Category Archives: dvd

Planes

Planes ~ I was hesitant to jump back into the ‘World of Cars,’ because of the revelation I made while watching Cars 2, you know, that the ‘World of Cars’ is actually occurring in the aftermath of Stephen King’s short story “Trucks.” I know, scared the crap outta me too. But The Bride wanted to see it, so I went along.

This one is similar to Cars 2, in that it’s about racing, and in this case, planes. Dusty Clodhopper – voiced by Dane Cook, who is much less annoying when all you hear is scripted and you don’t have to see him – is a small town cropduster who wants to be a racing plane in the big leagues and enters a race around the world. Underdog makes good, that kind of thing.

We have seen this before. Good voice cast, lots of clichés with fresh takes, and jokes for the kids and the adults, Planes is a good hour and a half of harmless entertainment. There’s nothing really new, nothing to make us go wow, or how did they do that? A good Pixar flick, originally made for direct-to-DVD, so to do so well in theaters, it must have something. Enjoyable.

I Saw What You Did

I Saw What You Did ~ Back in the old days, before video rentals, before OnDemand, even before cable television, there was only one way to see a particular film – you waited and waited for it to finally show up on standard six channel television. When it was a movie you’d never seen and only heard about, it became sort of an event, and a special memory. I saw The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon this way, and also Mothra and the Matt Helm films. There was a certain mystique to the movies you had to watch and wait for each week by scouring the TV Guide.

The original 1965 (it was later a terrible telemovie in the late 1980s that is best forgotten) version of I Saw What You Did was one of those movies, and in recent times it has been made even rarer by its on-again-off-again video and DVD releasing. In an age where almost everything is available, this is indeed a rare film. It’s a lucky thing that occasionally TCM gives it a run, usually when honoring its star Joan Crawford, or its genius director William Castle.

Its full title gives a bit of a hint what it is really about. Two teenage girls on a sleepover amuse themselves by making random prank phone calls and saying to the answerer, “I Saw What You Did! And I Know Who You Are!” You can imagine the bedlam that ensues when they call the man who has just murdered his wife. There’s the set-up and trademark William Castle hilarity and horror follow. You can understand how the plot of this one can become whispered legend among those watching the TV Guide every week.

In a role originally meant to be only a cameo (although she got top billing and pay) and originally offered to Grayson Hall, later to be known as Dr. Julia Hoffman on “Dark Shadows,” Joan Crawford eats up the screen like the film goddess she was in every scene. Her appearance, dressed for flash in the middle of the night, is kinda odd, but then again she’s Joan Crawford after all. She proves without a doubt she could easily be the kooky neighbor in a sitcom from any age, and do it with pizzazz.

The two girls, and one’s little sister, are terrible, but their kids, so give them a break. John Ireland as the killer is stone-faced and fierce, his looks alone inspiring scares. Some of the shocks and the violence are a bit over the top for the time, and surprising when you think about it in hindsight. It’s not Friday the 13th, but it’s a bit much for 1965. The initial killing is an ironic turn on the shower scene from Psycho and actually quite well done.

This is, despite what others may tell you, William Castle at his best. I love this flick, and watch it whenever it presents itself. Must see for horror fans, movie fans, and camp fans – funny, scary, quirky, what more could you want? So keep a lookout, just like in the old days, for the next time I Saw What You Did airs, it’s worth it.

Jacqui Naylor – Lucky Girl

Lucky Girl ~ Sometimes the cosmos drops opportunities and coincidences in your lap. This is one of those times. Just a few days after discovering the work of Jacqui Naylor on my own, the producers of a documentary about the San Francisco-based jazz singer/songwriter approached me about reviewing that new film. I jumped at the chance.

Lucky Girl, subtitled A Portrait of Jacqui Naylor, follows “Naylor and her band for two years on the road and in the studio while they prepared new music for her eighth album, also titled Lucky Girl. The documentary chronicles Naylor on tour to several jazz clubs including Seattle’s Jazz Alley, San Francisco’s Rrazz Room, and the Istanbul Jazz Center in Turkey. Replete with performances, songwriting sessions, and behind- the-scene moments, the film transports the viewer through a series of musical montages and local flavors. Interviews with long-time band members and others close to Naylor give an intimate look at the life of this respected jazz artist who is also a practicing Buddhist and long-time San Francisco resident.” That’s the official press release talking there, and it pretty much tells the tale, but now it’s my turn.

As I said, I came across Ms. Naylor on my own, before I ever heard of Lucky Girl. My musical tastes are very eclectic. I’m crazy all over the board, from eighties metal to seventies story songs to old school rap to funk to new wave to punk to soundtracks to nerdcore – I love it all, but what I really love most are covers. I am a sucker for a good cover tune. That’s how I found Jacqui Naylor, through her covers. She does wonderful jazzy covers of, among others, the Stones, Talking Heads, the Kinks and even Rod Stewart. I absolutely love her mash up of “My Funny Valentine” with AC/DC’s “Back in Black” behind it. And then there’s her version of REM’s “Losing My Religion.”

Killer, isn’t it? That’s why I immediately agreed to review the documentary. I already knew Jacqui Naylor was something special. And almost like a gateway drug, the doc opens with the song in all its quiet thunder. Welcome to her world.

In Lucky Girl, we have the usual musical origin stories here, the how it happeneds, and the behind the scenes workings of artistic collaboration – all presented as an experience rather than just a documentary. But there is also Jacqui putting her own spin on things as well. She does what she calls ‘acoustic smashing,’ the technique referenced above with “My Funny Valentine” that has become her trademark. She feels if she has to do the jazz standards, she should make them her own. I love it. The effect is especially fierce on Jacqui’s Christmas album, Smashed for the Holidays.

The doc is unlike most music documentaries. I mean, the structure is the same. There are interviews interspersed with the music and performances, but there seems to be a more heartfelt and almost celebratory atmosphere. The musicians and crew Jacqui works with are her family. Her husband Art Khu is also a musician and collaborator and ‘real’ family. There is much love here. We see Jacqui in her home, in the studio, on the road, and there is always love and passion.

This really is a must see documentary. If you don’t know Jacqui Naylor, you will. If you don’t like jazz, you will. It will sneak by and hug you lovingly. I guarantee you’ll end up doing what I did as I watched Lucky Girl – hitting pause, and going to iTunes to purchase the great music you’re hearing. This is sooo recommended. The DVD drops on Tuesday, and if you get the chance, go see her on tour.

Batman Year One

Batman Year One ~ I need to preface this review of the straight-to-DVD feature Batman Year One with full disclosure. I have a lot of problems with Frank Miller, who wrote the comics this story is based on. He has very little regard for comics history or continuity, and I am pretty sure that he actually hates comics, and especially superhero comics. In fact, I am reasonably sure the only reason he works in comics is to destroy the industry and the artform from the inside. And I believe Batman is the character that he hates most, and has done the most damage to. Need proof? Consider exhibits A and B to be The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All-Star Batman. And don’t even mention the Spirit movie, damn him.

So, you can imagine I was already prejudiced when I slipped the DVD into my player. I also had not read the comics, as I was initially turned off by the very image of Batman with a gun in the ads for it. On second thought, it may have been Year Two, but either way, it put me off the Batman Yearbooks. For those not in the know, Batman doesn’t use guns, he abhors the use of them – because a gun was the instrument that was used to murder his parents. It has been part of the character’s history for decades. Despite the fact that early appearances in the Golden Age show Batman with a gun, it can be theorized that his origins had not been set in stone yet at that time. It’s like Superman came from Krypton, Batman doesn’t use guns. Put a period.

Year One is essentially the origin of Batman as re-envisioned by, yeah, Frank Miller, but it’s also a new backstory for Commissioner Gordon. There are a number of details that have been overwritten in this version, but I won’t dwell on them, what’s done is done. Suffice it to say, as he’s done with many characters, Miller has made Gordon a horribly flawed character. For the first twenty minutes or so, Gordon is not likable at all, and to be blunt, he’s only likable because the other characters are so much more unlikable. It serves to support my theory that Frank Miller doesn’t really know what heroism is at all. His is a world of dark grays and blacks, no whites allowed.

While Gordon is the only not completely immoral member of the Gotham City police, Bruce Wayne tries his hand, badly, at fighting crime, has his butt whipped by a suspiciously possible prostitute pre-Catwoman Selina Kyle, and gets shot by the police. Not a good night. Miller retells the bat coming through the window to inspire Bruce into becoming a bat-man, only without the famous “superstitious lot” speech and adding in more daddy issues than Bruce already has. See what I mean by terribly flawed?

Miller does flaw Gordon by giving him an affair with Detective Sarah Essen, something I can’t even imagine the character doing. He loved his wife, but what do I know, Frank Miller’s the genius, right. At least, unlike the comics, which may or may not have been represented by the ads I saw all those years ago, we get no Batman with a gun in this animated flick. We do however get a crazy gravelly voiced Ben McKenzie as Batman. Why go for the bad Christian Bale imitation when all know that Kevin Conroy is the only real choice for the animated Batman. Also in the voice department, the best thing in this feature is Bryan Cranston as Jim Gordon, brilliant casting and performance.

Catwoman shows up a few more times, once or twice in tailed grey outfit. She really doesn’t seem to add much to the plot, what plot there is. It really is just a cataloguing of events. Perhaps the Calendar Man would have been a better villain for the piece. Speaking of villains, we have Carmine Falcone and the Gotham Police in this one, and I really have to wonder, that if Gordon was in their way, why didn’t they just kill him outright. They didn’t seem to have any qualms offing anyone else. They seemed to almost wipe out a whole city block, MOVE style, to take out Batman.

The Catwoman short that accompanies Batman Year One is awesome. Catwoman of recent times is primarily about sex and style, and visually this short is perfect Catwoman. The pounding music score by Christopher Drake is the highlight here along with a very sexy, very daring strip joint scene where Catwoman shows villain Rough Cut that she is both beautiful lady and savage tiger. Maybe a little sexist, but it works well. And parents, be warned, this one’s not for the kids.

The chase that follows did bother me a bit however. I was distracted thinking that if her costume had to tear, would it tear like that? Catwoman’s costume is at least leather, and possibly Kevlar, or some other comic booky material. Would it tear at all? And finally, did it even have to tear? Also, it bugged me that Catwoman really doesn’t have a hand in taking out Rough Cut. She gets away, and he’s done in by bad luck. It just wasn’t satisfying for me.

Either way, this short is awesome and don’t miss stuff. Loved it. And it features a much much better Catwoman than the one featured in Batman Year One. I still despise Frank Miller. See this DVD for the Catwoman short, it’s worth it.

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Charlie Callas 1927-2011

Comedian Charlie Callas passed away Thursday. I remember him most for his role as Sinestro in the infamous TV special “Legends of the Superheroes,” and with Green Lantern film so hot right now, Sinestro also appearing in it, and the aforementioned special finally on legal DVD, it might be what many folks remember him for.

But that’s not all Callas was famous for. His motormouth delivery, impersonations and sound effects made him a favorite on talk shows and variety shows of the 1960s and 1970s. As well as being one of the funniest roasters on the Dean Martin Roasts, Callas was notoriously banned from “The Tonight Show” for shoving Johnny Carson.

With a colorful career, as well as the first actor to portray the renegade Green Lantern, Charlie Callas will be missed.

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Paranormal Activity

When a flick gets press that says it’s the scariest film ever or shows audiences jumping and screaming in terror I am skeptical. And so it was with Paranormal Activity. I was so unimpressed I waited until it was on DVD to see it. After watching the first half and seeing where it was going, especially as I was alone in the house that night, I waited until the next day to watch the rest. Yeah, the hype and the potential fright did that, but it wasn’t necessary.

I was expecting tricks and stunts and blood and gore. I got none of that. I was full-on expecting that YouTube trick of the picture that doesn’t move and the friend who keeps saying “keep watching” only to have something jump out at you toward the end. I got none of that.

What I did get was actually a pretty coherent horror movie. And not any blood or gore either. This was an old-fashioned it’s-what-you-don’t-see type thriller. And when you do see stuff, man oh man. This was good. I can’t believe how good it was.

This was a great first effort from first time writer/director Oren Peli, and the acting, while stiff at times was more than adequate in bringing us into their world via a handheld camera. Nowhere near as shaky as you would think, and this is no gimmicky Blair Witch Project either. It’s just straight forward what it appears to be.

The acting of the two principals was so good at some points I was yelling at them. And this is a weak point in all horror flicks of a certain type. If you hear a noise downstairs – one you are sure is not a burglar… wouldn’t you turn on the lights so you could see better? Granted, if you don’t know, grab a bat and keep the lights off – but if you’re looking for your possibly kidnapped by supernatural forces girlfriend, don’t depend on the camera for a light source. Turn on the damn lights!

I don’t hold out much hope for the big budget sequel due out this Halloween, but the original is legitimately scary and recommended. Watch it with the lights on.

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Astro Boy

Astro Boy ~ I guess I should have known better with this 2009 updating of the 1960s black and white cartoon beloved from my youth. And it’s a long way past the evolution of the animation too. The story seems wrong. The origin of Astro Boy is fairly intact, but it has the feel and the stench of both A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Wall-E when neither is really appropriate. It even has stronger ties to Pinocchio. Astro Boy is Astro Boy, let it be what it is, ya know?

The voice of Nicholas Cage as Dr. Tenma screams first and foremost as wrong. Wrong not just because it’s obvious that it’s him and his voice is inappropriate for the part, but because he displays little emotion in a role fraught with tragedy. It’s like he is reading words, not filling an image with his live personality. His ‘performance’ is a travesty.

The film also suffers from what most superhero movies of the past four decades do – the mandatory origin. Why can’t we just accept that this character exists, and then tell a good story? Did Indiana Jones have an origin? Did Jack Ryan? And even though I looove the recent film, did the crew of the Starship Enterprise? The movie is always half over, sometimes more, by the time we see our hero in his final hero form. It annoys me.

And speaking of hero form – why does Astro Boy have to be so politically correct and wear a shirt? Sorry, folks, but product recognition, in this case, character recognition, dictates that the product is recognizable to its fans. Astro Boy is topless. Deal with it. What’s next? A leisure suit for Tarzan? A mask and cape for Jason Bourne? Again, let Astro Boy be Astro Boy.

I waited for the DVD, even though I was very excited when I first heard they were making this. The first preview I saw had Nicholas Cage’s toneless deadpan voice, the shirted Astro Boy and a tender moment with a teenage girl, and it just turned me off. Now don’t get me wrong. This movie is not bad, it’s really quite good, great for the kids, and recommended so – but what it isn’t is a satisfying version of Astro Boy. Rent the DVDs of the original series – even higher recommendation.

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Food, Inc.

Food, Inc. ~ I am never happy when confronted with propaganda presented by the Health Nazis but I always walk into such situations with an open mind. But I have to say that the hard-to-negotiate DVD menu and the lack of proper subtitles did not put me and Food, Inc. off to a good start. The film was based on two books, “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, both leaders in the Health Nazi movement.

Director Robert Kenner begins by suggesting we have been hoodwinked by the traditional perception of farming, but have we really? Anyone who can read, use the internet or otherwise think and explore for themselves will tell you it’s no secret. There is no conspiracy here, except to the ignorant, otherwise the two books mentioned above would never have been published.

Kenner falls into the Michael Moore school of filmmaking – give your mission statement and then only present facts to back that up and nothing that disproves it. At least Kenner doesn’t set anyone up or make things up, and also unlike Moore, he’s a good filmmaker. His thesis is that fast food is bad. And over an hour and a half goes toward proving that. There is some hard to watch footage here and some rough knowledge but it’s a brutal necessity if we want to continue to eat as we do.

Also, added to the list of things that are bad should be money and technology. It should be noted however, without both of those, this film would not be possible, but they’re still bad. PETA, and the Academy, will love this documentary, and so will Michael Moore, I suspect. I also suspect that Mr. Moore has had his share of fast food as well. And there you go.

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The Animated Spectre

DC Showcase: The Spectre ~ Also on the same DVD as Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths is an animated short featuring one of DC Comics’ oldest, and most violent superhero characters.

Created by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, the Spectre is detective Jim Corrigan, murdered and returned to life to become a spirit of vengeance, dispensing justice in twisted, ironic and omnipotent ways. The most notable stories of this character were presented by writer Michael Fleischer and artist Jim Aparo in the Adventure Comics of the mid-1970s. The feature was eventually discontinued, some believe because of the hyper-violence of the protagonist’s punishments – too intense for the times, but in hindsight, some of the best comics of that era.

The Spectre’s first foray into animation here is brilliance! Writer Steve Niles delivers a film noir punch with a horror intensity that not only makes this character accessible to new audiences but also represents all the things about the Spectre that hardcore comics readers love about him. This is the Fleischer/Aparo Spectre brought to animated (after)life.

And serious props go to whoever thought of stripping the animation with lines and crackles to give the effect of an old movie, beautiful touch. This segment was a masterpiece, and well worth the full price of the entire DVD.

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Planet Hulk

Planet Hulk ~ Up front, while I know the gist of the story that comprises this animation based on the Marvel Comics event of a few summers back, I did not actually read the comics, so for the most part this is pretty new to me. For those without a comics background, “Planet Hulk” was originally written by filmmaker/comic book writer Greg Pak and illustrated by Carlos Pagulayan.

Here’s the story – Earth’s heroes, continuously unable to stop the Hulk and his rampages of destruction, put him in a rocketship and blast him into space where he lands off-course on a world that has been praying for a champion/savior. Guess who fits the bill? That’s right, ol’ Greenskin. It plays from there.

Hulk becomes a gladiator along with other alien refugees called the Warbound and much of the first half of the flick has them fighting generic opponent after opponent – except for Beta Ray Bill. Effort is put into making the Warbound sympathetic and give them depth but for me, it never happens. I zone out when the Hulk isn’t on screen.

One intriguing aspect of the story is the educational curve that transforms our gamma-irradiated hero from “Hulk smash” to “I learn.” It’s never referenced directly but it’s obvious, and even a bit frightening as the Hulk gets smarter. It is a bit of a mix of savage dumb green Hulk meets gray evil Hulk, but without the charm or wit.

Carlo Paulayan’s art translates well to the simple animated style used in Marvel’s features. His style, flavor and action blend well with the animation, and most importantly look like the pages come to life. But again, having not actually read the comic, I can’t really comment on Greg Pak’s writing and if Greg Johnson’s screenplay really does it justice. I’m guessing it does as Johnson is a longtime veteran of Marvel animation, new and old.

For the fanboys, cameos are also made by Iron Man and the Illuminati, and old school Thor. Look quickly or you’ll miss Adam Warlock, Gamora and Pip the Troll, Star-Lord, and the Grandmaster. The Silver Surfer who played heavily in the comic version sadly could not be used due to rights issues. In his place is the far more interesting (in my opinion at least) Beta Ray Bill.

Like previous entries from Marvel’s animated direct-to-DVD features, Planet Hulk is highlighted by a superior score from Guy Michelmore. This composer is amazing. I wish a compilation of his work or better yet the actual soundtracks were available to buy. You’d have sales here at the very least.

As an added bonus on the DVD there is a preview and the opening sequence of the next animated feature Thor: Tales of Asgard. Yes, it is a tale of teen Thor, not as out of continuity as one might think, but it looks not only marvelous, but fun as well. Honestly I enjoyed these few minutes more than I did all of Planet Hulk.

Planet Hulk isn’t bad, but it’s not your average Hulk tale either. Okay for a rental, recommended for the comics crowd, but really it’s no big deal. For some better Hulk animated try this.

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