Thursday, September 25, 2008

Legendary Performances: Marty Robbins - DVD Review

Culled from a wide variety of sources and over 20 years of history, Shout! Factory and The Country Music Hall of Fame have struck gold once again with their Legendary Performances series and a definitive look back at the career of Marty Robbins. Beginning with a performance of “Knee Deep in the Blues” from 1957 and ending with “All Around Cowboy” from 1979, this DVD features 15 of Marty’s biggest hits and showcases his ability to handle cowboy ballads, country & western, pop and even play the blues.

I have to admit to knowing very little about Marty Robbins prior to watching this disc, but I definitely walked away with a newfound respect. Sure, I’d heard the big hits like “El Paso” and “Singing the Blues”, but that barely scratches the surface of the man’s range. Even in the early days, he was quite a showman, a talent that served him well as he adapted his amazing voice to fit a variety of styles of music and even host his own television show in the late 60’s. Several performances featured on this disc were taken from that very show.

Did I mention the voice? Like butter. Like butter wrapped in silk and dipped in honey. My god, this man must’ve driven the women crazy back in the day.

Beyond the performances, there’s a fairly in-depth interview with Marty that must’ve been done just before his death in 1982 in which he discusses his long career, his relationship with the fans and the type of music he performed. As I stated earlier, though he was known primarily as a singer of country & western music, he regularly crossed over into the pop charts and was known for his eclectic style, even touching on an array of world music. Versatility was the name of this man’s game, and he impressed me with not only his musical ability, but also his knowledge and kindness. He actually struck me as being a very genuine guy.

The thing I really like about this Legendary Performances series is watching the musical and clothing styles change as well as the television production values. A lot of these rare performances could easily be lost to the sands of time if not for the fine folks at The Country Music Hall of Fame. I don’t consider these discs to be simply entertainment, I honestly consider them to be a history lesson. There’s a lot to be learned about the history of music, television and performance. There’s a certain sense of dignity and class to this era of music. While the clothing may be out of style, the songs are timeless.

The list of performances includes:

1) Knee Deep in the Blues (1957)
2) The Same Two Lips (1957)
3) Nothing But Sweet Lies (1959)
4) Singing The Blues (1958)
5) The Story of My Life (1959)
6) El Paso (1965)
7) Devil Woman (1969)
8) Begging To You (1969)
9) My Woman, My Woman, My Wife (1970)
10) Ribbon of Darkness (1976)
11) Among My Souvenirs (1976)
12) A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation) (1977)
13) Don’t Worry (1977)
14) El Paso City (1978)
15) All Around Cowboy (1979)

The DVD also includes Marty Robbins’ induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Speed Racer DVD Review

With the live-action adaptation of the classic anime Speed Racer, the Wachowski’s hoped to reach a larger audience by presenting a family friendly film. When the film was released this summer, it didn’t exactly have the box office impact that the studios were hoping for and didn’t set the critical world on fire either. The Matrix it wasn’t. Despite the poor performance and generally negative reviews, I still wanted to see the film. It just looked really cool. Thanks to the magic of DVD, I was able to watch Speed Racer earlier today and yes, it does look really cool.

Unfortunately, this is a movie that doesn’t seem to know who it’s appealing to, and clocking in at 2 hours and 15 minutes, it misses the mark for both of its major demographics. One can not expect a young child to sit still for that long, nor can one expect any reasonably affordable strain of marijuana to produce a high that will last throughout the duration of the movie. The plot is just a bit too complicated for a kid to really get into, but the characters are a bit too simple to really appeal to anyone looking for a compelling film. It’s not that Speed Racer is a bad movie; it’s just not that good.

The story centers around the improbably named Speed Racer and his family of racing addicts. Speed is renowned for his artistic ability on the track and is wooed by an evil corporation. Deciding his integrity and love for the sport is more important than a big paycheck, Speed ends up finding out that all is not as it seems in the world of racing. A lot of the major races are fixed in order to manipulate the stock market and further the success of corporate fatcats. Working together with the mysterious Racer X, Speed enters the Casa Cristo, a race known for foul play and danger. There’s a lot more to the story, including a love interest and a little kid and a chimp who stow away in the back of the car, but I won’t bother getting into all that right now.
For a film with the word “speed” in the title, Speed Racer moves at an alarmingly slow pace. Just when it seems that the plot is really about to get rolling, it slows back down as new characters and new elements are added. It seems very disjointed at times, almost as though the chimp that was hiding in the trunk of the car was also in the editing room. As I said before, it’s also just too long. I’m not a filmmaker and I shouldn’t be telling anyone how to make a movie, but my god: it’s nearly two and a half hours long! This movie should’ve been an hour and a half tops. The frustrating thing is that it’s not hard to see where it could be improved. Take out a few minutes here, a few minutes there and the whole thing would flow a lot better. It’s almost a good movie, but not quite.

It is, however, absolutely brilliant to look at. The whole thing really does look like a cartoon brought to life. The movie somehow manages to look like a futuristic version of the 1960s got busy with a Mario Kart video game and had a hyperactive baby named Speed Racer. The special effects are awesome and it should be noted that despite the level of craziness going on during the race scenes, it’s always very clear what is happening at all times. I’ve seen too many action flicks where the special effects overwhelm everything on screen and you have no idea what’s going on because your brain just can’t keep up. Not so with Speed Racer. The race scenes are very easy to follow and incredibly fun to watch. Despite this movies many flaws, I can’t really give it too bad of a review, because it’s just so freakin’ cool looking!

In the end, I guess I’d say that Speed Racer is a movie that should probably be rented rather than purchased. Wait for it to hit HBO or Showtime or whatever movie channel you might subscribe to. It’s totally worth watching, but you might not want to watch it again. Children and owners of gravity bongs might disagree with me.

The DVD features a tour of the movie set with Paulie Litt, the kid who plays Speed’s younger brother Spritle. I watched about 5 minutes of this before turning it off in disgust. There’s also a little feature called Speed Racer: Supercharged, which is sort of a commercial for the World Racing League, with little biographies and statistics of a bunch of fictional drivers, cars and tracks. Kinda fun, but kinda boring too.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Country Music Hall of Fame Legendary Performances: Tammy Wynette - DVD Review

Throughout the late '60s and early '70s, Tammy Wynette reigned supreme as the First Lady of Country Music, racking up an impressive 20 #1 hits. It’s downright insulting to refer to her as anything less than a legend, so it’s quite appropriate that the folks at the Country Music Hall of Fame put together a collection of memorable live interpretations of her biggest hits to be included in their Legendary Performances series.

This hour long DVD includes 15 performances from 1967 all the way through 1981. They’re taken from a variety of sources including The Bill Anderson Show, The Wilburn Brothers Show and even one or two from a show you may have actually heard of, such as a rendition of her legendary song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” from the 1968 Country Music Awards. There’s even a couple of duets with her then-husband George Jones.

This is classic country music at its finest. Honest-to-goodness country music, not the B-Grade Richard Marx songs dressed up with a steel guitar and a fancy hat that passes for country music these days. This DVD will act as a reminder to some of the golden days of music and will hopefully serve as a lesson plan for those interested in what “country” actually sounds like. There’s no line dancing on this DVD, no washed-up 80’s hair bands covering up their bald spots with cowboy hats. These are introspective songs about hard times and lessons learned: songs to get drunk and cry to while contemplating walking out on your jerk of a husband who’s been out at the bar with his buddies far too long and far too often. These are real songs about real life and you won’t find a “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” among them.

You won’t find a whole lot to be happy about either. I don’t mean that in terms of the performances, as there’s not a bad one in the bunch. What I mean is that listening to an hour’s worth of Tammy Wynette didn’t exactly leave me ready to jump up and dance. 60 minutes worth of songs about heartache, heartbreak, drinking and carousing didn’t make me too proud to be a man either. Even if you don’t know anything about the woman’s personal life, it all comes out in the performances. Her firm jaw and steely eyes punctuate songs like “I Don’t Wanna Play House”, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” and “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad”. The honesty of her voice assures you that Tammy Wynette isn’t simply singing a song, she’s lived it. In fact, by the time she gets around to singing her classic “Stand By Your Man”, you may find yourself shouting at the television “No, don’t stand by him! He’s scum! He’s a loser! Leave the bum!” Or maybe that’s just me.

This DVD is also a fascinating history lesson in terms of style. We start out in the grainy black-and-white of the late 60’s with big bouffant hairdos and Nudie suits and make our way through the polyester and sideburns of the 70’s before ending up in sequined evening gowns of the 80’s. Throughout all of it, the one thing that remains is Tammy’s incredible voice. She sounds just as good in 1981 as she did in 1967. It’s a testament to her talent and another example of why she is due the accolades heaped upon her.

The extras on this DVD include Tammy Wynette’s 1998 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame and a couple of old interviews with her. It also includes what appears to be local news footage from her 1978 marriage to George Richey, the man she referred to as the love of her life. This footage is awesome and not unlike watching your aunt and uncles’ home movies of their wedding, complete with ruffled polyester tuxes and magnificently blow-dried hairdos.

The fine folks at SHOUT! Factory and the Country Music Hall of Fame have done an excellent job in preserving these great performances for future generations. I found this DVD to be well worth the time I invested in it and a great addition to the collection of any music fan.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Transformers Animated: Season One DVD Review

The Transformers are back on the small screen with the new Transformers Animated series. Season One collects the first thirteen episodes of the series (minus the pilot which was sold separately) on two discs. The new series falls somewhere in-between the old Transformers cartoon and the wildly successful movie, adding a few new elements to create a continuity all its own.

This version of the series finds a motley crew of Autobots once again trapped on earth, this time in Detroit 50 years in the future. They’re befriended by an 8-year-old human girl named Sari who is the keeper of the Allspark, which has taken the form of a key and acts as a power-supply and healing source. Naturally, a few Decepticons show up to nab the Allspark for their own evil purposes.

When I say “a few Decepticons”, I mean it. The focus of this new series isn’t the war between the Autobots and Decepticons; in fact, that war has been over for centuries! In a move that’s sure to upset old-school Transformers fans, the Autobots operate right out in the open, acting as superheroes. Rather than spending their time trying to get back to Cybertron, they protect Detroit from a variety of human and robot menaces including a supervillain or two. While I certainly don’t find this new story aspect offensive, I do find it to be a bit confusing. I mean, doesn’t operating out in the open for the world to see sort of defeat the whole purpose of being “robots in disguise”?

Confusing alterations aside, I found this series to be a lot of fun. Fans looking for the animated equivalent of the Michael Bay blockbuster or a grim n’ gritty update of their favorite 80’s cartoon should look elsewhere though. This cartoon seems to have been created with the intent of bringing in a new, younger generation of fans. There’s almost as much humor as there is action, and there’s definitely a focus on bringing girls into what was previously considered a boy’s toy line. As the father of a baby girl, that’s cool with me: I’d rather see her playing with fighting robots than dressing up dolls when she gets a little older.

But don’t let the jokes and softer animation style fool you: this show still packs a punch and doesn’t shy away from big-time smash-em-up action. They also don’t shy away from the consequences of such action, which I found to be a welcome change from the old cartoon. The show features plenty of flashbacks from the days of the Cybertronian War which focus on the tragic side of the conflict. There’s a lot of war stories about lost friends and lost lives, without getting too dark or dreary. It’s a far cry from the old days when laser blasts flew everywhere and nobody ever got hurt. Themes of teamwork and responsibility also feature prominently on the show. I have to admit that sometimes it gets a little annoying, but I’m not the show’s target audience. I’ve got a 6-year-old nephew who is a huge fan of the show and neither I nor his parents have any problem with that. There’s some actual lessons hidden underneath all that robot carnage. What more can a parent ask for?

Long story short: Transformers Animated is definitely a show I would recommend to parents and kids alike. Long-time Transformers fans will probably want to stay away, as this version is definitely not made for them. Unless, of course, they’ve got kids of their own and they’re not too hung up on continuity.

The two disc set features full screen format, English and Spanish language tracks, and a Season Two sneak peek photo gallery.