted for him to stop and he didn't, would you swing that bat?

The proposition behind "Felon" is that many people would react exactly the same as Wade Porter (Stephen Dorff) did on the night that changed his life. Though Wade swings for the man's shoulders, the intruder ducks, so that instead the bat cracks his skull as if it were a melon. End of intruder; beginning of story. In short order Wade is charged with second-degree murder and hauled off to jail, where he's given a jump suit and is jumped for no apparent reason by a man screaming about wanting to make him his "bitch" just nine minutes into the film. You think, at that moment, oh great, another watch yourself in the showers prison flick, but Waugh stays on the periphery of that nonsense and instead concentrates on those what ifs. What if it were you who was imprisoned after a situation like that, accepting a plea-bargain that gives you a three-year sentence, and on the bus ride to prison you witness a stabbing and end up being handed the weapon and told what to say and do. What's your impulse? Do you play along? Do you tell the guards? Do you play it cagey until you get the lay of the land?

Because the point of view is mostly Wade's, continues to prompt those "what if" questions in our own minds, which is how "Felon" solicits our unlikely empathy. After all, this is a decent fellow who's suddenly thrown in with the dregs of society, a bunch of thugs who collectively have every tattoo from all the parlors on the West Coast. It could have been you . . . or me. "Felon" succeeds because it downplays the clichés and really explores the hypothetical premise so that viewers can participate in a frighteningly vicarious way.

Then there's Val Kilmer. If I didn't see the cover art and deduce which actor was which, I never would have picked Kilmer out. He's a big guy in this film with horn-rimmed glasses and a neatly trimmed goatee and mustache to go along with the requisite tattoos. He plays John Smith, a lifer who killed multiple times and who has a reputation for inciting riots at every prison he's been sent to. But thankfully that reputation and the clichés that go along with it are checked at the door when he checks into this new prison. Instead, when he's assigned to share a cell with Wade, we get an uneasy friendship that develops between the men, and that friendship factors into the outcome.
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The Legend of the Shadowless Sword

Ever since the relatively recent successes of Asian swordplay epics like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hero," and "House of Flying Daggers," we have seen more such movies come and go. Now, from the newly rejuvenated South Korean film industry comes this 2005 entry, "Muyeong geom" ("The Shadowless Sword," "Superfighters," or the DVD title New Line have given it here, "The Legend of the Shadowless Sword"). Although it has its moments, compared to the finest the genre has to offer, "Shadowless Sword" is ordinary at best.

As with most of these things, the tale takes place in the ancient past, and characters and events appear based on myth and legend. Therefore, expect not only a good deal of sword fighting and arrow shooting but the usual assortment of beautiful women, good and bad, a dashing hero, a venomous villain, and various hangers on, all jumping, kicking, running, dancing, and flying through their scenes in highly choreographed fantasy ballets.

The star of the show is a lovely young woman named Yeon Soha, played by Yoon Soy. I am going to use the names of the characters as they appear on the keep case because the names appear differently in the movie's closing credits, differently again in the disc's featurettes, and differently once more at IMDb. English translations can be hard on Asian names.

Anyway, Yeon is a First Officer in the country of Belhae's military and a top warrior around 927 A.D. It's at that time that we take up the story, about a year after the Georan army invaded Belhae, captured its capital, and started systematically killing off its royal family. There is only one Prince of Belhae left, Dae Jung Hyun (Lee Seo Jin), and he's in hiding. Yeon's job is to find the Prince and return him safely to Belhae to lead his people against the evil Georans. Fortunately, she's very good at her job.

Hot on the Prince's tail and eager to assassinate him is the Killer Blade Army, a group of traitors to Belhae who are now in the employ of the Georans. Their leader is Gun Hwa-Pyung (Shin Hyun Joon), who, along with his deadly, cold-blooded female sidekick Mae Youngok (Lee Ki Yong), heads out to assassinate the only surviving Prince.

The plot, then, is about Yeon and the Prince trying to get back to Belhae before Gun and Mae and their Killer Blade cohorts can find and eliminate them. Not as easy as it sounds, though, since the Prince doesn't want to return to his homeland, nor does he want to get killed. The story line allows director Kim Young Jun ("Bichunmoo" or "Flying Warriors") a chance to exercise a little imagination in creating a wealth of preposterous, though overly familiar, action sequences.

OK, the first thing you have to do is get over the movie's rather ponderous title, as well as the business of the "Killer Blade Army." To suggest that these names might be just a little corny would probably upset fanciers of the genre, so let's just say you have to have a certain predisposition toward overwrought melodramatics to appreciate the goings on, even in the naming of things.

On the plus side, the movie has all the usual pageantry and busyness on screen that one expects of such movies, although the budget wasn't quite big enough, it seems, for massive armies, whether they're CGI or otherwise. Still, the film is colorful, and the director moves the action along at an acceptable pace. There is rarely any lallygagging with romantic entanglements or interpersonal relationships. Mostly, we find a little talk here and there to establish character backgrounds and to explain what's happening at any given time, and then it's on to the next fight sequence. What's more, the scenery, costumes, and landscapes are attractive, and the cinematography is appealing. So, the movie is quite nice on the eyes.

On the minus side, once beyond the scenery, costumes, and landscapes, there isn't much more than the sword fighting, and that gets old fast, especially when the movie doesn't present it any more creatively than we've seen it done dozens of times before. I mean, how often have we watched the supercool hero (or heroine) turn his or her back on the villains, outnumbered five or ten or twenty to one, strike a pose for a moment, wait for their advance, and then wipe them out with a few kicks and swats? I guess we can thank "Enter the Dragon" for popularizing the trend.
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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Joe Louis: America's Hero...Betrayed

He was the great American hope, the first African American boxer to fight for the title in nearly thirty years. He was charismatic and strong, a hero to an entire race of people before he became a hero to a country. He served his country in wartime. He fought Adolf Hitler´s chosen boxer twice. He cavorted with numerous women. He was the first black golfer in a Professional Golfing Association event. He broke down walls and then faded into obscurity thanks to the same country he served. His name? Joe Louis.

Leave it to HBO Sports to showcase the boxer born Joe Louis Barrowman. After all, this is the premium cable channel which brought us the harrowing "Sand and Sorrow," the simultaneously hopeful and heartbreaking "Coma" and a plethora of other documentaries meant to shed light on an overlooked aspect of our lives. The public knows the name Joe Louis. Perhaps from Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, home of the Red Wings. Maybe they know him from his epic fight against German Max Schmelling in 1938 (avenging his first loss-to Schmelling-two year earlier). What "Joe Louis: America´s Hero…Betrayed" does, though, is provide a comprehensive history of the fighter, from the first bout in 1934 through his tragic death in 1981.

The lions share of the emphasis is placed on Louis´s impact on the African American community, as it should be. Using stock footage of fights and press conferences, still photos and current interviews, HBO Sports provides as comprehensive a look as it can at the man and the myth. To hear poet Maya Angelou wax on about the way people responded to Louis is a wonder to behold. Consider this: Louis was given a set of rules to live by, owing to the race riots following the last black heavyweight champion of the world claiming the belt. For instance, he could not raise his arms in victory on a white opponent or have a picture taken with a white woman.

What may come as a shock to most people is the overt racism leveled at Louis, outside of the rules imposed on him. Sports writers used different adjectives to describe his race. They go by in newspaper clippings, probably the docs funniest moment (for the sheer number of nicknames, not the actual names). Among them: the Brown Bomber, Dark Destroyer, Black Lightning, Sepia Socker, Chocolate Soldier…you get the point. These are newspaper men finding a way to integrate latent racism into their supposedly objective stories.

Against the backdrop of segregation and the looming World War II, listening to accounts of communities hanging out their windows for a small sliver of radio coverage…to understand what this singular man meant to so many people across the country. There is a palpable sense of history unfolding before our eyes when Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Bill Cosby, among others, revel in Louis. An added layer comes in the form of Jimmy Carter as he recounts his father allowing black neighbors to listen to the broadcast. Louis, it turns out, wasn´t just a hero for his community. He became a hero for the entire country.

If there can be one criticism of the doc it is this: with the vast resources of HBO Sports and its parent company (and even Time Warner), the usual parade of sports personalities are left on the sidelines. Where is Bob Costas or Ahmad Rashad or Stuart Scott or Bryant Gumbel? It is absolutely important to have writers from the time recount their memories of Louis, but there is a stark dividing line between the interviewees. The writers are, nearly to a man, white while everyone else is black. There is no need to have this dividing line. You can bet in a doc on Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, all of these people would be put in front of the camera. And since it can be successfully argued that Louis is important than either of those men in the greater social context, I felt strangely let down in the end.
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The Last Winter

Filmmaker Larry Fessenden has happily shunned the Hollywood system to make films exactly the way he wants to. His past feature-length efforts "No Telling," "Habit," and "Wendigo" were horror films with themes of ecological awareness and class struggles. His latest work, "The Last Winter," continues along those same lines. Despite writing the script in the earlier part of the decade, the film´s messages about oil and energy still remain topical. Arguments about global warming and oil drilling may play an integral part in the film, but "Last Winter" never gets preachy at all.

"The Last Winter" begins with a mock promo by North Industries as they prepare to drill in the untapped Northern Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the Alaskan wilderness. The man they put in charge of the project is Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman). Gruff and no-nonsense, Pollack is a company man through and through. In order to put a friendly face on the controversial project, North Industries also brings in two environmental consultants, James Hoffman (James LeGros), and his assistant Elliot Jenkins (Jamie Harrold). Of course, Pollack and Hoffman butt heads on various issues. The major problem comes from unseasonably high temperatures that have made vital ice roads impossible to transport heavy drilling equipment across. Hoffman warns against going through with the project while Pollack could care less. Their schism is widened when Pollack returns to their Alaskan post after five months at company headquarters. He learns that his second-in-command and ex-girlfriend, Abby Sellers (Connie Britton), is now shacking up with Hoffman.

However, ideological disagreements are not the main conflict in "The Last Winter." Strange occurrences begin when the station´s intern, Maxwell (Zach Gilford), wanders off into the middle of nowhere with his radio switched off. When he returns, he rants about something trying to get them. One night, Maxwell is found dead in the snow after wandering off once more without his clothes on. When another team member begins mentally breaking down, Hoffman warns Pollack to pack up and evacuate the station. Hoffman grasps at straws in coming up with theories about "sour gas" emanating from the melted permafrost. Pollack refuses to buy into Hoffman´s cockamamie hypotheses and the results are predictably disastrous. The station loses power and people begin dropping like flies. Hoffman and Pollack are forced to brave the elements in search of help at the nearest town miles away.

The film´s snowy setting will definitely remind you of John Carpenter´s "The Thing." Both movies are about a small, isolated group under attack from something otherworldly. "Last Winter" also has a touch of "The Twilight Zone" with its messages about Mother Nature fighting back and "Evil Dead" with the supernatural threat lurking somewhere out in the wilderness. However, "Last Winter" just isn´t able to put all those ingredients together to create a strong, final product. The film takes a long time to really get going. We´re about fifty minutes into the movie before the spookiness really kicks off.
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Cocaine Cowboys 2: Hustlin' with the Godmother

The infamous Medellin Cartel led by Juan David Ochoa, Pablo Escobar, Jorge Luis Ochoa, José Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha and Carlos Lehder was responsible for the huge influx of cocaine trafficking during the early 1980s. This billion-dollar criminal enterprise served as the inspiration behind fictional productions like "Scarface" and "Miami Vice," but the remarkable true story chronicling how Miami became the cocaine capital of the United States is told in director Billy Corben's 2006 documentary, "Cocaine Cowboys."

Riding on the success of the film, Corben followed up with a sequel to the cult hit in 2008 with "Cocaine Cowboys 2: Hustlin' with the Godmother." This time, he presents the intriguing tale of how a young crack dealer named Charles Cosby worked his way up the narcotics ladder and into the bed of notorious cocaine baroness, Griselda "The Godmother" Blanco. It wasn't long before Cosby had taken over the reins of her vast criminal empire while she was stuck behind bars serving a twenty-year sentence in prison.

Cosby had been first introduced to the drug underworld in 1984 when his friend "Banana" had become one of the pioneering crack dealers in Oakland's Brookfield Village. Banana took the teenager under his wing by showing him the ropes of how to turn powder cocaine into crack (which the documentary provides the actual ten-step process) and put him to work making upwards of $300-$500 a day selling the product around town. Soon, rival gangs started entering the picture for a piece of the powdery pie, though, and competition became so fierce that the number of drive-by shootings and robbery-homicides skyrocketed. One of the unfortunate victims happened to be Cosby's mentor Banana, forcing Cosby to flee and lay low for a while in Fresno with his entire bankroll of thirty grand stuffed in his pocket.

After about a year, Cosby was running low on cash so he didn't have much choice but to return home to Oakland and go back to business. It was around this time that he caught a broadcast on the news covering Griselda Blanco's arrest by DEA Agent Bob Palombo. Cosby was immediately fascinated with the Colombian billionaire and how the "Cocaine Queen" made her fortune by literally making it snow in Miami.

Cosby would never forget seeing Blanco on television, and in 1991, fate finally told him to write her a letter. The letters quickly turned into phone calls, and shortly thereafter the two of them began having a serious relationship. Charles even befriended her youngest son, Michael Corleone (that's right, he's named after Pacino's character in "The Godfather"), and filled in as a surrogate father to the boy. This impressed Blanco so much that she welcomed Cosby into the fold of the family and even trusted him enough to run things on the outside making him a multi-millionaire in a matter of months.

I haven't actually seen the first film, but I can say that the level of detail that went into "Cocaine Cowboys 2: Hustlin' with the Godmother" is simply outstanding. Cosby leaves virtually no stone unturned as he covers everything from their early years to the peak of his reign through a non-stop narrative. Even when he takes a short break from speaking, the flow of information resumes with testimonies by hit man Jorge "Rivi" Ayala, DEA Agent Bob Palombo, Sgt. Al Singleton, former Cosby associates, plus others. Corben also supplements the film with a whole scrapbook of photographs, letters, and Cosby's personal video diaries dating all the way back to the 1980s that adds layer upon layer of quality to the documentary.

Another nice touch was how the film reenacts the scenes of sexuality and violence using graphic novel-style animation. The artwork is simple but stylish, and most will agree it was the ideal way to visually re-create some of the more hard-core parts of the story. This tactic conveniently breaks up the longer interview segments, and I personally feel that going the route of using actors would have only chiseled away fragments of the film's validity.
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Monday, August 4, 2008


Four years ago, all but impossible to see a Peter Watkins´ film unless you happened to catch a rare print at a museum or repertory screening. Forget DVD, many of his films weren´t even available on VHS. Oliver Groom and Project X (in cooperation with New Yorker for the USA release) have performed an extraordinary service over the last several years in correcting this outrageous situation. They have now released either as main features or as extras all eight of Watkins´ films from 1959-1974 as well as "The Freethinker" (1994). Add in First Run Features release of Watkins´ latest (and nearly greatest) film "La Commune" (2000) and suddenly the bulk of Watkins´ work is now available to anyone with a Netflix account or the spare change to buy some truly great DVDs.

It´s hard for me to believe that just a few years ago I had never seen a Peter Watkins´ film. Each new release has been a revelation. I consider Watkins one of the greatest living directors, and I consider the release of his films over the last several years to be the single most important event in the DVD universe over that timeframe.

"Privilege" (1967) is the newest Project X release, and it´s an oddity in the Watkins´ oeuvre. It´s his only studio pic, filmed for Universal during that brief period when "art movies" were considered hot commodities that could reach a mainstream audience, an almost inconceivable thought today. Watkins also usually serves as writer/director but in this case he works from a script by Norman Bogner from a story by John Speight.

Watkins´ career has, in large part, involved an ongoing critique of the mass media´s role in distorting information and shaping culture. In "Privilege" Watkins depicts a (very) near-future in which the British government works directly with the media to create a pop sensation known as Steven Shorter (Paul Jones, the first singer for Manfred Mann). Steven Shorter is not just a pop singer, he is the pop singer: in the film we see no evidence that anyone else still exists as competition. Steven Shorter has become the singular obsession of an entire nation, which is precisely what the Ministry of Culture has planned. Steven is a powerful tool designed to distract an entire generation of kids from thinking about nasty things like politics or protests, and to focus on gossip and shopping instead.

Steven is a rebel with a bit of a violent streak because his marketers have calculated that this will rope in the kids and make them more receptive when Steven suddenly repents his "youthful indiscretions" and implores everyone to conform. Unfortunately, there´s a fly in the ointment in the form of Vanessa Ritchie (super model Jean Shrimpton in her only film role), an artists commissioned to paint a portrait of Steven. She strikes up a halting and occasionally passionate romance with the tragic superstar that eventually prompts him to rebel against his keepers who are then forced to scramble to maintain the status quo.

The most obvious influence on "Privilege" is Leni Riefenstahl´s "Triumph of the Will." Watkins uses the aesthetics from Riefenstahl´s nauseating yet beautiful propaganda film as the model for the Steven Shorter rallies staged by the British government, even with goose-stepping officers lining up with hands raises stiffly towards the sky. This would be provocative even today, but just twenty years after the end of WW2 it must have been truly offensive to some, and at least in part explains why the film fared so poorly at the box office and was seldom seen again after its initial run except on college campuses.
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First Olympics, The: Athens 1896 (TV Miniseries)

"The First Olympics: Athens 1896" was a TV mini-series aired in May of 1984 just before the Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles. Staying relatively close to the facts, it tells the story of how the modern Olympics were revived. We get early back-and-forth sequences that focus on men from the United States, Greece, and Australia, which makes you think that the multiple weave will continue. But after David Ogden Stiers is introduced as the Princeton professor of classical studies who was asked by the fledgling International Olympics Committee to recruit an American team, the focus shifts to the formation, training, and point-of-view of that team, which was blended mostly of Princeton and Harvard athletes. Why a non-athletic professor? Because he knew what these strange events were all about, and could help the young athletes figure out how to compete based on ancient texts and drawings of Olympians from centuries ago. The one disturbing thing? The athletes were all naked.

As TV mini-series go, this one is a little slow off the starting block. Part of it is that the screenplay veers here and there, not certain where to go, while the recruitment process occupies far too much air time. Even at that, I still found this period mini-series more watchable than "Chariots of Fire," which, like "The English Patient," could be shown continuously on large screens outside of malls to dissuade young people from congregating and causing trouble. Shown in two parts, this 248-minute mini-series has a thankfully brisker pace, and while the scenes occasionally lapse into clichés (as when an Irish lad from the rough part of Boston informs his mother he made the team, she's in her sickbed and remarks, of course, something like "The saints be praised!"), the story and the exploits of this first American team eventually become as compelling as the Olympic "moments" and profiles of athletes we see each year on TV coverage of the games. In fact, you could say that the structure of this screenplay is that it strings together a number of expanded Olympic profiles, followed by the events and podium shots of the winners.

As they train, the Americans tick off a chalkboard that compares European records for events with their own best times and distances. Part of the charm of this series is that it recreates a time when there was no instantaneous communication--no television or Internet that would show them how things were done. We watch them experiment with different techniques for each sport, rather than having an expert come in and show them how it's done, or rather than being able to see on television the winning style. In fact, these guys trust the ancient texts so much that they construct their own hurdles and pole vault based on those antiquarian drawings. And things like the discus and shot put they take a picture to a local blacksmith, who crafts them out of iron. Later, that pays dividends when the Americans finally get to Greece (where this was partly filmed) and realize that the "real" discus and shot put are considerably lighter. It's the equivalent of a baseball player taking practice swings with a heavy metal donut on the bat, and it makes the Americans able to excel.

David Caruso ("N.Y.P.D. Blue") anchors the American team and this production with his performance as James Connolly, the feisty Irishman from the poor side of town who mixes it up with his upper-crust classmates. His character is a cliché, but it's no matter. We're seeing so many things as if for the first time that you almost believe he's an original, and everyone to follow is the stock character. Other cast members include Hunt Block, Alex Hyde-Whihte, Benedict Taylor, Edward Wiley (as the American coach), Edwin Flack (as the Australian runner), and Nicos Ziagos (as the Greek who was forced to run the marathon for his country because as a soldier he was declared AWOL).
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Jupiter Love

Editor's note: This is the last review Sam will post at DVD Town. It's on to grad school and film studies for him, and we wish him well and thank him for the work that's he's done for us. JP

I´m always perplexed when watching the end credits of a film that purports to be independent yet has a lengthy list of production people. Many are the ways to define independent, I suppose, but in my mind, the Australian drama "Jupiter Love" is an example of real independent cinema.

It´s a crap film, but that´s beside the point at hand. Point is, when the credits roll, there are only a few names--stars Michael Andre and Nikka Kalashnikova (thank heaven for cut and paste) who also wrote, produced, shot, edited, directed and lit the whole thing. A couple of other folks loaned them cars and gave other minor assistance. It´s admirable that these two conceived and executed a full-length motion picture, even if the result is 80 minutes of nauseous sight and sound.

Andre stars as Chromosome Y and Kalashnikova as Chromosome X. That in and of itself is noteworthy. It suggests that these people are not fully developed characters, but rather pawns for a didactic game. Indeed, Y and X are less individuals so much as the two sexes stripped bare of any personality, conscience, wit and all those other traits that make us human.

I suppose that could be taken as a sort of compliment, that Andre and Kalashnikova are reaching for a deeper truth about human interaction, but when Y is pure id from the word go (his first few lines of dialogue are all animal noises), it doesn´t make for a compelling character to watch, especially since Andre´s acting is amateurish.

Kalashnikova fares better as a character and as a performer. We get a sense of who she is--an artist on her way to her first solo exhibit--before Y enters the picture and begins to ram her car. From that point on it´s less about these two individuals and more broad, ineffectual commentary on the sexes.

The DVD back cover says that "Jupiter Love" is an "allegorical descent to the raw nerve of male sexual-psychosis," which to me is nonsense dressed up as pseudo-psychological babble. True enough, the dialogue in the film mostly amounts to long-winded, improvised rants from Y and cackling from X. I counted exactly one instance of subtle commentary: a piece of art from X that shows a woman´s nipple stretched to a point. There´s something to chew on: an image that juxtaposes sexuality and violence. It´s far more interesting than a kooky lead character shouting "Why won´t you love me?" for several needlessly long scenes.

Since Y begins to bump X´s car by the 10-minute mark, I wondered how the remainder of the film would play out. The answer is that it plays basically the same scene several times over. For reasons that aren´t explained, X frequently drives long, dusty backgrounds where Y always manages to find, chase and generally harass her. It makes for a tedious viewing experience.
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Lonesome Dove [2-disc Collector's Edition]

"Lonesome Dove" began life as a failed screenplay by author Larry McMurtry who had hoped to land John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart for the leads. The movie didn´t get off the ground, but McMurtry refused to give up and expanded the story into a novel. Producer Suzanne De Passe bought the rights to Lonesome Dove before it was even published. Many questioned the move as Westerns were long since dead. However, the book became a huge success and won the Pulitzer in 1985. The mini-series was put into production with a budget of about $20 million, a hefty sum for television. Naysayers were once again eating crow when "Lonesome Dove" was finally aired on CBS in 1989. The broadcast scored big in the ratings and netted 18 Emmy nominations. It won the Golden Globe for Best Mini-Series for TV and an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Casting. The latter award seems like a no-brainer when you run down the all-star cast.

Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones head up the cast in the lead roles of former Texas Rangers, Augustus McRae and Woodrow F. Call. The characters fit Duvall and Jones like a pair of well-worn shoes. They´re absolutely perfect for the ornery, rough and tumble cowboys. Sure, you´ve seen both actors play these types of characters numerous times and I´m sure you´ll see them play them again, but damned if they aren´t great in those roles. Honestly, "Lonesome Dove" could have been six hours of Duvall and Jones sitting at a campfire, roasting marshmallows and I´d still be entertained. However, the veteran thespians do get a meaty story to work with.

McRae and Call have long since put their range riding days behind them and settled down to run a ranch outside the tiny town of Lonesome Dove which appears to only have a population of five people. McRae is more laid back and fun loving while Call is taciturn and all business. Call looks down on his partner´s penchant for partying and seeking the company of the town´s only prostitute Lorena Wood (Diane Lane). McRae is smitten by Lorena as is practically everybody else in the film. The pair of ex-Rangers has an assortment of ranch hands working under them. First, there´s Newt (Rick Schroder), the son of a prostitute named Maggie who the pair took in. Call was sweet on Maggie years ago and it´s obvious to most everyone that Newt is his son, but Call is not the one to admit or acknowledge the truth. There´s also Joshua Deets (Danny Glover), a former scout who served with McRae and Call and who possesses a talent for tracking; Dish Boggett (D.B. Sweeney), a ranch hand who holds an unrequited love for Lorena; and Pea Eye Parker (Timothy Scott), another former Ranger whose real name has long since been forgotten.

One day, an old Army buddy, Jake Spoon (Robert Ulrich) rides into town with big talk about the frontier. This stirs up Call. Hungering for adventure, Call decides to become the first man to raise cattle in Montana. He convinces McRae to pack up after he mentions the man´s childhood sweetheart Clara (Anjelica Huston) lives on a ranch along the trail. Clara has since married another man and started her own family. Sadly, her husband was kicked by a horse and left a vegetable. Lorena, having fallen for Jake, accompanies them for the cattle drive, but finds the man isn´t the rock solid support she needs. Along the way to Montana, McRae and Call add onto their ever-expanding group as well as lose a few to the dangers of Indians and Mother Nature.

Meanwhile, July Johnson (Chris Cooper), a sheriff in Arkansas is pressured into searching for Spoon who accidentally shot Johnson´s brother, the mayor of the town. Johnson´s wife, Elmira (Glenne Headly) convinces him to go and take along her son, Joe (Adam Faraizl). With her men gone, Elmira sets out for Nebraska with two buffalo hunters (one of whom is played by Steve Buscemi) in search of an old lover, an outlaw named Dee Boot.
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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Shark Week: Ocean of Fear

The Discovery Channel´s ubiquitous annual event, "Shark Week," comes to DVD in a two disc set featuring the six programs which made up the 2007 edition of the series. Utilizing reenactments of historical events, brand new documentary footage and computer imagery, "Shark Week: Ocean of Fear" is timed to cross-promote the July 27-August 2 21st edition.

It is evident that a good amount of time and money went into "Ocean of Fear: Worst Shark Attack Ever" (84 minutes), the story of the USS Indianapolis. The cruiser Indianapolis-made famous thanks to Robert Shaw´s character in "Jaws"-was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in July, 1945. For the next five days, the surviving crew fended off shark attacks, the overpowering heat, dehydration and salt water-induced delusions. Out of 1,196 men on the Indianapolis, 317 were picked up. (Some 900 made it into the water following the explosions on the boat, however.)

Filmed at Pinewood Studios in the United Kingdom, "Ocean of Fear" moves between interviews from surviving members of the Indianapolis and the reenactment, both in the water and of the depositions afterward. The transitions are a bit clunky, using Richard Dreyfuss as a narrator to bridge the segments together. There are too few current interviews with survivors; the piece instead relies on constructing what I assume to be a composite narrative out of the original hearings back in 1945. This is perhaps the most chilling of the six programs featured: to be floating in the middle of the ocean with no hope in site while men around you are being eaten by sharks is a terrifying thought. (It should be noted the majority of the men who died in the water are said to not have been the victims of sharks, but of other calamities. In that sense, this isn´t technically the worst shark attack on record, but it is the worst human tragedy involving the animals.

Next up is an honest-to-goodness documentary, "Perfect Predators" (84 minutes). We´re introduced to six different types of sharks (mako, hammerhead, bull, lemon, tiger, great white) along with special evolutionary adaptations which allow them to roam the seas in search of prey. This turns out to be one of the most engrossing pieces on either disc, if only because each variety of shark uses different ways of surviving. Whether it be an unending supply of razor sharp teeth or a knack for sensing the magnetic field emitted from any animal, 400 million years of evolution has aided the sharks in becoming fearsome predators.

Less enthralling is "Shark Tribe" (41 minutes), a journey to New Guinea to figure out the secrets behind calling and catching sharks by hand. While it is a potentially fascinating story, the execution becomes glacially slow. Perhaps it is due to the scientific information being repeated from "Perfect Predators" (something we´ll see over and over through the programs); we´ve already seen the way the ampullae of Lorenzini pores work in sharks, bringing them to floundering prey. (The ampullae of Lorenzini are tiny pores on a shark´s snout containing a membrane directly linked to the brain. It receives signals of electricity and relays them as a kind of GPS unit.)

Disc two begins with "Top Five Eaten Alive," another mix of reenactments and interviews of real life shark attacks. According to the piece, there are fewer than 100 shark attacks per year and the majority come from the bull, tiger and great white varieties. As we see in each case, these attacks could have been prevented with one very important tool: information. One woman is attacked when she swims in an area known as a shark haven. (She survives only by poking her attacker in the eye, a lesson to remember.) What these people have in common is a very close proximity to others as well as sheer dumb luck, a quality the narrator mentions.

"Survivorman" Les Stroud takes us through "Shark Feeding Frenzy" (42 minutes), an investigation into the qualities which attract sharks to prey. It is concluded fast heart rates and the color yellow bring the predators to their eventual meals. More than that, though, Stroud debunks the "Jaws" assertion a shark will eat anything: the great white either ignores or immediately spits out a whole turkey and ham, devouring 50 pounds of ribs. (A shark will not eat a license plate, for the record.)
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Smart People

This one comes from the producer of "Sideways" and stars Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page, and Thomas Hayden Church. How can you go wrong?

Well, Mark Jude Poirer hadn't written the screenplay for a full-length feature before this, and Noam Murro hadn't directed one. Together, they tried to make a smart movie about "Smart People," but ended up giving us a main character who seems "Lost in Translation" and supporting characters that never seem to interact as significantly as we want. The lines are smart, some of the scenes are smart, and Poirer and Murro certainly show promise. But for a film about intelligent people, there isn't much in the way of logic or believable motivation for what they say and do. It's as if Poirer tried to throw in an offbeat element here and an oddball element there, thinking it would do the trick. But smart writing and a collage of eccentricity is not the same thing as a viable narrative structure. While Poirer creates characters with traits that you believe, there's not enough energy here. The most we get comes from a taboo-breaker between a "bad" uncle and his 17-year-old Young Republican niece, and even then the plug seems to have been pulled too quickly before anything really interesting could have happened.

You don't have to look any further than the films this one will remind you of to make mental comparisons and pinpoint the problems. Dennis Quaid plays a self-absorbed English professor (why is it always English???) who is so into his own book on "The Price of Postmodernism blah-blah-blah" that he doesn't know (or particularly care about) his students, doesn't like or respect his colleagues, doesn't know much about his two college-aged children (Ellen Page and Ashton Holmes), hates his brother (Thomas Hayden Church) whom he insists on describing with the adjective "adopted," and treats anyone he comes in contact with as if they were inferior. We're to believe that this guy wants to be department chair, yet he hasn't cared enough about the department to attend meetings for the past several years. And he's anti-social. Why would he want to be an administrator? He's been teaching for so long that he's somehow grown into a mantle of entitlement, but so many publishers have passed on his life's work that he's destined to become "dead wood" in a few short years. We're led to believe that what's partly to blame is the loss of his wife, whose clothing he insists on keeping in the closet, though it's been years since her death.

"Wonder Boys" did a much better job of dealing with a has-been professor with a life's work that's gathering cobwebs and a former student who's ready to jump in bed with him. Coincidentally, that film was also set in Pittsburgh. Here, Quaid plays Prof. Lawrence Wetherhold, who can remember everything about Victorian novels but can't recall the names of students who have taken several classes with him. Into his life comes erstwhile brother Chuck, who has a history of looking to his overly serious brother for money. But his timing is perfect this trip. The professor, who arrogantly parks across two spaces, gets his car towed and another former student won't let him in the impound lot to fetch it. While climbing over the fence to get it himself, the professor takes a tumble and ends up in the emergency room where another former student is the attending physician. And another doctor is whispering to her in the hallway some snide remark about the professor not remembering her. Uh, excuse me, but the guy just came in with a head trauma, and she would have been his student like ten years ago! It's during moments like these where Poirer really belabors the point and defies logic in the process. It's hard, too, to fathom how or why Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) goes from distain to dis guy's for me, or why she fakes an emergency call to get away from him when we're still trying to figure out why she wanted to be with him. Curious stuff, and none of it's convincing. And what is it about former students everywhere? Isn't Pittsburgh a big place?

Anyway, the timing is right for Chuck, because his brother's head trauma triggered a seizure, and he can't drive for six months and needs a chauffeur. You'd think that more would develop from that situation, but it doesn't. Instead, Chuck tries to bond with young Vanessa (Page, who's not nearly as perky here as she was in "Juno"). And bonding for a black sheep means getting the underage girl to smoke pot with him and taking her to a bar and buying a pitcher to share with her, then making a trip to Goodwill together. When you outline the narrative arc for any of the characters you begin to see how undernourished the plot and subplots are. The boy who's in college is off-camera for so many scenes that we even forget he's a student at the same university where his father teaches. So Unc hangs out with his niece, the son does his thing off-camera, and the main plot involves the professor's attempts to get back into the dating game with his doctor. Unfortunately, we saw more "opposites attract" energy from Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton in "Something's Gotta Give" than we do here. None of the situations or plotlines seem to go far enough, and with performances that also seem restrained, you walk away from this film thinking that it had the potential to be much more interesting and witty than it was. And the really clever moments just make you realize there aren't enough of them to go around.
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Clear And Present Danger

"Clear and Present Danger" is the second of two collaborations between director Phillip Noyce and star Harrison Ford in bringing to Jack Ryan character. As was the case with the previous film, "Patriot Games," a number of artistic freedoms were taken with the original Tom Clancy novel and the story is re-imagined to make the Ford-based version of Jack Ryan an everyman hero who springs to life under extreme situations and becomes the ultimate CIA hero. "Clear and Present Danger" may not be as stimulating story-wise as "Patriot Games," but the film is filled to the brim with action and there is enough military technology and engagements to satisfy the hordes of Tom Clancy fans out there. "Clear and Present Danger" is the more entertaining of the two Harrison Ford based films.

This time around, Jack Ryan (Ford) finds himself as the Deputy Director of Intelligence for the Central Intelligence Agency after his friend and mentor Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones) dies. His first major assignment is to look into the Columbian Cartels after a friend of the Presidents (Donald Moffant) is killed. Ryan manages to secure a sizable amount of money to keep the CIA´s Columbia operations going, but is only to obtain the funds after agreeing with Congress that no military operations or covert operations will occur on Columbian soil. However, National Security Advisor James Cutter (Harris Yulin) is asked to confront CIA Director of Operations Robert Ritter (Henry Czerny) to assemble a team to operate in Columbia and bring about an end to the dangerous cartels.

Ritter approaches field operative John Clark (Willem Dafoe) and asks the veteran CIA man to assemble a team capable of handing the black-ops assignment. Clark enlists Marine sniper Domingo Chavez (Raymond Cruz) and others as part of his secretive team and they being destroying drug-based operations inside of Columbia with Jack Ryan completely unaware of what is happening. However, Cartel head Ernesto Escobedo (Miguel Sandoval) is unhappy that the CIA has frozen his assets and sends his own operative against Washington and Col. Felix Cortez (Joaquim de Almeida) manages to infiltrate the FBI and gather intelligence against FBI Director Emil Jacobs (Tom Tammi). Jacobs is killed when he and Ryan visit Columbia to discuss the frozen assets of Escobedo.

There is escalation after the death of Jacobs. Cutter orders the bombing of Escobedo´s home during a meeting of Cartel heads in retaliation. This military action is still being handled behind Ryan´s back and was handled in a manner to have it appear that the explosion was due to a competing Cartel. Eventually, Ryan discovers that it was Cutter and the United States government who handled the bombing of the Escobedo home and that innocent women and children were killed. Cortez learns of this as well and uses the knowledge and his own ambitions to agree with Cutter to assassinate Escobedo and provide to the FBI some intermittent information to give the FBI some small victories in their war against drugs.

Cutter and Cortez´s deal has a downside. Cutter is to give up the location of Clark´s military team and allow Cortez to capture or kill them. Ritter is told to destroy all evidence that the team existed and to immediately stop any contact or support to the team. CIA man Ryan gathers necessary intelligence after discovering Cutter was behind the Escobedo bombing and learns of the meeting between Cutter and Cortez and also learns of Chavez and the other team members in Columbia. Ryan confronts Ritter and this results in Ryan leaving for Columbia to meet with Clark and Ritter telling Clark that Ryan is responsible for his men being cut off.

The film then provides a vehicle for Harrison Ford to show off his skills as the everyman action hero and "Clear and Present Danger" delivers a satisfying climax to the subplot featuring Chavez and the military commandos who were blowing up Escobedo´s installations. Jack Ryan springs to action and gets to fight for the lives of the soldiers. It is during these closing moments that Harrison Ford and Willem Dafoe get to share a little screen time and the two better known characters in the Tom Clancy novels come together for just the first to two meetings in the four films. After the big rescue, there is a little political posturing to show the sense of honor and dignity possessed by Ryan, but the film´s big moments are when Ryan is in Columbia.

"Clear and Present Danger" is an absolute thrill ride that shows off some good explosions, plenty of military technology and features another heroic performance by the aging Harrison Ford. This is the most exciting of any of the Jack Ryan films, but lacks the overall potency of "The Hunt for Red October." With this being the second teaming of director Noyce and star Ford, "Clear and Present Danger" finds Jack Ryan comfortable in his surroundings and this is perhaps the most polished of any of the Jack Ryan films as this is the only of the four films where the lead actor has had one previous outing as Jack Ryan. If any actor in Hollywood history is capable of portraying an average man who can be an incredible hero, it is Harrison Ford and "Clear and Present Danger" is one of the best examples of his persona.

As was the case with "Patriot Games," "Clear and Present Danger" deviates itself from many points in the novel. Truth be told, "Clear and Present Danger" was a deep and complex novel and it would take a mini-series to fully capture everything thrown in the novel. I would have loved to have seen Samuel L. Jackson return as Robby Jackson and would have enjoyed more of the military operations that occurred in the novel, but at 144 minutes, "Clear and Present Danger" was already lengthy during its time. The computer hacking fight between Ryan and Ritter was absurd and I´ve never enjoyed that addition to the film. I´m not sure why this approach was taken, but as we would find out years later with "Firewall," Harrison Ford does not make for the best computer hacker.

There is a lot of fun to be had watching "Clear and Present Danger." The ambush where Jacobs is killed is a high octane action sequence with rockets, explosions and plenty of gunfire. This was one of two scenes where Jack Ryan is thrown into the heat of action and when the Academy finally gives him his career Oscar, this is one scene that should be thrown into his montage. Willem Dafoe and James Earl Jones are the only other A-list actors in the film and their presence is felt with two solid supporting performances. Anne Archer and Thora Birch reprise their roles from "Patriot Games," but the first film was far more family-centric than this all-out action affair and they are hardly memorable for their involvement in the film.

While there is a lot of action contained in "Clear and Present Danger," there is a lot of plot as well. In fact, "Clear and Present Danger" suffers perhaps from having too much plot and it gets convoluted and you almost need a cheat sheet to remember who is backstabbing who and which person is loyal to whom. For those who remember the confusing of the third "Pirates of the Caribbean" film, "Clear and Present Danger" requires you to pay just as much attention to the deals and loyalties in the film. It wasn´t until my second viewing of "Clear and Present Danger" that I was fully comfortable with the story and at what all unfolds in the film. This action heavy film has perhaps a little too much story and for those upset that the screenplay team of Donald Steward, Steven Zaillian and John Millius didn´t stay faithful to Clancy, it would have been far worse and far longer if every intricacy of the novel was kept.
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The Sum of All Fears

A third actor stepped into the shoes of Jack Ryan with the intended reboot of the franchise in "The Sum of All Fears." With Ben Affleck taking the role previously filled by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, the series had hoped a younger and bankable-at-the-time actor would make the Tom Clancy character another tent pole for the studio. However, the film strayed heavily from the Clancy novel of the same name and while the film did respectable business, Affleck´s star would fall heavily after starring in films "Gigli," "Jersey Girl" and "Surviving Christmas" after his first turn as Jack Ryan. Whereas "The Sum of All Fears" was hoped to be for the Jack Ryan franchise what "Batman Begins" did a couple years later for Bruce Wayne, this would be the first and only time with Affleck as Ryan and the last film to date featuring the character of Jack Ryan.

"The Sum of All Fears" begins with a few scenes that depict a lost nuclear warhead during the 1973 Yom Kippur War that was onboard an Israeli A-4 Skyhawk which was shot down from anti-aircraft fire. The film fast forwards to the year the film was released, 2002. Here it is discovered that a Nazi sympathist named Dressler (Alan Bates) has purchased a nuclear warhead from an arms dealer named Olson (Colm Feore). The bomb is purchased for $400 by Olson and sold to Dressler for $50 million. The bomb´s atomic material is then shipped to the Ukraine where three Russian scientists have been hired to build a nuclear bomb. The intention of the nuclear bomb is to ship it to America and for Dressler to pit the two superpowers against each other in nuclear war.

Jack Ryan´s (Ben Affleck) role in this film is a reboot which finds him as a Junior CIA Analyst on the ´Russian Desk´ where he catches the attention of CIA Director William Cabot (Morgan Freeman) because he had written a lengthy report on Alexander Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds). Nemerov becomes the Russian president after the failing health of the previous president forces him to succumb and it is unknown whether or not Nemerov is a hard-liner and a potential force to be reckoned with. President Fowler (James Cromwell) and his advisors ask Ryan and Cabot to travel to Russia and meet with Nemerov and get a feeling for the new Russian president. After the meeting, Russian attacks Chechnya and it looks as if Nemerov is indeed a hardliner, although Ryan has stated he strongly feels otherwise.

While all of this political posturing and intelligence gathering is going on, a little bit of Ryan´s social life is revealed. Unlike the previous three films which portrayed Ryan as a married family man, "The Sum of All Fears" pretends to be a prequel of sorts and Ryan is still dating Dr. Cathy Muller (Bridget Moynahan). He has told the doctor that he is a historian, but reveals the truth when he is sent to Russian by Cabot. However, after operative John Clark (Liev Schreiber) is sent to Russia to track down the three missing scientists, Ryan is able to take Cathy to a White House dinner and his true profession becomes known to Cathy.

For one moment during the film Ryan stops being an analyst and moves away from pushing a pencil to carrying a gun. He is asked to join Clark in Russian and relay some new intelligence to the field operative. The Jack Ryan franchise has been heavily driven by action and both Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford has flexed their Hollywood muscle to help propel the Ryan character through some nicely handled action sequences. Affleck is almost given a pass from taking part in the action through the entire first half of the film and after a comical exchange with Schreiber, he cocks a pistol and teases the audience that some action may ensue.

The film drags on for the first hour or so as the plot builds up to a climactic nuclear explosion in Baltimore at the halftime mark of the film. "The Sum of All Fears" finally becomes a little exciting during the tense moments after the bomb explosion where a few key members of the cast are either killed or wounded. The post-explosion half of the film finds Ryan trying desperately to convey information to President Fowler about the nuclear explosion and convince him that Nemerov and the Russians are not behind the explosion and hopefully avert an escalation of events that seems ready to birth World War III. Of course, it is a Jack Ryan film and he finds a way to inject a combination of action and intelligence to save the day.

The large nuclear explosion comes fully equipped with a few nice special effects sequences that amps up the excitement of the film for about three minutes. There are some helicopter crashes, cars flipped over by the explosion and lots of dust. A few windows blow out and you definitely get the sense that something has blown up, although there were no buildings shown exploding. "The Sum of All Fears" arrived in theaters just after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and I would tend to believe that the big explosion sequence was neutered to satisfy audience sensibilities at the time. One could also believe that the film´s less-than-expected box office returns were due to the subject nature of a large terrorist attack on an American city.

With Ben Affleck, Tom Clancy finally got an actor the age and physique he had intended Ryan to be during the earlier novels featuring the Jack Ryan character. Unfortunately, screenplay writers Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne completely butchered the novel and only a few major plot points are kept intact. Many major details are re-written for the cinematic version and anything that would have been deemed minor in the book never made it to the film. The most notable change is the attempt to make this a ´first´ film for Jack Ryan and having him just starting out in life instead of being an established person in the CIA and a married man.

Moving beyond the transformed story and returning to the topic of Ben Affleck, the actor didn´t make a great splash with his performance. At the time "The Sum of All Fears" was filmed, Affleck was young enough and more than capable of injecting a little action into this film and only the fight between Jack Ryan and the person involved in the plot named Mason (Joel Bissonnette) provides any real action featuring the Jack Ryan character. Affleck seems more than happy with just using his charisma and charm to get through his performance and he cannot equal what either Baldwin or Ford did before him. Sadly, the filmmakers cast a perfect actor for the Ryan role in the film. Liev Schreiber would have been a perfect Jack Ryan.

"The Sum of All Fears" is doesn´t add much to the sum of all the Jack Ryan films. This is the least watchable film of the series and the least faithful to the novels. Phil Alden Robinson took the helm as director of the series after Phillip Noyce directed Harrison Ford through the previous two films. Robinson seemed far more inclined to portray Jack Ryan as a desk jockey and less of an ex-Marine who could handle himself with ease. The Tom Clancy books are also known for their technology and whereas the previous three films added a little more techno-babble into their storylines, Robinson concentrated more on politics and conversation than a few neat gizmos to gawk over. With the auto-pilot performance by Ben Affleck and the relatively boring rewrite of the novel, "The Sum of All Fears" is the black sheep of the Jack Ryan franchise.
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Stargate: Continuum

The "Stargate" feature film starring Kurt Russell and James Spader is not new to me. I have seen that film at least half a dozen times and will probably watch it once or twice more in my lifetime. It is just one of those films that pops up every once in a while with a reason to watch it. However, the spin off "Stargate SG-1" is relatively new to me. I have watched the Richard Dean Anderson vehicle maybe three times in my entire lifetime and while I knew it existed, the show was one of those things I just never seemed to have the time to enjoy. I´m very one dimensional when it comes to television. If it isn´t a Flyers or Eagles game or a new showing of "Lost," I´m not turning on the cable box. Sometimes I wonder why I even pay for cable.

The new direct-to-DVD film "Stargate: Continuum" is the latest entry in the "Stargate" franchise that has spawned two television shows, an animated show, a previous direct-to-DVD effort and has an upcoming television series in the works. "Stargate" has a solid and fervent fanbase and director Martin Wood and writer/co-creator Brad Wright intend to use "Continuum" as a re-introduction of the cast from the now defunct "SG-1" television series and have their story possibly continue in a series of direct-to-DVD films. Of course, this would all be dependent upon the success of "Continuum" to move copies from the store shelves or rental outlets. Released onto DVD and Blu-ray day-and-date, it´s my job to help decide if it is worth helping Wood and Wright´s cause.

Not being familiar with the "SG-1" universe, I may not be the best person to review "Stargate: Continuum," but I´ve always held some fascination with one day watching some of the episodes from the series because of my enjoyment with the original theatrical film. The concept of ancient travelers using the Egyptian pyramids as star ports and being able to travel through wormholes through ´Stargates´ that are hidden throughout the universe made for an interesting film and I enjoyed the futuristic Egyptian space warriors led the by the transgender Jaye Davidson. Richard Dean Anderson was a hero as MacGyver and one draw of "Continuum" is that Anderson returns to his second most-famous role as Jack O´Neill, whom is now a General in the Air Force.

I would have to watch the movie a second time to fully remember all of the names to go into any great depth with my synopsis of the plot. That would just open a huge can of worms with the strong cult following the series has if I were to confuse characters or perhaps lead somebody astray with false information. Instead, I think it would be wise to just give a very quick overview of the film and then my opinions of how enjoyable "Continuum" was for a non-fan and an outsider of "Stargate SG-1." Right off the bat we know that "Stargate: Continuum" is a treat for fans of the series that ran for nine seasons, but I´m sure Brad Wright would love to gain a few new audience members with this direct-to-video release and I´ll try to speak to the masses and give my opinion of whether or not I think that´ll happen.

The film begins with the SG-1 crew attending a ceremony for the extraction of a System Lord parasite from Ba´al (Cliff Simon). Apparently, the System Lords are evil worms that take a host and then attempt to rule the universe. The theatrical film´s villain Ra was one such example of a host being controlled by an evil System Lord. Anyhow, during the ceremony Teal´c (Christopher Judge), an alien member of the SG-1 team, disappears into thin air. Team member Vala Mal Doren (Claudia Black) also disappears. Remaining team members Col. Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping), Col. Cameron Mitchell (Ben Browder) and Dr. Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) return back to Earth through the Stargate and discover that something isn´t quite right with the time continuum.

Upon arriving at Earth they discover that everything is not what it was and they now have different jobs and are not recognized by those that were formerly their friends. Major General Jack O´Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) is one such person and cannot remember Daniel Jackson, although Jackson states they were once great friends (A quick history lesson is that O´Neill was the character portrayed by Kurt Russell and Jackson was portrayed by James Spader). After a number of meetings, they find themselves in communication with Major General Hank Landry (Beau Bridges) and are told they are not to do anything to affect the time continuum and are placed into a witness protection program.

Time passes and the team´s warning that the Goa´uld will invade and potentially destroy the planet begins to take shape. Alien spacecraft are witnessed by the inhabitants of Earth and the SG-1 team is reassembled in an attempt to stop the evil System Lords plan of world domination. Teal´c is revealed to be the First Prime of Ba´al, who is still under the control of the System Lord, and Mal Doren is now the Queen wife of Ba´al and answers to the name of Quetesh. Once the Goa´uld begin the invasion of Earth, the SG-1 team acts quickly and finds the location of a Stargate that will help them discover how Ba´al managed to escape his fate of extraction and correct the rifts created in the time-space continuum.

The hour and a half of time I spent with "Stargate: Continuum" was not too badly spent. It would have helped tremendously had I been a fan of the television series "Stargate SG-1" before sitting down and watching the film, but after about twenty minutes I was comfortable enough with the characters and story to follow along relatively easily. Of course, it didn´t help much that I did not realize Michael Shanks had taken over the James Spader role. I was confident that Spader was left behind on the planet after the first feature length film. I did not immediately recognize the man that made MacGyver a household name either. Richard Dean Anderson has certainly aged since his days as MacGyver.

"Stargate: Continuum" is an experience best reserved for fans of the "Stargate SG-1" series and those that have seen the first made-for-video film. With returning characters and relationships that may not be understood during the ´alternate timeline´ story of "Continuum," much of the enjoyment that could be had from the film was lost because I was not fully familiar with what was going around. For instance, I did not know until the commentary that a major character had a three second cameo in the entire film. With Anderson returning after missing most of the last two seasons of the show, "Continuum" is at least a comfortable welcome home for the character first made popular by Kurt Russell. "Continuum" was made for the fans and it plays that way.
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