Thursday, August 28, 2008

My Sassy Girl

If you’re reading this, you’re probably either a) an Elisha Cuthbert fan or b) a fan of the original Korean version of this movie. Either way, you’re bound to be at least a little disappointed with this film. While it’s a largely faithful remake, it can’t quite overcome some amateur production and its own quirky touches.

For the uninitiated, the original My Sassy Girl was a major box-office smash in Korea, marrying screwball comedy with an unexpectedly poignant and romantic conclusion. The property began as a series of true stories posted on the Web that were later compiled into a best-selling book, and also led to incarnations as a manhwa series and a new Japanese TV series broadcast this year. It’s sort of like The Ring of romantic comedy, branching out in various new forms and countries while keeping the core concept the same. Unfortunately, that concept doesn’t translate quite so well on these shores.

The principal theme is the budding relationship between a stable, somewhat nerdy guy (Jesse Bradford) and a wild, crazy, and abusive girl (Cuthbert). Their first encounter is when the sassy and completely wasted girl passes out in public, leading the chivalrous guy to rescue and look after her. In the original film, this act wasn’t quite so chivalrous as the guy ended up taking her to the equivalent of a love hotel where he had to talk himself down from violating her. Clearly, this wouldn’t fly here in a romantic comedy, so in the US version, our gallant hero takes the girl back to his apartment that he shares with another present roommate, thus negating any possibility of hanky panky. Still not all that appealing in the grand scheme of first dates, but at least redeemable.

After that first encounter, the new film and the original become more and more similar until they’re almost carbon copies by the back half. Guy can’t stop thinking about the girl, girl continues to abuse guy verbally, physically, mentally, basically completely taking over his structured life while offering next to nothing in return. Like the original, there’s an ill-advised date at an abandoned theme park that leads to a showdown with a maniacal armed man. Frankly, I hated this sequence in the original and found it completely unbelievable in this version as well. Even more so than the original, it’s really inconceivable that this stable, well-balanced guy would continue to allow the unhinged and non-committal girl to rule his life no matter how cute she is. However, fate plays a strong role in their relationship and by the final reel it becomes clear that no amount of torture by her would have derailed their shot at love.

As the title character, Cuthbert charms for the most part, although she’s far better as the later tragic romantic character than the initial spitfire. Surprisingly, Jesse Bradford is the real star here, stealing the film with his solid portrayal of the stable boyfriend with a heart of gold and the perseverance of a saint.

Now about those flaws. In many of the initial scenes, the blocking is so poor and odd that it pulled me right out of the movie, forcing me to wonder more about who the amateur DP was than about how the film translated from the original. Also, the production team apparently wanted to add their own cutesy, Amelie flourishes to the film, including unbearable scenes of Cuthbert mugging for the camera, montages, and trick photography/variable speeds to tell us that this isn’t just another romantic comedy. The main character is unappealing enough without the added baggage, so the film teeters on total collapse until its borrowed original plot begins to work its magic. Actually, the original also had its own glaring flaws, and it’s only the grand reveal of the true cause of the girl’s sassiness that allows both this film and the original to successfully reach their final stages as completely touching romance. It’s a long and frequently unbelievable road to get there, but viewers who hang in ‘til the end of this new version will find a satisfying conclusion.

My Sassy Girl is now available on DVD.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?

Morgan Spurlock’s brand of documentary is a bit different from the norm, principally because he sets himself up as the main attraction rather than just a passive reporter. That approach was clearly a necessity in his star-making exploration of fast food culture, Super Size Me and even works in the episodes of his documentary series 30 Days that feature him, but acts as a distraction in his latest feature length documentary. We get it: he’s deeply involved in the creative process of his films, but at some point he needs to take a step back and focus clearly on the subject at hand rather than his own profile. His most egregious sidestep in this film is the inclusion of a “subplot” involving the progression of his mate’s pregnancy back home while he’s out travelling the globe. While it seems to be intended to drive home the freedom and luxury we enjoy as well as fear about what we’re leaving the next generation, it mostly comes off as self-indulgent and entirely unnecessary.

Spurlock’s enticing hook here is his plan to do what the massive American military-industrial complex can’t accomplish: find Osama bin Laden. As it turns out, this is merely a subterfuge to his real objective, namely an exploration of the views of actual Middle East folks on the ongoing Middle East conflicts and their perception of the US. As such, our intrepid man on the street shows us footage of himself undergoing rigorous survival training and growing out his beard (masking his trademark mustache) to allow him to survive in wild and wooly foreign destinations that include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In each country, he engages politicos as well as common citizens in discussions as free-wheeling as possible, which usually turn out to be not so much. In one particularly painful interview, he’s allowed to talk to two star students in their classroom while officials and their teacher carefully monitor every word and expression, ultimately yielding no useful information other than enforcing how completely oppressed their rights are in regards to freedom of speech.

With such a distrustful and cautious group of subjects in nearly every region he visits, Spurlock is frequently left spinning his wheels looking for any viable candidate willing and able to engage him in meaningful dialogue. As such, he’s unable to wring much enlightenment or excitement out of the proceedings, telling us precious little we didn’t already know. Basically, the Middle East countries hate our government but generally think the US people are ok, nobody knows where Osama is but signs point to Pakistan, there’s no solution to the ongoing conflicts, and those people are really, really oppressed.

The DVD release includes a wealth of deleted scenes that include an alternate ending, an animated history of Afghanistan, and further interviews that are generally more insightful than any included in the main film, particularly one with an outspoken woman in Saudi Arabia. Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? is now available on DVD. For more information, visit

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Twenty-Four Eyes: Criterion Collection

Twenty-Four Eyes uses the story of a rural schoolteacher and her first class of students as a microcosm of the dramatic changes impacting Japan during the tumultuous decades between the late 1920s to the late 1940s. While little known in the US, the film is reportedly and deservedly a beloved classic in its native Japan. Thanks to this sparkling new Criterion DVD release, US audiences finally have the opportunity to discover this hidden gem.

Hisako Oishi (Hideko Takamine) is a young schoolteacher assigned to a class of 12 young students (or “twenty-four eyes”) on a small, remote Japanese island. She quickly gains the affectionate nickname Miss Pebble from her students, and they form a bond that transcends her unfortunate early separation from them. As the years pass, the students and Miss Pebble stay in touch and even have another class together later in their lives. Miss Pebble is clearly a positive influence in their lives, inspiring them to stay in school and pursue their dreams. However, the changes impacting Japan inevitably reach the students and teacher as well.

As the nation gears up and eventually goes to war, each of the boys longs to become a soldier, while the girls are faced with choosing between continuing their studies or helping their families at home or at work. Miss Pebble has her own personal changes, as she settles down with a husband and raises children of her own. The war wreaks havoc on all of them, and as they begin to emerge from its aftermath Miss Pebble finds herself returning to the site of her first class to teach a new generation, in some cases the offspring of her favorite class of students.

At 2 ½ hours long, this masterful film actually feels short. Its rich evocation of a time long gone, of a rural pre-war Japan with its requisite architecture, vehicles, and largely unpopulated landscapes, makes for an eye-opening time capsule waiting to envelop viewers in its luxurious black and white photography. As written and directed by Keisuke Kinoshita (based on the original novel by Sakae Tsuboi), the film takes the time to methodically present seemingly insignificant events, such as the students’ foolish decision to walk to Miss Pebble’s house, or the incorporation of performances of traditional songs, but barely skims the surface of each of the characters. In spite of this lack of focus on character development, Kinoshita nails the primary theme of the monumental changes to Japan as reflected through the lives of these individuals by showing the impact on their day-to-day lives. Just seeing the kids and teacher interacting in their early days as compared to their relationship in later years drives home the pain and upheaval suffered by the Japanese people during this era. We don’t need a close affiliation to the characters to capture the full impact of scenes such as a simple visit to the local cemetery late in the film.

As expected from a Criterion release, the DVD transfer is crisp, clean, and well-subtitled, clearly making this the definitive film experience for all Western viewers. The DVD sports a new, restored high-def digital transfer and new and improved English subs, as well as a new video interview with a Japanese cinema historian about the film and its director. The DVD booklet includes an essay by film scholar Audie Bock as well as an excerpt from a 1955 interview with Kinoshita. These features and upgrades, as well as the exceptional source material, make this a DVD that should be bought and treasured rather than rented.

Twenty-Four Eyes is now available on DVD. For more information, visit

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Little Einsteins: Flight of the Instrument Fairies

Little Einsteins airs on the Disney Channel and has a fairly deep marketing presence with assorted DVDs and toys readily available. While it’s not the most entertaining of kids shows, it does live up to its Einstein label with some surprisingly educational subject matter. Each episode features the four star characters, a rainbow coalition of little tykes who set out on adventures around the world in their sentient Pat Pat Rocket, a magical vehicle that can instantly transform into any manner of vehicle as needed depending on their situation. Like Dora the Explorer or Super Why, the characters frequently address the viewers, prompting interaction as they try to solve puzzles and also prompting physical activity as they extol their future couch potato audience to “pat pat pat” their legs faster and faster to help the rocket take off, among other activities.

If you haven’t seen the show before, it’s got well above average production values. The main characters appear to be Flash-animated and usually act out their adventures against real photographic backgrounds. The other characters and animals they interact with vary in appearance, ranging between 3-D CGI models, other Flash animation, and manipulated photos (similar to Wonder Pets). Basically, it’s easy on the eyes. The voice cast is solid as well. The soundtrack is where it begins to get educational.

The driving mission of the show seems to be exposing young children to classic art and music. And by classic, I don’t mean the Beatles. They primarily feature classical music and artists who have been dead for centuries, although Andy Warhol surprisingly gets some shine in one of the episodes on this disc. Frankly, it’s pretty educational for adults too, as you’ll probably recognize most of the art and music but may not be able to identify the creators.

The show doesn’t stop at just introducing the music, it also goes into detail on the specific orchestral instruments used in its creation and even teaches kids about brainy stuff like the names of various tempos. Quick, who can tell me the difference between adagio, presto, allegro, and moderato? After watching this, I think I can. They even show the actual sheet music for the featured work of each episode and highlight the notes as played, so viewers are encouraged to learn about how to read sheet music.

It’s not all just music and art, as the episodes also delve into education about wide-ranging subjects such as animals, science, and geography. Each episode sends the gang off on a quest where they learn about these topics along the way. However, the star educational subject matter is clearly the artist and composer of the day. Adventures are secondary to the learning exercises encountered en route and generally aren’t all that interesting anyway, so there’s really no point reviewing the different stories presented on this disc. Instead, here are the artists and composers highlighted in the four half-hour episodes: Ancient Roman mosaics & Mendelssohn, Leonardo da Vinci & Charles Francois Gounod, Andy Warhol & Johann Strauss, Alexej von Jawlensky & Giuseppe Verdi.

The DVD reportedly includes a brand-new episode (the title episode) that hasn’t been shown on Disney Channel yet, so rabid fans have a special treat. Aside from that, the only real bonus feature is an interactive game called Music Mix-Up that reinforces the works of the composers featured on the disc while letting viewers play along. The game features two varying difficulty levels, a nice touch for developmental differences of their target viewers. Also, the DVD features French, Spanish, and English audio and subs, so any parents looking to expose the kids to some foreign language learning have great options here.

Little Einsteins: Flight of the Instrument Fairies is now available on DVD. For more information, visit

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Wild China

Arriving just in time for the start of the Beijing Olympics, this fascinating new DVD collection dives deep into the heart of China, delivering staggering footage of sights rarely seen by Western eyes. This six-episode series keeps the focus firmly on the “Wild” of its title, devoting the majority of its time to China’s natural wonders and wildlife. For viewers familiar with BBC’s recent blockbuster Planet Earth production, this fellow BBC series follows an extremely similar format and theme, ultimately feeling like it could carry the alternate title “Planet China”. It’s essential viewing for nature show fans and a vibrant introduction for any viewers interested in learning more about this expansive country.

From the birds who have been harnessed to fish for their human owners (pictured on the cover) to the rare Himalayan snow leopard (rarely seen below 15,000 feet), the series provides enthralling scenes of little-known animals in their natural habitats. Also, it highlights the habitats of those creatures, ranging from the deserts to the jungles, and from the highest peaks to the impossibly vast and desolate Mongolian steppes.

Each episode is nearly an hour long and has its own specific title, so for instance one episode is devoted to Tibet. Rather than delve into any of the continuing unrest there or highlight the life of the Dalai Lama, the producers hone in on Tibet’s animals and majestic vistas, sharing the region’s stunning beauty with the masses.

While there are occasional forays into inhabited areas, this is not in any way a study of China’s current explosive socioeconomic change or the impact of that change on nature. In fact, the producers show some conservation efforts by the populace in nearly every episode, taking pains to portray the harmony the Chinese people strive to reach with nature. It’s a refreshing perspective in direct opposition to the standard portrayal of a Chinese people completely absorbed with rapid development at any cost to the environment. While these conservation efforts are clearly more prevalent in rural areas, it’s still enlightening to find this rare positive outlook.

Like Planet Earth, the production quality here is top-notch, with hi-tech, painstaking camera work that delivers wholly unique hi-def footage. The only thing that really separates it from the BBC’s other most popular nature series is the absence of narrator and occasional host David Attenborough, but the addition of veteran actor Bernard Hill (Titanic, Lord of the Rings) for this production proves to be a solid choice.

The DVD box set contains all six episodes on two discs. The bonus features are slim, with just a featurette on the making of one of the episodes and the inclusion of traditional Mandarin subtitles in addition to English subs. Wild China is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Witchblade: The Complete Series

I’m a Witchblade comic book fan. Not just a casual reader, oh no. I’ve literally been on board since day one, collecting and reading each and every issue upon release, as well as most of its crossovers with other titles. I was devastated when original artist Michael Turner passed away recently. I occasionally find myself wondering what original writer Christina Z is up to nowadays. Yup, I'm a fan. Sure, it’s a guilty pleasure, one that’s always been certain to draw jeers from even the most mundane of DC/Marvel superhero fans, but something has kept me coming back every month for well over a decade now. That something is Sara Pezzini.

A gorgeous, tough-as-nails NYPD homicide detective, Pezzini finds herself chosen to be the bearer of a mystical artifact that grants her unimaginable powers. However, the Witchblade shares an uneasy alliance with Pezzini, frequently acting on its own accord and stymieing her continued attempts to control its power. No, it doesn’t have conversations with her or step out on its own when she’s not around, it’s more like a mood ring that frequently has its own moods. While the Witchblade is a fascinating instrument, Pezzini is the star and a wholly interesting character on her own merits. It’s this character strength that allowed for a believable and satisfying move to a TV series format that relied much more on the drama than the special effects.

In the Witchblade TV series, gorgeous, tough-as-nails Yancy Butler fully embodied the Pezzini role, passing for a wholly believable detective while concurrently becoming a shaky neophyte learning the extent of the Witchblade’s powers. Seemingly due to budget concerns, the show tended to focus on the crime procedural aspects of Pezzini’s life rather than the Witchblade’s powers, but a fair balance was struck between the two. Also, after a fairly faithful pilot, the show largely took its own path rather than following the comic book’s blueprint, borrowing the major characters but developing its own villains and stories. As such, some devout fans of the book may cry foul, but when viewed as a series “inspired by” the source rather than a slavish translation, it’s clear that it holds up well on its own.

My fandom didn’t stretch to this series during its broadcast run, primarily because of my knowledge that it took liberties with the source and my fear that it was a cheap, ill-conceived knockoff. The arrival of the DVDs finally allowed me to catch up on what I missed, and I found a riveting and in-depth look at Sara Pezzini in a little different context than expected, but a completely enjoyable one nonetheless. Even over five years after going off the air, the show holds up admirably well and offers its own self-contained little universe that requires no previous knowledge of the comic book, just a thirst for satisfying crime drama with a healthy dose of supernatural shenanigans. In the end, it all comes down to Sara Pezzini, and Butler’s masterful interpretation of the complex character makes the series a rewarding viewing experience.

The new DVD box set collects all 24 original episodes (the original TV movie plus seasons 1 and 2) in a deluxe 7-disc edition with a decent assortment of bonus materials including the original casting sessions, a couple of featurettes, and “Gabriel’s Philosophical Insights” on a handful of episodes. Regrettably, it appears that they didn’t pony up for the music rights to songs originally used during its broadcast run, but the “all new soundtrack selected by the executive producer” fills the gaps nicely.

Witchblade: The Complete Series is now available. For more information, visit

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