An Epic Portrait of American Royalty: THE ROOSEVELTS: AN INTIMATE HISTORY

THE ROOSEVELTS: AN INTIMATE HISTORY on PBS

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See it at PBS Website 

(4/5)

Pros: Well-researched; strong presentation; very educational

Cons: Undeniably “dry” when compared to most modern documentaries

The latest in a string of epic documentaries produced for public television (i.e. PBS) by filmmaker Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is a seven-part, roughly fourteen-hour series premiering in September 2014 that chronicles the history of one of America’s most important political dynasties from a period in the mid-1800s until Eleanor Roosevelt’s death in 1962. Starting off by examining the roots of the family in New York State, The Roosevelts’ premiere episode, entitled “Get Action,”goes on to detail how Theodore Roosevelt rose to power in the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. A viewer starts to realize through the program that Theodore’s rise to political prominence was rather unlikely: after suffering from physical limitations early on in life, Theodore eventually had to work through several tragedies that occurred early on in his political career. All the while the documentary tells the story of how Theodore began a life of adventure in the American west to get his wits back about him after the deaths of his first wife and mother on the same day in 1884, Burns also devotes time to explaining the early life of Theodore’s cousin Franklin Delano, who was born into a different branch of the family. “Get Action” finishes with Theodore taking over the presidency of the United States after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, a situation that would not only have a profound effect on the country but also on Theodore’s younger cousin who now saw proof that perseverance and hard work could pay off…

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Teddy (left) and FDR (right) in 1914.

Much like earlier Ken Burns documentaries, The Roosevelts relies on various sources and archival materials to tell its story. While the series does feature omniscient narration (provided by the always reliable Peter Coyote) and has the expected group of “talking head” historians who offer their two cents in analyzing the events taking place in the ongoing narrative, Burns and writer Geoffrey C. Ward often rely on actual first-hand accounts written by the subjects of the documentary themselves which are recited by a group of actors (including Paul Giamatti who portrays Theodore, Edward Herrmann who voices Franklin, and Meryl Streep as Eleanor). This technique goes a long way in making the production seem like it is, as advertised, an “intimate history:” the viewer often is told the story right from the horse’s mouth as it were, and the insight into various well-known and not-so well-known historical events is undeniably fascinating. This series certainly seems like a “peek behind the curtain” of a much-revered and admired family.

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In its explanation of Teddy’s action during the Spanish-American War, the series includes several detailed battle descriptions – fascinating stuff.

Along with these anecdotes, Burns also provides a wealth of archival images that speak to the amount of research and work that went into this production. Including both iconic, instantly recognizable images and ones taken from more private collections, these photographs are perhaps best in their ability to help establish the setting that this documentary is attempting to chronicle. This seems an important aspect of the production to me, since the period discussed in this series is one that few (if any) people would have first-hand knowledge about. Obviously, technology changed immensely from the time that Theodore Roosevelt was leading the so-called “Rough Riders” in Cuba to the period in which Pearl Harbor was bombed thus entering the United States into the Second World War, and I would anticipate that the format of the series may change slightly as it progresses to include more vintage film elements over static images. Either way, Burns does include contemporary scenes from time to time to make this production a bit more digestible to modern audiences used to a more flashy production.

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FDR – a voice of reason during a period of national crisis

That last statement is indicative of one criticism I might have about this documentary. By 2014, after having worked on numerous productions of this nature, Burns’ documentary formula is pretty well-established and seems bland compared to the more vibrant, modern documentary style. In many ways, The Roosevelts could be seen as a rather “dry,” old-fashioned documentary: it’s precisely the type of no-nonsense production that I recall having to watch in school on many occasions (this same basic format was used for Burns’ Civil War for instance). Additionally, even if Burns’ selection of music is perfectly acceptable given the subject matter he’s covering, the format of having an actor reading journal entries over distant, dramatic music almost becomes cheesy in context of modern film making and/or documentary technique. To put it simply, this type of thing would be likely to put some younger viewers and maybe even older audiences to sleep: the production as a whole seems almost lackadaisical in terms of its mood and forward momentum.

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Eleanor, who redefined the role of the “First Lady.”

It’s a good thing then that the amount and quality of information presented in this film is truly outstanding. While I’m no presidential scholar, I certainly have at least a passing familiarity with various aspects of American history, and I found that this documentary provided a ton of information that I hadn’t been aware of or had forgotten over time. There’s also some interesting food-for-thought provided in the form of inevitable comparisons that could be made between the times when Theodore and FDR were president (and the era between their two presidencies) and the modern age. I found several quotes and analysis by the historians to be especially fascinating in a modern context: Theodore’s declaration to “never let party zeal obscure [his] sense of right and decency” is a statement that I would scoff at coming from the mouths of one of today’s politicians. In an era where congressional approval ratings are in the single digits and politicians (at best) seem too caught up in personal gain and cronyism, it seems outrageous that genuine altruists of the Roosevelt variety would be elected to office – or not be corrupted beyond recognition if they did.

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Teddy Roosevelt: Big game hunter, warmonger, and Imperialist?

As much as the historians interviewed in the program to an extent do seem to be offering up near-endless praise to the subjects of the documentary, they aren’t afraid to point out flaws in the Roosevelts either. A significant amount of time is paid in the first episode to the notion that Theodore may not only have been somewhat mentally unstable, but also a bit of a warmonger who “reveled in gore.” Additionally, the observation that Teddy was an outright Imperialist isn’t necessarily a flattering one, yet may explain a few things about American foreign policy that are still relevant today. The film also doesn’t ignore the fact that Eleanor and Franklin were (gulp!) related – or shy away from discussing FDR’s extramarital activities. In the end, though the series sometimes seems pretty warm and fuzzy, it appears to present an accurate and fairly objective portrait.

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Even if it’s not the most flashy thing I’ve ever seen, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is quite riveting and compelling for what it is, and would be about a must for those seriously interested in the American presidency or the country’s history in general. The series as a whole is exceedingly well put-together – the editing of Paul Barnes is extraordinary in its ability to juggle the stories of three different family members (Teddy, FDR, and Eleanor) at any given time, and the program presents a veritable smorgasbord of facts and archival material. As good as the early episodes have been, I can only imagine the series would get better as it goes along and covers seemingly more significant (and more well-known) segments in the lives of its subjects. One of Ken Burns’ most admirable talents as a documentarian is that he makes comprehensive and indeed almost exhaustive analyses of historical subjects tolerable for mainstream audiences, and I’d have to say that he’s come up with another winner here. It might not impress younger viewers, but this sober and all-encompassing series is undoubtedly excellent.

Fun in the Office – Slinky Jr. Original

Slinky Jr. Original

See it at Amazon 

(5/5)

Pros: inexpensive, compact, easy to use, great sound, nostalgic

Cons: metal can be stretched out of shape

It started with one Slinky Jr. Original. Then the phenomenon morphed into more Junior Slinky toys on desk tops. This little toy is a great stress buster.

Description

The Slinky Jr. is constructed from silver-colored coiled metal.  It has a 1 1/2″ diameter with a hole in its center.  It is recommended for ages five and older. The packaging has instructions for using the Slinky with one’s hands, or walking the Slinky down an incline.

My Experiences

I was captivated by the small Slinky toys on my co-worker’s desks.  Even my boss had one!  While they were pondering problems or talking on the phone, I would hear the gentle “sssshhh” of the Slinky as the spring was shuffled from one palm to the other.  I’ve always loved Slinky’s and could not wait to buy my own miniature version.

Using the Slinky is a great way to alleviate stress, too.  There is something about the gentle back and forth motion, watching the spring coil and bounce.  The small size is great for sitting on the desk or storing in a drawer.  I passed an office the other day, and someone had somehow managed to uncoil and warp the metal in the center of their Slinky.  Heaven only knows how they managed that feat!  Instead of throwing the destroyed Slinky away, they mounted it on a magnetic platform so that it resembles modern art.

It is great working in an office that appreciates having fun.  None of us is quite daring enough to try “walking” the Slinky toys down the multiple flights of stairs in the building.  Wouldn’t it be fun to have Slinky races?

These little toys also make great gifts.  I enjoy sticking them in gift baskets, holiday stockings, and even as part of a get-well gift.  I buy them from Amazon.com.

Summary

The Slinky Jr. Original is a fun addition to our office.  I also have one at home.  It is an inexpensive low-tech toy that is filled with fun!

I hope you found this review useful.

Enjoy the day,
Dawn

http://dlstewart.com

Copyright 2014 Dawn L. Stewart

In Space No One Can Hear You Gag.

The Adventures Of Pluto Nash

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$28.99 At Amazon 

(0/5)

Pros: Pros? That’s funny. There aren’t any!

Cons: Where to begin.

(Note: This review originally appeared in slightly different form on Epinions.com)

Greetings people.

As most of you are aware, I, David Manning, have been out of work for more than a year now. Since Sony gave me the ax and spread that story about how I wasn’t real I’ve been unable to find steady work. None of the major publications would hire me, which is their loss. I mean: they need somebody to give stuff a chance certain people who scream about quality won’t. They’re fine ones to talk about quality! The films I’m referring to are masterpieces. Hudson Hawk, that one was a damn classic. And Battlefield Earth. It’s a crime against humanity that the Academy overlooked John Travolta for an Oscar for that one. Oh, and that one from 12 years ago called Scooby-Doo that all my boneheaded counterparts trashed. What nerve! Scooby-Doo was a wonderfully original movie full of terrific jokes, endearing pop culture references (loved the Sugar Ray cameo) and humor on the level of Mark Twain (How could you not find the farting contest between Shaggy and Scooby hilarious?).

Fortunately the Warner Brothers execs were smart when they released The Adventures Of Pluto Nash in that they didn’t let in any of the critics so that they could go off and spread fabrications about this piece of art. Then it would have been the viewing public’s loss (and Warner Bros’ as well, since they spent $90 million on this baby). Thus I was the only critic they allowed in. So I’m here to tell you what you should have already figured out. The Adventures Of Pluto Nash is a masterpiece. The fact that it did not take home some Academy Awards was one snub too many (Battleship’s omission was bad enough) and I am now boycotting them!

Anyway, in this outer-space comedy we have Eddie Murphy in the title role as a former smuggler turned nightclub owner. Yes, I know that he previously played a similar role in the way underrated early 90s flick Harlem Nights. But hey, if that performance was good, what’s wrong with having him repeat it. Most of you have forgotten it you claim? Well it’s a shame that you did, even though you apparently for some reason think it is best forgotten, along with his roles in Vampire In Brooklyn and Beverly Hills Cop III. Randy Quaid plays his robot bodyguard named Bruno. Bruno truly is robotic. Some people may call him annoying. Don’t listen to them. Bruno is quite hilarious. In fact, he has one of the best scenes in the movie where he falls in love with a French female robot. I have never seen a more touching scene in my life. Be sure to bring plenty of tissue.

Rosario Dawson plays Dina, a nightclub singer who comes to Pluto’s nightclub on the moon seeking work. Pluto hires her on as a waitress. Before long however, a group of goons show up at the Pluto club. They work for Rex Crater, a local developer who wants to buy the moon and turn it into a casino. Pluto refuses to sell out and so Crater resorts to that time honored technique of shakedown to get what he wants. Before long, Pluto Dina and Bruno are on the run from Crater and his men.

What make this movie so great are the hilarious jokes. There is a scene where Pluto and Dina go to get cloned (yes cloning is legal on the moon in 2080) and wind up engaging in a series of extremely funny rear-end jokes. In fact, if I were to drink a beer for every time an a** joke gets made in this movie; I would find myself as drunk as the bozos who will doubtlessly pan this movie. There has to be some explanation for why they don’t recognize cinematic art when they see it.

There are also numerous moon references throughout the movie. This is most notable in the use of moon songs, the same way Angel songs were used in Charlie’s Angels. You hear songs like a hip-hop Blue Moon, an R&B remake of Dancing In The Moonlight and Joe Pantoliano (AKA Ralphie of The Sopranos) singing Fly Me To The Moon. No Moondance or Bad Moon Rising though.

Oh yes, there is also a talking car, much like the cabs in Total Recall. Although this car has the voice of John Cleese. Forget A Fish Called Wanda or any of the Python movies, this performance is the one that will stand above all others when Cleese’s career is remembered in years to come. Lines like “I refuse to let you steal me” and “That is drivel” will go down in movie quote history along with “Wink wink nudge nudge”.

So I think that this should cap my opinion quite well. The Adventures Of Pluto Nash is a cinematic treasure that should appeal to all people, much like Shrek or Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. I urge all of you people who foolishly missed this masterpiece when it was in theaters to give it a chance on DVD, Blue-Ray or streaming. Watch it along with that other summer classic known as Scooby-Doo and you will have a blast.

See you all soon
David Manning.

Why…Just Why? ALASKA MONSTERS

ALASKA MONSTERS

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Website at Destination America 

(0/5) bogus

Pros: May amuse some people, though that may be an indication that there’s no longer any hope left for humanity

Cons: Completely…utterly…hopelessly unnecessary, phonier than a three dollar bill, and dumber than five boxes of rocks

Another week; another positively ludicrous phony monster hunt program. Alaska Monsters is the Destination America channel’s latest entry in the crypto-reality genre, following the exploits of a monster hunting crew located in the “last frontier” of the forty-ninth state. As has come to be the norm, we have the usual gang of characters: team leader “Little Bear,” a trap engineer named Todd, tech specialist Levi, a fellow named Rhett who’s billed as the “rookie,” a trapper named “Face” who’s the obvious “wild card” of the group and finally, a “researcher” who goes by the name of – get ready for it – “Crusty.” This gang, known as the “Midnight Sons” has been tracking creatures in Alaska since 2008 (at least if you believe anything this show is trying to tell you), and in the first episode of the reality show revolving around them, go in search of Alaska’s Bigfoot-like creature that’s known locally as the “Wild Man.”

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On the first episode of Alaska Monsters, the team searches for “security expert” Huckleberry. Wait…that ain’t right…

The program follows the now very well-established monster hunt formula to a ‘T’: it starts with the initial night “recon” mission, involves a few eyewitness accounts (one of whom declares he was “out here gettin’ wood with my dog…” sounds like a personal problem), and sputters towards a final “midnight hunt” that puts the team directly in the path of an imaginary beast created solely through dubbed-in sound effects and blank expressions of fear from the actors…er…team members. Alaska Monsters seems a bit more modern in terms of the gear used during the investigations featured on it: in this first episode, the team not only utilizes night vision and FLIR infrared technology, but also a small drone with a camera mounted on it to survey the nearby landscape. This allows the seemingly misplaced Levi character (who seems not at all at home alongside a group of people one would expect to see waiting in line at the local soup kitchen) a sense of purpose in the show. Rhett, on the other hand, has nary a thing to do throughout the program and I’m not even sure that he takes part in the final night investigation that mainly involves the team tramping around a saw mill with firearms at the ready. After some obviously scripted “suspense” (“Oh no! A production assistant is shaking this blind I’m sitting in!”) and plenty of dubious acting on the part of the cast, the team walks away without a single solitary piece of evidence relating to the creature they’ve been pursuing. The show (like every episode of Mountain Monsters) ends with the crew making vague insinuations and wisecracks about the existence of the creature in an attempt to convince a viewer that he hasn’t just witnessed a load of complete bullshit.

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This poorly concocted, “scary” scene stands as the premiere episode’s climax.

It really is astonishing to me that somewhere, some network executive is giving each and every one of these absolutely ridiculous and devastatingly pointless monster programs the green light – and actually spending some money on their production. The ultimate sad fact about shows like this one, Monsters Underground, Swamp Monsters and Mountain Monsters (which lost all credibility or, more importantly, sense of fun it once had during a painful to behold second season) is that they make shows like Destination Truth and even Finding Bigfoot look not only like top-notch entertainment but actually, undeniably credible. Let’s not forget that Destination Truth’s host Josh Gates wasn’t at all afraid to admit that he found no evidence of the at best rare and more probably completely imaginary creatures he was seeking and Finding Bigfoot still has not one solid bit of evidence after five full seasons. The notion of a monster hunt program that doesn’t instantaneously come up with a creature seems almost preposterous in context of this new breed of monster hunt programs exemplified by any of the Mountain Monsters clones that not only invents fictitious and frequently outlandish beasts, but then tries extremely hard through glaringly phony video evidence, sketchy eyewitness reports, and falsified, scripted scenarios to convince the audience of their actual flesh and blood existence. I’m kind of scared to see what happens on the next season of Finding Bigfoot: will that show even continue when it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that there’s still nothing on the hill?

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After an overload of absurdly similar and increasingly worthless programs, I would hope that most people would recognize the fact that very few of these monster-related shows are even making any attempt to be authentic in their presentation of content. Hence, it’s impossible for any savvy viewer to take these shows as anything except entertainment – they clearly are not documentaries. That said, it’s surprising how lousy most of them are in the entertainment department, and I think most of that is directly related to the fact that there is absolutely no originality to these shows. Alaska Monsters is a carbon copy of Mountain Monsters, a fact which is best exhibited by examining the characters. Trap builder Todd (much in the way his counterpart Willy does in Mountain Monsters) sets about building the most outrageously elaborate and positively impractical traps one could possibly imagine. In order to catch a Bigfoot-like creature, Todd constructs a “cylinder snare trap” – basically a huge tube with a system in place to close metal wire around a creature trapped inside of it. Why any beast would actually go inside this contraption in the first place is never explained (do these “expert trackers” not realize that their human stench would be hanging over this device like a fog?), and it’s no surprise when something goes wrong with the mechanics of the device and it’s not actually unusable.

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ACTING!

Additionally, we have smarmy narration provided by the appropriately named “Crusty,” a guy who seems vaguely unlikable and sleazy (or maybe it’s just that I can’t see the fashion value of the animal claw he wears in his thick, bushy beard) and “Face,” the obligatory “wild card” character who talks in a raspy, cartoonish voice and achieves moments of enlightenment when discussing wild man “doo doo” and imitating Fred Flintstone. I couldn’t possibly make this stuff up. The characters here seem way too “hammy” and almost make Vincent Price performances from the 1970s look restrained in comparison. All in all, there’s simply no way one could take anything in Alaska Monsters seriously – not when “Little Bear,” sporting an outfit that makes him look like a complete d-bag, starts mystically playing a pitch pipe around a campfire and discusses his tendency to “burn sage.” Seriously, where’s Bobo and Ranae when you need them?

little bear
So…”Little Bear” (in center) is wearing ass-less chaps, some sort of fur stole, a cowboy hat with the face of a small weasel on it, a fistful of gold rings, and a big, blinging medallion shaped like either a grizzly bear or a domestic hog. And we’re supposed to take this show at all seriously.

I’ve gotten to the point where there’s no way to even describe how atrocious shows like Alaska Monsters really are: this fails horribly as a monster-related program due to not having one iota of credibility, but even as the trashy, clinically dumb piece of populist entertainment that it is, it’s a complete waste, way too similar to other monster hunt shows that any viewer who watches this program probably would be familiar with. The producers don’t seem to be aware of the fact that they’re running this genre of television into the ground through pure, unadulterated, unchecked overkill, and I sincerely hope that someone behind the scenes is making hay while the sun shines, because the genre of the crypto-reality show is very quickly outlasting its relevance and has already overstayed its welcome. Programs like Alaska Monsters not only seem entirely capable of ruining anyone viewer’s interest in the subject of cryptozoology, but make me long for a program where a mysterious creature isn’t instantly located by a group of morons whose idea of “tracking” a creature is whooping, hollering, screaming, and careening through the forest while explaining each and every obvious move they’re making to an audience who is well aware of the absurdity of what they’re watching. I also don’t need any scenes of hobo-looking fellas giving each other a brofist each time they make a smart-ass, scripted remark about a fantasy creature. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m actually looking forward to the new season of Finding Bigfoot just to provide some sort of balance to a genre that’s well out of control at this point – better prepare the lifeboats just in case though…

Title Says It All – The Worst of the FMW Video Series: WAR OF ATTRITION

Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling: WAR OF ATTRITION

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See it at Amazon 

(1/5) ugh

Pros: The one match shown in its entirety is pretty great

Cons: Heavy truncation of matches that seem very gimmicky; way too much (confounding) storyline material

Opening with a recap of the tenth anniversary show for Japanese wrestling promotion Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (which was released on video as The Judgment), War of Attrition is the aptly-named twelfth volume in TokyoPop Home Video’s FMW series. While some programs in the series provided “best of FMW” style compilations and others (like the aforementioned Judgment) featured entire individual events, War of Attrition exists solely as a “clean up” (or filler if you like) program in which a hodgepodge of matches is screened for the viewer: its sole reason for existence is to tie The Judgment to the next major FMW card, entitled “Backdraft” that occurred roughly six months later in May of the year 2000. As such, Attrition mostly focuses on the soap opera aspects of pro wrestling, following various storylines that existed in FMW circa late 1999 and early 2000. Though the matches here do feature many of the top talents in the promotion, this disc as a whole is not something that I’d probably be all that enthused about recommending, even to fans of Japanese wrestling.

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Long before the WWE, FMW proclaimed itself as “entertainment.”

Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling was founded in 1989 by legendary wrestler Atsushi Onita as a sort of hardcore or “garbage” promotion – most of the traditional rules of the squared circle were relaxed to the point of almost being nonexistent, and FMW matches frequently involved use of weapons or outrageous stipulations. FMW pioneered many so-called “death matches” including ones involving electrified barbed wire, exploding land mines, and more and this style of hardcore or “extreme” wrestling was eventually borrowed by various other promotions, and perhaps used most effectively in the United States by Philadelphia-based Extreme Championship Wrestling. By 1999, FMW had entered into a sort of talent swap program with ECW in which American wrestlers would appear in Japan and Japanese performers would occasionally make tours of the states. Around this same time, FMW also was in the process of becoming more “entertainment-oriented:” instead of focusing on rough and often bloody hardcore action and stipulation matches, the promotion was attempting to become more similar to the mainstream American promotions WWF and WCW, a move that in my opinion was rather questionable.

this kind of match
One probably wasn’t going to see this kind of match in FMW circa 1999, which is kind of a shame really.

Nevertheless, drama seemed to take precedence over wrestling by 2000 and to that end, numerous feuds and storyline arcs were going on during this time period, with the main one revolved around a struggle for power in the organization between H (the wrestler formerly known as Hayabusa) and Masato Tanaka. Both these extremely talented performers had aspirations to be the best, most well-known superstar in FMW – and had the credentials to back up their arguments. By 2000, Tanaka had not only become a star in Japan, but also had a run as ECW’s Heavyweight Champion after a series of ridiculously hard-hitting battles with Mike Awesome, while H was easily the most popular figure in FMW. A clash between these two had been brewing for years and War of Attrition’s main goal seems to be to set the table for the inevitable showdown which would occur at the “Backdraft” event.

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Hayabusa and Tanaka during happier times. By 2000, their feud was the biggest in the promotion.

Providing commentary throughout the program is the usual team of John Watanabe and Dan “The Mouth” Lovranski who are tolerable but nothing more. Neither of these announcers really take the program to the next level, and neither are as compelling to listen to as guys like Jim Ross, Joey Styles, or (God forbid) Gorilla Monsoon. Adding to the problems on War of Attrition is the fact that virtually none of the ten matches included here is seen in its entirety. Clipping these matches down to shreds of “highlight material” ruins the flow of the action – as a whole, this plays more like an episode of SportsCenter than a honest wrestling tape. For my money, the truncation of many if not most matches was the biggest problem with TokyoPop’s FMW series: I was willing to look past individually sloppy wrestling to an extent, but the heavy editing on these DVDs makes watching them borderline on being absolutely pointless. War of Attrition is probably the worst volume of the FMW video series in this regard.

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Sloppy wrestling is sloppy.

Here’s the “matches” included on the program.

1. Kintaro Kanemura vs. Axl Rotten (12.11.1999) – One of the most rough and tumble wrestlers in FMW takes on Rotten, who was known as one of the most violent performers in ECW mainly due to his notorious battles with his “brother” Ian. As expected, this match gets ugly, with the use of a fork to carve open the head of Kanemura, both men being slammed into and through piles of chairs, and a pretty crazy senton bomb from the top of a ladder which puts Rotten through a table. What’s more shocking is the handful of technical moves in the match: I never thought I’d see Rotten pulling off a superplex in this match, but it does indeed happen. While the match seemed decent, I can’t give this collection of highlights any higher than a two star rating.

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From left, Balls Mahoney, Masato Tanaka, Axl Rotten.

2. Masato Tanaka vs. Balls Mahoney (12.11.1999) – Another match featuring an FMW standout taking on an ECW star. This match is a bit more technically-based than the previous one – Mahoney actually was fairly capable as a technician, though he usually adopted the style of a brawler. Both he and Tanaka take some pretty sick chair shots in the contest, which sees Axl Rotten join Mahoney at ringside to offer assistance. Lots of rough action, though again, heavy editing ruins the match. Two stars.

Tajiri
Tajiri, one of the more “eccentric” performers in ECW.

3. Kintaro Kanemura, Koji Nakagawa, Jado and Gedo vs. Balls Mahoney, Yoshihiro Tajiri, Super Crazy, and Axl Rotten (12.12.1999) – About as wild a group of wrestlers as one could get in one match, this out-of-control 8-man tag match sees the fight taken all over the arena and only intermittently being fought one-on-one in the center of the ring. The best moves here are (unsurprisingly) pulled off by ECW combatants Tajiri and Super Crazy – these two perform simultaneous, dual somersault presses flipping over the top ropes at one point and Tajiri also locks up his famous Tarantula submission. Very difficult to keep tabs on what’s happening during the match in these highlights; though I suspect the contest was pretty amazing to see, it pretty much stinks when edited down to smithereens. One and a half stars.

scamble fire match
The infamous “Scramble Fire Death Match” in which Kanemura was powerbombed into a pool of burning gasoline by Jado, resulting in third-degree burns on 75% of his back.

4. H and Mr. Gannosuke vs. Masato Tanaka and Tetsuhiro Kuroda (12.12.1999) – WEW Tag Team Title match that’s also a key moment in the feud between Tanaka and H. During the contest, a pumped-up Tanaka seems to be showing off his improved technique and raw power since this match occurred just after his first tour of duty in ECW. There’s some decent scientific wrestling here as Tanaka works over Gannosuke’s legs and arms, eventually unloading a wicked dragon screw that’s dazzling to say the least. Once H (finally) gets into the match, he’s like a house on fire for a few minutes, nailing Tanaka with a devastating fisherman bomb that shows Tanaka’s ability to absorb tremendous punishment. It’s Kuroda being abused late in the going, though Tanaka eventually empties the tank on his opponents by running through his repertoire of power moves. A really exciting match – but why wouldn’t the producers of the DVD just show the whole damn thing? Three stars.

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I’m not quite sure what’s going on here, but it looks like Hido (left), Fuyuki (middle), and Kanemura (right) are abusing and/or molesting Kuroda (legs spread???).

5. H, Mr. Gannosuke, Hisakatsu Oya, and Ricky Fuji vs. Kodo Fuyuki, Kyoko Inoue, Balls Mahoney, and Pitbull #1 (1.5.2000) – Eight person tag team match – labeled as such since female wrestler Inoue participates in this match on the ECW Japan team of Fuyuki, who previously had been “kicked out” of FMW but nonetheless was written back into the scr…I mean found a loophole to re-enter the promotion. This highlighted match begins with Fuji attempting to sing “Sexy Boy,” a.k.a. the entrance music of WWE star Shawn Michaels, in mangled Engrish. Cover your ears is all I have to say. Once the match gets going, it’s perhaps most notable for being one of the few times that H (now clearly established in the storyline as FMW’s chosen messiah) bleeds like a faucet. He’s absolutely covered in blood right off the bat after being attacked with (you guessed it!) a fork. Other than that, the match seems very gimmicky, with quick tags and decent pace, but not much in the way of genuine excitement. Again, the match is heavily truncated, making it difficult to really gauge its true quality. Two stars.

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Slapping contest between Kuroda (left) and Tanaka.

6. Masato Tanaka vs. Tetsuhiro Kuroda (1.5.2000) – Former tag team partners square off for the WEW Heavyweight Title. Though he’s a solid technician, Kuroda’s never much impressed me as a compelling performer. That said, he really ups his game here, showing his ability as a counter-wrestler. Both competitors attempt to “one-up” one another with a dazzling array of maneuvers; this is easily the most exciting and jaw-dropping match on the DVD, helped by the fact that it’s the only match shown in its entirety. After battling in the stands, Kuroda and Tanaka exchange big-time power moves in the center of the ring. Very tough, back and forth action with a truckload of near pinfalls; the ending of the match is a bit surprising (or maybe not). Either way, the highlight of the disc for me. Four stars.

spike
Some sort of spike being driven into the head of Kodo Fuyuki by Mr. Gannosuke.

7. Kodo Fuyuki and Kyoko Inoue vs. H and Mr. Gannosuke (2.25.2000) – Another gimmicky match for the WEW Tag Team Titles; remember, Inoue is a woman. She is pretty much pulverized early on by H and Gannosuke, but even when Fuyuki enters the match, his gingerly movements don’t do anything to improve the contest. Seriously – Fuyuki looks awful during this match and one has to wonder how in the world he was even being booked at this point. His story lines stank and he simply couldn’t pull it off in the ring. A thoroughly inconsequential match, with a dumb ending. Remember when actor David Arquette won the WCW Heavyweight Title? Like that, this is total soap opera. One star.

Fuyuki vs. Kuroda
Fuyuki and Kuroda battling it out.

8. Tetsuhiro Kuroda vs. Kodo Fuyuki (3.27.2000) – For the WEW Heavyweight Title. Not so much a match (especially in this highlighted form) as an excuse to have a locker room clearing brawl, with virtually every wrestler in the promotion entering the ring at some point, thus nullifying the match. To give you some idea about the relative quality, Tracy Smothers gets involved. Oh my. Absolutely worthless, and doesn’t settle a thing. One star.

smothers
Tracy Smothers – the man who was once a respected wrestler was a complete joke by 2000.

9. Masato Tanaka and Balls Mahoney vs. H and Mr. Gannosuke (4.11.2000) – Fire thunder driver from top rope puts H out of action immediately in the match; he’s carted backstage, leaving Gannosuke to fight for himself. At least until (groan!) Kodo Fuyuki enters himself in the contest to fight Tanaka. Lots of dirty tactics from Tanaka, who’s clearly become a heel (i.e. villain) at this point in his career: check out the moment when he chokes Gannosuke with a TV cable. Eventually, who should return in the match but Hayabusa – mask and all – who proceeds to deliver his patented aerial moves and trades finishers back and forth with Tanaka. Decent enough even with all the drama, but I would’ve liked to have seen the whole match. Three stars.

uncomfortable
Tanaka appears to be in an uncomfortable position versus Mr. Gannosuke…

10. Masato Tanaka vs. Mr. Gannosuke (4.25.2000) – Borderline squash match designed only to create more drama and tension between Tanaka, Gannosuke, and Hayabusa leading into the “Backdraft” event. Match is almost irrelevant: edited down to a mere two minutes or so, most of which consists of Gannosuke bleeding heavily and getting beaten up by Tanaka. Post-match confrontation between H (no mask) and Gannosuke is confusing, and indicates that even the writers behind the scenes were starting to lose touch with where they wanted this story arc to go. It completely loses me, and the perplexing script only makes War of Attrition as a whole more disappointing. One star for the match.

Even if I could argue that some of the previous FMW DVDs were messy, none approaches the level of ineptitude which seeps through War of Attrition. As mentioned, the storylines that we’re supposed to be following throughout this haphazard collection of matches is inexplicable, and since a viewer doesn’t even see a whole lot of straight-forward wrestling on the DVD in the first place, I’m left wondering what the point of this DVD really was. Viewed in the chronology of TokyoPop’s FMW series, I suppose War of Attrition would have some value since it does chronicle a period of time in the bigger history of the promotion. Unfortunately, most everyone involved at this point doesn’t seem to have so much as a clue what’s happening in the bigger picture – and that’s doubly true for the writers behind the scenes. Their storytelling is starting to get noticeably muddled, and that’s dangerous in the often black and white world of pro wrestling. After viewing this DVD, it’s not surprising at all that FMW as a promotion would fold less than two years following these matches: the company seems disjointed and mismanaged, and it really seems like the writers were clutching at straws in an attempt to maintain audience interest. There’s simply too much soap opera shenanigans and gimmicks here, and not enough wrestling. For all but the most ardent fan of Japanese wrestling, the frustrating, confusing, and generally pointless War of Attrition would best be avoided.

acting? wrestling?

disc deets
Full-frame DVD from Tokyo Pop includes the usual trailer collection and wrestler bios as well as two bonus matches:
1. Kintaro Kanemura vs. Flying Kid Ichihara (1.5.2000) – Pretty typical FMW singles match with some rough action, pitting an almost jovial-seeming Kanemura against the more technical wrestler Ichihara. Action spills outside the ring almost immediately in the match highlights shown here, with Ichihara being slammed into a pile of chairs and the two combatants brawling into the bleacher area. Japanese commentary only is provided for this match, which I’d rate as a two star bout: it’s not especially exciting.

2. Hisakatsu Oya and Tetsuhiro Kuroda vs. H and Mr. Ganosuke – For the WEW Tag Team Titles, this contest seems a bit more substantial but is still seen only in highlighted form. An exchange of submission holds early on eventually gives way to a lot of power moves later. Many near pinfalls and good tag team dynamics between the combatants; the match also demonstrates that no one in FMW apparently knows how to sell the Kuroda Crunch (where Kuroda drops his opponent’s neck across the top rope). A decent contest, but not at all surprising. Two and a half stars.

blood & guts
6/10 : A few matches include some rather excessive amounts of bloodletting; there are also a few fairly violent moments including forks slicing into human flesh. Pass the potatoes!

smack talk
5/10 : It’s all fairly tame until a promo scene in which FMW president Mr. Arai confronts a group of ECW wrestlers. Suddenly, the f-bomb quotient of the program goes through the roof.

fap factor no
0/10 : Inter-gender wrestling may interest some, but there’s not much here to get excited about.

whack attack
5/10 : Too much soap opera and story to be of interest to anyone but the most hardcore Japanese wrestling fan.

GI JOE
Drama! Tension! Men in Spandex! Thems is Fightin Words! –  “It wasn’t a good idea to bite my head off. It pissed me off. He’s gone too far.”

Hayabusa – the Falcon!

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From Megatron to Scorponok, on to Soundwave and Galvatron.

The Transformers Regeneration One Vol. 3

 

(4/5)

Pros: Better than last book, nice follow up, writing and artwork

Cons: Far more fan oriented, juggling of plots may get on some people’s nerves

21 years have passed since the death of Unicron, the defeat of the Decepticons, and then the unification between Autobot and Decepticon. While there is peace on the planet Cybertron, remnants of the Decepticon force are far from happy about this and Soundwave is determined to begin the war again with small terrorist attacks. Optimus Prime on the other hand, is turning a blind eye to these things hoping to maintain the truce. The powder keg is close to exploding and it appears nothing can be done about it. -Original Summary

Transformers Regeneration One Vol. 3

Grimlock and a small team of Autobots were able to prevent Scorponok’s takeover of Cybertron. However, the Autobots troubles are far from over as they quickly fall victim to new Decepticon attacks. To make matters worse, the Autobots are quickly losing faith in Hot Rod’s leadership, with some thinking Optimus Prime to be outright wrong with selecting him. Prepared or not, the Autobots will be in for the fight of their lives. -summary

For those unaware and happen to be stumbling across this book, Transformers Regeneration One is the continuation to the original Transformers series by Marvel Comics that ended in 1991. This sequel written By Simon Furman whom penned a portion of the original series, picks up directly after that series and continues its original numbering following issue 80 on to 100, at the same time, Generation 2 has been erased to make way for Regeneration One. This volume contains issues 91 – 95.

 

 

For one thing, it’s absolutely crucial to already be familiar with the first two volumes due to its running storylines, because this book ties up threads and goes into newer ones. New readers will be  lost and the book will no doubt turn into a jumbled mess. The plot continues as Decepticons Soundwave and Bludgeon finally put their plans into motion which had been building up across the last two volumes. They attack Cybertron using a well organized plan that involves some type of self-repairing drone. The attack is devastating with things looking bad for the Autobots as usual; at the same time, Galvatron is making his way towards Cybertron playing as a deadly wild card, since he will never allow anyone to rule the planet in his place.

I always point out Simon Furman’s fanboyism on penning the Transformers because a majority of the time he simply owns. He touches on character and world building that was never seen in the animated series. This is quite possibly the most interesting I have seen Hot Rod; Furman goes to another level with the whole unsure leader bit, by pretty much saying what we were always thinking during the animated series run: “Pass leadership to Ultra Magnus, because you’re not worthy Hot Rod!”. Here, there are Autobots encouraging him to do so openly with the entire planet only seconds away from a full fledged riot towards them. I also enjoy how he writes Optimus Prime, whom is convinced against all criticism that Hot Rod is the one.

 

Furman tries to give plenty of characters some type of face time, but there’s clearly only a handful actually necessary. However, he does pay homage to earlier storylines and bits and pieces of the Transformers mythos all over. There’s quite a bit of fan service to be found, such as the sound bytes battle between Soundwave and Blaster, and that’s actually some of the problem. Although he tries very hard to explain certain story elements such as Nucleon and its hazards in regards to Transformers using it. This will mainly appeal to people familiar with those past storylines. Regeneration One for the most part is fan oriented; I doubt those unfamiliar with the Transformers universe will enjoy all this as much as we do, yet I still believe newbies will find something worthwhile here.

 

Andrew Wildman’s artwork is engaging enough with some nice and brutal encounters; there is plenty of action once it gets there of robots being blown apart or limbs sliced off. Unfortunately nothing can even begin to compare with the first volume, which featured the final battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron; that battle felt so personal and told the best story so far. Wildman can deliver some very nice backgrounds when he wants to. Many areas of Cybertron has that other-worldly, futuristic look of spiraling highways and metallic buildings. Stephen Baskerville and John-Paul Bove provide the finishing touches with some gorgeous inks and coloring; the traveling sound waves and laser fire are colored with nice detail, and the explosions as usual stand out.

 

This third volume was definitely more engaging than the second, and it did a nice enough job wrapping up some things while leaving others unfinished for the fourth and final volume. The only issue I can think of is the juggling of sub plots. Furman is trying to accomplish a lot in a short period of time and it shows. Some of the action segments for example could have delivered more. In any case, Transformers fans will no doubt get a kick out of this, therefore I highly recommend they move forward. Newer fans can get something out of this series, but I would also recommend them taking a look at the original series as well.

 

Formulaic and Unrestrained Aussie Zombie Action: UNDEAD

UNDEAD

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See it at Amazon 

(2/5) meh

Pros:  Lots of imagination; fairly energetic

Cons: Script is mismanaged and messy; too similar to other, better zombie flicks

Made in Australia in 2003, Undead stands as one of the early examples of post year 2000 zombie cinema, released a year after the generally excellent 28 Days Later. The film deals with a zombie outbreak taking place in a small Aussie fishing village after the community is bombarded by meteor fragments. Upon landing, these space rocks cause normal civilians to metamorphose into brain-eating creatures who can only be stopped by the destruction of their cranial cavity. As has been the case with most every zombie film ever made, Undead mainly deals with the story of an unlikely, generally incompatible group of citizens as they attempt to survive the zombie apocalypse in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Even if the basic story would be painfully familiar to anyone who’s seen a zombie flick or three and throws too many predictable ideas into the mix, it’d be difficult to argue against the fact that this film does have some very imaginative ideas in it and is enjoyable on a purely mindless level. Unfortunately though, at some point down the line there just seems to be too much going on in the script, and the writer/director team of brothers Peter and Michael Spierig just can’t seem to corral the action and keep things focused.

shotgun
Amish Warrior Marion to the rescue – sweet three-shotgun rig, bro!

Our main characters here are part of the bigger problem in this film. Ever since the genre of the modern zombie film started in 1968 with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, these films have often featured unlikable characters in an effort to make the inevitable struggle for survival more compelling. More often than not, one or more human characters typically winds up being more villainous than the zombies themselves – a notion that emphasizes inherent, inescapable aspects of human nature. Undead, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have any underlying message yet features a cast of characters that’s generally unlikable through and through. Even if the film does create main, more or less heroic figures in a local beauty queen named Rene and a prototypical “tough guy” fisherman named Marion, at no point was I all that interested in rooting for any of these people. That’s doubly true for the peripheral characters – namely, a profanity-spewing, aggressively authoritarian cop and his rookie partner along with a country bumpkin couple. Of course the couple is expecting a child any minute and obviously, the woman starts to go into labor at some point during the film, but I was even more annoyed when, in the middle of an ongoing action scene in which these folks attempt to escape the zombies, the wife starts arguing with Rene about who should’ve won the beauty pageant in the first place. Talk about unnecessary drama!

zombies
Mo’ movies, mo’ zombies…

If the cheap tension isn’t enough for a viewer though, the script by the Spierigs also throws in (along with the obligatory mutilated zombie corpses) acid rain that burns clothes and skin, zombie fish attacking a man’s face, and even aliens who turn up whenever the script starts to get a bit slow or run into a dead end. Giorgio Tsoukalos would be proud. At some level, these elements make the film fairly entertaining since Undead quite literally includes a bit of everything, but a viewer is never quite sure how everything going on in the film really fits together. Even after the “big reveal” moment, the story doesn’t make much sense at all: most everything here is suggestive of the fact that the writers had tons of ideas but not the foggiest idea how to effectively incorporate everything. Thus, the picture is unfocused and muddy, confused and confusing, and since most of the zombie film elements found here have been seen dozens of other places, it doesn’t make this stand out as much of anything but a bit of a mess.

aliens
So, lemme get this straight…we got aliens now too?

By and large, Undead has a comedic feel to it that makes it somewhat comparable to the early, hideously gory early films of Peter Jackson, though the Spierigs aren’t nearly as inventive as Jackson – or as clever as they think they are. (It’s worth noting that Undead has been accused of being a ripoff of the British comedy/horror film Shaun of the Dead – impossible given that the Australian film was made a year earlier.) Much of the comedy present in the film feels a bit forced and obvious – the best bits occur when the directors don’t draw attention to the fact that they’re attempting a gag, but honestly, this film is nowhere near as amusing as it really should be. I also grew tired of the “look at me” moments going on here, particularly those that featured Marion – this rather rotund guy (who never quite convinced me that he wasn’t some sort of mystical Amish warrior) is constantly pulling off Matrix-style, slow-motion parkour moves, hurling his body into ridiculous positions in order to get a clear shot at marching undead, at which point he unloads an absurd amount of lead in the direction of the brain-munchers. This despite the fact that he urges others to “save their bullets.” The overload of pointlessly flashy camerawork and over-use of slow-motion quickly gets to be too much: I could almost imagine during some sequences that the directors were having a sexual climax behind the scenes as they watched their opus of bloodletting play out. Ultimately, the hopelessly unrestrained Undead is only slightly (very slightly) less downright annoying to watch than director Uwe Boll’s hilariously obnoxious House of the Dead from the same year.

Marion
Marion, the ticked off Amish fisherman. With guns.

Complicating matters further is the cast itself: Felicity Mason as Rene seems almost catatonic at times and seems to think that acting mainly involves her opening her eyes really wide. I just couldn’t buy her as the heroine character at any point, and Mungo McKay as Marion is only marginally more tolerable. McKay is built up to be the gruff-voiced, super-cool, super-slick hero from the moment he first appears onscreen, providing cryptic answers to any questions that are asked of him. Eventually he, like all the other characters here, becomes stale and uninteresting, and I think overall, the cast simply goes as overboard with their acting as the manic writer/directors did with their visuals and technique. In terms of the expected zombie action and gore, the picture has its moments and occasionally is positively splatterific, offering up a mixture of CGI and practical effects work. On the downside, this film was produced at a time when many things were theoretically possible through the use of digital effects, but the effects themselves don’t really hold up that well – especially compared to what would be seen today (the “giant wall” that descends over the town in particularly unconvincing). Many films of the ‘90s and early 2000s suffer from this same problem; it’s almost inevitable when looking at older films to spot technical imperfections, but I personally find obvious and lousy digital effects to be borderline unwatchable.

pardon me
Well THAT’S going to leave a stain….

Compared with the best, undeniably distinctive Aussie genre films (a number of which are among my absolute favorites), Undead not only seems too formulaic and familiar, but it’s also downright ugly. This film is overwhelmed by not only darkness, but also a color scheme dominated by dull browns and grays: I really think some color (and not just floods of goopy gore) would have gone a long way in making the picture more lively. Also, is it just me or does Cliff Bradley’s main musical theme sound a little too much like the “Promenade” from John Williams’ Jaws soundtrack? All things considered, Undead may be energetic but it’s not especially fun – strange, given the amount of truly wacky elements thrown into the script. The Spierigs may be talented and imaginative, but they don’t demonstrate much control over this production. Frankly, this film is rather sloppy, with a few too many false endings; I’m not especially surprised that the brothers haven’t done a whole lot since its release. Even if Undead may appease zombie film fanatics on some level, most viewers would be best served by (re-)watching the much more satisfying Shaun of the Dead.

shuffle

DO THE ZOMBIE SHUFFLE!

disc deets
From Lions Gate and in widescreen format, the DVD includes a nice array of bonus features including two commentaries (one with the cast, one with the crew), a selection of deleted and extended scenes and digital effects comparison footage, as well as a handful of making-of type featurettes. All in all, it’s a package that speaks to the fact that this film was a step above the typical (i.e. even worse) low-budget Lions Gate horror release.

blood & guts
8/10 : Gunfire and destruction galore, with lots of goopy bodily fluid and spilling innards. That said, this film isn’t scary in the least.

smack talk
8/10 : One character in the film seems to use the f-bomb in place of every other word, hence, there’s a lot of profanity here.

fap factor
1/10 : A gratuitous stripping scene in which the characters try to avoid the literal acid rain. Doesn’t make sense to me either, but there’s no nudity.

whack attack
6/10 : A lesser zombie film to be sure, though I’m sure someone out there would find this more enjoyable than I.

GI JOE
“Aunt Aggie has the keys…but she doesn’t have a brain!”

Red Band Trailer – WARNING possible NSFW due to violence

When Lindsay Lohan’s Bare Boobs Are Not Enough: The Bleak, Frustrating THE CANYONS

THE CANYONS

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See it at Amazon 

(2.5/5) meh

Pros: The social commentary is interesting for awhile

Cons: Profane, preposterous, tasteless, unaffecting – and mostly unsexy

Trading in much the same currency as some of writer Bret Easton Ellis’ previous stories (perhaps most notably American Psycho), director Paul Schrader’s The Canyons, produced on a shoestring budget in 2013, has been championed in some circles and trashed in others. Looking at the film, it’s not very hard to see why there was this disparity among critics. On one hand, it’s fairly well-made and certainly holds a viewer’s attention, but on the other, it’s a bleak and ugly film dealing with despicable characters that’s ridiculously profane and obnoxious, boasting acting that’s sketchy at best. At one point during the film, I was toying with the notion that this film (intended to be a sort of noirish thriller according to writer Ellis) may be one of the most perfect representations of the decline of American civilization ever put to celluloid since it seems to take place in a cultural nightmare populated by completely unlikable, oblivious and self-centered characters. As the film unfolds however, it becomes increasingly difficult to take anything here that seriously – I might have expected better from Schrader, the writer of Taxi Driver, but considering Schrader’s up-and-down career as a director, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that The Canyons winds up being another vaguely interesting failure.

lohan deen
James Deen and Lindsay Lohan as Christian and Tara – what else? – playing on their phones.

After a terrific opening montage of abandoned Hollywood movie theaters that expertly creates a incredibly dismal mood, the film begins by introducing the four main characters during a sort of double dinner date at a posh restaurant. First, we have Christian and Tara, who’ve been together for about a year. Christian is an independently wealthy trust fund baby living in the Hollywood Hills who finances films but basically seems to do nothing all day except enjoy the extravagances his fortune has afforded – namely Tara, who seems to do even less than her boyfriend yet like him, can’t seem to find any semblance of satisfaction despite her luxurious standard of living. Opposite these two are Ryan and Gina, a more “down to earth” couple also involved in the film business: Ryan has been cast in Christian’s new movie, though he’s more or less struggling to afford life in Los Angeles. Right off the bat, there’s a tension between these two couples that only becomes more apparent as time goes on: essentially, Tara and Ryan were once lovers, and have recently been hooking up on the side. Meanwhile, Christian (in between involving himself and Tara in casual sex with strangers) is still fooling around with his ex named Cynthia while trying to figure out why Tara is “acting weird” lately. Mainly, this involves having a mysterious stalker follow both his girlfriend and Ryan around to try and find out what they’re doing. Needless to say, all the paranoia and double-crossing eventually starts to cause fractures in the relationships between these characters, leading the stuck-up Christian further down a path to complete insanity.

sex & profanity
Though the film is very “sexual,” it’s hardly “sexy.”

As that description may suggest, the storyline Ellis has concocted for this film is, in the words of the characters themselves, complicated – not so much in that it’s difficult for a viewer to keep tabs on the situation, but rather because every character here has their own mess going on trying to sneak around behind the backs of the others. Even if the situation in the story becomes increasingly preposterous and ridiculous as it goes along to the point that none of it seems believable, the ultimate sad and/or disturbing thing about this film is that I’m not sure that I could honestly say that the film is completely inauthentic or unrealistic. It seems that in today’s day and age, shenanigans like those depicted in this film do go on in the lives of young people, which explains why many modern relationships seem almost doomed to fail. Though I’m not sure that it was intended that way, Ellis’ script does seem to illustrate and propose some reasons for this situation, becoming a sort of commentary on the notion of privilege (all too relevant in the wake of recent news events – note the remark “Nobody has a private life anymore…”) and the (sad?) state of American culture.

casual sex
Tara preparing for a night of casual sex with strangers.

For instance, all these characters seem almost addicted to their cell phones in particular and technology in general, using text messages to handle situations that probably would be best dealt with in person (though the reliance on text messages to further the story seemed cheap to me, this absolutely is how some people operate today). To me, this behavior is a major factor in modern people’s tendency to screw around on loved ones – some people these days just don’t take other people’s concerns into account when they are deciding what to do, and it seems to me that fact that we no longer have to deal with people on a face to face basis or have to handle the real repercussions of various actions has something to do with that. It’s worth mentioning that none of the characters populating this film have anything to complain about in the grander scheme of human existence – they live in luxury and have few worries. The problems they’re dealing with are exclusively brought upon themselves – and frankly, they’re appalling as human beings.

read into this what you will
Read into this what you will…

Despite the fact that The Canyons is precise in its depiction of the supposed bankruptcy of modern American culture (or maybe I’m just reading into everything too much), as a whole the film simply isn’t good enough for me to buy into its arguments. Schrader and Ellis eventually can the social commentary in favor of pure sensationalism: Ryan having to engage in homosexual sex in order to further his acting career, Cynthia having a heart to heart with Tara about the time Christian drugged and “ran a train” on her, a trippy sexual free-for-all between two couples. It really just seems like Ellis lost all focus with his script at a certain point and decided to make something outrageous. In the end, the script seems downright lazy with awful dialogue and ridiculous situations replacing a genuine sense that the story was trying to point out how absurd modern life has become.

smoke
Throughout the film, Lohan sounds like a three pack a day smoker due to her hoarse voice. She obviously ain’t a Disney kid anymore…

Acting in the film from a undeniably bizarre cast of actors adds to the problems. Much was made about Schrader’s casting of Lindsay Lohan and the various problems that occurred on the set of this film. Onscreen, Lohan does a decent job of portraying Tara, a character that doesn’t seem too far removed from her real-life person in that she thrives on and/or creates “drama.” Tara has a tendency to start weeping whenever things “get real” which I’m not quite sure entirely works, but Lohan nonetheless has a few poignant moments of emotionality. Porn actor James Deen (real name Brian Matthew Sevilla) stars as Christian and seems overly mechanical; his line delivery during key moments of the film ruins any of the escalating tension, taking away from the effectiveness of the story. I also found that this character was too reliant on stereotype and cliché, particularly with regard to how the story finishes. Nolan Gerard Funk fares little better than Deen as Ryan: like Deen, Funk is never quite able to hit the right mark in his performance. In smaller roles, a rather forgettable Amanda Brooks plays Ryan’s girlfriend Gina but doesn’t have much to do and Tenille Houston looks great naked and that’s about it. Worth note: director Gus Van Sant appears briefly as Christian’s psychiatrist.

yes
Yes, Lohan’s breasts are prominently on display several times, but those coming into this film strictly for the nudity will no doubt be disappointed.

When all is said and done, The Canyons winds up being an ugly movie, but I think (or should I say hope) that was the point. I guess one can’t expect a miracle from a movie made for $250,000, but as mentioned, I would have expected something better from this writer and director team (this stands along with David Lynch’s Dumbland as being one of the most baffling, semi-tasteless things I’ve ever seen coming from a former A-list director). On the plus side, The Canyons is well-photographed by John DeFazio, resembling a much more expensive film that it is, and I thought the almost sickly look to some sequences in the film were very appropriate given the story. Brendan Canning (of indie rock band Broken Social Scene) created the pensive instrumental soundtrack of synthpop music and despite the fact that I might compare The Canyons favorably in terms of its look and feel to something director Larry Clark (who made Kids, Bully, Ken Park etc.) might have made, there’s a sort of bleak surrealism to the picture which adds to the downtrodden mood. It’s kind of shame this film didn’t turn out better than it did: it really does have some interesting subtext to it. Unfortunately, the writer and director seem to drop the commentary at a certain point, delivering an unaffecting film that finally goes full bore into a passe ending that seems particularly lame in the context of this supposedly “edgy” indie production. By no means is The Canyons as awful as some have made it out to be, but it is difficult not to be at least partially disappointed by the final project.

prepare you anoos

disc deets
“Director’s Cut” DVD from IFC films contains a making-of featurette and a few seconds of additional footage – of a male masturbating. Honestly, if you’re trying to see Lindsay Lohan naked, I’d advise you to get better acquainted with the internets.

blood & guts
4/10 : Though there’s only a single gory crime scene and brief bit of violence, this movie is rather intense and extremely ugly.

smack talk RALPHIE
10/10 : Nearly constant profanity and crude language, including numerous sexual references.

fap factor tom
8/10 : Several prolonged sex scenes, loads of sexual content, full frontal male and female nudity, and yes, Lindsay Lohan naked. All that said, the film is not as graphic as it’s been made out to be i.e. it’s not porn.

whack attack
7/10 : A polarizing film, though I don’t think anyone would confuse this with a masterpiece. It’s likely that a viewer would either tolerate and maybe even appreciate it on a certain level – or completely hate it.

GI JOE
“I like the idea of someone looking at something they can’t have…”

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A Dog, A Nursing Home, Compassion and Wit

A Dog Walks Into A Nursing Home by Sue Halpern

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See it at Amazon 

(5/5)

Pros: Pransky, Nursing home residents, Halpern’s writing, Humor

Cons: Wish all nursing homes were as progressive as the one in this book

Sue Halpern needed to reinvent herself. It was time. Pransky, her intelligent and active labradoodle was bored and also needed a job and reinvention. Pransky was a service dog failure, not because she couldn’t learn but because she couldn’t quit shedding, but Halpern thought she might be halfway to being a therapy dog. They reinvented themselves as a nursing home therapy dog pair.  She was good; Pransky turns out to be phenomenal with the empathy and knowledge that let her know what people needed from her.

 

This lab is also bored and ready to help -- she's looking to be reinvented.
This lab is also bored and ready to help — she’s looking to be reinvented.

A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home follows Jane Pauley’s book,Your Life Calling: Reimagining the Rest of Your Life, where one small section briefly described Sue Halpern’s story. I was, nonetheless intrigued and really wanted to know more. My dog is smart and bored and she also sheds. I’m looking for a way to reinvent myself in a meaningful way that contributes to society. I was, however, quite impressed by Pransky’s responses to the various residents she met.  I was also quite impressed by the insight provided by Halpern, not as much with her story about her dog but with her profound insight into nursing homes and the residents.

 

Pransky jumping up into the bed of a dying resident and just lying there offering all the comfort she could with her stillness and her presence said so much about the value of an extraordinary therapy dog. Jon Katz’s dog, Izzy, in his book Izzy and Lenore not only introduced me to the value of therapy dogs in nursing homes but sold me completely on the benefits. Again, the dog knowing when to move close in created an unforgettable moment.

 

We should all be so fortunate.

If looking for a story about an amazing dog you’ll find it in A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home but this offers much more – her story is also about the people she meets, their struggles and their responses to Pransky. She introduces us to them with humanity and an unusually high level of warmth. It’s also a witty and compassionate look into a nursing home’s daily activities with staff and residents. This is a remarkable home and does not present itself as dark and dreary but instead a place where the staff is very involved with the residents and helping them enjoy their lives.

 

Halpern shares philosophical thoughts and skillfully organizes this around seven familiar virtues common to most religious beliefs: love, hope, faith, prudence, justice, fortitude and restraint. She seasons the virtues and stories with ethics and thoughts from a variety of philosophers including Plato, Aristotle, and Saint Augustine as well as a few more recent thinkers.

 

Beginning with the concept, proceeding through some training (and cheating), and continuing through several years of regular Tuesday visits (if it’s Tuesday it must be Pransky’s day), we learn how valuable the nursing home residents are for Sue and Pransky – we also learn how very valuable they are to the residents. Halpern proves a talented author, with an enjoyable sense of humor, while Pransky demonstrates amazing compassion. Their book and collection of stories provides a lot of endearing thoughts on aging, companionship, and the value of our lives. I finished this admiring the two but also considering what awaits my generation as we reach the age of the nursing home’s residents.

All-Star Cast Can’t Overcome Ho-Hum Script: THE SPLIT

THE SPLIT

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See it at Amazon 

(3/5) decent

Pros: All-star cast; music score; gets good around the two-thirds mark

Cons: First half or so of the film is pretty standard stuff

For about two-thirds of its running time, 1968’s The Split exists as a pretty typical heist film dealing with the efforts of a six-person misfit crew to steal the box office and concession receipts from an NFL playoff game at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Just when a viewer is about ready to write the film off as being a sub-par heist flick however, writer Robert Sabaroff (working from a novel by Donald E. Westlake, whose work also inspired the previous year’s outstanding Point Blank) finally injects some life into the scenario by complicating the situation for the slick criminal named McClain who masterminded the robbery. After making off with some five and a half thousand dollars in the job, the money (which is to be split among the participants – a take of roughly $85,000 a piece) disappears and McClain’s ex-wife (who was hiding the cash) is killed. Now, as the crooks bicker and argue about which one of them has the loot, the police chief in charge of the investigation may actually be the one with an ace up his sleeve.

crew at work
After the robbery itself turns out to be easier than expected, the real problems start…

In many ways, The Split seems like a precursor to the blaxploitation films that would become box office gold in the early ‘70s. The film’s main protagonist McClain (played by NFL legend Jim Brown) is exactly the type of no-nonsense African-American hero that featured in most every film of that genre, even if The Split isn’t anywhere near as gritty, violent, or obviously sexual as the typical ‘70s blaxploitation film of the Superfly, Shaft, or Black Caesar variety. There are a handful of racially charged moments to be found in Sabaroff’s script – the rest of McClain’s crew is a bunch of middle-aged white guys, none of which seem all too excited to be recruited into this gig by a black man – and a smattering of off-color remarks made during the picture. Still, it’s interesting to note that Brown’s character stands as the most respectable guy in the film – sure, he’s a crook who just pulled off a major robbery, but McClain seems to have a conscience (which leads to an ambiguous and somewhat strange final scene) and operates by some sort of a moral code. That’s more than I can say about some of the other (white) folks in this story.

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What a cast!

Probably the best aspect of this film is the dazzling all-star cast assembled for the film. To an extent, The Split benefits from being made relatively early on in the career of actors who would later become big stars, but there’s simply no denying the pleasure that comes from watching Ernest Borgnine (as the hired muscle), Donald Sutherland (as the gunman), Jack Klugman (the driver), Julie Harris (the money behind the operation) and the great Warren Oates (as the safecracker) playing the various criminals in Brown’s outfit. Most of these characters get a defining moment or two to show off the acting chops of the performers playing them, though I don’t think that the script quite has enough to offer actors of this caliber – more often than not, the cast just goes through the motions. In smaller roles, we have Diahann Carroll as McClain’s “foxy” ex, James Whitmore doing a nice job playing against type as Carroll’s sleazeball landlord, and Gene Hackman as the detective who is handling the ongoing investigation. All these characters play a key role in how the film plays out, even if they’re in the picture for a relatively brief amount of time.

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McClain and ex-wife Elli celebrating the score.

Scottish-born director Gordon Flemyng was at the helm for The Split, and though he does an acceptable job, it was pretty obvious to me that Flemyng specialized in television. There’s a feeling throughout The Split that suggests Flemyng was simply uncomfortable with handling large-scale action sequences. Everything here has a microscopic feel to it which takes away from the sense of tension throughout much of the film. This is especially true during the rather lengthy robbery scene itself; though one would hope that this would have been the most exciting sequence of the film, it actually seems somewhat dull if anything. As much as Sobaloff’s script isn’t ideal to begin with, Flemyng’s handling of it occasionally seems corny – witness the supposedly romantic montage included to suggest the rekindling of the relationship between McClain and his ex-wife which is cheesy beyond belief.

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“Paranoia, paranoia; everybody’s coming to get me…”

All that said, The Split does have a few memorable moments and noteworthy sequences while offering up the usual assortment of action scenes including a couple of shootouts (one rather nifty scene playing out in a hall of mirrors), a car chase between a speeding limo and a sports car, and a few fight scenes. Especially cool is a scene in which McClain is assaulted in an absolutely immaculate sauna – the juxtaposition of brutality and grandeur in this scene is striking. It’s also worth noting that there are several glimpses of an actual 1967 pro football game between the LA Rams and the Atlanta Falcons which make one appreciate how far the NFL has come in the last fifty years or so. Director of photography Burnett Guffey attempts to make up for Flemyng’s lack of confidence by throwing in some nice-looking individual shots, including some breathtaking panoramic views of the California landscape and a mesmerizing orange-drenched sunset. I also really liked a key image showing a sheet covering a dead body gradually turning red as it absorbs blood leaking from the corpse underneath – a well-designed, well-executed visual. Finally, the editing scheme of this movie (which was initially rather lackadaisical) kicks into high gear during the final act, ensuring that the picture ends on a high note even if it’s kind of sloppy in getting to that point.

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A few sequences here really stand out in the middle of all the mediocrity.

Considering the cast assembled for this film, what’s most shocking about The Split is that it quite simply is nowhere near as captivating or compelling as it should have been, hampered by a script that takes a long time to get going and doesn’t have enough really good ideas in it. If a viewer can stick through the slow-going first half, the film delivers a good amount of suspense while building towards its slam-bang climax, but nothing here is enough to make the film into something truly special. Honestly, The Split (which boasts a neat and funky music score from Quincy Jones) isn’t terrible and it probably would hold most viewers’ interests, but the most noteworthy thing about it in the bigger picture of cinema is that this was the first picture handed an R-rating by the MPAA (though it would probably be classified a PG-13 by today’s standards). Decent but completely unremarkable, I’d call this a film that would be most ideal for viewing on a rainy afternoon: not something that’s really worth seeking out, but by no means a complete waste either.

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disc deets
As part of Warner Brothers’ Archive Collection, this film is presented in widescreen format with no extras.

blood & guts
5/10 : Some gun violence, associated death, and just a bit of gore

smack talk
4/10 : Rather minimal profanity, but the film does have some racially sensitive dialogue during a few stretches

fap factor
2/10 : Implied sexual encounters and fleeting partial nudity – nothing much.

whack attack
4/10 : I would have hoped for more considering that unbelievable cast.

GI JOE An all-too-telling line that sums up the film: “You’re not forgetting the money, are you?”

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