Sunday, February 24, 2008

Awake - DVD Review

Awake is, to the best of my knowledge, the first film to tackle the concept of “anesthetic awareness”, in which a patient is fully conscious of their experiences throughout surgery, though they are completely paralyzed and helpless to do anything. They can hear everything going on around them, they can feel every second of pain, but they can not alert anyone to their suffering. I don’t mean to make light of anyone’s tragedy, but the same description can be used to describe how I felt watching this movie to write my review. Trapped. Forced to listen and endure the pain. Hearing everything and feeling incredibly uncomfortable, but having no power to stop it. My apologies for a tasteless joke – but bad movies inspire bad humor.

Awake, written and directed by Joby Harold, tells the story of Clay Beresford (Hayden Christensen), a young businessman involved in a secret love affair with his mother’s personal assistant, Sam Lockwood (Jessica Alba). Clay suffers from an undisclosed heart condition that necessitates a heart transplant, and he intends to have his friend Dr. Jack Harper (Terrance Howard) perform the surgery despite the four malpractice suits Harper is facing. Clay’s overbearing and domineering mother (played with an incestuous flair by Lena Olin) wants the procedure done by a close friend of hers, who is one of the top doctors in the world.

Clay and Sam reveal their engagement to his mother, a fight occurs, the couple rush to get married and on that very same night, a donor is found. Clay is rushed to surgery, and on the operating table, he experiences anesthetic awareness. Completely awake and aware of the slice of the scalpel, the discomfort of the breathing tube, and the opening of his chest cavity, Clay is nevertheless able to crack a few jokes and delight the viewer with a terribly monotone voiceover. During the procedure, he also becomes enlightened to a devious plot to end his life. The rest of the film is essentially Clay reliving the first half of the movie via an out-of-body experience, and figuring out the details of the crime, along with learning a life lesson or two.

On paper, Awake probably sounded like a really good idea. There’s a few decent plot twists, and it is somewhat interesting to watch the mystery play out. The concept of anesthetic awareness is terrifying on its own, and doesn’t even need a murder mystery plot to be scary. The film translation of this notion, however, is a different story. Rather than simply try to be a pulse-pounding thriller, the movie takes itself way to seriously in its attempts to be some sort of in-depth character study and ends up becoming laughable.

While most of the cast is at least decent, Jessica Alba is… look, there’s no two ways about it: that girl should thank her lucky stars she looks the way she does, because she can’t act her way out of a paper bag. She’s like a black hole of talent which sucks the life out of every actor in a scene with her. Not that it matters, the film would be bad with or without her. I have to add though, that as a comic book and sci-fi fan, it is pretty neat to see Anakin Skywalker and the Invisible Woman in a movie together. It doesn’t save the movie, but it does offer me a glimpse of what I might see at a comic convention in 10 years.

The DVD has a few special features, including commentary with writer/director Joby Howard, deleted scenes with commentary, and a storyboard to film comparison. There’s also a little documentary entitled Under The Knife & Behind The Camera: The Making of Awake, which is exactly what it says it is, and the theatrical trailer, if that can even be considered a special feature.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Beowulf - DVD Review

I first saw Beowulf during its theatrical run, and I was blown away. Of course, I didn’t just see it on a regular screen, I saw it in glorious IMAX 3D. I felt like a little kid, marveling at the shiniest new toy I had ever received. But when the afterglow died away, I was left with the lingering question: would it hold up on the small screen? Was it actually that good, or was it just the 3D and immense scope of the IMAX screen that made the film so memorable? Well, I just watched the directors cut of the film on my own television, which is considerably smaller than an IMAX screen, and does not feature any cutting edge 3D technology, and while I have to admit that some of the excitement and impact is lessened, I can still say “Yes… it is that good.”

Beowulf looks as though Rankin/Bass got together with Guillermo del Toro to remake Clash of the Titans. It’s not just an epic story, it’s THE epic story. Imagine if every action hero ever played by Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone was rolled into one man, who was then dressed by the costume designers from Lord of the Rings. And then he killed them all. That’s Beowulf. It’s like if 300 was so manly it was 600. That’s Beowulf.

The story dates back to sometime around the 11th century, and watching it, I could see that it has been a very influential tale. In this tale of a flawed hero, I saw elements of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and King Arthur. It has, however, been altered a bit by writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery, so that it isn’t quite the same Beowulf you might’ve read in high school. Some depth was added to the characters and the story to make it a little more fulfilling. Do you like shapeshifters? Fire breathing dragons? Clashing swords and battle axes? Tales of battle, victory, loss and redemption? Is the sweet sound of battle like music to your ears? Then you’ll dig Beowulf. This being the director’s cut, there was a little bit more of all of these things. A little more blood, a little more gore, a little more action. A little more of what you love, if you love that sort of thing.

The animation is really amazing too. Everything has sort of a puppet-like look to it, which is why I made the Rankin/Bass comparison earlier. It’s more realistic than Shrek, but they didn’t go for a completely photorealistic style either. There’s a lot of emotion in these characters, which is partly a result of the hard work and technology utilized by the animators, but mostly due to the fantastic cast they worked with. Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn… and of course, Crispin Glover as Grendel. He managed to be absolutely terrifying, yet completely vulnerable at the same time. Grendel is a monster, no doubt; but he’s a sympathetic creature that you can’t help but feel sorry for. Ray Winstone’s Beowulf is portrayed in a similar manner, a hero that you can’t help but cheer for, but with a bit of sadness inside over the sins of his past. I highly recommend it to fans of animation and sword n’ sorcery tales.

The DVD features about an hour or so worth of extras, and they’re all quite interesting. The Origins of Beowulf delves into the history of the tale and the steps it took to retell it for a modern audience. A Hero’s Journey: The Making of Beowulf, Beasts of Burden: Designing the Creatures of Beowulf and Creating the Ultimate Beowulf show every step along the path, from sketches of the monsters and costumes, to behind-the-scenes images of the stars getting used to working with motion capture technology and green screens. There’s a short bit called The Art of Beowulf, which is pretty self-explanatory and also quite amazing to view. Finally, the disc has some deleted scenes, which have not been completed, and were kind of hard to watch: but they’re there, for the folks who can’t get enough of Beowulf. And I can’t blame anyone for wanting more.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Kurt Cobain About A Son - DVD review

Kurt Cobain About A Son, directed by AJ Schnack, offers a very unique and compelling look at the life of this often-misunderstood icon. The film, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006 and was nominated for a 2007 Independent Spirit Award, is being released on DVD in to coincide with what would’ve been Cobain’s 41st birthday.

I was very impressed with the level of intimacy this movie was able to achieve. It isn’t simply a documentary about Cobain’s life, or a few snippets from various interviews pieced together with some photographs of Nirvana in their heyday. It’s also not one of those “dead rock star” movies that attempts to deify the subject; Cobain is shown warts and all. The entire narrative of the film is Kurt’s own voice, telling his own story. Culled from over 25 hours of taped conversations recorded by journalist Michael Azerrad for his book Come As You Are: The Story Of Nirvana, Kurt fills us in on various defining moments in his life, from his beginnings in Aberdeen, Washington, to the dizzying heights of fame.

He goes into detail about his childhood, idyllic until the age of eight, then tumultuous after the divorce of his parents. He talks about being an outcast in high school, an artistic kid living in a small redneck town. He discusses rebelling just for the sake of rebelling, getting his first guitar, desperately trying to start a band, and finally making that dream happen. There’s a lot of talk about being a celebrity and the loss of privacy that accompanies it. Wanting to be a big rock star, and then wishing to God he could escape the spotlight. You basically feel like you’re sitting in your living room listening to the guy talk to you for nearly two hours about everything under the sun.

But it’s more than just that. The interviews are played over images from the three Washington cities that played major roles in Cobain’s life: Aberdeen, Olympia, and, of course, Seattle. A variety of shots from those locations, coupled with portraits of individuals who live there, give the viewer a real sense of each city’s personality. It creates a much more complete picture of each location, something an interview or photomontage on its own could not accomplish.

Then there’s the music. Obviously, you can’t tell a story about a musician without featuring some music. I don’t believe I heard a single Nirvana song throughout the entire movie. Instead, we are treated to 20 different artists who were influences on Cobain including Queen, The Melvins, David Bowie, R.E.M., Scratch Acid, The Vaselines, and oh so many more. It’s incredible, because you’ve got Kurt Cobain telling you a story about something that happened to him in Olympia, accompanied by scenes from that very city, and the music you’re hearing is the same stuff he was listening to at the time. It’s an interesting way to show a complete picture of the man, and I think it succeeds very well. At the risk of sounding cliché, it really gives us a look at life through Kurt Cobain’s eyes.

Beyond being artistically impressive, I think what I really liked about this movie was that it didn’t go out of its way to put Cobain on a pedestal or make him out to be larger than life. In fact, they do just the opposite. The focus is on Kurt Cobain, the man, rather than Kurt Cobain, the big rock god who changed the landscape of popular music. There were plenty of instances where I found myself empathizing with Cobain, especially when he recounted stories from his high-school era, but there were also a number of times when he came across as a whiny jerk, and kind of unlikable. It showed remarkable candor, and I applaud the filmmakers for this approach. At this point, 15 years after his death, the real Kurt Cobain is running the risk of getting lost inside the icon, and this movie goes a long way to rectify that. It’s a very honest and respectful tribute.

The DVD features a couple of brief interviews with the director, AJ Schnack; Michael Azerrad, the journalist who conducted the interviews with Cobain; as well as Steve Fisk and Benjamin Gibbard, the gentlemen who worked on the score. This featurette gives a nice little bit of insight to the thought processes behind the making of this film. There’s also commentary from Schnak on selected scenes, and scene-to-scene comparisons from the scouting video and the actual movie.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Medabots: The Complete First Season - DVD review

In January of 2008, Shout! Factory released the latest entry in the seemingly endless line of cartoons imported from Japan featuring children who do battle with each other using tiny robots, strange animals or tiny, strange robot animals. This one is called “Medabots”, and with four discs featuring a total of 26 episodes at the low retail price of $34.95, it’s not a bad deal, if you like that sort of thing.

In this series, most children own Medabots, adorable little robots which are usually about 2 -3 feet tall and covered with a variety of weapons. Disagreements between children are not solved with fisticuffs, but rather through “Robattles” between their Medabots, with the winner receiving a Medapart (such as an arm, leg or weapon) from the defeated Medabot. The soul of these subservient little robots lies within a small metal artifact usually located in its back. Most of the Robattles are accompanied by a title screen stating the Medabot’s owner, and various statistics. It’s sort of like if Pokémon and Mega Man got together and had a baby.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, on with the story. The show revolves around a young boy named Ikki, who dreams of being a Medabot champion, and his group of friends. Due to a recent string of Medabot thefts, Ikki’s parents won’t buy him one, so he’s forced to save up the cash and do it on his own, but all he can afford is an outdated model. Luckily, he finds a medal in a river, and he’s in business. The only problem is, the metal he’s found was recently stolen and subsequently lost by The Phantom Renegade, who seems to be some sort of criminal that looks a lot like a clown version of the guy from V for Vendetta. Ikki ends up with his very own Medabot, who turns out to be one heck of a good fighter, and unlike other Medabots, has a mind of his own and a very sassy attitude. Hijinks and adventure ensue.

While I didn’t love it, I found myself pleasantly surprised by “Medabots”. It’s not the type of show I would normally watch, and it certainly isn’t aimed anywhere near my age group. Still, I found myself chuckling at a few of the jokes, and genuinely enjoying the interaction between Ikki and his Medabot. The stories were decent, and the subplots that ran throughout the series were interesting. Now, it certainly didn’t make a convert out of me: I’m not going to rush out and buy the rest of the series. In fact, I didn’t even watch all of the episodes in this set, and I have no intention of doing so. But if you’ve got kids who are into anime, and you just can’t stand the stuff, you might find “Medabots” to be something you can enjoy together. It’s not nearly as annoying as a lot of other cartoons imported from the Land of the Rising Sun. If you’re someone who does enjoy anime, I’m guessing you’ll really dig this one. “Medabots” has a good sense of humor, interesting characters, cool-looking robots and, if I may say so, a totally rockin’ theme song.

Comedy Central Presents: The Roast of Flavor Flav

In August of 2007, friends, fans and well-wishers gathered to pay tribute to former Public Enemy hype man and current reality show star Flavor Flav in the form of a roast. As the old saying goes, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

It’s safe to say that the man born as William Drayton is fair game for roasting. Whether working with a politically conscious hip hop group, getting arrested for narcotics possession or starring in several reality-based dating programs, everything Flavor Flav has done in his life and career has been done with a very unique (perhaps a better word might be ridiculous) style. I guess what I’m getting at is that even if you’re not a professional comedian, it’s not too hard to come up with a joke or two about a guy who wears a big clock around his neck and a Viking helmet on his head.

Luckily, Flavor Flav has a thick skin, because the jokes in this roast get pretty raunchy. Hosted by Katt Williams, the roasters included Ice-T, Jimmy Kimmel, Snoop Dogg, Greg Giraldo, Patton Oswalt, Lisa Lampanelli, Jeffery Ross, Carrot Top, Sommore and Flav’s ex-girlfriend and “Strange Love” co-star, Brigitte Nielsen. With the exception of Sommore and Nielsen, every one of the roasters delivers side-splitting laughter. Even Carrot Top is pretty funny. Yeah, I know… Carrot Top! I’ve watched this roast several times myself, and it doesn’t lose its luster with repeated viewings. This is some really good stuff.

It is not, however, for the easily offended. This DVD release is uncut and uncensored, so if you fall into the ultra-politically correct crowd, you might want to just go ahead and skip this one, and all of the Comedy Central Roasts, for that matter. Better yet, maybe you should watch them: you might learn a thing or two about not taking yourself so seriously. If there is a racist, sexist or stereotypical joke out there, you can almost guarantee someone at one of these roasts will say it. But it’s all in good fun, and every joke is told in an ironic fashion: make no mistake, these folks aren’t endorsing bigotry or stereotypes; they’re mocking them.

The beauty of the Comedy Central Roasts is that the roastmasters don’t just poke fun at the Guest of Honor, they also crack jokes about each other, and sometimes even themselves. It’s like getting 10 roasts for the price of one, and it’s awesome. I try to make it a point to tune in to all of the roasts when they air, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. And now they’re available on DVD, so I can watch them whenever I please.

Speaking of the DVD release of the “Comedy Central Roast of Flavor Flav”, I should probably mention the extras on this disc, though they’re hardly worth mentioning. The “Red Carpet Interviews” and “Backstage Passes” amount to little more than unedited versions of those little clips they play during the credits and between commercial breaks. Not worth watching at all. The “Flav-Cam Bonus Footage” is just Flavor Flav giving you a tour of his trailer and walking around backstage with a camera affixed to his clock. Again, not worth watching: I’ve seen home movies that are more entertaining.

While the extras are not so hot, the roast itself is everything they are not: funny, irreverent and at times even heartwarming… okay, maybe not heartwarming, but you do get a sense that some of these people actually are friends, and do have a great deal of respect for each other, despite what they may say when they’re behind the podium. At any rate, if you want to watch 73 minutes of really dirty jokes, you could do a lot worse than this roast. It’s well worth your time and money.