Friday, October 30, 2009

Hatter M: Mad With Wonder

Author Frank Beddor's bold re-imagining of the Alice in Wonderland mythos gains a brilliant new chapter in this second graphic novel. Picking up from the events in the original Hatter M, the new book continues Hatter's quest with one significant change: a new artist at the helm.

Where the original had buzz-worthy and distinctive art by Ben Templesmith, the new adventure's art chores fall on the shoulders of virtual unknown Sami Makkonen. That's usually a recipe for disaster, but Makkonen remarkably contributes an equally distinctive run here that more than measures up to his predecessor's work. It's definitely reminiscent of Templesmith, with eerily distorted, fluid character designs and ink splatters aplenty, but with more fine line detail work that acts to bring the story into even greater focus. If you have any misgivings about picking up this book due to the change in artists, rest assured that Makkonen is the perfect successor to Templesmith.

When last we left our intrepid hero, royal bodyguard Hatter Madigan, he was lost in 19th century London on a fruitless search for the rightful heir to Wonderland's throne, Princess Alyss Heart. Paralleling and expanding on events in Beddor's first Looking Glass Wars prose novel, Hatter M segues directly into Mad with Wonder as Madigan continues his search in our world. This time, the scenery promptly shifts from England to the New World, as Madigan follows a tip to America where he lands in the thick of the Civil War. Along the way, he discovers that Wonderland's deposed evil Queen Redd has also made an incursion into our world and is impacting the outcome of the Civil War with her Black Imagination. Madigan's quest takes him to locales such as a "traveling miracle carnival" in the Deep South and an insane asylum in West Virginia where he encounters colorful characters and situations that hopefully bring him closer to his goal.

Madigan continues to be an intriguing character thanks to his dogged determination and devotion to Alyss as well as his impressive weapons skills. He's something like a dapper Wolverine, with a decidedly dark and deadly disposition and lone wolf mindset that make him the best there is at what he does. Beddor and returning co-writer Liz Cavalier do a fine job of enriching his characterization here and also offset his serious tone with some humorous situations that add just the right touch of lightheartedness to his fantastic tale.

Hatter M: Mad with Wonder is now available. In addition to the main story, the book contains bonus features including supplemental artwork and text documenting Madigan's historical record in our world, pages from Alyss's diary, a process gallery with script pages and draft artwork, and sneak previews of the next graphic novel in addition to the latest prose novel, ArchEnemy. For more information, visit

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Monday, October 26, 2009

More Than This: The Story of Roxy Music

One of the most influential bands of all time, Roxy Music gets a well-deserved and expertly produced career retrospective in this new DVD. Originally broadcast by the BBC in late 2008, the documentary covers the entire active recording career of the band as well as their recent reunions. The DVD expands on the original broadcast with nearly a half hour of additional interviews, as well as three previously unreleased live tracks from a 2006 London concert.

The film is endorsed by and features new interviews with all of the principal players in the band, including early member Brian Eno. To flesh out their legacy with outside perspectives, the film includes exclusive interviews with other music luminaries inspired by the band including Bono, John Taylor (Duran Duran), Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), Siouxsie Sioux, and Nile Rodgers (Chic). The production team’s exhaustive research also led to inclusion of interviews with the band’s cover photographer for all of their album covers, the cover model from the first album (still looking good over 35 years later), and legendary studio engineer Bob Clearmountain among others. With this unprecedented level of artist, acolyte, and associate participation, More Than This is almost certain to be the definitive document of the band.

The band was formed in the early 70s by art school grad Bryan Ferry as an outlet for him to make “weird music for art school students” with little thoughts to fame, fortune, or conformity. Their flamboyant emergence on the UK scene signaled the dawn of art rock, but also acted as a direct predecessor for the soon-to-come punk and new wave movements. Steve Jones and Bono comment that the band’s early work had a huge influence on the punk movement, while John Taylor exposes how their glam rock look dictated the fashion checklist for his future band: denim no, eyeliner yes.

Brian Eno and Bryan Ferry both talk candidly about Eno’s brief tenure in the band (he left before the 3rd album), giving viewers valuable insight to the band’s politics of the time. The other members, especially drummer Paul Thompson, let on that Ferry may have feared being overshadowed by Eno, and Eno clearly indicates that they both had different musical directions they wished to take, but there don’t appear to be any deep-seated grudges on either side as the film also documents a historic recording session of new material by all of the original members including Eno in 2006.

The film follows a strictly chronological format from the band’s early days through their apparent end after the Avalon tour, using each album as a milestone. It also covers their reunions in the 2000s, nearly 20 years after their disbandment. Although their final original incarnation for the glossy, almost New Age Avalon album bears little resemblance to the gritty art rock sound they pioneered, their continuing evolvement throughout their career led to a passionate fanbase at each stage and clearly showed the strong direction of band founder Ferry. Clearmountain’s best sound bite comes when he reveals that he still gets far more compliments about Avalon than anything else he’s ever done, including Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. Regardless of which stage of the band you like the best, the film offers superb archival footage and new reminiscences that will expand your appreciation.

More Than This: The Story of Roxy Music is now available on DVD.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs/The Scrat Pack

Quick, which animated film completely dominated the other at the box office this summer: Up or Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs? Easy answer? Not so fast.

One of the biggest box office stories this year was the stunning worldwide success of the latest Ice Age movie. That’s worldwide success, not so much in the US. For some reason, the rest of the world really loves the Ice Age critters even though they’re largely viewed as a second-tier property here at home. Sure, its nearly $200M domestic haul is nothing to sneeze at and likely allowed it to fully recoup its production budget, but compared to its nearly $700M foreign take it’s a mere pittance. So what’s the deal here? How did this movie take in nearly double the global box office of critical darling Up?

Well, to put it bluntly, it’s likely that the Ice Age gang appeals to lowest common denominator audiences, and that’s not just referring to the kids. There’s no challenging concept to comprehend here, unlike the impossible to classify and completely original Up. There’s the comfort of familiarity with well-established characters and situations. There’s also the dinosaur factor this time around, and let’s face it: the common man loves the dinos. However, their broad appeal is still somewhat perplexing. The primary characters are such drab, unimaginative designs that the nearly 15-year-old original Toy Story still puts them to shame, and their characterizations aren’t much stronger, with only the speechless Scrat providing any truly memorable moments. In short, they’re kinda boring stars, but they’re apparently some kind of global cinematic comfort food.

In the latest adventures of Sid the sloth, Manny the mammoth, Diego the sabertooth, and Scrat the…scrat, the gang travels to a hidden underground world filled with dinosaurs. Their prime motivating factor is their search for Sid, who finds himself abducted by a dino mommy after he foolishly tries to adopt her temporarily abandoned kids. While in the new world, the gang meets a swashbuckling new character named Buck (Simon Pegg) who aids them in their search while concurrently continuing his hunt for a legendary white dino (thanks, Moby Dick). With that slight principal plot in play, the rest of the movie is fleshed out with subplots involving Manny and his wife Ellie’s impending childbirth, Diego’s attempt to get his ferocious groove back, and Scrat’s relationship with a beguiling female named Scratte. As usual, Scrat brings the comic relief as wholly unrelated bumpers in between the other plots, and this time around his relationship with Scratte provides new comedic possibilities in his never-ending quest for the elusive nut.

The trip to the dino world is a welcome change from the dull icy environs of the first two films as it allows for a tremendous color palette and a much more immersive and expansive experience. The initial entry into the dino world is truly awe-inspiring as the huge and lush vista explodes in a rainbow of prehistoric flora and fauna. The backgrounds are much improved from the prior installments and almost function as another character, completely drawing viewers into the land of the dinosaurs. Here’s hoping they find a way to revisit this world or melt the above-ground ice in the inevitable next installment to continue this wealth of scenery. The film’s stories may not be memorable, but you’ll likely enjoy the ride through this fully-realized prehistoric world.

The single-disc DVD is almost entirely bereft of bonus features with the exception of trailers and a commentary track. However, Fox follows the recent animation trend of releasing the film in an expanded edition with a second self-contained bonus DVD, in this case entitled The Scrat Pack. Don't let the title fool you, as there's precious little Scrat action, with only two previously released shorts "Gone Nutty" and "No Time for Nuts" continuing his adventures. The rest of the disc is padded with featurettes on the new characters Buck, Scratte, and the lost world of the dinos, along with older content clearly produced for the previous film in the series that shows how to draw Scrat, gives a behind the scenes peek at his vocal recording sessions, and unveils inane video footage of a modern-day discovery of his frozen remains. On the upside, there are also three somewhat entertaining Flash animation games available when playing the disc in a computer: pinball, a shell game, and an airborne quest for nuts that mirrors a sequence in the new film.

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is available on October 27th in three physical forms: single DVD, combo DVD with The Scrat Pack, and combo Blu-ray/DVD with digital copy.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure

She’s no Disney Princess, but Tinker Bell has entered the spotlight as a key Disney player in the past few years via the Disney Fairies product line and a series of slickly-produced direct-to-DVD CGI movies. In her latest outing, a follow-up to last year’s warmly received Tinker Bell, Tink goes on a treasure hunt that takes her far away from her beloved Pixie Hollow home. Along the way, she learns the value of patience and the power of friendship.

If you missed the first movie, you may be surprised to find that Tink talks now and she’s not hanging out with Peter Pan; she’s firmly embedded in a fairy community where she works as a tinker. Her look has been updated somewhat, but the artists took pains to emulate her original design from Disney's Peter Pan so her move to three-dimensional CG model is fairly seamless and unobjectionable. The biggest change in the new movie is her wardrobe, as she accessorizes her pixie dress with some suitable adventuring clothes (long sleeves, pants, and a jaunty cap) for her travels outside the Hollow. It’s a perfectly logical decision from a sensibility standpoint, but it’s not likely to be a favorite Halloween costume choice next season.

As the movie opens, Tink (voiced by Mae Whitman) is tasked with crafting a scepter to house a precious and extremely fragile blue gem in time for an autumn festival. Without the properly configured gem, the pixies won’t be able to collect essential blue pixie dust needed to maintain their tree home. She’s honored to have such a high-profile assignment from the ruling fairies, but also extremely stressed about her abilities to create the final product on time and up to snuff. Enter her friend Terence (voiced by tween heartthrob Jesse McCartney), a eager and kind male fairy who does his best to help Tink but ultimately comes to be viewed as an impediment by Tink as she tries to do everything by herself.

It should come as no surprise that the fragile gem becomes a casualty of her impatience, but her recovery efforts stretch the boundaries of common sense a bit. Rather than confess to the head fairies that she has destroyed the one-of-a-kind gem, she grasps onto the possibly fictional tale of a long-lost magic mirror that may grant its holder one last wish before it expends its power. Really? With days left until the crucial festival, she’s going to set out far away from home in search of a mirror that nobody has ever been able to find, that may not even exist, and hope that it really is magic and still has one more active wish? If you can buy that extreme leap of faith, you’re definitely in the target audience.

Along the way to the mirror, Tink meets a ridiculously cute firefly named Blaze who becomes her travelling companion and friend. His character design is fairly utilitarian, but he’s animated well and “speaks” via adorable squeaks that will enrapture audiences of all ages, making him the breakout star of the film. Will the two friends find the mirror? Will it be too late to save the festival? This is a Disney movie, so there really shouldn’t be much doubt, although the resolution takes a slightly different path than one might expect.

The new movie is winning family entertainment, with two exceptions. First, Tink isn’t a very likeable character due to her hotheadedness, making her a pretty unsympathetic heroine when she’s blowing her stack at her friends. Sure, that’s part of her character dating back to Peter Pan, but this aspect of her personality could have been tempered somewhat while still conveying the themes of patience and friendship. Second, the Disney team spent a great amount of effort crafting the magical world of Pixie Hollow and its denizens in the first movie and numerous books, so it’s a shame to see only glimpses of that world in the new movie as Tink spends most of her time on the road. She’s the star, but I’m certain there are many little fans out there who long to explore Pixie Hollow and the other fairies in more detail rather than primarily follow her exploits away from home. Unfortunately, based on the included preview of next year’s upcoming third film, it appears that this trend is going to continue.

From a production standpoint, the film is top notch and completely belies its direct-to-DVD status. Thankfully, it is being released in Blu-ray format (in addition to DVD) to allow home viewers to get as close to a theatrical experience as currently possible. The Blu picture and sound are thrilling, with fine detail like the individual specks in swirls of pixie dust, crystal-clear depth of field in the highly-detailed Pixie Hollow, and immersive surround sound effects during the expansive adventures outside the Hollow that work together to fully bring the fantasy world to life.

The disc is jam-packed with bonus features including deleted scenes, footage from the recreation of Pixie Hollow on the grounds of Epcot Center, and the ubiquitous BD Live capability. Of special note are the Fairy Bloopers, basically alternate takes on a few of the key scenes that are similar to the old Pixar bloopers over their end credits. They’re genuinely funny and definitely worth seeking out.

Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure is available on DVD and Blu-ray on October 27th. The Blu-ray package includes both Blu and DVD versions of the film, so if you’re undecided on version definitely go Blu to be covered either way.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

ArchEnemy: The Looking Glass Wars

Frank Beddor’s intriguing reimagining of the Alice in Wonderland mythos reaches its thrilling conclusion in this final act of The Looking Glass Wars trilogy. Intended for young adult readers but fun for “old” adults too, ArchEnemy reveals the final outcome of a lengthy three-way fight for Wonderland’s crown pitting the good princess Alyss Heart against her evil aunt Redd Heart and an interloper from the neighboring Boarderlands, King Arch.

If you’re new to the story, it’s absolutely essential that you first read the first two novels, The Looking Glass Wars and Seeing Redd, as there’s precious little attempt to indoctrinate newbies as the action gets under way in the new book. While book 1 centered on Alyss’s fight to unseat Redd from her ill-begotten throne, and book 2 featured the rise of Arch’s fringe forces, the final book centers on the full deployment of Arch’s power while Alyss and Redd both seek to block him. If that sounds more like a civil war story than a light fantasy novel, there’s good reason as the main plot is heavily centered on the various strategic power moves made by the principal players for the crown. However, there’s also plenty of ancillary action with the supporting players that continues to flesh out the intricately designed and magical Wonderland. From the mysterious caterpillar oracles to the winning father/daughter chemistry of royal bodyguards Hatter M and Homburg Molly to Arch’s evil henchmen, Beddor takes pains to create a fully realized world populated by multi-dimensional characters that draw readers into the tale.

As in the past novels, Beddor also contrasts the magical Wonderland with our world via travel portals between the two that transport key characters to 19th century England. This time around, Princess Alyss finds herself temporarily stranded in our world and forced to survive without her powers of imagination. Part of the trilogy’s charm is Beddor’s inclusion of original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll (using his real name, Charles Dodgson) as a character interacting with the visitors from Wonderland, recording and repurposing their tales as fodder for his own literary works. In ArchEnemy, he’s forced to come clean about his use of the material during encounters with Alyss and Homburg Molly, leaving him none the worse for wear but furthering Beddor’s mantra that Alyss/Alice actually came through the looking glass to our world instead of the other way around.

Although I would have preferred even more Wonderland character development and less war strategy, the new book fulfills the promise of the first two acts and does a fine job of wrapping up all plot threads. The three principal players are so consumed with the war that they fail to progress as compelling characters, surprisingly leaving Homburg Molly with the most fully-realized character arc in the book as she struggles to come to terms with being a “halfer” (half royal bodyguard/half normal human) while concurrently mourning her mother and attempting to forge a relationship with her newly revealed father, Hatter M. However, Alyss Heart is still a winning star heroine and readers that have traveled this far into Wonderland’s world of imagination will find a fully satisfying conclusion.

ArchEnemy is now available. For more information, visit

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Friday, October 16, 2009


Before Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Traffic, there was the Emmy-winning miniseries Traffik. This highly regarded 6-hour British miniseries covered the same ground as Soderberg’s film, tracking the global drug trade across international borders. In fact, the basic framework and many key scenes are identical, with one notable difference: where Traffic followed the cocaine trade between Mexico and the US, Traffik patrols the movement of heroin through Europe and Afghanistan/Pakistan.

The miniseries follows three primary storylines: a British minister tasked with limiting the drug trade in his country while concurrently dealing with his heroin-addicted teenage daughter, a wealthy wife forced to come to terms with her husband’s drug business during his incarceration, and a Pakistani farmer forced to work for the local drug lord. The acting performances are uniformly powerful, with the added bonus of Julia Ormond’s breakout performance as the drug addict daughter. The Pakistani farmer’s story is particularly memorable as it follows his path from fairly honest poppy farmer to drug lord acolyte to his heartbreaking and inevitable fall from grace. Although the story is told over a much larger film length than Traffic thanks to its miniseries format, it never loses momentum and in fact left me wondering how Soderbergh later managed to fit all of the key elements into his feature-length production.

As for image and audio quality, the picture and sound are about what one might expect of a 20-year-old UK TV production. In other words, not great. The series was apparently remastered for this 20th anniversary release, but with fairly dodgy source material there’s only so much it could be enhanced. However, the quality does not detract from the power of the work, and surprisingly the subject matter of the miniseries doesn’t seem dated in the least. That’s almost certainly a discouraging sign for anti-drug crusaders out there, but also fascinating viewing as we see just how little has changed in the past two decades.

The miniseries was filmed on location in Pakistan, Hamburg, and London, giving the series a much more expansive feel than one might expect from a tv production. The DVD release doesn’t pack much in the way of bonus material, including only an extended (and unremastered) UK version of episode 6, a photo gallery, production notes, cast filmographies, and an interview with writer Simon Moore. Traffik is now available on DVD.

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Monday, October 05, 2009

Basement Jaxx - Scars

After a rock-solid early career that included their stellar debut album Remedy and its even better follow-up, Rooty, as well as their offshoot Atlantic Jaxx work, the Basement Jaxx have released some notably spotty work in the past few years. In the aftermath of their most recent album, Crazy Itch Radio, the Jaxx boys became disillusioned with their direction, feeling like they had drifted too far into pop territory at the expense of their edgier beginnings. Hence the title of their new collection, Scars, an attempt to return to their original form that resulted in a grueling recording process. According to Felix Buxton, “when we finished recording, it felt like we’d come out of a boxing ring”, a sentiment quickly echoed by bandmate Simon Ratcliffe.

So were they successful in recapturing their original magic? For the most part, yes. There are still a couple of clunkers, but also a few tracks that rate amongst their best work, even though (or because) they’re also fairly derivative of that work. Once again featuring a dizzying array of guest vocalists that reads like a United Nations roll call, the Jaxx supply the dance-ready grooves with a bit more bite than recent efforts.

The title track leads off the collection, an unfortunate placement choice that starts the album poorly due to its plodding, leaden pace. Far better to skip ahead to the album’s first single and 2009 summer anthem, “Raindrops”, a melodic, feel-good treat that immediately brings to mind their earlier hit, “Romeo”. It’s also the only track without a guest star, giving Buxton a chance to contribute his own heavily processed and perfectly matched vocals. From there, “She’s No Good” with Eli “Paperboy” Reed is a midtempo jam that doesn’t amount to much but doesn’t drop the ball. “Saga” features a guest spot by Philly-based singer Santogold, and its strong dub flavor mixed with her M.I.A.-like vocal makes this an intriguing standout that doesn’t really fit in the previous Jaxx canon but signals a welcome change. “Feelings Gone” featuring Sam Sparro reworks an early concept by Buxton but not nearly enough to mask its Kylie-leaning Brit pop house sound, making this one to avoid. “My Turn” featuring Lightspeed Champion marries a bombastic bassline to a light acoustic guitar riff in a winning combination.

At the album’s mid-point, “A Possibility” with Amp Fidler takes an unwelcome turn into slow jam territory, although it includes an interesting riff that sounds like it was lifted from old-time classic “Blue Moon”. Next up is the set’s most up-tempo and possibly best track, “Twerk” featuring Yo Majesty. This one has a strong “Jump n’ Shout” feel right down to its energetic vocals, guaranteed to get your body in motion. “Day of the Sunflowers (We March On)” is most notable for its guest appearance by Yoko Ono, contributing her typically bizarre lyrics to a rather pedestrian track. It’s mostly impressive when you realize that she’s able to keep up with the Jaxx in her mid-70s. “What’s A Girl Gotta Do” featuring Paloma Faith sounds like it’s from some insane circus and has just the right amount of anything-goes dance spirit to work well as a Jaxx track. “Stay Close” featuring Lisa Kekaula is another unwelcome and uncharacteristic downtempo attempt that sounds like it was ripped from Me’shell Ndegeocello’s catalog right down to the heavy bass guitar line and similar vocal sound. “D.I.S.tractionz” featuring Jose Hendrix bears some similarity to Prince’s French-leaning experimentation circa “Under the Cherry Moon”, making it an interesting change of pace but not really a Jaxx standout. Finally, “Gimme Somethin’ True” featuring Jose James closes out the album on a positive note with an instantly identifiable Jaxx sound.

After more than a decade in the game, it’s great to see the Jaxx still pumping out some innovative and fresh work. I’d personally prefer much less reliance on guest vocals as I like to hear what they come up with on their own in the lab without having to worry about mixing in a separate outside influence on each track, but they’ve always been heavy on guests even when the singers were seemingly just local friends so it’s not a major distraction. The new album carries enough pop appeal to allow new fans into the fun, while also including enough classic Jaxx touches to please their earliest fans. Scars is now available on CD and MP3 download.

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Friday, October 02, 2009

How I Met Your Mother Season 4

While it may always carry some stigma of being a Friends clone, How I Met Your Mother is a consistently entertaining and sharply written show that stands strongly on its own merits. Led by the breakout performance of Neil Patrick Harris as charming womanizer Barney, and ably abetted by his amiable co-stars, the show has somehow managed to eke out nearly 100 episodes while still concealing the identity of the titular mother.

Each episode begins with a narrator (Bob Saget) as the “father” in the future as he regales his kids with never-ending tales of his bachelorhood. If I was one of the kids, I would have walked out around episode 2, but at this point the framing device is more of an in-joke than anything else. The real show is the father’s present-day bachelor adventures with his group of friends as he continues his search for a wife. Just like Friends, it’s odd how much time the friends spend with each other and how they fund their comfortable lives in Manhattan with so little focus on work, but put aside the logic and just let the snappy writing work its magic.

Near the end of Season 3, Ted the father (Josh Radnor) had entered a serious relationship with Stella (Sarah Chalke), while Barney set his sights on Robin (Cobie Smulders), and Marshall and Lily (Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan) continued their happy marriage. Could Stella be the mother? Nope. Season 4 quickly dispels that theory with a traumatic near-wedding that leaves Ted emotionally scarred. This being a comedy, he recovers fairly quickly and continues his quest for his soul mate. Barney’s affections are also put on the back burner for the bulk of the season while he continues his legendary bachelorhood, while Marshall and Lily continue being Marshall and Lily. In short, it’s more of the same from the previous three seasons, with a new assortment of memorable moments that include the introduction of the “Woo Girls”, an extreme dating technique called the Naked Man, and Barney’s unique approach to video resumés.

The DVD box set condenses the full series onto three discs. The bonus features are scattered throughout the discs and include commentaries, a Season 3 recap, a Barney music video, a gag reel, and footage from the cast’s appearance at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. How I Met Your Mother Season 4 is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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