Saturday, December 23, 2006

Ice Age: The Meltdown...Or Maybe: Sequels: The Cash-in

The recently released DVD, Ice Age:  The Meltdown, is packed with tons of special features, and that’s a wonderful thing, because they are, for the most part, far more interesting than the film which they accompany (save for the Scrat segments, but those are far more interstitial segments than part of the main storyline).

Fun for the first five minutes, the sequel to Ice Age picks up shortly after the first one left off.  We find the world melting, and Sid, not very successfully, running a day camp.  It quickly becomes apparent to the animals that the valley they are living in is going to flood due to the melting of a glacier that is holding back a massive lake of water.  A vulture informs them that a boat exists at the far end of the valley and that if they make it there in 3 days (when the glacier will apparently be weak enough to no longer hold back the water), they will survive. 

So, off all the animals go.  But, just as they’re starting out Manny is informed by other animals that he is the last Wooly Mammoth.  Though he doesn’t believe this at first, he does soon become worried.  Quickly though this problem is rectified as he, Sid, and Diego meet Ellie, another Mammoth.  Sadly though, Ellie believes herself to be a possum, like her “brothers,” Crash and Eddie.  Sid suggests they all continue to the other end of the valley together, and they are once again off. 

They, predictably, wander here, there and everywhere and make it to the boat just in time.  Sadly though, Ellie becomes trapped as rocks create a cave around her and Manny has to save her.  The glacier becomes unstable, the valley floods, and I’m not going to ruin the ending, but tons of Wooly Mammoths do eventually appear.

Now, the problems with the whole movie.  First off, the movie fails to stay relatively true to its own claims.  During one of the scenes in the film Manny and his pals have to pass over a huge chasm.  A monstrous chasm.  A chasm without a bottom.  If the glacier that is melting and will release the water is on one side of the chasm, and they end up on the other side of the chasm, how is it that the water is going to get them once the glacier melts?  There were other ways to create this scene, a large height would have been sufficient, and then the plot would hold together far better.  However, a large height

would not be as dramatic as a bottomless chasm, so the producers opted for the latter,.  They made the moment more dramatic and ignored their own plotline.  This exact same type of problem occurs at the end of the film when Ellie becomes trapped in the cave.  The geography on the inside of the cave does not match up with what is happening on the outside in any way, shape, or form.  The bottoms of the land don’t match.  The entire sequence, while impressive, fails to be in any way true to itself.  It was made in the way it was so that it could be more dramatic, so that the characters could overcome their problems, but it simply fails to work.

Additionally, the animation feels uneven at best.  Some shots look fantastic, others much less so.  And, though it is an ice age, surely the backgrounds used could be more interesting than what we get.  On the whole, the animation used here isn’t as good as rival studio Pixar’s. 

The next complaint I have some will consider foolish, but I think to be important.  Not only does the movie not stay true to itself, it fails to acknowledge real world truths.  Some artistic license is of course acceptable, but there are scenes that simply ignore reality and send out bad messages.  First, how is it that the ice age lasts less than the lifetime of the main characters.  Not just “less” than the lifetime actually, the characters haven’t aged at all.  In the first movie the ice age was coming, and now it’s over, in just a few years.  Not possible.  And, in this exact same vein, the addition of a heard of Wooly Mammoth heard at the end of the film not only doesn’t add anything to the content of the film itself, it sends out a message to children that the Wooly Mammoths didn’t go extinct.  That it wasn’t really happening.  Of course, Wooly Mammoths did in fact go extinct.  As did Saber Tooth Tigers, like Diego.  But, there’s no mention whatsoever of that occurring.  It is simply an odd choice. 

But then of course, there are the extras, which are good enough to make the whole DVD almost worth it.  There’s a new Scrat short in which he has troubles with a time machine, various “stunts” that Crash and Eddie “perform.”  There are commentaries, and pseudo-documentaries on the various animals that appear in the film voiced by the characters themselves, the ability to play one of Scrat’s scenes with different sound effects, and a view of different stages of the animation for various scenes.  For a single disc set, it’s packed with extras.

Most likely your children will be amused by the film.  But really good children’s movies amuse adults too, and that will not occur with Ice Age:  The Meltdown.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Taylor & Burton. They Made Movies Together.

The romance between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is about as amazing as anything Hollywood could ever come up with.  The two fell in love during the filming of Cleopatra, during which time they were both married to other people.  Within a few years they had divorced their spouses and married one another.  That marriage lasted for nearly a decade and then hit the rocks.  Less than 18 months later, they were remarried.  Their second marriage lasted less than 10 months before ending in another divorce.  During this time together the two starred in a number of films and even if the movies were less than stellar, Taylor & Burton had fantastic chemistry. 

Warner Brothers has taken four of their collaborations and put them into a boxed set this holiday season, and for fans of classic movies and this star-crossed couple it would assuredly make a great gift.  Included in the set are:  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (2-Disc edition), The Comedians, The Sandpiper, and The V.I.P.s.  For Woolf, Taylor received her fifth Oscar nomination for Best Actress and won for the second time.  Burton was honored with his third consecutive Best Actor Oscar nomination for the same picture (though he failed to secure the statue). 

Some movies that Burton & Taylor made together are absolutely timeless.  A film like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf seems just as fantastic a film today as probably ever has. Nichols direction of Ernest Lehman’s adaptation of Albee’s play not only provides a wonderful list of names to attach to it, but shows what great talents are truly capable of.

Others don’t always seem that special years later, and The Sandpiper unquestionably falls into that category.  This is a film about a priest that falls in love with the Bohemian mother of one of his students.  The problem lies in the fact that not only do these two people live in exceedingly different worlds, but the priest happens to be married too, and to Eva Marie Saint no less.  While choosing between Elizabeth Taylor and Eva Marie Saint may be a difficult task, it seems to me that if you already have one of them, and are married to them, and consider yourself a man of the cloth, your choice is made for you.  Burton’s character seems to feel differently.  And, inexplicably decides to pursue Taylor’s Laura Reynolds. 

Maybe the wayward priest falling in love with the outsider and having a crisis of conscience was new and different 40 years ago, but today it certainly has the feeling of having been played out… repeatedly.  Sure, the movie looks great (all the films in the set look fantastic), and Big Sur is beautiful, but there are really no moments in the film that aren’t telegraphed for today’s audience.  This may have been the case 40 years ago as well, but I prefer to give The Sandpiper the benefit of the doubt. 

The other two DVDs in the set, The V.I.P.s and The Comedians, lie somewhere between Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The SandpiperThe V.I.P.s  looks at the lives of several important/rich people as they wait for a flight to take off from London.  All of them, for various reasons, find it crucially important to leave that day, for one person it’s to sign papers and save his company, for another it’s a tax dodge, and for Elizabeth Taylor it’s to leave her husband, Richard Burton, before he goes home and discovers her Dear John letter.  Sadly, due to fog, the airport is closed, all flights are delayed, and the various “VIPs” have to scramble in order to salvage their lives.  The film develops in interesting ways, and is a pleasant enough diversion.  The moments between Taylor and Burton feel a little overly melodramatic, but that is certainly a common enough occurrence in their films.

As for The Comedians, despite its name it’s a very serious look at the lives of people in Haiti under the rule of Papa Doc (Francois Duvalier).  This film is much more Burton’s than Taylor’s, though she does play an important role.  Burton is a Haitian citizen, recently returned in order to try and salvage his hotel.  He quickly however finds himself embroiled in the political affairs of the country and the resistance to Papa Doc, despite his desire to stay out of it all.  Taylor is the wife of an ambassador with whom Burton is having an affair.  The historical context and political intrigue that surround this film are absolutely fascinating and provide a wonderful backdrop for the goings on.  Sadly, the Taylor/Burton relationship in the film feels strained.  The scenes between the two are overly long and I can only surmise that Taylor is given as much screen time as she is due to her star status and the added ability to market the film as another Taylor/Burton film. 

Save Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? these DVDs offer little in the way of special features, just some behind the scenes making-of featurettes for The Sandpiper and The Comedians, neither of which has been created for this release.  Woolf, on the other hand features several different commentary tracks, an interview with Mike Nichols, trailers, and two new featurettes (Woolf has the second DVD devoted to many of these extras). 

Even if some of the films in this set do not stand the test of time as well as one might like, they are all still fascinating looks at one of the most famous couples in cinematic history. 

Thursday, December 21, 2006

DeNiro and Damon Go Shepherding

Whatever problems it may have, The Good Shepherd is an enjoyable, well-made film.  It features numerous strong actors performing well, an intricate plot, and is ably directed.  That being said, it almost certainly is not as good as people hoped it would be.  While it does provide a good time at the movies, it is, most likely, not going to be an Oscar contender.

Robert DeNiro helms the effort, with Matt Damon as his leading man.  Damon is surrounded by a stellar list of actors:  Angelina Jolie, Billy Crudup, Alec Baldwin, Timothy Hutton, Joe Pesci, John Turturro, William Hurt, Michael Gambon, and DeNiro himself amongst many others. The story itself follows Damon’s character, Edward Wilson, and tells the story of Wilson’s life as well as the creation of the CIA.  

Damon clearly has the gravitas for dramatic roles (see Good Will Hunting) and has the action chops necessary for action-spy films(see The Bourne Identity).  The character of Edward Wilson requires both of these characteristics to come through, and Damon succeeds for the most part.  Much as with Tom Ripley, Wilson is someone that does not let his emotions show through his face, and consequently Damon’s portrayal of him is similar to that of his Ripley.  Damon is thoroughly believable here as one of the men that helped form the CIA.  Both Wilson’s family and the audience have a tough time relating to Wilson as he doesn’t let either in.  Wilson’s loves are obvious, but both the precise nature of those loves and all of his other feelings are less so. 

As for the rest of the cast, despite some accent problems here and there they are largely very good in their roles.  Looking at the list of names there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be.  However, the plethora of stars that appear eventually serve to distract from the film as a whole.  Timothy Hutton has one scene.  Joe Pesci has one scene.  Alec Baldwin has three or four.  And while each actor does a fine job, there’s a point at which the audience begins to simply look for the next cameo, or try to guess if they’re watching one right then, rather than paying enough attention to the film.

In more lighthearted fare this may not prove to be an issue, but The Good Shepherd is quite intricately plotted and requires all the attention that an audience member can devote to it.  The film dances back and forth between Wilson’s current predicament following the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and a mysterious photograph he was sent with an audio recording, and his entrance into military intelligence and subsequent trip up the ladder.  Along the way there are, of course, complications.  These range from getting a girl (Angelina Jolie) pregnant and marrying her, to getting caught by the Russians when he cheats on his wife, to trying to keep his wife out of his professional life. 

Throughout the film Wilson seems in control of his professional life, it is made very clear that he is good at his work, but is a complete disaster at his personal life.  The film does its best to spend an adequate amount of time on both, and the two do intersect, but both sides seem to get short shrift.  Yet, with a runtime of two hours and forty minutes, the film is anything but brief.  It’s neither overly long, nor tedious, but should be able to do a better job fully exploring both Wilson’s private and public life over its runtime. 

When a film takes place over a long period of time it is essential that the characters are seen to age, and The Good Shepherd has some problems in this regard.  Despite the movie’s 20-plus year time span, Edward Wilson barely seems to age at all.  For some reason, the makeup used during the early 1960s sequences don’t make him look significantly older than he looks during the late 1930s sequences.  Many of the characters around Damon do seem to age appropriately, but Damon barely looks any older by the end of the film.  This problem can make it somewhat difficult to determine when a jump from the past to present has occurred and makes an already complex film somewhat harder to follow.

A perfect film The Good Shepherd isn’t.  It does however provide a fascinating, though fictionalized, account of our nation’s intelligence gathering services.  With good performances and an intriguing plot it does provide an interesting enough diversion to be well worth another trip to the theaters this holiday season. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Best Film of the Year

Every reviewer puts out lists at the end of December:  the best list, the worst list, the what should win an Oscar list, the what will win an Oscar list, the if they’d only had a clue while making it list.  This year, I will eschew that impulse.  I’m simply going to tell you the best movie of the year.  Hands down.  No arguing about it, the answer is clear. 

Now, before I tell you what the best film is, the question must be asked:  how is “best” judged.  Not to get too Clintonian on this, but the question is actually important.  Does one look at screenplay, directing, acting, cultural significance, or horror of horrors, box office receipts?  As much as we’d all like to poo-poo that notion, let’s face it, box office receipts play a role.  Let’s not get into a discussion of whether or not they should, it is a far too lengthy topic to take on here, let’s just all be adults and admit that they do.

Taking all of this into account, carefully looking at every possible aspect and facet, I can come but to one conclusion this year.  Unquestionably, inarguably, utterly convincingly the best movie of 2006 is Casino Royale.

Stop and take a breath before you start ranting- hear me out on this one.

James Bond is one of the longest running franchises in film history.  James Bond is one of the most successful franchises in film history.  James Bond, following Casino Royale, is rejuvenated and poised to continue for years to come. 

The producers of the series, following Die Another Day, dismissed Pierce Brosnan despite the huge box office take of that film.  They recognized the franchise needed change and they rethought it all from the ground up.  They went younger, they went rougher, they went mean.  They brought in Daniel Craig, who took a beating in the press that might have even laid out 007 himself.  But everyone at the production stuck to their guns and the result was Casino Royale, which opened to much critical acclaim (something the most recent Brosnan film did not have, despite its box office success).  Royale opened as number one at the box office in almost every country in the world (save the U.S., where it was beat by a totally different kind of tuxedoed character).  It surpassed box office records in some areas, and was a success universally. 

So, let’s tick off the accomplishments:  1) huge box office success, 2) huge critical success, 3) damn good movie, 4) successfully rejuvenated and changed direction of one of the most success film franchises ever, and 5) perfectly paves way for next Bond appearance, which will be in 2008.

What more could anyone possibly want?  Critical success, box office success, and sets the stage for more to come.  Hollywood can’t possibly imagine having a merrier Christmas than that. 

Thursday, December 14, 2006

I'm a Hound Dog

Why Disney insists on mining its past successes and foisting off cheap sub-par direct-to-video sequels to its consumers I can’t guess.  That’s not entirely true, clearly they feel as though they can make money off of these tactics, but it’s my belief that the bad feelings they engender in the long term more than offset any short term gains.

Enter into Disney’s ever-expanding direct-to-DVD exploitations their latest, The Fox and the Hound 2.  This movie takes place when Tod and Copper are still young, thereby fitting it somewhere, uncomfortably, within the time span of the first film (before Copper goes off and becomes a good hunting dog).  The original seems to leave little room for this movie to actually take place, and consequently I will leave the original out of any further discussion of this “sequel.”  While the names of the characters may be the same as in The Fox and The Hound, the situations and events belie the possibility of them truly existing within the same universe.

The movie follows Tod and Copper as they run off to see the fair.  Once at the fair the stumble upon the Singin’ Strays, a group of dogs who will be performing.  The two lead Strays, Cash and Dixie (Patrick Swayze and Reba McEntire respectively) are at each others throat and Dixie storms off.  During the Singin’ Strays next performance, Copper begins to sing along and soon finds himself as part of the group.  Naturally, this strains the relationship between Tod and Copper as the former becomes a hanger-on to the latter’s new group of friends. 

Cash’s motivation throughout the whole movie is to have the Singin’ Strays perform their best in order to get a chance to make it big.  Predictably, at the fair there is a talent scout who can get the Strays an opportunity to sing at the Grand Ole Opry.  Meanwhile, Dixie keeps arguing with Cash and ends up hatching a plot to get herself back into the group and get Copper out.  In his upset Tod helps her and Copper gets booted from the group. 

Tod ends up feeling terrible about his actions and in the end, everyone is happy and forgiving.  The Singin’ Strays will even get the chance to perform at the Opry.

Because there is a musical act as a part of the film, it is a natural for this to end up as a musical, which it indeed is.  The songs are all country, and fun enough, but nothing to write home about. 

As for the visuals, there are moments during the movie when the animation looks wonderfully vibrant and well done.  However, there are also times when it looks less good, and backgrounds and stationary objects have a completely different look and feel than the animated characters do.

Extras on the DVD include a music video with Lucas Grabeel (of the exceedingly popular High School Musical) and a behind the scenes look at how the music was created, how it ties in with the animation, and how it drives the story.  There are also two interactive features available on the DVD, the first is “Mutt Mix Master” in which the viewer can remix the Singin’ Strays, telling the program different levels for the vocals and background instruments.  The other interactive feature is a playable demo of “Disney DVD GameWorld Dogs Edition” which is a digital trivia board game that has players (up to 4) answer questions on various Disney dogs.  Lastly there is a classic Goofy short entitled “Goofy and Wilbur.”

The film is nothing special, but will no doubt prove enjoyable enough for young children.  It definitely has the feel of a television episode however, and not a feature film.  If Disney had opted to not place this work as a sequel to The Fox and the Hound and had instead chosen to make the characters look different and give them different names it would be far more palatable.  Maybe I’m just cynical, but I’d bet that this wasn’t done simply because it wouldn’t sell anywhere near as many copies without that The Fox and the Hound name. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Life in a Snow Globe: St. Elsewhere Comes to DVD

Arriving just in time for Christmas, another classic television series has managed to wend its way onto DVD. Newly released is season one of St. Elsewhere. It’s the story of St. Eligius Hospital, known as “St. Elsewhere” to many due to its status as a patient dumping ground in Boston, where many people believe far better hospitals exist.

St. Elsewhere
follows several medical residents and attending physicians at St. Eligius as they go about their jobs. Early on the series establishes itself through the eyes of Dr. Jack Morrison (David Morse), a young medical resident with more heart than may be good for him, and a young wife who, we find out a few episodes in, is pregnant. Jack’s struggles with his emotions are evident as early as the second episode, when he repeatedly clashes with one patient, played by Tim Robbins. He is unable to make Robbins’ character, a rich kid turned would-be bank robber, understand the enormity of what he’s done and the people he’s hurt. There are, naturally, emergency room residents, surgical residents, several attending physicians, and even a chief of staff. The show follows not just their professional lives, but their personal ones as well. Their personal lives virtually always seems to clash with their medical ones, but that is one of the show’s main points.

Though it was never a top ten series, St. Elsewhere did have its share of fans during its six seasons and provided a road map for future medical programs. In its pilot episode, St. Elsewhere does a long hand-held shot following one of the doctors down a corridor in St. Eligius Hospital. While ER uses a steadicam for this sort of move, and adds far more up-tempo music, it is apparent that they have lifted the idea (in a positive way) from St. Elsewhere. Actually, much of St. Elsewhere occurs at a far more lackadaisical pace than ER, or a more recent medical drama, but much of the conversations remain the same. Stories about cash shortages, intra-hospital romance, new-fangled surgical techniques, and crime are all as much a part of St. Elsewhere as newer programs.

Another large way in which this show is different from later medical dramas is that unlike an ER, St. Elsewhere seems to follow very few standard medical rules. This may be willful on the part of the producers or maybe a decision was made that following normal medical practices makes no difference. One of the larger examples of this is that the residents cover calls (late- or over-night shifts) for other residents that aren’t in the same specialty. For example, in a very early episode a surgeon covers a call for an emergency room doctor. This sort of thing could never actually occur as their specialties are different and the surgeon might be called on to perform duties they are incapable of handling. In fact, the doctors actually all round on the same patients, another thing that wouldn’t occur on a daily basis. A smaller point in this same vein is that the residents all wear short white coats instead of long ones. Doctors will tell you that a short coat denotes a student, not an intern or a resident. These departures from real-world practices don’t make a difference for the vast majority of the audience, but does hurt those who know standard practice as it pulls them out of their suspension of disbelief.

One of the more fascinating elements of St. Elsewhere is its cast, which boasts in its first season: Ed Begley Jr., Howie Mandel, David Morse, William Daniels, and Denzel Washington among others (many of the more famous names would stay around for the entire length of the series).

The DVD transfer for this series is sometimes wanting, as there are several shots in every episode that appear overly grainy for no discernible reason. Additionally, this four-disc set uses both sides of the four DVDs as opposed to only using one side and making it eight discs. This makes is a little difficult to determine, upon first glance, which side of the DVD contains which episodes.

As for bonus features, while they are minimal in number, they do provide interesting background into the series and some of its characters. There is a featurette on the recurring part played by Tim Robbins, as well one on Jack Morrison. Another featurette discusses the “Cora and Arnie” episode, while a final one talks about the show as a whole and tells about how people came to work on the series.

St. Elsewhere is an interesting study in television and our society almost 25 years ago. Some themes and story arcs that appear in the series are just as relevant today as they ever were, whereas other moments seem incredibly dated. Fans of the series will absolutely enjoy revisiting it, though I doubt that the DVD release will garner a new legion of devotees.

Dead Men Tell No Tales or Yo Ho Ho, a Pirate's Life For Me

Have you gone to a restaurant for the first time, sat down at the table not expecting terribly much, only to be delightfully surprised by how wonderful the entire meal was? Have you then ever gone back to that restaurant and sat down expecting another truly incredible meal, only to be moderately disappointed by its semi-wonderfulness? 

Well, that’s kind of how I feel about Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s overly long and doesn’t quite have the bounce or humor of the first film. To be sure, Johnny Depp is still wonderful as Jack Sparrow, Keira Knightley plays Elizabeth Swann with just enough bite and anger combined with a softer side, and Orlando Bloom is just as upwardly righteous as Will Turner as in the last movie. 

The movie picks up a little after the original left off. Will and Elizabeth’s wedding day has arrived, but it is immediately put on the back burner as Lord Beckett of the East India Trading Company threatens to execute them for aiding Jack Sparrow (Beckett, of course, is not doing this for the good of the world, he has nefarious purposes of his own). Will agrees to go track down Jack in exchange for clemency. 

Jack, naturally, has problems of his own.  Jack had made a deal with Davy Jones years ago which allowed him to captain the Black Pearl in exchange for which Jack would serve as a member of Jones’s crew for 100 years or face the fearsome kraken. Jack’s time, however, is up and Davy Jones wants him as a crew member on his ship, the Flying Dutchman. Jack is able to trade Will Turner and the promise of other crew members in exchange for his own life.

From here the movie begins to progress in interesting, fun, and not entirely unforeseen ways. Without giving too much away, Will Turner meets and gets to learn about his father, Elizabeth has moments where she falls for Jack, and Jack finds himself, repeatedly, battling for his life. More often than not, the movie is just plain good over-the-top fun. 

But, with a two and a half hour running time, the movie pushes the bounds of decency for this type of fare. What’s worse, however, is the fact that it ends without an ending. The audience sits there for two and a half hours only to get a non-ending. Granted, films like the Lord of the Rings series do the same thing, but Peter Jackson seems to manage the cliffhanger in a better fashion. For a movie where the sense of fun began to wane almost 30 minutes prior to the credit roll to finish in such a fashion feels rather pushy on the part of the filmmakers. But, the fact that the film is one of the biggest successes at the box office this year most likely means that I’m on my own feeling this way; the vast majority of the audience seems to have quite enjoyed not only the film, but the end as well (there had to have been second and third viewings for the movie to make the amount it did). 

This movie is a pure popcorn film, just as the first one was. It just proves to be a lot of fun to watch. One of the reasons that a film like this works so well is that the cast seems to be having as much fun as the audience. Of particular note in this regard is the absolutely fantastic Jack Davenport as James Norrington. For people in the U.S., Davenport is most likely only known as the fiancé in The Wedding Date, but is far superior as Steve on the original Coupling. And while Davenport hasn’t made a huge splash on this side of the pond, we can only hope that he will get bigger in the future. 

The two-disc special edition is loaded with tons of extras, including an audio commentary with the film’s writers and a video production diary with Jerry Bruckheimer. There are also behind the scenes videos on the creation of Jack Sparrow (wardrobe, makeup, etc.), the kraken, Davy Jones, and sword fighting.

Actually, while the number of features is somewhat less than occur on more overblown DVD sets, the ones included here are all on fascinating topics that should provide at least a modicum of interest to many viewers. After taking a look at them I highly recommend the Davy Jones one. It is an incredibly interesting look at how Davy Jones was created, from the acting to the motion capture to the CG, it’s just fantastic and really shows what goes into making a big-budget flick like this happen. 

On the whole, this film may not be quite as much fun as the first installment, but there’s absolutely no reason to pass up viewing this second installment (particularly so that you can gear up to see the third). 

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

World Trade Center - Is it Good? Is it "Too Soon?" Is it Both?

Sometimes films are put out that are difficult to accurately assess due to the strong emotions tied with the release.  Such is the case with Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, which has recently been released to DVD. 

This movie follows Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), and their families on September 11th, 2001.  Jimeno and McLoughlin are Port Authority police officers working in midtown who get called downtown following the first plane striking the Twin Towers.  Jimeno and McLoughlin become trapped beneath the rubble and the rest of the film plays out as they await, and pray for, rescue. 

For a moment, let’s put aside the reality aspect of the picture.  It’s a difficult thing to do with such a catastrophic event in our history and one occurring so recently, but crucial to attempt. 

Strictly in terms of filmmaking, World Trade Center is a well constructed, well acted film.  There are moments when the film’s pace slows to something less than a crawl, but on the whole it does a good job exploring not only the emotions and actions of the two trapped Port Authority police officers, Jimeno & McLoughlin, but those of their family and loved ones as well.  Many of the scenes between are very claustrophobic and disorienting, which is, assuredly, the feeling Olive Stone wanted to create, but after seeing them for the third or fourth time sitting in there in the dark, those scenes begin to drag down the forward momentum of the story. 

Again, I reiterate, this is looking at the film as simply a film, and not as a message.  One or two of these scenes are absolutely crucial, but after that, they don’t add to the desperation the audience feels, they simply serve to pull the audience out of the film.  The excessive darkness and lack of movement, which must have been quite true to life, begins to hurt the storytelling and emotional force.

Despite whatever small issues the filmmaking itself may have, the story, for being based on actual events, is quite powerful.  Stone eschews recreating the planes striking the World Trade Center and the collapse of the towers.  He instead focuses on the police officers doing their jobs at these times.  By doing so Stone not only avoids numerous complaints that would undoubtedly be issued for recreating such tragic occurrences but also creates a stronger sense of fear and wondering.  Not having a clear timeline of what is occurring on a macro scale, we are left to wonder what exactly is taking place once the officers arrive on scene at the Trade Center.  There are rumblings and noise and confusion as the officers themselves don’t know what is taking place and simply do their best to handle whatever arises.  It is a wise decision on Stone’s part to not recreate the plane impacts and the falling of the towers and certainly makes for better storytelling.

This is not to say that the towers are not shown falling.  Stone does use TV reports shown on TVs within the film as part of his storytelling process.  Within these reports the towers are shown falling.  By doing this Stone adds to the truth-claim his movie puts forth.  The fact that the real Jimeno and McLoughlin were on set and contributed to the filmmaking and story further add to this claim. 

This claim of a move towards non-fiction is enhanced again with some of the extras included on the 2-disc set.  The first disc contains an audio commentary with Jimeno and others that were both portrayed in the film and at the Trade Center on September 11th.  One of the main things they do during this commentary on the movie is to explain their feelings at the time in question and how the movie goes about accurately portraying these moments.  There’s even a documentary on McLoughlin & Jimeno that traces their lives to the present day. 

Other bonus features include the standard extended/deleted scenes, a commentary by Oliver Stone, a Q&A with Stone, trailers, and TV spots.  There are also behind the scenes looks at the productions, from pre-production straight through production and beyond.  One of these focuses on the creation of the Ground Zero set for the film.  There is also a look at Oliver Stone which includes an examination of his time in Vietnam and NYU Film School. 

The movie is a good movie, not a great one, and avoids possible sensationalism.  Whether or not the wounds of that day are too raw for any particular viewer must be decided on an individual basis.  I definitely believed it to be worth watching, but wouldn’t promote it as a stocking stuffer this holiday season. 

Sunday, December 10, 2006

National Forget Your Family, Love Your Television Day!

TV and Film Guy officially declares December 17

National Forget Your Family, Love Your Television Day

Dear reader, I am greatly disheartened by the hatred people display on a very regular basis for their television. Do you realize that some people have gone so far as to put bumper stickers on their cars asking people to kill their television? More importantly, do you realize that the vast majority of the people that put these stickers on their cars drive beat up old hunks of junk that spew ridiculous amounts of noxious chemicals into the air and get no better than 15 miles to the gallon?

Seriously, the world would be a far better place, and far healthier, if such people would park their cars in their driveways, go inside, and sit in front of their TV for 10 or 12 hours. These people are also the exact same sort of folk that love novels and don’t understand the irony that when the novel was a brand-spanking new art form it was decried as well as being low-brow and unworthy of one’s attention. Ah irony, completely lost on those people with “Kill Your Television” bumper stickers. I think it all has something to do with the notion that an inanimate object such as a television could be killed to begin with.

But, on with the show...

National Forget Your Family, Love Your Television Day requires very little effort on your part, that’s the genius of the whole thing. Pack the kids off to a friend’s house early in the morning, sit down in front of the TV and bask in its warm glow all day long. Don’t want to pack the kids off? Fine, you probably have more than one TV in your house -- you watch one, they watch a different one. That way there’s no fighting over the remote, there’s no complaining about your choice of shows, and there’s just very little whining in general. It’s the world the way it ought to be.

National Forget Your Family, Love Your Television Day allows for the world to be the way the world ought to be. It allows you take a load off, sit back, and relax. Sure, it’s entirely possible that you could do this sort of thing on any given day. It’s always hypothetically possible for you to take a break and relax, but let’s be honest with one another -- you never do. You always spend the weekend running around like a chicken with its head cut off. You never take time to sit back, relax and find out what’s up, or in this case, what’s on.

Well, let me give you a brief example. Olive, The Other Reindeer is on, TNT is going to air back-to-back-to-back the Lord of the Rings movies. There’s golf, there’s football, and there’s religious programming of other, more conventional, varieties too. There are holiday specials and movies, there’s the news, there’s soap recaps, and there’s American Idol Rewind. There is everything you could ever want and more.

Take the day off. Kick the family out. (Did they bother buying you a Christmas gift yet? Surely they could get that task out of the way.) This is a day for you to commune with your television, to make up for all the time you’ve spent doing other things this year. This is a day for you and your TV to be one.

Celebrate this first National Forget Your Family, Love Your Television Day. It’ll be everything you’ve ever dreamed of, that I promise.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Here's Another Show You Won't Watch, But Should

I will now give the kiss of death to another show. Seriously, just you wait, I’m going to tell you know how great another show that you’re not watching is and CBS is going to go out tomorrow and cancel the series. But, I don’t care. Well, I do care, I’m just trying to break the (imagined) streak. Enough preamble. Why are you not watching How I Met Your Mother?

No! Enough excuses! You’re not doing anything else nearly as important Mondays at 8 p.m. Don’t give me this 'Deal or No Deal is on at that time.' You can’t even explain the challenge of that show to me. Do you understand that it takes no skill or knowledge whatsoever, the entire thing is just dumb luck? You pick a frickin’ case and then select random other cases to eliminate. You don’t know what’s in those cases, you just eliminate them. You can’t answer inane trivia questions or trade cases, you just pick random ones. Yeah, that’s great TV. Takes a lot of skill. Flip the dial over to CBS for the first half hour of that show, don’t worry, that mysterious banker fellow will still be around at 8:30, as will the girls with the briefcases. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

How I Met Your Mother is the ingenious story of how the narrator met the mother of his children. Bob Saget narrates as the old Ted (never appearing on screen), and Josh Radnor plays present day Ted. Both Teds are wonderfully funny and the rest of the cast isn’t a bunch of slackers either, with Alyson Hannigan, Jason Segel, Cobie Smulders, and Neil Patrick Harris. Have you met Neil? He’s ridiculously, incredibly, hysterically funny, and forgive me if I repeat myself here, but he was cheated out of an Emmy. CHEATED.

For those of you that get bored by any paragraph longer than two sentences, let me repeat what I just stated. Neil Patrick Harris not only deserved an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, he deserved to win. He was cheated. Not only does he do an outstanding job, but he provides an incredible amount of support. If there is a “breakout” character from How I Met Your Mother, it’s Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris, like you didn’t know that). As with virtually everything these days, How I Met Your Mother has a web component as an added, extra-value element; it’s Barney’s Blog, and much like Barney, it’s awesome.

But, let’s forget Barney for a second, even though that’s not easy to do. Everyone on the show is funny. It actually represents a reasonable facsimile of life for people in their 20s in New York City. The show is clever, well-written, funny, and very human. It’s life, just moderately more amusing.

I’m telling you, take a look, watch the show, and you’ll probably end up saying, “Oh my god, that’s so true” or “Wow, I wish I’d done the same thing when I was in that situation” or “I just had a slap bet last week!” Okay, maybe not that last one, but while the outcomes are never what we would experience, oftentimes the setups are. The funny and outrageous and hysterical is the outcome.

For instance, have you ever gone out on a blind date and realized about 30 seconds in that it was a horrible idea? You look at the person (guy or girl) across from you and think to yourself, “In the name of all that is good and holy what have I gotten myself into now?” Yet, you don’t want to offend the person opposite you, so you slog through dinner, knowing full well that the night is going to end and you’re never going to see the person again, you’re not even having fun. A common occurrence, and one with no escape. Except that the folks over at How I Met Your Mother have invented one, the Lemon Law. Just like with a car that doesn’t work right after you drive it off the lot, the Lemon Law allows you to end the date within five minutes of first sitting down, no harm, no foul. Everyone understands with the Lemon Law that no offense is meant, the relationship simply isn’t mean to be. Poof, you invoke the Lemon Law and the date ends, no one is offended or hurt. Genius. And, when executed correctly in a script (like it is here), funny.

So, there it is dear reader, this week’s admonition. Watch How I Met Your Mother. I get it, I couldn’t convince you Kidnapped was worth your time, after all, that was an hour long show, but How I Met Your Mother is a mere 30 minutes (though you’ll wish it were longer). It’s Monday night, on CBS, at 8:00 p.m. Give it a shot, trust me, you won’t regret it.

Please, I beg of you, I plead with you, I urge you, I hereby do everything in my power to compel you to watch this show, just once. One time.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

My Favorite Version of A Christmas Carol

It seems as though everyone has their favorite version of A Christmas Carol. Many like the classic 1951 Scrooge starring Alastair Sim as the title character. Others prefer George C. Scott in the 1984 made-for-television version. There are those that enjoy the updated Bill Murray version, Scrooged. Some people actually like the 2004 made-for musical version starring Kelsey Grammar (I don’t personally know any of these people, but they exist). While I’m a huge fan of the Alastair Sim version, and like a number of others as well, in my mind there’s no substitute for the 1992 feature film version done by Brian Henson and his crowd, aptly titled The Muppet Christmas Carol.

This is the classic Dickens tale (I assume herein that everyone is familiar with this story of redemption), told, of course, with a little bit of Muppet silliness. Michael Caine does a wonderful turn as Ebenezer Scrooge and Kermit is his Bob Cratchit. Both of these actors seem naturals for their roles. The entire story is told by The Great Gonzo who portrays, at least at some points during the film, Charles Dickens. In wonderfully witty, Muppet and breaking the fourth wall style, Gonzo is relating this story to Rizzo The Rat and the audience as they both watch the entire thing unfold. Rizzo starts off skeptical that Gonzo is Charles Dickens, but is continually impressed by Gonzo’s ability to foretell events.

The device of having Gonzo tell the story to Rizzo allows for the tension and scare-factor to be cut, making this more enjoyable for young ones. Not that there aren’t moments that younger audience members may find unnerving, but Gonzo and Rizzo do help, at least until they both get too frightened and leave the viewers to fend for themselves until the end of the movie.

If the movie does get bogged down at any moment, it is in the telling of Ebenezer’s losing the love of his life, Belle (Meredith Braun) during the Ghost of Christmas Past sequence. The movie is a little laborious at this point, even giving Belle an unnecessary song, “When Love is Gone.” It’s not that the sentimentality doesn’t work on its own, it just feels to be at odds with the rest of the film. As for the song Belle gets to sing, the setting and inspiration feel forced, the only time in the film that a song feels this way.

Despite this minor misstep, upon ending the Ghost of Christmas Past portion of the film, things pick right back up with the incredibly funny and warm Ghost of Christmas Present (voice by Jerry Nelson, with Donald Austen performing). He manages to be, at turns, both warm and wonderful and incredibly upsetting and touching.

Outside of the addition of the narrator, one of the more interesting changes from other filmic versions of this story to the Muppet rendition is the addition of a brother for Jacob Marley, Robert. The Marleys are played by the classic Muppets, Statler and Waldorf (or, “those guys that sit in the balcony all the time and mock the show” if you prefer). These two crusty old codgers are the perfect Marleys, and watching the story unfold with two Marley brothers seems so natural that it will be hard to recall whether or not Dickens’s tale has two initially.

As it’s a Muppet film, it wouldn’t be complete without songs, and there are several catchy ones included here. From the opening number “Scrooge,” to “Marley and Marley,” to “It Feels Like Christmas” the songs tend to be more than just incredibly hummable, and actually fall into the very sing-along-able category.

The Muppets have the astounding ability to make things fun for both children and adults alike. The Muppet Christmas Carol superbly displays this skill, creating one of the most memorable versions of the Dickens classic to be put on film.