Friday, February 29, 2008

Death at a Funeral

It’s no surprise that a funeral ceremony isn’t the most likely setting for a comedy. What is surprising is just how little comedy is generated by this film’s stilted and transparent story. Each move is telegraphed so far in advance that there’s little opportunity for laughs or mystery, leaving viewers with an unsatisfying trip through an already unsavory subject.

The film consists of a series of interlocking plotlines coming together at the ground zero setting of a funeral in England, stacking up against each other in what should have been a grand payoff when they all exploded. There’s the son of the deceased fretting over his eulogy and the funeral bill while his brother, a famous and wealthy writer, refuses to contribute to either effort. There’s the newly engaged couple making an extremely poor impression on the father of the bride-to-be when the boyfriend mistakenly takes a powerful hallucinogenic drug before the funeral. And then there’s the mysterious little man unknown to the guests but carrying a dark secret.

Matthew MacFadyen looks a bit more doughy than usual but otherwise puts in an effective performance as the son of the deceased. In a fine act of art imitating life, his real-life spouse and former MI-5 co-star Keeley Hawes plays the role of his long-suffering wife. The rest of the cast is largely unknown here aside from US recruits Alan Tudyk and Peter Dinklage. Tudyk gets the flashiest role as the drug-addled boyfriend making an ass of himself in front of the guests, while Dinklage is the lynchpin who knocks the wheels off the plotlines when he unleashes his not-so-shocking revelation.

The film was directed by Frank Oz, an accomplished director in both comedy and drama, making his misfire here even more surprising. While he elicits solid performances from his players, he’s never able to invest the story with any spark or sense of discovery, leaving viewers to watch the tepid and leaden resolutions unfold with precious little payoff. Although some of the blame can be placed on the unremarkable script, Oz should have been capable of mining this film for dark comedy gold instead of an uninvolving lump of coal.

The DVD is short on extras, so viewers are left with little insight into the film’s production. Death at a Funeral is now available on DVD.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Lili's Apron

Ramón and Lili are barely getting by on the lower rungs of Argentina’s social hierarchy when their nearly simultaneous job losses force them to improvise. Lili is mentally unstable and clearly not suited to return to the workforce, while Ramón is a cook by trade but unable to find any work in his field. When a housekeeping opportunity presents itself, Ramón latches onto the desperate idea of impersonating his wife in order to land the job and keep them afloat financially. While Ramón’s crossdressing role sounds like a standard setup for comedy, Lili’s Apron is instead a bleak drama about the plight of this impoverished couple.

Although the film’s concept has merit, its production values are fairly pedestrian. The opening is a jumble of quick cut scenes that have no apparent coherence, and this scattershot editing is repeated occasionally throughout the film, leading to occasional bewilderment trying to determine the gist of the plot. The camera work is static except for some erratic manual zooms that lessen the overall quality. Even the staging is of a lackadaisical cinema verite nature, somewhat appropriate considering the subject matter but so drab and unfocused that it lessens any strength the actors bring to the production. The film eventually finds its groove and allows the actors more opportunity to make an impact in longer scenes as the film progresses, but derails again near the end with an ill-advised violent turn of events.

The actors playing the lead roles put in commendable performances, but the film never really delivers as an effective critique of Argentina’s economic crisis or as a compelling interpersonal drama. Ramón is shown to be uncooperative in his initial workplace, so his subsequent firing fails to elicit any sympathy. Likewise, Lili’s bizarre blink-and-you-miss-it dismissal doesn’t provide any background supporting her as an effective worker. Regardless of their social class and mental stability, they’re not shown to be desirable employees so it’s difficult to care about their resulting struggle. Also, there’s no real macro view presented to frame their struggle or define the country’s economic conditions, so although viewers may suspect that their situation is a microcosm of Argentina’s working class society as a whole, the film’s sole focus is their individual hardships that could conceivably occur in any era, country or social class. While it’s refreshing to see a project of this nature emerge from Argentina, there’s really not much on display worth recommendation.

Lili’s Apron is now available on DVD. For more information and to purchase, visit the First Run Features website at


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Kilometre Zero

Kilometre Zero bears distinction as the first Iraqi film to be chosen to compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes. Although it didn’t win during its appearance in 2005, its new arrival on DVD brings US viewers an enlightening glimpse of this little-understood land and its people.

The film is set in the 1980s during the closing days of the war between Iraq and Iran. Saddam Hussein ordered his army to round up Kurdish civilians as unwilling new recruits, and the film focuses on the fictitious adventures of one of these Kurds named Ako as he carries out his forced duties.

Although he’s a soldier by necessity, not choice, Ako is wise enough to attempt to carry out his duties rather than risk death. He’s quickly tasked with delivering the body of a soldier to his family with the help of an untrusting and reluctant Iraqi taxi driver. This tenuous alliance between Kurd and Arab creates more friction than friendship during their long road trip together, even escalating to a physical scuffle at one point. Surprisingly, their trip even yields some dark comedy, most prominently in a running gag that has Ako getting scolded every time they reach a military checkpoint for driving a coffin during prime daylight hours when it can be easily seen and “depresses people”, leading him to join throngs of other sidelined taxi hearses parked out of sight behind walls.

Aside from his military duties, Ako has a beautiful wife and child waiting for him at home, so he’s constantly forced with the temptation to desert his post and risk death to return to his family. His invalid father-in-law and the ever-present threat of death for leaving the army makes home life a bit less appealing, but he clearly never embraces his life as a soldier.

While the film is an intriguing look at this remote corner of the world and its history, its somewhat disjointed structure makes it hard to get a handle on exactly where it’s going. What eventually appears to be Ako’s voyage of self-discovery and evasion of the army morphs into his darkly humorous road trip before segueing into his final choice about domestic bliss. Ako doesn’t even emerge as a dominant character at first, instead ambling into the spotlight only after a lengthy setup showing the humiliating Iraqi army mistreatment of a Kurdish prisoner. In spite of these minor shortcomings, the film’s fresh voice, aided by solid performances by its cast, warrants a viewing by patrons interested in the emerging cinema of a land typically only glimpsed in newscasts.

Kilometre Zero is now available on DVD. For more information and purchase, visit the First Run Features website.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Jakers! Treasure Hunt on Raloo Farm

Jakers! hasn’t made much of an impression on the US public, which is really a shame because it’s a great children’s show with extraordinary production values. It doesn’t garner much attention in its PBS home, and it hasn’t been mass-marketed with a multitude of product tie-ins, just a few books and DVDs including this new release. As opposed to its more manic kin on the likes of Nick Jr. and The Disney Channel, its pace is a bit slower, a bit sweeter, and hence maybe a bit more in tune with tv’s golden age than modern standards. That’s not to say it’s outmoded or irrelevant, in fact its high-gloss CGI presentation puts its animation quality fully on par with the likes of The Backyardigans, Pororo and My Friends Tigger and Pooh, nearly approaching Pixar quality.

The show has a framing device that opens each episode in present times where a grandpa pig recounts the tales of his youth in rural Ireland to his three grandchildren, usually imparting some seeds of wisdom that offer them educational insight. The framing device gives way to the adventures of grandpa as a young pig named Piggley Winks, along with his sister Molly and his friends Ferny the cow and Dannan the duck. The show’s principal setting in the lush Irish countryside of the 1950s gives it a warmth and depth that just couldn’t be possible in its introductory urban environment, and provides added appeal to parents and grandparents who might wish to share a bit of the flavor of their own rural past with their urban descendants.

In addition to his adventures with his friends, Piggley’s life on Raloo Farm also brings him into frequent contact with Wiley the sheep, a comic character always up to some new mischief. Wiley’s misadventures aren’t always directly related to Piggley’s, which exposes an amusing flaw in the show’s structure (how are we witnessing Wiley’s tales in grandpa’s flashbacks if Piggley wasn’t there?), but also offers opportunity for some Looney Tunes-inspired hilarity honed to perfection by the stellar vocal casting of the legendary Mel Brooks.

The new DVD includes four full episodes. In “Treasure Hunt”, the gang have so much fun following a set of clues left by Piggley’s dad that they don’t realize they’re completing their farm chores until they reach their treasure. In “Our Dragon’s Egg”, the friends find a mysterious egg and learn to take care of it while theorizing about its contents. In “Dannan Does a Jig”, Dannan learns that natural dancing prowess isn’t hereditary but also doesn’t affect the unconditional love of her relatives. Finally, in “Growing Pains”, Piggley learns that being grown-up isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when he’s called to step into his injured father’s shoes. All four episodes are charming and worthwhile family viewing, although I preferred “Treasure Hunt” purely for its instructional value to me as future plans for my own child.

The DVD’s special features include live-action segments that air during the PBS broadcasts, where real grandparents share educational stories of their youth and different storytellers entertain a group of children via various techniques such as freestyle hip-hop and mime. The DVD also includes a fun read-along Piggley tale that allows young viewers to turn virtual pages with the remote while the story is being told onscreen.

Jakers! Treasure Hunt on Raloo Farm is available on DVD on February 19th, 2008. For additional information about the show, visit

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Gone Baby Gone

Gone Baby Gone seems like a bad idea in theory. The source material is Dennis Lehane’s book about a missing girl in Boston, which bears similarity to his work on Mystic River, and really, if Clint Eastwood films something, shouldn’t there be some reasonable standard of limitations before anyone else makes an attempt in the same arena? Then there’s its rookie director, Ben Affleck, seemingly retreating behind the lens (and pen) after falling out of favor as a leading man. To top it off, its star is younger Affleck bro Casey, who until last year was a completely middling presence on film. With all of these knocks against it, there seems to be little hope of success, so it’s all the more remarkable that the film excels as both a competent drama and an acting showcase.

Casey Affleck plays Patrick Kenzie, a Boston private detective called in to assist in the hunt for a missing girl. His partner (Michelle Monaghan) warns against taking the case, but he’s determined to use his neighborhood connections to make a difference. His first stop is a meeting with the girl’s mother (Amy Ryan), a druggie burnout who seems to have zero maternal instinct. He also meets the detectives assigned to the case (Ed Harris and John Ashton), as well as their kindly captain (Morgan Freeman). As he traverses the seedy underbelly of his Boston neighborhood in a search for clues, it quickly becomes clear that there’s more to the case than a simple kidnapping.

Harris’s detective character Remy Bressant gives off weird vibes that he’s not exactly being above-board about his role in the investigation, and Kenzie’s neighborhood leads keep him chasing a trail that he suspects is a little off, but he’s powerless to avoid following through to the seemingly final fate of the girl. It’s only after this pivotal point that the film unleashes its full power to move viewers, as its grand denouement forces us to take a side on what becomes a painful moral choice.

Ben Affleck shines in his first directorial outing, primarily because he injects the film with a heady sense of realism thanks to his own upbringing in the Boston area. He knows the gritty streets and characters he’s filming, and his background is a great asset that helps the film rise above “Mystic River Lite” status. Similarly, Casey Affleck affects the accent and attitude of his youth, lending great credence to his role. He’s not given quite the showcase role as his Oscar-nominated turn in The Assassination of Jesse James, but he’s at all times effective and eminently watchable, a far cry from his past mediocre work like Lonesome Jim. As for the rest of the cast, Amy Ryan fully earns her Oscar nom as the drugged-out mom, Ed Harris puts in an impressive turn, and even Morgan Freeman seems to be on his game instead of dialing it in.

The DVD includes extended opening and closing scenes, as well as featurettes about the production. Gone Baby Gone is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Invasion

Here’s a simple equation Hollywood needs to remember: Nicole Kidman + big budget remake = box office bomb. It’s no fault of Kidman’s, but with the DVD release of The Invasion, her third strike following The Stepford Wives and Bewitched, a clear pattern has emerged that bears close scrutiny by studio heads as well as her agent.

The Invasion is a textbook example of everything that can go wrong with current big studio releases. Starting with a previously used concept, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, then casting major stars Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, the production team has attempted to muster popular appeal for a project that is at its core an extremely weak rehash. Interestingly, the producers appear to have hoped to inject some originality into the formula by utilizing a new screenwriter (David Kajganich), as well as an import director (well-regarded German helmer Oliver Hirschbiegel), but neither choice yielded favorable results. The final project reeks of design by committee, offering no unique voice and hence no compelling reason for anyone to seek it out.

Even the film’s opening plot device feels like a cheap piece of needless sensationalism, as we’re informed that a space shuttle has exploded during re-entry, scattering debris over a large swath of the US. That space trash carries a mysterious microscopic agent that begins infecting the US population, activating only when carriers go to sleep. During their unconscious outbreak, infected carriers sprout some kind of mucousy outer layer that miraculously disappears before they wake up, leaving them looking completely normal but acting like, well, Stepford wives (sorry Nicole) desperate to convert the rest of the population to their emotionless cult.

Kidman plays a psychiatrist named Carol, a devoted single mom enamored with colleague Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig). Although Kidman’s ex-husband is quickly infected and Kidman fights to delay her own infection by any sleep-prevention means necessary, their son is somehow completely immune and as such, a potential solution to the epidemic. Meanwhile, Ben pops in and out of her life, offering support but also garnering suspicion as a possible carrier every time he reappears. The film hinges on issues of trust as related to the infected, trying to keep the audience guessing about who is a carrier and when they become infected, although it never builds any tangible tension due to its bungled execution.

The disease’s origin and intention are never really explored, not that an interesting backstory would have helped much but at least viewers might have had some more investment into the “why” of the film. Sure, it could be argued that we’re supposed to be as clueless as Carol, but then the film’s inevitable conclusion leaves us wondering what all the fuss was about. I did relate to Carol in one aspect, as the film’s total lack of suspense left me fighting just as hard as her to stay awake. There’s nothing terrifying about the infected but completely functional population just becoming soulless automatons, especially when they don’t seem to have any evil master plan other than global dissemination of their plague.

As for the acting, Kidman plays Carol well as the dutiful and paranoid mom, but Craig is mostly wasted in his surprisingly small and enigmatic role. Jeffrey Wright pops up momentarily for no discernible reason other than a quick paycheck, and the rest of the cast is completely unmemorable.

The DVD includes a documentary about invasion in media history, as well as three brief featurettes regarding the film. The Invasion is now available on DVD. My recommendation: rent any of the previous versions of the film or read the original source novel.

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