Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Pucca is a fast-paced, hilarious series of cartoon shorts marrying the cuteness of Powerpuff Girls with the madcap antics of Looney Tunes. It has a fresh, distinctive look that suits its premise well, featuring cute little characters with bold outlines in a funky Technicolor world brought to life through what appears to be buttery-smooth Flash animation. It’s also a prime example of the global village at work: it was created in South Korea, but the main character is the daughter of Chinese noodle house owners, the show is produced in Canada, and it airs in the US as part of Toon Disney’s Jetix block of programming.

If you’ve been in any Asian-themed merchandising stores in the past five years or so, you’ve probably seen Pucca’s distinctive mug adorning all manner of goods, much like perennial favorite Hello Kitty or fellow Korean creation Mashimaro. Unless you watch Toon Disney, you (like me) probably weren’t aware of the existence of the show, but these two new DVDs will hopefully expose it to a wider audience as it’s definitely a hidden gem. Both Ninjas Love Noodles and Kung Fu Kisses contain around 90 minutes of animated shorts each and allow viewers to “play all” for non-interrupted movie-length blocks of Pucca fun. There are also a couple of non-essential extras, but the main shorts provide more than enough entertainment value on their own.

Pucca is an 11-year-old girl hopelessly in love with a standoffish ninja named Garu, and much of the show’s humor comes from her attempts to steal kisses from him. When she’s not chasing her man, she’s battling bad ninjas and other menaces, always finding a way to get what she wants in the end. Interestingly, she and Garu never speak, giving their adventures some universal appeal transcending any language barriers. The rest of the supporting cast do speak and add mostly witty banter to the already amusing animated shorts, including the noodle shop owners, Pucca and Garu’s friends, and even occasional guest Santa Claus!

Although the show is targeted at kids ages 7-13, its clever and lightning-fast humor makes it appropriate for older viewers as well. It has plenty of sass to make sure it doesn’t overdose on cuteness and the short episode lengths keep the energy level high, making the show consistently refreshing and fun.

Pucca: Ninjas Love Noodles and Pucca: Kung Fu Kisses are now available on DVD.


Thursday, March 20, 2008


The first thing I noticed about this film was its 2003 HK theatrical release date and 2008 US DVD release date. With such a long gap in between, it seems that there wasn’t enough initial appeal to warrant US release, or it was just another Asian film buried in the typical old Miramax release hell (DVD is from current Weinstein brothers offshoot Dragon Dynasty). Either way, delayed release usually spells trouble of some sort, and sure enough, the film supports the stereotype.

PTU is from Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To, a director who has racked up a considerable string of strong releases over the past decade such as Election, Breaking News, and Exiled. Unfortunately, he’s also responsible for some less than stellar projects, and this one trends toward that camp. Although it features familiar players such as Simon Yam and Suet Lam that have been used to great effect in his other productions, the project itself is mostly a throwaway.

The title refers to a “Police Tactical Unit” led by veteran cops played by Yam and Lam. The team is responsible for controlling violent crime in their assigned area, bringing them into frequent contact with all nature of Triad nasties and other neighborhood hooligans. On a routine encounter with some thugs, Lam’s character loses his gun, leading to a mad scramble by the rest of the PTU to recover it before the end of the night. That’s it. The whole plot balances on recovering a cheap pistol. There’s no great intrigue or interpersonal character development, just a simple fetch quest that doesn’t seem terribly important in the grand scheme of police tactics.

While the cops are on their search, they get into some bloody battles culminating in a shootout at the end of the film that doesn’t really deliver any payoff or even logic, just acting as an excuse for popping off lots of squibs and blanks. The resolution of the plot is about as arbitrary and meaningless as all that transpired before, leaving absolutely no satisfaction for viewers. It almost seems like the film started production without a script in place, and regrettably it never found one along the way.

For their parts, the actors put in solid performances that give the film its only glimmer of credibility, especially the always-reliable Yam. It’s somewhat rewarding just to see some of the To repertory players on screen together, but there’s no real point to their actions other than just having them all together. To draw a parallel to another ensemble, PTU is like the abysmal Ocean’s Twelve, all flash and no substance, while To’s superior Exiled is Ocean’s Thirteen.

PTU is available on DVD on March 25th, 2008.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Girls Rock!

Aside from stating the obvious (!), the title of this documentary refers to a rock ’n’ roll camp where girls learn to play music and form bands. The girls in the film range in age from 8-18 and travel to Portland from all over the country for the opportunity to bond with fellow budding musicians, learning the basics of playing instruments and writing songs while concurrently dealing with the pressure of assembling and maintaining a band from scratch. The week-long camp leads up to a public performance in front of around 700 people on the final day, giving the girls tremendous incentive to keep their bands together and deliver the rock.

The filmmakers spend some time interviewing the camp counselors, who all appear to be quite unique and interesting in their own right, but the focus is on four of the girls attending the camp. There’s Laura, a bubbly Korean girl from Oklahoma who thrives at the camp in spite of some insecurities; Misty, a former meth addict in her late teens; Palace, an 8-year-old with an angelic face but a hard rock sneer and scream; and Amelia, another whirling dervish of an 8-year-old with apparent ADD issues. Of the four principal subjects, Laura has the most insightful comments and most interesting screen time, injecting the production with her inescapable charm.

The musical performances are generally about as awful as you would imagine coming from a bunch of neophytes with only one week of practice. Accordingly, the footage of the girls practicing and writing their songs is far from interesting, although it does give a peek into their creative process. However, the music clearly isn’t the goal, it’s just the common ground that binds the girls together as they search for acceptance with each other and learn about teamwork, musicianship, and girl power. While they learn about music, the girls also relate their various issues to each other and the camera, giving viewers a glimpse into what it means to be a girl in the US in this century.

Surprisingly, the film was directed by two men, Shane King and Arne Johnson. They pepper the production with occasional needless statistics about teenage girls to drive home the point about the difficulties faced by the fairer sex. They also give some screen time to a few of the parents of the featured children to little positive effect. Their film is strongest when it’s fully focused on the four engaging girls they selected, as even without the band camp framework the girls make for fascinating documentary subjects.

Girls Rock! is now playing in limited theatrical release. For more information and upcoming additional cities, visit the website at

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

Mr. Magorium is ready to hang up his hat. As the magical owner of a mysterious toy store, he has entertained generations of children but finally realizes that his time on Earth has run its course. His succession plan relies entirely on the quirky and decidedly non-magical manager of his store, Molly Mahoney, an able assistant who seems to have never grown into true adulthood. As a reluctant heir, Molly is faced with the decision of keeping the store or selling out and ending its run.

As Mr. Magorium, Dustin Hoffman gets to wear bushy hair and eyebrows, adding to his mad professor character. He’s in full freak mode here, mooning and overacting to enforce his magical nature as a man out of his time. As Molly, Natalie Portman has a slight role that requires very little heavy lifting, basically just acting as a straight woman to the eccentric Magorium. Both appear far too earnest in the early stages of the film, making their interactions seem like something out of a sugary kids tv show, but eventually they settle into a comfortable banter that suitably demonstrates the huge respect their characters have for each other. Jason Bateman also appears as a stuffy accountant learning to recapture some of his own childhood belief in magic, but his role is largely unnecessary in the grand scheme of things.

The film was written and directed by Zack Helm, previously most notable for his Stranger Than Fiction script. Here he’s given the keys to the entire toy shop and runs wild with the idea, crafting an immense set stuffed with all manner of toys, a staggering count of over 10,000 individual items according to the bonus features. That set is the most compelling thing about the film as it really does give the setting a sense of magic and huge scale that seems otherworldly. Unfortunately, he also relies on a fair amount of CGI trickery for much of the toy movement, and that CGI quality is decidedly sub-par, erasing some of the magic built up by the actual set. That leaves viewers with the central story about Magorium and Molly, a completely obvious plot that leads to an inevitable conclusion.

The Emporium is a fun place to visit and a fairly heartwarming tale, but it’s a minor work with little lasting appeal. Notably, it received a G rating and is definitely suitable for all audiences. The film is now available on DVD and includes standard bonus features about the production.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A Walk To Beautiful

I have to admit, I was leery of watching this documentary because of its seemingly depressing subject matter. We all know that life can be difficult in Africa, especially for women, so a film about devastating childbirth injuries in Ethiopia had about as much initial appeal to me as preparing tax statements. What’s surprising then is just how life-affirming and positive this film is, both for its subjects and its viewers.

The documentary focuses on five Ethiopian women who suffered through prolonged obstructed childbirth without medical assistance. As a result, their children were stillborn and they were left with seemingly permanent incontinence due to obstetric fistula, a hole in the birth canal wall between the bladder, rectum, or both. This incontinence and resulting stench make them social pariahs in their community, forcing them to live shunned existences on the fringes of society. Like I said, not exactly the cheeriest subject matter. However, the film is centered on their voyages of hope, not their initial despair.

In the city of Addis Ababa, a large hospital has been caring for fistula patients for decades. The hospital’s sole mission is to examine obstetric fistula cases and either surgically correct them or train the patients to use special exercises to improve their conditions. The hospital appears to be always at full capacity, a testament to the severity and prevalence of the issue. Sadly, the doctors relate that there are far more affected people throughout the country that may never be seen due to far-flung remote communities and lack of knowledge about the hospital’s existence. Even the patients who know about the hospital still have to find a way to reach it, meaning a days-long hike for most. As an example of the travel burden for patients, one doctor tells of a patient who begged for cash for a full six years before saving up enough for a bus fare to the hospital.

As described in the film, the patients are generally susceptible to fistula due to a combination of very early childbirth, undernourishment, as well as heavy labor as children that doesn’t give the girls a chance to physically develop enough to successfully deliver a child. After hauling heavy loads around all through their childhood, then sometimes marrying and conceiving before they even enter their teens, the girls are left with stunted bodies that can’t expand far enough to give birth. This results in prolonged labor lasting up to 10 days where the outcome is death for the baby and significant odds of fistula. The biggest contributor to the problem is lack of proper medical care, but due to their remote communities hours from the nearest road, let alone medical facility, they’re left with no other option than natural childbirth.

The primary subjects in the film share their home lives with the camera crew, exposing the dim hovels they’ve been relegated to as well as their virtual ghost-like presence in their communities. They each have heart-wrenching stories that differ to some extent but all lead to the hospital where they’re shocked to find so many others with the same problem. This fosters a sense of sisterhood, giving the patients interpersonal relationships that they’ve been lacking for years in many cases. The outcome of their cases also varies, but in all cases they’re far better off than they were prior to entering the hospital.

The film does a masterful job of exposing the issue, educating viewers, and sharing these intimate and ultimately uplifting stories that humanize this tragedy. It also shows the beauty of the countryside and its people through stunning photography, highlighting Ethiopia’s lush landscape and colorful, vibrant communities. Its subjects will touch even the chilliest of hearts, and their determined quests to return to normal lives give the film remarkable power, serving as an enthralling triumph of the human spirit.

A Walk to Beautiful is now playing in limited theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles. It will be broadcast on the PBS series Nova later this year. For more information, visit

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