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Thursday, May 29, 2008

IT'S A BOY GIRL THING -- DVD review by porfle

There seems to have been an abundance of these body-swapping comedies in the last few decades, but rarely are they as much fun as IT'S A BOY GIRL THING, a 2006 romantic comedy from director Nick Hurran and writer Geoff Deane that's due to hit DVD shelves on June 17th. Not too chick-flick sappy or frat-rat gross, it strikes a pretty good balance between the two and manages to strike an emotional chord while still being laugh-out-loud funny at times.

Kevin Zegers (2004's DAWN OF THE DEAD) plays Woody, the popular, pretty-boy quarterback who dates vapid head cheerleader Breanna (Brooke D'Orsay) and has his sights set on a football scholarship. His next-door neighbor is the bookish, socially-stunted virgin Nell (Samaire Armstrong, "The O.C.", "Entourage") who dreams of going to Yale. They can't stand one another, mainly due to their lack of empathy for each other's lifestyles, circumstances, points of view, etc. But after a school field trip to the museum, during which they have a heated argument in front of a statue of the Aztec god of sorcery, Tezcatlipoca--yes, it's pretty contrived, but what the heck--they wake up in each other's bodies. And, despite my initial fears to the contrary, this actually leads to a series of genuinely funny consequences.

Most of the obvious stuff is explored, of course--Woody/Nell reacts in horror to find that "it" is missing, while Nell/Woody is aghast at the morning "Woody, Jr." that's making a pup tent out of the bed covers. (Surprisingly, no mention is made of things like applying makeup or dealing with that time of the month, although later on during a pajama party, the girls give Nell/Woody an eye-opening introduction to the joys of bikini waxing.)

At first, they use the situation to wreak havoc in each other's lives. Nell/Woody dresses like a preppy dweeb, breaks up with Breanna, mutters "Hmm...nice penis" to the guy at the adjoining urinal, and is a total loss during football practice. Meanwhile, Woody/Nell flounces through school looking like a cheap hooker, seriously lowers Nell's grade point average in record time, and almost loses "her" virginity to a hairy Italian dude in a trailer park before fleeing in horror at the sight of his engorged dudehood. This is pretty funny stuff--I guffawed numerous times, in fact--and the leads use actual acting skills to pull it off. Best of all, none of it is so over-the-top farcical that we stop caring about the characters or buying the premise.

Of course, since this is a "romantic" comedy, the two of them must eventually stop bickering and start falling for each other. And as they're each facing a highly important event in their lives--the big football game for Woody, a critical interview to get into Yale for Nell--they must work together to help each other succeed. This takes the movie to a different level in which it manages to get genuinely emotional (yes, I got verklempt a couple of times) without being too sappy.

Brooke D'Orsay does the slutty cheerleader routine perfectly, while Mpho Koaho is suitably Neanderthal-ish as Woody's best friend, "Horse." Robert Joy and Sherry Miller are Nell's straightlaced parents, the Bedworths. Familiar character actor Maury Chaykin plays Woody's oafish dad, Stan, and Sharon Osbourne herself shows up as his ditzy mom, Della. Best of all, Zegers and Armstrong give thoughtful and perceptive performances that allow us to sympathize with their characters even as we're laughing at them.

Director Hurran has a fine visual style that's way above average for this kind of movie, and handles the comedic and heartfelt stuff with equal skill. My only gripe is that the movie has too many endings, but they're all pretty good so I didn't mind all that much. This is a "feel-good" movie in the best sense of the word.

The DVD comes with anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Surround sound. Extras include a "making of" featurette with co-executive producer Elton John, brief interviews with Kevin Zegers and Samaire Armstrong, cast bios, an "Are You More Boy Or Girl?" quiz (apparently, I'm a "Macho Man", heh, heh), a history of the Aztec statue of Tezcatlipoca (which, it eventually dawned on me, was pretty much a load of B.S.), and a trailer. The song soundtrack is pretty awesome, featuring the likes of Eminem, The Black Eyed Peas, Girls Aloud, Deep Purple, and, of course, Ozzy Osbourne and Elton John.

IT'S A BOY GIRL THING may be the best body-swapping movie ever--it's certainly one of the most fun and well-made of the genre. And its deft blend of semi-crude comedy with heartwarming sensitivity (in doses well short of being nausea-inducing) may make it a sure bet for boy-girl viewing.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Interview with Author Dwight Kemper about "Who Framed Boris Karloff"

We had a chance to talk with Dwight Kemper author of the book "Who Framed Boris Karloff" about his influences and book. Dwight gave us a ton of great answers. You can purchase the book from

Interview Questions

1. Dwight can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born on Long Island, New York. My great, great aunt is Gertrude Stein on my father’s side. On my mother’s side I have a 2nd Degree Mason, as well as an engineer who floated a bridge down New York harbor in one piece and apparently on that very bridge that spans the river to Harlem, there’s a plaque dedicated to this illustrious relative. I also have character actor Charles Kemper as a great Uncle, which means that in contrast, I’m a huge disappointment to everyone.

2. How did you get interested in writing?

I began as a child who thought that being a child and writing children’s books was a good marketing idea. Unfortunately, children’s book publishers didn’t see it that way, so I learned what a rejection slip was way before I ought to have done. I dabbled in other arts growing up including sculpture, painting, sketching and so forth. I became a hairdresser at the urging on my mother, who is also a hairdresser. I soon discovered being a straight hairdresser is rather an unpopular thing, and never really made a go of it. I was a nurse for quite a few years, which would serve me well when I later attempted to make a living as a mystery writer. I eventually became a magician and mystery theater entertainer, and have been presenting crime scene shows for over twenty years now. Since I decided that as I am now turning fifty, and I can’t lug speakers and dead bodies around forever, it might be advisable to find a way to make money sitting down, so I decided to become a writer of mystery novels. Although, I do still go to the gym regularly and can bench 185 lbs.

3. Now obviously you’re a huge Universal Monster film fan, what was the genesis of that?

The genesis? I suppose my exodus from reality was the genesis of my interest in Universal films. I was a boy during the second Monster Boom in the sixties. As a result, I made the Aurora model kits, I watched the WOR afternoon movie that would show the same film over and over for a whole week, so when they showed House of Dracula, for instance, I would watch it every single day. My mother made certain to wake me up on a school night to see Boris Karloff’s Thriller, and she was the one who first introduced me to my first viewing of Frankenstein. In fact, I seem to recall that I would often forget that I’d seen Frankenstein and think the second or third time was my first. I also have very vivid memories of seeing Son of Frankenstein on television, and in particular of the artwork the station used between commercials. It was a silhouette of the Monster with a sad, ominous bass playing in the background. I also recall that I was a tad confused and thought the Monster wearing the shaggy coat was the son of the Frankenstein Monster. I suppose because the hair and costume were a little different than I remembered the “real” Frankenstein Monster looking. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the title was for Basil Rathbone’s character!

4. What were your favorite Universal films and actors?

Well, as for favorite actors, obviously Boris Karloff is number one. At the time of my childhood he was still alive and well and on prime time TV, not only on Thriller, but on The Wild, Wild West, The Girl from Uncle, and so forth. But I have to say, Bela Lugosi has really grown on me as a character. As I wrote him for my story, he got all the good lines. My favorite film, Bride of Frankenstein is number one. Even as a boy I recognized there was something special about this picture. And the Monster talked! Of course, Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein was my second favorite. I’m probably one of the few kids on my block that saw that film after seeing the serious Universal films. The later 1950’s horror films like Creature from the Black Lagoon were also fun for me, and it didn’t hurt any that I could make the model kit of the Gill Man.

5. Now the idea to pair real life actors with a fictional murder mystery is something is very unique, how did the idea first enter your head?

It’s not unlike some of my mystery shows. I did a show called Murder at the Vampire Play that was inspired by a theater program I bought from a 1920’s road show of production of Dracula. I took the real cast, the real crew, and information gleaned from David J. Skal’s book Hollywood Gothic, as well as a phone call to Mr. Skal to clarify a few details. I even created a tableau using dummies and a smoke machine to represent the crime scene frozen in time. I put testimony on the back of blown up faces of the real people so audience members playing the suspects could pretend to be the actors. I sent Mr. Skal a copy of the dummy program and souvenir Vampire mask that was a reproduction of the masks given out to audiences for the original Vampire Play. I even did a stage version of Who Framed Boris Karloff, although the plot was entirely different from the novel. The play ignored time frames, used a life mask of Boris as a clue that the killer impersonated Boris using a rubber mask to frame him, and so forth. The novel took a great deal of rethinking to make it workable as a book. For a 90 minute show, you don’t have to be too overly concerned for things like historical accuracy, as long as the audience is having fun. But a book requires a great deal more work.

6. Did you do prep research by reading bios of the stars to get their proper behavior, speaking patterns, etc down?

I am also an actor, as well as a writer. For me, I have to prepare to write a character the way an actor approaches a role. I try to immerse myself in the characters I’m writing about, watching their films, reading their biographies, and watching interviews from things like This Is Your Life. It was very helpful having Sara Karloff to give me advice about how her father would react to certain situations and tell me if his dialogue sounded the way he really talks when he’s not playing a role. Recently I had a hell of a time getting into Bud Abbott’s and Lou Costello’s heads for my new novel, Bela Lugosi and the House of Doom. I am a big fan of their comedy films and television shows, and I know Abbott and Costello as their on stage personas. But I had to get to know them as real people. Lou Costello in particular was very hard to portray, not only to balance his stage persona from his real self, but to keep the book funny, and still deal with the real tragedies in Costello’s life. You can’t write about Lou in the time of Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, the backdrop for my mystery, and not deal with the death of his only son Butch. It totally consumed him. In fact, if you look carefully at the scene in the actual movie, at the hotel where Abbott and Costello confront Chaney after his Wolf Man transformation, there’s a moment when Chaney grabs Lou and you can see the copper bracelet Lou had welded to his wrist with BUTCH inscribed on it. So even amid this funny scene, you can see a hint of tragedy. It was a real high wire act for me as a writer. It helps that Ron Palumbo and Bob Furmanek who wrote Abbott and Costello in Hollywood are nice enough to share their knowledge of the film’s production and about Abbott and Costello. They’ve both been very supportive of this project.

7. Is the title “Who Framed Boris Karloff” meant to be a call back to the Roger Rabbit movie or it’s more a situation where title just sounded good?

Admittedly it was a parody of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which itself was a parody of the noir detective genre. When I wrote the story as a dinner theater show, the title seemed marketable and easily identified as something both funny and mysterious. I asked my publisher if they wanted a less pun title, but Gary and Sue said they liked it, and so did Sara Karloff, so the title stayed. I considered keeping the same framework for the title of each succeeding book, questions to be answered by the reader, such as “Who Xed Y?” but the new book didn’t easily lend itself to that, since my publisher specifically wanted Bela Lugosi’s name prominently in the title and he was the detective, not the victim. Thus, the second and third books in the series are titled Bela Lugosi and the House of Doom, and Basil Rathbone and the Curse of Conan Doyle. There’s also another book that might come out before House of Doom that harks back to a pun title. It too is based on a mystery theater show I did for Halloween called Dead Wood, or Murder Can Be a Drag. As you may have guessed, it features Edward D. Wood, Jr. and his entourage of eccentrics. That was also a very hard book to write and required a lot of research. Not only to get the people right, but because it takes place mostly at Bela Lugosi’s funeral, so I needed information about the funeral business in general, and the funeral home that prepared Bela’s body in particular. Frankly, it was a very depressing book to write and I had a hard time getting through it. I suppose that’s why it became such a darkly slapstick romp as Criswell takes on the mantle of detective, with Forrest J Ackermann as his Watson, to compensate for the very depressing subject matter I had to deal with. We’ll see if it sees the light of day. I hope so, because it’s really quite a daring novel. Meanwhile, Bela Lugosi and the House of Doom is turning into quite a wicked little romp.

8. Can you give our readers a description of the book (I’d give one but I’d think I’d spoil the plot lol)?

Who Framed Boris Karloff? takes place on the set of Son of Frankenstein. Boris Karloff is framed for the murder of a Universal Studios executive and the studio wants to cover it up, as studios often did when their stars got in trouble. Boris wants to find the real killer, so he enlists the aid of his co-star, Basil Rathbone, fresh from playing Sherlock Holmes in Hound of the Baskervilles, and Bela Lugosi becomes the loose cannon detective. Together this trio of actors tries to solve a Hollywood murder mystery that just gets them deeper and deeper into more trouble than they ever thought possible.

9. Now Sara Karloff wrote the forward for your book how did you come into contact with her?

The internet, through It’s a friendship that began when I offered to send her a tape of her Dad on the Jack Benny Radio Program and Spike Jones Show, that apparently she didn’t know about. From there we began corresponding. When I decided to write the book, I told her my intensions and asked for her blessing. She was very supportive and I sent her chapters as I was writing them. I suppose taking this approach is what made the book as exciting as it is; I wanted to make sure I didn’t bore Sara. She would send me encouraging replies like “I’m HOOKED!!!” so I knew I was on the right track.

10. How has the book done commercially? You’ve obviously obtained critical success when you were nominated for the Rondo award for Best Book in 2007.

It’s done fairly well commercially. I do a lot of promotion on my own, including local talk shows, and book signings. I also have copies available at my mystery shows. And I try to get the word out through websites like this one.

Regarding the Rondo Award nomination, it was very exciting to be on the ballot this year. Although I didn’t win, and let’s face it, I was the Ron Paul of the Rondos considering I was the only fiction book on a list of really good non-fiction books; it was still very encouraging I got the votes I did. So to all of you who voted for my novel, I thank you.

11. What are your next literary monster related plans for our readers to keep an eye out for?

Look for Bela Lugosi and the House of Doom, coming soon. I’ve finished the first two parts, and getting ready to complete the concluding chapters. It takes place during the making of Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, and is a tale of espionage and strange goings on in the titular haunted house. Lou Costello is Bela Lugosi’s Watson, and then Lon Chaney becomes Costello’s Watson as they investigate what Costello thinks is a Hollywood Communist plot. Things get really wild in this one. Expect the unexpected (although technically, if you’re expecting it, can it be unexpected?)… And seltzer, expect lots of seltzer. And ice cubes, plenty of ice cubes.

Frank Dietz will be doing the cover again, and he’s really looking forward to this one since Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein is his favorite movie! I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.

12. Any final comments for our readers?

Yes, what I say to everyone I meet:

Buy my book.

Buy two, one to keep, one to share.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

THE GRAND -- DVD review by porfle

THE GRAND is a mockumentary that would like to scale the same comedic heights as THIS IS SPINAL TAP, BEST IN SHOW, A MIGHTY WIND, and other similar efforts, but doesn't quite pull it off with the same degree of hilarity. Still, with a fine cast of comics improvising the majority of their lines, the hit-and-miss ratio is pretty good.

Woody Harrelson plays Jack Faro, a perpetually-stoned ne'er-do-well ("If you can smoke it, or drink it, or inject it, or snort it, I've done it") who has inherited a large Las Vegas casino called The Rabbit's Foot from his late grandpa "Lucky" (Barry Corbin) but is on the verge of losing it due to gross mismanagement unless he can enter his own casino's big poker tournament and win the ten-million-dollar jackpot. He has stiff competition, though, from a variety of top players who also have their eyes on that huge stack of cash.

Director and co-writer Zak Penn (INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS) gave his cast a script with only the basic story points and then allowed them to come up with their own lines and many of their basic character traits. Harrelson, of course, could play an irresponsible stoner like Jack Faro in his sleep. Jack's been married about 74 times, and occasionally finds himself hitting on women such as his employee Toni (Shannon Elizabeth in a brief cameo), who has to remind him that they've already been married.

Cheryl Hines (who still looks hot even with a really bad hairdo) plays poker whiz Lainie Schwartzman, and while not all that funny herself, Hines' experience on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" has made her an expert straight woman for guys like Ray Romano as her husband Fred. Fred's feeling a bit useless as his wife brings home the bacon for their family, and tries to compensate by creating interesting handshakes for his kids, excelling at fantasy football, and coming up with clever sayings. ("Gimme a cup of joe, I wanna see the milkman and I'm takin' it up the beanstalk" means he wants a large decaf.)

Lainie's twin brother Larry (David Cross) is also in the tournament, driven by a fierce sibling rivalry drilled into him since childhood by their cranky old man, wonderfully played by Gabe "Mr. Kotter" Kaplan. Cross is one of the most talented improv performers in the cast and it's too bad he doesn't get more screen time. SPINAL TAP's own Michael McKean shows up as an addlebrained billionaire who has his sights set on The Rabbit's Foot, while Dennis Farina is an old-school Vegas card shark with mob connections and Richard Kind plays a gee-whiz poker newbie whose incredible dumb luck lands him a spot in the final round.

The large cast also includes Estelle Harris, Jason Alexander, famed German director Werner Herzog, several actual poker champs who'll probably be familiar to those of you who follow these competitions, Michael Karnow in a funny role as an inept sports announcer trying to hawk his line of crappy "How to Win at Poker" merchandise, and, last but not least, "Saturday Night Live" alumnus Chris Parnell as a super-geeky weirdo who drinks "brain juice" during each game and likens himself to the human computers known as Mentats from Frank Herbert's "Dune."

The most interesting aspect of THE GRAND is the fact that the final game's outcome was unscripted and depended solely upon which actor happened to win. So we get to see an actual poker game being played by finalists Woody Harrelson, Cheryl Hines, David Cross, Chris Parnell, Dennis Farina, and Richard Kind (while staying in character, of course), and the suspense, disappointments, and final victory are all real. Knowing this adds a whole new dimension to the climactic scenes.

When the movie's over, there's an ample array of extras to explore, including a commentary by Penn, co-writer Matt Bierman, and actor Michael Karnow. Harrelson, Hines, and Romano join Penn for commentaries on their own specific scenes, including several deleted scenes and an alternate ending featuring an entirely different game outcome. (Penn and the terminally-laidback Harrelson are especially funny.) There are also some entertaining profiles which allow the actors to improvise even more comedy bits for their characters, and a trailer. All in all, lots of fun bonus stuff.

THE GRAND isn't on the same level as Christopher Guest's standard-setting mockumentaries, but with a great cast and pretty much non-stop gags, it does provide a sizable amount of breezy entertainment. And the genuine poker competition between the actors in the final round (with an actual jackpot of $500 at stake) is a unique feature that fans of the game won't want to miss.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Report From the NYC Affliction Banned MMA Press Conference and an Interview with Josh Barnett by Ian Friedman

by Ian Friedman

Today, I had the extreme pleasure of being able to cover the Affliction Banned Press Conference that was held at the Trump Tower in Manhattan at 57th and 5 Avenue in Lower Manhattan. I also got the chance to talk with former UFC Heavyweight Champ former Pride, NJPW, and current Pancrase, World Victory Road, and IGF fighter Josh Barnett.

I arrived shortly before the press conference was about to start at the Trump Towers so I had a chance to get a free Affliction t-shirts, which was also given out to fans who were attending the press conference as it was open to the public. I have to say Affliction made a smart decision in giving out free shirts, as regardless of ones opinion on the brand, it is well known and highly regarded and a way to draw people to an event. Trump Tower was also an excellent location choice with its exquisite interiors which helped give the proceedings in New York a very refined and regal look. The interior and exterior was adorned with many posters inside and outside the building including a massive 3-5 floor banner setup behind the conference table. After collecting my t-shirt, I signed in at the press desk collecting my packet and badge id. I then took the escalator down to the first floor where the press conference was being held. Members of the public who were there were able to view the proceedings from the railings of the floor above.

The Press Conference itself including short speeches from all of the participants except for Ben Rothwell’s since he is still listed as fighting TBA and was joked about by Rothwell and some of the other fighters. Not much of substance was really discussed that has not been reported in the past, but I did have a chance to discuss HD coverage with Afflictions media people and they stated that since they will be with InDemand and Dish Network among others, that as long as you have an HD capable cable box your provider will have Banned available to purchase and view in HD. Banned will also be available in Russia and Japan to view which is quite amazing when you think this is the companies first event.

Affliction and their production team did a great job promoting the event even getting Donald Trump who was in attendance to give a small speech putting over Affliction.

After the Press Conference formally ended, the fighters themselves did interviews with members of the press. Because of time constraints I only had a chance to talk with Josh Barnett. I did accidentally nail Matt Lindland with my bookbag. Matt pointed out this out, too which I immediately apologized, and Matt responded with a hearty laugh and an “its ok”.

I figured since fight discussion would be what everyone else was going to be talking about with Josh, I would talk about some of the less beaten areas involving the Japanese fight scene and anime. We began talking about one of Josh’s favorite (along with mine too) anime Fist of the North Star. Josh himself told me that he had not had a chance yet to view some of the newer Gaiden’s yet, but that he really wants to as he is such a massive fan of the series. He has had heard very positive feedback on it from one of the fighters he works with. He also did not pick up the Japanese box sets that recently came out and retailed for over 100,000 yen, because he still relies on English subs. It may be a surprise too some, but Josh is not fully fluent in Japanese even though many think he is. He rates his skills as being able to pick it up and engage around conversational level Japanese, but that it comes and goes, and definitely would not describe himself as fluent by any means. He also was gracious enough to sign a box set of Fist of the North Star that I had and will now a fixture in the office. The music rights to use Fist of the North Star’s first theme, “Ai wo Torimodose!!” for Josh’s entrance have not yet been secured, but Josh is still not sure if he is going to use it or not as entrance music, pointing out Japan and America as different markets and if American fans would responds.

We discussed Josh’s plans for fighting in Japan, he stated that he had no plans for fighting in DREAM because of carry-over issues from PRIDE. He did wish the people fighting in the organization the best, but he did not plan on being involved with the organization in any capacity, so it will look like Josh will be with World Victory Road for the near future in terms of national MMA in Japan. Josh stated that he would love to keep fighting in Pancrase and defending his Open Weight King of Pancrase title, but that Pancrase is having trouble finding challengers that want to compete at Open Weight. He stated that Pancrase is trying and that the door is always open.

In terms of the Inoki Genome Federation, Josh is going to be back there in June and August and stated that “he wasn’t leaving until he had a belt”! I also asked him why does Inoki not just start an MMA group and why have the IGF. Josh felt it is because for Inoki he feels that wrestling and the skill involved is not fake (which is a view Josh holds) and that Inoki wants pro-wrestlers who can compete as if they were MMA fighters in a legit sense. I mentioned that this also seemed to be the goal with Inoki Bom-Ay-Ye and for example, the Yuji Nagata-Cro-Cop match. Josh agreed, but pointed out at the time that no one had truly known how powerful Cro-Cop was and it was not an even match up. IGF seems to have as a goal the evolution in the ideas of the Bom-Ay-Ye and having truly well rounded fighters in the legit and Puro sense.

I then thanked Josh for taking the time for the interview and snapped a quick photo and departed. One thing that was interesting to me was how I was similar in height to Fedor and at the other end of the stick how gigantic Tim Sylvia is, but as both men know and our readers do, size while important isn’t the end all. National Coverage in the forum of ESPN, NBC, and other major groups along with MMA press were present, including a great deal of Russian and European media.

I left shortly afterward, but not before seeing the huge throngs of fans waiting in line to get the signatures from the fighters. Affliction put on a great presentation for both the media and the fans today and I just cannot wait to see their first fight card July 19th.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"The Cranford Collection" and "My Boy Jack" -- DVD Review by Ian

Video: The video quality of this BBC teleproduction is quite excellent as it should be since it is only less than a year old. It is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen TV’s and features excellent colors (which can be seen in the gorgeous pastel pictures that open each episode) and the lush English countryside. The same is the case with My Boy Jack. Although in this case the technical quality for this picture is seen more in the grays and blacks of the battlefield. Despite this the DVD still shows the beauty of the English countryside as a contrast to the trench warfare of France.

Audio: Both programs are equipped with Dolby Digital Stereo and sound find free of hiss and any distortion. The range and separation is limited due to the stereo based nature, still the audio tracks are fine and work well with the production.

Extras: The extras are limited, but more than make up with it because of their substantial nature. The Cranford Collection comes with a wonderful making of feature that lasts nearly 30 minutes and is filed with interviews about the production. My Boy Jack also has around 30 minutes of interviews with all the main actors (including Harry Potter) and about 7 minutes of deleted scenes.

Overall: If you love classic English acting and also a chance to listen to the actors discuss their craft, then BBC America via Warner Brothers offers two very different productions stacked with great actors for you to choose from. Highly Recommended for Anglophiles and lovers of the BBC and their great productions.


Friday, May 9, 2008

PHENOMENA -- DVD review by porfle

Italian horror master Dario Argento draws us into the supernatural again with PHENOMENA (1985), a dark, richly-atmospheric return to SUSPIRIA territory as opposed to the stark and brightly-lit realism of his previous film, TENEBRE.

Once again, a young American girl (Jennifer Connelly) finds herself attending a remote, Gothic-looking European girls' school with a stern headmistress, an ill-fated best friend among a bunch of bratty schoolgirls, and a maniacal killer on the loose.

This time, though, there aren't any witches or diabolical forces at work--the supernatural aspect comes from Jennifer's telepathic connection to insects and her ability to control their behavior. She makes friends with Prof. McGregor (a wonderfully restrained Donald Pleasance), a wheelchair-bound forensic scientist who specializes in discerning time of death by the rate of maggot growth on a corpse, who suggests that Jennifer use her special abilities to try and track down the murderer. This, of course, puts her in grave danger, and before long she finds herself face-to-face with the killer in a nightmare of grotesque horror.

From the very beginning, the Swiss locations with their overcast skies and trees writhing in the constantly blowing wind create an eerie, forboding atmosphere. When a young schoolgirl (Argento's daughter, Fiore) misses her bus and is left behind on a deserted mountain road, she makes her way to an isolated cottage for help, then finds herself being pursued by an unseen maniac until she's cornered in a glass-enclosed observation point over a raging waterfall.

There's a super-slow motion shot of her head crashing through the glass (a familiar Argento motif that will occur yet again later on), and then we see the same head falling into the swirling water below. It's a terrifically strange and moody sequence that gets the movie off to a great start.

The scenes at the girls' academy are perhaps closer to what Argento had in mind originally for SUSPIRIA, since that film was meant to feature younger characters such as these. There's a Grimm's fairytale quality as Jennifer feels imprisoned in this dark, oppressive place and soon finds herself sleepwalking through its shadowy corridors, her mind wracked by nightmares, until another gruesome killing occurs right before her eyes.

Argento indulges himself stylistically during these dazzling sequences, and the beautiful Jennifer Connelly is a terrific young actress who perfectly embodies the type of heroine Argento has in mind. Throughout the film, her skillful performance is fascinating to watch and entirely convincing, helping Argento to sell some incredibly over-the-top situations.

The last twenty minutes or so are just plain nuts. (Look for Mario Donatone, who played Mosca, the Sicilian hitman in THE GODFATHER PART III, in a brief role.) I don't want to give too much away, so I'll just say that long-time Argento collaborator Daria Nicolodi shines as Frau Brückner, one of the teachers from the school, who hides a really dark secret that comes into play in a big way.

Jennifer finds herself in the middle of some of the most grotesque situations imaginable before the fiery, bug-infested finale which features some great underwater scenes. There are about three successive endings, but each one is more startling than the last. And I haven't even mentioned the chimp with the straight-razor.

Anchor Bay's new DVD release features a new remastered widescreen (1:66:1) transfer, enhanced for 16x9 televisions. There's a commentary track featuring Argento along with makeup effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, composer Claudio Simonetti, and journalist Loris Curci. "A Dark Fairy Tale" is an interesting 17-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. Goblin member Simonetti's music video "Jennifer", featuring himself along with Jennifer Connelly, is a fun example of 80s-style cheese, as is Bill Wyman's video for "Valley" (both excellent instrumentals feature prominently in the film, and to much better effect than the heavy metal songs that are also included). There's a trailer, an Argento biography, and, last but not least, Dario Argento's appearance on the legendary "Joe Franklin Show", which is a real treat.

My first experience with this film was a long-ago viewing of the drastically-cut version, retitled CREEPERS, which was released in the U.S. in the 80s, so it's a pleasure to finally be able to enjoy PHENOMENA in its original form and give it a long-overdue reappraisal. Argento himself rates it his most personal and perhaps best of all his films. I don't quite agree with the latter, but I do have a whole new opinion of this movie now. It's an exhilarating, bizarre, often mind-boggling excursion into Gothic horror, and a delightfully undiluted manifestation of Dario Argento's wildest imaginings.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

TENEBRE -- DVD review by porfle

I'm a Dario Argento fan but have yet to see all of his films. So it was a real treat to get the chance to watch TENEBRE (aka TENEBRAE), the Italian director's 1982 return to the giallo style after a detour into the supernatural (SUSPIRIA, his masterpiece, and its follow-up INFERNO). According to Wikipedia, "giallo" films are typically slasher-style whodunits characterized by "extended murder sequences featuring excessive bloodletting, stylish camerawork and unusual musical arrangements", which would make this a prime example of the genre.

Tony Franciosa plays Peter Neal, a murder mystery writer who's just arrived in Rome to promote his latest book, "Tenebrae", only to find that a serial-killing stalker is using his new novel as a template for ridding the world of sexual deviates and other undesirables. With the help of his secretary and budding love interest Anne (Argento collaborator and former spouse Daria Nicolodi) and eager young assistant Gianni (Christian Borromeo), Neal hopes to add a feather to his literary cap by solving the real-life murder mystery himself as bodies begin to pile up. The arrival in Rome of his spurned ex-lover Jane (Veronica Lario) and the presence of a television journalist named Berti (John Steiner) who appears to be a little too obsessed with Neal and his writings are just two of the many pieces in Argento's jumbled jigsaw puzzle.

One of the first things I noticed about TENEBRE is how bright it is. Much of it takes place in broad daylight, while the night scenes are often overly-lit. Argento has stated that he wanted the film to look hyper-realistic, with no shadows for either the victims or the killer to hide in. It's an interesting stylistic choice that Argento uses effectively. The often light-bleached visuals and pallid settings also allow him to emphasize certain elements such as a woman's fire-engine red pumps or the gouts of blood that liberally decorate several moments of terror.

Some of my favorite Argento touches are well-represented here, including: a haunting flashback, the details of which are only gradually revealed to us (not unlike Harmonica's recurring childhood memory in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, which Argento co-wrote); characters not picking up on an important visual or aural clue until it suddenly occurs to them after much reflection, as in the "three irises" scene from SUSPIRIA or the mysterious painting in DEEP RED; and several POV shots that disconcertingly put us in the killer's shoes as he (or she) is on the prowl.

As usual, Argento uses sound very effectively. In particular, he shares something in common with singer Nick Lowe--he loves the sound of breaking glass--so if you see a plate glass window in this movie, chances are it's going to shatter when you least expect it. Argento uses such devices to make his murder sequences even more nerve-wracking than they already are, usually after some very careful buildup and a few fake-outs to keep us off guard. And when the killer strikes, it's disturbingly violent. But unlike the standard slasher bore such as FRIDAY THE 13TH, Argento is more interested in the imaginative cinematic depiction of violence rather than simply racking up outlandish yet by-the-numbers body counts. When he does go for the gore, it shocks us, and it happens to characters that we care about and for reasons that keep the story moving.

Oh, and speaking of nerve-wracking, Argento managed to reunite three members of the disbanded rock group Goblin (Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli, and Massimo Morante) to supply the original score. Unlike their music for SUSPIRIA, this has a synth-heavy, somewhat cheesy 80s sound that seems to be influenced at times by Giorgio Moroder's drum-machine disco rhythms. Other passages resemble their music for George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD. But it has that unmistakable Goblin sound, which somehow manages to compliment Argento's style even as it's turning your eardrums to mush.

Tony Franciosa is an old pro who did a lot of television while I was growing up, in addition to appearing in scores of fun films (a year after this, he got to do a steamy love scene with my favorite actress, Isabelle Mejias--the lucky dog--in the lively Canadian thriller JULIE DARLING). John Saxon, who plays Peter's literary agent, is, of course, always a welcome presence, and Veronica Lario is very effectively creepy as Jane. The rest of the cast is good, too--I especially liked Giuliano Gemma and Carola Stagnaro as a pair of homicide detectives--although in most cases the dubbing makes it hard to fully appreciate their performances. Daria Nicolodi does her usual fine job as well.

There are some really nice-looking women in lesser roles, adding considerably more sex appeal than you usually find in an Argento film. Ania Pieroni appears briefly as a lovely kleptomaniac who uses sex to beat a shoplifting rap but can't escape the fate awaiting her when she gets home. Lara Wendel plays a lesbian magazine writer whose promiscuous, half-naked housemate is the heart-stoppingly gorgeous Italian model Mirella Banti, in a sequence that allows Argento to indulge his stylistic impulses to their fullest.

Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the casting of Eva Robins as a woman who appears in several strange flashbacks to a traumatic event in the killer's youth. Born a male, Robins reportedly began to develop breasts and other female characteristics during puberty, to an extent that convinced her that nature intended her to live as a woman. At any rate, she's convincing enough as the "girl on the beach" in some of the film's strangest scenes.

The new DVD from Anchor Bay features an uncut, remastered widescreen (1:85:1) transfer enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Aside from the trailer and an Argento biography, there's a commentary track featuring the director along with composer Claudio Simonetti and journalist Loris Curci, which is as informative as you might expect although much time is spent waiting for Argento to figure out how to say everything in English--I kinda wished it could have been in Italian with English subtitles. "Voices of the Unsane" is a nifty 17-minute featurette with Argento, Nicolodi, Simonetti, and other principals discussing the making of the film. (UNSANE was the retitled, badly-edited version first shown in the US.) Other brief featurettes explore the creation of TENEBRE's sound effects and the filming of an intricate extended shot featured in one of the murder sequences. All in all, not a bad array of extras.

It's interesting to see Argento eschew the sumptuous, fairytale look of SUSPIRIA for a more stark and austere style here. Without the dark shadows and saturated colors, TENEBRE is like a blank canvas splattered with bright red, with a realism that's as brittle and sharp as all that broken glass. Only when the killer's identity is revealed at last in an axe and straight razor-slashed finale do we get a really dark, lightning-streaked scene, and it's horrifying enough to warrant the seemingly never-ending screams of the last person standing as TENEBRE fades out into its closing credits. And if you're a Dario Argento fan, you'll definitely want to be there when it happens.


Friday, May 2, 2008

MAD MONEY -- DVD review by porfle

Everybody loves money, and a movie like MAD MONEY (2008) allows us to vicariously wallow around in it for awhile. As comedy caper flicks go, it's a little on the light side, but according to the commentary by director Callie Khouri (DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD) that's exactly what she was aiming for--a crime comedy with enough suspense to make it exciting while still being low-key and easy to watch. Which she pretty much succeeded in doing.

Diane Keaton and Ted Danson play Bridget and Don Cardigan, a wealthy couple who suddenly find themselves on the financial skids. Bridget's age and inexperience hamper her efforts to enter the workforce, so she ends up as a janitor at a federal reserve bank where old cash is sent to be destroyed. Seeing all of this beautiful money going to waste gives her a deviously clever idea, which she shares with fellow employees Nina (Queen Latifah, a very good actress) and Jackie (Katie Holmes). Over the next few years they manage to sneak hundreds of thousands of dollars past the ever-vigilant security force. But things finally catch up with them, of course, and it'll take another deviously clever plan for them to avoid spending lengthy prison terms along with their accomplice-spouses.

The movie opens with a flash-forward of the three women frantically destroying mounds of cash while the feds move in on them, so we already know that they get caught red-handed sooner or later. Somehow this adds to the suspense as we watch them getting in deeper and deeper over their heads, since we have no idea how the heck they're gonna get themselves out of it. Director Khouri shows a simple but efficient style throughout, wisely allowing the characters and situations to maintain our interest. By the time the story catches up to those opening scenes again, we're fully invested in it.

Glenn Gers' screenplay (a retelling of the 2001 British TV-movie HOT MONEY) is funny without being jokey, relatively realistic and devoid of goofy comedy bits and one-liners. It's actually based on true events, although the details of the thefts have, of course, been fictionalized. The robberies themselves have some of the tension of a good heist movie, while the characters are given enough depth to allow us to care about them. This is especially true of Queen Latifah's "Nina", who wants the money to help put her two sons into good schools and dreads losing them if she's caught. Her budding, awkward romance with one of the security guards (Roger Cross, "24"), who eventually gets wise to their scheme, is nicely handled.

Diane Keaton goes easy on the usual "lah-dee-dah" stuff, thank goodness, while still giving a lively performance. Katie Holmes does a good job playing an adorable flake, while Adam Rothenberg is even flakier as her husband, Bob. Ted Danson, of course, is Ted Danson. And OFFICE SPACE fans will be happy to see Stephen "Milton" Root as eagle-eyed security chief Glover, who keeps our pilfering protagonists on their toes at all times (although any actual security person with a lick of sense would be all over this scheme like white on rice).

The DVD gives us a choice between anamorphic widescreen and full-frame, with both Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 surround sound. Along with the director's commentary, there's a brief behind-the-scenes featurette and a trailer. The packaging itself is rather nice, but then again you can't go wrong when your design scheme is based on money.

I have to admit, this is the kind of movie that practically screams "DON'T RENT ME" when I see it at the video store. But I'm glad I ended up watching it, because it turned out to be a lot of fun. And with its endless mountains of sweet, beautiful cash on constant display, MAD MONEY is like porno for greedy little money grubbers who dream of easy riches--such as myself. If only the DVD came with a few actual souvenirs.