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THE HOT ROCK, CINDERELLA LIBERTY, ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL and DISTANT VOICES STILL LIVES

Sunday, July 1, 2012

THE ARTIST: A LOVE NOTE TO THE PAST


There are many who would have been stunned when they heard that a silent movie won for best picture in 2012 at the Oscars. Okay I admit I was one of those people. But after having had the chance to see the film it made me think that perhaps Hollywood granted the award for two reasons: one, because it is a great film and two, because it is a love note to the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The film is about the career of silent screen idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a swashbuckling/dancing/sly grinned matinee idol if there ever was one. When the film starts George is at the top of his game and the biggest box office draw around. Along with his pet pouch he's the talk of the town and a hit with everyone.

One day while signing autographs he literally bumps into a young woman named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). At first surprised he passes it off with a laugh and the two go on their way. Except that now the press is all abuzz wondering who this mystery woman is, something that Mrs. Valentin (Penelope Ann Miller) isn't pleased with.

As the film progresses the paths of George and Peppy cross once more when they meet on the set of his next film where she's an extra. They playfully dance back and forth much to the displeasure of the head of the studio (John Goodman). When he attempts to toss her off the lot, George steps in and defends her. This is much to her good fortune as the roles she receives increase and her popularity grows as well.

The same can't be said of George. When Goodman shows him the latest thing to hit Hollywood, sound, George laughs it off and gloats that he's never needed sound to reach and audience. When the studio switches to sound only, George is tossed aside as old. He promises to show them how great silent films are by starring in, directing, writing and producing his next film. Opening the same day as the new Peppy Miller film, it draws a few people against the lines waiting to see her film.

Down and out and nearly penniless after the stock market crash, George's wife leaves him. Only his trusted chauffer Clifton (James Cromwell) stays by his side until George finally fires him due to no money with which to pay him. George sells off everything he has and finds little to keep him going.

At the same time the fortunes of Peppy Miller are skyrocketing. Little known to George so are her emotions for him. It will only be a matter of time before these star crossed lovers finally meet once more.

It seems like such a simple story, perhaps a bit of A STAR IS BORN, tossed in as well. But this is no remake and yes, the story is quite simple. But that doesn't make it the least bit boring. Instead it's a tremendous piece of storytelling that makes the viewer use their eyes to get the story. The music enhances the action on the screen just as it was in the silent era. The composition of what we are viewing is something we could take for granted or perhaps we have the chance to see how visually stimulating it can be, even in black and white.

The film ends with a dance number straight out of the old Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers playbook. Unfortunately there will be far too many viewers who won't even know who Astaire and Rogers were which is kind of sad because there are so many great movies that just aren't the thing these days. Younger viewers ignore films that are black and white. They have no desire to watch a film that is "silent" (even though the score to this movie is fantastic). It's much easier to watch a movie with tons of explosions or sparkling vampires than it is to invest oneself in a love story like this one.

That's a big loss for this generation. They don't know about the high flying adventures of Captain Blood or the deeply romantic loss felt by Rick in a town named Casablanca. They'll never know the charm of Nick and Nora Charles as they solve crimes or the horror displayed by an actor named Karloff. This movie might change that though. Perhaps after watching and enjoying this film the younger generation might be interested enough to seek out those classics. One can only hope. And if not, at least they'll be entertained by this film. It deserved the attention it received.

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THREE STOOGES ULTIMATE COLLECTION: THE WHOLE SHEBANG


For many of us we grew up with the Three Stooges. We watched their slapstick antics and laughed along as they went from one mess to another. These were guys who always seemed to make the wrong choices and yet survived to make yet another in another short film. Before my generation was one that grew up watching these shorts in movie theaters around the world. And for the current generation? They now have the opportunity to see the hilarious antics of these three from the start. Forget the new movie with slight imitations, get THE THREE STOOGES ULTIMATE COLLECTION and enjoy the originals as they were meant to be seen.

Fortunately Sony has been passing along packages of Three Stooges films to collectors and fans for years. They've made all of their earliest works available in packages that followed various years. Now all of those packages have been brought together into one along with some extras that haven't been available before. For the true fans this is pure Heaven.

The sets released before and included in this package feature the Stooges in various incarnations beginning with the original line up of Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard. Set one goes from the years 1934-1936, set two 1937-1939, set three 1940-1942, set four 1943-1944 and set five 1946-1948. In the midst of those final years Curly suffered a stroke and retired only to return for one more short. Brother Shemp replaced him and the stooges continued on. The next two sets featured Shemp as the third stooge from 1949-1951 and then 1952-1954. The last set in the collection features Shemp who passed away in 1955 and was then replaced with Joe Besser. It runs from 1955-1959.

The one thing in common all of the stooges had was years performing in vaudeville. It was there that they learned the art of slapstick comedy and to date there has been none better. Not only were they masters of the art, they had a certain amount of slick comedy talk as well that resulted in laughs just as much as the slapstick did. The characters they created also did well for all generations because the boys seemed like innocents. This played well with kids and the adults got the rest of the jokes. This combination of comedic elements made the stooges the funniest and perhaps longest running comedy outfit to ever be filmed.

So, since this collection contains these previously released sets why buy the new one? Because they've included things not seen before in a three disc set. The first disc features a short not included before, the feature film HAVE ROCKET WILL TRAVEL and several classic cartoons featuring caricatures of the Stooges. The second disc features Shemp Howard in various shorts he made without the other stooges. The third disc features shorts featuring the last of the new stooges, Joe Besser and Joe DeRita. If you already own the first sets, this can be purchased on its own. But if you know a Stooges fan who doesn't own the whole collection this is a fantastic opportunity.

Each of the sets runs anywhere from $12 to $14 dollars but this ultimate collection is currently going for just $64.59 on Amazon.com. That makes the price much less than they were on their own and they come in a box that shows the original Stooges on the cover. More amazing than that though is to think of how much you actually get for the small amount you pay. Over 3,876 minutes of footage! Over 64 hours!

There are so many worried adults out there who fear that their children seeing things like this will warp or scar them. They've taken the fun out of being a kid. Tom and Jerry are banned because of the violence. The same holds true for the Stooges with their eye pokes and slaps. The thing is that in all the years I've watched the Stooges I can't recall ever hearing of anyone losing an eye or being beaten up because someone watched them. The only thing I've ever associated them with is laughter. Perhaps its time we lightened up just a little bit. Perhaps its time we let kids be kids and get a laugh out of the same things we did growing up. If you enjoyed the Stooges as much as I did as a child then you'll want to share this with your kids today.

There is no way to pick a favorite Stooge short. I find it impossible. I've watched samples from each set and laughed at each one. In some ways they seem a little more stupid than I remember but then I laugh anyway. I appreciate Shemp Howard more than I did when I was younger. Besser and DeRita are still the weakest Stooges. And Curly reigns supreme when it comes to laughs. But the antics of Larry and Moe can be better realized when watching too. Trying to talk about them all is like swirling around in a circle, trying to give each one the credit they deserve and being unable to do each justice. The fact remains that the Stooges as a whole are one of the most amazing and funny comedy acts there ever were.

I'm hoping that the few words I've offered here do the Three Stooges justice but I doubt it. So do this. Travel back in time to when you were young and when you'd watch TV, those days when there were only 3 or 4 stations. Remember how much you laughed while watching the Three Stooges. Now take the time and make the effort to do so once again. Sony has a home run here with this ultimate collection. For movie fans this is something worth adding to your collection and putting on the watch-now-and-then shelf. This is comedy at its best.

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FRANKLIN & BASH SEASON ONE: A SUCCESOR TO "BOSTON LEGAL"


I wasn't sure what to expect from the first season of this series. I've enjoyed the actors in other things they've done and was hoping that they weren't just going to rehash their old characters into new names. They haven't and the show is a hoot. Heck it's two hoots.

Peter Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and Jared Franklin (Breckin Myer) are two ambulance chasing attorney's who do things their own way. They're not beyond placing a distracting billboard sign near and intersection while waiting for an accident on which they can blame the billboard. They're a quirky duo who have two assistants that aren't any straighter than they are: Carmen (Dana Davis) is an ex-con who does their leg work for them and Pindar (Kumail Ninjiani) is an agoraphobic germ fanatic who does the computer/research for the team. But things are about to change.

Enter Stanton Infield (Malcolm McDowell), the head of one of the biggest firms in the country. Having had his eye on the team for some time, he recruits them to come work for his firm. With no conditions except that they do their best, he sets them up in their own office, gives them anything they want and proceeds to send the oddest of clients their direction. Franklin and Bash proceed to do what they do best: win cases.

Office politics have a place in the story as well. Reed Diamond stars as Damien Karp, the Infield's nephew and the starchy straight laced type lawyer who worries more about important clients than in doing the right thing. Franklin and Bash may twist the law a bit and be unorthodox, but they seem to work for bad guys. Also in the office is Hanna Linden (Garcelle Beauvais), an attractive high powered attorney in her own right, former flame of Damien and possible love interest for Franklin.

All of these elements come into play from one episode to the next and none of the players major or minor are ignored. Rather than simply rely on the two main stars, the series lets everyone have a chance to play in this sandbox and it gives the show a team feeling that works for so many series these days.

As I said in the title, the show is reminiscent of the series BOSTON LEGAL in that you have two off the wall characters involved in the business of law who work for a leader who has so many interests that you never know what he'll be doing next. He never appears to be odd but at the same time he's told the two main characters more than once that they remind him of himself when he was younger. It make for interesting characters and an interesting show as well.

The cases the duo find themselves involved in never seem like the things you see on the front pages of the newspaper. After the pilot show, their first case involves a woman accused of using sex to kill her husband. Another features a somewhat plump young woman fired from a Playboy style magazine who thinks they fired her because she was too pretty. They defend two pole dance instructors who have been accused of stealing from one of their clients. Obviously these are not Perry Mason type cases they're working on.

The thing that makes it work is the two leads. They seem to be completely at ease in their characters. Neither of them makes it seem like they're acting, a true accomplishment in my eyes for great acting. You don't feel like their performing but are being themselves. That could be a scary thing in some cases. As the series unfolds you get to know more about the characters, in particular the fact that Franklin refused to work for his father (Beau Bridges), a high class attorney with little scruples. There is a bitterness that lies between them and it reveals itself in one episode.

I was hesitant to watch this series when it aired on TV. Now I find myself beginning to think that perhaps I should start setting the DVR for this one. Then again maybe I'll just wait for the second season to come out on DVD as well. I know I've thoroughly enjoyed season one and you will too.

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SPIDER-MAN ULTRAVIOLET EDITIONS: THE NEW TECHNOLOGY


With the release of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN the folks at Sony have decided to re-release the original three SPIDER-MAN films in special blu-ray editions that feature the newest movie technology, ultra-violet editions. What is ultra-violet when it comes to movies?

With DVDs you purchase the DVD, take it home and play it in any compatible DVD player. The same holds true for ultra-violet movies. Instead of a physical movie in your hands though, ultra-violet movies you purchase go into a storage area you create online and then can download to play from their on various devices including PCs, tablets, smart phones, cable boxes, etc. When you purchase a movie, for instance these Spider-man films, you receive a code in the box that allows you to add these movies to your online collection. It removes the need to have the physical box in your home and allows you the ability to play the movie where ever you go. Some folks will love it while others will continue to purchase the movies and have them in their hands.

So now the movies. If you've seen them then you know how fantastic they are. These movies were the first time that a character from the Marvel comic's universe were handled right. They didn't treat them as if they were some cheap knock off films where you dressed someone in tights and had them run around. A tremendous amount of money was spent on special effects to create the proper look for Spider-man as he swung through the streets of Manhattan. Not only that, they stayed true to the original story of Spider-man, the creation of a hero who learned that with great power comes great responsibility.
Here's a break down of all three films. 

The first film, aptly titles SPIDER-MAN, tells the story of wimpy geek Peter Parker (Tobey McGuire) who lives with his aunt and uncle. At school Peter is picked on by the jocks and only seems to have found a friend in Harry Osborn (James Franco), the son of wealthy scientist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe). Peter is in love with his neighbor and the popular girl in school Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) who seems to notice him but spends her time with the popular crowd.

Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider during a class trip to a science lab. The bite gives him the powers of a spider, cling to or climb walls, extra strength and the ability to shoot webbing from his wrist. Peter sees this as a chance to make some money for his financially strapped family by performing in an all challengers wrestling match. That all changes when he fails to stop a robbery at the wrestling site only to have that same criminal shoot and kill his uncle Ben. It is then he realizes the responsibility he shrugged off and should have followed.

As all this is going on, Norman Osborn is in the midst of losing his contract with the military. Tests on his super solider serum aren't near ready but he tries it on himself. The results are increased strength but also an increase in violent behavior. Norman dons a specially designed armor that changes his appearance and becomes the Green Goblin.
Of course Spider-man tries to stop him and the two battle it out until the final reel.

In watching this movie again I was stunned at how perfect a film it was. The story telling was top notch and done with perfection. Each screen moment never wasted a second of time in moving the story forward. The effects were and remain breath taking. The acting from all involved never looked down on the roles the were playing or lines they were handed, making the characters fans have loved for years come alive. Best of all the movie stands the test of time and with the blu-ray transfer looks absolutely stunning.


 
SPIDER-MAN 2 continues on with the story of Peter Parker. Peter is still having personal problems galore but that was always the case. Mary Jane is engaged to someone else, his grades are slipping and he's having a hard time finding work. Frustrated he decides to stop being a super-hero. When he's on hand to see a scientist Otto Octavious' (Alfred Molina) experiment go wrong, he realizes he has to don the blue and red again.

Octavious had designed a set of limbs that could be controlled by the brain that connected to the human spinal cord. When his lab begins to explode, it damages his brain and makes him more violent. Now called Doc Ock (short for octopus since he has multiple arms), Octavious wants his life's work to go on. He continues to seek a way to make it all work while at the same time caring for no one and destroying anyone who gets in his way. This leads to a final confrontation between Doc Ock and Spider-man who then reveals his identity to Mary Jane.

Once again the movie is marvelous in this blu-ray transfer. The film repeats the successes of the first film by offering concise story telling and never wasting a second of on screen time. The acting continues to excel and the effects continue to get better.

 
This leaves us with SPIDER-MAN 3. As big a fan of the first two films as I was, I was disappointed by this one and that remains even after watching this copy. From things I've read there was a lot of studio involvement in this one and that shows. The same thing happened the first time around with the Batman films. The biggest problem is that someone begins to think that more is better. Rather than have the hero battle one villain, lets have several. This results in more products that can be sold, more action figures. The problem is it makes a worse film. Too many characters and too many stories make it lose focus and that shows here.

Peter and Mary Jane are now a couple and living together. The first villain that Spider-man must face is his best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco). Having learned his secret identity, Harry now rides the skies on the same flying platform his father used, tossing pumpkin shaped bombs at Spider-man as he tries to kill him for the death of his father. This was a take on the Hobgoblin character from the comics though it changed him radically. I won't spoil what happens between the two.

The second villain that he goes up against this time is the Sandman. Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) is a low level thug who finds himself transformed in an accident into a man literally made of sand. He can slide beneath doors or make himself hard as cement. But the character is a sympathetic one, a man driven to a life of crime because its the only way he knows to take care of his family. But once changed, even they turn their backs on him.

At the same time Peter comes into contact with the substance that will change him from the good person he is to bad. The substance is actually an alien life form that attaches to the wearer and alters them. Suddenly Spider-man is seen wearing a black outfit and behaving in a more cut throat manner when handling criminals. The same holds true for Peter to the point that he and Mary Jane split.

Peter eventually realizes what the costume is doing to him and sheds it via sound waves from a tower bell. Unfortunately the alien entity drops onto another nemesis of Peter Parker, a writer who was fired from the Daily Bugle thanks to Peter by the name of Eddie Brock (Topher Grace). Now with these new powers he becomes the evil anti-thesis of Spider-man, Venom.

So much doesn't work in this film. First and foremost, as I said, is the fact that they crammed too many bad guys into the film rather than focus on just one. You would think they would have seen how this worked in the past with super hero movies that always got worse with more distractions to the story being told. Apparently not. This film did the least business of all three and remains a sore spot for fans of the comic and character. It still offers some amazing effects and as part of the trilogy should be kept alongside the other.

With all the super hero movies arriving in the summer of 2012 its nice to be able to go back and see where it all started. As long as Hollywood continues to tap into the genre and do it justice, these films will be around for a long time. Lets just hope they stick with the original stories and don't try to "improve" them. Every time they do so we end up with results like nipples on Batman's outfit. I for one don't want to know how cold Spider-man gets. 

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21 JUMP STREET: FORGET THE PAST...KIND OF


Back in the 80s there was a TV series that helped kick off the new network known as FOX. It starred a bunch of new actors just getting noticed and featured them as policemen who went undercover in high school to fight crime among the younger generation. Among these actors was a guy named Johnny Depp who you may have heard of. Depp eventually left and the show finally finished but has developed a cult following. Enough of one that they apparently decided a remake in feature length format was warranted. But don't go in thinking this is the same old 21 JUMP STREET.

Jonah Hill plays Schmidt, the smart, nerdy kid who wants to be liked so much so that he dies his hair blonde and cuts it to look like Eminem. Jenko (Channing Tatum) is his high school nemesis, the jock that doesn't think much and picks on the nerd. For one reason or another both find themselves unable to go to prom.

Fast forward to find both of them applying to become policemen at the academy. They become friends and each uses their strengths to help the other one graduate. Thinking they'll be hitting the streets and stopping crime they're stunned to find themselves on bicycle duty. When they see a biker gang involved in a drug deal they think that will all change. It does but not the way they hoped. Having failed to read the criminals their Miranda rights, the only way to avoid being kicked out is to work in a special outfit.

The Jump Street program is headed by tough as nails Capt. Dickson (Ice Cube). It takes youthful looking police officers and places them in high schools to fight crime. In this particular incident they're trying to find the supplier of a new drug in schools that's already resulted in one teen death. Now the two cops who didn't fare well in high school are going back.

But things aren't like they were. The things that made Jenko popular are now frowned upon by the cool kids. And the nerdy things that Schmidt did are now making him popular. It gets even more twisted up when the duo get their undercover identities mixed up and Jenko is supposed to be the smart one while Schmidt is the jock! Couple that with the fact that the kids think Jenko looks much older than his "age" and you can see where this is going.

What you end up with is a bit of a twist on the Odd Couple tossed in with an attempt by two twenty somethings trying to fit in. They must also find the dealers of the drugs and then follow up to see who their supplier is. Along the way they each have the chance to walk in the other's shoes from the past and with any luck will appreciate each other more after doing so.

The movie is filled with the gross out or inappropriate humor Hill is becoming known for but not to the extent that it distracts from the story or hinders it (like happened with THE SITTER). The bonding between these two characters and the chance that it will unwind makes for an interesting film as does the chance for Schmidt to finally get the chance to have a decent high school experience. Except that he isn't a student and almost falls into the trap of getting too involved in his undercover identity.

There are plenty of laughs and a few decent action sequences. My favorite laugh involved a chase scene where things that would normally explode in any other movie don't. In addition to the story laced with humor we get some decent cameos by members of the original series including Holly Peete Robinson, Peter DeLuise and Depp himself (though you'll never recognize him until he wants you to). It's not a bad movie and one I can actually see myself watching again down the line. Entertaining and light fare, this is a movie that will give you just what you expect.

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MONSTER BRAWL: GOOD IDEA, POOR EXECUTION


When I first heard about this movie I couldn't wait to see it. The whole concept just sounded like the best thing ever, an exploitation movie that combined two different genres into one and had them duking it out. What could go wrong when you have classic movie monsters involved in the sport of professional wrestling? Well several things.

The idea we have here is a promoter who decides that the most interesting thing there could be would be a battle between classic film monster in the squared circle, the wrestling ring. During an interview you get the idea that this concept came up over many cases of beer and a love for both items. Thus was born the Monster Brawl.

Since the monsters involved would more than likely kill any spectators, they've set up the ring in a secluded swamp land where they battles will take place. There are two categories of monsters, the undead and the creatures. Eight variations of these two categories will fight, the first two matches just to determine a winner and the last 3 matches to find a grand champion.

The first match is the weakest with two creatures facing off featuring a lame Cyclops against a Witch Bitch. The make up is lacking on both and the idea that either falls into the category of classic monster is non-existent. Next up is an undead battle between the Mummy and the Vampire Woman. Once again the make up isn't fantastic but better than the first one. Here we have two iconic monsters battling rather than semi-monsters like the first match.

But the big battle is a face off to see who the supreme monster is. This time around representing the creatures are the Werewolf versus Swamp Gut, a swamp thing rip off with a huge gut that helps him emit noxious odors. The winner of this match faces off against the winner of the undead play off between Frankenstein and Zombie Man. The Frankenstein monster has been brought back by a mad scientist while the Zombie Man is under the control of a mad military officer played by professional wrestler Kevin Nash. SPOILER ALERT: the result of these two matches is a match between the two most classic monsters here, Werewolf and Frankenstein.

There is no plot to this movie so don't expect one. This is nothing more than a pay per view match between monsters. The color commentary is handled by two men more than up to the task: Dave Foley (star of TV's NEWS RADIO and member of KIDS IN THE HALL) and actor Art Hindle who's starred in a number of horror items including THE BROOD. Both do a great job trading comments about the matches and trying to make things as normal as possible. The same holds true for guest announcer and ringmaster Jimmy "Mouth of the South" Hart, the classic WWE manager who does a great job here doing what he does best, talking up the matches.

So why does this great idea disappoint? For one it probably would have held up had there been a plot to the whole thing. Glimpses of matches between two lesser combatants rather than boring matches that did little more than fill up time would have made it more of a movie. More of a reason than just an idea some friends came up with while drinking would have made it more interesting as well.

With the exception of the Frankenstein monster the make up was really low brow. The same holds true for the wrestling action on display even though the characters were portrayed by a number of professional wrestlers from low level wrestling groups. It may be that because of the make up the wrestling didn't matter as much but the matches seemed like the first ones seen on major events where people are just showing up as opposed to the top line matches. With that as the focal point of the whole film they should have been better.

But this is not to say there isn't some heart on display here. It's easy to see why this concept was a good one that could have been tremendous. Had the WWE been backing this film up with some major talent and a bit more money, this could have been a movie that brought in viewers. Instead it's one of those curiosities that draws folks into film festivals and then heads straight to DVD. If you're a fan of classic monsters and wrestling then you'll want to give this one a watch. Otherwise pass it by.

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