Tuesday, September 26, 2006

49 Up

The granddaddy of all reality programming returns to US theaters this October as the long-running 7 Up series launches its latest entry, 49 Up. Originally conceived in the 60s as a one-off TV special examining a cross-section of British 7-year-olds from different economic classes, the series has since revisited those same original subjects every 7 years throughout their lives. The entire past series is available on DVD for those interested in catching up on the history, but there’s really no need to watch them in advance as the latest entry does an admirable job of summarizing the key events in the lives of its subjects.

12 of the original 14 subjects agreed to appear in 49 Up, a healthy average the series has miraculously managed to maintain throughout the entire 42 years of the project. The documentary was filmed by director Michael Apted, a researcher on the very first film who took the reigns from the second film on, keeping the series alive while concurrently adding to his lengthy directorial resume that includes such notable films as Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas In The Mist, and The World Is Not Enough. Apted isn’t just the director here though, as he takes a deep interest in the lives of these individuals and acts as the interviewer to steer their conversations. This is clearly a very personal project for Apted, and his lifelong familiarity with the subjects grants him a level of intimacy that yields particularly insightful results this time around.

Although each participant has a different life story, it’s striking how similar they have become as middle age encroaches on them. There’s a universal sense of resignation and contentment, and a marked increase in grey hair and waist sizes as they begin to enter the realm of grandparents. While the original premise highlighted the stark differences in class sensibilities, showing uneducated lower class kids as well as upper-crust private school students, the subjects seem to largely ignore or conceal those class differences as they age. It’s clear that some of them are far better off than others, but there’s little sense of entitlement one might expect based on their beginnings. Instead, they concern themselves with similar general matters relating to their families and careers, making it easy for viewers to identify with all of them.

The film follows one subject at a time, beginning with brief highlight footage of their appearances throughout the years before delving into the latest updates. Each subject gets around 10 minutes of screen time, getting viewers up to speed on their past 7 years and engaging Apted in their thoughts about the film series. It’s those thoughts that really give this entry its weight, as the participants are especially candid about how the series has impacted their lives. Most of them resent the series, dread the emotions it brings up when it returns every 7 years, and only agree to participate because they recognize its overarching significance as a groundbreaking sociological study. These are not modern-day reality TV stars looking for future fame and fortune in Hollywood, they’re ordinary people who have been caught up in an extraordinary lifetime project.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Hustle: Complete Season One

Tired of the glut of police procedural shows clogging our TVs? Hustle has just the relief you need: a witty and amusing trip to the other side of the criminal equation. Instead of figuring out how crimes are committed after the fact, the show focuses on how crimes are planned and executed. The criminals are a likeable group of grifters led by legendary long con man Mickey “Bricks” Stone (Adrian Lester). Each member of the gang brings their own specialty to the group, allowing them to pool their talents to reach their common goal, the big score.

In the premiere episode, we’re introduced to Mickey as he gets his gang back together for one last score before riding off into the sunset. He’s a moral, principled man who doesn’t consider himself to be a thief, just a canny individual who preys on the greed of his marks. He’s been in the game for a long time and is considered to be the very best, but he’s wise enough to know that he needs the rest of his team to guarantee his success. His aging mentor, Albert Stroller (Robert Vaughn), is along for the ride, as well as the lovely Stacie Monroe (Jaime Murray) and handy Ash Morgan (Robert Glenister). As they set up their last score, a young, small-time short con man named Danny Blue (Marc Warren) gets wind of the plan and manages to weasel his way into the group. This new blood changes the dynamic of the group and leads to their eventual decision to stick together and continue their criminal reign.

The group has been described by the show’s director as a family unit, with Albert as the grandfather, Mickey the father, and Danny the son, with Stacie as the wife and Ash as the uncle. So, we have three pseudo-generations of a criminal family that works and learns together, passing along and adding to their grifting expertise from one generation to the next. Hints of romance appear as well, with a clear triangle quickly forming between Danny’s lust for Stacie and Stacie’s long-standing fondness for Mickey. The show doesn’t devote much time to developing these relationships due to its primary focus on the hustle, but there’s more than enough character development to make them worth caring about. It’s especially rewarding to see veteran Robert Vaughn (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) back in action on a regular basis as he gleefully hams it up, and Adrian Lester completely owns the series as its suave, charming star.

Each episode follows the gang as they identify their next target, then set up their elaborate web of deceipt to entice the mark before dropping the hammer and making off with the loot. Instead of using the serious, heavy-handed dramatic approach followed by the similarly-themed and short-lived FX series, Thief, Hustle follows the breezy, winking approach of the Ocean’s Eleven films. It actually takes the lighthearted approach even further, showing the characters literally winking at the camera when they do something particularly clever. They also incorporate a flashy little technique in each episode where they temporarily stop the action and step outside of it, addressing the camera as an aside or performing a dance routine or some other unexpected flight of fancy. It’s an added touch that helps to set it apart from the norm, giving it something akin to a Moonlighting feel in the process. It’s gimmicky and could be distracting if used to excess, but the balance is right throughout the first season.

The show was created by the same team that launched the long-running British spy series MI-5 (aka Spooks) and carries the same impeccably high production qualities. The DVD set skimps on the frills, with only a short feature on the creation of the show and no subtitles for the hearing (or linguistically) impaired. Still, the real reason for purchase is the episodic content, and all six episodes in the first season deliver grandly on the show’s premise. The series has completed three seasons so far back home in the UK, so hopefully it will continue hustling on US DVD for many seasons to come.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Hard Candy

Far too rarely, a film comes along with perfect chemistry between writer, director, and stars. Even more infrequently, the active participants are virtual unknowns who seemingly come out of nowhere to create a winning cinematic achievement, bringing out the best of each other in the process. With the arrival of Hard Candy on DVD, the latest such accomplishment is now readily available to the masses.

The film tracks the first live encounter between a 14-year-old girl and a 30-something man following an online relationship. Admittedly, right off the bat it’s a creepy concept, but it’s not at all what it seems to be at first. Hayley and Jeff have been flirting in an online chatroom and agree to meet at a local dining spot, where we’re surprised to find that they defy expected conventions. The girl is smart, witty and personable, while the man appears to be decent, conservative, and charming. Instead of warped, damaged individuals, they both seem to be fairly normal people who could easily seek out and find companionship with others their own age. This is just the start of the film’s outstanding job of toying with our emotions and opinions as we have no clear indication of who to side with from the outset.

Eventually, the pair return to Jeff’s home at the request of Hayley. Note that Jeff didn’t coerce her to go to his home, but at the same time he didn’t prevent it. Upon arrival at his home, we learn that Jeff is a photographer with a fondness for teenage models, as evidenced by prominently displayed photographs adorning his walls. He’s shot many other subjects, but only the teen girls make it onto his walls. Hayley isn’t phased by the pictures, and Jeff downplays their significance, reinforcing the idea that they’re both not quite what they seem. Wouldn’t a regular teen be freaked out by the pics? And wouldn’t a lecherous man immediately start trying to use them to press his advantage? The film offers no easy answers, adding to the mystery as further events start to play out. And play out they do, with stomach-churning intensity that keeps viewers on edge until the very end. It would be so easy for the film to take sides and turn this into a diatribe on the dangers of online relationships, but the creators wisely avoid preachiness and instead present a horrific situation with no moral winner. As a result, the film is likely to generate highly polarized and passionate viewer opinions on the motives and righteousness of its characters.

The role of Hayley is played to perfection by Ellen Page, a young actress with a sizeable list of mostly Canadian indie film and TV credits but no mainstream exposure aside from a minor role as Kitty Pryde in this year’s X-Men: The Last Stand. She really is a teenager, making her range and complete command of the screen all the more impressive. Her co-star is Patrick Wilson, also little known but absolutely superb in his difficult role. Sandra Oh gets a credit as the most recognizable member of the cast, but her contribution amounts to small, unimportant cameo filmed primarily as a favor to Page based on their previous work together. Director David Slade is another past music video director making his feature film debut, but don’t hold that against him as he puts in a masterful first effort here. His work on videos apparently trained him on how to get the most flash out of the least cash, as the film has a glossy, highly professional look that belies its small budget. Finally, the spectacular original script is from another film rookie, Brian Nelson, successfully venturing beyond his previous TV script work. Happily, Slade and Nelson are teaming for their next feature as well, an adaptation of the innovative vampire graphic novel 30 Days of Night that now appears to be in extremely capable hands.

The movie is a two-character study filmed almost entirely on one set, making it all the more amazing that it’s able to completely control our attention for its entire length. It sucks in viewers from the first scene and never lets up, increasing the tension and intrigue all the way through to its unexpected conclusion. To enhance the static setting, Slade incorporates interesting use of color backgrounds and some digital color manipulation, even going so far as to have his digital colorist alter the shading as scenes progress to change the mood. He never goes for the cheap scare, allowing the power of the actors’ performances to carry the work rather than relying on gimmicks to juice it up. It’s an intelligent, thrilling, and thought-provoking project that will hopefully lead to further success for all of its primary talent.

The DVD is stuffed with bonus features, eschewing the typical bare-bones approach of indie films for a lavish selection of extras including dual commentary tracks from both the creators and actors, deleted and extended scenes, a lengthy and informative making-of documentary, and a DVD-ROM production notebook that includes the entire script with original storyboards and notes.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Office: Season Two

The Office got off to a rocky start during its abbreviated first season but grew into its own during Season Two. If you still haven’t boarded the hype wagon, the newly arrived Season Two DVD box set is now available to get you up to speed.

The show is based on the original UK version of the same name that launched Ricky Gervais into stardom and led to his ongoing current TV show Extras (shown on HBO in the US), as well as movie roles, occasional stand-up specials, and a long-running radio show with his writing partner and Office co-creator Stephen Merchant. In other words, Gervais blew up as a direct result of this show, and now US star Steve Carrell is following in his footsteps with the same results. Although Carrell isn’t as instrumental in the show’s success from a behind-the-scenes creative standpoint, he’s the poster boy and the only member of the cast with any built-in recognition due to his previous work on The Daily Show and his breakout role in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. His burgeoning film stardom is quite possibly the only reason this show was allowed to exist long enough to build an audience, so if for no other reason he should be respected for his continuing involvement with the show.

So what’s it all about? The show focuses on the employees of a non-descript paper company called Dunder Mifflin in Scranton, PA. Like most office employees, their lives are caught up in the boring 9-5 grind of a bland, gray, cube farm work environment. Nobody except the company kiss-up really wants to be there, some of them have other aspirations, but they’re all stuck in the slow lane to nowhere. Although that doesn’t sound like the makings of hilarious comedy and it hits painfully close to home for many viewers, the show delights in roasting the conventions of a safe, politically correct workplace.

Carrell plays the idiotic office manager, Michael Scott, who likes to think he’s funny, charming and intelligent but comes across as rude, dim, and completely non-PC. His underlings know he’s a dolt but usually play along with his ludicrous ideas for enhancing morale, such as a booze cruise and a Christmas gift exchange. His only ally is the show’s most interesting character, the Assistant to the Manager who thinks everything Michael says and does is gold. As Dwight Schrute, co-star Rainn Wilson gets the juiciest, most ridiculous material and makes the most of it, always bordering on the buffoonish but also most memorable actions. It’s not all comedy though, as there are also some romantic sparks between the office receptionist, Pam, and Dwight’s nemesis, Jim, but events usually conspire to prevent their happiness and keep the tension alive. The rest of the office is staffed with average co-workers that actually look like they could have been plucked from any real office but in reality contribute greatly to the comedy as their minor contributions begin to accumulate throughout the season. Interestingly, some of those workers are also writers and producers on the show, adding a unique touch to the proceedings.

The original BBC show ran for a total of 12 episodes plus a couple of Christmas special bonus episodes. The US show eclipsed that mark early in its second season, so fans of the original can’t protest that this version is simply riding the coattails of past greatness. While its pilot episode was a disastrous direct adaptation of an original BBC episode, the US version has since found its own footing and diverged from the path of its predecessor, becoming stronger in the process. Carrell’s character isn’t quite as unlovable or clueless as Gervais’s, Dwight is more of an obvious fool than his predecessor, and this show has done a better job of exploring and playing up the strengths of the large supporting cast. In short, while the UK version was almost always painfully uncomfortable, the US version has drifted toward more comedic touches that give the show a lighter, more upbeat feel without detracting from its core concept. It’s now one of the best shows on TV, redefining the meaning of “must see TV” for its ailing NBC home.

The DVD box set contains all 22 Season Two episodes in addition to a wealth of extras including deleted scenes, short webisodes, and a hilarious set of Public Service Announcements the cast taped in character. The season was jam-packed with memorable moments and a few episodes that will go down as all-time classics, making this an essential purchase. Bring on Season Three!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Gerald McBoing Boing Vol. 1 & 2

Now that this Caballero has a small child, the world of entertainment for kids has taken on much greater significance. Gone are the years of gleefully ignoring Barney, Teletubbies, and Elmo while pursuing my grown-up Snobbish delights. As I enter the frightening, uncharted world of children’s programming, it’s a small solace to gravitate toward any familiar characters such as Gerald McBoing Boing.

Unlike most other present-day kiddie cartoon characters, Gerald McBoing Boing has an impressive pedigree. The character and his story were conceived by the great Dr. Seuss for an animated short that went on to win an Oscar in 1950. This led to a few additional shorts and a tv special, but then the character disappeared from animation for the next 50 years. Oddly, the original short and two of its successors showed up as bonus features on the Hellboy special edition DVD release in 2004, which first brought the character to my attention. The concept was resurrected last year for a new series airing on Cartoon Network as part of their Tickle U. block of weekday morning children’s programming, leading up to these new DVD compilation releases.

Gerald McBoing Boing is a normal young lad with one exception: whenever he tries to speak, only sound effects come out. This leads to all manner of comic misunderstanding while Gerald tries to communicate with others through an array of squeaks, honks, and clanks. While this made for an interesting idea for the initial short, it becomes tedious for adults over long exposure to the new series. Each episode apparently contains a rhyming short that follows the Seussian blueprint of the original, a couple of annoying “sound checks” that presumably act as commercial bumpers during tv broadcasts, and another non-rhyming short. Gerald is joined on his adventures by his dog and two other normal children who assist him in making his intentions known, as well as his clueless parents who never seem to be able to figure out what he’s trying to convey.

The show has a great look, especially the backgrounds. While the original short had a minimalist, fluid art approach to both character design and backgrounds, the new series gives the characters a slick, static look that pays homage to the original character designs but places them firmly in this century. However, instead of using realistic, modern backgrounds, the series hews closely to the original minimalist and surreal approach (also favored by the best of the Looney Tunes library), drawing in just the basic necessities and taking pains to color outside the lines to keep the look fresh and intriguing.

The series is aimed at children ages 2 years and up, and based on the episodes on these DVDs that appears to be a fair approximation of the audience that can tolerate the repetition of its concept. Older children will not be interested, and adults may find themselves dozing off during extended viewing, but Gerald’s arsenal of amusing sounds and situations should appeal to the toddlers. Gerald always finds a way to succeed in the end, so the show acts as a worthy lesson on overcoming obstacles. As an added bonus, each DVD includes a mini Golden Book adaptation of the original Dr. Seuss story, perfect for story time and a proper introduction to the origin of the character. Buy these DVDs with confidence for the youngsters in your life, just make sure you’re not in the vicinity for long when they watch them.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

District B13

If you enjoy the “look mom, no wires” action work of Jackie Chan and rising star Tony Jaa, particularly their uncanny ability to turn urban landscapes into their own jungle gyms, you’re the target audience for this new DVD release from France. It’s a dream come true for action movie fans, boasting not one but two death-defying stuntmen turned actors in its starring roles. Further cementing its action cred, it’s co-written by French titan Luc Besson, the man solely responsible for putting France on the map for action movies.

The film takes place in a futuristic French slum controlled by an evil ganglord with grand ambitions. When he gains possession of a powerful bomb, it’s up to an undercover cop and a scrappy resident to foil his plans. At its heart, it’s a buddy movie with two guys from opposite sides of the tracks who band together to save the world. That’s really all the framework the film needs, and it doesn’t go out of its way to flesh out the concept at all, instead relying on dizzying action sequences to satisfy the audience.

As the film opens, local street tough Leito (David Belle) is holed up near the top floor of an apartment building while destroying large quantities of drugs confiscated from the resident gang. He lives in the crime-infested ghetto, but he’s not a criminal; he’s got a heart of gold and he’s out to save his community from the evils of drugs and gangs. When the gang interrupts his progress, he leads them on an incredible chase in, around, and over the hallways and outside walls and roofs of the neighboring buildings, doling out numerous fists and feet of fury in the process. The soundtrack swells with driving techno beats throughout the sequence, further enhancing the best action sequence of the film.

Shortly after Leito’s amazing run, the film abruptly switches gears to focus on an entirely new character named Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) as he infiltrates the crime syndicate. This transition is incredibly jarring as there’s no explanation of who this new character is or how he’s related to the previous scene. Since he’s in disguise when first introduced and he also dives immediately into an intense action sequence highlighting his physical prowess, the audience is mistakenly led to believe that he’s Leito, but eventually it becomes clear that the film has two outstanding action stars instead of just one.

As with most action movies, the film leads up to a final showdown with the main baddie, and based on the fireworks in their solo scenes it seems primed for an unbelievable event when the two stars team up together. Unfortunately, the final fight fizzles rather than dazzles, showcasing a little impressive work but never really delivering on the promise of the earlier scenes. It’s almost as if they ran out of time or inspiration for the final fight choreography, wasting a golden opportunity to elevate the film to classic status. As it stands, the film is a showcase for the amazing stunt work of the lead actors and it’s enhanced by its futuristic setting and relentless pace, but it just misses the mark of greatness.

The DVD offers subtitle and dub options for both the purists and the reading-challenged, as well as an extended fight scene, a behind the scenes feature, and outtakes.