Thursday, April 30, 2009

Gomorra Paints a Daunting, Realistic Picture of Modern Italian Crime

When the writer of the book a film is based on needs a permanent police escort because the details he exposed were worthy of death threats, you know the film has a chance to be good. This is just what happened to Italian writer and journalist Roberto Saviano after the publishing of his bestselling book Gomorra.

Gomorra paints the stark reality of organized Italian crime in the modern era. The film tells five separate stories of different people all touched by crime in some way, shape or form. There’s a timid middleman, a 13-year-old caught up in a world of crime, a graduate who can’t live with the dirty life of crime, a tailor who takes a night job working for the Chinese competition and two young Tony Montana wannabe gangsters whose cocky attitude puts them in a bad spot.

I suppose I’ll get the negatives out of the way. Because the film features a plethora of characters across five unique and different stories, not everything is as tightly wrapped in the narrative as one would probably want it to be. A lot is left unexplained and up to the viewer’s surmise. Those who haven’t read the book or are unfamiliar with the organized crime of the Italians (which, face it, is probably all of us) might find themselves wonder what the motivation behind certain characters is for certain actions of theirs. Understanding the life these people live is quite the thinking process, and director and co-writer of the film Matteo Garrone doesn’t exactly do too much to help outsiders understand. At 135 minutes, I wouldn’t have been opposed to expanding the length of this one.

Now, with that out of the way, let the good points flow. And there are lots of them. Gomorra is choreographed to such perfection that it’s almost scary. Garrone follows with a style that feels much like a documentary all the way through the film. This releases off a feeling of legitimacy and realism to the project that would be hard to best. It would be hard to argue that another method would have worked better for Garrone than this one did.

It seems odd to mention how well a film is scripted and choreographed before other things such as the acting or cinematography, but in many ways my doing should only give strength to how good this film exactly is. The cast of Gomorra does indeed have something to do with the strengths of this film. While Garrone might be the mind behind how realistically the film plays out and how perfectly everything just happens to work out, the film wouldn’t be without its tremendous actors. I particularly was impressed by the performances of Nicola Manta as Toto, the 13-year-old delivery boy taken in by a gang and Salvatore Cantulup as Pasquale, the tailor for celebrities. This is not to slight any one of the other worthy performances, but there was something special about the way these two actors, young and old, let the emotion of their respective characters from exude their shells.

Garrone ties his perfect choreographing and great cast together in to one tremendous film with his super visionary effort. There are quite a few moments where simply the camerawork pulled off by Garrone and his team makes you stop and think about how impressive and creative the technique was. Garrone is also able to exact some of the poverty stricken urban land and bring it right to the forefront of the audience, adding to the film’s all too believable feel.

When a film overcomes a problem such as an unwound and loose narrative like Gomorra did, you have to give complete respects to everyone involved. There are certain aspects of films that keep them from becoming absolutely incoherent to the viewer. Luckily for Garrone, the lack of having one simple narrative and the challenge of trying to keep the viewer updated on five different narrative stories didn’t prove to be too much trouble for him and everyone else involved. The Godfather this ain’t. Gomorra manages to detail an uncompromising portrait of the modern organized crime in certain parts of Italy.

A Landmark for Turkey, Three Monkeys Is a Stunning Work of Art

I often think that the absolute best films, aesthetics aside, are the ones that are able to challenge its viewers morally. Three Monkeys, a crime drama out of Turkey, is one of the latest champions at being able to make a lot out of a rather simple but serious predicament.

Three Monkeys is the much talked about film that won director Nuri Bilge Ceylan a very well deserved best director award at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. After wealthy businessman Servet (Ercan Kesal), who is entering a political race, strikes and kills a pedestrian on a dark night, he calls his driver Eyüp (Yavuz Bingol) and asks him to take the blame for him. Eyüp’s agreeing to help Servet out of his trouble is only the beginning of the problems his family is set to deal with.

Ceylan’s film opens as morose and dark as the rest of the film’s theme continues to be. At the center of Three Monkeys is a noir-based melodramatic story of a family’s inability to cope with internal struggles. The true exploding point of the film’s moral-challenging story is when Ismail (Rifat Sungar), Eyüp’s son, finds that his mother Hacer (Hatice Aslan) is potentially having an affair with Servet, the man who Eyüp is so graciously taking the fall for.

The film carries an extremely somber mood all the way throughout the film not only due to the serious nature of the family’s problems, but also because of the extremely dark palette of colors Ceylan chose to use when filming. The image of Servet’s disappearing car in the film’s intro is only the beginning of striking and stunning imagery used by Ceylan over and over again. With his unique and creative eye for visuals, Ceylan turns this film into a dreary painting of motion. It all speaks volumes to the levels of hell these characters are freefalling through.

To be applauded over and over again is Ceylan’s absolutely poetic style of unfolding everything through the camera lens. This is one of the most brilliantly photographed films I’ve seen in the past few years. There are many long takes, intimate close-ups to expose character grief and creative ways of portraying character quarrels, such as the camera being distant from the two characters that are actively in conflict. Ceylan, who also co-wrote the film, can be seen as a true visionary of the art that cinema can sometimes be. With cinematography to be remembered, this is quite possibly the most artistic a noir-bred story has ever been portrayed.

The small but stellar cast is additional help to perfecting Ceylan’s vision. Kesal, Bingol, Aslan and Sungar give the four key performances that give the film the emotional push so necessary to the subject nature. As the film progresses and conflict and confrontation heat up, the performances of Bingol and Aslan as the married couple are two to keep a particular eye on. They are the extreme focus of the second half of the film and for good reason. This film is purely plot and character driven. The actual actions that bring bad fortune to the characters are off screen, leaving this film at the hands of its strong performances, deep character development and coherent narrative.

I will agree with anyone who criticizes the film for moving slow. What I won’t do is agree with that being a suitable criticism. I’ve found that life moves at a slow pace. It isn’t simply a rapid progression of events and ever-changing emotions and feelings. I absolutely loved the way the narrative seemed to drag. For me it only increased the tension the characters faced. When you learn, in brilliant visual style, that the family is not only dealing with its current problems, but is also haunted by demons from the past, it all hits so much harder.

I also must note that what only adds to the unique nature of this film is that I found it to be more about the way this family plays to all of its problems in a deaf, dumb and blind way. The film is not so much about the multitude of problems the family is dealing with, but rather the problem they have as acting like a coherent and communicative family.

Tension increasing narrative with sparse dialogue and glimpses of action from time to time might be seen as slow to some, but patience and a willingness to want to be challenged by Ceylan’s questions of morality result in Three Monkeys ending as a brooding masterpiece of the mise-en-scene pent up with undeniable character rage.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

DVD Picks of the Week: April 28, 2009

Hello folks! Coming to you a day late (thanks, allergies), but I'm here, and that's all that counts. Without further clutter, here's what came out on DVD and Blu-ray yesterday, April 28, 2009.

JCVD [DVD][Blu-ray]

I'll be leading off with one of the sleeper hits of 2008. Mabrouk El Mechri's directorial breakout comes at the same time as Jean-Claude Van Damme's stunning comeback. The film, which I positively reviewed back in December, is a self-reflective one for Van Damme. He's able to take a look at himself, and it all comes pouring out at the now well-known monologue scene. Van Damme proves he can act, even if its as a version of himself. You'd be doing yourself a favor to check out this film, Van Damme fan or not, as it was positively one of the best of 2008.

The Hit [Criterion DVD]

The Criterion Collection increased its collection this week with the arrival of a few new titles. The Hit, title #469 in the collection of "continuing series of important classic and contemporary films", stars John Hurt, Terence Stamp, Tim Roth, Laura del Sol and was directed by Stephen Frears, who would go on to later direct notable films like High Fidelity and The Queen. All signs point to this being one cool English film. Check out the trailer below, which is obviously one of the strongest signs of all.

In the Realm of the Senses [Criterion DVD][Blu-ray]

Criterion usually releases in bunches, and this week is no exception. Title #466 is Nagisa Oshima's sexually explicit film In the Realm of the Senses. Oshima's film is "A graphic portrayal of insatiable sexual desire set in 1936 and based on a true incident that depicts a man and a woman consumed by a transcendent, destructive love while living in an era of ever escalating imperialism and governmental control." A trailer to this taboo and groundbreaking film can be found on the Criterion Collection website here.

Empire of Passion [Criterion DVD]

Oh boy, Nagisa Oshima fans are in for a treat this week. Criterion decided to release not one, but two of Oshima's most notable films. Empire of Passion, a film that won Oshima best director at the Cannes Film Festival, is title #467 in the company's ever-expanding collection of films. Much like the above title, Empire of Passion is erotic, but this time its mixed with a dash of horror. Oshima is a filmmaker I am unfamiliar with, but by the looks of things, I want to be familiar with his work. Take a look at the clip provided by the Criterion Collection on their website and you might agree with me.

Martyrs [DVD]

Martyrs is a film that I'm upset at myself for not having seen yet. I have a copy of it sitting on my hard drive just waiting to be watched. Perhaps renting it from Netflix will kick my butt in gear and make me finally watch it. Anyways, from all I've heard and all I've seen this film is supposed to be one of those truly brilliant and brutal films of modern filmmaking. We'll see if the hype holds up! Trailer below.

Nothing But the Truth [DVD]

Being a journalism major myself, any decent film concerning the practice intrigues me. But that doesn't mean a good one shouldn't grab your attention either. Nothing But the Truth is one of the films that flew under the radar in 2008 among the mass of great films we were treated to. Kate Beckinsale stars and Rod Lurie directs (best known for The Last Castle and The Contender? Ok. He's also remaking Straw Dogs). Worth checking out for sure.

What else comes out this week: Star Trek: The Original Series [Blu-ray], Bride Wars [DVD][Blu-ray], The Uninvited [DVD][Blu-ray], The Reader [Blu-ray], The Da Vinci Code [Extended Blu-ray], American Dad! Vol. 4, What Doesn't Kill You [DVD][Blu-ray], The She-Beast.

What to stay away from: Legally Blondes. This one doesn't need to be explained to you, does it? It's a straight to DVD sequel to Legally Blonde 2 and it doesn't star Reese Witherspoon, it's only "presented" by her. I guess there are two stupid blondes this time, and they're twins or something. I don't know. Who cares? It's fucking stupid. Yay America!

What a strong week for DVD and Blu-ray! Okay, maybe not for all of you, but for me it is. Lots of material that has sparked new interests for me. Oshima and Frears both reign heavy in that area. I'm going to be Googling them all night.

I won't see you all again until May! How about that!? Let's hope for some beautiful weather to go along with some beautiful releases! Next week sees the The Curious Case of Benjamin Button get its release on Criterion that seemingly came out of left field that I discussed last March. I also noticed Twilight comes out on if you're like me and would like to see Kristen Stewart in high-definition, you're in luck. This all comes along with a few neat Blu-ray releases that you'll have to come back to read about if you want to find out what they are! Or you can just look at the release lists online and guess. So long!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Am I Going To Have To Choke A Studio Executive?

A few days ago, Slash Film reported that David Cronenberg's classic sci-fi horror film Videodrome was set to be remade by Universal.

Yes, you are about to read another of my anti-Hollywood remake rants. As long as they keep doing this injustice to cinema, I will keep complaining.

It's a shame that the people who make decisions at the major film studios are presumably businessmen and women rather than fans or prodigies of cinema. Instead, they seem to mainly care about what will get them the biggest bang for the buck. A popular method to do this has been to either base a film off some sort of source material (The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Transformers -- while solid and respectable films, none of these are exactly original concepts or ideas) or to remake a classic film from the vaults (sometimes popular, sometimes not). Even this past week's highest grossing film, Obsessed, was just Fatal Attraction in new skin.

Finding truly original ideas in the big business cinemas is tricky. It's not that they don't exist, but go count all the hyped up blockbuster films for this spring and summer, you won't see many of them there. There's something about the way this all works that boggles my mind. How Hollywood and the film studios manage to pass these creations off as must-see pieces of work is a marketing phenomenon of its own. Nothing outside of the fact that these films are based off of legendary source materials (Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator: Salvation, etc.) gives the studio the right to tell us as consumers that this is their big film of the summer. You'll never find them caring that way about a smaller independent picture until it wins a boatload of Oscars.

Maybe only in my strange mind does this all come full circle with the concept of remakes. Sure, there have been good remakes. John Carpenter's The Thing and David Cronenberg's The Fly are two that always immediately ring a bell. Unfortunately, most filmmakers that do remakes these days don't come close to having minds as brilliant as those two do. Carpenter and Cronenberg are visionary filmmakers and have been able to completely separate themselves form the rest of the pack because of it.

This leads me to my next point. Videodrome without David Cronenberg is a disaster waiting to happen. The original film (ugh, I hate having to call it that!) is an absolutely brilliant film and screenplay, a true sign of a modern day auteur. The film is his vision. It was all carefully crafted by Cronenberg. Videodrome is one of the strangest, weirdest and most unique films to be released in the past few decades. It's a film that has a very strong following, but is still somewhat unknown to the average puppet of the mainstream.

This is why when I read that Ehren Kruger is set to write the remake, my head starts hurting uncontrollably. Kruger has experience in writing screenplays for remakes. He was responsible for the American versions of The Ring and The Ring Two, as well as The Skeleton Key. Interestingly enough, he is one of the main screenwriters for the upcoming Transformers sequel. Lovely.

To add to the pain, a quote in a Variety article announcing the remakes, claims that the remake will “infuse it with the possibilities of nano-technology and blow it up into a large-scale sci-fi action thriller.” I want to fucking kill someone after reading that state. A large-scale sci-fi action thriller? Are you fucking shitting me? Excuse my language, but this has really got me heated. I can see it now: Roland Emmerich will be hired to throw in some of his tired destructive sequences that has built his career and he's glamorizing in his next film, 2012. And I haven't even touched on the stupidity that is nano-technology yet.

A large-scale sci-fi action thriller? ARE YOU STILL FUCKING SHITTING ME? Ugh. This has pointless written all over it. At least hold on to some artistic integrity if you're going to remake such a film. Videodrome is seen as one of the greatest films in the genre to fans alike. It is one of my personal favorite films of all time, so you can understand how such an injustice pains me. I know what you might be saying. This film doesn't even have a director or cast yet and it isn't even close to being started! I understand, trust me. But judging from the quality of remakes released in the recent past, the writer behind it all, and that god-awful quote about it being a large-scale action thriller, I don't need to wait to know that this film will suck.

Each and every time a new remake is announced, I wonder how far Hollywood will go promoting this scam. This pretty much answers it. They aren't afraid of anything. When's that Citizen Kane remake starring Nicolas Cage due out?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Grateful Dead - To Terrapin: Hartford ’77 (Album review)

My experience with the legendary Grateful Dead is limited. Outside of listening to a mixed bag of both live and studio recordings from the group and the stories my father has told me of my uncle’s own time spent as a Deadhead following the band (he supposedly spent Christmas day in Billings, Montana en route to Oakland), I’m still relatively unfamiliar with the legend that is the Grateful Dead.

After the death of lead guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1995, members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann formed a band that would eventually find its name to be The Dead. In celebration of The Dead’s current tour, a new live recording from the Jerry Garcia days has surfaced and been released. It just so happens that it’s a date at the local Hartford Civic Center, which was the location of the final show of a legendary 26-date east coast tour in the spring of 1977.

My initial post-listen reactions: I wish I had been around in those days. If you don’t understand the appeal of the Grateful Dead before listening to this recording, one that lasts nearly three hours, you will halfway through. And take this from the perspective of someone who just loves music and the live experiences it brings with it, not a hardcore following fan of the group.

The epic recording brings forth some of the Grateful Dead’s most notable tracks, including a scorching first set packed with tunes such as “Bertha”, “Sugaree” and “Candyman”. Interfused between the meat of the songs are the absolutely legendary jams the band has been known for ever since its incarnation. It’s presumable to assume that it is both Garcia and Bob Weir that absolutely tear through guitar solo after solo while the rest of the group follows suit. The second set spectacularly ends the show with perfect versions of “Playing in the Band”, “Terrapin Station”, and “Wharf Rat”.

Part of the appeal for me, as a 21-year-old who will never be able to experience the band the way the people in the house did that night, is the mystique of the event. There’s a high energy level that doesn’t drop once after the start of the show. Performances like this are a thing of the past for the most part. Even The Dead isn’t the same without its legendary front man Jerry Garcia.

Those that enjoy themselves a little psychedelic blues-infused rock and roll every now and then would be doing a huge favor by giving a listen to To Terrapin: Hartford ’77 in terms of expanding your knowledge in the history of music. This is a landmark quality recording from an absolutely legendary group of musicians. Those members that have passed are remembered and those that continue to create mind-spreading music are still celebrated to this day.

The Grateful Dead is a band most loved and known for its live recordings. That said, To Terrapin: Hartford ’77 would be a fantastic way to infuse one’s mind into the legacy that is the Grateful Dead. You might not become a Deadhead yourself after listening to this recording, but you’ll certainly understand why some spent their time following this iconic group around.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

OSI - Blood (Album review)

Collaborations can be a beautiful thing in life. Something that amazes me is the idea that two men, whose musical pedigrees don’t quite agree with my taste, can come together and create a project that absolutely strikes a thousand chords with me.

Kevin Moore, best known for his work behind the keyboard with progressive metal giant Dream Theater, and Jim Matheos, primary guitarist and songwriter for Hartford-founded progressive metal band Fates Warning, managed to do just that in 2003 with their first album under the name OSI titled Office of Strategic Influence.

I’ve never been one whose ears have been able to tolerate the metal genre. I’ve tried and tried, but nothing does the trick. OSI is a band at the crossroads of progressive rock, metal and alternative rock.

Blood is the band’s third full-length album and is as unique as the recording process Moore and Matheos employ. Moore and Matheos, who admittedly have different musical tastes, used a long distance collaboration method for Blood. Matheos would email files to Moore, who is also responsible for the band’s vocals, who would then shape the tracks to his taste before mailing them back to the guitarist.

With the addition of Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison, who has also joined the immortal progressive rock group King Crimson as a second drummer, OSI is able to explore facets of music they were previously unable to do so. Harrison replaces Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, who was responsible for the drums on the group’s two previous albums, the debut album Office of Strategic Influence and 2006’s Free.

Blood just comes off as being more free form and exploratory than previous efforts. Portnoy, who is an exceptionally talented and technical drummer, is of a much different style than the progressively evolved Harrison, who’s been constantly noted as being one of the genre’s best drummers by critics.

The new album is nine tracks of pure brilliance, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Moore and Matheos are both composers of this album and it shows. Blood is heavy, but not too heavy. Matheos’ guitar riffs absolutely engage the listener in its metal-based roots, but at the same time, matched with Moore’s effects-driven keys and Harrison’s unique and creative drums instill this insatiable progressive feel. These two men, differences aside, are a match made in heaven. Harrison only furthers their progression as composers and musicians.

Moore’s vocals and lyrics are another absolute highlight of Blood and the band in general. He has this unique vocal style that’s absolutely calming of the nerve, but demanding of your attention at the same time. In “Be the Hero”, Moore’s humorous vocals about a self-proclaimed badass who has an “air raid ring tone” and who can “high-five in a skydive” liven the hooking track up in an incomparable way.

The album, like its predecessors, features a well-known guest vocalist as well. Mikael Åkerfeldt, lead singer and guitarist of Scandinavian metal band Opeth, appears on a calming track titled “Stockholm”. Opeth is another band that fits into the category of groups I’ve tried so hard to like but haven’t been able to. Regardless, his non-metal vocals are kind to my ear and make for a great collaboration.

Blood is another exceptional album from one of my favorite groups of the decade. It many ways, this new album surpasses the previous two releases. This is music that should be appealing to people from all walks of musical backgrounds. The only thing more that I can ask from this creative group is for them to finally embark on an overdue tour.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

DVD Picks of the Week: April 21, 2009

The trend of Oscar nominated and winning films continues here in this third week of April. Today is a good day for film and DVD hounds! Let's get to it. I present to you, new releases for April 21!

The Wrestler [DVD][Blu-ray]

What a way to kick off the week! The Wrestler was probably my second favorite film of 2008 behind the tremendous Slumdog Millionaire. Darren Aronofsky's directorial prowess is seen in full. Mickey Rourke's brutal and uncompromising performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson will go down as one of the best performances to never win an Oscar. Sean Penn stole that award for his portrayal of Harvey Milk (a much deserved win, I must say), but Rourke won't be forgotten for the work and effort he put into this, his return to grace. Only the future knows if Rourke has another Oscar-inducing performance and role up his sleeve. Let's hope he does.

Frost/Nixon [DVD][Blu-ray]

You know it's a good week when two of your top 10 favorite films from the past year hit the shelves. Frost/Nixon was the first of the Oscar-worthy films that I saw. In most other years (save for this year and last year), Frank Langella's portrayal of Richard Nixon would earn him award after award. Unfortunately for him, he was met by the previously mentioned Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn. The same holds true for the film, which is one of Ron Howard's strongest efforts. For more on this film, check out my review here, written way back in December of 2008!

The Wages of Fear [Criterion Blu-ray]

Even though I'm unable to take advantage of the greatness that Blu-ray is, I'm not going to keep you out of the loop. The Wages of Fear, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, is one of the most thrilling films I've ever seen. Clouzot's film deals with men transporting an urgent nitroglycerine shipment across a dangerous terrain without the proper safety equipment. The trip has the potential to be fatal and every second, bump and moment matters to the men in the cab of the truck. It's a truly gripping film that must benefit greatly from the crispness of Blu-ray. French film stars like Yves Montand steal the on screen show and give you something to care about. This is one of the greatest films of all time and more tense than most films Hollywood chocks out these days. It makes Speed look like child's play. The Criterion 2-disc edition is packed with extras and the new Blu-ray is no exception to this. It's a great film and a great package.

Hellraiser: Boxed Set [DVD/Blu-ray]

I am including this release in my entry for a few reasons. One is to discuss the actual state of bewilderment I am at the studio's decision to release this mess. For years fans of the great Hellraiser films have been calling for the special packaging that was released overseas to be given to them. And now, it apparently has. But has it been done properly? This boxed set includes the following: The previously released Anchor Bay special edition of Hellraiser, the previously released Anchor Bay special edition of Hellbound: Hellraiser II, and the newly released Hellraiser on Blu-ray. What. Why on earth would anyone actually need this set? Most true fans already own AT LEAST the first two films. Most true fans that wanted to probably already upgraded to Blu-ray for the first film. Aside from the special edition packaging, all this offers are three discs, two of them being of the same film, just in different formats. I seriously question the brains of those working on the development on these products. I am not exactly sure what films Anchor Bay holds the rights to in the Hellraiser series, but they could do better than this. I suppose if you own none of these films, or absolutely HAVE to have this packaging, this wouldn't be such a bad buy. That is if you want to own the first film on both standard DVD and Blu-ray. Hellraiser [Blu-ray] is released alone this week as well, if that's all you're interested in.

Sin City [Blu-ray]

As Blu-ray continues to succeed and grow, more and more titles will eventually get their dues on the new high-definition format. Today, a great and deserving title finally gets its American debut on Blu-ray. Sin City is the great graphic novel adaptation directed by Robert Rodriguez. The visual brilliance of this film surely looks stunning in Blu-ray and is something I can't wait to see with my own eyes. This seems like a no brainer to me.

Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painleve [Criterion DVD]

One of my favorite parts of presenting the new DVD releases of the week is discovering new films and names I haven't discovered yet myself. Jean Painleve happens to be one of those names. This new release from Criterion of 23 of his surreal short films grabbed my attention. Read this description, watch the Youtube video of Le Vampire below, and decide for yourself.
The director and animator Jean Painleve made art from the stuff of life, delving into the realms of mathematics, medicine, marine biology, and chemistry in search of imagery and ideas he could capture on film. The result of his intellectual exploration was not merely documentary, but poetry: his shorts offer lyrical, whimsical portraits of undulating sea life, human cells, and microscopic plant parts that seem alien in origin. This evocative collection includes 23 of Painleve’s shorts accompanied by an all new score from indie-rock band Yo La Tengo, as well as interviews with the filmmaker himself.

What else comes out this week: Caprica, X-Men Trilogy [Blu-ray], Notorious (Three-Disc Edition)/[Blu-ray], Laid to Rest (Unrated Director's Cut), Voyage of the Damned, I Dismember Mama, Dante 01, Arctic Tale [Blu-ray], Inside the Third Reich Box Set.

What to stay away from: Britney Spears: The Return of an Angel. There are some things in life that you just don't want to find out more about. This is one of them. Leave it at knowing this exists. This is a 57 minute "film" that "celebrates" the "revival" of Britney Spears. I will be forced to kill puppies if people keep abusing the great medium of DVD.

But whatever, this is a good week of films that should certainly distract college students from final papers and the working force from their families. Sit back, relax and grab one of these new releases for some serious enjoyment. This has been one of the strongest weeks in recent memory.

That's all for now. Until next week, when JCVD, Mr. Van Damme's self-reflective picture that proves he can act (as himself) hits shelves. It was one of the most surprising films of 2008 and I'm pumped to see it again. The Criterion Collection, which you can tell I love by now, also expands their collection with the release of a few more titles. So long!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Crank: High Voltage Offers Adrenaline Fueled Fun

To dismiss Crank: High Voltage as just a simple sequel to the adrenaline-fueled, non-stop action film Crank would be doing serious injustice to the truly unique and fascinating film it is.

A lot of thoughts passed throughout my head during High Voltage. To give you an understanding of what type of film this is, hardly any of my thoughts had to do with whether main character Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) would find his heart he so desperately is seeking after. Instead, I was constantly wondering how the hell the director/writer combo of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who are also responsible for the first Crank, would top a previous absurd but exhilarating scene with something more ludicrous.

Chelios, who was left for dead at the end of Crank, awakens only to find that his heart has been removed. Chelios must attempt to find and recover his heart while surviving long enough with the help of electric shocks that help energize the prosthetic heart inside of him.

In many ways, High Voltage is the strange bastard son of a French New Wave filmmaker like Jean-Luc Godard, who held the experimental and radical visual and editing style dear to heart and an action fiend like John Woo, whose over the top action sequences helped change the face of the genre. In simpler terms, the Crank series is this incredibly unique breed of filmmaking that almost shouldn’t work as well as it does. There haven’t been many films like this.

According to reports from last May, the film was being shot with cheaper HDV cameras to keep costs down. While being a smart economic maneuver, it also paid dividends stylistically. Neveldine and Taylor acquire this fresh style of guerilla filmmaking that gives High Voltage its own identity among the rest of the all action, little plot films. This recognizable and fresh feel is what separates the two Crank films from being standard fare.

Not much needs to be said about the cast. Jason Statham has sadly become one of the most typecasted actors of our generation as he can’t seem to burst out of the typical tough guy, high energy roles as seen in Crank and The Transporter. Both Amy Smart and Dwight Yoakam reprise their likeable roles as well. The most notable addition to the cast is cult star David Carradine, known for films such as Death Race 2000. Carradine plays the man behind the taking of Chelios’ heart, Poon Dong, and gives quite the funny and scene stealing performance.

The true element of High Voltage to feast on is of course the absurd and ridiculously over the top action and happenings. This film makes other recent action tour-de-forces like the Clive Owen led Shoot ‘Em Up, which featured a man delivering a baby during a gunfight, seem almost dull. Neveldine and Taylor progressively top each and every previously insane scene with something even more satisfying. Outlandish characters, delectable violence and perfectly placed nudity characterize this film that remarkably was without a dull moment.

It’s no secret that viewers of High Voltage must go into the film knowing that the main objective of both Neveldine and Taylor was probably to see how much carnage one man on a course of destruction could cause during one afternoon in Los Angeles. This they achieved.

What I didn’t figure to get was what I’d go as far as to call good filmmaking. Most action films have been stereotyped as being cheap vehicles of entertainment without any artistic expression. Well, there are exceptions, and the Crank series just happens to be one of those. Neveldine and Taylor are onto something here. They certainly have two bright careers ahead of them, whether they continue to work together or not.

Crank: High Voltage is one of the better ways to spend a Friday night inside the local cinema right now. If you aren’t energized before the film starts, you’ll surely be amped up by the time the credits roll.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Catching Up with Brian Haas of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey has always been about exploring new boundaries and evolution. 2009, the group’s 15th anniversary, marks a new date in change for the abstract jazz group that is unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. In January, the new quartet, whose new album Winterwood is available free at, made its live debut in New York City at the Winter Jazzfest. In anticipation of the group’s show on April 18 at The Main Pub in Manchester I had the chance to speak with Jacob Fred’s only founding member still remaining, pianist Brian Haas, about new musical directions, where the unique sound came from and why he and the band are playing the best music of their lives.

To read the Q&A, I'll direct you to The Recorder Online.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

DVD Picks of the Week: April 14, 2009

Alright, alright, I know what you might be saying. It's almost Wednesday! I bet you were waiting around all day for this? Okay, maybe not, but better late than never! Had lots of work to do for school and am now finally getting around to this. So here we go, what was new in stores and online April 14.

The Spirit [DVD][Blu-ray]

Let me be the first to say it: Fuck the haters. Anyone going into The Spirit expecting Sin City 2 or something comparable has to be kidding themselves. This is a campy, hilarious, absurd and probably very loose (just a guess) adaptation of the original comic strips. Visually, the film is beautiful. While it does hint at the Sin City vibe, it isn't the same. Sin City was exclusively black and white, save for a few important items being colorized. The Spirit employs the dark blacks and whites but the film is laced in color. The women are beautiful, dangerous and entrancing. The men are slick, cool and badass. This was nothing more than an enjoyable and visually appealing film.

The Reader [DVD][Blu-ray]

Some might say Oscar bait, others might say compelling film. I'll choose the latter. Not the greatest of films, and certainly something appealing to Oscar votes, The Reader is still an absolutely interesting and thrilling film. Performances by Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes reign supreme while David Kross got the best gig an 18-year-old actor could get: one that involves getting down and dirty with a naked Winslet. Mmm, good stuff. Above average film, check it out.

The Pope's Toilet [DVD]

Here's one I haven't seen yet, but have heard tons of good things about. This film has been a long time coming (originally released in 2007 overseas). The film is a story about a small South American village and its experience during the Pope's visit in 1988. Co-director Cesar Charlone has been the cinematographer for great films such as Blindness, The Constant Gardner and City of God, only furthering my intrigue into seeing the film. Put this one on your watch list.

The Lost Collection (Night Before/Repossessed/Morgan Stewart's Coming Home/Irreconcilable Differences/Slaughter High/
My Best Friend's a Vampire/

I decided to lump all seven of these seperate titles (note: not a box set) into one listing for the sake of not making this take up too much space or too much of my mind. The top of these DVDs state: "The best movies you totally forgot about." Well, okay, I never forgot about these because I've never heard about them. They probably suck, but there is probably at least something for someone in this mixed bag of cheese titles. It's an assorted collection of schocky horror and other cheeze-ball stuff. There are some names in these films though. Repossessed stars Linda Blair, Ned Beatty and Leslie Nielsen. Not too bad. Click the links above to check out each film on Amazon.

Splinter [DVD][Blu-ray]

Haven't seen this one yet, but all I've read and heard is that it's one of the better independent horror films to come out in a little while. Harry over at, who I owe as the inspiration for me picking my personal DVD's of the week, picked this as one of his leading titles. That is enough for me to set my eyes on this film at some point or another. IMDB gives the plot synopsis as being: "Trapped in an isolated gas station by a voracious Splinter parasite that transforms its still living victims into deadly hosts, a young couple and an escaped convict must find a way to work together to survive this primal terror". That sounds good enough to me.

Check out the trailer for Splinter below:

What to stay away from: Shitty Death Note anime box sets, because let's face it, what planet Earth could use a lot less of is anime. Also Strange Wilderness on Blu-ray. One, because it's not a very funny film, and two, what a worthless waste of a Blu-ray release.

Go buy The Spirit or The Reader, watch it, and come back next week to read how excited I am to finally be able to own The Wrestler, one of the three best films of 2008. Also Frost/Nixon hits shelves next week as well. Oh, and Blu-ray geeks, get ready for this, because the Sin City Blu-ray previously available in Canada in some form or another finally gets its release in the states!! So long...

Monday, April 13, 2009

Quickie Film Reviews - 4/13/09

Since I don't have all the time, patience and energy to write detailed film reviews of all the films I watch, I've decided to return to giving one to two (sometimes more) paragraph recaps and reviews of films I've watched. I probably won't do all, just the ones I feel like doing. Here we go.

Fast Company:
David Cronenberg's worst film? Well, okay, but that's only because it's a rather typical film about drag racing and not your typical Cronenberg fare. Not a bad film by any means though, just not his personal best. Not even close to it, really. Most Cronenberg films are easily distinguishable as being his, but this one just seems to be of common fare. Nothing special, and only a must see for Cronenberg completests like myself. I mean the film does feature a "shocking" ending and some cult named actors like John Saxon and William Smith. 7/10, but only because I'm a Cronie fanboy.

Observe and Report:
Jody Hill's been on my radar ever since I fell in love with Eastbound & Down last month. To hear that he had a new film coming out in April made me very happy. After watching his directorial debut The Foot Fist Way I was set for this film. And boy was I not disappointed. In no way is this film akin to everybody's taste and sense of humor, that's for sure. It's an in your face, toxic and crude blend of humor with a story that plays out like Taxi Driver, had Travis Bickle been a bi-polar mall cop and if the great Paul Schraeder had written the film with lots of black comedy. I had a gut-busting time with this film but I'm aware that many others might only laugh a few times. This isn't Judd Apatow. It's better. 9.5/10.

Shock Waves:
This 1977 horror film is a cult classic, and for good reason. In a world where Nazi zombies exist on a tropical island is where this one takes place. The film is kind of lacking in terms of gore as it doesn't actually show many of the kills, but it's a deliciously creepy and satisfying 70's horror film. Absurd but very, very awesome. A strong 8/10.

In the Line of Fire:
An extremely underrated thriller. With John Malkovich going head to head with Clint Eastwood it doesn't get any better. Malkovich got an Oscar nod for his supremely creepy performance as a threat to the president and a constant reminder of personal problems to Eastwood's character. It's not exactly deep, but there's some neat character development and subtext in the film to check out. Plus, it's a mighty fine and exciting thriller. 8.5/10

Another underrated film. This one is from director James Cox and is the telling of John Holmes' involvement with the Wonderland murders. The film tries to tell the story in a Rashomon like way but is ultimately the only negative I could pull from the film. It wasn't quite as tightly wound narrative-wise as it could have been. Val Kilmer was such an obvious and excellent choice for this film after his work in The Salton Sea and The Doors and he proves it. Another 8.5/10. It's so close to being excellent. It sits at great for me.

That's all for now. If you've seen any of these films, let me know what you think!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Chris Cornell - Scream (Album review)

Chris Cornell
Interscope Records
March 10, 2009

Experiment and change can do the body and soul good. Well, in most cases at least. This is the name of the game for famed grunge vocalist Chris Cornell’s newest solo album.

For Scream, the vocalist’s third solo album in a long career of belting lyrics out for illustrious groups such as Soundgarden, Cornell seeks the help of super music producer extraordinaire, Timbaland. It’s a shame his name isn’t Timberland because “Timber!” is exactly what you’d be yelling as you hear this well-respected vocalist’s career get cut down and fall flat on its face.

Alright, that’s a pretty bad joke and a pretty harsh statement. Actually, you know what, it isn’t. I like Cornell and his musical past, but ever since he claimed that Timbaland lent a lot to the album’s so called “psychedelic aspect” (which isn’t existent) that compares to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Queen’s Night at the Opera I had my doubts about Cornell’s current state of mind.

Scream is basically Cornell’s best attempt at being Justin Timberlake. He just doesn’t fit the mold. With all do respect to his new career path, it’s difficult to separate such a name from the music that made him who he is today.

The other half of it is that the music just isn’t good. A few of the songs, such as the lead track “Part of Me” could potentially be catchy radio tracks, but it’s nothing that’s going to withstand the test of time. And while I’m not a fan of Timberlake’s music, whenever I was subjected to hearing a song of his on the radio, it wasn’t even close to the level of torture Cornell’s half-assed attempt at being a pop star forced upon me.

What we have here is an iconic voice of the rock industry gone soft. The music is mundane and boring. The album, minus any exclusive bonus tracks, is 14 tracks too long if you count the hidden track. As I stared a six minute song in the face, I wanted nothing more for the album to end.

None of it was a joy to listen to. Repetitive beats set to some of the lamest vocals I’ve never wanted to hear come out of this man’s voice. Seriously, Cornell, you pass singing “That bitch ain’t a part of me” roughly eight times in a span of 30 seconds off as a chorus? What about this is there to love for fans of Cornell’s Soundgarden days?

And that’s another thing I’ve never been able to understand. That thing is this particular genre of music. While I have always respected people for their tastes in music, or anything for that matter, I’ve never found the appeal for songs that are far too simple and repetitive for even wheel-spinning lab rats to enjoy. I feel like I’ve heard this music before on the other albums Timbaland has produced.

If Cornell wants to write off his fan’s dislike for the new album as fear of change, so be it. Meanwhile, I’ll stick with the opinion of Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor, who used Twitter to diss Cornell’s new venture. Reznor truthfully made a post asking fans the following: “You know that feeling you get when somebody embarrasses themselves so badly you feel uncomfortable? Heard Chris Cornell’s record? Jesus.”

I don’t want to yell sellout, I don’t want to yell fake, and I don’t want to yell poser. That would be ultimately unfair. Everyone makes mistakes and deserves a second or third chance to amend those oversights. Cornell got one thing right though: The name of the album. I screamed a lot.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

DVD Picks of the Week: April 7, 2009

Another Tuesday, another day of new DVDs hitting the shelves at your local brick and mortar or online retailer of your choice. Solid week this week. Let's begin.

Doubt [DVD][Blu-ray]

Doubt was easily one of my 10 favorite films of 2008. I unfortunately never wrote a full review of the film but if I had I would have been raving. In particular, I would have focused on the amazing performance by the entire cast. I was the mean son of a bitch that wanted Philip Seymour Hoffman to win the best supporting actor Oscar over Heath Ledger (who did deserve the award he won). Hoffman was outstanding as the priest in question while Meryl Streep who came up short in her shot at best actress was resoundingly cruel as the nun challenging him. The film was bolstered by Amy Adams and Viola Davis' short but absolutely sweet performance. On another note, it was odd to see a film with four acting nominations not get nominated for anything else.

Pre-Code Hollywood Collection [DVD]

This collection of films from an absolutely interesting time in cinema history looks to be worth checking out. The "pre-code" era was the era before the production code was enforced in 1934. Censorship barely existed prior and filmmakers were able to craft whatever they wanted. This collection features six films (The Cheat/Merrily We Go to Hell/Hot Saturday/Torch Singer/Murder at the Vanities/Search for Beauty) and contains stars like Cary Grant, Tallulah Bankhead and Randolph Scott. It was an interesting time and an influential time and this set has all the fixings to be a worthy purchase.

No Country For Old Men: Collector's Edition [DVD][Blu-ray]

Based on the film alone, I would highly recommend this. Unless you already own it. When a film as good as No Country For Old Men is announced as a 3-disc special edition you hope that it would contain more than this one does. And you would also pray that the third disc doesn't fall victim to the recent trend of "Digital Copy" that studios have resorted to. They apparently think what everyone wants is a digital version to watch on their laptop or iPod. No. Just give me the film and pack those discs full of special features. The digital copy logo ruins the cover art, and you know how us DVD collectors freak out over cover art! Ugh. Anyways, I already own this film and don't feel the need to upgrade to fill the pockets of studio execs. Regardless, if you don't own this masterpiece of a film, pick this up, it's a good place to start.

Cleopatra: 75th Anniversary Edition [DVD]

Not much to say here, other than the fact that I would like to see this Cecil B. DeMille classic. Looks like a great film and the DVD looks to be loaded with features. The cover art is snazy too. Oh Universal, how I love when you give the good treatment to classic films!

Getting kinda lazy, moving on to the quick picks. These are essentially other notable titles that come out this week just for record keeping purposes. These are not official recommendations, just to keep you, the reader, as up to date as possible: American History X [Blu-ray], Shaw Brothers Collection, The Tale of Desperaux [DVD][Blu-ray], Yes Man [DVD][Blu-ray], 2010: The Year We Make Contact [Blu-ray].

Stay away from: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). Even though they tried to make up for this shit stain of a remake by including the original classic film with it, I'd stay far away from this one. It's an insult to cinema.


Saturday, April 4, 2009

Warning: Adventureland Not As Advertised, But Better

In the trailer for Adventureland, the booming voiceover announcer lets the viewer know that the film’s director and writer, Greg Mottola, was the director of the huge 2007 smash hit comedy Superbad. But he didn’t write it.

The stigma of being known as “the guy who directed Superbad” follows Mottola into his semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedy about James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent college graduate, and his summer spent working at his local amusement park and chasing one particular girl, Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart).

For all intents and purposes, Adventureland is not Superbad. It isn’t the gut-busting, laugh till it hurts teen sex romp as it was advertised to be. Unfortunately, this may disappoint some looking for just that type of film. As far as I’m concerned, the end result was for the better. Instead of simply funny but not so inflicting film, viewers are treated to an absolutely delightful, likeable and resonating film. To say this is Dazed and Confused of the 1980s would be a rather fair statement.

Adventureland is a very funny film. It’s smart, witty and wise. But what makes the film work as it did are the characters themselves. Mottola gives thought to each and every one of his characters, including lead character James Brennan, who Mottola said he put a bit of himself into. The characters, and their relationships with one another, work at such a grounded and realistic level that it’s absolutely astonishing to watch play out in the dramatic and emotional way it does.

Part one, and it is an important part, of the characters working the way they do is indeed Mottola’s experiential writing. The other credit goes to the entire cast. Jesse Eisenberg is absolutely wonderful as the sometimes unsure and awkward James Brennan. Kristen Stewart, fresh off her rise to fame thanks to her portrayal of Bella in Twilight, couldn’t have played Brennan’s summer flame Em Lewin better. Stewart’s performance will probably go overlooked come next year’s award season, but it shouldn’t, as she makes the audience care more and more as the film moves towards its later romantic and drama laden stages. Adventureland undoubtedly marks the coming-out party for Stewart as an actress to be reckoned with.

What becomes increasingly obvious as Adventureland progresses forward is that the majority of the characters, whether goofy or not and whether important or not, have their own deeper set of motivations and problems. Such holds true for the character of Em, whose troubled home and relationship life is delved into. I think Sean Burns of the Philadelphia Weekly puts it best when he says Adventureland is like a John Hughes film directed by the great French new wave director Francois Truffaut. It’s so deep and emotionally touching yet charming, cool and down to earth on all levels.

Eisenberg and Stewart are aided by a great supporting cast of known and unknown talent. A constant reason of laughter can be credited to SNL cast members Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, the couple that manages the park’s employees. Hader and Wiig add to the goofy, odd and sometimes offbeat humor found throughout the film. Then you’ve got Ryan Reynolds, as the resident creepy older guy. Think Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused. Except married.

If you add in names such as Martin Starr as Joel, the nerdy down on life type, Matt Bush as Tommy Frigo, the embarrassing screwball character who thinks a good joke consists of punching you below the belt, and Margarita Levieva as Lisa P, the perfect girl in the mind of all the park’s employees, the film is left with an appealing and likeable mixture of characters, all who add to the film’s emotional drama and humor in one way or another, large or small.

All this comes full circle back to Greg Mottola and the extraordinary job he did in crafting this fine and rare comedy. The awkward teen comedy genre might be something we’re used to, but Mottola adds such conflict and affliction to his characters and the actors portray them so well that I didn’t care that I might have seen a somewhat similar plot about a guy chasing down the perfect girl over the course of a summer here and there before.

Amid all the recent Judd Apatow produced, directed and written films and the other typical cast of comedies in mainstream cinema, Adventureland stands out in the crowd as something else. The film invokes the passion of youth and to our amusement lets it all play out over the course of a summer inside an amusement park.

I for one am glad the film wasn’t Superbad slightly grown up as advertised. Mottola works wonders behind it all creating a funny, intelligible, smart and plain enjoyable film. I realize it is only April, but Adventureland is the first great film of 2009. It has everything a fan of the genre can ask for and more, as the film leaves the cardboard character world to develop legitimate and genuine character relationships in an active, humorous and relatable carnival world.

Hopefully Mottola’s terrific and compassionate original screenplay won’t be forgotten come Oscar time. If a film as terribly unrealistic, cliché and awful as Juno can get nominated for best picture and best original screenplay I see no reason as to why Mottola’s well-deserved efforts for Adventureland can’t be recognized either.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Wrap Up of Films Watched in March of 2009

The months seem to be flying by this year. Three down, nine to go. I have now watched a grand total of 78 films this year. And now, here's my recap of films watched in March of 2009 complete with quick ratings and its IMDB page link. Once again, a * denotes first time viewing.

58. 3/2 – Tommy Boy – 6/10
59. 3/4 – Synecdoche, New York* – 9.5/10
60. 3/5 – Diary of the Dead – 8/10
61. 3/6 – Watchmen* – 9.25/10
62. 3/11 – Confessions of a Dangerous Mind* – 9/10
63. 3/14 – The Last House on the Left (1972) – 9.5/10
64. 3/15 – Hitch Hike* - 9/10
65. 3/15 – Resident Evil: Extinction* - 5/10
66. 3/17 – Detour* - 9.5/10
67. 3/18 – Bad Taste – 9.5/10
68. 3/22 – Dazed and Confused – 8.5/10
69. 3/24 – The Last House on the Left (2009)* – 7/10
70. 3/24 – Four of the Apocalypse* – 8/10
71. 3/25 – Uncle Sam* - 6.5/10
72. 3/25 – Zombi 2 – 9.5/10
73. 3/26 – Macon County Line* - 9/10
74. 3/26 – Anthropophagus* - 8/10
75. 3/27 – The Haunting in Connecticut* - 7.5/10
76. 3/27 – Dead Heat – 6.5/10
77. 3/29 – The Public Enemy* - 9/10
78. 3/31 – The Foot Fist Way* - 8.5/10

I slowed down a bit only viewing 21 films in the month of March. I made up for lost time towards the end and as you can see my taste for horror and exploitation films was rejuvenated by the release of the remake of The Last House on the Left and The Haunting in Connecticut.

Best Film (New Viewing): Watchmen
Easy, but not so easy. I really loved a lot of the films I saw, but none blew me away as much as this lengthy comic book adaptation did.
Runners-up: Synecdoche, New York, Hitch Hike , Detour.

Best Film (Repeated Viewing): The Last House on the Left (1972)
I watched this exploitation classic from Wes Craven in preparation for seeing and reviewing the more than decent remake. The film still touched me in all the right spots and David Hess' amazing performance as Krug rung loud in my head. A must see.
Runners-up: Bad Taste, Zombi 2.

Worst Film (Any Viewing): Resident Evil: Extinction
Yeah, I know, this film wasn't supposed to be good. It's a zombie film. The thing is that it just lacks heart and charm, something I love about the genre's standouts.
Runner-up: Dead Heat

Most Surprising Film: Macon County Line
This road film from the 1970s about an angry sheriff going head to head with three people merely passing through was an absolutely outstanding film that catches most people off guard with its rather disturbing and sad ending.
Runners-up: Four of the Apocalypse, The Haunting in Connecticut.

Most Underrated Film: Detour
This absolutely delectable film noir has fallen from the lips of most but reigns supreme among hardcore noir fans. Sure, this one doesn't have Bogart, but it does have a great story, fine acting and a gripping and tense atmosphere. Find a good copy of this film and check it out.
Runners-up: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Public Enemy, The Foot Fist Way.

Well, that's about it. April has begun and with that taste for exploitative horrors still in my mouth I can picture those films leading the way at the end of April. Guess you'll have to tune back in to find out!