Archive for November, 2008

It’s unfortunate when a quality show is not given a fair shake by networks despite loyal interest. This was the hand Firefly was dealt.

Set in a world that is both past and future, a mismatched group travel the universe avoiding government capture and seeking safe passage to the next big score. Mal (Nathan Fillion) is captain of the ship. A former soldier, he uses his knowledge to complete complicated jobs. His second-in-command is Zoe (Gina Torres), who is tough as nails, obedient and the only other surviving member of his battalion. Her husband, Wash (Alan Tudyk) is the sarcastic but skilled pilot of Serenity. Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is sweet as pie and the most knowledgeable mechanic this side of the ‘verse. Inara (Morena Baccarin) is a companion; i.e. a very beautiful, well-trained, high-class prostitute with a heart of gold. And Jayne (Adam Baldwin) is a hired gun that mostly sticks around until a better offer comes up. New to the crew are Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a religious man out to see the world; Simon (Sean Maher), a highly skilled doctor; and Simon’s sister River (Summer Glau), a girl suffering a lot of confusion post-governmental experiments on her genius brain.

Originally, all the episodes were not aired on television nor were they aired in their intended order. Happily, the DVD release of the complete series has rectified this. The first is a two-part episode that introduces audiences to the characters, illustrating how they came to be together on the ship. A later episode, “Out of Gas,” delves further into the crew’s history but the opening episodes are a good introduction. Subsequent episodes follow the ragtag gang as they steal, disagree, fight for their lives and band together as combined members of a family. The series is a smart mix of science fiction and the western. Set in 2517, the only superpowers to survive the wars are United States and China, so the show also incorporates Mandarin in the dialogue.

Joss Whedon fans will not be disappointed. The same wit and humour he provided characters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel is one of the key likeable elements of the show. Furthermore, his passion for the story is evident as each character and the situations they find themselves in are well thought-out and in perfect unison with the spirit of the show. The CGI is high quality, responsible for not only the speeding ships but also many of the surroundings on various planets.

It is unfortunate Firefly’s life was cut so short; thankfully, Whedon was able to complete the story in the feature film Serenity and has expanded the tale in graphic novels.

Most of the original bonus features from the DVD release are carried over to the Blu-ray collection. This includes audio commentary on the seven episodes; a 30-minute look into the cast and crew’s experience in producing Firefly, including their last days on the set; an in-depth look at Serenity, “the 10th character;” a tour of the set by Whedon; and four deleted scenes with short descriptions. In addition, special features include a gag real, Whedon singing the Firefly theme song and Tudyk’s audition tape. New to this release are an additional audio commentary and an entertaining 30-minute reunion between Whedon, Fillion, Tudyk and Glass in high-def (everything else is standard-definition full frame).

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Actors can only bring so much to a film but it is up to the director to bring all the elements together.

Cooper (Matthew Broderick) suffered a significant head injury at the hands of a co-worker (Louis C.K.), who now pesters him with attempts at making amends. Cooper’s career is slowly going down the drain, followed by his loved ones, as his injury leaves him with a sketchy memory and hinders his ability to concentrate. At the behest of his mother, Cooper returns home from Chicago to rural Illinois to try to convince his more forgetful Uncle Rollie (Alan Alda) to move to a retirement home. Upon returning, he also discovers his high school sweetheart Charlotte (Virginia Madsen) is newly single. When Rollie reveals he is the owner of a rare Frank Schulte baseball card and is interested in selling, the group heads back to Chicago for a card collector’s convention. There, the inept pair tries to ensure they gain a fair price for the card and avoid swindlers (Bobby Cannavale) willing to take advantage of their disabilities.

Each of the actors appears to have been left to their own devices during shooting. Even though they are incredibly capable, it is the director’s duty to ensure a fluid performance is gained from each contributor. Here, first-time feature director and long-time actor Terry Kinney drops the ball. The actors often appear stranded in scenes. On the other hand, Kinney does appear comfortable with the material and is able to move the action along smoothly.

The comedy-drama is a series of episodic events, tracking a string of setbacks in new locations. Unluckily, the sitcom style and gathering of eccentric characters points to an unfair comparison with the indie sensation Little Miss Sunshine. In addition, to its benefit or not, the movie fails to take a serious look at Alzheimer’s or head trauma, treating the topic rather lightheartedly.

There are no DVD bonus features to evaluate.

An action film is supposed to have peaks and dips like a roller coaster; not nearly level hills and shallow valleys.

Agent Caleb Smith (Jason Priestley) is boarding a plane to take a much-deserved vacation with his family when his phone rings. Loyal to the shield, he answers it and must abandon his family to handle a high-risk security breach. Dr. Daniel Winter (Lou Diamond Phillips) has stolen a dangerous scientific device from a government facility and it is up to Smith to find him. Unfortunately, Winter is on the plane Smith just dismounted. Now with time running out and his family’s life on the line, Smith must figure out how to get the plane safely on the ground and save the universe from total destruction.

This is a low-level sci-fi flick with B-level actors. That’s not to say the actors turn in bad performances; they’re simply mediocre. Everyone sports their most serious faces and gives out a sign of exasperation when appropriate. Phillips is reserved and outwardly unfeeling to his situation. Priestley does a lot of running around and some adequate pleading. The most frustrating character trait is the hostages’ inability to take advantage of opportunities to incapacitate their captors. Another scene of note is a shootout in a bank that comically resembles a western gunfight.

The special effects are decent looking. The vortexes and “null” world are eye-catching, with a striking blend of colours and the attraction of a dangerous approaching storm. The physical destruction does not appear entirely realistic but it serves its purpose. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of farmland with out-of-control technology works as well.

Other than numerous previews to upcoming releases, the only DVD special feature is a 15-minute “behind-the-scenes” featurette that includes interviews with cast members singing each other’s praises. Canadian director Jason Bourque also provides limited insight about the plot’s origins.

Combining two elements that have been seen excessively in cinema is not the recipe for a good film.

Zombie Diaries follows the general scenario of an unknown epidemic sweeping rapidly across the country – in this case England – that animates the dead and creates flesh-hungry monsters. The first group is a documentary crew attempting to record the progress of the outbreak. Of course, it has spread much faster than they anticipated and they are trapped in the middle of it now. The next section picks up a month later. A couple and a hitchhiker scavenge local areas trying to find enough supplies to stay alive a little while longer. In the meantime, a ragtag group of survivors hole up at a farmhouse, protecting their territory from the zombie horde. In the end, it turns out the real terror comes from within not without.

The story is interesting enough but it is conveyed entirely through handheld camcorders. This is a great device for low-budget storytelling but it is difficult to get right and will inevitably fail in comparison to The Blair Witch Project. That said, at least this flick avoids the nauseous movements of its predecessor. The introduction of the camera only makes sense in the first instance since the group is actually a film crew; however, its endless documentation of the other events seems impractical. This divide is pushed further when the camera operator invades the sanctity of a bedroom to capture a particular moment or hangs back in a zombie attack to record the feeding frenzy.

The acting is not bad and the attack sequences are realistic enough; even the zombies look pretty good. However, there are too many characters and most of them are never explored or expanded upon. Consequently, it is impossible to connect to or sympathize with any of the individuals before they meet their demise.

In any case, horror master and zombie originator George Romero has already employed this approach to the undead tale.

The DVD provides two feature commentaries: one with co-writers/directors/producers Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates and another with the cast. Each is a lively, different account of the shoot. The hour-long “making of” featurette does not follow a logical course and is not as insightful as one would hope. Finally, the 15-minutes of deleted scenes are completely omissible.

Some T.V. just never gets old. Over 40 years ago, Barbara Eden materialized on the small screen, leading to a starring role in television as well as private fantasies for years to come.

Astronaut Major Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman) returns from a one-man mission, only to find himself stranded on a deserted island. While searching for means to a rescue, he stumbles across an ornate bottle. Unexpectedly, uncorking it releases a beautiful female genie (Eden). Having been trapped for 2000 years, Jeannie is all too willing to repay her new master despite his attempts to rid himself of her. Hi-jinks ensue. Tony’s best friend Major Roger Healey (Bill Daily) eventually learns of Jeannie’s origins and has no qualms about trying to take advantage of his buddy’s awkward situation. Unfortunately for Jeannie, although her intentions are good, her lack of knowledge of the modern world tends to muddy her acts of kindness. Meanwhile, Dr. Alfred Bellows (Hayden Rorke) desperately tries to figure out if Nelson is sane, even though he often ends up having to put his own state of mind into question.

It was 1965 and surprisingly, the censors allowed a sitcom to air starring an unmarried, cohabitating man and woman – as long as they kept her navel concealed. Eden was just right as the naïve but clever fish out of water. Her stunning appearance only encouraged the unreal spirit of her character. Hagman was the ideal counter to her mischief, demanding responsible behaviour despite his own tendency to get swept up in her schemes. Daily is the archetypal best friend, providing both comic relief and the forbidden indulgence in Jeannie’s powers. But in the end, Rorke holds the show together. His Dr. Bellows could be counted on to provide the show’s conflict as well as some of its most hilarious moments.

The series ran for five seasons before ending in 1970 but its hilarity is timeless.

The series is released on 20-discs, containing all 139 episodes. The cover art on each disc is a frame of the opening credits animation that recreates Jeannie and Major Nelson’s first meeting. An aspect of note is, even though the first season was originally aired in black-and-white due to budgetary constraints, here the entire season is presented in full colour as it was meant to be.

The special features are very minimal. The first-disc contains audio commentary for the pilot episode, supplied by Eden, Hagman and Daily. It’s not very informative but it’s still fun to hear the trio reminisce and Daily gush over Eden’s good looks. On the fourth-disc is “I Dream of Jeannie: Out of the Bottle,” a discussion of the first season by Eden, Hagman, Daily and series creator Sidney Sheldon. This 14-minute conversation gives a little insight into the shows production. Disc 19 contains two minisodes, one from Fantasy Island and the other from Bewitched. In addition, various discs have previews to upcoming DVD releases from Sony.

The true bonus is the neat cardboard replica of Jeannie’s bottle that houses the series in its bottom (the discs themselves are in accordion style package). Finally, there is also a set of collector’s cards featuring images, facts and character descriptions on the front and an episode guide on the back. They come in a small box that matches the cute bottle.

It was obviously going to be difficult to transfer this story to the big screen. And even though the film doesn’t hold a candle to the source material, it’s an adequate adaptation.

Bella Swan’s (Kristen Stewart) mom recently remarried so to give the newlyweds some alone time, she grudgingly decides to trade the warm, sunny climate of Phoenix for the cloudy, rainy surroundings of Forks, Washington to live with her father (Billy Burke). With such a small population, everyone quickly takes notice of the new girl and Bella instantly has a group of new friends – everyone except the Cullens. The Cullens keep to themselves mostly but Bella finds herself drawn to Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) despite the strange way he acts around her. He soon reveals a similar attraction, only his desires are more dangerous than she expected. Bella is eventually welcomed into their vampire family but there are other vampires not as willing to tolerate the unprecedented relationship.

Even at two hours, the first thing fans of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight will notice is Bella and Edward’s courtship is highly abbreviated. Several of the scenes are combined and they fast track to an intensely reciprocal relationship so the danger presented by the nomad vampires is substantial. Of course, these adjustments were expected and the feelings between the characters are still expressed well enough. On the other hand, the change in tone of two very meaningful moments in the novel is more than irritating.

The casting of the already loved and imagined characters is fairly satisfying. Stewart conveys the vulnerability of Bella, as well as her powerful and unforeseen attraction to Edward. Pattinson is both good-looking and comes across slightly dangerous; although the pain caused by his uncontrollable draw to Bella is not always portrayed convincingly. Conversely, his smile is fittingly breathtaking. Luckily, their on-screen chemistry is tangible. The rest of the Cullens are also represented well, especially Alice (Ashley Greene). And Jacob (Taylor Lautner) has a sweet, adorable face as expected. On the other side of the vampire divide, Cam Gigandet provides a very menacing take on James and Rachelle Lefevre is a more subtly deadly Victoria.

Practically, few of the effects really work. Filmmakers used a lot of wirework to communicate the vampires’ special abilities but the Crouching Tiger-look does not really work for this story.

In the end, this film is not as likely to bring new readers to the series as it fails to truly illustrate the force of Bella and Edward’s love. Moreover, they are likely to miss the subtleties of some of the characters’ actions because they’re unfamiliar with the story. Alternatively, fans will not walk away disgruntled as the film is loyal to the story they know – just very different.

The Grimm fairytales are not the sweet, colourful stories most of us grew up with – the original versions are dark, bloody and far more disturbing. But it would seem they have nothing on the South Koreans, who take an already sinister story and somehow manage to make it more unpleasant.

The tale begins with a distracted man having a car accident. Eun-soo (Jeong-myeong Cheon) is revived in a dense forest by a girl (Sim Eun-kyung) in a red hood. She leads him back to her house, which she calls the “House of Happy Children.” Young Hee lives there with her brother Manbok (Eun Won-jae), sister Jung Soon (Ji-hee Jin) and their parents. There appears to be something not entirely right with the picture-perfect family but what is unclear. However, when Eun-soo seeks to reconnect with the outside world, their true natures reveal themselves.

The actors, particularly the children, are very confident and effective in their roles. Eun-kyung is particularly striking and well-casted as her childish face is in direct contrast to her more experienced eyes. Cheon is also exceptionally sincere.

The house looks very surreal. Its existence in the middle of the forest is both unexpected but necessary. The bizarreness of the house is only intensified by its seclusion. The interior is filled with so many toys, it is reminiscent of Santa’s workshop; but at the same time, there are too many toys for the home to be normal. The house’s dreamlike impression is established not just through dressing but the unreal and excessive display of vibrant, warm colours.

There is a consistent and underlying feeling of creepiness throughout the narrative. It begins as soon as the first child appears on screen and does not slack until the conflict is resolved. Director Yim Pil-sung successfully maintains this sinister atmosphere with only the tiniest of details at the start, inflating them as their sources becomes clearer.

The story takes a startling turn just prior to the finale. The picture is drained of colour and the audience is taken into the past. The children’s story actually began in a revolting orphanage. And even though it is a scene in this flashback that actually relates the tale to the title fairytale, its contrast to the rest of the film is so concentrated it feels like an entirely different movie.