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

Friday, November 30, 2012

PREP & LANDING/PREP & LANDING: NAUGHTY VS. NICE (TOTALLY TINSEL COLLECTION): I'M A SUCKER FOR CHRISTMAS SPECIALS



Looking for some fun this Christmas that will also make a great gift for animated film fans? Then by all means pick up the PREP & LANDING series that arrives in time for Christmas. It features both the original PREP & LANDING and the new short NAUGHTY VS. NICE. The package features both standard DVD and Blu-ray and includes a number of extra features that are as entertaining as the specials themselves. Included are several other short shorts that involve the elves including SECRET SANTA and TINY'S BIG ADVENTURE, a training film for prospective elves, a North Pole newsreel, hilarious commercials for the North Pole viewers (like Elf-Date.com and The Fruitcake Factory), a behind the scenes look at Grace Potter as she makes a song for the toons and does one of the voices and a behind the scenes look at how the programs are made.

PREP & LANDING/NAUGHTY BUT NICE

Every year a new crop of holiday specials makes it to television, sometimes trying to capture the magic of Christmas but more often than not trying to make some sort of statement instead. The best/worst example of this is the Frosty sequel more concerned with climate change than a Christmas tale. But now and again a new show arrives that has the potential of being a great new holiday treat. The Prep & Landing shows are just that.

The first one, PREP & LANDING, works for both children and adults. The prep & landing teams are elves that make sure things are set for Santa's arrival. They make certain kids are asleep, areas are ready for toys and the landing strip on the roof is cleared and marked for Santa's sleigh. The best elf to handle this is Wayne who thinks he's being promoted this year. Instead he's kept at the job and given a trainee named Lanny.

Disappointed, Wayne doesn't exactly take to the job as well. When Lanny makes a few mistakes, everything from messing up the Christmas tree to losing part of the landing strip, Wayne must find his Christmas spirit once again and come to the rescue.

The show plays out like Mission Impossible with elves replacing Tom Cruise and his elite team. Gags revolve around the gadgets and techniques used to insure everything goes right. Christmas phrases are inserted for code words and the spirit of Christmas joy finds its way directly into the story.

Christmas is compacted into a 30 program that will offer laughs galore for kids and adults alike. A smile is sure to cross your face while watching this. As in the best of classic cartoons, this computer animated short film offers jokes that the kids will laugh at but that adults will find more subtle humor in to offer a chuckle. It is a rare treat, a new holiday special that delivers the goods.

PREP & LANDING: NAUGHTY VS. NICE

When a naughty child tries to gain access to the equipment used by the North Pole for the naughty list using a stolen device, Wayne and Lanny are assigned to put a stop to it and get it back. Accompanying them is an expert in naughty, a coal elf named Noel, Wayne's little brother.

Noel is much loved and admired by all, a loud and obnoxious sort who seems fun to almost everyone who knows him. Of course this leads to a massive case of sibling rivalry. While Wayne is the older brother, Noel always seems to show him up.

The team takes off, arrives and sets out to save Christmas by retrieving the device. Once there they discover another case of sibling rivalry, one that is about to destroy Christmas itself. In saving this disaster from ruining the holiday, Wayne and Noel learn what being brothers is all about.

This time around not only are the Christmas themes present again but a tale that might help children deal with jealousy at Christmas time unfolds as well. I know, I said earlier that stories that deal with issues ruin Christmas specials. Fortunately here the issue is one that involves Christmas rather than uses it as a backdrop. Best of all the story entertains and offers laughs for both children and adults once more.

I love Christmas. I love Christmas specials having grown up with the classics of the past, from RUDOLPH to the TV series shows that featured Christmas episodes like The Beverly Hillbillies. So to find a new special for the holidays that meets the criteria that I have for one (must be true to the spirit, must be about the holiday and not some political agenda, must entertain, must touch me in some way) makes me feel an incredible amount of joy. I've just added this DVD to my list of must watch movies for the Christmas season. I would suggest that you pick up a copy for your shelf as well.

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LAWLESS: PROHIBITION MOUNTAIN STYLE

It's been years since the theme of bootleggers was the subject matter in movies. Back in the 70s there was a rush of movies about this subject ranging from the low budget MOONRUNNERS (the movie later turned into the hit TV series THE DUKES OF HAZARD) to the even lower budgeted MOONSHINERS. Even Burt Reynolds took on the subject in WHITE LIGHTNING. But then it kind of disappeared. That all changed when reality TV took a shine (pun intended) to the topic and the film LAWLESS is a result of that renewed interest.

Based loosely on the real life story of the three Bondurant brothers in Franklin County, Virginia, the story focuses on a short period of their lives when bootlegging was their claim to fame and the end result was what was called a war in their home county. Descendants of the real life family have written a book on the subject and that is what the film is based on.

The Bondurant brothers were legends in Franklin County. Oldest brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) was said to be indestructible having crossed paths with death on several occasions. Middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke) has perhaps decided to dip into the family recipe too often but remains the muscle of the group. The youngest brother, Jack (Shia LeBouf) is the upstart, trying to think of ways to impress his older brother Forrest and increase the profits of their bootlegging venture. But Forrest is content to sit back and make the money that he does from their product and pay his bribe money to the local sheriff.

All that changes when a new prosecutor comes to town. Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is part of a task force that was sent to shut down the stills but who in truth is more interested in taking over the entire county's bootlegging business. When Forrest refuses to comply, Rakes sets out to destroy the Bondurant family in any way possible. The result is a violent and bloody confrontation that leaves Forrest wounded but alive and his brothers ready for revenge. But that is not to happen yet.

Jack decides the best way to increase their finances is to begin selling their product to Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). With the country dry due to prohibition, Jack can get good money from the mobster in return for supplying the demand the gangsters need for their town. While the brothers may disagree on this item the money does come in handy at the right time.

Rakes' men having been behind the attack on Forrest and the brutalization of a waitress and love interest of Forrest (Jessica Chastain) that same night have left a bad taste in the mouths of the brothers. When they blow up their still and murder Jack's best friend in cold blood, a harmless young boy who had no chance of being a problem to Rakes, the brothers can take no more. An eventual showdown between the corrupt lawman and the bootleggers is inevitable. It's bloody but not overly so and the results are surprising.

LAWLESS does a great job of capturing the era and area that the film takes place in. The back hills of Virginia look beautiful rather than wasted away and yet the people who live there looks as poor as the times the story takes place in. While bootlegging may have paid the bills for poor farmers who made more money this way it was not the glamorous life that say cocaine dealers have been depicted in more modern stories. These were tough men who did what they had to to feed their families and keep their farms. The work was hard and the rewards merely enough to get by. There was no glitz and glamour here.

The acting here is stupendous. Tom Hardy turns in another dynamite performance as a man who uses few words and fewer actions yet carries the threat of violence about him like an aura. His character knows the ways of the world and tries to convey them with little success to his younger brother. LeBouf does a great job as well, depicting a hero worshipping brother who wants to do well by his family yet gets turned down more often than not. Pearce is equal to these two in depicting a bad guy that even law abiding citizens will find themselves hoping gets his due.

The movie doesn't offer a pretty picture of the bootlegging business but it does offer a few new anti-heroes for viewers to root for. You care about this family and the others who faced these problems in the past. It was a violent world that handled things much differently than they are handled today. And that makes for some tremendous storytelling that just might make viewers want to find out more and read about those times.

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THE EXPENDABLES 2: 80'S HEROES UNITE!

If you saw THE EXPENDABLES then you have a clue as to what to expect from any sequel. Lots of explosions, plenty of gunplay and hand to hand combat from a group of mercenaries who also tend to have a moral backbone. The first film delivered tons of action to the point that I consider it one of the best action films ever made. It was popular enough that a sequel had to follow. So how does THE EXPENDABLES 2 stack up?

The opening sequence offers up the action quota quite well and we get to see the team in action. We also meet a new member, a sniper by the name of Bill (Liam Hemsworth). Each member is given enough screen time to earn them their paycheck and before the sequence ends, team member Yin (Jet Li) parachutes out of their plane never to return for the rest of the film.

When they return home ready for some R & R, Barney (Sylvester Stallone) is contacted by Church (Bruce Willis). Unhappy with the outcome from the first film, he tells Barney he has another mission for the team, an easy one that will square things away between them. Mission in hand and the addition of a CIA operative Church sends along, the group sets out for a small European country to retrieve some codes locked in a safe.

The group retrieves the codes and is ready to head out when they're confronted by a problem they weren't warned about. Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and his men have the team surrounded and Bill with a gun to his head. The team can do nothing but give in and surrender the codes. Even though they've complied, Vilain kills Bill in front of them before leaving. Of course this sets the revenge ball rolling and Barney will stop at nothing until he gets the codes back and sees Vilain dead.

The premise for the film is rather simple but that's never been a problem with either film. It's a core story that surrounds itself with tons of action and special effects. That's what these films are all about. That and half a dozen hand to hand combat sequences that would result in work for half the stunt men in the world. These films are action films made for fans and for fun. And the new one delivers, for the most part.

This time around though it feels different. For one the surprise has been taken out of the equation. The first film we all wondered what it would be like to see some of the biggest names in action films from the 80s together on the screen at the same time. We got that and this time around we get it in spades. We have the members of the original cast together again and Willis and Schwarzenegger are even allowed to play with the rest this time around. Not only that, but Van Damme and Chuck Norris are tossed in as well. Norris has an especially funny part in the film. And yet it doesn't feel the same.

Perhaps it's seeing all of our heroes from the past aging just a bit before our eyes even though every one of them still seems fit and perhaps more so than when they were the hottest thing in action films. Maybe it's that the quips and witty one liners we've come to associate with them feel rather old hat here. Yes, they are cute but for me they came up too often. I'm not sure what it is but it made me feel that this film wasn't quite as good as the first one.

That being said it's still a great action film. And seeing Willis, Schwarzenegger and Stallone shooting their way through an airport, all of them in the same shot, was amazing. This is not an action film where you'll find yourself wondering how plausible the movie is or if the situations seen could really happen. This movie is a roller coaster ride that takes you up and down, tosses you around and then makes you want to go for another ride. It's a popcorn movie, plain and simple, and one to be enjoyed for just that reason.

Word is that a third film is in the works. It will be interesting to see what other action stars of the 80s are brought back for this one. Steve Seagal? Mel Gibson? Perhaps they'll choose a different route and bring in action stars of today with the hopes of making this series of films last longer with a new crew taking on bad guys. No one knows except Stallone who's been behind both films. Let's just hope it continues and only gets better with each film.

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DAMNED BY DAWN: MORE CHILLS THAN EXPECTED

When you choose to have a title for a horror film that includes words like this feature does the expectations of the viewer increase. You'd better deliver the goods or horror fans will do little more than ridicule the name over and over again, citing the title in their jokes and slams. If you can deliver the goods, then you make a movie that fans can enjoy. DAMNED BY DAWN is just such a movie.

A slow start finds a young couple going to the home of Claire to visit her grandmother perhaps for the last time. Her boyfriend Paul finds the family a bit off kilter but not enough to make him run for the hills. When Claire sits at her grandmother's side to talk about the mysterious package (an urn) her grandmother sent her, she's told she is the only one her grandmother trusts with its care. She knows her time is coming and wants her grand daughter at her side to insure nothing prevents what is to happen.

That night the inevitable does happen and grandma dies. At the same time a storm whips up outside and Claire looks out the window to see something unexpected, a visage in white flowing gown, eyes bleeding and packing a scream that sends her reeling while opening the window. The banshee is here to take grandma's soul. But Claire unknowingly interferes and puts not just her grandmother's soul in jeopardy but the lives of everyone inside as well.

The dead rise and take wing, tracking down everyone in the house as they try to figure out what has happened. When Paul goes for help, he's attacked by a scythe wielding creature that flies at him. His body is later discovered by Claire's father and a neighbor who was visiting. As those who survive in the house are taken out one by one, Claire must figure out just how to put a stop to the banshee before everyone dies.

A rather simple story, the movie opens at a dreadfully slow pace but don't let that prevent you from watching as it gets better. The usual mind set needed for a horror film, suspension of belief, needs to kick in to truly enjoy the film but it does offer some truly creepy images and sounds. The cry of the banshee, a mind piercing scream, is one that jolts you while watching the film. Coupled with the images of the banshee it might be something that will cause a few sleepless nights for those who scare easily.

The movie is not Oscar worthy but it does offer a decent horror tale with a new twist on an old legend. The acting is up to par and the effects are well done. Some are obviously CGI effects but at least they do a good job with them here unlike the weekly dose of sharks or pythons dished up by the SyFy network. If you're looking for a decent horror movie you could do worse but at least this one has some heart, talent and desire to be considered a well done piece. It succeeds on several levels and is worth watching.

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SILENT NIGHT: ANOTHER REMAKE THAT PAYS DECENT TRIBUTE

There seem to be three roads to take when making a horror film these days. The first and least used path is to make something original. Unfortunately few in charge these days are willing to risk anything to make an original film. The second is to make a sequel. The sad part here is that when an original film is made that succeeds it tends to go this route to far lesser productions. The last road is that of the remake. The bad news is that some people feel they need to improve what can be considered a classic and update it for the times, more often than not by adding a few more scenes of titillation or more gore. Most of these fail. But once in a while...

SILENT NIGHT is not actually a remake of the classic bad movie SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT, the film that caused such an outrage when it was released years ago. Yes, a few of the memorable items from that film are here including a killer dressed in a Santa costume and the antler scene. But this film feels more like a tribute to all of those low budget slasher flicks from the 80s instead of a remake.

Its Christmas time and in a small Midwestern town everyone is gearing up for the annual Christmas parade as well as the Santa costume contest. Aubrey Bradimore is a new deputy for the Sheriff's department. Still dealing with the recent loss of her husband, Aubrey is called in to work the night shift when another officer fails to show for work. Bad goes to worse when Aubrey is sent out to find him only to discover his body strapped to a chair and electrocuted in a basement as well as the dismembered body of a woman upstairs. For those of us watching we know full well who the killer was. Well sort of. It was a man dressed in a Santa outfit with a mask on to keep everyone from knowing up front who the killer is.

The cantankerous Sheriff Cooper (Malcolm McDowell) insults his deputies and rules with an iron fist. Discovering he has a possible serial killer in his town while a major event is schedule doesn't bother him. Instead he welcomes the chance to face down the killer without the help of the State Police or FBI since the roads to town are presently closed. To him this just means that the killer can't leave.

As Aubrey and Cooper as well as the other deputies search for clues, signs of what is about to happen creep up around town. Various town members each receive a small wrapped package but none of them open them. Had they done so perhaps a clue would have led them to the killer? Included in those who receive a package are the mayor, the sheriff and Aubrey's father, an ex-policeman in town.

The victims at first appear to fall prey to that most dangerous of things found in slasher movies; they all seem to be having sex. The deceased deputy was having a fling with a married woman. The killer's next victims are shooting low budget soft core porn in a motel room giving the film makers the chance to offer some nudity, thus satisfying the prerequisite T&A required for all low budget horror films.

As the body count rises, Aubrey continues to try and figure out just who this mass murderer is. Cooper, on the other hand, is ready to blame almost anyone. The clues slowly unravel a bit but in all honesty it doesn't matter. For slasher films of this sort its more about body count and the methods of murder that matter most.

As I said at the start this movie isn't quite a remake of the classic bad film of the same name. That movie revolved around a young boy scarred by a life in an orphanage who had traumatic experiences around Christmas time as well as having witnessed his parents murdered and raped by a man in a Santa outfit. A twist on that is offered here at the very end, but nothing that would lead us to the identity of the killer early on.

The movie seems to pay homage to those cheap slasher films of the 80s by following their patterns fairly faithfully rather than try and make something more meaningful. It offers the masked killer who seems unstoppable. It offers the gushing fake blood by the gallon, more than any wound would actually spout out. It offers victims who are either in the midst of sex or have a secret in their past that began this whole cycle to start with. And it offers a heroine who comes to the rescue before the final reel. It also offers one more classic 80s slasher item but I won't reveal that one. If you don't recognize it then you're not a fan of the genre.

Offering few scares but enough story to hold your interest, this movie isn't that bad. It will be a nice addition to the collection of holiday horrors on your shelf. If you're offended by that sort of thing it will be easy enough to walk by. But for those who have a fond remembrance of those 80s slasher films then you'll want to give this one a watch. The vibes that emanate from this one bring back the feeling of those films in spades.

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