Monday, January 21, 2008

King of California

King of California is an affable little diversion that deserves some attention now that it has reached DVD. Boasting a star turn by Michael Douglas in his first work of any substance since Traffic, ably abetted by Thirteen breakout starlet Evan Rachel Wood, the film barely made a blip on the theatrical radar during limited release last fall. Thankfully, that oversight wasn’t due to any quality issues, but the film’s minor aspirations make it much more suitable for home viewing than the theatrical spotlight. It’s a telling sign that Alexander Payne’s name pops up in the credits as a producer, as the film fits very well into his oeuvre as a somewhat offbeat comedy with dramatic touches.

Douglas stars as Charlie, an unstable father recently released from a mental institution, while Wood portrays his responsible teenage daughter Miranda, a scrappy young lass who has been surviving just fine on her own. Upon arriving home, Charlie reveals his seemingly harebrained plan to recover an ancient treasure of lost Spanish gold, which he’s convinced he can locate based on his readings in the mental institution’s library. Miranda is understandably skeptical considering Charlie’s long history of delusions of grandeur and failure to make anything of himself, not to mention the ludicrous nature of the plan, but she agrees to assist him out of filial duty. Unfortunately, Charlie’s calculations indicate that the treasure trail leads directly to the local Costco, or rather underneath it, forcing Miranda to get a job there so she can lay the groundwork for their potential excavation.

We’ve all seen plenty of movie role reversal in parent-child relations before, but Douglas really plays up his wacky role to perfection without taking it over the top, giving the character a sweet if slightly deranged nature. He sports a shabby beard throughout the film to match his generally sloppy attire, and seems to genuinely enjoy his loose, relaxed sojourn from his typical high-gloss roles. Like Miranda, we want to believe in Charlie, even though he’s clearly abused her trust in the past. He’s a character who has no qualms about secretly selling his daughter’s car to continue funding his quest, but also a man who values her feelings enough to get it back at great cost to himself.

Wood puts in a fully capable if unremarkable performance, facing off against Douglas in a role that doesn’t ever really require her to stretch but does allow her to portray a highly sympathetic character. Miranda’s shared quest with Charlie is just a vehicle to allow them to bond again, and Wood does a fine job of playing the untrusting daughter who slowly tries to believe in her shady father.

King of California was written and directed by first-timer Mike Cahill, a competent contribution on both counts. Aside from a few brief flashbacks, he keeps the script on track without falling into any needless prolonged emotional reconciliation. Since it’s really just a two-character film, there’s not much to get in the way of the central plot, and he keeps the direction patently basic without relying on any kind of camera tricks to enhance the proceedings. While Cahill’s debut feature isn’t particularly memorable, it is a completely enjoyable yarn and a very refreshing change of pace for Michael Douglas.

The DVD contains standard fare such as a making of featurette and deleted scenes, along with a commentary track by members of the production team (but no actors). King of California arrives on DVD on January 29th. For more information, visit the film's website.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Alice's House

Alice’s House presents a slice-of-life tale centering on a middle-class family in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Alice is a 40-something manicurist in a beauty salon, and lives in a modest apartment shared with her husband, her three grown sons, and her mother. Although the film shares the daily struggles of all of the family members, the principal story is about Alice’s romantic life, or lack thereof.

Alice has been married to her husband Lindomar for 20 years, and at this stage of their lives he barely pays her any passing interest. Instead, he saves his passion for dalliances with neighborhood tramps, the younger the better, and makes no effort to hide the evidence of his infidelities. He’s far from a catch, but he’s seemingly still able to get outside satisfaction whenever his heart desires. His affairs are so blatant that they’re even discovered by his nearly blind mother-in-law, the stoic Dona Jacira, usually by his careless retention of topless photo booth pictures left in his pants for washing.

Alice is resigned to her fate, both in her loveless marriage and her dead-end career, but she soldiers on every day to support her family and her standing in the community. When she’s presented with the opportunity for her own infidelity with a childhood boyfriend, she begins to dream of a different life for herself while concurrently facing the demons of her existing obligations.

As Alice, Carla Ribas contributes a riveting performance that fully drives home the desperation of her mundane situation as well as her simmering hope for change. She’s a bundle of emotions but always a rock for her family, making for some trying times for her that yield fantastic dramatic results. Berta Zemel also shines in her role of Alice’s mother, getting great mileage out of her role as the silent observer to the family drama as well as a sympathetic figure cursed with failing eyesight.

Writer/director Chico Teixeira comes from a documentary background, which clearly colors his first narrative feature and gives it an enhanced sense of realism. Major plot points are just thrown out to the audience nonchalantly rather than dwelled upon, closely mirroring how they would occur in real life. There’s little attempt to frame his subjects in anything approaching dramatic lighting or staging, with everything just feeling lived-in and ultra-realistic.

“Alice’s House” opens in New York and five California locations on January 25th before moving on to additional cities in the coming weeks. For more information, view the trailer below or visit the film’s website at or

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Girls Next Door: Season Three

The Girls Next Door offers a tantalizing view behind the scenes at the Playboy Mansion, peeling back the veil of secrecy to expose the normalcy of Hugh Hefner’s magical land. After two previous seasons, there aren’t many secrets left to reveal, but the show and its participants have entered a comfy stage of true familiarity and family that gives this season an added dimension of warmth.

For the uninitiated, the “Girls” are Hef’s live-in girlfriend #1, Holly, as well as the two other ladies living in the Mansion, Bridget and Kendra. They’re all buxom blondes, but they’re vastly different in personality and somewhat different in age. Kendra is the young jock who thinks she’s “street”, Bridget is the older girly sweetheart who still views the world through rose-colored bunny glasses, and Holly is the middle one in age who’s angling for a permanent commitment from the world’s most famous bachelor. They’re each around 5 years apart in age, ranging from Kendra at 21 to Bridget at 33, which puts them just within Hef’s historic age range of interest. While all three are referred to as girlfriends, Holly is definitely the queen bee and the only one who is truly Hef’s girlfriend, so Kendra and Bridget really take the more realistic title of GirlfriendTM, a largely ceremonial position that would normally be subject to rotation anytime at Hef’s whim. Their success with this show has allowed all three to continue their reign at the Mansion much longer than anyone anticipated, leading to close relationships between the three as well as Hef.

Hef is a strong presence on the show who is always felt even when he’s not seen. He sticks to the background for the most part, allowing his girls to take the lead on their show, but there’s no escaping his omnipresent aura in everything they do. At 81, the old geezer is still very spry and parties like a rockstar, but he’s also shown to be a highly loyal and sentimental man who genuinely cares for the well-being of his girls rather than just exploiting them. He’s still very involved in running his magazine and also takes a hands-on approach to fine-tuning the details of the many elaborate parties held at the Mansion. There’s occasionally a twinge of creepiness watching the octogenarian cavorting with his young lasses, but when you consider that Hef is a true titan who used to hobnob with Marilyn Monroe you realize that these girls are probably fairly insignificant diversions in the grand scheme of things.

Each episode finds the girls participating in a different activity, ranging from setting up a horseback riding outing for other Playmates, to taking a ski trip to Vail, CO, to traveling with Hef to Vegas for his 81st birthday celebration. Episodes that stay at the Mansion usually center around a themed party, such as their annual New Year’s Eve bash and Valentine’s Day soiree, with the thrust of the shows focusing on the girls picking and customizing their outfits for each event. It’s a pretty simple formula, but one that allows viewers to get a fairly accurate feel for true life at the Mansion as well as explore the thoughts and motivations of the girls. It’s also getting to be a bit of a repetitive formula, as some of the annual events seem virtually unchanged each year, such as Hef’s Casablanca night and his latest outing to his swanky flat at the Palms in Vegas, giving some episodes a distinct sense of déjà vu. However, at this stage in his life, Hef is an extreme creature of habit so it’s forgivable to allow the old man his simple pleasures.

This season finds the girls with some new motivations, with Kendra buying and working on an investment condo, Bridget pursuing a career in voiceover work, and Holly working behind the scenes on the magazine, assisting with photo shoots and working on selecting the shots to propose for Hef’s final consideration. Holly’s arc is the most interesting, as her new career seems like yet another calculated move to prove her worth to Hef in the hopes of convincing him to marry her. Unlike the first two seasons, she’s not portrayed to be quite as single-visioned in her quest to get that diamond ring, but her unwavering devotion to Hef and his empire continue to show her to be a very, very determined young lady.

The Season Three box set includes all 14 regular season episodes as well as a special hour-long retrospective episode. The episodes are spread across 3 DVDs packed in individual slim-line plastic cases housed in a sturdy slipcase. The girls offer commentary on all episodes and the DVD release continues to be the optimal way to watch the show since the episodes are completely uncensored. The Girls Next Door: Season Three is available on DVD on January 22nd.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Tudors: The Complete First Season

It turns out your high school teacher was right: history can be fun! Showtime’s take on The Tudors ratchets up the sex and violence of jolly old England and features a preening pretty boy king seemingly more at home on the catwalk than the throne. As played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, young King Henry VIII pouts and sashays his way through his duties, determined to build a glorious legacy for his kingdom rather than resting on the laurels of his forebears. He’d much rather fight than negotiate, even when it risks the possibility of sending his country into war. He’d also much rather have his pick of subjects for his bed, in spite of his existing marriage to his queen. He’s an intriguing character and surprisingly athletic for a royal, albeit somewhat one-dimensional in early stages.

As his foils, the young king initially tees off against the Duke of Buckingham before eventually discovering his greatest Season 1 nemesis, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Sam Neill). The Cardinal is his closest advisor, but is also a sneaky, conniving bastard perfectly content to undermine Henry’s power at the same time he’s trying to become the next Pope. Neill’s delicious performance gives Rhys Meyers his only real acting competition in early stages of the season, creating a powerful love-hate relationship that forms much of the show’s intrigue.

Henry has some domestic strife with his wife as well, but he’s mostly an international playboy in love with finding his next romantic conquest. He’s shown happily jumping from bed to bed until he falls under the spell of Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer), a winsome lass put in his path for the express purpose of seducing him to curry favor for her father. Their relationship sets off monumental changes for the country’s religion, as the Roman Catholic Church’s refusal to allow divorce leads Henry to establish the Church of England. This also leads him to eventually marry a total of six times, but those are stories for future seasons.

The show’s sets and costumes look fairly realistic to this layman, although clearly emphasizing the glam rather than the mundane. Rather than eating bon-bons on his throne, Henry is constantly shown to be a virile jock: mounting up for jousting, facing off in wrestling, and getting his puffy shirt sweaty in tennis. As for the stories, the creators seem to be playing fast and loose with actual historical events to milk the maximum sensationalism out of them, but that’s just fine considering that the production is paid for by Showtime, not The History Channel. True history buffs might get their doublets in a twist, but as pure entertainment the show works great.

The Season 1 box set has all 10 episodes, but does some odd distribution with them by cramming all but 1 onto the first 3 DVDs, then using the 4th DVD to pimp full episodes of other Showtime series Californication, Penn & Teller B.S., and This American Life. None of the episodes feature audio commentary, and other bonus features are fairly limited and uninspired. I have no problem with Showtime promoting their other shows, but this really should have been a 3 DVD box set with a limited pack-on bonus disc of the other shows if they really wanted to take that route. As it stands, the box set is a moderately-priced collection that really doesn’t offer much more than what was available during the show’s original broadcast. It’s fine if you want to complete your collection, just don’t expect to gain much additional insight into the production of the show. The Tudors: The Complete First Season is now available on DVD.

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Sunshine came and went without much of an impact at the box office last year, which is really a shame because it’s a standout effort that deserves to find an audience. Boasting direction by always-watchable Danny Boyle and a script from his 28 Days Later collaborator Alex Garland, the film belongs to the school of brainy space sci-fi classics like 2001 and Solaris. That’s not to say it’s a really smart film, in fact it has its share of groan-inducing dialogue as well as a healthy amount of brawny action, but it’s more concerned with the cerebral rather than the physical journey of its crew. As such, it’s an extremely refreshing take on a tired genre and a fine reminder of how good sci fi can be in the right hands.

The crew of the good ship Icarus II is tasked with a mission to save humanity, hurtling through space on a mission to deliver an explosive payload that will reignite the dying sun, or more specifically to generate a new sun from the embers of the old one. Earth has entered a virtual ice age due to the sun’s diminishing strength, and the crew represents Earth’s last hope to save humanity. They’re not planning on a one-way trip though, as the Icarus II is a state-of-the-art solar-shielded vessel designed to allow them to get in, deliver their cargo, and return home with barely a tan. The bummer is that they’re cut off from radio contact with home after entering a communications blackout zone near the sun, which of course conveniently leaves them to their own devices with no hope of outside counsel.

When they encounter a distress signal from their predecessors on Icarus I, a mission presumed failed over five years prior, they’re faced with making their own decision about whether to alter their course to check for unlikely survivors and a second functioning bomb, or continue on with just their sole shot at success. Their genius captain decides to place the choice on the shoulders of their physicist, Capa (Cillian Murphy), a still-naïve lad barely competent to make the decision, let alone weather any resulting fallout from the choice. Capa’s choice isn’t really a surprise, and it’s no shock that things don’t exactly go as planned for the duration of the mission, but the film takes a questionable turn near its end to set up a thrill-packed final act.

More than the plot, Sunshine concerns itself with the psychological dispositions of the ship’s crew. Boyle spends time recording a couple of the crew member’s virtual infatuation with the sun’s power, coloring them like solar junkies desperate for their next fix. Whether they’re quietly observing the sun at maximum allowable brightness in their shielded observation room or welcoming its death embrace, the sun takes on a godlike dimension for the crew that carries through to an increasingly literal interpretation as they approach it. Their relationship with this god as they leave behind their earthly connections gives the film its weight, even though they’re mostly meditating alone rather than discussing their perceptions together.

Sunshine looks absolutely fantastic, boasting impressive effects and expert staging and camerawork that deceptively make it look like it had an incredibly huge budget. It doesn’t scrimp on the visual splendor in the least, making this a real treat for viewers looking for a believable and vivid space adventure. The only annoying camera trick is a frequently used view from inside the crew’s space ship helmets, presumably used to capture their emotions in what would otherwise be an impenetrable environment. Aside from that, the literally “stellar” effects really sell the concept of the film and the attention to detail inside and outside the Icarus II make for a compelling vision of future space travel.

The film also boasts a standout soundtrack from composer John Murphy and musicians Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, aka Underworld. A few of the early tracks have a boring new-agey sound, just lingering synth washes with no teeth, but as the mission progresses and the real Underworld takes over the songs develop some gritty texture and rhythm that make for thrilling accompaniment, perfectly matching the dangerous explorations on screen.

Surprisingly, the greatest weakness of the film is its acting. The Icarus II has a suitably multi-culti crew befitting a mission to save all of humanity, but they might as well have been real astronauts based on the acting chops they brought to the table. The most painful performance is by respected veteran Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada in the role of the ship’s captain, delivering a completely wooden and disaffected performance. Almost as bad and even more surprising is Michelle Yeoh, usually completely competent but nearly forgettable here. Their one scene together has the grace and heft of a preliminary table read, a truly horrendous display. Elsewhere, the actors merely get by, even the de facto lead Murphy and Chris Evans, with only Troy Garity generating any kind of momentary spark in his role as the sniveling Communications Officer. Maybe Boyle spent too much time directing zombies, maybe it’s just the nature of space films, but there won’t be any acting awards handed out for this one.

The DVD is packed with bonus features, starting with two separate commentary tracks: one by Boyle, and one by the film’s science advisor, an actual professor, presumably to play up the film’s attention to scientific detail. Deleted scenes and an alternate ending are available, as well as extensive web production diaries. Also commendable is Boyle’s inclusion of a couple of shorts completely unrelated to the film, just items he enjoyed and wanted to support by devoting a bit of his DVD’s space to them. One of the shorts, Dad’s Dead, is visually impressive, while the other, Mole Hills, is at best an interesting experiment. Sunshine is now available on DVD.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Eagle vs. Shark

Eagle vs. Shark has often been referred to as a New Zealand version of Napoleon Dynamite, and it’s a fair comparison in principle. Both films feature nerd love between oddballs so far out on the fringe of society that they’re barely recognizable as human, with most of the laughs coming from witnessing the unbelievable situations they find to be completely normal. To wit: Eagle vs. Shark really gets started when the mousy, newly fired fast food clerk Lily crashes a costume party hosted by not-so-lovable loser Jarrod, an infantile gathering whose biggest draw is a primitive video game fighting challenge. To see “grown-ups” in cheesy homemade animal costumes determinedly standing in line to take their turns in video game battle is to witness a dork subculture our forefathers certainly never dreamed of in their worst nightmares.

Lily (Loren Horsely) seems like a nice enough girl, but she’s a social misfit who struggles to relate to others, finding security only in her relationship with her brother and her budding interest in her restaurant’s frequent customer, Jarrod. She doesn’t seem to have any real interests or hobbies of her own; she’s just searching for a connection with a kindred spirit. This leaves her character a bit bland, but also leaves plenty of room for Jarrod to color outside the lines. The film is mostly told from Lily’s point of view, but once she finds herself with Jarrod (“falls in love” seems too much of a stretch), she quickly learns that even needy losers can be complete jerks as boyfriends.

Jarrod (Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords) is a man-child, plain and simple. He’s emotionally and developmentally stunted, existing in some ongoing adolescent state that froze around the time of his older brother’s death and his frequent humiliation by a high school bully. His father also shut down after his brother’s death, moping around in an unneeded wheelchair and reliving his dead son’s past glories rather than celebrating or even recognizing the daily struggles of his remaining heir. Jarrod knows he’s a disappointment to his dad, and latches on to the brilliant idea that he may win some respect and begin to move his life forward if he confronts his demons. Unfortunately, Jarrod identifies his sole demon as his old high school nemesis, setting him on a path of rigorous and ridiculous physical training to challenge and defeat the bully.

These romantic and redemptive set-ups offers great material for light, absurd comedy, but the film has some unwelcome darkness to it, mostly in Jarrod’s treatment of Lily. Lily is completely trusting, supportive and devoted, the kind of girl that Jarrod should count his lucky stars to find. Instead, he spends most of the movie ignoring and humiliating her, seemingly oblivious to the hurt he’s causing. When she agrees to travel with him to his hometown for the big fight, he repays her kindness by promptly breaking up with her shortly after their arrival to focus on his training, stranding her at his family’s home with no way to leave. She’s also shocked to meet his unmentioned 9-year-old daughter, as well as discovering the lies he told her about the deaths of his brother and mother. He has absolutely no remorse when confronted with her findings, shrugging off her accusations and continuing on his thoughtless way. Any other girl in the world would hate him for the rest of her life, but for some unknown reason Lily still cares for him. It seems like writer/director Taika Cohen was attempting to make more comedy fodder through Lily’s horrific treatment by Jarrod, but ultimately it just destroys the empathy viewers could build for Jarrod. Ironically, the only way he gets back some of that empathy is through the equally dark treatment he gets from his father, a relationship that is wisely never played for laughs.

Cohen incorporates a few quirky animated interludes that give the production a slight Michel Gondry feel, adding some surprising visual flourish to the story. He gets great performances out of his funny cast, and he packs his sets with enough nerd regalia to give them a completely realistic feel. It’s clear he has a strong and original voice, but one that may need a bit of further refinement to reach true greatness.

The DVD extras include the de rigueur deleted scenes and outtakes, although in this film’s case they’re definitely worth watching and good for some bonus laughs. There’s also a music video by The Phoenix Foundation, the fine New Zealand band who supplied most of the film’s songs. Check their 2007 CD release Horsepower as well, it’s worth tracking down. Eagle vs. Shark is now available on DVD.

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Friday, January 04, 2008


Once was the little film with big exposure last year, garnering glowing praise during its theatrical run and a considerable marketing push for its DVD release. Now that the masses have easy access to view it on DVD, its true test comes as a viable classic or just a flash in the pan.

Although seemingly advertised as a love story about two musicians, Once is really the tale of an Irish street busker/vacuum repairman (Glen Hansard) as he finally gets serious about pursuing his dream of a music career. The catalyst for his action is his chance encounter with a Czech immigrant girl/piano player (Marketa Irglova) who assists with his music. They never develop a deep enough personal or professional relationship where she’s a true collaborator on his music; she acts more as a mini-muse and backup player to assist him to his goals. Sure, he likes her and she seems fond of him as well, but she’s eventually revealed to be married (although temporarily separated) in addition to having a singular devotion to caring for her child and mother, so any romantic relationship is out of the question.

The leads are never identified by name, relating to each other and the audience solely through their music. Much of the movie consists of the songs performed by Hansard, and while they don’t necessarily move the narrative forward as true movie musical numbers, they occasionally reveal his emotional state as he pines after Irglova. The songs are quite good for the most part, although not reaching instant classic status for the casual viewer. They also bog down the flow of the film at times, such as when the movie goes from one of Hansard’s numbers directly into a piece by Irglova with no exposition in between. However, fans who have fallen in love with the tunes through repeated CD spins will likely relish the film’s strong focus on the music.

The film was clearly a micro-budgeted production and as such has some quality flaws, such as extremely poor lighting during a couple of interior shots. The script, such as it is, also could have used some fine-tuning to maximize its potential, as its current incarnation never really drives home the importance of Irglova’s influence or explores their relationship to its fullest, robbing the film’s bittersweet ending of its power. The acting is uniformly serviceable, with the exception of Hansard, who contributes the film’s best performance in his passionate role. A real musician by trade, it’s hopeful that Hansard will continue his acting foray in the future.

Once is now available on DVD.

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