Friday, March 7, 2014

OLDBOY: SURVIVING TRANSLATION

While most critics love Spike Lee I've never been a huge fan. Sure he's done some movies that I've thought were good but too often I found his films too filled with political correctness and outrage. That's fine when you start but after so many films it becomes less a statement of honesty and more one of trying to keep your following happy. The films I have enjoyed have been his more mainstream films. This week finds one of those released on DVD though mainstream might not quite be the word I'd use to describe it.

OLDBOY was a Korean made film that took audiences by surprise and by storm when it was originally released back in 2003. It was controversial and filled with extreme violence and yet it told a fascinating story. Lee has taken that original film and made it more palatable for U.S. audiences, those who still refuse to read subtitles.

Josh Brolin is Joe Doucett, an ad exec who's seen better days. Now Joe he weighs too much, drinks too much, flirts too much and tends to forget about the family he once had. After losing an important client he goes on a binge only to wake and find himself locked in a strange room with no way out. The sparse room has a bed, nightstand, huge TV screen, a false window and a bathroom. Cries for help or to know what's going on go unanswered.

By watching the TV, Joe also learns that his wife has been raped and murdered and that his daughter has been taken in child protective services. He also finds out that the police think he's the one who did this with DNA evidence to back it up. He is supplied with plenty to eat (if he'll eat Chinese food) and an endless supply of whiskey which he takes to rapidly. The only programs on his TV screen are news, exercise programs, kung fu movies and updates on the life of his daughter now being raised by an adoptive couple.

Time moves forward and first Joe feels helpless and then tries to take his own life. But the forces that be won't allow that, knocking him out with gas and then bandaging him up. Knowing that he'll survive no matter what he does, he decides to make the best of things. He stops drinking and begins to work out since most of the TV programming is exercise shows and kung fu movies. As the years go by, Joe begins to work on a way to escape, finding some lose tiles in the shower. But before he can use this escape, he is knocked out once again.

When Joe wakes, he finds himself in a steamer trunk in the middle of a field with a cell phone and plenty of money. It is now 20 years later and he still has no clue who did this to him or why. But he sees a woman carrying an umbrella with a symbol he recognizes as one he tattooed onto his own arm.  Following her he ends up in an altercation with a group of weekend sports players that he takes out easily using the things he's learned watching the TV. He loses the girl but does find an old friend named Chucky (Michael Imperoli). With his help Joe learns how to use a computer as well as the internet.

As Joe continues to search for whoever is behind this he meets a young woman who helps with the less fortunate in the neighborhood named Marie (Elizabeth Olson). Along with his friend Chucky, they continue to try and find answers to help him. Various clues are left for Joe to help him move this direction or that and eventually he is brought face to face with the person responsible. And he still has no idea who this is or why any of this has taken place.

That might seem like a lot of information but trust me when I say that things go forward from here that make all of it not only clear as to what was going on but why. Through it Joe faces off against enormous odds in a fight sequence that isn't exactly what the original presented but close enough that fans should be pleased. Lee has also decided to keep the ending somewhat intact, something that will shock many, disgust a few and surprise only those with no contact with the original film.

This move is so well paced, so well put together that there isn't a moment when you'll consider touching the remote to fast forward. You'll want to absorb not only every ounce of information in the hopes of putting the story together but you won't want to miss any of the fine quality acting on display from every single person involved. Why Brolin isn't doing more in movies is beyond me and Olsen shows that in that family she was the one gifted with acting ability.

OLDBOY is not for the weak of heart. It offers a gritty world where bad things happen to bad people and where justice takes on the oddest form. If the end of this movie doesn't make your draw drop then you weren't paying attention. As for Spike Lee I wish he'd direct more straight forward movies like this one. He has the ability to do it right, if he'd only stick to it. Lastly I would suggest that if you're interested in something different you might want to watch the original film as well. It's well worth the time.

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THE TICK COMPLETE SERIES: A SHOW AHEAD OF IT'S TIME

When I heard back in 2001 that THE TICK was going to become a live action series on TV I was thrilled. The comic, that would be considered underground by some, was hilarious as had been the animated series back in 1994. My expectations were high and fortunately they were well placed. The show was hilarious and I loved it. Apparently I was in a minority though because it sadly lasted only one season. Luckily the entire series has been available on DVD, first for a steep price that eventually dropped and now for just $9.74 (amazon.com price).

If you aren't aware of the series or haven't heard of the Tick then you're truly missing out on one funny show. With super heroes all the rage these days, the series was obviously well ahead of it's time. But the superheroes on display here are not the average ordinary types that we have today. Sure, they may be found in colorful tights, but they are not the successful bunch found in most movies now.

No one knows where the Tick came from. As played by Patrick Wharburton he is central to the success of the show in a role that I can't imagine anyone else playing now. Dressed in what appears to be a latex blue one piece outfit with wiggling antennae (one of the funniest visual things in the show), the Tick leaves a bus station he's been guarding to head to the big city. His goal is to put a stop to crime. The Tick has several things going wrong for him though. The first is that he has no clue of his own strength and with that the ability to be aware of the things that he does around him. Like knock out portions of roofs as he leaps from one to the next. He also has a tendency to try and make everything he says sound profound. His tone may make it so but not his choice of words. My favorite takes place in the opening of the pilot where the Tick is "fighting" a coin operated coffee machine that refuses to give a patron the cup of coffee he purchased. Grabbing the machine he lifts and shakes it yelling "So vending menace we meet again...Armless bandit! Empty your bladder of that bitter, black urine men call coffee!"

Once the Tick arrives in the city he meets a hero wannabe, accountant Arthur, just released from his job because he wants to be a hero...and dresses in a white spandex suit with wings. Until he meets the Tick no one recognizes that the outfit is that of a moth. The pair then meets two other heroes, Bat-Manuel and Captain Liberty. Discovering a plot to kill Jimmy Carter by a dormant Soviet robot that's been awakened, the heroes must work together to thwart this menace. See? His way of speaking can be infective.

Other episodes in the series took all kinds of turns. And rather than be kid friendly like the animated series, this one often had sexual innuendo on display throughout, especially when Bat-Manuel tried to bed Captain Liberty. Or the episode where she went to bed with The Immortal only to have him die there. 

For the most part though this series didn't dwell on those topics. They were background noise to the real focus which was just how dedicated the Tick was to justice while at the same time causing as much damage as the bad guys did in an attempt to apprehend them. And yet at the same time you had to love this big galoot who just wanted to do good.

I can't say enough how the best part of this series was Patrick Wharburton. This is not to short change the rest of the cast, but he stood out so much here. To this day when I hear his voice in anything he does, this is what pops into my head. He's a great voice actor and a wonderful live actor and deserves not only more work but more credit as well.

The series may not have lasted that long. Looking back the Fox network didn't promote it all that well and placed it up against SURVIVOR and NBC's must see shows on Thursday nights. Fortunately it can still be enjoyed on DVD and watched again and again. For me it's not a DVD that I'd part with. I can still watch the episodes and enjoy them as much today as the first time. If you love super heroes or comic books or just want to enjoy something funny and different, then pick this up. You won't regret it.




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THREE STOOGES 6 MOVIE SET: THREE STOOGES TREAT

Fans of the Three Stooges are beginning to dwindle with time. Kids are exposed to more high brow humor on one hand and the antics that the Stooges brought to the forefront are being taken over by kids on Disney channel programs. Since most of their shorts and films were made in black and white, kids today won't bother to watch them and adults don't feel like shelling out big bucks for their films. Thank goodness the people at Mill Creek still like the Stooges and offering quality product for a low price.

Die hard fans were pleased last year when Sony offered the complete box set collection of the Stooges shorts. Now they can make a point of collecting THE THREE STOOGES 6 MOVIE SET. It's a no frills, no extra set of 6 films made by the Stooges after they were "rediscovered" in the late 50's/early 60's. If you're not familiar with the Stooges history, once shorts fell out of grace with movie companies they were tossed aside without so much as a thank you for providing Columbia with 24 years of dedicated service where they helped them earn plenty of money. With the invention of television stations were searching for low cost entertainment to fill the hours. Studios repackaged the shorts of people like the Stooges and the Little Rascals and suddenly everyone remembered them. Cashing in on their new found popularity, the Stooges set out to make features for the same company that let them go before. Now you can pick up 6 of those movies for just $8.96! (amazon.com price)

The set starts off with HAVE ROCKET WILL TRAVEL (1959) which sees the Stooges as janitors working at a space program who accidentally find themselves inside a spaceship heading for Venus. Traveling through outer space and arriving on Venus they encounter aliens, giant spiders, a wicked robot and of all things a unicorn. No need to worry, they do find their way home. This film found Joe DeRita (dubbed Curly Joe) as the third stooge since both Curly and Shemp had passed away by this time. It offers some great sight gags and not one but two sets of the stooges when they get duplicated!

The next film in the set is THE OUTLAWS IS COMING (1965). When a diabolical bad guy (is there any other kind?) in the old west stirs up trouble with the Indians in an attempt to start a war and then take over the old west, a Boston magazine send out an intrepid journalist played by Adam (Batman) West along with his assistants, the Stooges. When West suddenly ends up the town sheriff you know trouble won't be far behind...or some funny antics from the Stooges. Joe DeRita starred in this film as well.

Third up (the last on the first disc) is ROCKIN' IN THE ROCKIES (1945). Made when they were still making shorts this movie has the Stooges prospecting for gold, up against despicable gamblers and attempting to help some girls they meet find a way to Broadway. The movie is filled with musical numbers and more story than one usually finds in a Stooges film. One of the nice things about this film is the fact that it has Curly Howard, the original Stooge, still alive and well.

The second disc begins with THE THREE STOOGES GO AROUND THE WORLD IN A DAZE (1963), taking them on the same trek Jules Verne launched in his 80 DAYS novel. Phileas Fogg III, the grandson of the original adventurer, bets Randolph Stuart III that he can accomplish the same trek his grandfather did in the same amount of time. He sets out to do so with the help of his three servants, the Stooges of course. Unbeknownst to him is the fact that Stuart is a con man who intends to use this trip as camouflage for his plan to rob the bank of England. Joe DeRita once again takes up the third Stooge role.

The next film is one of my favorites of all time, something that I recall from when I was a kid, THE THREE STOOGES MEET HERCULES (1962). Working in a drug store the Stooges attempt to help their neighbor, timid inventor Schuyler Davis, with the time machine he's working on. A mix up transports the Stooges, Schuyler and his girlfriend Diane back to the ancient times in Greece where they run afoul of King Odious. Placed in the galley, Schuyler develops quite the set of muscles and when they escape the Stooges bill him as Hercules which upsets the real Hercules. Of course they find a way out of it and back home. Joe DeRita is on tap here again.

Lastly we have TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM (1941). This one doesn't feature the Stooges in the starring role but as support players. The movie revolves around Danny and Mike, two guys who want to meet a talent agent and make their way to the big time. A woman comes between them and they part ways only to reunite with the chance at producing a big show on Broadway. As I said, the Stooges are in supporting roles here with Curly on hand and in drag doing his impersonation of Carmen Miranda.

So there you have it, descriptions of the 6 movies included in this set. Are they worth adding to your collection? For Stooges fans, absolutely. How could you possibly consider your collection complete without these? Sure they guys appear a little older and worn down but hey, they were getting older and yet could still hold their own with younger comedians of the time. Their slapstick routines were becoming so well known you knew what to expect but that was part of the joy of watching the Stooges. You knew Moe would get mad, Larry would say something goofy and Curly/Curly Joe would end up smacked by one or the other.

More importantly this set offers something that few films do these days. It offers family entertainment, something that they youngest to the oldest can watch without fear of someone being offended or insulted. No gore, no guts, no bad language or vulgarity, the movies offered here were films that we enjoyed as children and that I would bet youngsters might get a laugh out of today. I intend to give that a run the next time my niece and nephew come over. With the way they loved Abbott and Costello that I showed them, I'm betting this collection will be a hit as well. Definitely one to add to the collection.

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THE ELLEN SHOW: FUNNY BUT SHORT LIVED SERIES

I always thought Ellen DeGeneres was hilarious when I first saw her stand up routine on HBO years ago. Parts of it I can recall to this day. When she decided to take on television with a series we watched and enjoyed that as well. And then she redefined what she wanted to do with that series. Rather than be funny it became about her being a lesbian. That was important the first episode she did it on but it soon wore thin when each week we were having her tell someone else about it. It suddenly was more agenda oriented and less funny. It wasn't long after that the show folded too much controversy. The fact is the ratings weren't there.

Then in 2001 Ellen came back with a new series on a new network with a new story. Sure she was a lesbian again, but it wasn't the focus of the show. It didn't matter. What mattered was being funny and yes, she was funny again. Unfortunately the series didn't bring back the viewers she had lost and it only lasted one season. But for fans you can watch it now on DVD at an affordable price from Mill Creek, just $9.98 (amazon.com price).

Here she plays Ellen Richmond, back home in the small town she grew up in which is throwing a celebration in her honor as the most successful person to have left there. Ellen has owned several businesses and has one of the biggest dot.com businesses going. Until it collapses and she goes bankrupt...just as she is about to attend the dinner in her honor for being successful.

From their the series has her visiting with her friends and returning home to start her life again. She lives with her eccentric mother (Cloris Leachman) and ditzy sister Catherine (Emily Rutherford), a woman who seems intent of picking the worst possible candidates for boyfriends. The man who brought her home for the celebration is her old school teacher Mr. Munn (Martin Mull), now the principal of the school. Her ex-prom date Rusty (Jim Gaffigan) still thinks he might have a chance of winning her hand, even though she's informed him of her sexual preference.

Even though things look bad, Ellen lands on her feet. Mr. Munn offers her a counseling position at the school and she ends up having people to talk and give advice to. This is where Ellen's talent lies, in the back and forth conversations she has with people. It feels like it stems from her stand up routines in spots and is actually pretty funny. And while one running joke about being a lesbian keeps popping up (the ladies gym teacher might be the only other lesbian in town), it never becomes the focus of the series. Sure she mentions it now and then but each time the story continues from there rather than dwell on the topic.

I have no idea why the series didn't do better. Perhaps it was the competition it was up against. Maybe people were afraid it would be exactly the same as her previous show. In any event it was funny and perhaps better than a number of comedies we see on the air right now. But it didn't last long and for fans the only way to remember it is by picking up this DVD set now. Fans did eventually come to accept Ellen for herself and stop judging her. Her talk show first aired in 2003 and continues successfully to this day and she hosted the most recent Oscars. Ellen was and is a funny comedienne. This set is proof that she was a funny comedic actress as well.

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GOTHAM CITY SERIALS: LONG BEFORE ADAM WEST...

Batman began as a comic book over 80 years ago. It continues to this day in comic form through several titles still produced by DC Comics. Popular when it began it led to a radio program and then made its way to the big screen.

When most people think of Batman at the movies, they now think of Christian Bale. Years earlier they were talking about Michael Keaton. And before him in the sixties there was Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin seen weekly on television. But the first film version of Batman arrived on screens in a different sort of weekly version, a serial that appeared week after week prior to the double features seen on screens around the country.

In 1943 the first serial, BATMAN, was showing up week after week and thrilling kids non-stop. To miss a week was pure torture, not having seen how Batman made it through the danger he was left in the week before. For the longest time these serials were seen when they first ran and then disappeared from public view. During the heyday of the TV series a number of them were joined together to make a feature that intended to cash in on the show's popularity. Then, once more, they disappeared. A few years back, Columbia released a DVD version of the serial but that left the shelves as well. With the help of Mill Creek Entertainment, those serials are available once again and at an affordable price.

The first serial, BATMAN, ran in 1943 and had the team of Batman and Robin not only taking on everyday criminals but the enemies at war with the US as well. With sets reminiscent of most B grade films, the stories went from week to week as the dynamic duo faced off against the evil Dr. Tito Draka, an oriental villain pulled straight from the stereotypical playbook of the time. With mind controlled zombies, a radioactive guns and pet alligators that enjoyed the tastes of his victims, Draka did his best to destroy Batman and Robin and ruin America. Like that was going to happen. While Batman's alter ego Bruce Wayne lazes around where ever he goes, Batman steps up to the plate wielding fisticuffs and his own set of gadgets to take down this enemy in a death defying 15 episodes lasting about 25 minutes each.

The second serial, BATMAN AND ROBIN, came about 6 years later in 1949. With new actors portraying the dynamic duo (after 6 years I would think the boy wonder would have been too old to be played by the same actor) and a new costume, darker this time around, the pair faced off against a new evil in Gotham. This time around the pair faced off against The Wizard, an evil genius if there ever was one. Clad in his own costume this time, The Wizard has built a machine that allows him to control moving vehicles from his secret lair. His plan revolves around stealing some top secret documents but the Batman and Robin don't intend to let him succeed. To make things worse Batman's love interest Vickie Vale is trying to uncover just who the real men behind the mask of Batman and Robin really are. Then we once again have a lay about rendition of Bruce Wayne who appears more like a narcoleptic bumbler than a wealthy playboy man about town. But that's all right because when in costume he more than makes up with the action.

Two complete 15 chapter serials, one box, two DVDs. Curious viewers might not have felt like coughing up over $15 to $20 to find out what this was all about, to see if it was worth the cost. But at $8.78 (amazon.com's list price) it is well worth it. If not for the chance to see a classic serial then to reach back into history for the chance to witness the first incarnation of Batman brought to the big screen. The quality of the films is well made and the movies, while dated and typical of serials back then, still offer great entertainment and historical value. Batman fans won't want to pass this one up.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

WADJDA: FOREIGN FILM COMES HOME

It would be easy to take the big blockbuster released this week (in this case THOR: THE DARK WORLD) and write about it. By the same token I could write about a B movie making its way to DVD this week. But just for something different I thought I'd mention a small foreign film that's made its way to DVD that deserves some attention.

Foreign films don't attract a lot of attention in the U.S. like most films do. It usually seems that a select elite class of film viewer watches these films or collectors of foreign films. We here seem to think that if someone can't take the time to make the movie in our language it isn't worth viewing. That sort of thinking means that so many great movies are not seen by a larger group of people in this country. It also means that we think far too much of ourselves when it comes to movies too.

Not only do foreign films give us the opportunity to see some great movies it also opens the doors for us to see and understand a different culture than our own, a different world than the one we live in. There are a number of jokes out there about 'Muricans with redneck ways and an attitude that we are always the best. With the world of DVD open to everyone you now have the chance to see that there are some great movies being made around the world, even if you have to read subtitles to see them.

With that I'd like to talk about WADJDA. Wadjda is a 10 year old Saudi Arabian girl with dreams of her own. Living in Riyadh, Wadjda pushes the boundaries of a girl in her culture, choosing to listen to rock music and developing an entrepreneurial attitude by creating shoelace bracelets that support various teams and selling them to classmates. Her home life is better than most but not perfect. Her mother nearly died during childbirth which means she can not bear a male child for her husband. This opens the door for him to find another wife who can. But that's down the road when the film opens.

Wadjda goes to school and is viewed as a rebel there, even while other girls are doing far more outlandish things. While they paint their nails and read magazine, Wadjda is the most obvious rebel wearing tennis shoes instead of the black shoes the other girls wear and never seeming to be able to keep her scarf on her head. Her best friend is a young boy named Abdulah. As with most young boy and girl friends, they tease one another and call names but remain close. Wadjda is envious of her friend's bicycle and promises to buy one of her own even though the custom there is for girls to not ride bicycles since it would destroy their "virtue". As you can see, a different culture than ours already.

As Wadjda's mother struggles to keep her husband from taking on a second wife, she has little time to keep a closer eye on her daughter. Wadjda begins finding new ways to make money in the hopes of saving to buy the new bicycle she saw at the local toy store. But each money making idea she comes up with brings her closer to the edge of social acceptance and expulsion or shame at school. When they announce a contest that involves studying the Koran which involves memorization and understanding of the text, the prize for which is more than enough money for her needs, Wadjda enters.

While she studies for the contest Wadjda never really digs into the text she's remembering. It is all about trying to win, not about really learning. Whether or not she does win and what happens when she does/doesn't makes for an interesting film.

While the story isn't complicated and rather straightforward, the movie does hold your interest from start to finish. You never have an edge of your seat moment here but you find yourself caring for both the characters of Wadjda and her mother. And while the strict enforcement of this male dominated society is ever present, the hope for change can be seen in the acts and eyes of young Abdullah. You not only want Wadjda to win, you want to see her on the bicycle before the end of the film.

Much has been noted about the production behind the scenes of this film. To begin with it was actually filmed in Saudi Arabia, a country that views films as sinful, especially with a subject content like this. On top of that the film was directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, a female director. While the cast and crew followed custom as closely as possible, they were able to produce a film that can be enjoyed by all.

Take a chance and open up the door to a new experience. Allow yourself to watch at least one foreign film with an open mind and a chance to see the world. If you have the chance, let this be that film and find out that not all foreign films are snobbish or elitist. Some just tell a story and do it well. WADJDA is one of those.

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LAST VEGAS: FRIENDS FOREVER

With so many movies coming out these days featuring nothing but the youngest of stars it's nice to see a movie come out with major actors getting on in age taking the leading roles. It's even better when that movie is not only well made but one of the funniest things to come out in quite some time.

The Flatbush Four is a group of teens in the 50s who have their own so called gang. The promise of being friends forever takes a turn for the worse but we don't know why, except that years later as one gets married the tale unfolds. Approaching 70, Billy (Michael Douglas) decides to wed the girlfriend half his age. He calls his friends Archie (Morgan Freeman) and Sam (Kevin Kline) and arranges them to meet him in Vegas to celebrate with a bachelor party. He also charges them with contacting and bringing Paddy (Robert DeNiro), his best friend who he hasn't spoken to in over a year.

Each member of the group has their own item to bring to the table. Archie had a stroke the year before and his son won't let him do anything resulting in his having to sneak out. Sam is living in a retirement community with his wife and bored silly so his wife presents him with the gift of a free pass while in Vegas to do whatever and come back the man she once knew. And Paddy has become a recluse, still dealing with the death of his wife, the love of his life and the only female welcomed into the group when they were kids.

The foursome arrives in Vegas and immediately tempers flare in the form of Paddy. It takes a while but eventually we learn that Billy didn't make it to Paddy's wife's funeral, something he won't forgive Billy for missing. While it still bothers him he eventually sets that aside to be part of the bachelor party.

Things get started when the group discovers that the rooms they had booked won't be ready for another year as the hotel is under renovations. While there they hear a woman singing their old songs, Diana (Mary Steenburgen), in the lounge. They're captivated and remember good times. Making friends with Diana, she helps them find their way through Vegas to the hotel where Billy is supposed to be getting married. While waiting for rooms, Archie finds a way to make their weekend in Vegas more memorable (no I won't spoil that for you).

Soon the group is staying in the penthouse and getting involved in all sorts of major over the top events. They judge a bikini contest poolside. They party at the exclusive club on top of the hotel (one of the funniest scenes takes place there and involves Red Bull, vodka and Freeman). During it all Billy begins to wonder if he's making the right decision while at the same time attracted to Diana. The problem is so is Paddy.

But the focus of the film isn't the problems that these two have even though they pop up periodically and are eventually settled before the film ends. The movie is more about the camaraderie between the four men from the time they were boys until now in their waning years. Friendship knows no bounds nor does it recognize age. The love shared between these four characters has served them well all this time and the trip to Vegas rekindles that love before the finish.

Each of the four actors gets a chance to shine here in well worn characters that are familiar to each. DeNiro gets the tough guy, Douglas the charmer, Freeman the smooth mover and Kline the master of the witty retort. There is no way to single one out as the best but that scene with Freeman and the lines he has to deliver rapidly is fun to watch. The thing that makes this movie so good is the combination of acting, laughs and story, something that seems lacking in most movies today. Not only did I find myself invested in the story of these four friends I was also pausing the movie every now and then because I was laughing so hard.

LAST VEGAS is not a movie that you'll want to rent once. It's one to add to your collection. I can already sense a bit of anticipation in myself wanting to watch it again already. Not only that I want to see these four friends reunited for another film. Let's hope that another bachelor party is in the works for the Flatbush Four.

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