Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa Comes Home to DVD

Some may argue that it's a little early for Christmas DVDs to be hitting store shelves.  To them I say "Bah, humbug," particularly if the DVD in question is last year's Muppets Christmas special, A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa.  The hour-long special is by no means the Muppets' first Christmas piece (either on the big screen or small), but it is a new story for the characters and has all the little enjoyable moments one expects from Henson's creations.

Letters to Santa features Kermit and company wreaking havoc at the post office on Christmas Eve, after which Gonzo finds several letters addressed to Saint Nick sitting in his backpack.  With the post office closed early due to the holiday, Gonzo, Fozzie, Kermit, Rizzo, and Pepe have no choice but to venture to the North Pole and hand deliver the Christmas lists.

Of course, as this is the Muppets, there are a plethora of diversions, obstacles, and insanity along the way.  The best of these include the Swedish Chef's brief appearance and Beaker and Honeydew displaying their newest invention.  The film also features several enjoyable new songs by long-time Muppet collaborator Paul Williams.

The film is full of cameos, including ones from Whoopi Goldberg, Jane Krakowsi, Nathan Lane, Jesse L. Martin, Steve Schirripa, Tony Sirico, Richard Griffiths, Petra Nemcova, Uma Thurman, and Michael Bloomberg.  It's an impressive lineup of stars for a special which aired on network television (during the 2008 holiday season) – and, not all the stars are NBC personalities, which is the network the special originally aired on.

Muppet fans will instantly recognize that several of their favorite characters have apparently "aged" from their last appearance to this one.  While said characters – Fozzie and Scooter to name two – still appear almost exactly as they did before, the very clear difference in their voices certainly indicate that these characters, some of whom have who have been around for more than three decades, have changed over the years.  It is certainly understandable that Muppets who are as old as these Muppets are would undergo some sort of aging process.  It may disappoint some, but if the alternative is the characters stopping to produce new works, it seems as though allowing the characters to age and grow is a small price to pay.

The new DVD sports some deleted scenes, bloopers, and behind the scenes discussions with members of the cast.  Some of these bonus features are placed in a "Muppets Stocking Stuffer Smorgasbord" (the others simply air after the main feature), which is a menu that depicts a Christmas hearth scene and where various elements of the scene are selectable (ornaments, presents, stockings, etc.).  None of the items are labeled, but each does give some sort of indication of whom will appear when it is clicked (clicking the "J" on the tree leads to an interview with Jane Krakowski, the Kermit looking stocking leads to an interview with the frog).  It's an odd way of presenting bonus features, but somehow fits in with Muppet sensibility.

At this point, the Muppets' canon is so large and varied that people will always have their favorite moments and stories.  Whether A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa becomes a favorite for anyone has yet to be seen.  What is clear however is that the characters are still funny, are still enjoyable, and are still clearly viable several decades after their first appearance. 

Here's looking forward to their next appearance.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth (1986) Go Blu

[Editor's Note: Reviews of the most recent DVD releases of these two films, which include more of a review on the movies themselves, can be found here.]

It was just over two years ago that both The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth – both classic Jim Henson films – came to DVD, the former in a "25th Anniversary Edition" and the latter simply in an "Anniversary" one. One of the big selling points of those versions, for anyone who had the earlier releases, was that the films had both been released with a new high definition film transfer. The films have now come out on Blu-ray, so they can now be watched in high definition as well.

Technically, both films look and sound very good, particularly considering that they are both more than two decades old. There are noticeable amounts of grain, but the level of detail – even when compared to the releases from two years ago – is very impressive. In Labyrinth, the "Shaft of Hands" portion stands out as a particularly fine moment – despite the darkness of the scene, the details in the myriad of hands which grab and taunt Jennifer Connelly's Sarah as she falls are abundant. Both films come with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 channel track, and while in both cases the track seems to favor the front speakers more than the rear ones, that complaint is a minor one. The dialogue in both is clean and the songs – again, particularly in Labyrinth with David Bowie's songs – are wonderful.

For special features, both films contain all the items that come on the recent DVD release, plus a limited amount of new features. Labyrinth's only new bonus feature is a picture-in-picture track during the main film. It features interviews with various members of the cast and crew as they recall the making of the film. The Dark Crystal contains significantly more material, including a new introduction by David Odell on the original Skeksis language (the scenes of the language were in the last release, but not Odell's introduction), a picture-in-picture storyboard track, a trivia game also plays out during the film, and something called "The Book of Thra – Dark Crystal Collector."

Essentially, this last item provides more insight into the world of the characters. One can "collect" crystals of information when an icon appears on screen during the movie and view that information later at any time from the menu. Pop-up information is relatively common, but the notion of pressing a button to "collect" the information into a database which can be accessed later – and only having collected information available – seems different and it is done in an enjoyable enough way so as to not distract from the feature itself.

The question of whether or not one should take the opportunity and double-dip on a film is always a hard one to answer. Those wishing for the absolute best presentation possible will find that the films do look better on Blu-ray than they did on DVD (not that those presentations were lacking). Labyrinth does not feature anywhere as many new bonus features, as The Dark Crystal, so if one is only upgrading one copy, it would seem that the latter is a better choice than the former. It should also be noted that as of this writing, Amazon is currently charging more for the DVD Anniversary Editions than they are for the new Blu-ray releases. Consequently, were I buying them now, the choice would be clear (though I would always opt to spend a few dollars more for the Blu-ray anyway). However, any but the most ardent fans of the films very well may find themselves hard-pressed to upgrade to the newest release. The new features are nice, but may not be worth the added cost – plus, if the planned Dark Crystal sequel ever really gets going, we're bound to get another Blu-ray release of at least one of these two films, if not both.

Monday, September 28, 2009

And Away We Go!

Directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), Away We Go (2009), is the hysterical and heartfelt story of a couple about to have their first child. Mendes is able to deftly mix serious storylines with lighter ones, and manages to create a film which is serious and touching at times, but still manages to be a light comedy filled with several laugh-out-loud moments.

Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) and Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph), are going to have their first child in three short months, and, at that point, learn that Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) – the only ties the two have to where they live – are moving out of the country. Not wanting to raise their child without any family or friends nearby, the two venture off to see various places around the country (and Canada) where they do know people in order to determine if one of those places is right for them.

While Burt and Verona, both being played by exceedingly funny actors, are humorous characters in and of themselves, they are nothing compared to those they meet on their trip. The film is populated with well-known actors and actresses who are at their top of their game playing some truly off the wall characters.

In Phoenix, Burt and Verona encounter an ex-co-worker of Verona's, Lily, played by Allison Janney, and Lily's husband, Lowell, played by Jim Gaffigan. Looking for an example of a couple raising a happy family, what they instead encounter are a loud-mouthed woman who refuses to censor anything she thinks of, including several odd, offensive, and insensitive remarks about her children.

Perhaps though, the best of the supporting roles is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. She is LN, a professor and a childhood friend of Burt's. Well off and without a care in the world, she and her husband Roderick (Josh Hamilton) have opted for an exceptionally non-traditional way of raising their children. Their hatred of strollers represents the tip of the iceberg, as, in addition to other things, she and Roderick, who share a bed with their children, believe in not hiding their sexual activities from their kids. Yes, were Mendes to deal with LN and Roderick in a serious manner, the two would be incredibly disturbing, but dealt with solely on a comedic level, the insanity exhibited by the two comes off as some of the funniest moments in the film.

Away We Go doesn't solely deal with things in lighthearted fashion, however, Burt and Verona also have to witness some of their friends and family in crisis. Though these moments are dealt with in a serious fashion, just as with the more comedic segments of the film, the serious ones are examined, explored, and then moved on from. The film, which runs less than 100 minutes, shows the audience, Burt, and Verona a snippet from someone else's life, and then allows the couple at the center to learn from what they've seen. Everything in the film is a learning experience for Burt and Verona and is seen as such

Attempting to dissect the film is actually something of a difficult task. It is beautifully shot, varying its look with the different locations Burt and Verona are in, well-written, and brilliantly acted. It features stellar performances by both the main and supporting players. And, although it may be appropriate to describe the film as a series of vignettes, each of which feature Burt and Verona on their journey, to take apart the moments and look at each of them individually removes an element of the magic that is created when they are all put together.

Burt and Verona take their trip in order to learn more about parenting and their place in the world, and from each of the places they go they learn that there is good and bad, that there are elements of every couple and every family that they want to utilize in their own when their bundle of joy finally arrives, and things better left behind. The two end their journey far wiser than they were at its start, having experienced both upset and happiness, and much like the film itself, without any of the stops they make along the way, the journey would feel incomplete.

The Blu-ray release of the film looks and sounds quite good. There are ample amounts of detail, and no dirt or other blemishes appear on screen. Black levels are good and seem to allow detail when that was the filmmaker's intent and banish them when that was wished. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack too is free from issues. A dialogue-heavy film, it does favor the front channels, but everything in it, including the acoustic, folksy soundtrack by Alexi Murdoch, sounds perfectly clear and well-mixed.

The most unfortunate part of the release is the lack of bonus features. There is a commentary track featuring Mendes and writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, as well as a pretty basic making-of featurette and one on how the production went "green," but that is all.

Away We Go is a small, quiet, unassuming film despite its A-list cast and director. It is sweet and sad, funny and serious, touching and perhaps a little touched in the head all at the same time. It is a film which certainly has the sense that if someone revisits it at different points in their life they will take away some new or different meaning – and yet, no matter how many times they watch it, still laugh hysterically. Though it does have a message or two to deliver, it manages to do so without being preachy or melodramatic – something Mendes has not always successfully achieved in the past. This is a film not to be missed.

Wallace & Gromit - The Wonder of Blu-ray

Sometimes when you watch something you know from the very first moment that what you're witnessing is brilliant and complex and simple and funny and marvelous and completely unbelievable and totally relatable at the same time.  What your watching is, undeniably, pure genius.  From story to dialogue to look and feel, that which is unfolding on the screen before you is wondrous and you never quite want it to end.  Released this past week – and to Blu-ray no less – is Wallace & Gromit – The Complete Collection.

Yes, the title may be something of a misnomer, it's not actual the complete collection of every Wallace & Gromit story – it lacks the feature film – but it is the complete collection of film shorts, including the new A Matter of Loaf and Death.  It is also, if the above paragraph didn't make it clear, utterly brilliant.

Wallace & Gromit, for those not in the know, are a man and a dog, respectively.  The two reside in merry old England and have an affinity for cheese, particularly Wensleydale.  Their first short, A Grand Day Out, released in 1989, features the two realizing that they are wholly out of cheese.  As they were planning a mini-Holiday anyway, rather than going to the supermarket to pick up more cheese, they opt instead to build a rocket and fly to the moon – which, as we all know, is made out of cheese.

For any other man and dog, the process of building a rocket would be a hugely intricate one, requiring time, money, and resources quite possibly beyond one's ability to obtain.  For Wallace & Gromit it is all in a day's work, and they are even able to outfit their rocket to feel like their sitting room (if one is going to go to the moon to get some cheese, they might as well do so comfortably).  Yes, the moon robot is not entirely enthralled with someone showing up and slicing off bits and pieces of his home, but once he is able to fashion a set of skis in order to slide down the cheesy slopes, he doesn't seem to mind having had some visitors.

Clearly, Wallace & Gromit are not your average characters, and their adventures are not your average adventures.  The two, from first stop-motion clay animation from to last stop-motion clay animation frame, exude more personality than your average animated (or real) character.  Wallace, while he is nowhere near as intelligent as Gromit, does have a number of ingenious inventions (though Gromit tends to be the brains behind making them work), and always seems to be looking out for his fellow man (and dog).  For his part, Gromit, tends to be both amused and bemused by his companion, and often frustrated that Wallace's lack of intelligence puts the two into precarious situations.

From adventures with diamond-stealing penguins to evil dogs to angry ex-bread promoting women, Wallace & Gromit manage to both wind up in, and get out of, hot water in fantastic style.  The number of details Nick Park (their creator) and Aardman Animation include in the shots is fantastic, and comes across quite well on Blu-ray.  There is a steady progression in the quality and clarity of the picture from the original 1989 A Grand Day Out to 1993's The Wrong Trousers and on to 1995's A Close Shave and 2008's A Matter of Loaf and Death.  The first two are presented in the traditional 1.33:1 aspect ratio on the disc, while A Close Shave is 1.66:1 and A Matter of Loaf and Death is in 1.78:1.  There seems to be some dirt and imperfections to the film itself for A Grand Day Out, but not in the later pieces.  The sound is free of any issues and the Foley work not only sounds wonderful but really helps sell the at-times ludicrous visuals.

The new Blu-ray set comes with 10 "Cracking Contraptions," which are short pieces featuring various inventions Wallace has come up with, audio commentary tracks from Nick Park (and in the case of A Matter of Loaf and Death, Park and editor David McCormick), as well as behind the scenes featurettes for all of the films, an episode of Shaun the Sheep, a scrapbook with photos and blueprints of the guys' inventions, and a videogame demo.  It should be noted however that the 242 minute runtime listed on the box, a time which usually denotes the main feature or features' length, in this case seems to denote the runtime of not only the main feature, but all the bonuses as well.

Enjoyable for children and adults alike, Wallace & Gromit – The Complete Collection represents not only an incredible amount of hard work and attention to detail (stop-motion animation being both time consuming and difficult), but brilliant storytelling, and a lot of fun.  The four shorts can be watched repeatedly, always yielding some new detail or joke. 

Wallace & Gromit – The Complete Collection is currently available on Blu-ray and well-worth owning.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Clue: The Office Edition, Now Available (that's what she said)

Toby Flenderson, Dunder Mifflin's Scranton-based HR guru is dead.  Or, at the very least Michael Scott would have that be the case.  No one quite vexes Michael as much as Toby (something about Toby being a party-pooper). In a typically insane Michael Scott idea, he has come up with a team-building exercise for six of our favorite characters from The Office.  They have been called in on a Saturday to, individually, investigate the death of Toby – yes, they're going to act individually in a team-building exercise.   Such is the setup for the new The Office edition of Clue.

For the most part (we'll discuss the changes below), Clue – The Office plays out like the traditional Clue game, except that everything is now themed on the NBC show.  Gone are the traditional rooms, and in their place lie Michael's Office, the Parking Lot, Conference Room, Break Room, Kitchen, Annex, Accounting, Warehouse, Reception, and Sales (this last one is the room in the middle).  The characters, rather than being the traditional Clue ones are six of our Office favorites (Jim, Pam, Dwight, Angela, Stanley, and Andy).  The weapons are all slightly more creative, featuring things like a poisoned pretzel, a ream of paper, and a rabid bat.

As for the changes from the traditional Clue game, this version features "Intrigue" cards as well as "Personality" cards for each character.  The latter allows players a one-time special power during a game, including things such as an extra turn and looking at a card just shown to another player.  The Intrigue cards are slightly more complicated.  Some allow for things like extra turns, while some are designated as Clock cards, which do nothing until someone gets the eighth one.  That person is then summarily dismissed from the game (eight hours having passed, the workday is finished).

Intrigue cards are supposed to exist as a part of Michael Scott's ever-changing whims, and as such are somewhat funny.  They also add an extra – but not wholly necessary –twist to the game.   Of course, one can play without them, making gameplay a strictly pure version of Clue, but with characters who don't instantly make one think of monkey brains.

The one unquestionably negative aspect of this version is that the ID badge player pieces are slightly too large, making it somewhat difficult when players end their turns next to one another outside of a room.  As that tends to happen rarely, if ever, though, the complaint is a minor one.

Anyone with a love of The Office will enjoy this version of the game.  Should such a thing as a "Clue purist" (or perhaps they would then be a "Cluedo Purist") exist, one can imagine the scorn they would heap down on this version, but such scorn seems wholly uncalled for.  Clue – The Office is just a facelift and new theme for an old, but great, game.  As such, it easily provides hours of enjoyment for all.

That's what she said.

four stars out of five.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Who Goo? Roogoo

The Nintendo Wii's unique control scheme and desire to inspire everyone from two to 200 to play on it has inspired its share of wacky, weird, and wonderful puzzlers and party games.  One of the latest, Roogoo: Twisted Towers, is certainly a puzzler, possibly a party game, and unquestionably wacky and weird.  Its wonderfulness however, is left in serious doubt.

The first of the Roogoo series to come to the Wii, Twisted Towers, has players spin platforms around so as to allow various shapes to fall into the appropriate hole in the tower – stars go into the star shaped holes, squares into the square shaped ones, etc.  Perhaps the best way to think of it is as one of those toddler toys designed to teach shapes – the triangle only fits into the triangle shape, the circular only into the circle one – and to take that toy and stack it on another and another and another.  The toddler would then have the triangle in the right place for the first toy, but have to shift around the second to allow the triangle continue on its way.  Now, put space between the toddler toys, wire it in annoying fashion to a remote control, and obscure the toddler's point of view.   Lastly, keep all the graphics very basic and blocky.  That's Roogoo: Twisted Towers.

As the game progresses, the number of platforms increase as do the number of shapes and various obstacles on the platform which have to be overcome by shaking the Wii remote or pushing the down button or just waiting until enough pieces have stacked up.  And then there's the net which is used for scooping up butterflies, bats, and dropped pieces (drop too many and one loses the level) and a hammer which comes into play on occasion for bonking baddies.  There are some amusing boss battles as well, but the game never quite rises about ho-hum, and one definitely gets the sense that it could have.  It fails though to ever be truly thrilling for several reasons.

The first of the issues is the game's insistence that only one platform can ever be rotated at a time.  The player ends up feeling handicapped until the pieces fall through the platform.  The game can be sped up when the platform is aligned correctly, but the shifting in speed up and then down again to adjust the next platform is awkward – however, if it's not done, players will forfeit their time bonus.

The next major problem with the game is the camera angles.  The game is three dimensional, but the camera angle shifts automatically – when it's ready and in ways it wants to.  All too often that means that as pieces fall the player can't quite make out where something is headed, a circle of light appears in the correct place on the platform the pieces are heading towards, which makes it easier.  However, it isn't always present and it seems rather nonsensical to have to include a cheat like that when a better display would alleviate the need for one.  The camera only gets worse when one progresses and the platforms go from being strictly vertical to being all over the place.  The camera than swoops in and out and all around as it moves from one platform to another and as pieces are traveling (though the player can't always see them). 

There is also a certain level of annoyance inherent in the control scheme.  Platforms are rotated clockwise and counter-clockwise by pushing either the B or Z buttons respectively.  As the analog stick never comes into play, one wonders why the movements cannot simply be mapped to it (push right for clockwise, left for counter) as the direction the platform turns may be more logical by doing that.  The Wii Remote and Nunchuk can be held in either the right or left hand, so B and Z don't necessarily correspond to anything in terms of left and right, whereas the analog stick on the Nunchuk does.  Then, trying to remember what drills, what speeds the pieces up, and what throws things becomes a lot to remember as there seems little logic behind the control scheme.

The monotony of twisting platforms is broken up with the occasional level in which your character skydives.  He can then be moved in a circular fashion to pick up pieces while shooting the evil Meemoos, the minions of the evil Prince Moo, who, in traditional levels stand over holes in platforms and need to get bonked with pieces.

Because it's a Wii puzzler, the game also has several different multiplayer options.  Two players can go through story mode together, with one player taking control of the hammer and net.  There's a splitscreen two player race mode and a party mode for up to four, as well.  The former allows for one player to attack another whereas in party, players take turns in controlling a platform (player one gets the first, two gets the second, etc.).  There's some added value in the modes, but they don't overcome the overall issues the game contains.

Roogoo: Twisted Towers has all the elements a good puzzler should have – building huge stacks of shapes can be fun and moving the platforms so as to have items fall correctly and adding various traps and pitfalls along the way to make things that much more difficult are great building blocks on which to put a game.  However, between a camera which hurts more than it helps, a control scheme which doesn't feel natural, and not giving the player full control of the platforms, the game simply has too many stumbling blocks to ever truly be enjoyable.

Roogoo: Twisted Towers is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Mild Cartoon Violence.

two stars out of five.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Winnie the Pooh: Seasons of Giving Means More Pooh for You!

Less a single full-length feature and more a composite of several shorter Winnie the Pooh tales, Winnie the Pooh: Seasons of Giving is coming to DVD in a brand new, 10th Anniversary Edition – complete with a mini-stocking. The tales in it are not solely Christmas based — in fact, they have very little Christmas to them — rather, they are more fall/winter related. The tales are strung together with musical interludes, but are most definitely separate stories and were not originally intended to be in this format.

Repurposing old stories into something new and different is not necessarily bad, and certainly in this case it works better than in Pooh's Halloween Heffalump Movie. That film made the mistake of trying to insert one story produced at one point in time into a different story produced at another. The result was a less than enthralling mash-up. Here, as the tales are not connected story-wise, and merely hooked together with new bookends to the piece and the aforementioned musical interludes, the result is better – though still far from great.

There are three distinct tales present in the film. The first is about fall leading to winter and the characters in the Hundred Acre Wood believing (due to some pages in a calendar flying off) it Groundhog Day instead. They then become quite confused as to why, if winter were ending, should it be getting so cold and there be snow. The second tale is a Thanksgiving story, and the last more of a Christmas-related one. There is a Christmas tree or two present in it, but there is no discussion of the holiday itself. The story is actually about Rabbit helping a small bird, Kessie, and Rabbit's having trouble allowing Kessie to grow up, instead.

The tales are all of the classic Disney version of Pooh variety. That is to say, that while Christopher Robin still speaks with something of a British accent, the characters are clearly in the States (otherwise they wouldn't be celebrating Thanksgiving) and all have the Disney's Hundred Acre Wood feel. However, being produced at different times and in different manners, there are several different looks to the animation – something even the youngest of viewers will catch as Rabbit goes from greenish to yellowish and back to greenish again. And, if that wasn't disturbing enough, some of the characters even take on a slightly different voice from one story to the next. Anyone trying to help preserve any sort of illusion about the characters for their kids might do best to show them this in pieces or not at all.

Viewed as a single whole, the stories don't necessarily work as well as they should, but taken as separate entities they function quite well. All the misunderstandings the Hundred Acre Wood creatures have lead toward several very amusing moments.

In terms of bonus features, the included stocking is more of the Christmas tree ornament variety than the hung-by-the-chimney-with-care sort. There are also two shorts (one approximately 11 minutes, the other almost 23) from The New Adventures of Winnie The Pooh Saturday morning cartoon and games that allow your little one to color and decorate a Christmas tree.

The different types of animation present here lead to a less than stellar result, but the stories of the winter and winter festivities do seem like the perfect fodder for the Hundred Acre Wood characters to use as learning experiences. This is, unquestionably, not their best outing, but may make for an amusing and enjoyable holiday stocking stuffer.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

One Could Observe and Report, but to Simply Ignore may be Wiser

Perhaps best known as "the other 2009 mall cop movie," the Seth Rogen-starring Observe and Report not only trails Paul Blart: Mall Cop in terms of release dates, but laughs as well – and this reviewer didn't find the Kevin James film funny. Where Blart was a good-natured fool, Rogen's Ronnie Barnhardt is a mean-spirited one. Where Blart wanted to actually help people, Barnhardt is interested in no one but himself. Where Blart was sympathetic because one felt he simply didn't – and couldn't – know any better, Barnhardt seems to willingly keep himself in the dark. Consequently, Observe and Report is a glorified look at a person no one should try to emulate.

Written and directed by Jody Hill (Eastbound & Down), the film finds Barnhardt as the head of mall security at the Forest Ridge Mall. Though looked up to by his fellow mall cops, Barnhardt is not only unlikable, but also downright mean – treating everyone and everything in the mall as though it were beneath him. It's not that he aspires to anything better – at least not initially and even then perhaps, not for long – it's just that he has an incredible, and misplaced, sense of self-worth. When a flasher and a robber (separately) attack his mall, Barnhardt is determined to do all in his incredibly limited power to save the place he both loves and despises.

The police, mainly in the form of Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), are on the case, but Barnhardt – who has no training – feels as though he ought to be leading the charge and does so at the expense of the investigations. He even manages to rope his security underlings, who, amazingly, are less intelligent than he is, into feeding any leads they get to him instead of the real cops.

Barnhardt is also presented with two possible love interests in the film – the make-up girl, Brandi (Anna Faris), and the food court girl, Nell (Collette Wolfe). One is loud, obnoxious, and doesn't like Barnhardt, the other is quiet, soft-spoken, and does. Guess who Barnhardt opts to pursue and ends up having a breakdown over?

The biggest problem with the film is not that the jokes fall flat or that the majority of the characters on screen are grotesque and in no way redeemable — that actually seems intentional on the part of Rogen and Hill, that they were in fact trying to make a film about unlikable individuals. No, the biggest problem with the film is that the jokes are mainly based on these unlikable individuals' unlikable actions and that to find the jokes funny one has to sink as low as the characters.

The Blu-ray release of Observe and Report features some good technical work. While it is hard to pick out exactly what is taking place in some of the darker scenes, the amount of detail in the rest of the film is excellent. The colors are sharp and the print – as one would expect from a new film – is free of imperfections. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 channel soundtrack is solid, with gun blasts, dialogue, and music sounding crystal clear. However, the surrounds don't get utilized all that much.

For special features, Observe and Report features not only a picture-in-picture track with Hill, Faris, and Rogen to accompany the film, but a gag reel, deleted/extended scenes, a couple of behind the scenes featurettes, and a fake promotional video for Forest Ridge Mall security. While the featurettes do tend to give the impression that a talented group of people worked on the film, they don't really given an impression of why things went so horribly awry (except partially if Seth Rogen is serious about the lack of effort he puts into preparing). The Blu-ray also comes with a digital copy, although, unbelievably, it's not an iTunes compatible digital copy and won't work on a Mac or any iPod.

It is possible to make a funny movie about unlikable individuals – it's certainly been done before and will be again – Observe and Report though is not that movie. It attempts, in ways that simply do not work, to revel in and make fun of the darkness of its lead character. Rogen, Faris, and Liotta have all done far better, far funnier, movies. This one is best forgotten.

Whoa, was That a FlashForward or Just a Head Rush?

Based oh-so-loosely on the Robert J. Sawyer book of the same name, and perhaps the most ambitious television show to launch this fall, ABC's FlashForward is a drama with a science fiction edge.  In the novel, the main story follows scientists at CERN in Switzerland as they try to discover why exactly an experiment of theirs caused everyone in the world to blackout and gave them an approximately two minute look at their lives two decades down the line, and to deal with the ramifications of said experiment.  The TV series instead focuses on FBI agents in Los Angeles as they try to puzzle together why exactly everyone in the world got an approximately two minute look at their lives several months into their future.

The ramifications of giving everyone a look at their near future versus their distant future are, of course, massive.  The new flashforward event takes place on April 29, 2010, or, right around the date of the season finale if the show makes it that long (for those wondering, April 29 is in fact a Thursday and the show airs on Thursdays).  Thus, it appears as though the producers are going to work their way to the point seen in the flashforwards over the course of the season, finally arriving there on, or just about on, the season finale.  The change of dates of the flashforward may give the story a smaller feel than the it had in the novel, but it certainly works far better (at least in the first season) in terms of story arcs. 

Additionally, moving the story from Switzerland and scientists to Los Angeles and FBI agents adds the ability for the writers to easily include far more action, and perchance an easier time filming on location.  This change, as with the change in the date seen in the future, seems carefully calculated to increase the show's televisual appeal to an American audience.  Whether audiences are interested however is still to be seen.  ABC has launched several high-concept shows over the past few seasons, but has only had middling success with them. 

This particular high-concept sci-fi action thriller stars Joseph Fiennes as FBI agent Mark Benford and John Cho as his partner Demetri Noh.  They are tasked with figuring out what exactly caused the event as Benford, during the event, saw himself working on what caused the event.  Circular logic to be sure, but if the characters the show follows aren't uncovering the reasons for what took place there seems little reason for us to care in any way about them.  They do have their own families issues to deal with as well, so the show isn't exclusively set on the investigation if that does, hopefully, take a position of primacy in the series.  The cast also includes Jack Davenport, Dominic Monaghan, Sonya Walger, and Courtney B. Vance among others.  It's certainly a good cast, and all the actors seem to bring their own personal set of fans to the table.

As for the story itself, the premiere is mainly just setting up all the events that will unfold over the course of the season.  As such, a lot of potentially interesting questions in a lot of different storylines are posed, virtually all of them having to do with how a character gets from their present situation to where they will apparently be on April 29, 2010.  The trick will be for the series to not only make the answers to those questions interesting, but to, at the same time, make the mystery of the event and reasons for it compelling – to simply thrown in a nod to a Large Hadron Collider experiment at CERN taking place, which works for the novel because it follows those characters, will be supremely disappointing.

The concept behind the show is a fascinating one and even switching the characters and location from the novel is not necessarily a bad move on the producers'  (which include David S. Goyer and Brannon Braga) part.  Everything in the premiere is constructed quite well and the performances by the leads are good.  Whether or not the show works in the long term however is going to be solely dependent on the producers' abilities to create an interesting puzzle, give the audience pieces to it on a regular basis, and not cause everyone's head to explode due to the logic gaps so often found in stories about time travel.

FlashForward premieres Thursday September 24 at 8pm on ABC.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mr. Men & Little Miss on DVD

Originally created by Roger Hargreaves in 1971, the Mr. Men series of books have existed in the public consciousness – even if at a subdued level – for almost four decades (the Little Miss series for 10 fewer years). Named for their personality or physical traits, the characters are simple to understand creations drawn in very basic fashion.

The characters have appeared in more than one television series, the most recent of which, The Mr. Men Show, is now being released on DVD. Though the two discs being made available at this point, Little Miss Sunshine Presents: Fun in the Sun! and Mr. Tickle Presents: Tickle Time Around Town, don't represent the entire first season of the series, the nearly two and a half hours of content provided between the two does make for an awful lot of silliness (and a good time as well).

Each DVD contains six episodes and approximately 70 minutes worth of The Mr. Men Show. A typical episode features the characters at the movies, in the mall, at a fair or parade, or in some other similar type of situation. The episode then explores all the different things that occur at such a place. For example, at the fair there are carnival games, a fun house, a pie eating contest, a greased pig contest, and other similar fair activities (though oddly no fried dough). Several characters then explore the various situations to see what they hold – what would Mr. Grumpy think about a fun house, how would Mr. Stubborn react to a whack-a-mole game.

The animation, though apparently done with a computer, has an incredibly simple look to it which perfectly fits in with the original books. The backgrounds are very simplistic, often just single static colors, and the characters (even if they have been slightly altered from their initial appearances) are all brightly colored, mainly round creatures with (usually) short legs and arms. Exceptions to these last characteristics exist as needed, such as with Mr. Tall who has really long legs (to make him tall) and Mr. Tickle who has really long arms (so as to better reach out and touch someone).

The show and the characters do not strive for any sense of reality, just for real characteristics. It seems clear that the characters' personality traits are meant to, in some way, educate children about such characteristics, but they also manage to be a lot of fun for both children and adults. Mr. Stubborn, Mr. Grumpy, Mr. Persnickety, and the other sourpusses may manage to briefly rain on the parade of the other Mr. Men/Little Miss characters, but when you have a name like Little Miss Chatterbox or Little Miss Sunshine or Mr. Happy, how can anyone or anything really keep you down?

The extras included with the DVD are a 16-page storybook, brief clips of the title character, segments on how to draw the character and how the character dances, and a static drawing in which the number of instances of the character has to be counted. Yes, they are all rather simplistic, basic special features, but that doesn't necessarily make them easy – whoever counted up the number of times Little Miss Sunshine appears in the drawing on her DVD did so incorrectly.

That minor inconvenience aside, The Mr. Men Show is an incredibly fun time for both children and adults alike. The characters are silly and while the situations they are put in rather normal, what they do with them is always amusing. And, if for whatever reason the viewer doesn't find them amusing, the show is fast-paced enough that any less liked portion will quickly pass by, leaving the viewer with more Mr. Men fun, and there certainly is a lot of fun to be had.

ABC Goes All-New Wednesdays this Fall - Should You Block off Three Hours of Time?

As I said when ABC first announced his lineup, I was hugely intrigued by their brand-new Wednesday lineup. ABC is going very aggressive on Wednesdays this year, launching four new comedies and a drama. Having now watched the shows, I'm more excited about specific aspects of the lineup than the whole thing in general.

The night doesn't seem to start auspiciously, with Hank, the new Kelsey Grammer starrer, but as that wasn't available in its final form, it's entirely possible that the network will manage to tweak it to the point where it's the best comedy ever. Of course, in its temporary form, the show leaves a lot to be desired. Grammer is Hank, a one-time terribly successful CEO who has been booted from his own company and forced to move back to his hometown with, horror of horrors, his family.

Next up on Wednesdays is The Middle, a new comedy starring Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn. They're married, have three kids, and live in the middle of the country. It may sound perfectly generic, but both Heaton and Flynn are capable, funny actors and good with the material. The actors who play the children, Charlie McDermott, Eden Sher, and Atticus Shaffer, are all amusing without being overly cute. The youngest child in the family, Brick (Shaffer) does appear to be a little too similar to Malcolm in the Middle's Dewey in the pilot, but hopefully as the series progresses the characterization will grow and change.

There doesn't seem, at this point, to be anything new or different or overly quirky about The Middle, it just seems to be a solidly written and acted single-camera comedy. In this day and age where every comedy and drama has a twist or odd hook to bring the audience in, The Middle, relying on those old standbys of funny people and amusing scripts, feels wonderfully fresh.

Modern Family, the 9pm show on Wednesdays, unlike The Middle, opts for a hook – their tale about three nuclear families (who are really a single extended family), with the adult couples – Gloria & Jay, Phil & Claire, and Mitchell & Cameron – being interviewed for a documentary along with their kids. It's clear that each of the families have their own issues: Jay is far older than Gloria and is taking care of her and her 11-year-old son; Phil tries to be one of those "cool" dads and leaves Claire flabbergasted; and Mitchell and Cameron have just adopted a baby and are trying to sort out parental roles in a family with two dads and how to relate to the world around them.

As with The Middle, Modern Family also sports a good cast, including Ed O'Neill, Ty Burrell, and Julie Bowen. There are, unquestionably, some funny moments in the pilot, but it feels exceedingly contrived. Not only is the would-be documentary angle rapidly becoming stale, but the notion that these three families are really one "modern family" feels untrue in the pilot. That is also the exact sort of problem that ought to be alleviated down the line as the audience becomes more familiar with their workings.

The number of different perspectives and characters the show allows for, if it develops them all, could make the series very interesting and deep down the line. As it stands, some of the characters, most notably Burrell's Phil, feel merely like caricatures. The tragically uncool dad who thinks he's cool because he knows the High School Musical dances and how to text (sort of) was a cliché even before High School Musical and texting came about. Burrell can, most certainly, be funny, and while it is momentarily amusing to watch him shoot his son with a BB gun or dunk on the poor kid, it doesn't make for a good character on a weekly basis.

The best of the comedies however seems to be the one that airs last – Cougar Town. Starring Courteney Cox, the series focuses on our culture's latest obsession – attractive middle-aged women, or "cougars." Cox plays Jules, a recent divorcee with a teenage son, trying to figure out about meeting people (perhaps someone a lot younger). Cox is utterly hysterical in the pilot, with several laugh-out-loud moments solely belonging to her, and several others belonging to the supporting cast which includes Christa Miller and Busy Philipps.

For a number of years, NBC's "Must See TV" Thursday lineup was anchored by Friends, a show that was actually a must see. Cox, as Monica, was always a large part of the success of Friends. It is wonderful to report that she is just as funny – if not more so – here in Cougar Town. ABC will not be taking NBC's "must see" slogan, but with Cougar Town in their lineup, it would be hard to make a case against them if they did.

ABC finishes off their Wednesday night lineup with Eastwick, an update of the John Updike novel (and then Jack Nicholson movie), The Witches of Eastwick. The series stars Rebecca Romijn, Lindsay Price, and Jaime Ray Newman as Roxie, Joanna, and Kat respectively. The three are witches who don't know they're witches until a stranger, Darryl Van Horne (Paul Gross), comes to town.

While the movie is a great one, the television pilot feels a little too much like Desperate Housewives with magic. The three female leads all acquit themselves well, particularly Price, whose Joanna is the quickest to embrace her new found witchiness. However, Gross comes off as less a likable Devil and more of an evil donkey. The woman are supposed to be seduced by him, and while they certainly swoon here, the exact reasons for their swooning are wholly unclear to the audience. Whatever magnetism or power Darryl has over them doesn't translate to the viewer.

There's certainly nothing wrong enough with the Eastwick pilot where it's clear that the show can't be great, but the pilot itself isn't great. It does, however, show definite potential. It's got good source material and even if it doesn't follow that material, a great basic concept on which to build. If Gross and the writers can figure out a better way to present Darryl and the witches' growth can be developed in interesting ways the show could be well on its way. The latter here may be far more important than the former, and also far more difficult. Should the witches become too powerful too quickly the show may veer too far into the fantasy realm, and if they don't learn fast enough, it could become overly mundane.

In the final summation, the vast majority of ABC's all-new Wednesday night lineup is already great fun or shows the potential to be fun. Even with the big names they managed to attract, it's still a risky proposition to launch an entirely new set of shows on a single night. They may, however, strike it rich.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ugly Betty's Third Season on DVD

[Editor's note: reviews of season one and season two of Ugly Betty are available here and here, respectively.]

The big news in season three of Ugly Betty is the big move to New York City. No, not Betty's move (although that does occur), the show's move. Although the pilot for the series was shot in New York City, the rest of the first two seasons were shot in Los Angeles. The third season, however, was shot in New York City and that change has a dramatic effect on the series.

Ugly Betty's third season features far more exterior shots of easily recognizable places in Manhattan. The shots all help squarely place a show which takes place in New York City actually in New York City. Additionally, the shots give the series a more dynamic feel – no longer is the show as confined to interiors because no longer does any exterior have to be faked. Where green screen shots used to be used to film scenes outside of Betty's house in Queens, now the third season actually has shots in Queens.

Obsessive fans of the show will also note that the offices of MODE, the magazine Betty works at, have changed somewhat. As documented in one of the special features the changes were necessitated by the new shooting space — it is slightly disconcerting as there is something indefinably "different" about the offices, but the aesthetics of the place remain the same.

Also slightly different in this season of the show are the characters. Yes, Betty Suarez (America Ferrera) still works at the fashion magazine, MODE; still can't dress; and still has an awkward – at best – love life; but her plan for career advancement this season is far more complete than just pleasing her boss and praying that something comes of that. Mark (Michael Urie) and Amanda (Becki Newton) become more three-dimensional characters. Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius) proves he has a heart, and he's even willing (to some extent) to work with Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams).

Even on the home front, things change slightly, with Hilda (Ana Ortiz) staying more grounded in reality and Ignacio (Tony Plana) heart aches and pains. Justin (Mark Indelicato), happily, remains mostly unchanged.

To be sure, none of the changes are major or in any way outlandish – the characters remain the kooky, lovable-even-when-they're-oh-so-evil people they have been in past seasons – they just exhibit the growth one would expect from actual human beings over the course of three years.

The biggest change the show sees creatively this year is the diminishment of multi-episode schemes and mysteries. There are multi-episode story arcs and there are mysteries, but the mysteries seem to not be the multi-episode arcs this go-round. This alteration actually works quite well for the series as all too often soap opera-esque shows that set up such multi-episode mysteries end up never quite reproducing in latter seasons the intrigue – and therefore success – of earlier ones.

At its heart, however, Ugly Betty, even filming in New York, remains true to the show's core concept in the third season. The plotlines that pop up (multi-episode and otherwise) are interesting, and Betty even finds a new love, which, of course, only leads to more problems for her.

In the review of season two's boxed set, it was noted that Mark and Amanda were two of the best characters on the show, and that remains true in the third season. The two, as noted above, do become more three-dimensional this year (Mark as he relates to Betty's life at a publishing training program and Amanda as Betty's roommate). Additionally, this year's boxed set even features webisodes of Mode After Dark, which focus exclusively on Mark and Amanda at the office at night.

Season three also features its share of guest stars, unquestionably the best of which is Bernadette Peters' recurring role as the instructor in Betty's training program. Peters, always dynamic whether on stage, in film, or on television, portrays the exact sort of over-the-top funny character that fits in perfectly with the world of Ugly Betty.

In addition to the aforementioned special features, the new boxed set contains a blooper reel, copious amounts of deleted scenes, an audio commentary from producers for an episode, and one episode with a picture-in-picture discussion with Urie and Newton.

Though Ugly Betty's ratings may have been down in its third season, the show remains just as fun, involving, and fresh as it was in its first two outings. I certainly hope to see many more season boxed sets in the future.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

How I Met Your Mother Launches Season Five

How I Met Your Mother, CBS's comedy focusing on one man, Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor), recounting to his children the search he went on to find the love of his life and mother of his children, is now entering its fifth season. Ted, however, often seems no closer to actually finding the woman in question, even if they repeatedly have crossed paths.

The fifth season premiere actually features Ted teaching a class where said mother is a student, but there is no actual indication that the two will ever meet under these circumstances. For the show, however, that's not a real problem; the series is built on the search for the mother, and Ted's finding her may mean the end of what has, for four years now, been one of the most consistently funny shows on television.

Those who do, however, wish to see their comedies feature coupling (but not in a graphic way) do have some options on How I Met Your Mother. The series features Ted and his four best friends, two of whom, Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan), began the show as a couple. Additionally, the finale of the fourth season featured the possible coupling of the other two, Barney (Neil Patrick Harris in a role for which he has been nominated for several Emmys) and Robin (Cobie Smulders). It is with the thread of this last possible relationship that the fifth season of the show begins.

Neither Barney nor Robin however are really the couple type. That is to say, that while they see members of the opposite sex for romantic encounters on a regular or semi-regular basis (Barney is something of a ladies man), neither has ever really been into Sunday brunch, the farmers' market, and antiquing – the well-known couple hotspots. It is clear though that the fifth season will feature the two of them at the very least contemplating some sort of bed and breakfast, weekend in the country at one of those quaint places with ruffles sort of activity. Well, they may not quite go that far, but they are, at the very least, going to be mulling over the possibility that the two are right for one another. It will be a bold experiment for these two whose personalities don't necessarily lend themselves to being in a long-term romantic relationship (even if Robin did date Ted for a while).

What the possible relationship hasn't affected however is the show's sense of humor or the dynamic amongst the characters. The season premiere may not be as riotously funny as other episodes, but it is unquestionably amusing and does feature more than one laugh-out-loud moment.

Both Smulders and Hannigan were pregnant during portions of the previous season of the show which led to not just some episodes missing a key character, but also some semi-creative camera trickery and the strategic placing of very large purses. The show did deal with the pregnancies well, but it will be nice to see both actresses returning to full time duty on a show in which they both play integral roles.

How I Met Your Mother, while it has never been a ratings blockbuster, has maintained a distinctive voice and sense of humor over the course of its first four seasons and it has not lessened in this season's premiere. The show doesn't seem as though it will suffer from the possible creation of a romantic relationship amongst two of its main characters – something that other shows don't deal as well with – particularly as Robin only really joined the group because Ted was interested in her.

While early seasons of the show left some fans feeling distress over whether or not Ted would finally meet the mother, as the show progresses that seems to be less of an issue. The series is far more about Ted's journey than Ted's final success. The audience is already aware that Ted will, eventually, meet a woman and have two kids (at least) with her, so the longer the show can have Ted's journey take, the more episodes there will be, for it is the creation of that last relationship which may signal HIMYM's death knell. After all, once Ted meets the mother, the story Ted is telling his kids (the entire series is a flashback) must end. He may begin a new one that he can stretch out over 100 episodes — our storyteller is quite adept at shaggy dog tales — but it will be a new tale and this reviewer is not ready for the current one to end.

How I Met Your Mother airs Monday nights at 8pm on CBS.

Kicking the Tires on Dirt 2

Dirt 2, a new off-road racing game from Codemasters, features not just great racing, but loads of courses, cars, events, race modes, and actual pro rally racers including Dave Mirra, Travis Pastrana, and Ken Block.  All these things however are not just all thrown into the game in willy-nilly fashion, there seems to be ad deliberate choice behind how the game was structured so that neophytes can easily be brought up to speed while off-road enthusiasts won't feel as though they're experience is overly dumbed-down (it's only slightly dumbed-down).

Available for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii and DS, PSP, and PC (i.e., every system under the sun), Dirt 2 begins simply enough, with users creating a character and being introduced to their home base, a trailer that magically goes around the world with them – something even the makers of the game acknowledge in-game as being a little silly.  Dirt 2Players are instantly given cars that, while not as serious as ones that can be purchased down the line, are certainly powerful enough to win races and cause massive amounts of damage.

The game features five regular types of races (rally, trailblazer, raid, landrush, and rallycross) and three specials types (gatecrasher, domination, and last man standing).  Before its played for the first time, an introductory video on each type of race is played so that users will have a rough idea of what to expect.  Then, prior to each race, users select their car either from ones currently unlocked, or they can unlock new ones with cash earned from previous races.  After modifying horns, ornaments, and liveries (just for kicks), players are transported to the race and get to tweak gear ratios, downforces, suspension, ride height, differential, and brake bias. 

It is actually here in this last moment where the game does feel slightly tweaked to favor neophytes.  Each of these customizations has five different settings, and while they do alter the way a car handles, they do not do so in an overly drastic fashion – one can't possibly make their car too weak or too unmaneuverable by altering any of the settings.  Additionally, one isn't given any concrete numbers as to how they're changing the setting, it's just a range from one not-so-extreme end to the other not-so-extreme end denoted by boxes.

While having tons of differing cars, races, etc., is all well and good, without fun race mechanics, Dirt 2 would be a disaster.  Happily, the races actually play out in terrific fashion.  The graphics are sharp, the controls precise, races fast, and the cars often terribly touchy.  Tap the breaks incorrectly or don't life the accelerator quite enough and one can easily find themselves flying off the Dirt 2course, over a ditch, all while doing a barrel roll or two.  Because of that, depending on the difficult the user is playing on, they are given a specific number of "flashbacks."  These handy-dandy little things allow the user to go into the instant replay, rewind time a little (the game does not allow one to go back very far), and pick up the race before things went so heinously wrong.

Flashbacks are a great inclusion by the developers, because they allow the game to be less forgiving in terms of race mechanics.  Of course, eventually a player will run out of their allotment of flashbacks during a race and then have to tread oh-so-carefully (although, for the sake of one's personal pride they may choose to forego the flashbacks from the start).

The game features tons of unlockables beyond just the ability to purchase new cars based on cash earned in wins.  There are tons of liveries, horns, and toys given for wins as well.  Additionally, by earning experience points players level up, unlocking more races and countries to race in.  There are also extra "missions" within races (winning a race after doing a 360 degree spin, etc.) which earn one experience points.  In short, there seems to always be a way to earn extra experience, extra cash, level up, and/or unlock brand new bonuses in the game, making it almost as exciting outside a race as inside one.

Dirt 2 is an adrenaline-inducing thrill ride of a game, and while the point may be to not knock people around, nudging one's opponent into a spin which forces them into a wall and out of the race has never felt quite so good.  Online multiplayer racing – which is just as much fun as offline, looks just as good, and plays just as fast – apparently frowns on this little tactic, giving players an "Impact Rating" which shows just how often one "accidentally" bumps someone else.  Dirt 2
It is again here, with "rubbing" and minor accidents (either single or multiple car ones) where the game feels slightly dumbed down.  While there are several different levels of difficulty, and the seriousness of an accident does climb with the difficulty setting, cars can take far more of a pounding in the game than one imagines they would take in reality.  The most smashed-up car with major engine damage and major wheel damage will perform less well than a pristine vehicle, but generally not to the point where it hampers the player to the point where they can't win (although, it should be noted, that one can crash a car badly enough so that one is eliminated from the race).

The plethora of courses (and different versions of the same course depending on the specific type of race) and locations make each race in the game unique, and each look great.  It is a shame that one can't spend enough time looking at the backgrounds on the race courses as that will only lead to yet another spectacular crash.

Dirt 2 is an incredibly fun racing game, one that doesn't take itself too seriously and has a huge number of things to accomplish/unlock.  The game's learning curve allows one to start winning races very early on, but not feel like they have truly "figured it out" until much later. 

Dirt 2 is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for lyrics and mild suggestive themes. It is also available on (or will be soon): Xbox 360, Wii, Nintendo DS, Sony PSP, and PC

four stars out of five

Friday, September 18, 2009

Something of an Easy Virtue

Based on Noël Coward's play of the same name, the 2008 film Easy Virtue uneasily pits an American woman against her new British mother-in-law in a battle of the wills. Directed by Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) and with a screenplay by Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins, the film is never quite sure whether it is a comedy or a drama and suffers greatly as a result.

In its comedic moments the film, which stars Jessica Biel as an American race car driver, Larita, and Kristin Scott Thomas as her mother-in-law, Veronica Whitaker, is uproariously funny, using both sight gags and clever dialogue. In its more dramatic moments, the proceedings come to a screeching halt and Easy Virtue becomes exceedingly tedious.

The film opens on a lighter note, with introduction of Larita to the audience followed quickly by a move to England, where Mrs. Whitaker and her husbandEasy Virtue (the always enjoyable Colin Firth) quickly learn of Larita marrying their son, John (Ben Barnes). Mrs. Whitaker is displeased to say the least – her family has certain appearances to keep up and her boy marrying an American as opposed to marrying one of their well-to-do friends is wholly unacceptable. For his part, Colonel Whitaker is happy for his son provided that his son is happy, but he is the outlier in his family, having spent several years carousing in Europe following World War I and subsequently being emotionally detached from the rest of his family.

The Colonel is also the only family member, save John, who likes Larita. His defending her, however, doesn't mean much as he lacks the respect of his family. He finds in Larita a woman with a similar attitude – someone who finds life and people amusing and who doesn't approve of upper crust British snobbery.

As the film progresses, a battle plays out between Larita and Mrs. Whitaker. John's sisters Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson) tend to find themselves siding with their mother, while the Colonel (as stated above) comes down on the side Easy Virtueof Larita. It is poorJohn who finds himself in the middle – torn between the woman he loves and his rather severe mother.

It is the battle – and not John's relation to it – that is at the center of the story. The fight leads to some truly hysterical scenes as the two women, either by accident or on purpose, wreak havoc on one another and the family.

When played for laughs, as it often is, the fight between the two makes the film fly by. The basic problem with the film however, as stated above, is that there are moments where, for no discernible reason, the script and Elliott's direction of it chooses to shift gears and go serious. There are, of course, terribly serious things happening to many of the characters, but the change from comedy to drama and back again is a jarring one. There seems little reason for the tonal shift which lends the impression that Elliott simply either didn't know how to make the dramatic scenes funny Easy Virtueor that he didn't know whether he wanted to be making a comedy or a drama and instead opted for both.

One of the main reasons the film simply doesn't work as a drama is that the characters, when portrayed in a serious fashion, tend to be very unlikable. Kristin Scott Thomas' Veronica has reasons for acting the way she does, but the film spends little time with them and gives them little credence, so when she is serious her attitude towards Larita is wholly off-putting. Played for laughs on the other hand, she makes the perfect villain for the piece.

The film does have more than one story taking place — there are a lot of undercurrents — but several of those stories wind up untold or under-developed. John's two sisters both have their own issues in terms of finding suitable partners in marriage, and while the film starts exploring those problems, it never really progresses before the final credits roll. There is certainly more that could have been done with those plots, and the audience is left feeling as though those characters have never truly progressed.

In a film in which the dialogue is terribly important, the TrueHD 5.1 channel soundtrack works well, with the audio track sparkling just as much as the dialogue. When the track is required to do more than produce dialogue (during dances and fox hunts and the like), the track works equally well. The color palette is a toned-down one (the film takes place during the late fall and early winter), so there isn't much in the way of bright colors to astound, but there is a good amount of detail present.

In terms of extras, the film contains a commentary track with Elliott and Jobbins, deleted scenes, and a blooper reel. There is also a short featurette with clips from the New York premiere in which the stars talk about the film. There is nothing much to be gleaned from this last inclusion, and the space could better have been spent with more of an in-depth look at the production. It should also be noted that while the disc this reviewer received contained a link to Sony's BD-Live, attempting to connect only ever resulted in an error message.

Though it is often uneven, Easy Virtue still manages to be a likable film. It does get terribly bogged down at moments, but one still comes away from it feeling as though their time was well spent.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Drunken Boxing Anyone?

An indirect sequel to 1978's Drunken Master, 1994's The Legend of Drunken Master stars Jackie Chan as Wong Fei Hung, a relatively young man who has learned from his father the "drunken boxing" style of kung fu. Directed by Chia-Liang Liu, the film is an excellent example of why Jackie Chan is famous – it is full of not just great fights and some pretty incredible stunts, all of which Chan does himself, but is also truly funny.

The story in The Legend of Drunken Master is none too developed, but is enough to give Chan multiple opportunities to show his craft. Such as it is, the tale starts with Wong Fei Hung returning from a trip with his father, Wong Kei Ying (Lung Ti), and their servant, Tso (Chi-Kwong Cheung), on a train. Fei Hung is trying to smuggle some ginseng which is wrapped in exactly identical fashion to a stolen artifact being taken out of the country by the British ambassador. The two items get switched, and Fei Hung and his family quickly find themselves involved in the intrigue (as surely it is up to them to prevent the British from smuggling artifacts out of the country). As it turns out, though they don't know it, they're already involved as Kei Ying's school is right next to the ambassador's home and the ambassador doesn't appreciate being kept up late at night due to Kei Ying's students practicing.

It's an unnecessary confluence of events, as the entire point of the film is to find an excuse for Jackie Chan to show off his martial arts skills and simply rescuing the artifacts is enough of a reason. Additionally, as one would expect, there are fights even if there isn't much of a reason for them to exist – such as in Fei Hung's battle at the market with Tsang (Felix Wong), the fishmonger.

Chan has made a career of being able to take his kung fu abilities and add to them (and his films) a sense of humor. He is a fantastic physical comedian, and his fusing of comedy with kung fu is always wonderful to behold. As he states in the bonus feature (more on that below), while the kung fu he displays in the film is ludicrous if one actually wants to win a fight, it does look great.

While there are several impressive battles in this film, the best are the first – in which Fei Hung fights with a then unknown to him man under a train – and the last, in which Fei Hung battles John (Ken Lo) in an iron factory. The confined space of the first fight leads to truly impressive moves, whereas the latter has a fire-based stunt that had to be scary for both Chan and the crew watching him.

The film isn't solely comedy and kung fu based; there are some serious moments as well. Fei Hung's drunken boxing requires him to not just dance around in a battle as though he's drunk, but, if he wants to be at his most powerful, to actually drink heavily as well. His father has done his best to explain to Fei Hung the fine line between being a great drunken boxer and simply being a drunk, but for much of the film Fei Hung lists much more towards the latter than the former. It's a thread which is never fully explored, and magically, there's a throwaway line at the end of the film which indicates (at least in this dub) that Fei Hung may have found the perfect level of drunkenness.

Speaking of dubs, the Blu-ray does not contain the original Cantonese audio track, though Chan does do his own voice on the English 5.1 DTS-HD one. The track does lead to some cliché-like moments in terms of syncing lip movement and dialogue, but at least the voice we all know is present. There are, however, odd mixing issues with the track, on several occasions between scenes (and sometimes in the middle of them), the levels rise dramatically – usually this occurs as a fight is about to begin and is terribly jarring. The visuals are none-too-stunning here either. The colors are washed out and make the film look far older than it is, as does the fact that the print used has scratches and other imperfections.

As for the special features, the only one that exists is a short, approximately seven minute, interview with Jackie Chan. While nominally interesting, it does come off as a little more strictly promotional than it should.

The Blu-ray definitely does have deficiencies in its presentation, but even with them Chan is still at his best here in the film and a true master of his art. The Legend of Drunken Master may not feature the greatest of plots, but the martial arts on display are the real reason to watch it and what the audience gets there is great.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Wielding Muramasa: The Demon Blade

Muramasa: The Demon Blade, available exclusively for the Nintendo Wii, is the perfect example of style over substance.  It's not that the game is completely devoid of content and depth, it's just that the visuals are over-the-top wonderful and the gameplay strictly mediocre.

A 2D side-scroller imported from Japan, the game still has a very foreign feel to it.  While English subtitles do appear in the game, there is still a lot of Japanese characters informing players about where they are and all the spoken dialogue is in Japanese.  Of course, the story itself – or the part of it that is decipherable – has a very Japanese feel to it, so to have the ninja princess speak in Japanese isn't terribly distracting or off-putting.  No, the distracting part are the actual words that she says, because even after playing the game as both Momohime (the ninja princess) and Kisuke (the amnesiac boy), the plot is still something of a mystery.  The players two tales do overlap to some extent, and one does clear up some questions about the other, but not to the point where the goings-on are completely decipherable.

Of course, the mechanics of the gameplay are so easy and feel so rewarding, plus the visuals (which we'll get to later) are so astounding, that it doesn't really matter terribly much that it's incredibly difficult to figure out exactly what's happening.  It would be nice to understand more about how and why Momohime's soul got pushed out of her body, but it's not essential.

Mainly an action game, Muramasa features very basic attack mechanics – virtually all that's required is for the player to hit A repeatedly while moving up, down, backwards, and forwards on the control stick to perform some pretty impressive combos.  Players can level-up with regularity and unlock tons of new weapons – which is really where the game is at its best.  There is an RPG-like system for forging new swords.  It involves not only finding one's that can't be forged out in the world of Muramasa, but also having enough spirit and having collected enough souls from vanquished opponents.  A wide and deep tree, one will often have to back track and create a less good sword that was bypassed in order to create a needed, stronger one down the line.

Other RPG elements exist as well, things such as the need to purchase recipe books on featuring different types of cooking and finding/purchasing the different foodstuffs required to actual make the dishes.  Cooking food restores health, fills the player up to a certain degree (not always a degree equivalent to the amount of health restored) and gain spirit.

The world of the game consists of discrete towns and villages players can see on a world map, with the paths players will have to take between them shown.  Shortcuts do exist, but not all are available at the outset of the game as having certain swords allows for magical barriers blocking the paths (and certain dungeons) to be broken.  The construction of the world in this fashion has both good and points.  Certainly, the game, even with its tale of vengeful spirits, ghosts, and demons and trips to Hell (literally), feels very strongly grounded due to the map.  However, there are plenty of places in the game which can't be visited (due to not having the proper sword or not being of a high enough level) when they're first seen, and a lot of backtracking is required, and as it takes an extended period of time to travel between towns, backtracking through mainly empty screens in order to go back and do a side quest or fill in a blank becomes tedious.

While the choice to do a limited amount of localization for the US with the game usually seems like a conscious decision, at other points in the game one can't quite tell whether certain things exist because they simply weren't translated or because they were just created incorrectly to begin with.  The best example of this is the amount of life a player has.  Represented as a "life flame" in the upper left corner of the gameplay screen, the number is displayed as a fraction.  While life is often given as a fraction, in this case, the fraction features the denominator on top and the numerator on the bottom (i.e., 200/180 for a character that has 180 hit points left out of a possible 200).  On menu screens, this number is then displayed in the more traditional (some would say "correct") numerator over denominator format.

Another drawback in the game is that despite the lack of depth to fighting, the game seems to be unable to handle the multiple characters that can be onscreen at once and the combo attacks which can take them out.  When multiple enemies get struck at a single time, the game has a tendency to stutter – everything stops for a split-second before resuming once more. 

All of these problems – odd story, shallow fighting, weird displays – are easily forgotten however simply by looking at the game.  It is, to put it mildly, visually stunning.  The look of every single character, and background, and foreground, and sword, and item is incredible.  The graphics are touted as hand-drawn and feature loads of detail and great lighting.  Wandering through empty lands repeatedly in order to pick up that which was inaccessible before is still annoying, but at least it looks great, as do the numerable bosses that are to be found (boss battles are highly involved and strategic things, while the rest of the enemies can be disposed of hack-and-slash style).

Murmasa: The Demon Blade proves, once again, that the 2D side-scroller is far from dead.  The game is a sheer joy to look at, and while the action may not be as in-depth as one would like in regular battles, there is enough going on to keep a player involved throughout.  And, very happily, it doesn't resort to any Nintendo Wii "just shake the Wii remote to do everything" foolishness.  The game is far from perfect, but it's certainly worth looking at.

 Muramasa: The Demon Blade is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for alcohol reference, fantasy violence, and suggestive themes.

Four stars out of five.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Meet the New Jay Leno Show, Same as the Old Jay Leno Show

On Monday night, NBC unveiled the biggest risk of the 2009 television season – Jay Leno.  Leno may have been hugely successful for well over a decade on The Tonight Show, but giving him an hour a night, every night Monday through Friday or, roughly 23 percent of their primetime schedule, is a huge risk.  But, was it any good?

Well, if you liked Leno's Tonight Show (and many people did) than you probably will like The Jay Leno Show.  As much as NBC and Leno have said that it wouldn't be the same program, it was close enough so as to not make much of a difference.

The show started off with Jay coming out and greeting fans who rushed the stage and then he quickly went into a monologue about everything that had been happening since he was off the air.  Or, in other words, it was the exact sort of thing Jay did on The Tonight Show.  Later in the show, he even did a "Headlines" segment; NBC had already made it clear that "Headlines" would be a part of the new show, and while it has been a popular segment, it in no way helped differentiate the new show from the old show.

Even Jerry Seinfeld, Leno's first guest, joked about the new show being essentially the old show continued.  It is true that the interview with Seinfeld wasn't conducted with Leno behind a desk as it would have been on the old Jay Lenoshow, but even Leno wasn't foolish enough to point out that small difference.  The interview was a good one, and featured a surprise appearance (via satellite) from Oprah.  The conversation was even cleverly steered towards marriage and marriage strife, although the conversation didn't actually get to mentioning Seinfeld's new NBC show, The Marriage Ref, but it did plant the seed for when that show does premiere after the Winter Olympics.

The funniest bit of the night might have been the start of Leno's fake interview with Barack Obama.  The piece featured Leno in one shot asking a question and Obama in another, clearly answering a different question from a different interviewer.  Much like a taped segment which featured Dan Finnerty (The Hangover) trying to sing to people at a carwash, the Obama piece, which started off funny, petered out by the end. 

As promised, the show also featured a more "newsy" aspect, with Leno interviewing Kanye West about West's outburst at the VMAs the night before.  West said that he felt bad and apologized about his actions, which West said he realized were wrong as soon as he returned the microphone to Taylor Swift.  Leno proceeded to ask what West's mom would have thought of his actions.  In what was almost certainly the most true moment of the interview, West failed to have an immediate answer and became quite emotional.

It was at that point that the show was at its best, and perhaps also its most awkward. West eventually recovered and then sidestepped the question, but in that moment, Leno clearly actually forced West to think about what he'd done rather than West simply stating that he was wrong.  Leno, taking a paternal stance to West was unquestionably odd, and one can't really see Leno having taken the next step and grounding West for his actions, but it did show Leno's desire to ask somewhat tougher, all be they awkward, questions.

In the end, the question still remains as to whether or not a primetime version of The Tonight Show airing five days a week can possibly be successful.  It seems almost certain that the show will live and die by the guests on it from day-to-day, but as a primetime platform to promote music, television, and all other manner of things it does seem a good one.  It will be very interesting to revisit the series as well as both its and the network's success in six months to a year.

The Jay Leno Show airs Monday thru Friday on NBC at 10pm.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Why, it's a Bonanza!

The first regular hour-long primetime series to air entirely in color, Bonanza, is also one of the longest-running series in television history. The show ran for 14 years, the first of which was 1959, and that, if one is counting, makes Bonanza 50 years old. Though the show aired on NBC, it was produced by Paramount and consequently it is Paramount/CBS that is currently bringing the show to DVD. Releasing this week are two volumes of Bonanza: The Official First Season. Each volume contains four discs and 16 episodes of the series, and together make up the entire 32-episode first season (pretty impressive considering today's television seasons tend to be closer to 24 episodes).

Bonanza, which stars Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker, and Michael Landon, is the tale of the Cartwrights and their ranch, the Ponderosa. Green is Ben Cartwright, father of Adam (Roberts), Hoss (Blocker), and Little Joe (Landon) – all of whom have different mothers (poor Ben is a widower several times over). Together, the four men raise cattle and do their best to protect their precious Ponderosa from the ever-encroaching Virginia City, with its miners and rapscallions. The Cartwrights are quick thinkers (save Hoss, he's the emotional core of the group and the show), often quick-witted (again, save Hoss), and quick to anger towards family, friends, and enemies alike. Family may always come first, but that doesn't mean, even as the beginning of the pilot shows, that they'll back down in front of their loved ones.

Season one of the show takes place (for the most part) right around 1860 and therefore during the approach of the Civil War. While the series does center itself around the world events of the time period on occasion, more often than not the plot revolves around a dastardly scheme to either steal land, cattle, or money from the Cartwrights or the downtrodden – typical Western fare.

While the odds are certainly against this DVD set sparking interest in younger viewers for a show which began 50 years ago, that is certainly unfortunate. CBS/Paramount have done a fantastic job bringing the show to DVD, one would never guess the series' age if it weren't for some of the promos and unrestored footage included along with it. The series also helps hide its age by being a period piece – the 1860s are the 1860s, whether they're depicted in 1959 or 2009. The way in which stories are told about the time period may differ today, but the clothes, speech, and manner of dress haven't (even if Doc Brown did have trouble getting Marty appropriate attire only four years prior to the start of Bonanza).

Even today, Bonanza is compelling. Greene, Landon, Roberts, and Blocker are iconic figures in their roles – even those who haven't seen the show ought to be at least vaguely aware of them – and watching the stories, and the way they unfold, is still gripping. The show does an excellent job of establishing the characters and where they are from – they may all live together now, but all three of the Cartwright kids have very different heritages due to their different mothers. The series also does a great job, especially when episodes are screened back-to-back, of interspersing more dramatic episodes with more comical ones, and the actors are all certainly up to the task of taking on both genres.

That is not to say that the show is without drawbacks – most notably, the famous character of Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung) is little more than a poorly drawn and offensive caricature. Additionally, it is hard to imagine creating an episode today which discusses the upcoming Civil War without mention of the issues of slavery as "A House Divided" does. It is in moments such as these that viewers stop considering the series as taking place in mid-19th century and rather consider its production in the mid-20th.

In terms of bonus features, Bonanza: The Official First Season is loaded with goodies that true fans of the series and the Golden Age of television will love. There are numerable episode-specific photo galleries, and some episodes also contain the original episodic promos. Two of them (one in each volume) even have the original NBC network logo, bumpers, and RCA spots. Other included bonuses are short clips with series creator David Dortort reminiscing about the actors and production, an episode of Fireside Theatre from 1953 which helped lead to Bonanza, and an alternate ending to the pilot which features the Cartwrights singing.

It may not be perfect, but Bonanza is, 50 years later, still a wonder to behold. The discs have been remastered and consequently probably look far better than they did when initially received by over-the-air broadcasts. Anyone who ever loved the series will greatly enjoy adding these volumes to their collection and anyone who ever wondered what all the fuss over Hoss and Joe and all the kin was about would do well to check them out.

Friday, September 11, 2009

NCIS: Los Angeles - The Review

One of the things that makes the original NCIS a great show is its ability to deftly blend comedy with its dramatic storylines.  The characters on the series aren't just investigators, they're… well… characters.  That alone truly sets NCIS apart from CBS' glut of procedural dramas.  Why then the new NCIS spinoff, NCIS: Los Angeles would opt to tone down the one thing that makes NCIS different is a little hard to explain.

Several weeks ago I wrote about watching the backdoor pilot for NCIS: LA, the two-part NCIS episode "Legend."  I said that the characters showed potential to be interesting, but that until I screened an actual episode of the new series it would be impossible to truly judge it based solely on the backdoor pilot.

Having now watched a full episode of NCIS: LA it appears quite certain that while the show fits perfectly into CBS' procedural drama bread-and-butter milieu, the show almost wholly lacks the quirkiness which makes NCIS so palatable.  Gone is the hard-nosed elder statesman and leader of the NCIS team, Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), and in his place, are G. Callen (Chris O'Donnell) and Sam Hanna (LL Cool J).  While both men are fine actors, they seem to have been cast more for their looks and potential 18-49 demographic appeal than for what they can truly bring to the roles.

Humor is brought to the table, mainly by the addition of Linda Hunt to the cast.  She plays Henrietta "Hetty" Lange, and runs the NCIS: LA division, which, even though Rocky Carroll appears as Director Vance from time to time, puts her more in the Vance role on NCIS than the Gibbs one.  There are other people in the cast who seem as though they'll bring an element of humor to the proceedings as well, but they all remain secondary – or tertiary – to O'Donnell and LL's characters and therefore the humor remains subdued at best.

Instead of humor, the show seems to offer a "more is better" type of philosophy which just ends up playing out as a "more is more" one.  In addition to having more gunfights, the show, very interestingly, has more still shots heading into and out of commercial.  Though they weren't present initially on NCIS, a hallmark of the show has become a still (or nearly still) black and white image being shown upon returning from a commercial break, and the show progresses over the course of that act until it arrives at that image.  NCIS: LA doesn't use just one image, instead opting for an excessive series of them, all of which (it seems) occur at some point during the act.  As with the casting of O'Donnell and LL Cool J, it seems like a deliberate choice on the part of the producers to try and "liven" things up and, hopefully, play towards a younger audience.

On the plus side, the overabundance of technology I noted in "Legend" has been greatly minimized.  There are still fancy computers which can do impossible things present, but the technology in the premiere takes a backseat to the characters, something that wasn't the case in "Legend." 

NCIS: Los Angeles might be a massive success for the network – they do procedural crime shows better than anyone and have a great track record in recent years with them – but that doesn't necessarily make it a good show. The problem is simply that NCIS: LA  appears to be yet another in a long line of such dramas on the network and with little to differentiate it from them.  Yes, this may be the only show CBS has that is located in Los Angeles and features members of the NCIS Office of Special Projects who like to go undercover at the drop of a hat, but that's not really enough.

Me, I'm going to stick with Jethro Gibbs and company this fall rather than hopping over to LA.

NCIS: Los Angeles premieres September 22 at 9:00pm on CBS.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Robin Hood Returns!

When the titular character gets tossed from the top of a cliff to certain death within the first five minutes of a season premiere, it's entirely probable that the death is not so certain.  But, this is Robin Hood and in this version of the classic tale, the producers have no compunction about altering key elements of the well-known story.  As last season taught the viewer, anyone can die at anytime.

The series, which stars Jonas Armstrong as Robin, is beginning its third season this Saturday on BBC America and has a hero who, at the outset, finds himself at his wit's end.  To understand exactly how Robin has arrived at this odd crossroads, it is absolutely necessary to know what happened at the close of season two (don't read beyond this point if you want to be surprised by what has come before). 

The finale of the second season featured Robin and his band in the Holy Land trying to save King Richard from an evil plot being orchestrated by the Sherriff of Nottingham.  Robin manages to foil the plot and marry Marian, but when Guy of Gisborne learns of the girl he loves marrying Robin, he kills her.  Understandably, Robin does not take the death of his bride particularly well, hence his distressed state at the outset of this new season.

Robin, of course, doesn't die when he gets thrown off a cliff at the beginning of the third season, but the events do show that we may be getting a new Robin this go-round.  In the past, Robin has been held in check by his love for Marian and his desire to protect her, with that check removed, there seems little to stop Robin from going off half-cocked on some "damn fool idealistic crusade."  Or, there would be if one of the season's new characters, Friar Tuck (David Harewood), weren't to show up and do his best to convince Robin and everyone else who will listen that Robin is more than a man, that he'sright an ideal and a legend.

Returning alongside Robin this season are his men, Much (Sam Troughton), Little John (Gordon Kennedy), and Allan A Dale (Joe Armstrong).  The group is slimmed down from the end of the second season, with Will and Djaq apparently making good on their promise to stay in the Holy Land.  Of course, with the quick addition of Friar Tuck and the addition in later episodes of Kate (Joanne Froggatt), the merry men and women quickly return to their previous size.

The baddies are back for another season too, with the Sherriff of Nottingham (Keith Allen) and Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage) still fighting their own battles against the King, and, interestingly as the series progresses, Prince John and each other.  It seems as though the events that took place in the Holy Land have greatly affected these men, their perceptions of the world around them, and their loyalties. 

While the Sherriff may have lost some of his place in the power structure of the nation under Prince John, it is Gisborne who is truly suffering.  He may have murdered Marian, but he also loved her deeply and is greatly affected by her death.  Armitage plays the part beautifully, not only looking like an empty shell of a man in the seasGuy of Gisborneon premiere, but also conveying a sense of mourning from within as well.  He blames himself, he blames the Sherriff, he blames Robin, and he is a man on the verge of complete collapse.  One can only wonder where the rest of the season will take him.

What is most interesting about the first couple of episodes of this new season – and hopefully something which continues for the episodes still to come – is the huge change in character dynamics.  Though the characters in this version of the tale have never stuck to the straight and narrow, the producers now seem completely unencumbered by any previous versions of the story.  It is nice to see that rather than treading on safe ground, rather than recasting Marian or bringing back Lucy Griffiths to the role and declaring that which came before as a dream sequence or some other "safe" choice, the producers have chosen to truly make the legend their own. 

The second season of Robin Hood, from its very outset, upped the ante, making the villains larger and the stakes greater.  It worked very well, but the choice now in the third season to seemingly go smaller, to turn the story from massive plots to backstabbing and in-fighting also seems appropriate.  One can only make the plots so big before they turn into Doctor Evil sharks with lasers super-villainy.  What it appears the third season is headed towards is a look at how the man Robin of Locksley truly becomes the legend Robin Hood. 

The BBC has already announced that there will be no fourth season of the series, which is a shame because the series is not only cleverly constructed, but wonderfully acted and completely fascinating.  Through the years the tale has been told many times and there have been many Robins and Marians and Merry Men – the shoes one has to fill to be in a new version are tremendous, but everyone involved in this production has proven themselves more than capable.

Season three of Robin Hood premieres Saturday September 12 at 9:00pm on BBC America.