"Project Runway, Season 4"
(Weinstein Company, 2008)
Season Four of Project Runway starts out slow, but it builds up steam and draws you in... the show is still a high-class production and leaves other "reality" shows in the dust. Early on, major domo Tim Gunn pronounces this season's ensemble to be the most talented group they've had on yet... but it's a little hard to believe him since the cast lacks the dynamism and sharply defined personalities of earlier seasons. Nevertheless, a couple of designers quickly reveal themselves as unlikable, egotistical or bizarre, and that always adds a little narrative spice. I would say that this season was largely packed with bland personalities, but the worst of them drop out in the first half, allowing the show to get more exciting. When it becomes clear that one of the most irritating contestants has a pretty good shot at winning, the subsequent eliminations will get your adrenaline going. This season was also marked by constant one-upping on the part of Heidi Klum and the producers -- almost every episode has a kooky twist or a Big Secret. Sure, it's gimmicky... but so what? It's also fun! Perhaps the greatest thing this season is Heidi's new wardrobe -- after being pregnant and having her baby during previous seasons, she's now trimmed back down and is again able to wear whatever she wants. One of the great joys of this season is to watch the reactions of the contestants as Klum arrives on the runway in one eye-popping outfit after another. Still a great show. Looking forward to Season Five!
This modern-day update of TV's classic "Get Smart" spy spoof is an entirely successful comedy film, and definitely better than I would have thought. Steve Carell's take on Maxwell Smart isn't as nebbishy as one might expect, based on either the original character, or on Carell's other roles -- indeed, this Maxwell Smart is much more capable than the earlier incarnation, where he usually won over the forces of evil by sheer dumb luck. This film is a savvy spy parody with a light, sure touch -- it drags a little in the end (the inevitable chase scene) but overall, it's quite intelligent and genuinely funny. Worth checking out!
"The Band's Visit"
(Sony Pictures 2008)
This is a charming, gentle, low-key art film telling the tale of a touring Egyptian police band that finds itself stranded in a podunk town in the Israeli desert. Short on cash and having missed the last bus of the days, the forlorn Egyptians are forced to rely on the kindness of strangers -- in this case, the same Israelis who they have recently been at war with. But the Israelis are every bit as forlorn as the Egyptians -- everybody's a little bit broken inside, struggling with the same little lonelinesses and discarded hopes. The two groups don't entirely bridge their cultural gap, but they come pretty close. This is a very deliberate, quiet film -- some may find the pacing a bit glacial, but it certainly pays of in the end. You have to get on the right wavelength, but it's definitely worth checking out.
(Film Movement, 2004)
Another typically charming, low-key Canadian film, an engaging ensemble piece about a small, isolated rural town standing in the path of modern development. The writing is human and warm (even while dealing with sad subjects...) and the acting is a delight. And talk about a cast with indie cred! Fans of film and TV will be wowed by the cast, which includes several now-famous Canadian actors. I was drawn to the film by lead actor Paul Gross (who I was floored by in Slings And Arrows), but was also pleased to see Sandra Oh (currently on TV's Grey's Anatomy) Ellen Page (Juno) and Callum Keith Rennie (one of the Cylons in the revamped Battlestar Galactica, in a surprisingly sympathetic role.) If you like films that are about more than car chases, bank heists, wars, etc. -- quiet, human-scale films that use the acting talents of their casts in ways that are unusual and revelatory -- then check this one out... Not the greatest art film ever, but still quite nice.
Pixar does it again: this is an absolute masterpiece -- a heartwarming, lively, funny film with a deadly serious message about the dangers of unconstrained mass consumerism, and a glimmer for hope on what may be a dying planet. You probably know the basic outlines of the plot -- Wall-E is the last of a series of small robot trash compactors. left behind to clean up Earth as the frightened remnants of the human race flee into space, to avoid the fallout from their mindless trashing of the planet. Almost by accident he catches up with the humans and finds them flabby and apathetic, each one permanently plugged into their personal entertainment/life management device, and utterly unaware of anything happening in the physical world. What Wall-E discovers, though, is that once the people become unplugged -- or are reached out to in any meaningful way -- their humanity and compassionate spirit emerges with surprising strength. Left empty by a consumer culture that makes everything "easy," the humans are ready for real-life experience and real-life connections, and are unafraid to make sacrifices to live, rather than simply exist. The skill with which the Pixar folks tell this story -- and tell it in a way that is not noxious or saccharine -- is astounding. These artists are at the peak of their form, and seem headed for even better things to come. As far as the reviews, etc., that found this film too bleak, or perhaps unsuitable for younger viewers, I'd say it's certainly worth a preliminary viewing by concerned parents, but it's not really as depressing or dark as early critics made out. It's certainly not as stressful a film as, say, Finding Nemo, which I do not find appropriate for really young viewers. It's worth previewing -- you won't regret seeing it one more time, and it will prepare you for any discussions you might want to have about with your kids about the environmental and social themes of the film. All in all, this is a highly entertaining movie with a substantive message, but it's not preachy or depressing. You'll love it.. your kids will, too.
(Twentieth Century Fox, 2006)
Although Eragon is palpably derivative of a number of fantasy franchises (Star Wars, Lord Of The Rings, Wizard Of Earthsea, et. al.) it is still quite enjoyable, if a bit on the lightweight side. I have not read the original book, but coming into this blind, the film was about what I'd expected. Obviously it's been streamlined and no doubt dumbed-down a bit, but the special effects are good (the dragon, mostly, looks cool) and the story clops along at a decent pace. Nothing here will surprise you, but it's hardly the dismal filmic disaster other reviews have implied... It's just a goofy, no-brainer Hollywood action film, good if you want something light. Plus, the dragon totally looks cool.
(Twentieth Century Fox, 1942)
For those who like their film noirs earthy and raw, this one's a gem. French screen idol Jean Gabin turns in a fine, multi-textured performance as a dissolute, drunken French sailor, drinking his way up the coastline of California, who is waylaid by love, in the person of an equally hard-bitten Ida Lupino. They were made for each other, but their domestic bliss is soon threatened by the possibility that Gabin's character may be a bit darker and more violent than we'd previously imagined. There are several great character actors here, but the real doozy of a role is that of Thomas Mitchell, who is perhaps best remembered as the doddering Uncle Bill Bailey in Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life," and who is quite a bit more sinister here. This flick is pretty rough and raw, and definitely worth checking out!
"The Boys In The Band"
The 1970 film Boys In The Band, based on a stage play from 1968, is an interesting snapshot of American gay culture in the 1960s. Originally written and produced before the Stonewall Riots that shaped the gay rights movement of the 1970s, the play transposes the psychology-heavy drama of Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill, et al. into a gay milieu, albeit into the catty, queeny world of the pre-gay-lib era. Within the LGBT world, the film is controversial due to the lacerating self-loathing seen in and among many of the protagonists, and the perception that their characters are simply a stable of prancing gay stereotypes. The negative psychological portraits are as much a product of the genre (intellectualized 1960s stage plays) as they are a critique or caricature of gay culture, and the stereotypes, such as they are, exist in part because of the truth they evoke. (Indeed, if you read some of the negative reviews on this film on Amazon, you'll find that they seem to be from younger viewers, who came of age in the 1980s, '90s and '00s, when gay culture was considerably less conflicted and immeasurably more free than in the earlier era when so many strides were made -- these viewers seem to have little empathy for or knowledge of what life was like before LGBT lifestyles became so much a part of the mainstream. Without an appreciation for the stifling conditions of the Mattachine Society era, they feel free to condemn this film, which seems like a relatively honest, if hyperbolic, presentation of life as it was, several decades ago. Pro or con, it's certainly worth checking out to add to your historical perspective... the material is uncomfortable, but it was meant to be.
"Hellboy II: The Golden Army"
Hellboy II, ably directed by Guillermo Del Toro, picks up where the last film left off -- Hellboy is still working for a super-secret government agency in charge of cleaning up (and covering up) supernatural events. And he's still a rebel, blowing things up and punching folks out as the mood strikes him. Del Toro and his crew clearly had a lot of fun making this, with a flippant, what-the-heck attitude coming through in every scene. The film cheerfully references Lord Of The Rings, Indiana Jones, The Mummy and any number of action-y movies -- including Del Toro's own work, with some demons that look an awful lot like the creepy guys in Pan's Labyrinth. The easygoing air of not taking things too seriously makes this enjoyable, although the Hellboy series still seems to be finding its legs in some ways, particularly with the characters finding their voices... Selma Blair's Liz character still seems a bit flat, and Ron Perlman occasionally seems to be phoning in his scenes, but Doug Jones steals the show as the aquatic C3PO-ish Abe, and a new character -- the ectoplasmic, half-robotic group leader Krauss -- is a fascinating addition to Hellboy's Scooby Gang. Another sequel is sure to follow, particularly since we've been given tantalizing glimpses of HB's hellish royal lineage. This installment was entertaining -- I'm sure HB3 will be fun as well!
"Star Trek: The Original Series - The Complete Third Season (Remastered)"
With the third volume out, the latest digital overhaul of the original Star Trek series is complete... As with the first two volumes, this "remastered" edition features enhanced special effects designed to make the series more marketable to present-day viewers. New special effects have been digitized in to make it look more modern and "realistic." The stars look starrier, there are more of them, and the motion of interstellar objects looks more convincingly 3D. The exterior shots show a more detailed model of the Enterprise, and planets look more realistic as the starships circle them (with swirly clouds and layered atmospheres) And, perhaps, if my eyes don't fail me, the non-special effects interior shots look like they may have had their color and contrast punched up a bit. As noted in an earlier review (of Season Two), I have my qualms about the decision to goose up this classic old show -- at a basic level, I feel that digital alterations of this sort are intrinsically dishonest and also unnecessary: Star Trek has been attracting fans for decades without anyone altering the on-screen images, and much of the fun of the original show is that it was funky and cheesy and produced on a relatively small budget. It's a product of its time, and it's more valuable to students of pop culture to see what something really looked like than to have a fancy, shiny update. Besides, how long will it be before someone decides these alterations aren't "cool" enough -- that Spock should have blond hair, or that the female crewmembers shouldn't wear midis anymore, or that the whole show should be presented in 3D. The whole altering-the-past thing is a slippery slope. That being said, these new discs do look really good. The colors are vibrant, the plot and acting (and most of the interior shot details) are still the same, and it's still basically Star Trek. And, while I find the digital alterations morally abhorrent, they look cool, too -- there's nothing quite as elaborate as the planet-eating gizmo in Season Two's "The Doomsday Machine," but there are some neat looking spaceships, marvelously detailed asteroids, flashy lasers and other cool stuff that wasn't there before. Maybe the digital revamp wasn't necessary, but it looks good, and it's fun to watch. Beam me up, Scotty!
With this new computer animated film, Disney is trying to bridge the gap between younger girls, who love the princess stories (Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, etc.) and older, 'tweeny types who are now into edgier material, such as the Bratz dolls and Hannah Montana. The group this movie is aimed at, five-to-eight year olds, have been tilting towards the teen-oriented material, and this is an attempt to bring them back to a younger mindset. It's a welcome effort, certainly for many parents who may feel their kids are "growing up too quickly," exposed to sophisticated or violent material that isn't really appropriate to their age groups. Tinkerbell is a good option, one that both parents and kids will welcome: it's wholesome, formulaic, cloying at times, but generally enchanting and refreshingly nonviolent. The story is simple... Tinkerbell the fairy is born out of a dandelion seed, and learns about her life in the bustling fairyland of Pixie Hollow (based on the extensive Pixie Hollow book series). There are plenty of magic sparkles and dazzling magical lights, a full contingent of friends -- both a set of supportive gal pals and a couple of nice, nerdy guys that she works with in the tinker shop -- and a few benign but slightly intimidating authority figures (the tinker shop boss, the fairy queen and the duke in charge of the annual spring celebration). There's only one "bad guy," a mean girl who is jealous of Tinkerbell and tries to undercut her successes, but no real violence or menace -- no one gets hit, or shot or physically menaced, and the mean girl gets her comeuppance in the end. The story also revolves around Tinkerbell's efforts to fit in. She's klutzy and insecure, yet also rebellious because she doesn't accept her role as a tinker (the mechanically-inclined fairies who fix things around Pixie Hollow) and she also doesn't accept the limited role that other fairies see for the tinker group. With her natural talents and undying optimism, Tinkerbell eventually wins over her critics -- and even her own self-doubt -- and manages to win the day. Her problem-solving skills and positivity make her a welcome role model for little girls (and boys, too, if they're into fairy stories...) and bode well for a continuation of this new Disney franchise. The CGI animation is reminiscent of the Shrek films, with a few extra sparkles and sequins thrown in for good luck... It's not quite as dazzling or satisfying as the hand-pained masterpieces of the Disney classics of the 1940s and '50s, but it's still pretty captivating. And while the music is a bit more contemporary and pop than I'd like, it's okay. Much of the score has a Celtic twist to it, in the pop crossover-y Mary Black/Capercaillie/Clannad style, and that may be of interest to families with folk music/ren fair leanings... Overall, it's a pretty nice film. I'm glad we got it for our little girly-girl to enjoy.
(Anchor Bay, 2008)
This is a fine arthouse film about a quiet, isolated man who finds strength and a new voice when he finally discovers how to connect with others. Walter Vale is a burnt-out, widowed college professor whose specialty -- which he's long since bored with -- is the globalization of the economy. Real-life globalization enters his life when he visits his semi-abandoned New York apartment and finds two people -- both illegal aliens -- living there. They aren't quite squatters, since a "friend" told them they were subletting the flat, but no one is as surprised as Walter to find them there. Breaking out of his closed-down routine, Walter allows them to stay, and an unlikely friendship emerges. Walter, who had been trying to learn to play piano, in homage to his deceased wife, now finds himself drawn to African drumming, and gains an able tutor in Tarek, a charming, affable Syrian refugee who is one of the two squatters. As the film settles into a potentially cliched can-the-white-guy-find-his-groove story arc, disaster hits and Tarek runs afoul of Homeland Security and the INS, and the movie becomes a subtle political advocacy film. What saves it from tedium or cliche are the small emotional moments that fill each frame -- this is a quiet story about the power that simple decency and humanity can add to our lives, especially in the face of implacable social and historical pressures. It's a nice, thoughtful film, worth checking out!
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