REMINDER ROUNDUP: January 2012

Once a month I'll be sending out this reminder of what's gone just before. Hope it helps highlight some worthy (and takes note of some unworthy) stuff that you are still debating picking up. 


Based on the 1941 novel by James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce was originally made for the big screen in 1945 by Michael Curtiz and catapulted Joan Crawford to an Academy Award as Best Actress It's a wonderful version of the story and should be seen by any film fan and certainly by any lover of forties cinema in  general. This newer adaptation is more faithful to the source material and trains it's eye, as only a mini-series or TV series can, on bringing to life as many of the nuances and details of the source material as it can. This is rich stuff that touches on the times it takes place in with a sure hand, telling the story of a long suffering woman in depression-era America who overcomes many obstacles but who is unable to help her talented daughter overcome her own selfishness and greed. At heart Mildred Pierce is a tragedy but not a complete one, not one that eschews redemption.


Director Todd Haynes brings a fabulous team along with him here and suffuses every frame of this five and a half hour spectacle with a simultaneous sense of the epic and the intimate asking deep questions about the parts we play in each others lives as we play out our own individual stories. Kate Winslett owns the role though in a different more complex way that was afforded to Joan Crawford. Carter Burwell provides a marvelous theme and the rest of his score stands with some of his best work. Likewise the rest of Haynes award winning team is at the top of their game in helping Haynes realize his complex vision. There are substantial extras here including Audio Commentaries with Todd Haynes, Jon Raymond, Mark Friedberg on parts 3 and 5,  and Inside the episode pieces for parts 1-5 and The Making of Mildred Pierce mini doc. Its also worth noting that you get a DVD copy of the mini-series as well. 


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I'll be interested to see how the dust settles in another ten or twenty years and people start picking through all these found footage horror films. What will emerge as worth watching? On some level a good film is a good film but I increasingly feel that even mediocre found footage films, at least in part, transcend such evaluations. The point is that some people find these films unbearably frightening, haunting etc. and some people find them boring (or motion sickness inducing). I'm with the earlier group. Found footage horrors not only provide the easiest transition for a viewer when it comes to suspension of disbelief and identifying with a character but they make the experience of confronting the unknown, the unthinkable etc., that horror films depend on, deeply personal. In other words you literally are there in the closest sense that film can provide. It is faux history but it feels like history with a capitol H for many.

I missed this at Fantastic Fest but did get a chance to hear Katie Featherston and directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman address the crowd. It was clear they cared about the film. But despite the obvious effort given to further the mythos that has grown up around the franchise, Paranormal Activity 3 seems less skillful at playing with audience expectations. It's horrific ending (which is definitely worth sticking around for) notwithstanding, not much happens during this film that viewers won't see coming a mile away and when scares do occur the execution seems far clumsier and less effective. Still there is a hint of the fairytale about the film that almost succeeds in lifting it up beyond urban legend rendered cinematic flesh. But only almost. You get an unrated version as well as the theatrical but no real extras other than "Lost Tapes" which gives you something less than five minutes of total content.  


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I saw this movie in a perfect setting- a Boy Scout outing. It was a winter campout and in true American fashion everybody decided they needed a break from the cold, so off to the theater we went. With a mindset of anything is better than this we plunked down and waited for what I was pretty sure would be a boring couple hours. I was wrong. Real Steel, for all of it's cheesiness completely captivated the kids and even managed to draw me in as well. For one thing, it was a movie with giant robots that, however clunkily, seemed to care more about it's human than it's robot characters. This wasn't a great movie but I could easily see it being a fondly remembered one for these kids and I admired the little bit of style that helped bring it to life. The robot scenes rock appropriately hard and the human interchanges seemed to do more than just catapult hard bitten failed robot fight promoter Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) and Max (Dakota Goyo), the eleven year old son he abandoned, toward the next action sequence. Of course the end is a foregone conclusion, but so what? Highly reminiscent of the preteen  fare I grew up on. Think D.A.R.Y.L.(1985) , Short Circuit (1986)and Batteries Not Included (1987).  

The set comes with a variety of extras some exclusive to the Bluray. But you really need to see this on Blu anyway. You get an Audio Commentary from director Shawn Levy, variety of featurettes , deleted and extended bot sequences and a blooper/outtake reel. There's also a PC/Ipad feature called Real Steel Second Screen: Ringside With Director Shawn Levy which provides interactive content while watching the movie. 


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I like this film. But I like it, at least in part, in spite of itself. After an absolutely fabulous opening sequence, it settles down into being a fairly standard monster movie, albeit a reasonably stylish one. The original made for TV film overcame it's improbable plotting through dense atmosphere and truly memorable monsters. This remake tries some interesting things but just doesn't add to the basic idea of the story in ways that will matter much to most viewers. Even a couple of nasty surprises near the end don't save it from being the weakest of all the high profile projects taken under wing by producer Guillermo del Toro. 

That said.... Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is far from a disaster. Director Troy Nixey does a good job providing atmosphere here and he has a solid cast to work with, especially young Bailee Madison who turns in a great performance as Sally, the little girl tormented by the monsters no one around her believe exist. The film also dips further, much further, into del Toro's beloved fairy lore (a subject he first referenced in Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)) The end result is a welcome extended view into his monster-ous imagination for those who have counted on his output as one of the great working fantasists. His undoubted help in the creature design here is great but the creatures seem more like nifty FX creations than inhabitants of some dark alternate universe where the story take place. If I were younger maybe it would resonate deeper. The original was deliciously scary when I was a kid, maybe if I showed this to my kids.... then again my wife would (rightly) kill me. That is the real problem with this film. It seems to target the wrong audience. This is a movie for young adult geeks. It should have been a movie, first and foremost, designed to imprint itself on young imaginations. 


For fans of the del Toro aesthetic, Sideshow Collectibles has a dynamite life size upcoming collectible based on the film that should wind up in any fans mini- Bleak House. Sadly this is a bare bones release. I would have been very interested to have seen more supplemental material but there is an Ultraviolet Digital Copy included as well as an informative but still EPK styled featurette and a concept art gallery that is exclusive to the BluRay release. A commentary featuring del Toro and Nixon would have been great here. 


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On a list of films I really wanted to like this year the prequel to John Carpenter's The Thing (1983) ranked pretty darn high. My disappointment with this film was precisely in the way that it paid such obviously well-intentioned homage without emerging as different enough to be viewed as more than a not-that-well-told, retelling. The beautifully wrought tension of the original is almost completely absent and most unforgivable is the wasting of Ulrich Thomsen in a boring by the numbers villain role. In the original Thing viewers had no way of knowing who anyone was, in this version everyone is exactly who they appear to be from the get go. The movie's bright spots have to do with the special effects which are suitably ghastly and darn effective. There's also a nice twist on the blood serum test from the first film. But even those elements can't save this film from being a fast paced albeit somehow still boring monster movie instead of an insightful, dread-filled look at the destruction of a tenuous human community. The Thing looks and sounds exceptional on BluRay and the extras definitely reveal how much everyone involved wanted the film to be better. You get a few developmental featurettes, a director/producer commentary and some deleted extended scenes. there's also the ability to experience the above as pic in pic features. 


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Hated this movie. Want a rational review? Look elsewhere. This Bluray looks and sounds perfect- except for the fact that it is a BluRay of this movie. Want American cinema to get louder, dumber and more headache inducing? Want studios to buy into the lie that this is the way to save their crippled business model? Then go buy this. 3D only enhances everything that is visually wrong here from the confused editing of the over ambitious action sequences to the not quite up to snuff CGI. Worst of all the film panders to viewers who would be satisfied with nothing more. When I saw this at the Imax it was absolutely headache inducing, on the small screen it's just obnoxious and barely rises to the level of a made for Sci-Fi channel  movie event (no wait- strike that. There are some Sci-Fi Channel movie events far more fun than this). Gone are most of the things that made the last film wholly inappropriate for children but also gone is any attempt at quality control in the writing. Especially egregious is the presence of high powered talents. Frances McDormand, John Turturro, and John Malkovich were not only unneeded here but they are the tip of the iceberg of a hugely recognizable cast here. It's positively demoralizing to think that many people will only ever see Alan Tudyk by seeing him in this. Ken Keung has a genuinely funny too short bit as a paranoid office exec but he is the only one who brings any life to this by-the-numbers overblown mess.For those of you indulging in the 3D BluRay you should know the other difference feature wise is pretty massive- an extra BluRay disc with more than four hours of new stuff. 

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I love this show. Is there anything more comforting than finding a new narrative to plug into and just sort of settle in with? Of course the days of waiting until your favorite show's broadcast are pretty much over at this point changing the dynamic of such minor joys. Two episodes into Justified's first season I was hooked and it didn't take long to cycle my way quickly through the discs towards one of the great season endings in recent memory Season two is even better, far less clunky and very direct about where it takes characters. If you thought the show might not have anywhere to go after the massive showdown it might be a good idea to strap in. This three disc set includes a couple of featurettes and some outtakes.




 

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BUY SEASON TWO 


 


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When temporal rifts begin to open all over London, allowing futuristic and prehistoric creatures to pop up and cause mischief, a team of special agents is gathered and sent out to clean up the various messes that result. An emphasis on developing it's human characters, intricate plotting and a you-know-you-love-it attitude toward it's often cheesy special effects made Primeval one of the very best fantasy sci-fi shows on TV but it seems to have lost some footing of late, sending characters down well trodden narrative paths instead of helping to stretch the boundaries of TV sci-fi. Of course it doesn't really help that hokey dinos have also been gracing the small screen stateside with Terra Nova. In other words, good luck with that old suspension of belief thing, especially when your intellectual property values are hitting the skids thanks to other mediocre fare. Extras here are scarce and somewhat unnecessary. The five webisodes bridging seasons three and four are full of stuff mentioned throughout the episodes here, and so they add very little. 


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Woody Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris (2011) is easily the best thing he's done in years. More accurately the film could be called the most uplifting. Could it be he's on the verge of rediscovering the same lightness of heart that clearly guided these two films? Let's hope so. Annie Hall (1977) or Manhattan (1979), were drenched in nostalgia for New York to be sure but even more than being love letters to the city Allen has called home they were love letters to the hope that love could be real and lasting with Allen playing the troubled victim of cupid. I'm not one of those people who can view Allen's later work without taking into account the problematic nature of his very public fall from grace. But there is something wrong about an ad hoc dismissal especially in the face of such whimsy, and deeply felt sentiment as are offered here. I'm somebody who grew up watching Bananas (1971) and Take the Money and Run (1969) and Sleeper (1973). By the time I was old enough to appreciate these two films, I had a idea in my head of the character Allen played, the person I related too that leant his work an extra something special. This guy wasn't just a whiner he was also a dreamer who was never going to fit into the world around him on the merits of his looks, or sex appeal or riches. he had only his sense of humor. Would that be enough? It was a question I needed an answer to and though Allen faulted along the way as a person and a filmmaker he also produced amazing work like Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Zelig (1983) Broadway Danny Rose (1984), and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). These are films that have never really left the rotation of my inward journey through what film means to me and why I love it the way I do. Annie Hall looks better here than it ever has but the lack of extras is a bit of a heartbreaker. Manhattan too, looks and sounds fine but again no extras. Most will find this a serious picture upgrade and so purchase is highly recommended.

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Ricky Gervais has to be admired. He banks a bit much on the persona that cast him into the public eye but has also kept stretching out beyond it. This show is a good example of Gervais heading out past such schtick into the sort of creativity that spawned the truly classic The Office. The idea is smart. Take Karl Pilkington, whose bold if often uninformed views on life the universe and everything have made the HBO series The Ricky Gervais Show so popular and send him on an actual round the world journey to the seven wonders to broaden his horizons for our entertainment. The genius of it is that Karl is just as funny as ever but the format, besides being somewhat educational, also allows him to be seen as a human being not just the butt of a joke. The title alone is proof that Gervais is hardly softening his approach, but the rest of the show is a reminder that his satiric bark has usually been harder than his bite. Underneath he's a decent person, concerned about the world he lives in and constantly thinking about and bothered by most of the same things everyone else is. 


This two disc set is of the uncensored UK broadcasts so expect to see more nude-idity. All eight first season episodes are included but extras are pretty sparse including only some deleted scenes and a photo gallery. 


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Spike Lee was made for BluRay not because his films pop off the screen visually but because his films are largely made to last. This is a man who, despite notable, even spectacularly bad misfires (Miracle at St. Anna [2008], She Hate Me [2004], Summer of Sam [1999]) has steadily produced a body of truly great (Passing Strange [2008], When the Levees Broke [2006], 4 Little Girls [1997]), and very good, work (Inside Man [2006],  25th Hour [2002], Get on the Bus [1996]). In fact by most accounts Lee's biggest problem is his own public persona which has ranged from playful to patently annoying alienating a lot of people who could stand to hear the hard truths he has to hare. No, I am NOT validating everything the man has ever had to say but he has helped keep the discussion about race relations in the mainstream and hate a lot to say about class division as well. Love Lee or hate him there's no denying Malcolm X is a fine accomplishment. Perfect by no means the film nonetheless manages to convey the enormity of the subjects it tackles making one wonder how it could have been improved on. Should Lee have largely ignored Malcolm X the man and focussed on the history that shaped him or have gone straight for the emotional core? The recent The Iron Lady (2011) made a similar misstep but Lee's film is far more effective. 


Besides the handsome book packaging, the two disc set also contains extras that make it a definitive edition of the film thus far. Present are a commentary featuring Lee, his cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Brown and costume designer Ruth Carter. Also present is a very frank featurette detailing the difficulties in getting the film made and almost half an hour of deleted sequences that each feature an introduction from Lee.  Arnold Pearl's excellent documentary, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1972 is included on the second disc. As with almost all Warners digibook releases the booklet offers a host of info and trivia about the subject of the film and the film  itself. 


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Oh God, I don't know. This is silly, silly, silly. Is it funny. Yes , some neanderthal portion of my brain says yes with enough force to garner a solid recommendation here. But the other saner part of me is afraid to speak up lest it get a folding chair to the head from the caveman. This is comedy for those of us who like to watch idiots whale on one another, vomit on one another and mangle the english language. That said it does introduce a funny, funny character in the person of gonzo head division II football coach Coach Rick Vice played by a rough looking Andy Dick. Is it right to enjoy Dick making a spectacle of himself? Perhaps the difference is he's being paid to do so this time. There are some big laughs in this story of a redneck psycho who gets hired to coach a losing team when the former coach drops dead on the sidelines but given the cast, which includes Adam Corolla Will Sasso, Debra Wilson, and Mo Collins, I can't help but wonder if it should have been even funnier. 


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