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Friday, December 31, 2010
The opening minutes between the fade-in and the "directed by" are a disheartening portrait of a very depressed and troubled man, with a wife who has long since resigned herself to quiet despair, both stuck in an endlessly bleak and unrewarding existence. Sounds like fun, huh?
Well, STONE (2010) definitely isn't funhouse-fun, but it is a deeply satisfying movie to watch. First you've got Robert DeNiro as Jack Mabry, a conservative, dutifully religious parole officer on the verge of retirement who has nothing to look forward to besides a meaningless life and a marriage in which he and his wife Madylyn (Frances Conroy) merely endure each other. Then there's Edward Norton as his final case, an arrogant young convict named Stone who thinks he's paid his debt to society and goes to work trying to convince a dubious Jack.
If we think we're in for the usual blowhard theatrics with a couple of Oscar-winning alpha-thespians trying to out-act each other across a desk, this movie surprises us by confounding such expectations. Director John Curran is a skilled visual storyteller who conveys much information through compelling images--verbal exposition is kept to a minimum--and, accordingly, the lead actors express themselves with enough subtlety so that we're allowed to read their thoughts and feelings rather than having them all shouted at us. This makes the times when they do go off more effective, especially when DeNiro's character loses it.
With Stone's first visit to Jack's office, the naturalistic aura of the film is jarred when Norton starts doing a "performance" full of bluster and prison jive-talk. But we soon realize that this is Stone performing for Jack. Later, as they get to know each other, he tones it down and gets more real. DeNiro, on the other hand, gradually emerges from his guarded cynicism to lash out against Stone when his probing and perceptive questions about guilt and culpability strike too close to home.
While Norton continues to interest us with his more mannered performance, DeNiro fascinates with his barely-repressed emotional turmoil. Which, needless to say, is stoked when Stone aims his beautiful, sexy wife Lucetta at him. Lucetta (a seductive Milla Jovovich) soon has Jack wrapped around her legs as he grows more and more addicted to her and fearful of the consequences should their illicit relationship become known.
Stone, meanwhile, experiences a spiritual epiphany after witnessing a murder, and begins to seek ways to expand his consciousness and contemplate the meaning of his life. But is this new outlook just part of the con to help get him paroled? Either way, it only serves to exacerbate Jack's own ongoing crisis of the soul which has him questioning the existence of God. And since we know from the prologue that he's capable of at least one desperate act every thirty years or so--as is Stone--we start to wonder which of them will come unwound first.
While all of this sounds like it could've been a lot of melodramatic hogwash, Curran and scriptwriter Angus MacLachlan, along with their terrific cast, manage to make it all realistic and compelling. Smoothly shot and edited, with an evocative, melancholy musical score that bolsters the emotional flow of the story, the film has the feel of a troubling dream that threatens to turn into a nightmare at any moment.
The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish. Extras consist of a brief "making of" featurette and a trailer.
You get the feeling that everything's building toward some shocking and violent finale, but as it goes along you start hoping that it doesn't. Such an ending might work for a different movie, but simply watching these characters develop is a lot more interesting than that. In this regard, STONE doesn't disappoint.
Buy it at Amazon.com:
Thursday, December 30, 2010
You don't watch Billy Zane movies because he's a great actor. (He's pretty good, but not great.) You watch them because he's...well, he's Billy Zane. And you never know what he's going to turn up in, whether it's one of the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood history (TITANIC) or some DTV piece of dreck where you can imagine him snagging his paycheck and yelling "Taxi!" the moment he tosses off his last line (BLUE SEDUCTION).
Somewhere between these two extremes is the not-great but definitely pretty good THE HESSEN CONSPIRACY, aka "The Hessen Affair" (2009). What's ol' Cal Hockley up to these days? Well, he's heading a post-WWII U.S. Army occupation force that's holed up in a German castle, enjoying the spoils of war now that the Third Reich has gone belly up. Already we can tell that, whatever else, this is going to be a handsomely-mounted production with lush photography. Director Paul Breuls utilizes actual locations well to give the film a more expensive look, and infuses it with convincing period atmosphere.
Amidst the nightly parties and other post-war frivolities, Col. Jack Durant (Zane) goes ape for a gorgeous but hard-to-get WAC lieutenant named Kathy Nash (Lyne Renée), who's more interested in searching the place for hidden treasures left behind by the vacating Prussian princess. One night they discover a nifty stash of vintage wine. The next night they run across...the Crown Jewels. Now, the only problem is getting them to the States and finding someone to sell them to without getting caught along the way.
Back in New York, THE HESSEN CONSPIRACY sheds the military trappings and becomes a semi-hardboiled 40s crime thriller. Not that it ever actually gets all that thrilling--the pace remains leisurely throughout as the story unfolds and there isn't a whole lot of action. With the introduction of Michael Bowen as Ben Cassidy, a Vegas casino czar who's interested in buying the hot ice, the plot begins to twist its way through a maze of double-crosses, suspicion, and murder. Jack and Kathy eventually reach a point where they no longer trust each other, but who's conning who? We don't find out until the mildly suspenseful finale when everyone shows their hand.
As Kathy, the stunning Lyne Renée has the look of the classic noirish dame from Hollywood's past. Michael Bowen ("Buck" of KILL BILL, VOL. 1), one of the best old-style character actors working today, plays a convincing bad guy while maintaining a light touch. The cast is stocked with several other good supporting players including Gene Pyrz as an Army lawyer on the trail of the stolen jewels, Rudolph Segers as a volatile sergeant seeking revenge against Jack for cutting him out of the deal, and Noah Segan as their other weaselly cohort.
The script by Nicholas Meyer (STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, TIME AFTER TIME) and Ronald Roose goes light on the violence and never tries to be shocking or intense--it's less of a pressure cooker and more of a crock pot. The most hardboiled aspect of the film is the running voiceover in which Zane occasionally veers into Bogart territory, as when he describes Kathy as "the one you can't take your eyes off...that white-hot beauty that sneaks into a million dreams...the kind men die for." Meyer is obviously having some fun with us here, which is pretty much what the whole movie is about.
The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and English subtitles. No extras.
Watching THE HESSEN CONSPIRACY is like settling into a mildly interesting pulp novel with very nice illustrations. Not exactly gripping entertainment, but it does have its rewards if you stick with it. Plus, Billy Zane is in it, and he's...well, darn it, he's Billy Zane.
Buy it at Amazon.com
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
One of the perennial subsets of the "thriller" genre is the story about a desperate person frantically searching for their companion who has disappeared without a trace, usually in an unfamiliar location. Whether it's a big-screen affair with major stars (THE VANISHING, BREAKDOWN) or a tense little made-for-TV nailbiter with a meager budget (DYING ROOM ONLY), such films have the potential for keeping viewers on the edge of their seats if done with a little finesse. Once it gets cranked up, AND SOON THE DARKNESS (2010) manages to do so to a certain degree, although the experience isn't quite worth going out of your way for.
Steph (Amber Heard, ExTERMINATORS, DROP DEAD SEXY) and Ellie (Odette Yustman, OPERATION: ENDGAME, CLOVERFIELD) are two flaky American girls who have ditched their bicycle tour group and decided to see Argentina for themselves. Wandering into the Village of Bad Vibes, they seem oblivious to the apprehensive stares of the locals who regard them as though the two cutie-pie strangers might vanish from the face of the earth at any moment. Which, we find, isn't an uncommon occurrence in those parts.
Since their bus doesn't leave until the next morning, they decide to hit one of the local night spots. Steph, the marginally-sensible member of the duo, is concerned when Ellie gets dopey drunk and starts prancing around in front of all the guys like she's dropping a chum line in a pool of sharks. Acting out the song "I Touch Myself" in front of the jukebox, she then breezes into the men's room and proceeds to take a whiz in front of whoever happens to be in there.
Amazingly, this is a character we're supposed to care about. We pretty much know what's going to happen to her, yet she's such an obnoxious, irresponsible doofus that the prospect doesn't generate much concern. Naturally, she attracts the attention of an unsavory type who might as well wear a name tag with "Kidnapped American Girls 'R' Us" printed on it.
One thing leads to another, and before you know it Steph is searching high and low for her missing friend. Naturally, the local constable, Calvo (César Vianco) scoffs at her concerns, forcing Steph to start scouring the countryside on her own. Enter Michael (Karl Urban, STAR TREK), an American who seems to turn up everywhere she goes. Michael offers to help, but we're never sure if he's on the level or if he's going to turn out to be in league with the kidnappers. This makes his character one of the few things about the story that isn't totally predictable.
Urban does his usual solid acting job, but the actresses portraying Steph and Ellie aren't going to be mistaken for Dame Judi Dench anytime soon. Their wafer-thin dialogue isn't much to listen to either, especially during the silly spat which causes them to unwisely split up in the first place. Amber Heard manages to carry the lightweight film pretty much on her own--she appears in nearly every scene--using a variety of pained expressions while frequently rubbing her hands over her head to denote concern.
Director Marcos Efron does a workmanlike job and wrings as much suspense out of the script as he can while capturing some nice Argentine scenery along the way. The highlight is a sequence filmed inside an actual ghost town called Lago Epecuén, which was destroyed by a flood and consists entirely of gutted ruins. Somewhat implausibly, it takes Steph about ten minutes to find this place and stumble onto the kidnappers' hideout. This sets into motion a series of fights, chases, standoffs, and narrow escapes leading to a fairly exciting finish.
The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. Subtitles are in English and Spanish. Extras consist of a commentary track with the director, editor, and DOP, a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, and a trailer.
AND SOON THE DARKNESS is based on a 1970 British film written by Brian Clemens and Terry Nation and directed by Robert Fuest, which I'd be interested in seeing now that I've watched the passable but unexceptional remake. It's the kind of time-waster that can hold your attention till the fadeout, then vanish from your memory without a trace.
Buy it at Amazon.com:
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Picking up where the previous film left off, director Chin-Ku Lu serves up another blazing batch of kung fu and swordplay with RETURN OF BASTARD SWORDSMAN (1984). As a sequel, it doesn't quite scale the dizzying heights of its predecessor, but on its own terms it's still a pretty wild tale.
Having defeated the villain Fu Yu Xue with his Silkworm Skill, Yun Fei Yang has taken a leave of absence from the Wudang clan and retired to the seaside with his sweetheart Lun Wan Er. But two things will force him to return. One is the slaughter of the Wudangs by old nemesis Dugu Wu Di, whose Fatal Skill has progressed to such a level that he now challenges Yun Fei Yang and his Silkworm Skill to a death duel. The other is a new enemy, the Japanese Ega clan, who have declared war on the Wudangs, the Wu Di, and everyone else in China.
Mochitsuki Soryu Han, leader of the Ega, wields something known as Phantom Skill, which might be more accurately dubbed "Heart Throw-Up Skill." Whatever the name, it has to be seen to be believed. A scalding blast of colored steam shoots out of his chest, which then begins to expand and contract like a bellows. Grabbing his opponent from behind in a sort of sinister spoon position as his chest continues to pump, he controls the victim's heartbeat in a way that forces the heart itself to eject from the poor slob's mouth. It's not something you see every day, and it's just one of the typically weird visuals to be found in a Chin-Ku Lu film.
A fortune teller named Li Bu Yi throws in with Yang and Wan Er as they travel to confront Wu Di (whom Ega has framed for the Wudang slaughter) and his fighting skills come in handy as there are bushels of Ega assassins bursting out of the foliage wherever they go. Several of these fight scenes, while well-staged and full of action, are of the meat-and-potatoes variety. It isn't until Yang and Wu Di first go at it that we see some of the previous film's magical weirdness come into play, with plenty of good wirework, unique fight choreography, and eye-candy cartoon animation effects. The editing here seems even more rapid-fire than before.
After Yang is defeated by Wu Di's new-and-improved Fatal Skill and the good guys are forced to flee, there's an extended subplot with Wan Er and Li Bu Yi seeking the help of a legendary doctor named "Papa." The dying Yang is taken to the cave of the Frigid Pool to be treated, where they discover something called the Reincarnation Rock. With various plot threads weaving their way in different directions, the story tends to meander almost to the point of boredom at times, although there's always something strange and intriguing popping up to keep us involved.
Somewhat more somber than the earlier BASTARD SWORDSMAN (and nowhere near as hysterically freaky as this director's borderline-insane HOLY FLAME OF THE MARTIAL WORLD), the film shoehorns in several overtly "funny" characters whose antics range from entertaining to irritating. There's an amusing scuffle between two fake fortune tellers early on ("Get out of here! You're interfering with my feng shui!" one of them barks), and the elder masters of the Wudang clan are bundles of comically frayed nerves as they quake, cower, and fret over their impending doom.
Worst of all is when Papa's medical rival, the Ghost Doctor, sends three inept assassins whose blatant mugging makes the Three Stooges look like Sir Cedric Hardwicke. As usual, the main bad guys revel in their evilness by frequently bursting into strident gales of forced laughter, which is always a delight. But the most genuinely funny thing about the film is how the utterly insane fight sequences are served up in such a straightfaced manner.
What really kicks the film into gear as we near the climax are the two main match-ups we've been waiting for--Ega versus Wu Di, and Yang versus whoever wins. Here's where all the fanciful supernatural surrealism returns in full force, with the opponents flying all over the place, launching objects by force of will, and whipping up colorful animated force beams to shoot at each other. It's a lot like those "Star Wars" scenes with Jedis using the Force against each other, only a lot more gleefully bizarre and frenetic. The inevitable clash between Phantom "Heart Throw-Up" Skill and Silkworm Skill is about as nutty as you'd imagine. (My favorite line: "How dare you try to humiliate me with that drumstick!")
The DVD from Funimation is in 16:9 with Mandarin mono and English stereo soundtracks. Subtitles are in English. No extras save for some trailers for other Funimation releases.
I didn't enjoy this sequel as much as the first film (although some express a preference for it) and found some passages a little ponderous and uninvolving. Still, there's more than enough furious action and mindboggling magic in RETURN OF BASTARD SWORDSMAN to make it a must for Shaw Brothers fans.
Buy it at Amazon.com
Monday, December 27, 2010
The title psycho is Roy Thompson, who cruises the streets of town in his pickup looking for people to kill. What's disarming about Roy is that he seems so darn happy and pleased with himself when he's killing them. Roy gets a lot of enjoyment from his chosen vocation, particularly since every time he kills someone, the victim becomes part of his imaginary circle of friends and admirers. He's especially fond of his first victim in the film, a pretty young teen named Ashley, and has romantic picnics and campouts with her head before depositing it in a book return bin at the local library.
Naturally, the townsfolk don't enjoy Roy's antics as much as he does, so he becomes the target of several people who want to track him down. This includes the only two policemen in town, brothers Jeffrey and Jimmy Dalmer, and a couple of wacky slacker dudes from the cable company who are after Roy for stealing cable TV. By the time we've made it to the final sequence, in which Roy attends a rave with the intention of blasting away with both six-shooters, the contigent of citizen vigilantes waiting outside to ambush him include the two (now former) cops, the two cable guys, Ashley's boyfriend, the town drunk, a waitress, a bouncer, a stripper, and another serial killer who tried to partner up with Roy but was rebuffed because he was too crazy.
It helps to keep in mind that this is a very dumb movie with some really idiotic characters. As is often the case in this sort of flick, the level of acting ranges from capable all the way down to putrid. But somehow even the worst members of the cast eventually grow more and more likable as the situations get stranger and the dialogue gets goofier. Gene Campbell, who plays Les the town drunk, probably gives the best performance, although Paul Bailey as Roy seems to inhabit the character quite comfortably.
On a technical level, the film often resembles BLOOD FEAST, yet there are moments when it actually looks pretty good. The lighting is especially nice in certain scenes, and the green screen in the driving shots is very well done. Everything else is pretty slapdash, but once you get used to this it isn't that much of a problem.
Aside from some isolated carnage, the film isn't all that violent. The fake blood looks like it would taste great on buttered toast, and a brief glimpse of one character's intestines clearly indicates the use of what appears to be link sausage. Also, Ashley's disembodied head is, shall we say, less than convincing. As for the nudity--woo-hoo! There isn't much, but what's there is cherce. In an early scene, the cable guys bust into the wrong apartment in their search for Roy and are confronted by a naked blonde who is, as Ali G. might say, quite fit. Later, during a nudie bar sequence, we see a couple of topless strippers--a blonde (the delectable Kerry Kearns) and a brunette--who are so downright tuff that I oozed out of my chair and onto the floor. Woof-woof! Ah-ROOOOO!
The final battle between Roy and his ragtag gaggle of pursuers ends in a clever and satisfying way that closes the film on an unexpectedly high note. As much as I wanted to hate on COWBOY KILLER--and believe me, during the first half hour or so, I was ready to pan the crap out if it--the ending left me with fond feelings toward this rinky-dink little flick and its cheerfully deranged title character. As Roy likes to say before each killing: "You're in for a damn treat!" Not quite a treat, perhaps, but it does have its small pleasures.
Buy it at Amazon.com
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Film Chest & Virgil Films & Entertainment Proudly Present (on the CULTRA Label) … Carnival Magic
Magicians, Monkeys, Mad Scientists & More!
Cult Classic Long Thought Lost is Newly Restored - Never Released on Video, First Time Ever on DVD and in HD
Special DVD/Blu-Ray Combo Pack Appears Jan. 25th
NEW YORK CITY - Jan. 1, 2011 - For Immediate Release - A supernaturally skilled conjurer and his simian sidekick, the stars of a small-time circus, must defeat a jealous rival and evil doctor to stay together in the cult classic Carnival Magic, being released in a special DVD/Blu-ray combo pack Jan. 25 from Film Chest on the CULTRA label (distributed by Virgil Films & Entertainment).
In Carnival Magic - never before available in any home entertainment format - swarthy, mystical magician Markov the Magnificent (Don Stewart, TV's Guiding Light, Knots Landing, Dragnet) can read minds and levitate people and objects at will. Working a small-time carnival, he teams up with Alexander the Great ("Alex"), an über-intelligent chimp who has the ability to speak. Soon the duo is the belle of the fair, their act drawing huge crowds.
The carnival's dastardly and envious wild animal trainer, enraged that his own act has been unseated as the circus' top attraction, plots to rid himself of competition. "Chimp-napping" Alex, he hands him over to a shady scientist who is planning some very nasty medical experiments. A desperate Markov must quickly come up with a plan to save Alex, as well as his own livelihood.
Co-starring Regina Carrol (Doctor Dracula, Black Heat, Jessi's Girls), Jennifer Houlton
(TV's The Doctors) and Howard Segal (The Last Game), Carnival Magic was directed by Al Adamson and was once called "The finest family film since E.T." by Joe Franklin, WWOR-TV.
The late Adamson's G-rated talking monkey movie has been the source of rumors and wild speculation for nearly 30 years. Some insist only a single print was ever made, while others claim the film never saw the light of day until a copy was "found" in Adamson's Florida home shortly after he was murdered (on the cusp of a reported comeback effort) in 1995, his corpse discovered beneath the concrete and tile-covered whirlpool bath in his newly remodeled bathroom. Adamson was married to the film's star, Regina Carrol, from 1972 to 1992, when she passed away from cancer.
Carnival Magic was originally released theatrically in 1982 in 30 markets, doing well at the box office. Not until 2009 were the negative, screenplay, 16 complete 35mm prints, outtakes, press books, one-sheets and other treasures discovered in an east coast warehouse. To celebrate, TCM Underground premiered the newly restored master this past October.
Carnival Magic is presented in widescreen with an aspect ratio of 16 x 9 and 5.1 Dolby Digital Stereo. Special features include an interview with producer Elvin Feltner; outtakes; audio commentary with cult film historian Joe Rubin and Feltner; "Making Of" featurette; original theatrical trailer; and Spanish subtitles.
About Film Chest:
Film Chest, headquartered in New York City, boasts one of the world's largest digitized libraries (10,000+ hours) of classic feature films, television, foreign imports, documentaries, special interest and audio, which it continues to grow aggressively. Founded in 2001, the company offers high-quality content (much in HD) for a wide variety of production and distribution needs and produces collector's sets for consumers. In 2010, Film Chest unveiled three new labels. HD Cinema Classics are films that have been painstakingly restored in HD and 5.1 stereo - utilizing state-of-the art digital technology - from original film assets. American Pop Classics restores classic American film and TV shows from the '30-70s. CULTRA showcases the best (and worst) of cult cinema, a cinematic cesspool of films that are surreal, eccentric, controversial, comical and scary but ultimately engaging and entertaining. With directors who were both visionaries and crackpots, these films were originally misunderstood and rarely a box office success, achieving status by word-of-mouth and underground distribution. Film Chest releases theatrically, on DVD (distributed by Virgil Films & Entertainment) and digitally on iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, Verizon FIOS and more. Visit us online at www.FilmChest.com.
About Virgil Films & Entertainment:
Virgil Films & Entertainment, formerly Arts Alliance America, was founded in 2003 as Hart Sharp Video by Joe Amodei to develop, acquire, market and distribute DVD product in the theatrical film, documentary, special interest and sports categories. The company has built partnerships with such high-profile entertainment brands as Sundance Channel Home Entertainment, National Geographic Cinema Ventures, ESPN, MLB Productions, Bombo Sports and Entertainment and Morgan Spurlock's Warrior Poets, among others. For more information, please visit: www.VirgilFilmsEnt.com.
Carnival Magic (2 Discs)
Film Chest / Virgil Films & Entertainment
Original Release: 1982 (Color)
Format: DVD/Blu-ray Combo Pack
Running Time: Approx. 100 Minutes (Plus Special Features)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
Pre-Order Date: December 21, 2010
Street Date: January 25, 2011
Catalog #: APC-004
UPC Code: #851169003049
Buy it at Amazon.com
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
In the 60s, Joseph Hanna and William Barbera pioneered the use of limited animation for television, knocking off a string of successful cartoon shows such as "Huckleberry Hound", "Quick-Draw McGraw", and "The Flintstones." While simpler and cheaper than fully-animated theatrical cartoons, the initial Hanna-Barbera TV output was still far superior to the increasingly-inept Saturday morning drivel that would follow, and hold up today as good-looking, well-written shows which, like their big-screen counterparts, are entertaining for both children and adults.
Such is the case with one of their most popular characters, Yogi Bear, who lives in Jellystone National Park with his pal Boo-Boo and drives Mr. Forest Ranger crazy by constantly stealing picnic baskets from unwary campers. With the DVD release of YOGI BEAR'S ALL-STAR COMEDY CHRISTMAS CAPER, we get to see examples of Yogi both in his glorious 60s heyday and in a lackluster 80s adventure that pales in comparison.
(Little kids, of course, will probably enjoy each of them equally, so feel free to pop in this DVD and let the tykes go nuts. With that out of the way, let's look at the two stories on this disc from the nostalgic old geezer perspective.)
First up is the titular tale, "Yogi Bear's All-Star Comedy Christmas Caper." This originally aired in 1982, when most made-for-TV cartoons had regressed in quality to a point well beyond "limited", coming off as cheap, slapdash drivel whose stories were written solely for the purpose of keeping undiscerning kids occupied. Design and rendering of characters is sketchy and sloppy, direction is uninspired, and the "comedy" is on roughly the same level as pulling funny faces at babies to make them laugh.
The best thing about it is that it reunites some of the best vocal talent in the business--Mel Blanc, Allan Melvin, Hal Smith, Janet Waldo, Don Messick, and the great Daws Butler, among others--as a group of Hanna-Barbera's most memorable characters help Yogi and Boo Boo celebrate the Christmas spirit by bringing a poor little rich girl and her neglectful father closer together during a sojourn to the big city.
An interesting side note to this episode is the fact that the word "Chanukah" was edited from the soundtrack when the show first aired. According to tvseriesfinale.com, someone at CBS was leery of Snagglepuss' line "Merry Christmas! Season’s Greetings! Happy Chanukah, even!", bleeping the reference to the Jewish holiday for reasons unknown. Even on this DVD, it's simply replaced by the word "happy." Weird, even!
After being distinctly unimpressed by Yogi's yuletide antics, I was relatively ecstatic to find that the second offering was a special 1962 episode of the original TV series, entitled "Yogi's Birthday Party." The difference is immediately apparent--there's exquisite artwork and character design done with style and flair, snappy direction by Hanna and Barbera themselves, and, best of all, genuinely funny gags that adults (especially us nostalgic cartoon geeks) can appreciate right along with the kids. Maybe even more so.
It's a week before Yogi's birthday and the show's sponsor is planning a gala surprise celebration for their star, with a nervous Mr. Forest Ranger charged with keeping the secret from him. "Trying to keep a secret from Yogi is like trying to hide Lake Michigan from a duck," he moans. Yogi overhears just enough of the phone conversation to get the idea that he's being given his own entertainment special, and will be expected to perform.
Worried that his singing and dancing skills aren't up to par, Yogi takes a series of lessons in a montage that pokes fun at some popular personalities of the era. He gets dancing lessons from Fred Upstairs, singing tips from Boppy Darin, and even some piano-playing pointers from one "Lee B. Rocky."
When the big night comes and Yogi discovers the birthday surprise, his reactions are priceless. Mr. Forest Ranger turns the event into a spoof of Ralph Edwards' "This Is Your Life" with a succession of all-star guests from Yogi's past appearing one after another. First, Huckleberry Hound's voice is heard from offstage: "A hound-dog howdy to y'all, Yogi." Mr. Forest Ranger asks, "Who's that, Yogi?" Yogi's guess: "The president?"
As familiar characters such as Snagglepuss, Hokey Wolf, Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks, Quick-Draw McGraw, Yakky Doodle, Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddy, and Snooper and Blabber accumulate onstage (with all the top voice actors on hand again, this time including June Foray and Duke Mitchell), the gags give way to a cheery birthday song written especially for the occasion. For me, this breezy and utterly charming classic episode is a delightful treat all the way.
The Warner Brothers DVD is in standard format with English and Spanish soundtracks. Subtitles are in English, Spanish, and French. Bonus features consist of some DVD and video game trailers.
I keep saying that "the kids" will like both features on YOGI BEAR'S ALL-STAR COMEDY CHRISTMAS CAPER, but to tell you the truth I'm never really sure what the hell little kids like or don't like these days. As for me, I had a ball watching the older one because it's really good and it brought back fond memories. The later one, on the other hand, is one of the main reasons I quit bothering to get out of bed on Saturday mornings.
Buy it at Amazon.com
Monday, December 20, 2010
Every once in awhile you come across a Shaw Brothers film that leaps out of the pack, grabs you by the lapels, and practically explodes in your face. BASTARD SWORDSMAN (1983), an exercise in sheer kinetic thrills, is one of those films.
The story twists and turns us from start to finish, but what it all boils down to is a deadly rivalry between two kung fu schools, the Wudan and the Wu Di. The title "bastard" is Yun Fei Yang, who lives with the Wudans as a servant and is constantly abused and ridiculed by the students. We later find that a mysterious hooded teacher is secretly giving him kung fu lessons and he's become an adept fighter. His unrequited love for Lun Wan Er, the school's only female student, leads to him being falsely accused of murder and forced to flee.
Meanwhile, the Wudang chief, Qing Song, fears a third loss at the hands of Dugu Wu Di during their upcoming ten-year contest, knowing that his own Polar Sword Skill is still no match for Wu Di's superior Fatal Skill. A possible war between the two groups would be decided by the invincible Silkworm Skill of Qing Song's elder brother, Yen Zhong Tian, whose powers are fading. Qing Song is saved during an attack on his life by a young warrior named Fu Yu Xue, who becomes his heir as Wudang chief should anything happen to him. But several levels of treachery infest both houses, with a bloody betrayal leading to a conflict that only the "bastard" and his new knowledge of Silkworm Skill can resolve.
With a story that's complex and involving, BASTARD SWORDSMAN is more than just a bunch of fight scenes linked by filler. A wealth of interesting characters take part in scenes of high drama which constantly surprise us with unexpected revelations. Our loyalties continue to shift as good guys become bad guys, and vice versa. Here, the action definitely doesn't outweigh the plot as they compete for our attention.
But what action! There are so many exhilarating, outlandish fight scenes that it's impossible to describe them all. Just about everybody gets into the act sooner or later, and the air is filled with swords, fists, unusual weapons, and anything else that can be hurled, projected, or willed into motion. Just when you think you've seen it all, each successive sword-clanging clash proves more stunning than the last. Add to that the supernatural element, visualized with great imagination and colorful SPFX, and just about anything can happen.
Here is some of the best wirework I've seen, augmented by uncommonly sharp editing and choreography that pulls out all the stops. The early practice fight between Qing Song and his elder brother Yen Zhong Tian is a truly magical sequence, yet it's only the beginning of a series of stunning setpieces that constantly strive to top each other. The attack of the four assassins on Qing Song is one of the wildest free-for-alls I've ever seen, as is the fight that occurs when Wu Di's daughter and chief warrior Kung Suen Wang encounter the Wudangs' Busby Berkeley-like "Dipper Sword Formation" in a spectacular battle. And these are but a few of the thrilling match-ups.
While the usual fun and exciting elements of the earlier Shaw Brothers films are present here, direction and cinematography show a growing level of sophistication. The film is wonderfully cinematic in a way that foreshadows the more mainstream successes of later years, yet it still retains the raw energy of the 70s classics.
Director Chin-Ku Lu harnesses the frenetic, off-the-wall hilarity of his HOLY FLAME OF THE MARTIAL WORLD from the same year and applies it to much more serious effect, with impressive results. In particular, Yun Fei Yang's mastery of the Silkworm Skill (in a wildly surreal sequence) and usage of it in the intense final battle must be seen to be believed.
The DVD from Funimation is 16.9 widescreen with Mandarin and English mono soundtracks and English subtitles. No extras besides trailers for other Funimation releases.
A brisk, invigorating assault on the senses, BASTARD SWORDSMAN is one of the most all-around entertaining and impressive Shaw Brothers productions I've seen so far. It's exactly the kind of experience I'm looking forward to every time I watch one of their films, and more.
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The Haves And The Have-Nots Are About To Collide…And It’ll Be Murder!
ANCHOR BAY ENTERTAINMENT PRESENTS MESKADA ON DVD
Which Side of the American Dream Will You Choose?
Beverly Hills, CA -- On March 22, 2011, Anchor Bay Entertainment releases the small-town thriller Meskada on DVD. An official selection at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, the film boasts an all-star cast including Nick Stahl (Sin City, Terminator 3, “Carnivale”), Rachel Nichols (Charlie Wilson’s War, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), Kellan Lutz (the Twilight Saga, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010, Accepted), Grace Gummer (“Gigantic”), daughter of Oscar®-winning actress Meryl Streep, Broadway star Michael Cerveris (“Tommy”) and Norman Reedus (“The Walking Dead,” The Boondock Saints I and II). SRP is $26.98, and pre-book is February 23.
Written and directed by Josh Sternfeld (Winter Solstice), Meskada follows a small-town detective named Noah Cordin (Stahl) as he struggles to solve the brutal murder of a boy in the peaceful, affluent town of Hilliard . The killers left behind no clues at the crime scene, with the exception of a scrap of paper leading Cordin back to his working-class hometown of Caswell.
Here, Cordin and county detective Leslie Spencer (Nichols) consult with Cordin's old friends, all of whom are suffering from the economic troubles that have plunged Caswell into destitution and despair. As their search fails to turn up a suspect, feverish tensions rise between the towns of Hilliard and Caswell. Cordin will soon learn that some crimes find their criminals…
Meskada portrays an unforgettable picture of the chasm between two towns and their inhabitants, bound by loyalty, family, community, and a battle born of circumstances beyond their control.
Anchor Bay Entertainment is the home entertainment division of Starz Media, LLC. It includes the Anchor Bay Films and Manga Entertainment brands. It distributes feature films, children’s entertainment, fitness, TV series, documentaries, anime and other filmed entertainment on DVD and Blu-ray™ formats. It is the exclusive distributor in the U.S. of the theatrical titles from Overture Films. Headquartered in Beverly Hills , CA , Anchor Bay Entertainment has offices in Troy , MI , as well as Canada , the United Kingdom and Australia . Starz Media (www.starzmedia.com) is a controlled subsidiary of Liberty Media Corporation attributed to the Liberty Starz tracking stock group.
Rating: Not Rated
Format: Anamorphic Widescreen (1.78:1)
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Street Date: March 22, 2011
Pre-Book: February 23, 2011
Length: 88 minutes
UPC : 0 1313 22852-9 0
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HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING starring Richard E. Grant -- coming January 11 on DVD from Image Entertainment
“A vigorous, cheerfully outrageous British satire.” - Rolling Stone
“…a challenging, leave-your-brain-on comedy” - DigitallyObsessed.com
Stress takes many forms…a headache, irritability, harsh words. But what if it took a completely unexpected shape? What if the metamorphosis took a bizarre life of its own? On January 11, 2011 , Image Entertainment will release on DVD How to Get Ahead In Advertising, the cult classic from Handmade Films that skewers the advertising industry with wit and without pity. This DVD will be available for an SRP for the DVD of $14.98.
Ad man Dennis Bagley (Richard E. Grant, L.A. Story, Gosford Park, Withnail and I) is slick, cynical and successful. But when Dennis develops a mean case of writer’s block during an ad campaign for acne cream, his anxieties escalate until his worries manifest as an evil twin head growing out of his neck. Can Dennis save himself from the demon whispering advice in his ear, or will his mental collapse completely engulf him?
Written and directed by Bruce Robinson (Oscar®, BAFTA® nominee, The Killing Fields), How To Get Ahead In Advertising attacks the mad world of advertising with eccentric glee. Dennis’ job has made him a nervous wreck – who can he turn to for help: his wife (Rachel Ward, “The Thorn Birds”), his psychiatrist (John Shrapnel, Chemical Wedding, Elizabeth: The Golden Age)? Or someone, something else?
HowTo Get Ahead In Advertising - DVD
Genre: Comedy, 80’s, Dark Comedy, Fantasy , United Kingdom
Rating Reason: N/A
Format: Enhanced for 16x9 TVs (1.78.1)
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
SRP : $14.98
Street Date: January 11, 2011
Length: 108 minutes
UPC : 014381657425
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Sunday, December 19, 2010
Based on the popular manga, KAMUI GAIDEN (2009) combines intimate drama and grand adventure with a hefty dose of furious fighting action, in an ultimately tragic tale of feudal Japan in the 17th century.
Kaimu (Ken'ichi Matsuyama) starts out as a poor farmboy whose people are on the bottom rung of rural society. Vowing to fight back against oppression, he joins a ninja clan known as the Shinobi but later renounces their violent ways and becomes a fugitive. When the inhabitants of a humble fishing village offer him refuge, he believes his days of running may be over--until he discovers that the ruthless and tenacious Shinobi always get their man.
With a look as lush and colorful as a basket of ripe fruit, KAMUI GAIDEN is like a glossy graphic novel come to life. After a brief prologue consisting of panels from the black-and-white manga, summarizing Kamui's miserable early life and induction into the Shinobi, we're thrust into the middle of his ongoing flight from hordes of deadly assassins who will stop at nothing to kill him. This opening sequence is designed to satisfy our sweet tooth for over-the-top martial arts action for awhile so that the more leisurely-paced main story can commence.
A dense forest is the setting for a string of encounters which utilize painstaking fight choreography combined with fairytale-level wirework--ninjas leap and soar from branch to branch like flying squirrels--and several shots are such an obvious hybrid of live action and CGI that they require a strong suspension of disbelief. This isn't a problem, though, if one simply goes along with the storybook atmosphere and almost supernatural aura that the sequence conveys.
As if the Shinobi weren't enough for Kamui to worry about, he ends up helping a crazy man named Hanbei (Kaoru Kobayashi) who has just chopped off the leg of a horse belonging to the cruel clan lord Gumbei (Kôichi Satô) and absconded with it. Hanbei actually has a valid reason for doing so, but this doesn't prevent Gumbei from ordering the deaths of both him and Kamui, which will prove a major inconvenience for them later on.
Much drama occurs back in Hanbei's fishing village as Kamui discovers that the man's wife is Sugaru (Koyuki), a Shinobi warrior woman who escaped from the ninja clan fourteen years earlier after battling with a young Kamui. Despite Sugaru's lingering mistrust, her daughter Sayaka (Suzuka Ohgo) falls in love with Kamui and Hanbei begs him to stay on and become a fisherman. This segment of the film glows with scenes of idyllic beauty and romance until circumstances force the family to flee to another island.
Over-the-top CGI makes a grand reappearance when their new island home turns out to be plagued by gigantic leaping sharks that like to eat fishermen. This leads to one of the film's most outlandish sequences as a shipload of swashbuckling shark hunters known as the Watarishu show up and start lustily hacking and harpooning their way through the toothy critters in exchange for food and supplies from the villagers. It looks like Kamui has at last found a place in the world where he can cast off his constant mistrust of others and settle down, but alas, things aren't as they seem.
As the film reaches its climax, KAMUI GAIDEN once again becomes a series of life-and-death clashes of fist and sword. This time, there's a grittier edge that eschews showy fight choreography for a more hard-edged, down-and-dirty approach that reflects Kamui's emotional turmoil and lust for revenge.
Director Yoichi Sai's staging of the final showdown has the flavor of a Sergio Leone gunfight with the opponents facing off from either side of the screen before going at each other. Strangely enough, there's even a weird echo of the fight between King Arthur and the Black Knight from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL.
The 2-disc DVD from Funimation is in 1.78.1 widescreen with Japanese and English soundtracks and English subtitles. Extras include a half-hour "making of" documentary, a behind-the-scenes look at Ken'ichi Matsuyama's extensive training for the action scenes, and several trailers.
After a darkly comic dash of bitter irony, the ending leaves plenty of room for a sequel, which suits me. Overflowing with incredible action, beautiful camerawork, and extremely stylish direction, KAMUI GAIDEN is a stirring and visually splendid adventure that engages the viewer on every level.
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Saturday, December 18, 2010
Like digging a fun doodad out of a box of stale Cracker Jack, watching DYING GOD (2008) benefits from the element of surprise--you don't expect very much at all, so the fact that it doesn't totally suck makes it seem even better than it is.
James Horan (FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, GODS AND GENERALS) stars as super-scummy cop Sean Fallon, who uses parolees to sell stolen guns on the street for him and executes them if they try to double-cross him. Horan does such an effective job of playing this creep that we can hardly stand to look at the guy. When he rescues some working girls from an abusive john and they reward him with a threesome complete with standard porn music, it's downright nauseating.
The thing is, though, he's so off the rails that after a while his BAD LIEUTENANT-style antics become amusing. The movie takes its time getting to the monster, focusing instead on Fallon's active lifestyle. Then, when hookers start turning up dead after being violently raped by some kind of horrible beast, Fallon joins forces with the city's leading pimps to get to the bottom of the matter. This eventually leads to a gory, bullet-riddled showdown in an abandoned factory.
One of the pimps is Fallon's old friend, Chance (Lance Henriksen), a wheelchair-bound smoothie with a beautiful, ass-kicking bodyguard named Angel (Agathe de La Boulaye). Always the trouper, Henriksen brings his "A" game to this modest effort and is fun to watch as usual. This is one of those cheap flicks where good actors rub shoulders with bad ones, but all of the performances are fun to watch in one way or another.
The film bristles with hardboiled dialogue that's hilariously over-the-top ("I'm a cop...you're a pimp...go f*** yourself!"), especially during a sitdown meeting in which the pimps and the corrupt cop form an uneasy alliance. Argentinean actress Victoria Maurette, who was awesome as gorgeous gunfighter babe Clementine Templeton in Albert Pyun's 2007 Western LEFT FOR DEAD, nails her spotlight moment as she tells off a vile pimp named Ray (Iván Espeche). She comes through again in a later scene in which she's picked up by a knife-wielding scumbag who ends up getting a faceful of Ray's shotgun (complete with graphic exploding-head effect).
Also on hand is Erin Brown, aka Misty Mundae, as a prostitute who's inexplicably in love with our boy Fallon. The old softy reveals his tender side when he apologizes and makes nice after slapping her around and forcing her to go out and round him up a bottle of booze for breakfast. Fallon's frequent run-ins with Duncan (Samuel Arena), a fellow cop who hates his guts, provide further amusement.
DYING GOD is hampered by bottom-of-the-barrel production values and that murky shot-on-video look that many viewers won't go near at all, yet it's quite well done compared to similar no-budget efforts that I've seen. Director Fabrice Lambot (INSANITY) clearly has style and works wonders with his limited resources.
Gore effects are plentiful and capably done, including copious amounts of blood, entrails, and the aforementioned head shot. The most shocking visual of all, however, comes when the monster's surviving victims start giving birth. "Kurupi", so dubbed by the nearly-extinct tribe who worships it, is realized by way of a full-body suit that resembles something out of a 50s horror flick. It's less than totally convincing but is okay once you get used to it. Nicolás Silbert performs well in the suit, turning several pimps into chitlins and battling with a circular-saw-wielding Fallon in the bloody climax.
The DVD from Green Apple Entertainment is presented in widescreen with an aspect ratio of 16 x 9 (1.2.1) and stereo. Bonus material includes trailer.
I just kept liking DYING GOD more and more as it continued to entertain me in unexpected ways. If you can't abide the look and feel of a truly low-rent indy, you'd do best to steer clear. Otherwise, you might want to give this lively little creature feature a spin.
Buy it at Amazon.com
Friday, December 17, 2010
For over a century, authors and filmmakers have been unable to resist rethinking, revising, and generally screwing around with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic master detective Sherlock Holmes. Even the silver screen's gold standard Holmes, Basil Rathbone, found himself transplanted from Victorian-era London into the middle of World War II in order to apply his peerless deductive skills toward fighting the Axis. Over the years Holmes has met Sigmund Freud and Jack the Ripper, battled invading Martians, and exposed his private life for all to see.
While many of these updates are respectful of the original material, some are mere gimmicks designed to spoof or sensationalize. But the three-part BBC-TV series SHERLOCK (2010), which places Holmes and the redoubtable Dr. John H. Watson squarely in the 21st century with the rest of us, is no gimmick. Rather, it's an exhilarating opportunity for the celebrated sleuth and his loyal sidekick to engage a whole new world of mysteries.
Indeed, this Sherlock would fit comfortably into any time period. He's not a fish out of water--his dynamic, self-contained character resists the need to be "updated" save for the modern detecting tools of which he readily avails himself. Of course, he still has his violin, not to mention his problems with certain controlled substances. The shag pipe has been replaced by nicotine patches, and instead of a journal, Watson records their adventures in his blog.
Holmes' rivalrous sibling Mycroft is here as well, now a member of the British government's inner circle and played very amusingly by Mark Gatiss. Needless to say, the shadowy presence of a certain Moriarty hovers over it all. Each episode is beautifully directed and shot, with inventive scene transitions and a fine musical score by David Arnold and Michael Price. The scripts are replete with crackling dialogue and bits of business which convey the spirit of Doyle's original characters and stories in loving detail. With all the familiar pieces falling into place in such a satisfying manner, SHERLOCK is a deep, delightful wallow in Holmesiana.
It took about half a minute for the wonderfully-named Benedict Cumberbatch to win me over as Holmes. We first find him in the morgue, furiously laying into a corpse with a riding crop to assess the bruises. Blithely unaware that a smitten attendant named Molly Hooper (Loo Brealey) is coming on to him, he responds to her timid invitation to coffee with a curt "Black, two sugars please, I'll be upstairs" before dashing off to the laboratory. This leads directly to the fateful meeting between the two odd ducks, Holmes and Watson (Martin Freeman), both seeking a roommate as in the first chapter of the original Holmes novel, "A Study in Scarlet." (This premiere episode is similarly titled "A Study in Pink.")
Noticing Watson's crutch, the inquisitive Holmes asks, "Afganistan or Iraq?" Watson, as in his initial incarnation, has been wounded both physically and mentally in the war and spends his days in therapy, but we get the feeling his unhappy life is about to get a lot more interesting. "We don't know a single thing about each other," he says dubiously when Holmes takes it for granted that they'll be flatmates.
Fans know exactly what's coming next. Our shared anticipation is rewarded when the droll, almost insanely perceptive Holmes casually reels off much of Watson's life story, based on simple observation, without missing a beat. It's a marvelous scene, establishing his eccentric character beautifully with a few exquisite strokes. Before long, both are ensconced in the familiar surroundings of 221B Baker Street, fussed over by their dear old landlady Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs).
"When the police are out of their depth, which is always, they consult me," he boasts when Detective Lastrade (Rupert Graves) of Scotland Yard summons him to the scene of a mysterious suicide. Holmes invites Watson along as a medical consultant, thus beginning their grand collaboration. A series of apparent self-poisonings has Scotland Yard baffled, and it's up to Holmes to figure out why unrelated Londoners are killing themselves with identical poison pills for no apparent reason. This adventure will eventually lead him into a riveting battle of wits with the most unlikely of opponents.
With a frustrated Lestrade constantly calling upon Holmes for help, the two bear a resemblance to Batman and Commissioner Gordon. Which is fitting since, after all, Batman was partly based on Holmes in the first place. (Maybe that's why the otherwise useless Robin was invented, to serve the Watson role of sounding board and appreciative audience to "the world's greatest detective.")
A clever convention that appears frequently is the use of floating text to show us not only what's popping up on various cell phones (Holmes prefers texting to talking) and other sources, but also lets us in on what's running through Holmes' mind as he riffles through various visual clues. This way, he doesn't have to constantly explain everything to Watson for our benefit, and we get to see his thought processes in real time as he gathers and assesses information at lightning speed.
In the second episode, "The Blind Banker", Holmes sniffs out a racket involving stolen historical artifacts smuggled in from China and sold at auction. When two of the smugglers are found dead in classic "locked room" scenarios, the killer's trail leads to a scary Chinese criminal cult that eventually gets their hands on our heroes. While this episode gets slightly bogged down in procedure at times, there's plenty of exotic atmosphere, great character byplay, and a keenly suspenseful finale.
The third and last story of the season, "The Great Game", is an utter joy from start to finish. It begins with Watson returning to the flat to find Holmes shooting bullets into the wall out of boredom, followed by that famous exchange in which Holmes reveals he doesn't know that the Earth goes round the sun. Such information, he explains, isn't necessary in his work, and, in contemporary terms, he likens his brain to a hard drive from which all extraneous data must be deleted.
The plot involves a mad bomber who communicates with Holmes through hostages who are wired with explosives and forced to read their captor's text messages aloud over the phone. With only hours to solve each of the killer's mysterious puzzles and rescue the hostages one by one, the pace is frantic and the action non-stop, culminating in a final revelatory scene that should have Holmes fans in paroxysms of geek bliss.
Do we ever get to see the big "M"? Yes. I won't go into detail, but the eventual face-to-face encounter between the world's greatest consulting detective and the world's greatest criminal mastermind is a sensational pay-off to all the build-up, and scintillating as hell. (The words "You complete me" came to mind during their verbal sparring.) It ends in a cliffhanger which, in a way, reminded me of a certain story called "The Final Problem."
The 2-disc DVD from Warner Home Video and BBC contains all three feature-length episodes (270 minutes total) in a 16:9 aspect ratio and Dolby Digital 5.1 stereo. Subtitles are in English. Episodes 1 and 3 contain cast and crew commentaries. Other bonuses include a making-of featurette, "Unlocking Sherlock", and the original hour-long pilot which was later expanded and reshot to become "A Study in Pink."
Do I recommend SHERLOCK? It's all I can do to keep from coming over to your house and forcing you to watch it with me. This is intoxicating stuff for Holmes addicts, and I can't wait to see what's next. In the words of the modern-day Sherlock: "The game is on!"
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