Saturday, September 20, 2008

Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! A Tale of Tails

Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! takes place in a candy-colored land where almost everything including the characters is made out of rounded-off right angles, giving it a highly distinctive and fresh look. Its title character is an adorably squat yellow critter with an abnormally long tail used to great effect to punctuate his speech, convey his mood, and bounce around town like a modern-day Tigger. The “Wow” comes from his most common expression, one that never annoys thanks to sparing use. His best friends are a handyman pink rabbit named Widget and a brainy little purple creature named Wendell.

This debut selection of episodes released on DVD is consistently entertaining and surprisingly educational, with a strong emphasis placed on teaching proper manners and the consequences of poor actions. It’s a sweet-hearted show with no violence and a relatively gentle pace in spite of its occasionally manic nature. In brief, it’s feel-good fun for the whole family, with visual flair and a cheery nature that make it completely unobjectionable for many repeat viewings.

Each half-hour episode contains two shorts. The new DVD contains a total of four episodes. One of them is labeled as a bonus episode, but it plays in sequence immediately after the others so viewers don’t have to navigate anywhere else to find it. Episode summaries as follows:

A Tale of Tails - Wubbzy can’t find any kids willing to play kickety-kick ball with him because of his freakishly long tail, so he asks his pal Widget to fix it, but eventually has to use it to help Wendell dismantle a malfunctioning robot chicken.

Special Delivery - Wubbzy receives a Tooty-Toot Turbo Train intended for Walden and can’t resist opening it, setting off a chain of misadventures when the speedy engine gets away.

Widget’s Wild Ride - Wubbzy asks Widget to fix up a car for a race, but Widget can’t resist obsessively tuning and re-tuning it until it barely resembles a car.

Attack of the 50-Foot Fleegle - Wubbzy gets a tiny new pet but doesn’t pay attention to how to take care of it, leading to disastrous results.

Come Spy With Me - When Walden won’t tell them what he’s doing, Wubbzy and Widget pretend to be spies to follow him, ruining the surprise he was planning for them.

Wubbzy Tells a Whopper - Wubbzy tries to convince his friends of the existence of a scary monster in town, a classic “boy who cried wolf” tale that ends as expected.

Mt. Fizzy Pop - The gang ventures to the top of Wuzzleburg’s local mountain where their experiment results in some delicious results for the townfolk.

Puddle Muddle - a focus on Wubbzy’s individuality, as he’s well-known for his interesting fashion sense and never afraid to try new things. The episode ends with this disc’s most catchy song, “Kooky is Cool”.

Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! A Tale of Tails is available on DVD on September 23rd. In addition to the episodes, it includes one of the songs recut as a music video, a ring toss game, and some handy printable art for coloring fun, connect the dots, colored decorations, and a customizable invitation. Its DVD case is also housed in an eye-catching lenticular slipcase, providing some external eye candy to match the visual delights inside. For more information, visit

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Snow Angels

Snow Angels drifts along aimlessly for its first hour, seemingly content to follow the daily lives of small-town losers without revealing anything in the way of a meaningful plot. It’s not until a shocking event at the midpoint that the film takes on any kind of substance, at which point it begins to emulate the similarly themed The Sweet Hereafter. That’s lofty company to keep, but the film’s delay in getting to that pivotal moment ultimately dooms it to fall far short.

Kate Beckinsale stars as a young mother separated from her loser husband played by Sam Rockwell. Their characters have a daughter together, but really seem to have nothing else in common. In fact, in the absence of any plot during the protracted introductory hour, viewers will likely spend the time wondering how Rockwell’s lowlife character could have ever landed the highly attractive Beckinsale. It’s a real stretch to accept Beckinsale as a struggling small-town waitress in spite of her best efforts to fit in with the locals.

There’s also a worthless subplot involving a high school boy (Michael Angarano) who later plays an important but momentary part in the principal plot device. Writer/director David Gordon Green attempts to integrate him with a backstory involving childhood babysitting by Beckinsale as well as a co-worker gig at her restaurant, but ultimately his tale seems like a needless accessory. To his sole credit, the boy does strike up a romance with a fellow student, perhaps giving the film its only optimistic note.

As the community rallies together to grieve their common loss and its star characters begin to completely unravel, the film finally becomes a moving and highly engaging work. Its closing 45 minutes are a sobering examination of the effects of tragedy on a community where everyone knows everyone else’s business, intricately portraying the disastrous ripples caused by one brief event. It’s during this time that Beckinsale and Rockwell are both permitted to shine, with Rockwell’s character especially going through his own intriguing version of the stages of grief. It’s regrettable that the film takes so long to get good, and there’s certainly no upbeat subject matter here, but viewers willing to slog through the overlong introduction will eventually be rewarded with a memorable and moving story.

Snow Angels is now available on DVD. It contains no bonus features, just the film.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Book 3 Collection

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the finest series to ever grace TV. Not just a great Nickelodeon show, or a great kids show; it deserves a place in the hallowed halls of “greatest of all time”. And no, I’m not 12. With a complex, intricately layered and clearly defined story arc stretching over three full seasons, to the masterfully created and extensively explored world setting, to its memorable and constantly evolving characters, to a perfect blend of writing incorporating healthy doses of humor, drama, action, and romance, the show is a powerhouse on all fronts and essential entertainment for discerning viewers of all ages. The primary culprit for keeping the show off the radar of most mainstream adult viewers is its Nickelodeon home, but with this new DVD box set release of the final season there’s no longer any excuse to overlook this new classic.

In an Asian-influenced world segregated into four nations, the evil Fire Nation has exerted its dominance over the Air, Water, and Earth Nations to such an extent that the Air Nation is nearly decimated and the Water and Earth Nations are increasingly falling under Fire Nation rule. This imbalance between the nations has traditionally been patrolled by the Avatar, an almighty warrior able to wield the powers of all four elements. Similar to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when one Avatar dies, another chosen mortal is called to take his place, learning the ropes from masters of each element as well as the spirits of previous Avatars. Unfortunately, the world hasn’t seen an Avatar in a century, during which time the Fire Nation has been allowed to rise unchecked.

In season one, the long-missing Avatar reappeared, but he wasn’t exactly an almighty warrior. Instead, he was a kid named Aang who had only partially completed his training when he was trapped in ice until he was discovered by a couple of young adults from the Water Tribe. They became friends and joined Aang’s quest around the world to learn how to bend the other elements to his will, making new friends and enemies along the way while also avoiding Zuko, a particularly persistent pursuer from the Fire Nation.

By season three, Aang has nearly completed his training except for Fire bending, which is proving to be a difficult task since all Fire benders are the enemies of the rest of the free world. Zuko, the banished prince of the Fire Nation, has grown to see the error of his father’s ways and ultimately offers himself up as Aang’s fire sensei, helping Aang to complete his training and prepare for his final battle against Zuko’s father for control of the world. The series leads up to a gripping 4-episode climax that resolves nearly all dangling plotlines and sends the series out on a completely satisfying close. There’s so much that can’t be captured in a capsulated series summary, but suffice it to say that these are all characters you will care about and will delight at their transformation throughout the series.

The season 3 DVD box set collection includes all 21 episodes as well as an exclusive bonus disc chock-full of special features:

- An exclusive four-part audio commentary by the creators for the final Sozin’s Comet story arc
- A feature on the women of the show
- A look at the pencil test animation for the finale
- Footage from San Diego Comic-Con (where they gave all panel attendees great t-shirts!)

The only demerit for this entire collection is the inclusion of a sticker prominently displayed on the front shrink wrap reminding us that The Last Airbender is coming to theaters in Summer 2010, the first in a planned trilogy of live-action movies. (unrelated commentary alert) While this could have been the key to launching the property into the public consciousness, the studio unfortunately lined up hack writer/director M. Night Shymalan to helm it, dooming the project to imminent failure. It also lost its Avatar name due to James Cameron’s forthcoming unrelated project of the same name, which will probably work out well in the long run since it will further separate the feature film abomination from the superb animated series (end commentary). Luckily, the shrink wrap can be hastily removed, allowing viewers to savor the delicious final act of this epic and masterful series.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Book 3 Collection is now available on DVD. Buy it!

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My Friends Tigger & Pooh: Hundred Acre Wood Haunt

If you’re looking for a Halloween-themed Pooh DVD, keep looking. However, if you’re just looking for the latest collection of episodes from Disney Channel’s My Friends Tigger & Pooh show, you’ve come to the right place. Admittedly, the front cover art of this DVD collection is completely misleading and seems like an ill-conceived holiday money grab as it clearly indicates viewers will be treated to Halloween shows if not an entirely new movie (like the properly labeled first release in the series, Super Sleuth Christmas Movie). Once you get past the cover, you’ll either be enchanted by the show’s superb production qualities or dismayed by its break from tradition.

The newest Pooh TV series is also the most dramatic departure from the classic formula, and not just because it gives Tigger star billing. Instead of Christopher Robin, the Hundred Acre Wood gang are now usually teamed up with a perky young girl named Darby and her even perkier non-speaking puppy named Buster. Aside from the core group of characters, Lumpy from the Heffalump movies is an occasional but little-used presence, while Kanga is barely mentioned and Owl and Gopher seem to have vanished completely. Even the concept has been updated, with Tigger, Pooh and Darby forming a Super Sleuth club that dons ridiculous costumes and sets out on tame investigations in most episodes. It’s almost like the creators tried to shoehorn in a Scooby Doo concept in an effort to update the timeless quality of the property, but Darby and Buster really add nothing to the series other than annoyingly reminding parents that this is not our Pooh anymore. While the Disney Channel’s previous Pooh series, The Book of Pooh, played it fairly straight with the framework established by Disney’s original cartoons, the new series is clearly aimed at shaking up the formula to no apparent benefit.

On the upside, the show’s completely CGI production looks fantastic and features the returning talents of longtime Pooh and Tigger voice actor Jim Cummings. The 2D characters have been lovingly translated into exceptional 3D CG character models and the Hundred Acre Wood is appropriately vast and leafy.

Each half-hour episode is split into two easily digestible shorts, and the new DVD contains three full episodes as follows:

"Super Size Darby" / "Piglet's Lightning Frightening" – Darby gets doused with some of Rabbit’s plant growth formula and has to deal with the pluses and minuses of her giant size. Piglet learns about counting the time between lightning and thunder to help calm himself down during scary storms.

"Eeyore's Trip To The Moon" / "The Incredible Shrinking Roo" – Eeyore wants to travel to the moon so the Super Sleuths put together a makeshift rocket and "blast off" to fill in its missing piece. Roo can't figure out why he's shrinking instead of growing. Hint: might be a good idea to avoid tracking your height on a growing sunflower stem. This story's premise is so idiotic that it's painful to watch them try to figure out what's happening.

"Eeyore's Home Sweet Home"/"Rabbit's Prized Pumpkin" - Eeyore's home falls down so the Sleuths present him with alternatives, none of which seem to fit him. Pretty sure this is a direct ripoff of a classic Pooh story. Rabbit grows a gigantic pumpkin and asks the Sleuths to help him protect it.

As evidenced by these stories, this series has been dumbed down, which is remarkable considering how dim these characters have always been. The real culprit is Darby, as she's annoyingly portrayed as being on an equal mental wavelength with the rest of the characters. Where Christopher Robin was always able to inject some logic and realistic solutions, Darby is content to float along with the simple-minded ideas originated by the animal characters. As such, it's not a very educational show, leaving it as delightful eye candy with negligible substance.

Paradoxically, the DVD actually does contain one Halloween-themed episode: a bonus feature of fellow Disney Channel show Handy Manny. It also includes a brief game as well as the requisite plethora of Disney previews. Hundred Acre Wood Haunt is now available on DVD.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008


Erik and Phillip are lifelong friends with similar aspirations to become published writers. As the film opens, they both nervously mail off their individual manuscripts in the hopes of landing success on their first attempt. Unfortunately, only one of them gets an offer, which leads to a shift in the dynamic between them as well as many other changes. What starts out as a simple act expands into an enlightening rumination on the nature of friendship, success, and romance.

Rather than elevating him to a new level, Phillip’s immediate literary triumph and public acclaim, coupled with an obsessive relationship with a girl named Kari, lead him into a downward spiral of depression and removal from society. Within six months of his book’s publication, he’s been institutionalized and is just beginning to take his first tenuous steps back toward a normal existence. He also tries to reconnect with Kari, going so far as taking her to Paris to completely re-enact their initial courtship, right down to restaging previous photographs. In spite of his best intentions, it’s clear that he’s still deeply disturbed and in danger of completely burning out at any time.

Erik’s initial failure also results in some depression, although he’s seemingly better equipped to deal with it as he continues functioning well in public. He has doubts about his own talents as a writer, fearing that he’ll always live in the shadow of his esteemed friend. However, he continues plugging away and eventually lands his own publishing deal while also capturing the attention of a legendary and reclusive writer who acts as a role model for the boys. He’s presented as the stable and insightful friend, the tortoise in the race to a meaningful lifetime career, and ultimately his story feels like the heart of the film in spite of his absence from the cover art.

Surprisingly, this little gem comes from Norway, not a very frequent presence on the global film map but an entirely welcome one with this release. The film does an admirable job of portraying Erik and Phillip’s youthful exuberance and contrasting it with the harsh realities they encounter as they progress through the early stages of adulthood. Rather than come off as depressing, it’s entirely engaging to watch them struggle with the trials of adult life.

The film is structured in such a way that viewers are pulled into an easy familiarity with the characters, most notably through the use of frequent narrator asides including flashbacks and rapid-fire editing that highlight seemingly meaningless tidbits in their lives such as their youthful appreciation of a band or the previously mentioned veteran writer. It looks very polished, escaping the low-budget foreign film stigma with superb cinematography, camera work, and editing. The actors, while not the most memorable, are all well-suited for their roles and contribute solid performances. Of course the technical expertise would be all for naught if the plot was lacking, but gladly this is an across-the-board success.

Just to highlight the film’s solid cred, it’s notable that it won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay at Norway’s national film awards. It was also an official selection of both the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals. Even Scott Rudin, the reigning US champion of challenging films, is onboard as exec producer. With all this support plus a Snob nod, it’s clear that you can’t go wrong if you give this one a chance.

Reprise is now available on DVD. It includes a healthy assortment of bonus features such as casting sessions and deleted scenes.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Sasha - Invol2ver

Much more than just a DJ mix CD, Sasha’s new Global Underground release is a deconstruction and reimagining of the selected tracks. Utilizing Ableton Live software, additional electronic hardware, as well as a production team that included the Spooky duo of Charles May and Duncan Forbes among others, Invol2ver sounds like a polished and original studio album instead of a mix CD. As Sasha explains it, “In every way, Invol2ver is closer to a production album than anything else. We were like kids in a toy shop basically, hunting out as many old mixing decks, drum machines and guitar pedals that we could find on eBay”. While this reliance on old equipment reportedly gave the album some unpredictable and gritty results, it’s all layered together so flawlessly that it only adds more character to an already thrilling effort.

It’s been over four years since the first Involver, and beginning around that time Sasha completely revised his mixing process, abandoning the classic vinyl for Ableton Live software that allows him to make every set unique, blending and extending specific elements of songs into each other rather than just beat matching. While his early work in this medium had some hiccups, seeming far too focused on manipulating the gear rather than moving bodies on the dance floor, it’s abundantly clear with this release that he’s fully mastered the technology and risen far above what was ever possible for DJs in the past.

He’s also kept up his globetrotting superstar DJ schedule, circling the globe solo as well as with longtime cohort John Digweed. He’s been a legend for a generation now, and rather than rest on his laurels he’s very much at the peak of his powers this year. From an auspicious outing with Digweed to start the year in LA, through triumphant summer returns to legendary venues such as Ibiza and Creamfields, and now with this massive CD release, he’s well on his way to employee of the year status even after two decades in the game.

The tracks as selected by Sasha include a few recognizable artist names, most notably Thom Yorke and Ladytron, but ultimately this mix is far more about the sum rather than its parts. The CD oozes class and refinement, chugging along in a solidly progressive house vein like a finely tuned and expensive timepiece. It’s clear from the onset that a master is at work, as he’s confident enough to let the mix build through an extended intro that withholds the bass for a few minutes before dropping in all its glory. He also avoids any cheap peaks, relying on his stellar track selection and intricate engineering to carry the mix through to its final, most clearly defined riser, Sometimes I Realise by Engineers. Equally at home in the club or iPod, Invol2ver is an instant classic destined to age exceptionally well.

Invol2ver is available via digital download worldwide today and is also available on CD in both a standard version and a limited edition that includes a second CD of Sasha remix exclusives. For more information, visit

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Blue Elephant

The Blue Elephant succeeds as a showcase for the animation techniques of its original Thai animation studio but fails to connect as a meaningful motion picture. It’s perfectly pretty to look at, but there’s just not much substance or cohesiveness going on under its trunk. At its best, it announces to the world that Thailand has some significant CG animation talent, while at its worst it exposes the short shrift given to plot and character development. It’s also somewhat derivative of Disney animated hits such as Dumbo, The Lion King, and even a touch of Mulan, which isn’t necessarily a detraction but definitely doesn’t win it any points for originality.

The film focuses on the adventures of a young elephant named Khan as he learns the ways of the world, longs to meet his absent warrior father, and eventually befriends the human prince of his land. His main quest leads him to attempt to locate his father, a mighty warrior for the human army of Siam whose last known whereabouts placed him on the frontlines of an epic war against Burma. Khan eventually becomes the prince’s main steed, placing him firmly in the military path chosen by his father. There are subplots about his budding romance with a female elephant and his separation from and reunion with his mother, but ultimately the story follows Khan’s quest for and emulation of his father.

As a kids movie, the later portion is surprisingly barbaric, exposing what appears to be a centuries-old rift between Siam/Thailand and neighboring Burma. The human and elephant armies go to war in a massive showcase that ends with Khan’s showdown against a much larger and devilish opponent. That’s not to say the scenes are particularly gruesome or frightening, just that this historic Siam vs. Burma conflict seems far more adult and functions as such a central theme that the film eventually feels more like political commentary rather than lighthearted entertainment. The kids might not even notice, but this focus on Thailand’s nationalistic pride really doesn’t translate well here.

As for the animation, the characters are almost too super-deformed, falling way too far to the side of cartoons rather than embracing any naturalistic traits. It’s always a difficult choice for animators to pick a happy medium between goofy animation and physical reality, and this time they tipped too far to the fantasy side, especially in light of the very real war theme embraced later in the film. However, the backgrounds are exceedingly lush and densely populated, the characters are mostly animated well, and the camera movement and blocking is generally up to Hollywood standards, although there’s noticeably a bit too much reliance on perfect CG pans that have fallen out of favor in US productions in recent years as animators attempt to inject virtual jitter to make films seem less like they’re on CG rails. In short, there’s nothing all that objectionable about the animation, as it nearly approaches the quality of an Ice Age or Madagascar, so any fears of a cut-rate project can be put to rest.

The vocal talent is another matter. For the US release through The Jim Henson Company and The Weinstein Company, the producers recruited a few recognizable names to give the film some local credibility and marketability, namely Martin Short, Carl Reiner, and Miranda Cosgrove. However, the entire cast is uniformly abysmal, making this reviewer long for the absent original Thai audio to accompany the included English subs. The performances could possibly be chalked up to poor direction in the localization effort, but whatever the cause, the vocal cast does the film no favors. Also, there’s little attempt to marry the US script to the Thai character speech, so the film constantly seems to have an audio/video synch problem.

The Jim Henson Company is to be commended for including this film under its “Discoveries” banner, apparently an ongoing effort by them to expose US audiences to little-known animated films. However, while it’s great to see this project emerge on US shores and it’s exciting to discover the animation talent present in Thailand, this isn’t a film most viewers will want for their permanent collections. The kids may enjoy it once or twice, and you won’t mind watching the attractive CG work, but it’s far from an essential purchase.

The Blue Elephant is now available on DVD.

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