Monday, June 23, 2008

Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs

The Planet Express crew is back in action in this second new direct-to-DVD feature. Following the events of the first film, Bender’s Big Score, the gang find themselves faced with a gigantic rip in the fabric of space near Earth, which isn’t so bad by itself until a gigantic tentacle monster starts coming through it. Surprisingly, the monster seems to be more interested in spreading good vibes than global destruction, offering an intergalactic nirvana to all willing to embrace him. There’s also a new romantic interest for Fry played by Brittany Murphy, as well as Bender’s complete infatuation with Calculon that leads to his entrance into a secret robotic society intent on wiping out all of humanity. Professor Farnsworth battles his old nemesis Doctor Wernstrom, and Kip and Amy engage in a bizarre marriage-like ceremony on Kip’s home planet.

Those are only some of the subplots, and with so much going on the film sometimes fails to juggle everything successfully, but still adds up to an entertaining final product. The best part is that it really feels like Futurama, a fine continuation of the original series rather than a pathetic cash-in attempt, thanks entirely to the return of the original cast and crew.

Like the first movie, this new disc is jam-packed with special features that include:

- A full-length commentary track by the production team and cast
-“Futurama: The Lost Adventure” – an episode-length adventure produced for the 2003 video game, also includes audio commentary by the production team and cast
-Meet Yivo! (the tentacle monster) featurette with David Cross
-A Brief History Of Deathball featurette
-Blooperama: the Futurama cast at work in the recording studio
-An overview of the 3D CGI models used in the film
-Deleted scenes and storyboards
-A sneak peek at the next Futurama movie, Bender’s Game

The “Lost Adventure” is easily the best treat for fans, in spite of its dated video game graphics. The creators produced more than an episode worth of in-game cinematics and used the original cast members and writers, so if you can get past the creaky CGI graphics you’ll find what amounts to a previously unknown episode ready for your viewing pleasure. The apparently crappy actual gameplay is almost completely removed from this feature, leaving just the amusing cinematics neatly edited together.

With two movies down and two yet to come, the Futurama team is still firing on all cylinders and looks to continue their successful run based on the early scenes from the next film. It’s hard to believe that the real end of the line might be fast approaching when the fourth film is released next year, but for now we have a great new adventure and the promise of more to come.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Joy Division

Arriving as a timely bookend to the recent DVD release of Control, this new documentary from filmmaker Grant Gee tracks the history of Joy Division, its enigmatic lead singer Ian Curtis, as well as their Manchester heartland. Featuring a gripping assortment of historical footage as well as new interviews with the surviving members and associates of the band, it’s absolutely essential viewing for longtime fans of the band as well as new curiosity seekers. Thanks to its expert craftsmanship and peripheral focus on the macro socioeconomic conditions of the Manchester community, even non-music fans will find much to enjoy here.

I’ll admit it: I own the original Joy Division albums on vinyl, but I never really got the band. After a few cursory spins in my youth, I shelved the albums in favor of the much more accessible New Order and never looked back…until now. There’s always been a mysterious aura (stigma?) about the band due to the untimely suicide of Curtis, as well as their haunting but impersonal album covers and scant video footage, marking them as an oddly faceless entity removed from the mass media explosion of the nascent music video era. Gee’s documentary succeeds by lifting the veil on the band, delivering in-depth information and footage previously unknown to all but the most devout of fans. In return, it grants cursory fans like me an entirely new appreciation for the band, helping me to finally “get it”.

Gee tracks the formation and rise of the band in their hardscrabble Manchester community in the mid-late ‘70s, a place portrayed as a blighted concrete wasteland of dashed economic dreams. He culls from the scant video footage of the band to deliver crucial and enlightening performances, at the same time offering a great comparison point to similar re-enacted scenes in Control. His best work is in the insightful new interviews he coaxed from the three surviving members of the band, along with the recently deceased Tony Wilson, the founder of their Factory Records label as well as an influential Manchester tv host of the time. Their combined recollections of Curtis and the band’s ascent paint a vivid picture of the band’s inner workings as well as the larger music scene and economic realities of the era. Other associates are interviewed too, including original band photographer and Control director Anton Corbijn, but the band members and Wilson deliver the best material.

The DVD also includes the band’s “Transmission” music video, as well as over 75 minutes of additional interviews omitted from the documentary. The extra footage isn’t essential, but it does offer an array of anecdotes that are worthwhile for viewers seeking added insight. While Control is more interested in Curtis, Joy Division pulls back the lens to capture the full band as well as their hometown, offering a layered and wholly enlightening look at this influential band and its era.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

The Restless

If you’ve watched a fair share of Asian films, particularly their unique brand of ancient fantasy epics, you’ll no doubt approach this one with certain expectations in mind, namely that it’s not going to make any sense, the acting will be subpar, and all you can hope for is some impressive imagery and stunts. This mindset worked perfectly for the similar previous Korean swords-n-stunts spectacle Shadowless Sword, an underwhelming and meandering effort, but The Restless rises above formula to deliver a fully realized fantasy world and a competent and moving story. Sure, the acting still isn’t anything special, but at least it’s believable and advances the plot.

The story follows a lone wolf hero as he finds himself in a utopian fantasy world called Midheaven, a refuge for souls waiting to be reincarnated. Shortly after his arrival, he spies a woman who looks like his deceased fiancée, bringing back his painful memories of her death. She’s now a fierce warrior angel tasked with protecting Midheaven from malicious demon spirits, and her memory of her mortal life has been wiped clean, putting a serious wrinkle in his attempts to reconnect with her. Will he risk his own existence to protect and assist a spirit who has no memory of him? Is there any question? It’s a slight story, but the director wrings a great deal of palpable emotion out of the setup without succumbing to excessive melodrama, and allows the rekindled relationship to build and reconcile admirably well.

The film excels with its eye-popping imagery, utilizing a potent array of effects and tons of extras to flesh out the world of Midheaven, making it an instantly believable yet completely fantastic setting that approaches the likes of Blade Runner in establishing a strong sense of place. Ancient buildings stretch up into the heavens and the mystical city branches out to the horizon, seemingly teeming with thousands of souls. Its strong visuals allowed the film to earn top honors for both effects and production design at the 2007 Daejong Film Festival, as well as Best Visual Effects at the 2007 Blue Dragon Awards in Korea.

There’s also a great deal of fancy stuntwork aided by wire-fu and CGI, allowing the actors to engage in some brutal and otherworldly swordplay and martial arts. Since most of the characters are spirits, the normal laws of physics don’t always apply, and when characters meet their end they don’t so much die as they do dissipate into impressive clouds of black ash. The swords practically sing with the intensity of the fights, and the actors completely sell their commitment to bone-crunching showdowns.

The Restless arrives on DVD on June 17th and includes a feature on the making of the film.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Burn Notice Season 1

Even though Burn Notice borrows heavily from numerous past concepts, it still manages to feel like a fresh new idea. Anchored by the adventures of a blacklisted spy helping average citizens in trouble, the show heaps on liberal amounts of influence by the likes of MacGyver, The Rockford Files, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and the Bourne movies. Its derivative nature doesn’t detract from its appeal, in fact it gives the show a classic feel that bodes well for graceful aging.

A spy named Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) is on a mission overseas when he discovers that he’s been the victim of a “burn notice” by his employers, effectively turning him into a shadowy pariah with no career, no access to his bank accounts, and no hope of appeal. He’s dumped off in Miami and left to fend for himself, leading him to set up shop as a private investigator/fixer who helps whatever people in need cross his path. Luckily, he has a support network in Miami, most notably sexy fellow ex-spy Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and retired company man Sam (Bruce Campbell), as well as his cantankerous mother (Sharon Gless) and occasionally his brother. Fiona is basically his equal in spy skills and also a former lover, setting them up as the dueling, canoodling Mr. and Mrs. Smith of the show as they work to reconcile their relationship. Sam offers the comic relief (exceptionally well thanks to Campbell), while mama Westen fluctuates between being a nagging, embarrassing parent and a sympathetic character yearning for a closer relationship with her emotionally distant son.

While the principal story is Michael’s search for answers about who burned him and why, each episode functions fully as a standalone story due to the “client of the week” nature of Michael’s adventures. This leaves the series wide open for new viewers to jump in at any time without fear of being completely shut out of a dense narrative, and also gives it a classic “Rockford Files” feel (unconventional P.I. helps a new client each episode and breaks rules and heads along the way). In addition to being a super spy, Michael is also a whiz at fashioning all manner of explosive devices and other concoctions out of whatever seemingly benign materials he finds at hand, giving a gigantic nod to “McGuyver” along the way. These retro touches and the show’s leisurely insistence on focusing on the case of the week rather than the big picture make the show seem a bit too pedestrian occasionally, but at the same time make it a fun and flighty effort that never seems to take itself too seriously. Picky viewers may wonder how a spy on the lam can spend so much time strolling around the same 1-mile stretch of Ocean Drive in South Beach without fear of retribution from past and new enemies, but it simply speaks to the carefree, breezy nature of the show.

Donovan’s winking performance as Michael is heavy on charm, making him an instantly appealing hero. Anwar isn’t quite as successful in finding her footing, often coming across as a mature woman trying way too hard to cling on to her long-departed adolescence, but most of the time she serves as a suitable counterpart to Donovan. The show’s surprisingly strong supporting players consistently deliver off the bench, with Campbell especially making the most out of his buddy role.

The Season 1 box set contains all 11 episodes (number 11 is a two-parter) as well as a nice selection of bonus features including a peek at the original audition footage of both Donovan and Anwar, and innovative, scene-specific audio commentary for each episode by the entire principal cast and creator Matt Nix. The 4-disc DVD box set is available on June 17th.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Invisible Target

As clearly evidenced by the cover photo of this new DVD, Invisible Target is an action movie starring a pouty young group of Hong Kong actors who get by more on their looks than their dramatic or action skills. Happily, they’re in the hands of a director who has shown considerable talent with this concept in the past, most notably Gen-X Cops and its inferior sequel, Gen-Y Cops. Director Benny Chan is also coming off fairly strong recent showings with the Jackie Chan vehicles New Police Story and Robin-b-Hood where he honed his high-gloss approach to action, utilizing superior production design and camerawork to deliver product approaching Hollywood studio quality. Although the character relationships and motivations in his new film are a bit muddled, there’s no denying that Invisible Target is delightful escapism and a great reminder of just how much fun Hong Kong action movies can be.

Chan’s star is heartthrob Nicholas Tse, a longtime collaborator dating back to Gen-X Cops (1999) but still a young gun under 30. Although his performance here doesn’t surpass his great turn in Chan’s New Police Story, he gets the glowering, disaffected hero part nailed down and comes off something like a young Johnny Depp. He’s ably abetted by fellow pretty boy Shawn Yue as his partner in crime prevention as they team up to bring down a gang of seven dangerous crooks. Also along for the ride is Jackie Chan’s son, Jaycee Chan, exhibiting no charisma or cool as a dutiful patrolman. They each get their turn to perform some perilous and impressive stuntwork, with Tse and Chan making the best use of their action screen time although never approaching the level of modern masters such as Tony Jaa or past kings like Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

As Hong Kong actioners go, this one is high on production quality but low on coherent story, even for its genre. Your best bet is to turn off your brain completely and just enjoy the numerous action scenes. There’s no doubt how this game of cops and robbers will turn out, but plenty of enjoyment to be had along the way. It’s another strong showing for Benny Chan and a must-see for fans of mindless Hong Kong action fare.

The DVD is a surprisingly expansive 2 disc release that contains deleted/extended scenes and numerous features on the film’s production as well as its stars.

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