Thursday, December 16, 2010
“It is what it is.” There exists no phrase, which more aptly describes both the A-Team film that was released in the summer of 2010 and the 1980s television series upon which it is based. It simply is what it is (how could it be anything different?) and you’re either onboard the train or you remain hopelessly tied to the tracks, waiting to be run over by a locomotive of awesomeness.
You know the story, right? An elite team of Army Rangers is convicted by a military court for a crime they did not commit and they promptly escape to become soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, blah, blah, blah. The film version of the A-Team updates the story to the Gulf War and actually shows us not only how the team was formed, but that ill-fated black ops mission that led to their dishonorable discharges. The characters are familiar, the tone is tongue-in-cheek and the action is so over the top, they actually had to construct a new top, which was subsequently obliterated during filming. Seriously, folks… they barrel roll a helicopter.
As a child of the ‘80s, I find myself unable to avoid comparisons to the television series upon which the film is based. Like many of you, I am of a generation that grew up obsessed with the A-Team and like many of you, I have found the show to be somewhat lacking upon revisitation. It’s formulaic, it’s cliché and oftentimes, it’s downright stupid. But damn if it isn’t badass! The movie follows a similar path but manages to “turn it up to eleven”, as they say… or at least, it "tries" to, but it ends up blowing the speakers out and has to find an alternate power source. It’s just that awesome.
Here’s the thing: this is a movie that doesn’t just feature one-dimensional, cliché characters and situations; it revels in them. It fully embraces the fun of the television series and amps it up to big screen proportions. Face (Bradley Cooper) is the ultimate smooth-talking ladies man. Murdock (Sharlto Copley) is certifiably insane and played for laughs in a manner quite similar to the original series. B.A. Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson) is beyond badass and Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) is the man with the plan and damn if he doesn’t love it when that plan comes together. These guys are proficient in all manner of weaponry, subterfuge and building tanks out of stuff they found in a scrap yard. They’re the baddest of the bad and they even make rottweilers whimper and cry.
Adding to the excitement is the fact that the characters in the movie seem just as thrilled to be taking part in the escapades as I was to watch them. Whenever something amazing happens, such as the aforementioned helicopter barrel roll or attempting to steer a tank as it plummets from the wreckage of an airplane blown up mid-flight by repeatedly firing the cannon, someone onscreen will actually take time to howl and make reference to how incredibly ridiculous and utterly, unbelievably amazing the situation is. It exists in a very comic book reality where the laws of physics and logic are thrown out the window and everyone speaks with witty banter and continually spout hackneyed (though often inspiring) adages. In short, if you take yourself too seriously, don’t bother. If you like having fun and you enjoyed the old A-Team, why not give the new one a try? I had a smile on my face from the first frame to the last.
The downfalls? Well, Liam Neeson doesn’t seem quite capable of mastering an American accent and the love story between Face and former flame DCIS Captain Charissa Sosa (Jessica Biel) is a bit stale. There are a few lousy jokes that’ll make you cringe. But what can you do? It’s a Hollywood flick and it’s gonna have it’s Hollywood moments. The good news is that they’re few and far between and the good more than outweighs the bad in this one. And overall, who really cares? It’s the A-Team. Did you watch the TV series? It ain’t Shakespeare, folks. But it is fun. What’s one really bad joke in a sea of mostly bad jokes?
Oddly enough, the film it reminded me of the most was 1995’s The Brady Bunch Movie. Like that film, The A-Team found a way to pay loving homage to the series, which inspired it while gently poking fun at it at the same time. This movie acknowledges its roots and knows exactly what it is and exactly whom it’s aiming at. As the Harley Davidson t-shirt says, “If I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand.”
The Blu-Ray features a healthy dose of extras including an extended cut, which I didn’t bother watching. Sorry, I was so excited that I felt the need to sit down and write this review as quickly as possible as a way to relive the glory of the film. Anyway, the extended cut has about 30 minutes of extra footage that I assume isn’t necessarily any more violent or risque, but was simply cut for time constraints. It’s a two-hour movie – it really didn’t need to be any longer. I promise I’ll watch it tomorrow and besides, if you’ve read this far, you’re probably going to buy it anyway.
There’s also a nifty feature called “The Devil’s In the Details” which allows you to watch the film with commentary from director Joe Carnahan detailing the weaponry used by the team as well as behind-the-scenes info on how the special effects were created. There are little character bios and a gag reel and even montage of highlights from the film set to the original A-Team theme song. It’s like watching the opening credits to the TV show you wish actually existed. Now that’s pretty awesome!
It was apparent watching this film that Joe Carnahan had a plan to capture the true spirit and essence of the A-Team series. To make a movie that wasn’t simply a film version of an old TV show, but a chronicle of your childhood memories of the A-Team. It’s got all the explosions, the tank building, the camaraderie and the humor of the original series and then some. Joe Carnahan had a plan, and I love the fact that his plan came together.
Okay… so that was a little forced, but can you blame me? I had to work it in there somewhere.
Article first published as Blu-Ray Review: The A-Team on Blogcritics.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
Based on the experiences of Laurens van der Post, chronicled in his novels “The Seed and the Sower” (1963) and “The Night of the New Moon” (1970), Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) tells the story of British soldiers interned by the Japanese as prisoners of war during World War II and the culture clash which ensues. The film focuses on four men: on the Japanese side of things, we have Captain Yonoi and Sergent Hara. The British gentlemen in question are new prisoner Jack Celliers (known for being a “soldier’s soldier”) and Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence. Yonoi is the camp comandant who develops a peculiar fascination with the rebellious Celliers while friendship develops between the seemingly brutal Hara and Mr. Lawrence, due in large part to Lawrence’s ability to speak fluent Japanese and attempts to understand their culture.
The main focus of the film is on the startling differences between the Japanese and British view of honor, discipline, loyalty and glory. The strict code that the Japanese adhere to has Yonoi and Hara viewing the British soldiers as cowards – honor demands that they kill themselves rather than submit to the enemy. An incident of sexual abuse involving a Dutch prisoner and a Korean guard sets off an ethical debate between Hara and Lawrence which continues throughout the film, just as Lawrence is put at odds with the stubborn British camp captain, who sees Lawrence as a traitor for his attempts to understand and explain the Japanese way of life. Meanwhile, Yonoi’s interest in the rebellious Jack Celliers deepens into an almost erotic obsession. It’s a love/hate relationship between all four men in this very layered and brutally intense tale.
The film was directed by Nagisa Oshima, who apparently is a big deal in Japan. I’ve never heard of the guy, but watching the film, along with the hours and hours of extras that are included in this Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, I understand why he is so revered. The man doesn’t shy away from tough subject matter; rather, he shines a rather intense spotlight on it. The film itself is unflinching and raw while leaving enough to the imagination to inspire hours of discussion and debate about its themes. Especially helpful are the previously mentioned extras. “The Oshima Gang” is a 1983 making-of featurette and “Hasten Slowly” is an hour-long documentary about Laurens van der Post, whose autobiographical novels supplied the basis of the film. Brand new interviews with the screenwriter, producer and stars shed new light on what went on behind the scenes. Basically, it provides exactly what you’d expect a Criterion Blu-Ray to provide – exhaustingly indepth insight. If you’re a fan of Nagisa Oshima… well, you’ve probably already picked it up for its high definition restoration alone. But anyone interested in film, from casual film buff to analytical student, will be delighted by not only the film but the extras as well.
I suppose I can’t write a review without mentioning David Bowie. He’s one of the stars and though I heard a few sour reviews regarding his performance, I didn’t find any problem with it save for the fact that judging by his haircut, he must’ve stepped directly from the set of the “Let’s Dance” video to the film shoot. It was a little out of place. Nevertheless, I felt he was perfectly cast as Jack Celliers, as was his opposite, Japanese mucisian Ryuichi Sakamoto (Yonoi) who also provided the haunting score. Hell, everybody in this movie was perfectly cast, right down to the last POW and their guards. The movie wasn’t exactly a Saturday night popcorn flick, but if you’re looking for something thought-provoking and unsettling, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” is your film.
The Blu-Ray also contains the original theatrical trailer and a 120-page booklet packed with essays and interviews on the film. It’s been restored and remastered and is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, which means nothing to me as a layman, but ought to be important to film buffs.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Enter the Cookie Monster. A staple of children’s television who has been around since long before your own childhood, the Cookie Monster is one of the most beloved Muppets to grace the small screen and now he has his very own 50-minute DVD which collects a number of new skits and old favorites. Included in this collection are short stories such as “The Cookie Tree” and the tale of Cookie Hood in which another blue monster (this one with a British accent and a mustache) shows up on Sesame Street and begins stealing cookies and our poor lovable Cookie Monster gets the blame. Imagine Cookie Monster with a cultured manner and a mustache… it’s awesome. Remember Monsterpiece Theater? There’s an episode on here, featuring a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood”. How about “Me Lost Me Cookie at the Disco”? Yup, that one’s on here too. This DVD has even got a weird cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft” in which Cookie Monster sports an afro. Seriously. Oh yeah, and it’s also got Cookie Monster’s young cousin – you thought he was cute as an adult? Imagine him as a little girl. Freakin’ adorable. For those worried about their children adopting bad eating habits, Cookie Monster explains that cookies are just a “sometimes food” and that even though he’s clearly an addict, he’s got it (relatively) under control and maintains a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables and all that stuff. Nevertheless, you can’t have a Cookie Monster DVD if you don’t include the legendary “C is for Cookie” song. It’s kind of a must and you don’t have to fear; there’s a remixed version on this DVD.
So here’s the deal: this is a pretty fun collection. The thing about Cookie Monster is that he’s actually really funny. Even as an adult, I find him to be quite amusing, especially after being forced to endure hours and hours of Elmo. Clearly the inspiration for guys like Bobcat Goldthwait or Sam Kinison, Cookie Monster is totally manic. He’s also a whole lot funnier than either of the comedians I just mentioned, but you didn’t really need me to tell you that. Seriously folks, in a world full of Dora the Explorer and Wonder Pets, isn’t it nice to relax with an old favorite? To rekindle old friendships and see your children experience the same joy as you did and feel safe knowing that they’re actually learning something? Do I actually need to convince you that this DVD is awesome and that you should buy it? It’s the freakin’ Cookie Monster! Of course it’s awesome!
On the other hand, nearly an hour of Cookie Monster strains the limits of how much of the furry blue monster one can handle. I’ll let you be the judge. But I guarantee your preschooler will love it.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
That being said, one of the downsides to cleaning up a film that didn’t quite have the bankroll of a major studio behind it is that some of the cheesier effects wind up looking twice as cheesy this time around. A matte painting that might’ve served as an effective backdrop in a previous edition now stands out as a glaringly obvious false setting and there are a few special effects that made me wince. On the other hand, some of this actually adds to the appeal, giving the film a much more surreal, comic book style, which suits the tone rather well in the opinion of this reviewer.
On to the movie itself. While others would argue that “Halloween” is John Carpenter’s masterpiece, I would put “Escape From New York” second only to “The Thing” when ranking the director's body of work. To call it iconic is an understatement and to refer to its hero, Snake Plissken, as the quintessential badass doesn’t come close to describing how incredibly awesome this character is. You can have your Han Solo and your Man With No Name; Snake Plissken could wipe the floor with ‘em and not even break a sweat. He is the anti-hero personified and “Escape From New York” is one of those touchstone genre films of the early 1980s.
Set in a dystopian future in which Manhattan has been walled off and turned into a maximum security prison, a group of radicals has kidnapped the President of the United States and intend on using him as a human shield in order to make a mass exodus. With WWIII on the wane, the President is required to attend a three-way summit with the Soviet Union and China. The fate of the world is at stake and former U.S. Army Lieutenant-turned-hardened criminal Snake Plissken is brought in to save him. There’s a lot more to the story, including double-crossing, Isaac Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau’s boobs (which seem to have a mind of their own and insist on leaping out of her dress) and more badassery than you can shake a stick at, but you really ought to just watch the movie for yourself. And if you’ve already seen it, you know you love it, so let me reassure you one final time: yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and yes, “Escape From New York” still holds up after all these years.
Oh what’s that? You’re not convinced? Well then, let me throw three more words at you: Lee Van Cleef. That’s right, this movie threatens to literally explode with badassery. We’ve also got Harry Dean Stanton, Ernest Borgnine, and the distinctly beautiful minimalist soundtrack provided by Mr. John Carpenter himself. If you need to take a moment to process all of this awesomeness, go ahead. This review will still be here when you get back.
Okay, so on to the bad (and despite everything I’ve just said, there’s plenty of it). Remember when this movie was released on DVD a few years ago with all sorts of supplemental material including commentary tracks, behind-the-scenes features, and deleted scenes? None of that is included on this collection. The only “bonus” we get is the original trailer for the film, which is included on the DVD and to make matters worse, the DVD is one of those ones you flip over: one side has the film in widescreen format, the other is fullscreen. Really? Who watches fullscreen movies anymore? How is this considered a bonus feature? Why is the DVD even included, and for the love of God, how can MGM justify making people spend $24.95 for it?!?!
For as much as I love “Escape From New York” and as much as I might implore you to view it, I cannot condone this atrocity. It’s a clear money-grab intended to milk suckers who will double-dip if and when a more fitting collector's edition is released down the road and I find it quite shameful. My recommendation: if you don’t care about the lack of bonus material, go ahead and buy it on Amazon where you can get it for under $15. Obviously, it’s a movie that is well worth adding to your collection, but this release does not do the film justice.
Article first published as Blu-Ray Review: Escape From New York on Blogcritics.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
In 1974, the game industry was forever changed with the release of Dungeons & Dragons. While not the first role-playing game in existence, D&D has defined role-playing ever since it’s introduction and has become synonymous with the term. Most games are merely played… others are lived. Obsessive sports fans memorize stats and live out their dreams as armchair quarterbacks or on the imagined field of the internet via fantasy football, but fans of dice-based role-playing games tend to take it a bit further. “The Dungeon Masters” follows three such fans and gives viewers an inside look at how a game can alter a life both for better and for worse.
Given the reputation of most gamers as bespectacled nerds with no social skills, it might seem easy to simply mock the subjects of this film, but director Kevin McAllester instead chooses to show them not as stereotypes, but as real human beings with real problems. Of course, the fact is that the subjects of this film happen to be bespectacled folks who showcase a genuine lack of social graces, which leads to something of a “chicken or the egg” dilemma. One of the gamers featured in the film comes from a broken home with an alcoholic father. Another has recently escaped an abusive relationship and has trouble finding love. All have trouble cementing real friendships and functioning in the world and wind up seeking solace in the fantasy realms offered by role-playing games.
On one hand, gaming offers these people an escape from the trials and tribulations of their everyday lives. On the other, it becomes something of a trap, where feelings of helplessness translate into empowerment that eventually lead to further alienation. A meek sanitation worker becomes a power-hungry dungeon master on the weekends and winds up losing his circle of friends because of it. Most interesting is the case of Elizabeth, who can conjure up a spell of teleportation but can’t seem to conjure up a meaningful relationship. While most women complain that men are only interested in their bodies and don’t care at all about their minds, Elizabeth finds that the men she dates tend to be more attracted to her hobbies, and the fact that she can recite D&D rules and drop mad comic book knowledge, than her personality. It’s an odd twist on a universal theme that isn’t made any less sad by the fact that she’s wearing full face makeup and pointy ears as she recants the tale.
Being a pretty hardcore geek myself, I am fascinated with geek culture in every form it takes, from the fellows at the comic shop waxing philosophical about Silver Age comics to the people featured in this film. I’ve enjoyed other similar documentaries, such as “King of Kong”, “Trekkies” and “Darkon” (which also focuses on role-playing and is in many ways a superior bookend to “The Dungeon Masters”). I simply enjoy watching people be people and I especially enjoy making comparisons between my own geek tendencies and the folks in films such as this one and the others I’ve mentioned. If observing people is your bag, you oughtta check this movie out, because you’ll be hard pressed to find a more interesting bunch.
The strength of “The Dungeon Masters” is that it shows its subjects as human beings, struggling to overcome the challenges of their daily lives both through and despite their addiction to tabletop gaming. Its weakness is that it does not paint a broad enough picture of the phenomenon and it’s loyal devotees. While it doesn’t openly mock or seek to humiliate its subjects, the filmmakers didn’t take the opportunity to show us the atypical gamer. Are there any dedicated gamers who are successful in life and don’t lack the basic skills needed to form solid relationships? Are there any hardcore Dungeon Masters who aren’t overweight, don’t wear glasses and whose lives aren’t wrought with tragedy? Further, “The Dungeon Masters”, as fascinating as it may be, tends to gloss over a lot of the interesting questions that are brought up throughout the telling of the tales. Whether this is a failing on the part of the filmmakers or simply the effect of dealing with tight-lipped subjects, I felt like there was a lot of stones left unturned and a lot of questions left unanswered.
Regardless of my nitpicking, I enjoyed “The Dungeon Masters” thoroughly and would recommend it to fans of both documentaries and geek/nerd culture. While not as indepth as the aforementioned “Darkon”, it is definitely more entertaining and paints an interesting picture of a small group of fanatics and the problems that ensue when fantasy and real life meet.
Sunday, May 2, 2010
Looking back on my youth, the influence of Dungeons & Dragons was quite prevalent and can be seen throughout this entire volume. Dragon’s Lair, based on the popular video game, approaches the genre from a more slapstick side, featuring a bumbling hero who relies on luck more often than skill or razor sharp wits. Galtar and the Golden Lance is a more traditional sword n’ sorcery tale and looks like something of a hybrid between He-Man and King Arthur. The Biskitts is a blatant Smurfs knockoff featuring little puppies in medieval clothing who live in a hidden castle deep within the forest and are always outwitting King Max, sort of a redneck Gargamel.
And of course, the crown jewel is Thundarr the Barbarian. For those of you unfamiliar with this classic, imagine if Planet of the Apes had a baby with Star Wars and the baby was raised by He-Man. Then, when the child reached maturity, Frank Frazetta was comissioned to paint a portrait to hang on his mantle. THAT is Thundarr and it is a thing of sheer beauty. Since Thundarr remains unavailable on DVD (save for the overpriced and illegal bootleg you might find at a comic convention), seeing even one episode of the series is worth the price of this collection.
Speaking of crown jewels, there is another treat that makes Saturday Morning Cartoons: The 1980s completely worth buying, and that is an episode of the Mr. T cartoon. If you wanted to sum my recollection of the 80’s up in 22 minutes, it may very well be this show. Featuring a live-action introduction from T himself, the series boasts a multiracial team of teenage gymnasts who travel around the world solving crimes. There’s also a dog with a mohawk and a little red haired kid who does his best to emulate Mr. T. But as T says in this episode, “He can only try to be me, ‘cause I’m me now and I’m gonna be me in the future.” Like this amazing cartoon, Mr. T is one of a kind.
And what would the 80’s be without cheap knockoffs? Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos is like a poor man’s version of Mr. T, with live-action framing sequences meant to teach a moral and a racially diverse cast. While Mr. T’s show is original and scores points for the sheer oddity of the concept, Karate Kommandos feels like a rip-off of a million other action cartoons that came before. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the inclusion of this episode, as I have actually never seen an episode before.
Rounding out the action/adventure side of the collection is Goldie Gold and Action Jack, an odd show that feels like a pulp-influenced female version of Richie Rich. Like Richie, Goldie’s wealth is so immense that nothing is out of her price range. Everything she owns, from her personal space shuttle to her satellite retreat, is decked out in the gold which is her namesake. Goldie is the owner of the Gold Street Journal and together with investigative reporter Jack Travis, she seeks out adventure, solves mysteries and fights crime. It’s actually a pretty interesting show and as a comic book fan, it was pretty cool to see the name of Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck, listed in the credits as a writer.
But what would a Saturday morning in the ‘80s be without a toy tie-in? Here, The Monchichis fill that role. The show is sickeningly sweet and features a group of tree-dwelling simians whose sole purpose in life is to make things happy for everyone. Naturally, this puts them at odds with the Grumplins, who are basically little evil versions of the Monchichis that seek to end their joyful days and put frowns on everyones faces.
Continuing the tradition of adorability is The Flintsone Kids, which continues the time honored tradition of taking characters we know and love, reducing them to children and eliminating all of the charm that made the characters so great in the first place. The Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley is stylistically quite interesting, but ultimately not very funny. The final cartoon included on this collection is The Kwicky Koala Show, a variety show that feels like a throwback to the classic Hanna Barbera or Loony Tunes cartoons of the past and features a huge cast of characters headlined by Kwicky Koala himself. Kwicky is basically a rehash of Droopy, only he’s fast moving rather than slow. He’s also pretty darn funny.
As a final treat, there is a brief documentary about Thundarr the Barbarian which gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show as well as discussing its influences and the impact it left behind. Comic book and animation legends such as Alex Toth and Jack Kirby worked on the show and Ruby-Spears aimed at an older crowd, featuring complex characters and storylines – no doubt the reason why the show is still so revered today.
Long story short: Saturday Morning Cartoons: 1980’s has a little something for everybody and should please any animation aficionado who grew up in that era. If you fall into that category, it’s a must have for your collection.
Monday, April 12, 2010
Personally, I’m a big fan of this series. Having grown up with "
Personally, I’m a big fan of this series. Having grown up with "
The DVD runs about 50 minutes and features 11 short episodes, so you don’t have to worry about taxing your child’s attention span or becoming bored with it midway through. They’re just long enough to tell a complete story and just short enough to get it over with before you get tired of watching it. But the beauty is that you won’t get sick of it! This show is legitimately entertaining, albeit aimed at a much, much younger audience than most of the television programs you’re probably watching. Then again, if you’ve got kids who are into "
So you know it’s fun, but at this point, you’re probably wondering about the educational value. It’s "
At nearly an hour in length and retailing for $12.99, "Bert and Ernie’s Great Adventures" is money well spent. It’s a treat for the whole family, whether you’re spending it inside on a rainy day or on a long car ride to grandma’s place. Educational, fun and (most importantly for parents) not annoying. You can’t go wrong with "