Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget - DVD Review

If you’re unfamiliar with how a roast works, it goes something like this: the individual being roasted is subjected to praise, insults, outlandish stories and the occasional heartfelt tribute from a group of friends and peers. The implication being that the roastee takes it all in good humor and isn’t really insulted by the whole thing. It’s all just a big joke and is actually quite an honor.

In the case of a Comedy Central Roast, it isn’t just the roastee who gets insulted; everyone who is involved is subjected to the verbal abuse, not just the guest of honor. And in the case of the Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget, the Olsen Twins get their fair share of abuse as well. Actually, Mary-Kate and Ashley got so much abuse that a lot of the jokes made about them were cut when this roast initially aired on Comedy Central. The DVD release, however, is uncut and uncensored.

Bob Saget is probably best known for his roles on the family oriented programs Full House and America’s Funniest Home Videos. In other words, he’s best known for being incredibly bland and not particularly funny. Outside of television, Bob Saget is known for his blue stand-up comedy routine, which is particularly funny because it is at such odds with his public persona. It is this public persona that is so viciously attacked by the roasters on this DVD, including Gilbert Gottfried, Brian Poesehn, Cloris Leachman, Jeffery Ross, Norm MacDonald and Full House co-star John Stamos.

If you’ve seen one Comedy Central Roast, you’ve pretty much seen them all. That isn’t meant to be insulting, but they basically all follow the same format: tons and tons of raunchy humor and shots of the crowd with their jaws on the ground, unable to believe what they have just heard. The Roast of Bob Saget is no different. I’ve seen most of the Comedy Central Roasts, and I wouldn’t say that this is one of the best, but it’s definitely got its moments. When it’s good, it’s side-splittingly hilarious: Cloris Leachman telling dirty jokes about Mary Tyler Moore. That’s something I didn’t expect to hear! When it’s bad, it’s Jeff Garlin doing terrible impressions that make you cringe with embarrassment, wondering how the man ever found employment in the entertainment world.

All-in-all, I’d give it a solid rating. The good more than makes up for the bad. If you’ve enjoyed the other Comedy Central Roasts, you’ll definitely enjoy this one and it will make a worthy addition to your DVD collection. If you only saw it when it aired on Comedy Central, it’s worth a rental just to hear the jokes that got cut from the broadcast. Wow. I hope the Olsen twins have a good sense of humor.

The DVD also includes a few interviews with Bob Saget and interviews with the roasters and guests on the Blue Carpet both before and after the show. Nothing particularly amazing, but definitely funny and worth watching once.

Monday, December 22, 2008

X-Files: I Want to Believe - DVD Review

I’ve only watched The X-Files television series twice. The first time was an episode featuring a crazy inbred family who killed their neighbors. The episode scared the pants off of me and I loved it, but for some reason I never fully immersed myself in the series. The second time I tuned it, it was just a repeat of that same episode. It scared me almost as much the second time around.

But I still never got into The X-Files. I didn’t have anything against it, but by the time I got interested enough to actually want to watch it, it had already been on the air for a few years and the whole mythology just seemed too complicated and convoluted to bother with. I was too busy reading complicated and convoluted comic book plotlines at the time anyway; I couldn’t be bothered with a television series.

Fast forward to 2008, and I’m reviewing the second big-screen version of the popular series, X-Files: I Want to Believe. Now, you might think that my almost complete lack of knowledge regarding the series or the characters would be a detriment to my review, and maybe you’re right. I prefer to think that it makes me the perfect choice to review this film. I’m not biased in any way. I don’t come in with any preconceived notions of what the film, the characters or the story should be. I’m a blank slate, a veritable tabula rasa when it comes to all things X-Filey.
Luckily for me, this movie was made to stand on its own. No Smoking Men, alien sister abductions or sexual tension here; just a standalone murder-mystery. Unluckily for me, it wasn’t altogether that great of a movie.

The story picks up six years after the events of the series finale. Dana Scully is a staff physician at Our Lady of Sorrows, a Catholic hospital, where she is treating a young boy with a terminal brain condition. Despite the protests of the clergy, she wishes to go forward with some radical new forms of therapy. The priests and nuns at the hospital would rather leave the matter in God’s hands. An FBI agent asks Scully to help find fugitive agent Fox Mulder and promise to call off their manhunt if he will help them solve a case concerning several missing women. Mulder agrees and the band is back together, in a manner of speaking.

The reason for Mulder’s involvement is Joseph Fitzgerald Crissman, a former priest who had been convicted of pedophilia. It seems that Father Joe has been receiving visions which give him clues to the whereabouts of both the victims and the perpetrators of the recent crimes. Scully is disgusted at the prospect of working with a child molester while Mulder, as usual, is intrigued by the supernatural aspects of the case. These two viewpoints are shared by the rest of the investigative team: half of them think Father Joe is a fraud who is possibly involved with the crimes and is trying to use “the Word of God” as a way to find forgiveness from the Vatican. The other half wonders if maybe there’s something more to his visions.

I won’t go into the rest of the plot, because I don’t want to give anything away for those who might be interested. I will simply say that the rest of the film deals with faith, belief and choices: Mulder’s belief that Father Joe isn’t lying and is having a legitimate psychic vision. Scully’s faith that what she’s doing to help her patient is right. Father Joe’s belief that God is sending him messages and will forgive him for his transgressions. It’s actually a pretty good story and perhaps would’ve made a better movie if someone else had been at the helm. No offense to Chris Carter, obviously he’s the guy most X-Files fans would want behind the camera, but the film lacks any emotion whatsoever. There’s no tension, no suspense and really no excitement to be had.

I don’t want to sound like I’m giving this film a totally bad review though. Like I said, it’s got a very interesting story and the fact that it isn’t simply black and white or good vs. evil is something I really appreciated. It’s definitely more intelligent than a lot of science fiction that’s out there, so it’s at least got that much going for it. And I have to imagine that long-time X-Files fans will enjoy seeing their old favorites back together. Heck, I even got a kick out of it and I’ve only seen one episode of the series! And maybe I’m totally missing the boat on this one? Maybe the TV show was just as dull as this movie and it’s totally par for the course? It might be a home run for all I know.

At any rate, if you’re a fan of the series and you were wondering if this movie is worth your time, I’d guess that it probably is. If you’ve never watched The X-Files and you’re wondering if you could just jump into this movie and have any idea what’s going on, I’m going to say yes, but you might not want to bother. It’s worth a rental, but I’m sure there’s something better out there that you could be watching.

The DVD includes both the theatrical and the extended cut of the movie, as well as the usual assortment of extras. There’s a gag reel, deleted scenes and a ton of interviews with the cast and crew about all the stuff you’d expect: doing another movie after so long, the lengths they went to keep it all under wraps, what it was like to work together again, and so on and so forth. There’s also a music video by Xzibit, who stars in the film as an FBI agent.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Power Rangers DVD Review - Jungle Fury & Way of the Master

Jungle Fury is the 15th incarnation of the long-running Power Rangers franchise. In this version of the series, the story focuses on The Order of the Claw, a centuries-old group of martial artists able to summon animal spirits. Their mission, passed from generation to generation, is to protect the world from the evil Dai Shi, an evil spirit who believes that animals are the rightful rulers of the earth and wishes to rid the planet of all humans.

The first volume of the series, “Into the Jungle”, features the first six episodes of the series. It opens in present day, with three teen warriors accepting their roles as the protectors of earth. The intended team consisted of headstrong and angry Jarrod; well-meaning know it all Theo; and loyal, caring and stubborn Lilly. Jarrod’s temper gets the better of him and he is replaced on the team by Casey, who is quite brave but still has a long way to go in terms of both training and self-confidence.

When Jarrod ends up striking out against the masters who trained him, the ensuing fight unleashes the spirit of Dai Shi, who promptly assumes control of Jarrod’s body and begins to wage anew his war against humanity. The three new rangers are sent to the city of Ocean Bluff to find a new master in the unlikeliest of places; a pizza parlor. Their new master, R.J., is a stereotypical stoner character who comes equipped with a Megazord and kung-fu skills rather than bags of weed. He informs the team that not only will he be instructing them and giving them employment at his pizza parlor, he will also outfit them with a new arsenal and the power to morph into Power Rangers.

The six episodes on “Into the Jungle” basically just set up the story. We are given background information on the new Power Rangers and see them learn to work as a team. They must overcome personal conflicts and learn to look past their preconceived notions about each other and their new master as they form a cohesive unit dedicated to the forces of order. We also see Dai Shi assemble a new team of monsters and villains to do his bidding.

“Way of the Master” is the second volume in the series and features episodes 7 – 12. These stories get a bit more personal, delving into the histories of the Power Rangers and their enemies. Dai Shi resurrects Carnisoar, the evil Sky Overlord, who introduces him to a new level of hatred and evil. Together, they travel through time to various events in the life of Dai Shi (Jarrod) when he was faced with the opportunity to do evil but instead chose the path of good. Carnisoar erases these events in Jarrod’s life, thereby erasing his humanity and allowing the spirit of Dai Shi to more fully take over.

There are also episodes featuring each individual Ranger overcoming a personal obstacle. Casey must overcome his self-doubt, Theo must deal with losing a battle and his confidence, and Lilly’s good nature is taken advantage of by the evil Camille, who poses as her friend. Each Ranger learns a personal lesson and as a result is granted a new animal spirit weapon with which to battle evil. Retired members of the Order of the Claw are introduced, giving us a bit more history on the never-ending struggle between good and evil. And of course, there’s lots of big cheesy-looking monsters fighting big cheesy-looking robots.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 16 years, you know who the Power Rangers are and how bad the show is. Nevertheless, it’s not too hard to see the appeal of a show like this for a young kid. There’s lots of sweet kung-fu and the Power Rangers do have pretty cool costumes. I’d be lying if I said that the bad guys didn’t look totally awesome. I also enjoyed the positive messages laced throughout the show, even if they were presented in an incredibly heavy-handed fashion. There were a lot of elements of the story that reminded me of Star Wars. Of course, those themes are far older than anything George Lucas came up with, but the beauty of them is that they still hold true today, no matter what form they are presented in. The show is obviously pretty cheaply made, using the traditional Power Rangers method of incorporating footage from the Japanese Super Sentai series, but for as low budget as it obviously is, the special effects actually don’t look too bad.

The acting, however, is another story. It’s horrible and quite cringe-inducing. God-awful is another phrase that comes to mind. The same goes for the music, which is repeated ad nauseum and is still running through my head as I write this, like some evil mantra. I wonder if there are subliminal messages strewn throughout the music? “Buy more toys! Buy more toys!”

At any rate, there are probably several hundred shows on television that are far worse for a kid to watch. The nice thing about Power Rangers: Jungle Fury is that as bad as it may be, there are some decent messages about loyalty, integrity, compassion and the value of hard work in there. It might be nearly unbearable for you to watch this show with your kids, but if you’re a halfway decent parent, you’ll sit down afterward and discuss the ideas presented and maybe your kid will learn something. So I guess it’s not all bad.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Horton Hears a Who - DVD Review

Horton Hears a Who! (2008) is the third feature film based on a Dr. Seuss book to hit the big screen and the second to feature Jim Carrey in the title role. Excellent CGI animation, celebrity voices and a timeless tale combine to create a modern classic that will entertain children and adults alike.

Horton is a caring and loyal elephant who has managed to maintain his childlike innocence and imagination despite growing up. These qualities have allowed him to become a great teacher and friend to the children in the jungle and end up sending him on the greatest adventure of his lifetime. Upon discovering that a microscopic civilization called Whoville exists on a speck of dust which has settled on a nearby clover, Horton aspires to find a new home for the denizens of this tiny city, safe from the many dangers of the jungle. Standing in his way is Sour Kangaroo, a skeptical busybody whose only goal in life seems to be to keep everyone else from having any fun. She makes the rules in the jungle and feels that Horton’s nonconformist attitude and creativity threaten the order which she has strived so hard to enforce. But Horton is committed to the very end. His mantra is repeated many times throughout the movie: “I meant what I said and I said what I meant, and an elephant’s faithful 100%.” Undoubtedly, these are words to live by.

There are a lot of hijinks and trouble along the way as Horton communicates with Ned McDodd, the addled Mayor of Whoville and the only one in the city who is aware of Horton’s existence. Ned comes from a long line of mayors and hopes that one day he will be ranked among the greats, despite being blocked at every turn by the Chairman of the City Council, who thinks him nothing more than a buffoon. The citizens of Whoville eventually gain confidence in Ned, as does his son JoJo, who can’t understand his father’s desire for him to follow in his footsteps as Mayor. Meanwhile, Sour Kangaroo is doing a good job of whipping the jungle inhabitants into a frenzy over what she believes to be Horton’s imaginary city on a speck. As the story progresses, her wish to maintain order turns into a maniacal desire to crush Horton’s spirit. I won’t tell you how it ends, but as you might expect, everyone learns a lesson from Horton.

For my money, this movie was more than just a whimsical romp or the latest animated kids flick. It was an incredibly heartwarming and hilarious story that managed to be completely modern while staying true to the spirit of Dr. Seuss’ book. The messages of loyalty and honor as well as the idea that “A person’s a person, no matter how small” are universal themes that can be understood by people of all ages from all walks of life. There are lessons to be learned in this movie that no child can afford to be without. Beyond that, I thought it was quite funny and as a fan of Dr. Seuss, I was not at all disappointed with this interpretation of his work.

I’m not usually a big fan of celebrity voices in animated features. For one thing, kids don’t usually don’t know and more often don’t really care who they are. For another thing, there are plenty of voice actors out there who have studied and trained to perform in cartoons. Giving the job to a big-time actor deprives someone else who is probably more deserving of gainful employment. However, I have to admit that I enjoyed every performance in this film. Sure, you can tell that Mayor McDodd is Steve Carell and Sour Kangaroo is obviously Carol Burnett, but it doesn’t overwhelm the movie. Despite his very familiar voice, I never heard Jim Carrey as Horton; I simply saw Horton.

The animation is awesome as well. Blue Sky Studios once again give Pixar a run for their money with astonishing CGI animation. Even if I hadn’t liked the movie as much as I did, I couldn’t help but marvel at… everything. The characters, the settings, the leaves on the trees: everything just looked fantastic. The only real drawback to the movie is a more personal one. While there are a few pop culture references strewn throughout the film, they just sort of blend in and don’t seem out of place or feel like they’ll be dated and irrelevant in a few years. The addition of REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore”, on the other hand, felt like it was shoehorned in as something for the adults in the theater to enjoy. The rest of the film immersed me in the very unique world of Dr. Seuss and the addition of that song completely pulled me out of it, nearly ruining the movie. It just didn’t fit. Again, that might just be me. If you aren’t the type to be bothered by such things, pay no mind to the last few sentences.

The DVD has tons of special features detailing the themes of the film and the methods through which it was brought to the big screen. If you have any questions about how anything was done, they ought to be answered by the time you finish with all the extras. There’s also director commentary, deleted scenes, a sneak peek at Ice Age 3 and an all-new Ice Age short titled Surviving Sid.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Fred Claus - DVD Review

Growing up in the shadow a seemingly perfect sibling can be tough. Constant comparisons from parents will generally lead to feelings of resentment and anger. It’s hard when parents seem to find fault in everything you do and treat your brother as though he was a saint. Imagine how hard it would be if your brother actually was a saint: St. Nick.

This is the premise behind Fred Claus, which reteams director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) with Vince Vaughn, who stars as the title character. The basic gist of the film is fairly predictable, but as the saying goes, it isn’t the destination, but the journey that is important. Fred Claus might not bring anything new to the table, but much like your mom’s Christmas dinner, it serves up the old favorites in a delicious style.

After a brief “origin story”, we find Fred Claus living in modern-day Chicago. He’s something of a con-man who has never followed through on anything in life. He doesn’t like Christmas and he doesn’t seem to particularly care for life in general. After a get rich quick scheme lands him in jail with no money for bail, he calls on his brother for help. Nick (Paul Giamatti) is used to bailing Fred out of tight spots and rather than fall into the same trap, he offers Fred a job working for him at his toy factory in the North Pole.

It turns out that Santa needs more than just a little help. A scheming efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) is keeping close tabs on the toy factory and plans to shut down Christmas if Santa’s elves can’t meet their quota. Long story short: Fred reconciles with his family, Santa realizes he isn’t exactly perfect either, everybody learns the true meaning of Christmas and it all turns out okay. That shouldn’t be considered a spoiler, as anyone who has ever seen a single holiday movie should be able to figure out exactly what happens from reading the back of the box.

Is the movie predictable? Yes. In fact, it’s so predictable that the moment a new character appears on-screen, you already know their entire story arc. Is it full of cliché? You better believe it. Does Vince Vaughn deliver the exact same performance and play the exact same character he has played in nearly every movie he’s ever been in? Once again, the answer is yes, but if you like Vince Vaughn, then that isn’t a bad thing. Beyond that, the story seems filled with glaring omissions: Kevin Spacey plays an efficiency expert, but I don’t know that it’s ever stated who is employing him or why they have power over Santa’s operations. Why exactly is Elizabeth Banks human-sized in a world full of elves? These and other plot holes exist to confound the nitpickers.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes there just needs to be a simple movie that the entire family can enjoy and you don’t need to ask too many questions and you don’t need to think too hard about the plot. I pity the fool who watches Fred Claus for deeply moving character development or plot twists. It is a movie about the spirit of Christmas and the spirit of family, and we should all be thankful that Tim Allen isn’t in it. Fred Claus is by no means an instant classic, and it’s certainly not a “must-rent” either. But if you’re a fan of Christmas movies, you’ll definitely enjoy it.

Fred Claus is not a raunchy comedy filled with double entendres and dirty jokes. It’s not a mindless cartoon that panders to children and leaves the rest of the family feeling sick to their stomachs either. It’s just a funny movie with a great cast delivering great performances. It’s a movie that you can watch with your parents and their parents as well as your kids after gorging yourself on Christmas dinner: exactly what you need to help you digest.

The DVD includes both widescreen and full-screen formats, commentary by director David Dobkin and 25 minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes.